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Basil of Caesarea

“As you are burying your wealth, you entomb it with your own heart.”

The winter rains refused to fall in Caesarea in 369, in what is now modern-day Turkey, resulting in food shortages, panic among the rich, and desperate hunger for the poorest citizens, immigrants, and slaves. By 370, fear had taken root among the city’s wealthy landowners causing them to refuse to release grain from their storehouses. Into this calamity a new voice was heard, that of a Christian bishop, exercising one of the earliest understandings of a bishop’s public role in imperial Roman Christianity to be a ‘lover of the poor.’ In Basil’s homily In a Time of Famine and Drought, he first describes the misery of death by starvation before declaring to a disquieted congregation that “the person who can cure such an infirmity and refuses one’s medicine because of avarice, can with reason be condemned a murderer.”[1]

Basil’s homilies to the elite of Caesarea are troubling, direct, and a pleasure to read and represent a socially-focused response to the complex questions that Christian bishops were facing in fourth century Rome. What was the public role of a Christian bishop during a time of natural disaster? Did the Church have anything to say to the wealthy as poverty and hunger intensified all around? Were Christians to be exclusively concerned with their own poor or did they also have a responsibility to the impoverished and hungry in the wider public as well?

Basil’s passionate arguments for the wealthy to give their stores of grain and riches to the poor are the fruit of lifelong inner struggle. While Basil’s significance in Christian history often focuses on his role in the development Christian theological doctrine, he also wrestled with the meaning of his own and others’ wealth in the face of rampant poverty and desperation.

Born to a family of wealthy Christians in 329 in Caesarea, capital of Cappadocia, Basil’s classical education included a year of study in Athens, where he met Gregory of Nazianzus, who would become a lifelong friend. Basil practiced as a lawyer after his return from Athens until a chance encounter with the Christian monk Eustathius of Sebaste rekindled an earlier interest in hermetic asceticism. With the encouragement of his sister Macrina, Basil subsequently left his law practice and embarked on a radically new path.

In 357 Basil traveled to Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia to learn more about ascetic practices and is said to have distributed his personal fortune to the poor along the way. While in Egypt, he visited Pachomius, an abbot credited with having brought solitary ascetics into an organized form of communal monasticism for the first time. His travels and visit with Pachomius’ community would inspire Basil to abandon the solitary life of hermetic asceticism to found a monastic community on his family’s estate. Once again, his sister Macrina appears to have been influential both in this decision and then at the community itself. Basil would draw heavily from his visit with Pachomius when he wrote his Larger Rule and Shorter Rule, texts that remain as foundational to Eastern monasticism as Benedict’s Rule is to Western monasticism. This experience would shape Basil’s understanding of the social purpose of wealth and is reflected in his urging the rich to take up the monastic ideals of sufficiency, simplicity, and the communal distribution of wealth.[2]

Basil’s contributions to Christian doctrine were significant. He was an early and influential supporter of the Nicene Creed at a synod in Constantinople in 369, and he played an important role in resolving the Arian controversy which threatened to divide the church. Partly as a result of his theological leadership at these synods and controversies, Basil was made a deacon in 362 and then made bishop of Caesarea just eight years later in 370.

As a new bishop, Basil stepped into a precarious public leadership role that required integrating the traditions of the pre-Constantinian Christian assemblies with the pressing expectations of imperial Rome. The hunger taking hold of Caesarea only served to exacerbate these challenges. Earlier in the fourth century, the recently converted emperor Constantine assigned to Christian bishops the public role of ‘lovers of the poor.” In Poverty & Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, Peter Brown notes “Beneath the gaze of the emperor and his highly placed officials, Basil created publicly acclaimed systems of poor relief that justified the wealth and tax exemptions of the Church of Caesarea.”[3] 

Even so, the expectation that a bishop would care for the poor appears to have been a role that Basil personally embraced. In letters, sermons, and a eulogy about Basil delivered by his friend Gregory of Nanzianus, one finds the new bishop urging the wealthy in stark and innovative terms to open their storehouses of grain both to gain their own salvation and so that the hungry might eat.

Having already given away his personal fortune in 357, Basil would add his family’s fortune to incoming donations to establish a soup kitchen and build a hospital for the indigent sick of Cesarea. The soup kitchen he created also reflected a development in who Christians considered ‘the poor.’ Whereas prior to Constantine, collections had generally been distributed to the poor among the Christian assembly, Christian bishops were now charged with the role of caring for all the Roman poor, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Basil’s vision for how the Christian church in Caesarea could simultaneously address the wealthy’s need for salvation and the immediate needs of the poor went further. Through the donations of the wealthy of the city and his family’s wealth, Basil constructed a complex of buildings considered to be the first hospital. The Basiliad, as it would later be called, was staffed by both physicians and clergy and offered medical treatment and trade skills to the impoverished sick. In his letter to Amphilochius, Basil is recorded as inviting the bishop of Iconium to come and visit his newly built ‘church of the hospital (or poorhouse)’ on the outskirts of Caesarea.[4]

The Basiliad would exist for centuries after Basil’s death. Longer lasting still would be how his arguments – especially his innovative appropriation of the Roman practice of liturgia – would reshape Roman and Christian philanthropy.
Basil’s writings on wealth and poverty have received close scrutiny by scholars like Peter Brown, Helen Rhees, and Susan Holman and have inspired research exploring how Basil and other Christian bishops of his time redefined Roman liturgia and applied it to the poor.

