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E00669: Athanasius of Alexandria recounts the death of *Antony ('the Great', monk of Egypt, ob. 356, S00098): he demands to be buried at a secret place, and distributes his poor belongings to two bishops and two of his fellow monks, who keep them as valuables. Account in Athanasius’ Life of Antony (Ε00631), written in Greek in Alexandria (Egypt) in c. 360.

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posted on 2015-08-20, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Antony (CPG 2101, BHG 140), 90-92

For a summary of the complete Life, see E00631.

These paragraphs belong to the last scene of the Life of Antony, concerning his death. Antony is at the ‘outer mountain’, when he realises that the time of his death is approaching, and decides to move back to his normal dwelling at the ‘inner mountain’, in order to die and be buried there.

(90.) 1. Τῶν δὲ ἀδελφῶν βιαζομένων αὐτὸν μεῖναι παρ’ αὐτοῖς κἀκεῖ τελειωθῆναι, οὐκ ἠνέσχετο διὰ πολλὰ μέν, ὡς αὐτὸς καὶ σιωπῶν ἐνέφαινεν, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο δὲ μάλιστα. 2. Οἱ Αἰγύπτιοι τὰ τῶν τελευτώντων σπουδαίων σώματα, καὶ μάλιστα τῶν ἁγίων μαρτύρων, φιλοῦσι θάπτειν μὲν καὶ περιελίσσειν ὀθονίοις, μὴ κρύπτειν δὲ ὑπὸ γῆν, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ σκιμποδίων τιθέναι καὶ φυλάττειν ἔνδον παρ’ ἑαυτοῖς, νομίζοντες ἐν τούτῳ τιμᾶν τοὺς ἀπελθόντας. 3. Ὁ δὲ Ἀντώνιος πολλάκις περὶ τούτου καὶ ἐπισκόπους ἠξίου παραγγέλλειν τοῖς λαοῖς. 4. Καὶ λαϊκοὺς ἐνέτρεπε καὶ γυναιξὶν ἐπέπληττεν, λέγων μήτε νόμιμον μήτε ὅλως ὅσιον εἶναι τοῦτο.

(91.) 1. Αὐτὸς δέ, τοῦτο γινώσκων, καὶ φοβούμενος μὴ καὶ τὸ αὐτοῦ ποιήσωσιν οὕτω σῶμα, ἤπειξεν ἑαυτόν, συνταξάμενος τοῖς ἐν τῷ ἔξω ὄρει μοναχοῖς. Καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸ ἔνδον ὄρος, ἔνθα καὶ μένειν εἰώθει, μετὰ μῆνας ὀλίγους ἐνόσησεν. Καὶ καλέσας τοὺς ὄντας σὺν αὐτῷ (δύο δὲ ἦσαν, οἵτινες καὶ ἔμειναν ἔνδον, δέκα καὶ πέντε ἔτη ἀσκούμενοι, καὶ ὑπηρετοῦντες αὐτῷ διὰ τὸ γῆρας) ἔλεγε πρὸς αὐτούς· … 6. Καὶ εἰ μέλει ὑμῖν περὶ ἐμοῦ καὶ μνημονεύετε ὡς περὶ πατρός, μὴ ἀφῆτέ τινας τὸ σῶμά μου λαβεῖν εἰς Αἴγυπτον, μήπως ἐν τοῖς οἴκοις ἀπόθωνται. Τούτου γὰρ χάριν εἰσῆλθον εἰς τὸ ὄρος καὶ ἦλθον ὧδε. 7. Οἴδατε δὲ καὶ πῶς ἀεὶ ἐνέτρεπον τοὺς τοῦτο ποιοῦντας, καὶ παρήγγελλον παύεσθαι τῆς τοιαύτης συνηθείας. Θάψατε οὖν τὸ ἡμέτερον ὑμεῖς καὶ ὑπὸ γῆν κρύψατε, καὶ ἔστω τὸ παρ’ ἐμοῦ ῥῆμα φυλαττόμενον παρ’ ὑμῖν, ὥστε μηδένα γινώσκειν τὸν τόπον πλὴν ὑμῶν μόνων. 8. Ἐγὼ γὰρ ἐν τῇ ἀναστάσει τῶν νεκρῶν ἀπολήψομαι παρὰ τοῦ Σωτῆρος ἄφθαρτον αὐτό. Διέλετε δέ μου τὰ ἐνδύματα· καὶ Ἀθανασίῳ μὲν τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ δότε τὴν μίαν μηλωτὴν καὶ ὃ ὑπεστρωννυόμην ἱμάτιον, ὅπερ αὐτὸς μέν μοι καινὸν δέδωκεν, παρ’ ἐμοὶ δὲ πεπαλαίωται. 9. Καὶ Σεραπίωνι δὲ τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ δότε τὴν ἑτέραν μηλωτήν· καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔχετε τὸ τρίχινον ἔνδυμα. Καὶ λοιπὸν σῴζεσθε, τέκνα· ὁ γὰρ Ἀντώνιος μεταβαίνει καὶ οὐκέτι μεθ’ ὑμῶν ἐστιν.

