Basil the Great became Bishop of Caesarea on June 14, 370 and, along with Gregory the Theologian, combated the Arian heresy that threatened to divide the Christians of Cappadocia. Yet his zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. The Emperor Valens, who was an adherent of the Arian philosophy, sent his prefect Modestus, a persecutor of the Orthodox Christians, to meet with Basil in 371 to at least agree to a compromise with the Arian faction.
Gregory the Theologian, in his Funeral Oration for Basil the Great, records the dialogue between Basil the Great and the Arian Modestus as follows:
Who has not heard of the prefect [Modestus] of those days, who, for his own part, treated us with such excessive arrogance, having himself been admitted, or perhaps committed, to baptism by the other party [Arians]; and strove by exceeding the letter of his instructions, and gratifying his master [Valens] in every particular, to guarantee and preserve his own possession of power. Though he raged against the Church, and assumed a lion-like aspect, and roared like a lion till most men dared not approach him, yet our noble prelate [Basil] was brought into or rather entered his court, as if bidden to a feast, instead of to a trial. How can I fully describe, either the arrogance of the prefect or the prudence with which it was met by the Saint.
"What is the meaning, Sir Basil," he said, addressing him by name, and not as yet deigning to term him Bishop, "of your daring, as no other dares, to resist and oppose so great a potentate?"
"In what respect?" said our noble champion, "and in what does my rashness consist? For this I have yet to learn."
"In refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign, when all others have yielded and submitted themselves?"
"Because," said he, "this is not the will of my real Sovereign; nor can I, who am the creature of God, and bidden myself to be God, submit to worship any creature."
"And what do we," said the prefect, "seem to you to be? Are we, who give you this injunction, nothing at all? What do you say to this? Is it not a great thing to be ranged with us as your associates?"
"You are, I will not deny it," said he, "a prefect, and an illustrious one, yet not of more honor than God. And to be associated with you is a great thing, certainly; for you are yourself the creature of God; but so it is to be associated with any other of my subjects. For faith, and not personal importance, is the distinctive mark of Christianity."
Then indeed the prefect became excited, and rose from his seat, boiling with rage, and making use of harsher language. "What?" said he, "have you no fear of my authority?"
"Fear of what?" said Basil, "How could it affect me?"
"Of what? Of any one of the resources of my power."
"What are these?" said Basil, "pray, inform me."
"Confiscation, banishment, torture, death."
"Have you no other threat?" said he, "for none of these can reach me."
"How indeed is that?" said the prefect.
"Because," he replied, "a man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God's, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be? Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power. Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening."
Amazed at this language, the prefect said, "No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus."
"Why, perhaps," said Basil, "you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defense of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this — that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible."
At the close of this colloquy, the prefect, having been convinced by the attitude of Basil, that he was absolutely impervious to threats and influence, dismissed him from the court, his former threatening manner being replaced by somewhat of respect and deference. He himself with all speed obtained an audience of the Emperor, and said:
"We have been worsted, Sire, by the prelate of this Church. He is superior to threats, invincible in argument, uninfluenced by persuasion. We must make trial of some more feeble character; and in this case resort to open violence, or submit to the disregard of our threatenings."
Hereupon the Emperor, forced by the praises of Basil to condemn his own conduct (for even an enemy can admire a man's excellence), would not allow violence to be used against him: and, like iron, which is softened by fire, yet still remains iron, though turned from threatening to admiration, would not enter into communion with him, being prevented by shame from changing his course, but sought to justify his conduct by the most plausible excuse he could, as the sequel will show.
Gregory goes on to explain how Valens came himself to attend when Basil celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany), and at that time was so impressed by Basil that he donated to him some land for the building of the Basiliad. This interaction helped to define the limits of governmental power over the Church.