March 26, 2021

Saint Basil the New (+ 944) - with some critical notes

St. Basil the New (Feast Day - March 26)

Venerable Basil the New[1] left the world in his youth, and struggled in a desolate place in Asia Minor where he lived as a grazer. Once, courtiers of the Roman Emperor were passing by and saw him dressed in rags, and were alarmed by his strange appearance. Suspicious of the holy ascetic, they captured him and brought him to the city, where the Arab eunuch Samonas who was a parakoimomenos questioned him. When asked who he was, the Saint merely said that he was a stranger in the land.

They subjected the monk to terrible tortures, but he endured it in silence, not wishing to reveal the details of his ascetic life to them. Samonas lost his patience and asked Saint Basil, “Impious one, how long will you hide, who are you, and from where do you come?”

The Saint replied, “It is more appropriate to call impious those who, like yourself, lead a life of impurity,” indicating his homosexual lifestyle. After his public humiliation, Samonas ordered his men to hang the Saint upside down with his hands and feet tied. These torments were so cruel that those witnessing them murmured against Samonas.

When they released the holy ascetic after three days of torture, they found him alive and unharmed. Samonas attributed this miracle to sorcery and had Saint Basil thrown to a lion. However, the lion did not touch the Saint, and lay peacefully at his feet. Samonas ordered Saint Basil to be drowned in the sea, but two dolphins brought him to shore.

The Saint went into the city, where he met a sick man named John, who was suffering from fever. Saint Basil healed the sick man in the name of the Savior, and accepted John’s and his wife Helen's invitation to stay in his home.[2] After this Basil stayed in the house of Constantine Barbaros, Samonas' successor as parakoimomenos. There he spent the rest of his life except for a week he spent in the Great Palace of Constantinople and a short period he spent as a guest in the house of the Paphlagonian brothers Anastasios and Constantine Gongylios near the Harbor of Eleutherios. These brothers, relatives of Barbaros and of the tourmarches of Paphlagonia, are said to have been held in high regard by those reigning at the time, which points to the period of the regency of Empress Zoe Karbonopsina in 914–919 for Basil's stay. All three of Basil's hosts — Barbaros and the Gongylioi — were eunuchs.

During his stay in the Great Palace, Basil rebukes Romanos I for his greediness and lechery, a reproach that the emperor, indulgent towards monks, did not mind. Basil also convinces a certain Kosmas, who had ambitions of becoming emperor, to abandon his worldly pursuits and become a hermit near Nicomedia.[3]

Numerous believers came to the Saint for advice and guidance, and also to receive healing from sickness through his prayers. Saint Basil, endowed with the gift of discernment, guided sinners on the path of repentance, and he could predict future events. He foretold the military defeat of Emperor Constantine VII in Crete in 949, among other things.

Basil also predicts the Rus' attack on Constantinople in 941 four months in advance. God also gives him foreknowledge of the planned coup d'état of Romanos I's son-in-law Romanos Saronites. Basil tries to talk Saronites out of it, but is treated cruelly. Saronites then falls ill and dies.[4]

Among those who visited Saint Basil was a certain Gregory, who became his disciple and later wrote a detailed Life of his teacher. Gregory once found an expensive sash at an inn, which had been dropped by the inn-keeper’s daughter. He hid it on his person, intending to sell it and give the money to the poor. On the way home, he lost the sash and some other things.

Saint Basil admonished him in a dream, showed him a broken pot and said, “If anyone steals such a worthless thing, they will be chastized four times over. You hid a valuable sash, and you will be condemned as a thief. You should return what you found.”

After the death of Saint Theodora, who had attended Saint Basil, Gregory very much wanted to learn about her life beyond the grave, and he often asked the holy ascetic to reveal this to him. Through the Saint’s prayers, Gregory saw Saint Theodora in a dream. She told him how her soul underwent tribulations after death, and how the power of the prayers of Saint Basil had helped her.[5]

Saint Basil died in solitude around the year 944 during Great Lent on March 26th at the age of 110. According to Gregory, he was buried by Constantine Barbaros in the private church of the Theotokos on the Asian side of the strait across from the capital.[6]

The Church calls him Basil the New (or the Younger) to distinguish him from other Saints of the same name.[7]

Gregory writing the Life of Basil the New


1. It should be noted that even though his life was written in Greek in mid to late 10th century Byzantium, he was never recognized as a Saint, and all we know about him comes from the biography allegedly written by his disciple Gregory. He is commemorated in the Slavic calendar on March 26th. Two later Greek synaxaria (State Historical Museum, Syn. Greek. 354, 1295; Paris. gr. 1578, 15th-16th centuries) include him for commemoration on November 18th, but he was never included in any lists.

