Born in Lower Egypt in 251, Anthony the Great was one of the most influential people in the early Church, creating the concept of monasticism, which would have a profound influence on the development of Christian civilisation.
Although he was not exactly the first monk – there was ascetics before him – Anthony was the first to go into the wilderness, around 270-1, two years after his parents had died and left him to care for his unmarried sister. Instead, he gave away the family estate, left his sister with a group of what might be called proto-nuns and followed the ascetics (who had been around since the second century) and became a hermit in the desert. There it is believed that the Devil fought him by afflicting him with boredom and laziness (presumably a real enough threat in the desert) and taunted him with phantoms of women and by assuming the form of various animals. Eventually villages had to break down the door of the fort he had holed up in. Rather than finding him wasted away and insane, he was healthy and sprightly.
Having won fame through the tales of his desert escapades, Anthony became a reluctant hero to the Greco-Roman intelligentsia of Alexandria, one of three centres of Christianity at the time. Anthony was desperate to get away from them and escaped to the Eastern Desert, where they followed him. He arrived at a spot with a water supply, on what is now the site of St Anthony’s Monastery, but within a few days hundreds of his adoring fans had turned up.
Realising he would never get rid of them, he established a community of hermits “over which he kept watch from a cave a safe distance further up the mountain”, in the words of William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, and “so was born Christian monasticism”. The idea spread and by the early fifth century there were 700 monasteries.
Monastic life was brought to western Europe by Athanasius of Alexandria whose biography, The Life of Anthony, was written in Greek around 360 and then translated into Latin. The temptation of St Anthony in the desert later became a popular subject in western art and literature.
The saint is associated with appeals against skin diseases, especially shingles, sometimes referred to as St Anthony’s fire.