In fourth century Rome, liturgia referred to the drama of the elite’s giving of gifts to the wider public. This liturgia was a key component of the Roman patronage system and represented the dramatic transaction of material benefits from the wealthy in exchange for loyalty and safety from the wider public. And yet the ‘public’ here was narrowly defined and applied only to those who had resources and influence to offer in exchange.

This version of philanthropy continues to echo through our society today. As a New Yorker, I’ve often walked past and been struck by the black granite plaza and fountains that stand at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a beloved cultural institution that is free for residents of New York City. These stunning fountains are remarkable both for their beauty and for the name emblazoned on the black marble frontispiece: David K. Koch. Like the ancient liturgia of Roman times, this dramatic gift carries a whiff of both threat and exchange. For while I and many New Yorkers know that the Koch family is notorious for their funding of climate change denial and dark money conservative politics, the grandeur of the fountains and plaza serve as powerful reminders that this same family helps to fund many of our most cherished cultural institutions. This exchange may not be apparent or particularly interesting to the vast majority of people passing by, yet its message is abundantly clear to the educated and liberal elite of the city who wish to see those institutions continue to thrive.

Yet as was the case in fourth century Rome, the liturgia of this gift – the drama of this exchange – has almost nothing to do with the immediate needs of the poor. This drama takes place among people with wealth and cultural influence to trade, a conversation between the super wealthy and an educated elite largely removed from the tens of thousands experiencing daily hunger and homelessness. 

Basil of Caesarea’s innovation – which he shares with other Christian and Jewish leaders of his time – is that he appropriated the language of liturgia and reoriented it to aid the most marginalized members of society. In a time of famine, he did so by making theological arguments that may cause wincing among those formed by Augustine of Hippo and reformed Protestantism’s insistence on justification by grace alone, for Basil argued that in this Christian liturgia of giving to the poor, the wealthy were transacting with God for their own salvation.[5]

While many Christians today may not be comfortable saying that our gifts to the poor are in exchange for our own salvation, Basil’s argument – made in the midst of famine - represents a remarkable synthesis of longstanding Jewish and Christian care for the poor with the philanthropic practices of fourth century Rome. In doing so, Basil fulfilled the public role of Christian bishops at that time. Peter Brown makes this point dramatically: “To put it bluntly: in a sense, it was Christian bishops who invented the poor”.[6] That is, the poor – who had nothing to offer the wealthy in exchange - were finally seen as worthy recipients of their gifts because bishops preached that a more significant exchange was taking place with God.

Basil’s approach to both his and others’ wealth was personal, theologically imaginative, and profoundly practical and resulted in both a reimagining of the language of liturgia and a concrete transfer of wealth to offer food and aid to what was considered an expendable population. It is also clear that Basil understood his work to not only be of benefit to the poor, but also for the humanity of the rich. He presses this point in his Homily to the Rich when he speaks movingly about what one risks through the accumulation of wealth: “Yet while it is uncertain whether you will have need of this buried gold, the losses you incur from your inhuman behavior are not at all uncertain... And I think that when it comes to this, as you are burying your wealth, you entomb it with your own heart.”[7]

The questions Basil faced as the new bishop of Caesarea continue to resonate today: What is the public role of a Christian bishop during a time of natural disaster? Does the Church have anything to say to the wealthy as poverty and hunger intensify all around? Are Christians to be exclusively concerned with our own poor or do we also have a responsibility to the impoverished and hungry in the wider public as well? Basil of Caesarea’s labors on behalf of the hungry and indigent sick in Caesarea reflect how both Christians and the Roman empire thought deeply about such questions, and I believe The Episcopal Church may find inspiration in his story as we, one of the wealthiest among mainline Christian denominations, seek to find our own voice amidst increasing inequality, unemployment, and yes, growing hunger.

[1] Homily 8: In Time of Famine and Drought. Translation in Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity. Fortress Press, 2017.
[2] Rhee, Helen. Loc 424 in Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity. Fortress Press, 2017.
[3] Brown, Peter. Poverty & Leadership in the Later Roman Empire. University Press of New England, 2002. Pg 39.
[4] Heyne, Thomas. “Reconstructing the world’s first hospital: The Basiliad.” Hektoen International, Spring 2015.
[5] Holman, Susan. The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia. Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 27.
[6]  Brown, Peter. Poverty & Leadership in the Later Roman Empire. University Press of New England, 2002. Pg 8.
[7] Homily 7 to the Rich. Translation in Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity. Fortress Press, 2017.


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