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Definition: Athanasius from Collins English Dictionary


1 Saint. ?296–373 ad, patriarch of Alexandria who championed Christian orthodoxy against Arianism. Feast day: May 2

› ˌAthaˈnasian adj

Summary Article: Athanasius
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

As the leading defender of Nicene Christianity in an era of unprecedented imperial patronage and theological conflict, Athanasius (ca. 293–373 CE) was a tenacious bishop of Alexandria (see Alexandria (Egypt)) whose career and writings became symbols of the triumph of Christian orthodoxy over emperors or heretics: Athanasius contra mundum. Edward Gibbon actually suggested that Athanasius, rather than the weak sons of Constantine, was better qualified to run the empire (Arnold 1991). As the bishop of the prestigious Eastern see, he contributed to the development of doctrine, ascetic spirituality, and ecclesiastical authority. Christian leadership in the fourth century was rooted in urban mediation between the rich and the poor; elected for life in a charismatic process, bishops could have an unusual longevity and influence in Roman political life (Rapp 2005).


According to legend (Rufinus Hist. 1.14), Bishop Alexander saw Athanasius as a child on the beach playing bishop, and baptizing his playmates. Taking seriously these actions and the vocations, he brought the boys into his household to train as clerics. His writings reveal a solid education of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy as well as scripture and earlier Christian authors. Sozomen reported that he was recognized for his wisdom and education as a young man, and became the secretary of Alexander (Hist. eccl. 2.17).

This period found the Alexandrian church divided in a city well known for division and conflict. Alexandria was the second city of the Empire, and an economic and political crossroads. The city was polyglot, with Roman power imposed over the Greek ruling families, Copts, and Jews. Christianity in Alexandria was similarly diverse, sophisticated, and established. Manichees were active in Egypt and the growing ascetic movement, both urban and rural, had a new and tangential relationship to the church. The Christian population of Egypt would expand dramatically from 310 to 360, and the power of the bishop of Alexandria would expand with it to include the whole of Egypt. Melitius of Lykopolis had objected to Peter of Alexandria's restoration of those who had sacrificed during the persecution of Diocletian, and a separate group was formed. Many dioceses were divided about this issue, the most persistent being the Donatist schism in North Africa. The doctrinal division between Arius and Alexander began in 318 apparently over the origin and status of the Son. Arius criticized the bishop for teaching a shared essence between the Father and Son and an eternal relation; by contrast he taught that the Son must have a beginning and therefore a separate essence. The conflict rapidly escalated, with important allies around the larger church such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea taking Arius' side and inspiring local street demonstrations (see Arius and Arianism).

Athanasius' earliest written works convey commitment and originality. He appears to have written one of the early letters in the name of Alexander about the Arian controversy (Henos Somatos), and to have attended the Council of Nicaea in some capacity (see Nicaea, Council of). His two-part apologetic work (Contra Gentes/De Incarnatione) has been dated from his earliest years at 320 to 330 since it betrays no mention of the disputes around Nicaea, yet appears too sophisticated for a young man (Parvis 2006: 60–5). The work is a creative reworking of contemporary apologetic themes, but with a new emphasis on the necessity of the Incarnation of the divine Son to redeem created human nature. Even though the portraits on wood that were attached to mummies would erode, the restored body would not: "He became human that we might become divine, and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive the conception of the invisible Father" (Inc. 54).

At the Council of Nicaea in 325 the term homoousios (of the same essence) was adopted as the only term unacceptable to Arius and his allies. A process was also set up to allow the Melitians back into the Alexandrian church. Alexander signed the creed (see Nicene Creed), but did not make peace at home. When he died in 328, Alexander had designated Athanasius as his successor, but the dissatisfied Melitians opposed him as under age. Lacking a consensus among the assembled presbyters, Athanasius was elected in secret by a smaller group. In the rough and tumble politics of the fourth century, Athanasius from the beginning could be seen either as a saint and prodigy or as a manipulative gangster.

Continuing the policies of Alexander, Athanasius refused to readmit Arius to the church in 330. In 331 he was formally accused by the Melitians of uncanonical election, extortion, bribery, and sacrilege, but Constantine dismissed the charges. In 334 charges of sacrilege and murder as well as sexual impropriety were raised, but when the murdered man appeared to be alive and the prostitute was unable to identify him, Athanasius was vindicated again. In 335 he was brought to a council of his old rivals from Nicaea, including Eusebius of Nicomedia, at Tyre to answer accusations of violence. After his condemnation, he went to Constantinople to Constantine. The emperor first pardoned him but then sent him into exile in Trier (Gaul), accused of interfering in the huge and essential grain shipments from Egypt to Rome that ensured urban tranquility.

