Basil was born around 329, probably in Caesarea, in Cappadocia. One of his grandfathers had died in the Great Persecution. His family were ruling Cappadocians. His father was a teacher of rhetoric and a successful advocate. His grandmother taught him the theological ideas of Origen, which she had learned from the finest Christian teachers.
Basil was about six years old when the Arian Constantius took control of Cappadocia. The civil authority was then taken over by Arians who rejected the deity of Christ and the creed of the Council of Nicea.
During that time, Basil was educated with the elite of fourth century society. He studied in Constantinople and then in Athens. When Basil arrived in Athens in 351, his reputation for genius was so well known that the other students spared him from the usual jokes inflicted on new students. He and his close friend Gregory studied together with the young prince Julian, a nephew of Constantinius.
Basil returned to Caesarea in 355. There, he was baptized and ordained as a reader in the church. For five years, he traveled among the dessert monks of Egypt, learning from their orthodox faith at a time when much of the clergy were adopting Arian opinions.
Basil was forced to become a presbyter, as was then common. Soon afterward, however, his and Gregory’s old school friend Julian, became emperor. Unlike the two Cappadocians, Julian had returned to paganism and tried to return the empire to pagan worship. Julian had hoped that Basil and Gregory would support him with their schooling in philosophy. Although neither of them would do so, Basil would not reproach their former school friend after Julian’s death.
The Arian Valens became emperor in 364 and began to travel through the eastern empire compelling churches to accept Arianism. While Arians dominated, the Trinitarian Basil became the bishop of Caesarea in 370. Raised like an emperor’s son, Basil gave up his wealth to establish charities, and motivated considerable donations from the rich. His hospitals and asylums became a virtual town served by his monks. He assigned to himself the most undesirable work, caring for the lepers. Although living in voluntary poverty, He had a regal manner, standing tall and thin, with a piercing eye. Gregory’s father, the bishop of Nazianzus, described Basil as “a man whose life and mind are pure, alone among all others, or indeed above them; he would be able to stand in the midst of the present trouble and the wild talk of the heretics.”
Basil’s impressive bearing and good manners are evident in his advice about responding to the Arians. Writing to Amphilochios, the newly elected Bishop of Iconium in Pisidia, Basil wrote in Letter 161 (374 A.D.) [quoted from Barrois, ed., The Fathers Speak]:
Act like a man and be strong: march in front of the people the right hand of the Most High entrusted to you. Steer your ship prudently, stand above the tempests raised by heretical winds, keep your vessel from sinking in the briny and bitter waves of perverse doctrine, and wait for the stillness which the Lord shall give when a voice is found worthy to wake Him up, that He rebuke the winds and the sea [Mt 8:26 and paral.].
Basil's approach to ministering to the poor and the sick, comparable to his approach to ministering to heretics, is described as follows by Richard Travers Smith in his classic biography, drawing from Basil’s own writings:
A helper who gives way to the impulse of mere feeling seems to him like a pilot, who, when he ought to be directing the crew and fighting against winds and waves, is himself sea-sick. We must use our reason, and help people as we can. Do not therefore aggravate sorrow by your presence. Whoever wants to raise up the afflicted, must be above them: he who falls along with them, requires himself the same aid which he is attempting to bring.
That same regal grace under pressure became apparent in 372, when Valens arrived in Caesarea together with Modestus, the praetorian prefect, and other Arian courtiers who sought to compel the submission to the wishes of the Arian emperor. Finding Basil’s responses insolent, Modestus insisted, “Never has any one spoken to me in such a tone.” Basil responded, “That is because you have never before met a true bishop.” (Smith at 41). Yet when no one from the congregation would accept Valens’ offering during a worship service, Basil himself came down among the congregation and graciously accepted Valens’ gift. Valens was sufficiently impressed that he later sent Basil a gift of land for use in his charities. However, the Arians soon regained their influence over Valens.
Valens died in August, 378 in the rout of Hadrianople. However, by then, Basil was suffering from a liver ailment, sometimes unable to finish a sermon, stopping, and saying he would finish it the following day. Basil died on January 1, 379, only fifty years old and frustrated at his ongoing battle against Arianism. Crowds of people from all classes and faiths surrounded his bier, many being crushed to death trying to see or touch it.
On January 10, 381, a new emperor Theodosius issued an edict proclaiming the sole orthodoxy of the Nicene faith and prohibiting to heretics the right to assemble. The move met little opposition. Basil’s Trinitarian theology triumphed at the Council of Constantinople the same year. By 425, Arianism deteriorated into a superstitious repetition of slogans and died out except among the Goths.
Western Europeans of Gothic ancestry remained Arian until the sixth century. Then Spain, the last great realm of Arianism, was converted to Catholicism after the Spanish king-to-be married a French Catholic. By then, what remained of Arianism had gradually become so similar to Catholicism in practice that there was little opposition to the move.
Barrois, Georges, ed., The Fathers Speak: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church.
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity.
Smith, Richard Travers, St. Basil the Great.