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E00631: Athanasius of Alexandria composes in Greek the Life of *Antony ('the Great', monk of Egypt, ob. 356, S00098) at the request of monks from abroad; it presents Antony as an exemplary monk, and describes his ascetic practices, struggles with demons, miracles, and doctrines. Written in Alexandria (Egypt), in c. 360.

online resource
posted on 2015-08-05, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Antony (CPG 2101; BHG 140)


(Preface and 1) The text opens with an address to the monks living outside Egypt, who have requested from Athanasius information on Antony, his life and training. Antony is born in a Christian family of modest economic means, and is raised in a Christian manner, mostly staying at home and receiving no education in letters. (3-10) Antony is about eighteen or twenty, when his parents die and he is left alone with a very young sister. Moved by hearing the Scriptures in the church, he sells his properties, entrusts his sister to be raised by virgins, and embraces the ascetic life at his village, first at home, and later in an old tomb nearby. The Devil attempts to distract him, but Antony withstands all temptations and has a vision of Christ promising to stand by him always. He is about thirty-five at this point.

(11-13) Encouraged by his vision, Antony leaves the village, and settles in a deserted barracks where he spends twenty years as a recluse. He struggles with demons remaining unharmed, and has many visions. (14-15) Antony is forcibly taken out of his cell by people wishing to be taught by him, and attracts many followers. He leads the monks like a father and gives a long sermon (16-43), admonishing them to persevere in ascetic discipline, and analysing the nature and devices of demons. (44-45) Under his leadership, the monastic community flourishes. (46) During the persecution of Maximinus Daia, Antony goes with other monks to Alexandria in order to support those arrested, hoping to suffer martyrdom himself.

(47-54) He withdraws again to his monastic home (the ‘Outer Mountain’), but, worried by the crowds visiting him, he decides to move to the Upper Thebaid. Instructed by a voice, he goes instead to the inner desert, and, guided by Saracens, he settles at the foot of a high mountain. He works miracles and struggles with demons. (55-59) Antony is visited by many, gives spiritual advice to the monks, performs healing miracles, and (60) has a vision of the soul of *Amun of Nitria ($00419) entering heaven. (61-66) There follow other miracles of healing, foresight and knowledge, and visions concerning the ascent of the soul from earth to heaven.

(67-68) Antony is mild and humble, obeys the bishops, priests and deacons, and opposes Melitian schismatics and Arian heretics. (69-71) He goes to Alexandria to publicly denounce the Arians, where he is received as a holy man, healing many. A large number of pagans convert to Christianity inspired by his holiness. (70-80) Pagan philosophers visit and discuss with him, only to be defeated by Antony, despite his being illiterate. (81) The emperors Constantine, Constantius and Constans write letters to him, and Antony reluctantly replies with admonitions for them to be faithful, humane, and just.

(82-88) Antony has visions revealing dreadful persecutions against the church, present and future. He predicts the death of Balakios, an Arian military commander who persecuted the orthodox. Antony leads the whole of Egypt and the monastic community by his miracles, wisdom and charisma.

(89-93) At the age of 105, Antony predicts his own death, and, disapproving of the burial customs of the Egyptians, who wrap and expose the dead instead of burying them, he retreats back to the inner mountain, lest they do the same with his body. He falls ill, and, prior to his death, he instructs two monks to bury him at a secret place, and to divide his clothing among themselves and bishops Athanasius of Alexandria and Serapion of Thmuis. He dies and is buried. Athanasius and Serapion keep the clothes of Antony as valuables (E00669). Antony’s body remains in excellent health to the end, despite his long life and extreme asceticism. Similarly, despite having written nothing, he becomes famous around the world, as far as Spain, Gaul, Rome and Africa.

(94) Athanasius exhorts his readers to spread the story, reading it to monks as a model of correct ascetic practice, and to pagans, as a proof of the superiority of the Christian faith.

Text: Bartelink 2004. Summary: Efthymios Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Antony, 'the Great', monk of Egypt, ob. 356 : S00098 Amun, monk in Nitria : S00419

Saint Name in Source

Ἀντώνιος Ἀμοῦν

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Lives of saint


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Egypt and Cyrenaica

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Alexandria Hermopolis ϣⲙⲟⲩⲛ Ashmunein Hermopolis

Major author/Major anonymous work

Athanasius of Alexandria (see also COPTIC)

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Miracles causing conversion Miracle with animals and plants Healing diseases and disabilities Miraculous sound, smell, light Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Other miracles with demons and demonic creatures Miraculous protection - of people and their property Exorcism Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future) Assumption/otherworldly journey

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Contact relic - saint’s possession and clothes


