The Atypical Friendship of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus

  • Nicu Dumitraşcu
Part of the Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue book series (PEID)


In the first part of this study, we will talk about how the friendship between St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus began, the environment in which it developed, and the means and goals that strengthened it and turned it into a role model for any Christian who wants to find his way to the kingdom of heaven.


Fourth Century Important Moment Christian Community Verbal Dispute True Friendship 
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  1. 1.
    Basil sees the light of day exactly in the capital of Cappadocia, Caesarea, a very populous, cosmopolitan city. Today it is identified with the city of Kayseri in central Turkey, but it seems that this is not exactly on the old location. Gregory was born in Nazianzus, identified today with the Nenizi village, located about 35 km from Aksaray, or the small town of Arianz, where his family owned a property, a two-and-a-half-hour walk from Nazianzus, which is identified with the Gelvere village, known in the ancient times under the Greek name of Karballa. W. M. Ramsay, The Historical Geography of Asia Minor (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1890), 285; see alsoGoogle Scholar
  2. Paul Gallay, La vie de Saint Grégoire de Nazienze (Lyon-Paris: Emanuel Vitte éditeurs, 1943), 12–13.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    There is no clear evidence that in this period they became friends, but certainly they met, especially because their interest for the study of rhetoric and eloquence had brought them to the same courses and the same society of young people who came to unravel the mysteries of oratory in the “metropolis of speech” as Caesarea in Cappadocia was considered. Although their meetings were maybe only sporadic, especially as Gregory was accompanied by his brother, Caesar, whom he would also study with in Alexandria, Gregory remarked that Basil was already a well-known name among students and teachers alike. See Gallay, 31–32; Jean Plagnieux, Saint Grégoire de Nazianze Théologien (Paris: Editions Franciscaines, 1951), 23;Google Scholar
  4. Francesco Trisoglio, Gregorio di Nazianzo il Teologo (Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 1996), 19;Google Scholar
  5. Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 62;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ioan. G. Coman, “Studiile Universitare ale Părinţilor Capadocieni” [The University Studies of the Cappadocian Fathers; Romanian Text] Studii Teologice 9–10 (1955): 534–35.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    He was attracted by the reputation of the great schools of rhetoric, but also the proximity of Jerusalem. He spent about two years hearing the famous sophist Thespesius and especially enjoying the huge cultural heritage that Origen had left (Trisoglio, 20). It’s hard to believe that he heard the famous Catecheses uttered by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem in 348, because he was not even a catechumen at the time, but certainly he read them later. See Stelianos Papadopoulos, Vulturul Rănit (The Wounded Eagle) (Bucharest: Bizantina, 2002), 28–29.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., 29. To Basil and Gregory, Athens was not simply a city in which they had both been students but primarily a “place” of classical literature. For details, see Samuel Rubenson, “The Cappadocians on the Areopagus,” in Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections, ed. J. Bertnes and T. Hägg (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Gregory of Nazianzus, Panegyric on S. Basil, Oration 43.16, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd series, vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 400– 401; see comments in Coman, 538–39; Nicolae Corneanu, Patristica Mirabilia (Bucharest: Polirom, 2001), 105.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gregory of Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosopher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 19.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Marin Branişte, “Elogiul prieteniei şi păcii la părinţii capadocieni” (Eulogy of Friendship and Peace of the Cappadocians Fathers), Studii Teologice 7–8 (1957): 456.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Papadopoulos, Life of St. Basil the Great, 38. See also Brian E. Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (London: Routledge, 2006), 6.Google Scholar
  13. 32.
    Albert de Broglie, L’Église et L’Empire romain au IV—siècle, vol. 5 (Paris: Didier et cie, 1866), 89–90.Google Scholar
  14. 39.
    Marin Branişte, “Momente şi aspecte ale prieteniei Sfinţilor Părinţi Capadocieni” (Moments and Aspects of the Holy Cappadocian Fathers’ Friendship), Mitropolia Olteniei, 1–2 (1962): 50–51.Google Scholar
  15. 41.
    Gregory’s father was the central figure in Basil’s election as bishop of Caesarea. See Neil McLynn, “Gregory Nazianzen’s Basil: The Literary Construction of a Christian Friendship,” Studia Patristica 27 (2001): 181.Google Scholar
  16. 46.
    Even if during the days of Basil’s life, they did not stand out through major administrative work, starting in 379, surprisingly, when they seemed to be free from “the sweet yoke of prestige” enjoyed by their famous brother and friend, they would become very active. Both would be involved in all the major problems faced by the Church at the end of the fourth century. See Nicu Dumitraşcu and Constantin Voicu, Patrologie (Sibiu: Agnos, 2014), 205.Google Scholar
  17. 48.
    Gregory’s temperament is a strange mixture of impulsivity and melancholy that mixes the states of sadness and deep discouragement with those of joy and enthusiasm, which can be easily seen in the text of his letters and his subsequent behavior. See John Freeland, “St. Gregory Nazianzen from His Letters,” The Dublin Review 130 (1902): 342–48, 354.Google Scholar
  18. 49.
    Although it seemed that the arguments of his friend Basil convinced him and he was ready to try this new experience, later Gregory accuses Basil and confesses with sorrow that he had been manipulated. See Oration 9 and Letters 48 and 49, in Gregory of Nazianzus, Autobiographical poems, trans. and ed. Carolinne White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xvi. 50. For all that happened in the life of St. Gregory related to his election at Sasima, see especially John McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001): 169–227; Gallay, 110–18; Fleury, 228–50.Google Scholar
  19. 53.
    The accusations of the Egyptian bishops in the framework of the works of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, which stated that his election as bishop of Constantinople violated the canons of the Church because he left the little bishopric solely for opportunism and for the desire to be in a higher position in society, are baseless. Gregory was elected bishop of Sasima, but he never lived there. It seems that he did not minister even one Mass. See Ioan Rămureanu et al. (eds.), Istoria Bisericească Universală (The Universal Church History), vol. 1 (Bucharest: Institutul Biblic şi de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 1987), 335–36. Due to this unfortunate episode in his life, he had great reservations when the episcopal position in Constantinople was proposed to him, but at the insistence of Emperor Theodosius, he accepted (White, xiii).Google Scholar

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© Nicu Dumitraşcu 2016

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  • Nicu Dumitraşcu

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