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E01660: Gregory of Nyssa composes in 381/382 his Life of *Makrina (ascetic S00899), recounting the holy life of his own elder sister, who lived as an ascetic in Pontus (northern Asia Minor). He refers to miracles she performed during her life. Written in Greek in Cappadocia as a letter addressed to a recipient in Syria or Palestine.

online resource
posted on 2016-06-24, 00:00 authored by erizos
Gregory of Nyssa, Life of *Makrina (CPG 3166, BHG 1012)


(chapter numbers after Maraval 1971)

1. Prefatory letter: Gregory addresses a friend, apparently a cleric or monk from Antioch, with whom he had visited Jerusalem. He has composed the text in fulfilment of a promise.

2. Makrina is named after her paternal grandmother, a Christian confessor. Her mother was also a Christian, an orphan, and married a virtuous man, Basil. Makrina also has the mystical name Thekla, after the famous martyr, which was revealed to her mother by a dream vision, shortly before her birth.

3. A bright child, she receives a fine education focusing on the Christian Scriptures rather than the Classical letters.

4. She becomes very pretty and her father arranges to betroth her to a relative, but her fiancé dies before their marriage.

5. Makrina resolves to spend her life in virginity. She stays close to her mother whom she serves throughout her life.

6. Their brother, Basil [of Caesarea], returns from his studies in Athens, full of arrogance. Makrina convinces him to embrace the ascetic way of living.

7. She also convinces her mother to join her monastic community and live as an equal with her former servants.

8. The second brother of the family, Naukratios, is very handsome and talented in rhetoric. Yet he gives up a promising career, in order to live as an ascetic with one of his servants, named Chrysaphios, by the river Iris.

9. Naukratios is drowned in a river, and his premature death shocks his mother.

10. Makrina steadies their mother in her bereavement.

11. She becomes a teacher of her mother in asceticism, and their ascetic community progresses.

12. Makrina is helped by her youngest brother, Petros [the later bishop of Sebaste], whom she has reared since his birth. He initially joins his mother and sister at their ascetic retreat.

13. The mother dies, granting her special blessing on Makrina and Petros.

14. Basil becomes bishop of Caesarea, and ordains Petros to the priesthood. Basil dies nine years later, and Makrina bears the blow bravely.

15. Nine months after Basil’s death, and after having attended an episcopal council at Antioch, Gregory of Nyssa (the author who now enters the story for the first time) feels the urge to visit his sister, Makrina, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. On his way he has an ominous dream vision.

16. Gregory arrives at the retreat where he is welcomed by the ascetics, and celebrates a service in church with them. He is led to the house of Makrina, where she lies on the floor.

17-18. Very frail, Makrina gets up with the help of Gregory, and gives thanks to God for his arrival. They talk, and, when the subject comes to the death of Basil, they have a philosophical conversation on human life and death, demonstrating Makrina’s inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

19. Gregory takes some rest, but he is dismayed by the frailty of his sister. Makrina lets him know that she feels much better.

20. They meet again, and Makrina recounts events from her childhood and the origins of the family.

21. Gregory bemoans his past tribulations and current heavy duties in the Church, and Makrina reproaches him for his ingratitude.

22. Gregory goes to the church for the evening service, and Makrina spends the night in prayer. Fever has weakened her and her end is clearly coming. She keeps philosophising loftily until her last moment.

23. Her fervour increases as she approaches her end, and turns to prayer.

24. She addresses a long prayer of thanksgiving and penance.

25. Night falls and Makrina dies quietly, while praying.

26. A great lamentation breaks out amongst the virgins and the orphans she had reared.

27. Gregory exhorts them to calm, and allows a few to stay and tend to her body.

28. Gregory suggests to a certain Ouetiane (Vetiana), a noble lady who had joined the ascetic community, that they should adorn Makrina’s body for burial. She advises him not to object to what Makrina had wished for herself.

29. The deaconess Lampadion reveals that Makrina possessed nothing but her poor clothes, and she wished her body to be prepared for burial by Gregory.

