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date: 31 October 2020

Antonius Abba, free

251?–356 ce
  • Samuel Rubenson

Among the first generations of the Egyptian monastic movement of the 4th century ce, Antonius, generally referred to as Saint Antony, stands out as the most important and best documented figure. The traditional dating of his birth to 251 ce is based solely on the statement in his biography that he died at the age of 105 years (Vit. Ant. 89.3), and the note in Jerome’s chronicle that he died in 356 ce (Chron. ad annum 356). There is no reason to doubt the latter date, as it is also confirmed by a letter of Serapion to his disciples.1 It is, however, unlikely that the author of the biography, or anyone else, knew his age at the time of death. What is evident from a number of sources is that Antony was a highly influential senior monk in the 330s ce, and thus most probably born sometime before 280. In addition to his year of death, the only dates that can be corroborated by sources independent of the biography are a visit to Alexandria in 337, also noted in the Syriac index to Athanasius’s festal letters,2 and a visit to him by the disciples of Pachomius in 346, mentioned in the Life of Pachomius (Vit. Pach. Gr. 120).3

For Antony’s career we are almost entirely dependent on the famous biography, the Vita Antonii (VA), written soon after his death by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, most probably on the basis of some material collected by Antony’s monastic circles.4 It is evident that the author was fairly well informed about Antony and his teaching, in particular during the last decades of his life.5 But it is also clear that the author has used earlier texts—biblical, early Christian, and classical—as models for Antony, in particular for his early life. The VA presents itself, and has often been regarded, as written to monastic communities as a model for monastic life (Vit. Ant. prol.), but the repeated references to Greek education and philosophy make it evident that the biography primarily has an apologetic aim. Not only does the VA borrow phrases from classical biography, but the depiction of Antony’s early life, and in particular his educational career, are also modeled on a Life of Pythagoras, the main hero of the neo-Platonic religious revival of the 4th century.6 In what has been termed “a war of biographies,” the VA is best understood as an attempt to demonstrate that Antony, the Christian saint, is greater than Pythagoras, in power as well as in wisdom.7

According to the VA, Antony came from a wealthy Christian family (Vit. Ant. 1). The place is not specified, but later tradition says that he was born in Coma, close to Heracleopolis in the Fayoum (Sozomenos, Hist. Eccl. 1.13.2).

Figure 1. Wall painting from the monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt.

Courtesy Dr. Jesper Blig Kullberg.

In a strong emphasis on Antony’s being unaffected by pagan tradition, his upbringing is depicted as entirely Christian (Vit. Ant 1). The statement that he did not learn letters has famously and wrongly been interpreted as indicating that he was illiterate, but, as later references to letters show, the intention of the author is clearly to depict him as untouched by Greek wisdom, taught only by God.8 At the age of eighteen he is said to have listened to the demand in the gospel of Matthew to sell everything, distribute the money to the poor, and follow Jesus Christ (Vit. Ant. 2). First living on the outskirts of the village, learning from other monks, he later retreated to a tomb on the edge of the desert, and finally shut himself up for twenty years in an abandoned fortified well (Vit. Ant. 3–14). In describing his emergence from his seclusion, the author, using phrases from a Life of Pythagoras, depicts him as initiated into sacred mysteries, having attained utter equilibrium and stability of character (Vit. Ant. 14.2–3). He is now said to have begun to gather followers and establish monastic communities in the vicinity, teaching them the essentials of monastic life (Vit. Ant. 15–43). A further sign that the text is part of a struggle between the new and the old faith systems is the vivid imagery of demonic onslaught during his early career, and his interpretation in the sermon on the demons following upon the chapter about his emergence from seclusion. In contrast to the teaching on demons in Antony’s letters and later monastic literature, the demons are here closely linked to pagan religion. This struggle against paganism is also evident in the last chapters of the first part, in which we hear about Antony, undeterred and victorious, settling in Alexandria during the persecution under Maximinian in 311 (Vit. Ant. 46–47).