The biography is preserved in whole or in part in a total of 24 manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 19th century. The fullest is the 16th-century Greek MS no. 249 of the Synodal (Patriarchal) Library in Moscow and published in François Halkin, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca, 3rd edition (Brussels, 1957). Two 13th-century manuscripts are also known. Parisinus Gr. 1547 is an abridged text that uses less florid language generally. It has been published by François Combefis in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, March III (1668). The codex Iviron 478 from Mount Athos contains only the visions and none of the biographical or historical material. Despite the publication of parts of these three manuscripts, no critical edition was produced before 2014, when a critical edition with an annotated English translation appeared.

The chronological inconsistencies and creative use of sources speak loudly against the general historicity of the Life of Saint Basil the New, and it should be looked upon as an apocryphal text set within an historical backdrop.

Paul Magdolino in his study contained in the 1999 book The Cult of the Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Contribution of Peter Brown, writes: "Basil the Younger is firmly grounded in the historical reality of the tenth [century], and his hagiographer gives the impression of knowing that reality at first hand. ... [Yet] even if Basil was real, he had more in common with an imaginary fifth-century holy fool than with his sainted monastic contemporaries."

Helen Foxhall Forbes in her 2018 study contained in the book Apocalypse and Reform from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, writes: "Despite the references to known historical individuals in the text, it is not at all clear whether Basil himself or Gregory his hagiographer were real or fictional characters, though there are scraps of evidence which make it just possible that there was indeed a 'real' Basil the Younger."

Christina Angelidi in her 2015 study contained in the book Myriobiblos: Essays on Byzantine Literature and Culture, writes: "it is debatable whether Basil the Younger, the Life of whom has historical background firmly placed in tenth-century Constantinople, ever existed."

Lennart Rydén in his 1983 study titled "The Life of St. Basil the Younger and the Date of the Life of St. Andreas Salos", writes: "Basil does not appear as a distinct historical person. He has no family background. There is no development in his life. The chronology is inconsistent and has serious gaps. He moves in circles that are semi-historical [and] in the shadow of other characters. In large sections of the work Basil is used as a mere pretext for writing apocalyptic fiction. If Basil was a real person, certainly very little of him remains in this Vita. But there is good reason to doubt that he ever existed."

Vasileios Marinis in his 2017 book titled Death and the Afterlife in Byzantium: The Fate of the Soul in Theology, Liturgy, and Art, says that Saint Basil the New is "likely a fictional saint".

2. This episode is said to take place in the tenth year of the joint reign of Leo VI and Alexander, which would be 896. Samonas, however, did not become parakoimomenos until 907.

The story of Basil's false arrest as a spy has strong parallels to a story about Niketas the Paphlagonian in the Life of Euthymios II Synkellos. This latter incident can be dated to 907 or 908, when Samonas was parakoimomenos.

3. This story seems to be based on that of Kosmas the Monk, who had a famous vision in 933 and is contained in the Greek synaxaria.

4. This is contradicted by John Skylitzes, who says that Saronites entered a monastery during the reign of Romanos II. Skylitzes does link his retirement to a rebellion, but does not implicate Saronites in it.

5. Of the 301 printed pages of the Moscow version of the Life of Basil the New, 38 cover the vision of the death of Basil's servant Theodora and 162 cover the visions of the Resurrection and the Last Judgement.

This is the most problematic section, from a theological point of view. The Aerial Toll Houses are referenced by ecclesiastical writers to talk about the spiritual warfare of the believer in this life, and should be seen as having little to nothing to do with the after life, which it begins to do around the time this Life was published, thereby instituting demons as the ones who judge the souls of men. As for the apocalyptic visions that resemble and add to the Book of Revelation by the Apostle John, it is almost blasphemous to think someone had similar visions as the Apostle when the Apostle himself said that such visions should be rejected (Rev. 22:18).

6. This is chronologically implausible, given that Barbaros is not heard of after 919. The likely source for this story is Pseudo-Symeon (late 10th cent.), who records that Barbaros' father owned "a small suburban estate by the sea" near the capital and that Leo VI turned it into a monastery.

7. Part of the purpose of writing the Life of Basil the New seems to be to make a political and social commentary of 10th century Byzantium, which is why it had some popularity after his publication. There are three reasons for the popularity of the Life of Basil the New in Russia:

a) Initially, the popularity of the Life of Basil the New, with its description of the afterlife and tortures awaiting the unbaptized, was associated with the process of the Christianization of Rus.

b) The expectation of the end of the world in connection with the expiration of 7000 years from the creation of the world (which would be in 1492) strengthened the eschatological sentiments of the Old Russian scribes and, accordingly, interest in the Life of Basil the New, containing a description of the Last Judgment.

c) The Life of Basil the New, with its developed and extremely expressive eschatology, found a second birth among the Old Believers in connection with the expectation of the imminent end of the world and the coming of the Antichrist, from the 17th-19th centuries. The Life was rewritten both as a whole and separately of the visions of Gregory and Theodora. From the end of the 18th century the Life was repeatedly published by Old Believer printing houses.