30. As they prepare the body for burial, they discover an iron cross and an iron ring with a piece of the Wood of Life [i.e. a fragment of the True Cross], which Makrina was wearing around her neck.

31. As they undress the body, in order to clothe it in a bright dress, Ouetiane shows Gregory a scar on Makrina’s breast, which is the remain of a miraculously healed disease.

32. At Ouetiane’s suggestion, they cover Makrina’s body with her mother’s dark cloak. The body shines.

33. The news spreads rapidly and a great crowd assembles. They hold a vigil of prayer for Makrina.

34. Gregory, joined by the local bishop, Araxios, and his clergy, carry Makrina’s body on a bier to the martyrs’ shrine which contains their parents’ tomb for burial. The service is interrupted by the lamentations of the virgins.

35. Gregory and Araxios place Makrina beside her mother’s body in the same sarcophagus.

36-38. On his way back to Cappadocia, Gregory meets a relative of his, who serves as a high-ranking military officer at Sebastopolis. He recounts the miraculous cure of his little daughter from an infection of her eye, when he and his wife visited the monastic retreat of Makrina.

39. Several other miracle stories are reported, like the one about Makrina distributing food supplies during a famine, which would not diminish. Gregory refrains from giving a detailed account of all her miracles.

Text: Maraval 1971. Summary: Efthymios Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Makrina the Younger, ascetic in Pontus, ob. 380 : S00899

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

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


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

Nysa Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Nyssa

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle during lifetime Healing diseases and disabilities

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Relatives of the saint Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Women Children Soldiers


Gregory of Nyssa was born in the late 330s as one of the youngest of a leading Christian family of Cappadocia. His siblings included important figures of church life, namely Basil of Caesarea, the ascetic Makrina the Younger, and Peter of Sebaste. Gregory was trained in philosophy and rhetoric mainly by his brother Basil, who, in 371 or 372 ordained him bishop of the Cappadocian township of Nyssa. In 376, Gregory was deposed from his see, to which he was able to return in 378, and, from then onwards, he was one of the protagonists of church politics in the East Roman Empire. He played an important role during the Council of Constantinople (381) and was very close to the imperial family of Theodosius I. He was sent on missions to Armenia and Arabia in order settle problems in local churches. Gregory died after 394. He left a large literary heritage on philosophical, theological, ascetical, catechetical and homiletic works. Gregory probably wrote the Life of Makrina in winter 381/2, over three years after his sister’s death (which probably occurred on 19 July 378). The manuscript tradition of the text is analysed by Silvas 2008, 93-99. For a list of the 44 manuscripts see: (accessed 02/02/2017)