The Life of Antony constitutes a major landmark in the history of hagiographic writing. Composed a few years after the death of Antony (c. 356) by Athanasius of Alexandria, it became one of the most popular pieces of Christian literature. It is one of the earliest examples of a saint’s biography, but, above all, it is the first and archetypal work of monastic literature. In the preface, Athanasius claims that he wrote it at the request of monks living abroad and, in the conclusion, he exhorts his readers to spread the story and read it to monks and pagans. The foremost purpose of the book is to provide a model of correct ascetic practice, and it was, therefore, established as the earliest normative text of Christian monasticism, the first ‘monastic rule’ of sorts. It is evident that, when Antony retreated in the desert, monasticism was already practised in Egypt and, by the time of his death, it was indeed flourishing, but it also posed a challenge for the canonical church and its clergy. The Life of Antony reflects the effort of the bishop of Alexandria to put this fast growing movement under the control and at the service, of the church. Besides being a holy man, exemplary ascetic, miracle worker, and monastic leader, Antony is presented as a defender of the faith against heretics, schismatics and pagans, always obeying the ordained clergy. The impact of the Life of Antony was immediate and immense. It was quickly translated into Latin ($E00260; $E00930), Syriac, and Coptic, and was read around the Christian world. Twenty years after its composition, in 376, Jerome (Vita Pauli, Praef.) was aware of both the Greek original and a Latin translation of the Life of Antony, while in 380 Gregory of Nazianzus names it among the works of Athanasius (Or. 21. 5). The Greek version survives in 198 manuscripts, but a definitive critical edition is still to be produced. The most up-to-date edition and translation of the text is that by Bartelink, based on 50 manuscripts. It is now widely accepted that the Greek version, as it can be reconstructed from the Byzantine manuscripts, is the closest to the original form of the text. On the manuscript tradition of the text, see:


The Life of Antony is the first biography for a monastic holy man, whose sanctity is justified by his life rather than martyrdom. It is an archetypal text not only for later monastic Lives, but also for monastic collections. The text presents the development of Antony’s feats and personal charisma by consecutive age stages, and by the succession of different locations: childhood to the age of 18/20 in the village (§ 1-2); early asceticism by his house in the village, first battle with demons, and first vision of Christ in the old tomb by the village (age of 20 to 35 – § 3-10); reclusion in the deserted barracks (age of 35-55 – §11-13); emergence and leadership of the monastic movement in the Outer and the Inner Mountain (after 55 – § 14-94). The last part obviously constitutes the main body of the text, striving both to present Antony as a holy man and miracle worker, and to codify his teachings. It thus contains a disproportionately lengthy sermon, focusing on issues of ascetic discipline and demonology (§16-43), and a long account of his dialogue with the pagan philosophers (§72-80). Central in the text are its lengthy accounts of Antony’s battles with demons, and his detailed descriptions of their nature and devices. The Life of Antony is the first Christian text to devote so much space and details to demonology, and some of its ideas had a lasting impact on Christian thought. The demons are described in an almost material fashion, being able to give physical blows to Antony, and being betrayed to him by their smell. A variety of miracles are ascribed to Antony, mostly involving demons, but also healing, foresight and visions. Particularly interesting is the reference of the text to Antony’s determination to prevent the posthumous veneration of his body, and to the distribution of his belongings after his death (on which see E00669).


Text Editions and Translations: Bartelink, G.J.M., Athanaise d'Alexandrie, Vie d'Antoine. Introduction, texte critique, traduction, notes et index. Sources Chretiennes 400. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1994, 2004. (Greek text, French translation, commentary) Vivian, T., Athanassakis, A.N., Greer, R.A., Ward, B., and Williams., R. The Life of Antony by Athanasius of Alexandria (Cistercian Studies; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2003). (English translation of both the Greek and Coptic versions, and commentary) Further reading: Brakke, D. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Hägg, T. “The Life of St Antony between Biography and Hagiography,” in: S. Efthymiadis (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography I: Periods and Places (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 19-34. Rubenson, S. "Mönchtum I." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, 1009-1064. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 2012, esp. 1030-1032. Gemeinhardt, P. “Vita Antonii oder Passio Antonii? Biographisches Genre und martyrologische Topik in der ersten Asketenvita,” in: P. Gemeinhardt and J. Leemans (eds.), Christian Martyrdom in Late Antiquity (300–450 AD): History and Discourse, Tradition and Religious Identity (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 116; Berlin / New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), 85-114. For the Coptic Life of Antony see: The Life of Saint Anthony the Anchorite, by Athanasius of Alexandria (ed. G. Garitte, S. Antonii vitae versio sahidica, CSCO 117/Copt. 13 and 118/Copt. 14, Louvain 1949.) A Eulogy of Saint Anthony, by John, bishop of Hermopolis (ed. G. Garitte, ‘Panégyrique de saint Antoine par Jean, évêque d’Hermopolis’, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 9 (1943), p. 100–134 and 330–365.

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