The Apostolic Saint, twentieth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (326-373). Athanasius’ life has been treated in detail by numerous authors. These sources can be categorized as follows: (1) the writings of Athanasius himself, which should be considered the most authentic of the sources. These include his historical tracts, encyclicals, an apology to Constantine, another apology against the Arians, his letters to Serapion and to the monks, and his festal letters; (2) the works of contemporary church fathers, including Hilary of Poitiers, BASIL THE GREAT, OF NAZIANZUS, and Epiphanius; and (3) chronicles of older historians such as RUFINUS, SOCRATES, Sulpicius Severus, THEODORET, and SOZOMEN, whose authority on details must be taken with some caution.

To these may be added the Arabic life rendered by E. RENAUDOT but originally prepared for the pious Copts, which is simply a legendary account of little historical import. Of course, the official record of the church is represented in the Copto-Arabic SYNAXARION and cannot be overlooked.

The secondary literature on the great saint is profuse, and only a selection of the most prominent biographers may here be mentioned by way of introduction: B. Montfaucon, L. S. de Tillemont, J. A. Moehler, S. Cave, H. G. Opitz, E. Schwartz, L. Atzberger, H. M. Gwatkin, F. L. Cross, and G. Mueller.

Early Life

Athanasius was probably born in Alexandria around the year 296, although, according to an Arabic document found in DAYR ANBA MAQAR, it is said that his parents originally came from the city of al-Balyana in Upper Egypt. It is possible that his early education took place in the CATECHETICAL SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA; it is also possible that he could have attended classes in the Museon where he became conversant with Neoplatonism. As a young man, he must have witnessed the later period of the age of persecutions, though he would have been far too young to recollect incidents related to Maximian’s persecution of 303.

After Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the state, in the Edict of Milan in 312, his family must have suffered through the nascent heresy, a movement destined to be the focal point of his struggle throughout his life. Rufinus and subsequent historians relate a story about Athanasius’ boyhood. It is said that Patriarch ALEXANDER I, watching the seashore from his window, saw a group of children playing at Christian baptism; one of the boys played the bishop. Intrigued by this sight, the patriarch summoned the children to his presence and recognized the authenticity of the baptism thus performed. He kept at his court the boy-bishop, Athanasius, who ultimately became his secretary and his closest companion.

The in 325 marked the inauguration of the ecumenical movement. The young Athanasius, as Alexander’s secretary, was the power behind the throne, and his influence was felt in the composition of the Nicene Creed. Athanasius succeeded Alexander in 326. The new archbishop now faced alone the spreading of Arianism.

Arius was probably of Libyan origin and a pupil of Lucian of Antioch. He was first ordained by Achillas (d. 311) as presbyter of the important church of Bucalis in Alexandria. An eloquent speaker and a pragmatic thinker, Arius captivated a large congregation in Alexandria with his ideas. He denied the coequality and coeternity of Jesus with the Father and held that the Father created the Son from nothing, only in turn to create the world. Thus the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son was denied by Arius, whose position was supported by Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia.

The idea was rejected by Alexander, and its vehement opponent was Athanasius, who defended his view at the using the famous term HOMOOUSION to describe the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. The defeat of the Arians at that council did not end the controversy nor did it eliminate the party, whose teachings continued to spread. This inaugurated a period of theological strife between Arius and Athanasius. The situation was aggravated by the infiltration of Arianism into the imperial court and its increasing popularity among the populace, whose thinking was more amenable to the simple and pragmatic ideas of Arius. In addition, Arius expressed his ideas in a series of popular poetic hymns called Thalia (banquet), setting them to music adapted from old, familiar tunes of the ancient Egyptians. These could be heard in the shipyards and all over Alexandria.

Emperor CONSTANTINE I, eager to preserve the unity of his empire, first accepted the verdict of Nicaea, but later wavered in his judgment. He was probably influenced by his sister Constantia and Eusebius of Nicomedia, as well as by the expanding number of Arian followers. At this point Arius seemed to soften his attitude toward the Nicene decision, and the emperor consequently wanted Athanasius to be reconciled with his enemies and to reinstate Arius in church communion.

