I. -- Parentage and Birth.
Under the persecution of the second Maximinus, a Christian gentleman of good position and fair estate in Pontus and Macrina his wife, suffered severe hardships. They escaped with their lives, and appear to have retained, or recovered, some of their property. Of their children the names of two only have survived: Gregory and Basil. The former became bishop of one of the sees of Cappadocia. The latter acquired a high reputation in Pontus and the neighboring districts as an advocate of eminence, and as a teacher of rhetoric. His character in the Church for probity and piety stood very high. He married an orphaned gentlewoman named Emmelia, whose father had suffered impoverishment and death for Christ's sake, and who was herself a conspicuous example of high-minded and gentle Christian womanhood. Of this happy union were born ten children, five boys and five girls. One of the boys appears to have died in infancy, for on the death of the elder Basil four sons and five daughters were left to share the considerable wealth which he left behind him. Of the nine survivors the eldest was a daughter, named, after her grandmother, Macrina. The eldest of the sons was Basil, the second Naucratius, and the third Gregory. Peter, the youngest of the whole family, was born shortly before his father's death. Of this remarkable group the eldest is commemorated as Saint Macrina in the biography written by her brother Gregory. Naucratius died in early manhood, about the time of the ordination of Basil as reader. The three remaining brothers occupied respectively the sees of Cæsarea, Nyssa, and Sebasteia.
As to the date of St. Basil's birth opinions have varied between 316 and 330. The later, which is supported by Garnier, Tillemont, Maran, Fessler, and Böhringer, may probably be accepted as approximately correct. It is true that Basil calls himself an old man in 374, but he was prematurely worn out with work and bad health, and to his friends wrote freely and without concealment of his infirmities. There appears no reason to question the date 329 or 330.
Two cities, Cæsarea in Cappadocia and Neocæsarea in Pontus, have both been named as his birthplace. There must be some amount of uncertainty on this point, from the fact that no direct statement exists to clear it up, and that the word patris was loosely employed to mean not only place of birth, but place of residence and occupation. Basil's parents had property and interests both in Pontus and Cappadocia and were as likely to be in the one as in the other. The early statement of Gregory of Nazianzus has been held to have weight, inasmuch as he speaks of Basil as a Cappadocian like himself before there was any other reason but that of birth for associating him with this province. Assenting, then, to the considerations which have been held to afford reasonable ground for assigning Cæsarea as the birthplace, we may adopt the popular estimation of Basil as one of |The Three Cappadocians,| and congratulate Cappadocia on the Christian associations which have rescued her fair fame from the slur of the epigram which described her as constituting with Crete and Cilicia a trinity of unsatisfactoriness. Basil's birth nearly synchronizes with the transference of the chief seat of empire from Rome to Byzantium. He is born into a world where the victory already achieved by the Church has been now for sixteen years officially recognized. He is born into a Church in which the first great Council has already given official expression to those cardinal doctrines of the faith, of which the final and formal vindication is not to be assured till after the struggles of the next six score of years. Rome, reduced, civilly, to the subordinate rank of a provincial city, is pausing before she realises all her loss, and waits for the crowning outrage of the barbarian invasions, ere she begins to make serious efforts to grasp ecclesiastically, something of her lost imperial prestige. For a time the centre of ecclesiastical and theological interest is to be rather in the East than in the West.