The place most closely connected with St. Basil's early years is neither Cæsarea nor Neocæsarea, but an insignificant village not far from the latter place, where he was brought up by his admirable grandmother Macrina. In this neighbourhood his family had considerable property, and here he afterwards resided. The estate was at Annesi on the river Iris (Jekil-Irmak), and lay in the neighbourhood of scenery of romantic beauty. Basil's own description of his retreat on the opposite side of the Iris matches the reference of Gregory of Nazianzus to the narrow glen among lofty mountains, which keep it always in shadow and darkness, while far below the river foams and roars in its narrow precipitous bed.
There is some little difficulty in understanding the statement of Basil in Letter CCXVI., that the house of his brother Peter, which he visited in 375, and which we may assume to have been on the family property (cf. Letter CX. § 1) was |not far from Neocæsarea.| As a matter of fact, the Iris nowhere winds nearer to Neocæsarea than at a distance of about twenty miles, and Turkhal is not at the nearest point. But it is all a question of degree. Relatively to Cæsarea, Basil's usual place of residence, Annesi is near Neocæsarea. An analogy would be found in the statement of a writer usually residing in London, that if he came to Sheffield he would be not far from Doncaster.
At Annesi his mother Emmelia erected a chapel in honour of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste to which their relics were translated. It is possible that Basil was present at the dedication services, lasting all night long, which are related to have sent his brother Gregory to sleep. Here, then, Basil was taught the rudiments of religion by his grandmother, and by his father, in accordance with the teaching of the great Gregory the Wonder-worker. Here he learned the Catholic faith.
At an early age he seems to have been sent to school at Cæsarea, and there to have formed the acquaintance of an Eusebius, otherwise unknown, Hesychius, and Gregory of Nazianzus, and to have conceived a boyish admiration for Dianius the archbishop.
From Cæsarea Basil went to Constantinople, and there studied rhetoric and philosophy with success. Socrates and Sozomen say that he worked at Antioch under Libanius. It may be that both these writers have confounded Basil of Cæsarea with the Basil to whom Chrysostom dedicated his De Sacerdotio, and who was perhaps the bishop of Raphanea, who signed the creed of Constantinople.
There is no corroboration of a sojourn of Basil of Cæsarea at Antioch. Libanius was at Constantinople in 347, and there Basil may have attended his lectures.
From Constantinople the young Cappadocian student proceeded in 351 to Athens. Of an university town of the 4th century we have a lively picture in the writings of his friend, and are reminded that the rough horse-play of the modern undergraduate is a survival of a very ancient barbarism. The lads were affiliated to certain fraternities, and looked out for the arrival of every new student at the city, with the object of attaching him to the classes of this or that teacher. Kinsmen were on the watch for kinsmen and acquaintances for acquaintances; sometimes it was mere good-humoured violence which secured the person of the freshman. The first step in this grotesque matriculation was an entertainment; then the guest of the day was conducted with ceremonial procession through the agora to the entrance of the baths. There they leaped round him with wild cries, and refused him admission. At last an entry was forced with mock fury, and the neophyte was made free of the mysteries of the baths and of the lecture halls. Gregory of Nazianzus, a student a little senior to Basil, succeeded in sparing him the ordeal of this initiation, and his dignity and sweetness of character seem to have secured him immunity from rough usage without loss of popularity. At Athens the two young Cappadocians were noted among their contemporaries for three things: their diligence and success in work; their stainless and devout life; and their close mutual affection. Everything was common to them. They were as one soul. What formed the closest bond of union was their faith. God and their love of what is best made them one. Himerius, a pagan, and Prohæresius, an Armenian Christian, are mentioned among the well-known professors whose classes Basil attended. Among early friendships, formed possibly during his university career, Basil's own letters name those with Terentius and Sophronius.
If the Libanian correspondence be accepted as genuine, we may add Celsus, a pupil of Libanius, to the group. But if we except Basil's affection for Gregory of Nazianzus, of none of these intimacies is the interest so great as of that which is recorded to have been formed between Basil and the young prince Julian. One incident of the Athenian sojourn, which led to bitter consequences in after days, was the brief communication with Apollinarius, and the letter written |from layman to layman,| which his opponents made a handle for much malevolence, and perhaps for forgery. Julian arrived at Athens after the middle of the year 355. Basil's departure thence and return to Cæsarea may therefore be approximately fixed early in 356. Basil starts for his life's work with the equipment of the most liberal education which the age could supply. He has studied Greek literature, rhetoric, and philosophy under the most famous teachers. He has been brought into contact with every class of mind. His training has been no narrow hothouse forcing of theological opinion and ecclesiastical sentiment. The world which he is to renounce, to confront, to influence is not a world unknown to him. He has seen heathenism in all the autumn grace of its decline, and comes away victorious from seductions which were fatal to some young men of early Christian associations. Athens no doubt contributed its share of influence to the apostasy of Julian. Basil, happily, was found to be rooted more firmly in the faith.