A synod of 335 formally confirmed the reconciliation movement, but Arius died mysteriously in the following year, while the suspicious Athanasius continued to refuse a dubious reconciliation. In the meantime, in 335 the emperor commanded Athanasius to go into exile at Trier in Germany. This proved to be only the first of a series of five exiles of this staunch archbishop, who stood fast by his theology against a movement that survived its author and kept expanding.

The Five Exiles

Athanasius remained in Trier a little more than two years, a period during which he must have composed and developed some of his theological works. With the death of Constantine I in 337, Athanasius and some of the banished Nicene bishops were free to return to their dioceses. Though the people of Alexandria hailed him, Athanasius’ return was beset by intrigues from outside. Eusebius of was moved to Constantinople where, as a staunch supporter of Arianism, he had direct access to the imperial court and could influence the emperor against Athanasius.

The Arians hoped to depose Athanasius, and in 340, they installed of Cappadocia in the archiepiscopal throne of Alexandria. Athanasius decided to go into hiding, while his new antagonist reveled in orgies and committed heinous crimes such as causing Philagrius to scourge thirty-four women at church and masterminding the incarceration of other pious Christians. In the midst of such atrocities, Athanasius decided to flee at Easter of the year 340 from Alexandria to Rome.

Thus began his second exile, which lasted three years at the curia of Pope Julius I (337-352) in Rome. Apparently this time the exile was a voluntary one. He was accompanied by a number of Egyptian monks, and perhaps the most significant outcome of that exile was the introduction of the monastic system, which had originated in the Egyptian deserts, to the western Latins. The acceptance of the Egyptian monastic order by the Roman papacy must be regarded as a vital step in the development of Christianity in Europe and the preservation of the Roman heritage in the Middle Ages.

On this occasion, too, Athanasius established friendly relations with the Roman see, which recognized his position as archbishop and offered him support throughout his reign. Finally, through the influence of Constantius II (337-361), he was restored to his diocese in Alexandria, now vacated from vestiges by the murder of its Arian occupant, of Cappadocia, in February 345.

Athanasius’ return proved to be an honorable one. He was given imperial letters of congratulations at Aquileia, from where he started the long journey home via Constance, Trier, with its memories of the first exile, and Rome, where Pope Julius offered him an eloquent letter of support. He passed through Hadrianopolis on his journey to Antioch, where he had another opportunity to see the eastern emperor Constantius, who received him with honor.

Athanasius refrained from vilifying his opponents to the emperor, but took leave to confront his detractors carrying Constantius’ letters to the clergy of Egypt pleading for a unified church. From Antioch Athanasius went to Jerusalem, where he attended a council held in his honor. Athanasius arrived in Alexandria on 24 Babah. of Nazianzus described the tumultuous welcome by the people, who streamed forth “like the river Nile.” Even the dissenting element of the population seemed, for the time being, to have faced the prelate’s restoration with charitable clemency.

After these festivities, peace appeared to have reigned for a few years, and as many as 400 bishops, including those substituting for Arians, showered letters of support on Athanasius. Emperor Valens

(364-378), it would seem, anathematized Arianism. Nevertheless, it would also seem that the Arians were only procrastinating in the face of irresistible support for Athanasius. Although the western emperor Constans (337-350) lent his support to the great prelate, the eastern emperor Constantius II, being greatly influenced by Eusebius in particular and the Arians in general, turned against him. Constantius condoned and even incited the persecution of Athanasius.

As the restoration festivities began to calm down, the pro- military power started to maneuver against the reestablished orthodoxy. One story is told of a certain General Sebastian, a Manichaean, who came with a batallion of 3,000 soldiers to a cemetery where a company of virgins remained in prayer after the rest of the congregation had dispersed. Sebastian asked the virgins to embrace Arianism. When they refused, he had them stripped and they were thrashed so heavily that some of them died. Such incidents were reputed to have occurred around the churches of Alexandria where the Orthodox bishops were relentlessly pursued, and dozens of them fled.

