Saint Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria and doctor of the eastern church, died there in 373. He was born at Alexandria about 296, of Christian parents, was educated under the direction of Alexander, afterward bishop of the city, and spent some time in the desert as a disciple of the hermit St. Anthony. At the age of 23 he received deacon's orders, and in the discharge of his office so signalized himself as a foe to every kind of heresy, that he was chosen by Alexander to accompany him to the council of Nice (325). To the subtlety, learning, and eloquence of Athanasius in that council was principally attributed the condemnation of Arianisra. His bearing on this occasion, not less than the dying request of Alexander, secured his election as bishop of Alexandria in 326. His uncompromising orthodoxy subjected him to bitter persecution from the adherents of Arius. The emperor Constantine summoned him before a synod at Tyre in 335 and declared him deposed. A synod at Jerusalem the next year confirmed this sentence and banished him to Treves. Constantius recalled him in 338. An Arias council at Antioch condemned him again in 341; but a larger orthodox council at Alexandria sustained him, and another at Sardis, with the Roman bishop at its head, replaced him in his episcopal chair in 349. Deposed for a third time, through the influence of Constantine, by the synods of Aries (353) and Milan (355), he was dragged from the altar by a band of soldiers, and fled into the desert with a price upon his head.
Under Julian the Apostate he was again exiled, and spent some time in the wilderness of the Thebaid; and under Valens he suffered his fifth banishment, concealing himself four months in his father's tomb. He was finally restored to his see and died in peace. His festival is kept in both the Greek and Latin churches on May 2, and in the Greek church also on Jan. 18. - The life of Athanasius has historical importance mainly from its connection with the Arian controversy, and the establishment and defence of the Nicene creed. With the exception of his "Discourse against the Pagans" and his treatise on "The Incarnation," all his writings have a direct bearing upon Arianism. His style has the merits of strength, clearness, conciseness of expression, and exact logical order. It is praised even by Erasmus, the most fastidious of critics, above the style of Chrysostom and Gregory. What it lacks of finished grace it makes up in nervous vigor. Bold, unbending, confident even to dogmatism, severe against what he believed to be heresy, suspicious of the promises and professions of all who were not friends of the truth, he was yet courteous, kind to the poor, pious, just, and patient.
The best edition of his works is that of Paris, 1627-'8, 3 vols, folio.