The introduction of the text informs us that Gregory wrote it as a letter to a friend whom he met during his participation in a conference of Neo-Nicene bishops held at Antioch in May-June 381, followed by a visit of Gregory to the churches of Jerusalem and Arabia. The addressee is unknown: in the manuscript tradition, various names appear as addressees, which may suggest that, after its original publication, Gregory had the text reproduced and sent to several of his contacts (Silvas 2008, 101-102). With regard to its readership, then, the Life of Makrina is a piece of monastic literature responding to the great demand for texts about holy monastics, arising among ascetic communities and individuals from the 4th century onwards, much like the Life of Antony by Athanasius (E00631). Gregory portrays Makrina as the founder and abbess of the monastic community of Annisa, a village near Ibora in Pontus, where their family had an extensive landed estate. With Makrina, Gregory produces one of the first female heroes in the history of monastic literature. Her portrait, however, is somewhat mundane, in comparison to the ascetic figures of the desert. Makrina is not a female Antony, but represents a more domestic form of asceticism, focusing on service to her family and the people living on their estate. Her spiritual progress is marked by developments in the life of her family rather than by extravagant miracles or fights against demons in the wilderness. Unlike the Life of *Antony by Athanasius (E00631), the Life of Makrina can hardly serve as a text providing a model or rule for monastic life. Gregory provides very few details about the organisation of the community led by Makrina and the style of their asceticism (mainly in paragraph 11). The rules of Cappadocian monasticism, as it was supposed to be practiced at Annisa, had already been codified by Basil of Caesarea in the Asketikon, and Gregory probably preferred to let his brother be the only authoritative voice on the matter. One of the main goals of the text is to rescue Gregory’s ascetic siblings and mother from oblivion under the heavy shadow of the family’s most illustrious scion, Basil of Caesarea. Although Makrina is declared to be the main subject of our text, the details concerning her life are few. Instead, with her as a background narrative, Gregory inserts extensive accounts about his mother Emmeleia and his brothers, Naukratios and Petros. The element connecting all these figures is their ascetic lifestyle, and their participation in the monastic communities of Annisa. The first part of the Life of Makrina (1-15) may thus be seen as a homage by the author to the less well-known ascetics of his own family. Indeed our text is virtually the only or main source of biographical information about Makrina, Emmeleia, and Naukratios, who are not mentioned in any of the writings of Basil. The complete silence of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus about her is one of the most striking aspects concerning the historic Makrina. Given the fact that both of them spent time as ascetics at Annisa in the late 350s, one would expect them to refer to her. Instead, she is only known from Gregory of Nyssa. He, in his turn, avoids referring to the friendship of Emmeleia, and almost certainly Makrina, with Eustathios of Sebasteia in the 350s and 360s, a fact deduced from the letters of Basil. Eustathios was very probably the man who provided the first guidance for the organisation of the ascetic community of Annisa, but, by the mid-370s, he clashed with Basil on the doctrine on the Holy Spirit. Based on Basil’s silence about Makrina, John McGuckin has suggested that she may have been unwilling to follow Basil in his clash with Eustathios (McGuckin, J. A. St Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography. Chrestwood, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001, 90-93). If there were indeed such shades in Makrina’s memory, an account of a hallowed death, like the one given by Gregory, was the best way of removing them. Yet, at the same time, Gregory’s visit to the dying Makrina was the only recent personal memory he had from his ascetic sister whom he had seen very few times during his adulthood. His ultimate visit to her occurred after a break of eight or ten years (as Gregory reports paragraph 17 and in his Letter 19.10c). In other words, Gregory had not seen Makrina, since the early years of his episcopate. A few months after the death of Basil, Gregory returned to Annisa, finding Makrina on her deathbed and, as he claims, at the pinnacle of her holiness, full of the Holy Spirit, and capable of deep spiritual discussions. In a typically hagiographical manner, Gregory appends at the end of his text the account of a miracle ascribed to Makrina by a relative (paragraphs 36-38). In any case, it seems that Gregory’s last meeting with his sister had a deep and lasting impact on him, and he gradually turned his sister into a literary icon, providing a model of ascetic virtue and Christian philosophy. One or two years after writing her Life, he composed his dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection, a philosophical treatise purporting to reconstruct the conversation between him and Makrina on the eve of her death (mentioned in Life 17-19). The two texts, which appear together in much of the manuscript tradition, codify Gregory’s understanding and elaboration of the spiritual legacy of his sister, recalling the way Plato portrayed Socrates in the Apologia and the dialogues (Silvas 2008, 155 ff.). With Gregory’s text, Makrina entered the tradition of the Greek Church as a saint, celebrated on 19 July, according to the Middle Byzantine Synaxarion of Constantinople. It is probable that her veneration began immediately after her death, with the encouragement of Gregory.


Text and French Translation: Maraval, P. Grégoire De Nysse, Vie De Sainte Macrine. Sources Chrétiennes. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1971. English translation, commentary, and bibliography: Silvas, Anna. Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God. Turnhout: Brepols, 2008. Further Reading: Elm, S., Virgins of God: the Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, 78-105. Ludlow, M., Gregory of Nyssa, Ancient and (Post)modern, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 202-219. On Gregory of Nyssa: Dörrie, H., “Gregor III,” in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum 12 (1983), 863-895. Maraval, P., ‘Grégoire, évêque de Nysse’, in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 22 (1988): 20–4. Silvas, A. M. Gregory of Nyssa. The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden / Boston: Brill, 2007, 1-57.

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