(92.) 1. Ταῦτα εἰπών, καὶ ἀσπασαμένων ἐκείνων αὐτόν, ἐξάρας τοὺς πόδας, καὶ ὥσπερ φίλους ὁρῶν τοὺς ἐλθόντας ἐπ’ αὐτὸν καὶ δι’ αὐτοὺς περιχαρὴς γενόμενος (ἐφαίνετο γὰρ ἀνακείμενος ἱλαρῷ τῷ προσώπῳ) ἐξέλιπε καὶ προσετέθη καὶ αὐτὸς πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας. 2. Κἀκεῖνοι λοιπόν, καθὰ δέδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐντολάς, θάψαντες καὶ εἰλίξαντες, ἔκρυψαν ὑπὸ γῆν αὐτοῦ τὸ σῶμα, καὶ οὐδεὶς οἶδε τέως ποῦ κέκρυπται πλὴν μόνων αὐτῶν τῶν δύο. 3. Καὶ τῶν λαβόντων δὲ ἕκαστος τὴν μηλωτὴν τοῦ μακαρίου Ἀντωνίου καὶ τὸ τετριμμένον παρ’ αὐτοῦ ἱμάτιον, ὡς μέγα χρῆμα φυλάττει. Καὶ γὰρ καὶ βλέπων αὐτά, ὡς Ἀντώνιόν ἐστι θεωρῶν· καὶ περιβαλλόμενος δὲ αὐτά, ὡς τὰς νουθεσίας αὐτοῦ βαστάζων ἐστὶ μετὰ χαρᾶς.

'90. 1. When the brothers tried to force him to stay with them and die there, he refused for a number of reasons (which he indicated even by his silence), but especially because of this. 2. The Egyptians have the custom to prepare for burial and wrap in linen the bodies of eminent people who have died, especially the holy martyrs (καὶ μάλιστα τῶν ἁγίων μαρτύρων), but not to bury them in the ground; instead, they place them on small couches and keep them at their homes, believing that by doing this they honour the departed. 3. But Antony had often asked the bishops to provide direction to the people about this practice. 4. And he would shame laymen and rebuke women, saying that this was neither lawful, nor godly.

91. 1 Yet, knowing that practice, and fearing that they would do the same with his body, he shared his plans with the monks on the outer mountain, and hastened away. So he went to the inner mountain, where he usually lived, and after a few months he became ill. He summoned those who were with him (there were two of them who had stayed there with him for fifteen years, living ascetically and serving him on account of his old age), and said to them: “… 6. And if you care about me and keep my memory as you would your father’s, do not allow anyone to take my body to Egypt, lest they keep it in their homes. Indeed, it was on account of this practice that I returned to the mountain and came here. 7. You know how I have always put to shame those who do this and how I have ordered them to stop this custom. Therefore bury me, according to our custom, and hide my body under the earth, and let my word be kept between you, so that no one knows the place except you alone. 8. I will receive my body back imperishable from the Lord at the resurrection of the dead. Distribute my clothing. To Bishop Athanasios give the one sheepskin coat (μηλωτὴ mēlōtē) and the sheet I used for bedding. He gave it to me new, but I have worn it out. 9. To Bishop Serapion give the other sheepskin coat, and you keep the hairshirt yourselves. And now, children, farewell, for Antony is departing and is with you no more.”

92. 1. When he said this, they kissed him, and he lifted up his feet. Looking at those who had come for him as if seeing his friends and being overjoyed by their presence — for, as he lay down, his face appeared joyful —, he died and was gathered to the fathers. 2. Then the two monks, just as he had ordered them, prepared, wrapped and buried the body under the earth, and, to this day, no one knows where it is buried except them. And each one of those who received the sheepskin coat from blessed Antony, and his worn-out cloak from him, keep them and treat them as great valuables. For even seeing these things is like laying eyes on Antony, and putting them on is like bearing his admonitions with joy.'

Text: Bartelink 2004. Translation: Athanassakis 2003, modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Antony, 'the Great', monk of Egypt, ob. 356 : S00098

Saint Name in Source


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 - tomb/grave

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Rejection of the cult of relics

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, Pr.) 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, see:


This is a particularly interesting and somewhat ambiguous part of the Life of Antony. A central issue here are evidently the local burial customs of Egypt, and the fact that they were practised even by the Christians, despite their apparent incompatibility with the practices of their church. This was evidently a major concern for the author of our text, the bishop of Alexandria Athanasius, who presents his hero as an advocate of his view, reminding both the clergy and laity that ‘Antony had often asked the bishops to provide direction to the people about this practice. And he would shame the laity and rebuke the women, saying that this was neither lawful nor godly.’ Antony is then presented as wishing to set an example of Christian burial. At the same time, however, an anticipation of the veneration of his remains seems also to be implied by the fact that Antony requests his place of burial to be kept secret. The account of the distribution of Antony’s cloths is also of major interest. One can readily recognise the parallel between this and the episode of Elijah leaving his coat to Elisha (2 Kings 2:13-14). The custodians of Antony’s legacy are two bishops and two anonymous monks: his memory is to be kept under the wing of the Church and of its clergy, not by the monks alone. Was this a real incident, and an early instance of the use of ‘contact relics’, or a mere literary symbolism, a biblical topos? We shall probably never know. Athanasius says that their recipients kept Antony’s poor belongings as valuables, because ‘even seeing these things is like laying eyes on Antony, and putting them on is like bearing his admonitions with joy.’ These carefully chosen words echo feelings of loving memory for personal memorabilia, and of faithfulness to the saint’s spiritual legacy, but they avoid expressing explicit reverence for contact relics as objects transmitting some special grace.


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.

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