Basil the Great

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Basil the Great, script painting from Athos .

Basil of Caesarea (* around 330 in Caesarea , Cappadocia ; † January 1, 379 ibid) was already known during his lifetime as Basil the Great (Greek: Βασίλειος ο Μέγας or Μέγας Βασίλειος). As an ascetic , bishop and doctor of the church, he was one of the most prominent figures in Christianity in the 4th century and is one of the most important figures in the Church. He, his brother Gregor von Nyssa and their mutual friend Gregor von Nazianz are called the three Cappadocian church fathersdesignated. Together with Gregory of Nazianzen and John Chrysostom , he is one of the three holy hierarchs .

Contemporary history background

Basil's birth came at a time of upheaval. His grandfather had died a martyr in the persecution of Christians under Diocletian , seventeen years before his birth Constantine the Great had reached the Milan agreement with his co-emperor Licinius , five years before his birth the first ecumenical council of Nicaea had taken place on which Arius , the Founder of Arianism , had been convicted.

In the years after the council, however, Arianism brought both the imperial court and the majority of the leading bishops on its side. There was political pressure to profess Arianism and even targeted persecution of Trinitarian bishops and believers. Trinitarians like Athanasius of Alexandria or Hilary of Poitiers were sent into exile in many cases. In the fifties of the fourth century most of the Christian churches were controlled by Arian bishops. It was not more dangerous to be a Christian, but it was risky, in an influential position to the Nicene Creed to confess (Nicene Creed).


Many details are known from the life of Basil. Sources are numerous letters and sermons that have been received from him, from his friend Gregory of Nazianzen and from his brother Gregory of Nyssa.

Childhood and studies

He was born the second oldest of eight children into a wealthy family in Caesarea, Cappadocia , who had professed Christianity for several generations. Not an ordinary family: his grandmother Makrina the Elder , his father Basilius the Elder and his mother Emmelia were canonized. Among the eight children of this couple there are four saints (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa , Makrina the Younger and Peter of Sebaste ) and three bishops (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste).

The children were raised Christian, but also got everything that the time had to offer in terms of general education . According to Gregor von Nyssa's report, the eldest sister was also a highly educated woman who was as familiar with Greek philosophy and science as she was with the Bible. Originally, Basilius wanted to become a speaker and lawyer like his father and studied in Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens , where he made a lifelong close friendship with Gregory of Nazianzen . Another of his fellow students in 355 was the future emperor Julian . The subjects of study were rhetoric , grammar , philosophy , astronomy , geometry and medicine , all of which he knew how to apply in his later life.


After completing his studies, he decided to become a monk through the influence of his older sister Makrina . He studied the monastic orders in Egypt ( Pachomians ) and Syria (presumably Messalians ) and then founded a monastery around 355 in a lonely area in Cappadocia. What was new about his monastic life was that there was not only prayer , asceticism and physical work, but also intensive Bible study .

He lived in this monastery for a total of only five years, but this time has repercussions up to the present: the detailed monastic rule that he wrote during this time is still the valid monastic rule of the Orthodox Church and has Benedict of Nursia and his Benedictine rule strong influenced.

Basil was baptized in Caesarea in 356 by the then Archbishop Dianius and was ordained by him as a lecturer and in 364 as a priest. Basilius describes Dianius in his letters in warm tones and had a position of trust with him. However, when Dianius signed the Arian Confession of Ariminium, Basilius withdrew from him, deeply disappointed, and only saw him again on the death bed, where Dianius again professed the Trinitarian faith. Dianius' successor, Eusebius, was a Trinitarian, but had little energy and little theological education and was initially on tense feet with Basil, who then withdrew to the area of ​​Pontus, where he founded further monasteries.

During a famine he sold the goods he had inherited and even worked in a soup kitchen, treating Jews and Christians exactly the same on the grounds: "They all have the same entrails."

Archbishop Eusebius was meanwhile rather helpless in the face of the Arian turmoil. As the Arian attacks on Caesarea intensified, Gregor von Nazianz, who at this time lived partly with Basil and partly supported his father as a young priest, mediated between Eusebius and Basil and achieved a reconciliation. Shortly afterwards, Basil was appointed assistant to Eusebius, where he proved to be a brilliant organizer and fighter for justice. He helped with the administration of justice in the diocese , took care of liturgy and theological questions of the time, which he discussed in his letters.

