The Egyptian hermit St. Anthony (ca. 250-356) played a large role in the development of Christian monastic life through the influence of his widely recognized sanctity and of his biography, written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
Anthony (also called St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Anthony Abbot) was born and raised in a Christian family at Como in Upper Egypt. He and his sister were orphaned when Anthony was between 18 and 20 years old. Six months later, influenced by Christ's words— "If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give it to the poor; and come follow me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven" (Matthew 19:21)—Anthony gave his inheritance to the poor. He placed his sister with a group of virgins to be brought up in the holy life, and he went to live as a hermit near his native village. He sought instruction from other men who were also living in solitude.
Anthony's development as a hermit was marked by many temptations by the devil and demons. The terrible and fantastic forms that these took were represented later in literature and art about him. Anthony prevailed against demons in the shapes of wild beasts, evil thoughts, and human persons; his biographer attributes these victories to his constant faith and the use of the sign of the cross and the name of Jesus.
Later Anthony moved from the vicinity of Como to a remote tomb. Here, sustained by bread brought by friends, he continued his inner warfare. When he was about 35, he moved still farther out into the wilderness to an abandoned fort at Pispir across the Nile River. Anthony's reputation grew during the years he spent at the fort, and many hermits came to him for instruction in the discipline of the ascetic life. Finally, in 305, the first religious community of hermits was founded at Pispir.
During the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Maximus about 311, Anthony went to Alexandria, where he visited and encouraged the captive Christians and himself sought martyrdom. When the persecution ended, Anthony moved again into the wilderness. He left his mountain on only one more occasion when, about 335, he visited Alexandria to join Athanasius in fighting the Arian heresy. In debates with heretics and philosophers Anthony demonstrated considerable learning and rhetorical skill.
But it was as a holy man that Anthony's fame spread. People came great distances to his wilderness retreat not only for instruction but also to benefit from the miracles reputed to occur at his bidding. He advised the great, such as the Roman emperor Constantine and his sons, and the imperial government.
Anthony died in 356, when he was more than 100 years old. Two disciples buried his body, not embalming it above ground in the Egyptian manner. His grave was unmarked, but his garments were sent to the Egyptian bishops Athanasius and Serapion.
Further Reading on St. Anthony
There are various translations and discussions of the Life of Antony (Vita Antonii), written by St. Athanasius in 357. H. Ellershaw's translation is available in Henry Wace and Philip Schaff, eds., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2d series, vol. 4 (1907). Walter Nigg, Warriors of God (1953; trans. 1959), provides a hagiographic account. Herbert B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (1913; rev. ed. 1927), puts Anthony's achievement in historical context. See also Jacques Lacarriere, Men Possessed by God: The Story of the Desert Monks of Ancient Christendom (trans. 1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Anthony, of Egypt, Saint, ca. 250-355 or 6., Lettres, Begrolles en Mauges: Abbaye de Bellefontaine, 1976.
Athanasius, Saint, Patriarch of Alexandria, d. 373., The Coptic Life of Antony, San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1995.
Athanasius, Saint, Patriarch of Alexandria, d. 373., The life of Antony and the letter to Marcellinus, New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
Cornet, Chantal., Antoine, Le Puy: C. Bonneton, 1985.