In the second part of the VA, Antony moves into the real desert, pressed by the crowds attracted by his fame. He is said to have joined a caravan through the inner desert towards the Red Sea. After three days of journey through the desert, stopping at an oasis, he decided to settle there at what is designated as his “inner mountain” (Vit. Ant. 49–50). Later his disciples found him there and then regularly visited the place, while Antony himself occasionally visited his “outer monastery,” close to the Nile where he first emerged as a monastic leader (Vit. Ant. 50–55). The rather astonishing match between the description of the “inner mountain” in the VA and the site of the present-day monastery confirms that this is where Antony finally settled and where he died.

In the remaining part of the VA, the spiritual power of Antony is demonstrated in a series of stories about how he heals the afflicted and defeats opponents, including some Greek philosophers who are said to have been attracted by his fame and sought him out to ridicule him on the basis of his lack of education (Vit. Ant. 57–80). They are, however, taught that since demonstrative arguments are secondary to a sound mind, it is not by demonstrative arguments that someone attains a sound mind.

Although the image of Antony has largely been shaped by the biography, a number of other sources can be used to reconstruct his teaching and significance.

Figure 2. Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1512–1516. Left inner wing: Visit of Saint Anthony to Saint Paul the Hermit. Right inner wing: Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The most important are his seven letters, which may well have been written in both Coptic and Greek, given the bilingual milieu from which Antony came.9 The Greek version, attested in early translations into Latin as well as Syriac, seems lost, and of the Coptic version, preserved through an Arabic translation, only fragments have yet been identified. Except for one letter, a kind of introduction to monastic formation, the letters repeat the same greetings, history of salvation, and exhortations, evidently to a series of small groups of disciples. In them Antony emerges as a teacher of spiritual knowledge in an Origenist tradition, with a strong emphasis on self-knowledge and inner freedom. The letters show a strong affinity not only with the letters of his successor Ammonas, as well as the letters attributed to the monk Macarius the Egyptian and to his disciple Evagrius of Pontus, but also with some of the writings of the Nag Hammadi codices.

That Antony was a very influential monastic pioneer and respected teacher is further evident from a number of later sources that refer to him and to his disciples.10 In the Pachomian material Antony is mentioned as an important master and teacher, albeit with some criticism for his lack of firmness towards heretics (Vit. Pach. Gr. 120). In Jerome’s Life of St. Paul Antony is rebuked to believing his the first desert mink and made into a disciple of Paul. In several later texts that refer to the monastic communities in the desert close to Alexandria, Antony emerges as the pioneer and master, and several of the famous monks of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis are mentioned as his disciples. He may thus be seen as a forerunner of the tradition of monastic moral formation systematized by Evagrius and Cassian on the basis of Alexandrian theology.11

Antony is also well represented in the tradition of the Apophthegmata Patrum (the Sayings of the Desert Fathers), where he regularly appears first in the collections. Only a few of the sayings attributed to him can securely be linked to his letters or the VA, and for many of them the attribution is most probably fictitious. The sayings can thus not be used as sources for the historical figure, but they clearly underline his importance for the entire tradition.12

Through the VA, which was translated into Latin twice within a decade, and soon into all the languages of early medieval Christianity, Antony became the father of monasticism and the paramount model for monastic life. The rapid spread of his fame is evident in the references to him by Gregory of Nazianzus (Greg. Naz. or. 21.5) and by Augustine (Conf. VIII.15), and his influence on the development of hagiography, Greek as well as Latin, is well documented. His enduring fame is also obvious in his presence in the history of art and literature up to modern times, most famously in the paintings by Matthias Grünewald, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí, and a novel by Gustave Flaubert.13

Links to Digital Materials

Primary Texts

Vita Antonii
  • Bartelink, G. J. M., ed. Athanase d’Alexandrie, Vie d’Antoine: Introduction, texte critique, traduction, notes et index. SC 400. Paris: Cerf, 1994.
  • Meyer, Robert T., trans. St. Athanasius, The Life of Saint Antony. Washington, DC: Newman, 1950.
Epistulae Antonii
  • Rubenson, Samuel, trans. The Letters of St. Antony. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
Apophthegmata Antonii
  • Migne, Paul, ed. Gerontikon (Patrologia Graeca 65, 71–440). Paris: 1858.