He passionately preached that the rich should share:

“You say you cannot give. You tell those who ask you that you don't have enough to give. Your tongue swears you cannot do it, but your hand gives you away because even though it cannot speak, the sparkle on your finger explains that you are lying. How many people could that one ring of you guys get out of debt? How many crumbling houses could he repair? Just one of your chests full of clothes could help a lot of people who are now shivering from the cold. "

- Sermon 7, To the Rich
Representation of St. Basil as bishop in a window of the Saint-Basile church in Étampes


In 370, at the age of forty, Basil was appointed the new Archbishop of Caesarea, an influential position not only in Cappadocia, but in the entire province of Pontus: Caesarea was then a city with 400,000 inhabitants, and the Metropolitan of Caesarea had 50 bishops under himself. The appointment did not come without opposition, especially from the (Arian) provincial government, which did not value a strong Trinitarian bishop. It would hardly have happened without the support of the old bishop Gregor von Nazianz , who allowed himself to be carried to Caesarea in a sedan chair because he could only travel in this way.

Emperor Valens traveled from Constantinople to Antioch in 371, determined to depose all Trinitarian bishops on the way. As the vanguard, the imperial prefect Modestus, who gave the bishops the choice between communion with the Arians or deposition, came to Caesarea and ordered the bishop to come to him. With Basilius, however, his arguments were of no avail, as Gregor von Nazianz describes. When the imperial prefect threatened him with deprivation of property, banishment, torture and death, the bishop answered fearlessly: “Nothing else? None of these hit me. If you don't own anything, your goods cannot be confiscated unless you ask for my ragged clothes and the few books I have. I do not know of exile, because I am at home everywhere on God's wide earth. Torture can't do me anything because I'm so sick that I would die quickly from it. But death is welcome to me, because it brings me to God more quickly. ”Visibly impressed, the representative of the emperor replied:“ Nobody has dared to speak to me with such frankness. ”To this, Basil answered:“ Then you still have never seen a real bishop! "

In 372, Emperor Valens himself came to Caesarea because the bishop was the main obstacle to his pro-Arian policies. Even now Basil could not be convinced, and he had too much influence to be ignored. The emperor wanted to send him into exile, but then decided not to; According to Gregory of Nazianzen, because Basil had prayed for Valens' terminally ill son Galates , but possibly also because, given the reputation that Basil had in Caesarea, it was not advisable to take harsh actions against him. After all, the emperor tried to weaken the position of Basilius by dividing the province of Cappadocia in order to reduce the episcopal sphere of influence. Basil's reaction was to appoint his friend and brother bishops in order to consolidate his sphere of influence (which neither of the two bishops named Gregory, who were both unsuitable for such an office, has ever fully forgiven him for).

Basil tried to make clear to the bishops in the west, especially Pope Damasus I , the problem that Arianism posed in the east, but found little support, as Rome was quite far removed from eastern politics. In some of his letters he criticizes the lack of understanding of the West with sharp words.

His letters from this period tell of struggles for unity in the church, of attacks and intrigues against himself, which he often met with irony, of dogmatic subtleties and encouragement for new bishops, but also of his own poor health.

In addition, Basil took care of practical justice, excommunicated brothel owners and founded a new district in Caesarea made up of hospitals and old people's homes , which were described as wonders of the world .

In 373 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who had been an essential bulwark against Arianism alongside Basilius, died, and the attacks against Basilius intensified. The emperor did not dare to attack him himself, but in 375 his brother Gregory of Nyssa was banished.

During this time Basil wrote his great ascetic, which is still the rule of monks for the Orthodox churches to this day, and his treatise on the Holy Spirit. The liturgy of Basil is still in use today in the Coptic Church and on feast days in the Orthodox Church.

In 378 he preached the Hexaemeron during Lent, his cycle of sermons on the creation story , in which he also shows that he was well versed in the natural sciences of his time. While some of it seems amusing from today, he also explains to an audience that consists mostly of simple craftsmen how the rain comes from clouds (compared to the kettle over the fire in your own house) and that the tidal range in the North Sea is much larger than in the Mediterranean.

Valens died that year and was succeeded by Gratianus, the Trinitarian emperor from the western empire. The exiled bishops returned, there was calm in Caesarea and there was prospect of peace for the whole Church.

Basil, who had been in poor health for years and had counted on his death again and again, died on January 1st, 379. His death was considered a misfortune for the general public and he was not only recognized by the Christians, but also by the Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea mourns.


Many personal details are known about Basil through his own letters and the accounts of his friend and brother.

Basil is portrayed as a dark-haired, tall, lean man with a long nose, narrow cheeks and deep wrinkles on his forehead.