Athanasius stood firm against his opponents, who were led by a certain George the Cappadocian, who intended to replace him on the throne of Alexandria. Athanasius resisted until he could place his case before Constantius, but to his disappointment the emperor issued an imperial missive in which he described the orthodox prelate as a criminal fugitive. Constantius also advised the Ethiopian sovereign to send Frumentius (see ETHIOPIAN PRELATES) founder of the Ethiopian church, back to receive his new ordination, not from Athanasius, but from the Cappodocian George.

Frumentius had been consecrated as bishop of Axum by Athanasius prior to 368. Cornered, Athanasius exiled himself from Alexandria again. He joined the increasing number of Coptic monks in the desert. During this exile, which lasted more than six years, he wrote most of his theological works. While keeping contact with his Alexandrian flock through letters of encouragement, he moved from the Nitrian Desert to the Thebaid and lived for a while in the Eastern Desert. He must have spent some time with Saint ANTONY THE GREAT before his death. And it was then that he was able to compose his classic work, the Life of Saint Antony.

With the death of Constantius II in 361, JULIAN THE APOSTATE (361-363) acceded to the imperial throne. Julian had long been contemptuous of the arguments of the Christians, whether orthodox or Arian. The immediate result of Julian’s accession was the emergence of the pagan population, who were determined to avenge themselves on George the Cappadocian, who had been determined to exterminate them. The bishop was murdered, and his body was then circulated through the city on a camel.

Finally, he was cremated and his remains were thrown into the sea. Although Julian did not favor this gesture at the beginning of his reign, he issued an edict allowing all fugitive bishops to return peacefully to their dioceses. Seizing this opportunity, Athanasius returned to Alexandria on 22 February 362, where he was again met with tumultuous glee by his Orthodox followers.

On his return, Athanasius held a council to resolve all outstanding problems, whether in Alexandria or in Antioch. One of the decisions of that council provided that all who had forfeited their communion with the church could regain it by simply declaring their allegiance to the terms of Nicaea. Those who spoke of three hypostases were found to mean three persons, whereas the Nicene formula prescribed one HYPOSTASIS, the actual Incarnation of the Logos, or assumption of manhood by the Son. Athanasius issued a synodal epistle or tome to the Antiochians about the findings of the council in the hope of achieving church unity. He was unsuccessful because Paulinus, a dissenter, had already been elevated to the episcopate of Antioch, thus starting a schism.

In the midst of these internal difficulties, Julian the Apostate denounced all Christian teachings, as well as the right of Athanasius to his episcopal throne. Julian issued a special edict for the expulsion of Athanasius, which was communicated to him by Pythiodorus, a pagan philosopher, on 23 October 362. Thus began the fourth exile of the great prelate. Athanasius left for Memphis and the Thebaid in the year 363. After Julian’s death in 363 Athanasius returned to his episcopal throne.

After his arrival at Alexandria via Hermopolis, where he was hailed by throngs of monks, he received an encouraging letter from the new emperor Jovian (363-364) instructing him to exercise the duties of his episcopal office and prepare a formal statement delineating the Orthodox elements of the faith. Athanasius at once summoned a council, which, under his leadership, framed a synodal epistle that affirmed the Nicene Creed and condemned Arianism and Semi-Arianism, while it denounced the triple definition of the hypostasis and maintained the coequality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son—positions that anticipated the terms of the creed of Constantinople (381).

Armed with these decisions, Athanasius sailed to Antioch, where he was enthusiastically received and where his principles were accepted. The church was consequently united, and even in the West, Pope Liberius (352-355 and 365-366) is known to have made a full declaration of orthodoxy in Rome. In 364, after writing another festal letter at Antioch, Athanasius safely returned to Alexandria shortly before Jovian’s death. He was succeeded by Valens (364-378), who was confided the administration of the eastern empire by his brother Valentinian II (375-392). In 365, Valens ordered the expulsion of the bishops that had been allowed to return by Julian.