  • Gemeinhardt, Peter. Antonius der erste Mönch. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2013.
  • Hägg, Thomas. “The Life of St. Antony between Hagiography and Biography.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, I. Edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis, 17–34. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.
  • Reitzenstein, Richard. Des Athanasius Werk über das Leben des Antonius: Ein philologischer Beitrag zur Geschichte des Mönchtums. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 1914.8. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1914.
  • Rousseau, Philip. “Antony as Teacher in the Greek Life.” In Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Edited by Thomas Hägg and P. Rousseau, 89–109. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Rubenson, Samuel. The Letters of St. Antony. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
  • Rubenson, Samuel. “Antony and Pythagoras: A Reappraisal of the Appropriation of Classical Biography in Athanasius’ Vita Antonii.” In Beyond Reception: Mutual Influences between Antique Religion, Judaism, and Early Christianity. Edited by David Brakke, A.-C. Jacobsen, and J. Ulrich, 191–208. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2006.
  • Rubenson, Samuel. “Athanasius und Antonius.” In Athanasius Handbuch. Edited by Peter Gemeinhardt, 141–145. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011.
  • Rubenson, Samuel. “Antony and Ammonas: Conflicting or Common Tradition in Early Egyptian Monasticism.” In Bibel, Byzanz und Christlicher Orient. Festschrift für Stephan Gerö. Edited by Dimitri Bumazhnov, 185–201. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 187. Leuven: Peeters, 2011.
  • Rubenson, Samuel. “Apologetics of Asceticism: The Life of Antony and its Political Context.” In Ascetic Culture: Essays in Honor of Philip Rousseau. Edited by Blake Leyerly and Robin Darling Young, 75–96. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.
  • Steidle, Basilius, ed. Antonius Magnus Eremita: Studia ad antiquum monachismum spectantia. Rome: Herder, 1956.
  • Urbano, Arthur. “‘Read It Also to the Gentiles’: The Displacement and Recasting of the Philosopher in the Vita Antonii.” Church History 77 (2008): 877–914.


  • 1. René Draguet, “Une lettre de Sérapion de Thmuis aux disciples d’Antoine (AD 356) en versions syriaque et arménienne,” Le Muséon 64 (1951).

  • 2. See Rudolf Lorenz, Der zehnte Osterfestbrief des Athanasius von Alexandrien (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1986).

  • 3. For a discussion see Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 165–169.

  • 4. G. J. M. Bartelink, Athanase d’Alexandrie, Vie d’Antoine (Sources Chrétiennes 400; Paris: Cerf, 1994).

  • 5. See Samuel Rubenson, Samuel, “Athanasius und Antonius,” in Athanasius Handbuch, ed. Peter Gemeinhardt (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 141–145.

  • 6. Richard Reitzenstein, Des Athanasius Werk über das Leben des Antonius: Ein philologischer Beitrag zur Geschichte des Mönchtums (Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 1914.8; Heidelberg: Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1914); Samuel Rubenson, “Apologetics of Asceticism: The Life of Antony and its Political Context,” in Ascetic Culture: Essays in Honor of Philip Rousseau, ed. Blake Leyerle and Robin Darling Young (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 75–96.

  • 7. Arthur Urbano, “‘Read It Also to the Gentiles’: The Displacement and Recasting of the Philosopher in the Vita Antonii,” Church History 77 (2008): 877–914.

  • 8. For a discussion of the passage see Rubenson (1995), 141–144.

  • 9. See Rubenson (1995).

  • 10. For a survey see Rubenson, Letters of St. Antony, 163–184.

  • 11. Samuel Rubenson, “Antony and Ammonas: Conflicting or Common Tradition in Early Egyptian Monasticism,” in Bibel, Byzanz und Christlicher Orient: Festschrift für Stephan Gerö, ed. Dimitri Bumazhnov (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 187; Leuven, Belgium: Peeters 2011), 185–201.

  • 12. For a survey see Rubenson, Letters of St. Antony, 152–162.

  • 13. See Peter Gemeinhardt, Antonius der erste Mönch (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2013), 154–181.