He had health problems for most of his life. An anecdote reported by Gregor von Nazianz indicates that he was suffering from liver disease: when he clashed with a Roman prefect, the latter threatened to cut his liver out of his body, to which Basil is said to have replied: “How attentive! Where it is present, it only causes me trouble. "

From his own accounts he struggled all his life with his pride and temperament, and he was known among his friends as being irritable. Gregor von Nazianz wrote to an acquaintance: “So I ask you to send me plenty of vegetables of the best you have: because I will receive the great Basilius and you, who have got to know him philosophically and fed up with him, certainly don't want him hungry and get to know irritated. "

As a bishop he lived a noticeably withdrawn life, which may be partly due to his poor health. In addition, he had at times tense relationships with many of his companions, which are not always due to theological differences, including his predecessors in office, Dianus and Eusebius, various fellow bishops, his uncle and his friend Gregor.


Basilii Magni Opera, 1540

Basil is generally considered to be one of the most important figures in church history. Although he was only a few years in his important position, he left the Church a rich legacy in more than one area:

  • Asceticism: Even as a bishop he lived no more luxuriantly than in a monastery, contented himself with a simple robe and cloak and lived on bread, water and vegetables. He deliberately avoided meat and is therefore often quoted by vegetarians. In his time he was also admired for consistently renouncing the luxury of bathing.
  • His combination of asceticism and study, expressed in the so-called Great Rule of Monks, which comprises 55 chapters, has determined the St. Basil's Rule to the present day in the St. Basil's monasteries in the Eastern Church and has also influenced Benedict of Nursia and thus many orders in the West.
  • Christian charity: As the son of a rich man, he sold all of his lands to give the proceeds to the poor. Not only did he donate, but he tied an apron on himself to make soup for the poor. He helped those in need regardless of who they were and made no difference because of their religion. He sharply called on the rich to the Christian duty to give generously to the poor. The social works (hospitals, old people's homes, feeding the poor) that he set up in Caesarea were unique in the history of early Christianity.
  • For a long time the Church saw his work as a bishop as a model for the leadership of a diocese.
  • His skillful and energetic defense of the Trinitarian faith against Arianism, his willingness to take the lead on dogmatic issues, and his indomitable stubbornness against government pressures and intrigues that carried the Trinitarian faith through its most troubled times.
  • Basil advocated a Christian upbringing that included the classical Greek authors and philosophers - in this way he made a significant contribution to the preservation of these works.
  • The late publication On the Holy Spirit contains the most influential collection and evaluation of attributes of the Holy Spirit in the history of church and theology , which found its expression in the most solemn and most binding confession of Christianity, the Nicano-Constantinopolitanum .
  • In the Byzantine rite of the Orthodox churches , the St. Basil liturgy and the Chrysostom liturgy form an essential basis for the practice of worship.
Title page of the works of St. Basil ; by Schweikhard von Helfenstein, 1591


Of his works are particularly worth mentioning:

  • his late work Peri tou hagiou pneumatos ("On the Holy Spirit"):
    Basil of Caesarea: De spiritu sancto. About the Holy Spirit . Fontes Christiani Vol. 12; Freiburg 1993; ISBN 3-451-22132-2 .
  • the Hexaemeron, a nine-part series of sermons on the history of creation:
    Basil of Caesarea: Homilies to the Hexaemeron ; ed. v. Manuel Amand de Mendieta and Stig Y. Rudberg, 1997; ISBN 3-05-002002-4 .

In addition, numerous sermons and 366 letters from him have been preserved, which are also valuable historical witnesses. Including

  • De legendis libris gentilium . Johann Müller von Königsberg ( Regiomontanus ), Nuremberg around 1474. ( digitized version )

The first German translations of the works of Basilius and texts ascribed to him have been available in manuscripts since the 15th century. An early German print edition of the works of St. Basil was obtained in 1591, in Ingolstadt , by the former president of the Imperial Court of Justice , Count Schweikhard von Helfenstein .

Memorial days

Basil was venerated as a saint soon after his death . He is considered the patron saint of the poor and the sick and the fighter for peace and unity in the church; both are understandable from his biography.


Web links

Commons : Basil the Great  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. For example Laboa, Mönchtum , p. 88.
  2. Gregor von Nyssa: Dialogue on the Resurrection of the Soul (English)
  3. ^ Letter to Eusebius of Samosata
  4. Basil's Sermons on the Six-Day Work (Homilies on the Hexaemeron)
  5. (see below :) Laboa, monasticism ; P. 88
  6. Volker Honemann : In: Burghart Wachinger u. a. (Ed.): The German literature of the Middle Ages. Author Lexicon . 2nd, completely revised edition, volume 1: 'A solis ortus cardine' - Colmar Dominican chronicler. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1978, ISBN 3-11-007264-5 , column 626 f.
  7. ^ Digital scan of Helfenstein's works of St. Basil , 1591
  8. Hiltgart L. Keller: Reclam's Lexicon of Saints and Biblical Figures - Legends and Representations in the Fine Arts, Stuttgart 1968, p. 639