The newly adopted policy caused trouble for the orthodox population and in particular for Athanasius, who stood on the defensive, while the prefect of Alexandria mustered his forces to act against the prelate. Athanasius quietly made his escape through the Church of Saint Dionysius and took refuge for the next four months in a house outside the city. This short period might be considered a fifth and self-inflicted exile. It was terminated by the advent of an imperial notary named Barasides, who came forth with another imperial order for the release of the prelate and his return to his episcopal throne.

From the time of his return to Alexandria until his death in May 373, Athanasius was occupied by disputations against the Arians, by the building of new churches, and in writing some of his final works. He occupied the See of Saint for a total of forty-six years during which he was subjected to persecution that bordered on martyrdom, but his faith in the Nicene Creed was never shaken.

According to the Copto-Arabic Synaxarion, his commemoration date occurs on 30 Tut.

In his later years, Athanasius completed his triumph over Arianism, whose exponents were silenced in the Byzantine empire. With the extermination of their teachings from the empire, the splinter of their remaining representatives crossed the Byzantine borders to the realm of the barbarians where they could preach their doctrines in peace to the Goths. Their apostle was ULPHILAS (c. 311-383), originally a Cappadocian, who was consecrated bishop by Eusebius, the Arian bishop of Nicomedia. The remained faithful to Arian precepts even until they descended on the western Roman empire. Their conversion to orthodoxy was a lengthy process in subsequent centuries.

Together with the discomfiture of Arianism and the firm establishment of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius, through his relations with the Pachomian monks and Serapion, was able to give monasticism and ascetic life in Egypt tremendous encouragement and support. Moreover, he was directly responsible for the introduction of monastic rule in the West. As a biographer of Saint Antony, he dedicated his life of the great saint to the people of Gaul and Italy. His theology remained the solid rock on which future generations of theologians continued to build. He was canonized, and the next generation described him as the Apostolic and the Great.


Athanasius is known to have written most of his works in Greek and has been described in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers (1953, p. ixvi) as a Greek father. In fact, the Greek fathers did not know Coptic, and Athanasius, like many educated Copts, was proficient in both Greek and Coptic. Antony and Athanasius must have communicated in Coptic, for Antony did not know Greek.

While Athanasius was still in his twenties, around the year 318, he wrote two short treatises: Against the Gentiles and De Incarnatione Verbi , which became an authoritative theological classic. His thesis in the latter is that by the union of God the Logos with manhood in the person of the Son, Jesus restored to fallen humanity the image of God in which it had been created (Gn. 1:27). By his death and resurrection, Jesus overcame death, which was the consequence of sin. Both treatises predated the outbreak of the controversy in 319. Most of his subsequent work concentrated on the opposition to Arianism beginning with Nicaea.

It is not easy to present a complete bibliography of Athanasius, which has been progressively enriched by new discoveries. Attempts at a compilation of his works have been made by scholars since 1482 when, for the first time, a Latin version of some of his works appeared. Subsequently, two of his genuine works together with a group of spurious ones appeared in Paris in 1520. While rejecting the authenticity of the letters to Serapion, Erasmus edited another collection in 1527; an edition combining the collections of 1520 and 1527 appeared at Lyons in 1532. A more developed Latin edition of all his known works was published by Nannius in 1556, while the first Greek edition by P. Felckmann appeared at Heidelberg in 1608- 1612.

The Greek text with a Latin version published in Paris in 1627 seems to have superseded all others and may have been supplemented by the one dated 1681 in Leipzig. However, all were overshadowed by the Benedictine edition of 1698 to which B. Montfaucon juxtaposed the Life of the saint. Additional remnants by Montfaucon were compiled in 1707 within the series known as Nova patrum et scriptorum Graecorum collectio. Athanasius’ work on the Psalms was edited by N. Antonelli at Rome in 1746 and republished in four folio volumes, which incorporated most of his previous works.