After Constantine's death in 337, Athanasius returned to Alexandria. However, Constantius, who saw the views of Eusebius of Nicomedia as better for ecclesiastical peace, exiled him again in 339. Gregory of Cappadocia was installed in his place. In Rome Athanasius was protected by Pope Julius I who called a synod in 341 to declare his innocence, but such decisions had little impact in the East. In Rome with Marcellus of Ancyra, another exiled Eastern bishop, Athanasius began to create "Arianism" as a formal heresy: the alliances of the Eastern bishops were seen as successors to the demonically inspired sect of Arius. These men were no longer Christians but heretics: dishonest, philosophical, political, and effeminate, who in a demonic conspiracy opposed holy Alexander and the decisions of Nicaea (Parvis 2006). Unfortunately, this characterization was largely accepted as historical truth by later generations, and the few fragments of Arius preserved in Orations Against the Arians (339) as well as later works have never been fully reconstructed or understood.

In 346 he returned to Alexandria as a result of the imperial power of the Western emperor, Constans. He continued to write against the non-Nicenes in his Apology against the Arians (349). This consisted of a collection of documents of synods and letters. He continued with A Letter on the Opinions of Dionysius and the lengthy Letter on the Decrees of Nicaea. Different in tone is the Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya (356), which relied on demonization rather than documents or arguments. His important liaison with the ascetics in the desert was also continued and intensified, partly through his festal letters and appointment of monks as bishops. In his Life of Antony he pictured the famous solitary as obedient and anti-Arian as well as holy. His instructions to virgins as well as his direction on private reading of only canonical books reveal an expansion of hierarchical episcopal power and Nicene orthodoxy (Brakke 1995). When Constantius became sole ruler and decided no longer to support Nicaea and the legacy of Alexander, Athanasius went into hiding in the desert among the monks from 356 to 361. He wrote Apology to Constantius; Athanasius judged imperial power by theological commitments, so Constantius was either Pharaoh or David depending on his support of Nicaea. Athanasius continued to write against his theological opponents in On the Synods of Rimini and Seleucia as well as addressing new issues about the Holy Spirit in his letters to Serapion.

The ascension of Julian sent Athanasius home. He returned in 361, and held an important synod in 362 that compromised on formerly divisive language and united the Nicene parties. He was forced to leave for a short time by Emperor Julian. His final exile was in 365 and was brief because of Valens, who called him back in 366. Athanasius died in 373 after forty-five years as bishop, almost sixteen of those in exile.


Athanasius as the episcopal and theological successor of Alexander of Alexandria was determined to defend the legitimacy and authority of the Council of Nicaea. Recent studies have broken down the traditional binary understanding of the fourth century which pitted orthodox Nicenes against heretical Arians — fostered largely by the polemical writings of Athanasius — to show a variety of theologies and shifting alliances among various bishops, theologians, monks, and emperors, who tried for the first time to define and defend a single public definition of God. Throughout his life Athanasius defended the decisive incarnation of the pre-existent and consubstantial Son of God for the salvation of fallen and unstable humanity. Embracing creatio ex nihilo like Arius, but with different consequences, Athanasius separated the creation of the world by divine will and the generation of the Son from the essence of the Father. The Son must be the eternal Word and Wisdom of the Father in order to reveal and divinize. This separated Athanasius from non-Nicenes who wished to maintain a sharper hierarchy and distinction between the Father and the Son by using the language of will or separate natures. Yet Athanasius was also separated from his allies Marcellus of Ancyra and Eustathius of Antioch, who had different models of the incarnation of the Word as the image of God or in humanity. G. C. Stead (1977) noted that Athanasius did not use homoousios in his early works, and when he did use it, he continued in a vertical sense of the Father's priority and unity with the Son. The relationship of Father and Son as coessential, and the spirituality of humans as adopted sons of God, were central to his thought and argument.


Antony; Bishop; Church, Eastern Empire; Constantine I; Constantius I Chlorus; Desert Fathers and desert literature; Heresiology; Jesus; Logos; Trinity, doctrine of.

References and Suggested Readings
  • Anatolios, K. (1998) Athanasius: the coherence of his thought. London.
  • Arnold, D. (1991) The early episcopal career of Athanasius of Alexandria. Notre Dame.
  • Ayres, L. (2004) Nicaea and its legacy. Oxford.
  • Barnes, T. (1993) Athanasius and Constantius: theology and politics in the Constantinian Empire. Cambridge.
  • Brakke, D. (1995) Athanasius and the politics of asceticism. Oxford.
  • Haas, C. (1997) Alexandria in Late Antiquity: topography and social conflict. Baltimore.
  • Kannengiesser, C. (1974) Politique et théologie chez Athanase d'Alexandrie. Paris.
  • Meijering, E. P. (1974) Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius: synthesis or antithesis? Leiden.
  • Parvis, S. (2006) Marcellus of Ancyra and the lost years of the Arian controversy 325-345. Oxford.
  • Rapp, C. (2005) Holy bishops in Late Antiquity. Berkeley.
  • Stead, G. C. (1977) Divine substance. Oxford.
  • Vaggione, R. (2000) Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene revolution. Oxford.
  • Rebecca Lyman
    Wiley ©2012

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