Published in English at Oxford in 1842-1844 are the Historical Tracts of St. Athanasius as well as two volumes of Treatises in Controversy with the Arians. His works include the festal letters; his encyclicals; and his special letters to the monks, to Serapion, to the and the Libyans, as well as: Apology to Constantius, Apology for His Flight, Apology Against the Arians, History of the Arians, Against the Gentiles, On the Incarnation, Orations and Discourses Against the Arians, Exposition of the Psalms, and Life of Saint Antony.


  • For early publications of the works of Athanasius, see above section on his writings. Early editions, rather incomplete, are superseded by the B. Montfaucon edition in 3 volumes, Paris, 1698. Another edition, with further additions compiled by the Bishop of Padua, N. A. Guistiniani, is in 4 volumes, Padua, 1777. See also PG, Vols. 25-28. The most recent edition, still in progress, is edited by M. G. Opitz for the Berlin Academy, Berlin, 1934, et seq.
  • Altaner, B. Patrology, Eng. trans. H. C. Graef. Freiburg, Edinburgh, and London, 1960.
  • Atzberger, L. Die Logoslehre des Athanasius, ihre Gegner und Vorläufer. Munich, 1880.
  • Bardenhewer, O. Patrology, trans. Thomas J. Shahan. Freiburg in Breisgau and St. Louis, Mo., 1908.
  • Bardy, G. Les Saints. Paris, 1914.
  • Bernard, R. L’Image de Dieu d’après St. Athanase. Paris, 1952. Bright, W. The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians. Oxford, 1873.
  •  . Historical Writings of St. Athanasius According to the Benedictine Text. Oxford, 1881.
  • Cross, F. L. Study of St. Athanasius. New York, 1945. Cureton, W. Festal Epistles. London, 1848.
  • Daniélou, J., and H. Marou. The Christian Centuries, Vol. 1. New York, 1964.
  • Gwatkin, H. M. Studies in Arianism. Cambridge and London, 1882, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1900. Repr. New York, 1978.
  •  . The Controversy. 1903. Repr. New York. Lauchert, P. Die Lehre des heiligen Athanasius. Leipzig, 1895.
  • Lebon, J. Lettres a Sérapion sur la divinité du Saint-Esprit Athanase d’Alexandrie. Sources chrétiennes 15. Paris, 1947.
  • Meyer, R. T. Athanasius: The Life of St. Antony. Ancient Christian Writers 10. Westminster, Md., 1950.
  • Moehler, J. A. Athanasius der Grosse und die Kirche seiner Zeit, 2 vols. Mainz, 1827, 1844.
  • Mueller, G. Lexicon Athanasianum. Berlin, 1944-1952.
  • Musurillo, H. The Fathers of the Primitive Church. New York, 1966.
  • Opitz, H. G. Untersuchungen zur Überlieferung der Schriften des Athanasius. Berlin and Leipzig, 1935.
  • Prestige, G. L. God in Patristic Thought. London, 1952.
  • Quasten, J. Patrology, 3 vols. 5th edition. Utrecht and Antwerp, 1975.
  • Robertson, A. De Incarnatione. London, 1882.
  • Schwartz, E. Zur Geschichte des Athanasius. In Nachrichten von der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Göttingen, 1894-1924.
  • Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 1st series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff. Buffalo, 1886-1889. Vols. 5-14 published in New York. 2nd series, ed. Philip Scheff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1976.
  • Shepland, C. R. B. The Letters of St. Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit. London, 1951.
  • Stucken, A. Athanasiana. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der christlichen Literatur 19.4. Leipzig, 1899.
  • Szymusiak, J. M. Two Apologies. Sources chrétiennes 56. Paris, 1947.
  • Tillemont, L. S. Le Mainde Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècles, justifiéz par les citations des auteurs originaux, 10 vols. in 5. Brussels, 1732.