Mike Aquilina, Author & Executive Vice President,
St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology

“Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” This statement begins the first section of the Didache, perhaps the oldest surviving Christian text. The Greek word didache means “teaching,” and the book comprises the body of teachings the Apostles left regarding how to run the Church.

Each of the two ways involves certain actions and omissions that contribute to the making of a certain kind of society. The lives and careers of two 4th-century undergraduate classmates who were raised in Christian families—Julian and Basil—illustrate the two ways, and how one led to life and the other inexorably to death.

Both men were gifted leaders. They were bright, brave and disciplined men who placed their lives at the service of a certain ideal of social order. These ideals, however, were not morally equivalent but polar opposites. The culture of death has been at war with the culture of life throughout history and, as the New and Old Testaments make clear, this is fundamentally a cosmic battle.

Basil the Great

“The Stream of Life; On the River of Life,” by Hugo Simberg, 1896, oil on canvas

Basil was born in 330 A.D., one of nine children in an affluent family in Caesarea, Cappadocia (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey). The family had been Christian for several generations. His parents, Basil and Emmelia, are venerated as saints, as are two of Basil’s siblings, Gregory (of Nyssa) and Macrina. His ancestors included martyrs and others who suffered for the faith.

Basil’s father was a professor of rhetoric (the classical discipline of argumentation and persuasion) who homeschooled his children. He died when Basil was a teenager, and Basil continued his academic studies at prestigious schools, first in his native Cappadocia, then for a year in Constantinople, the imperial capital, and finally for six years in Athens, which was the Ivy League at the time—and where the lives of Basil and Julian converged.

Both young men studied under Libanius, the most famous rhetorician of their time. Libanius was an ardent proponent of the old, pagan religion, but this didn’t prevent him from training Christians. His students also included St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen. The latter became Basil’s closest friend in Athens. They were housemates and shared a common life of philosophical study, prayer and fasting. Eventually, all three of Libanius’s Christian students were recognized among the Eight Doctors of the Church, and together they are venerated as the Three Holy Hierarchs. In short, they are among the most important teachers and theologians of the early Church.

Basil returned to Cappadocia to teach in 355 and had a spiritual awakening that led him to commit his life to God. He embarked on a tour of regions renowned for their asceticism—Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia—where he met with many solitaries and observed their life. Finally, he returned to Cappadocia to establish a religious community on a remote family property in Pontus, located on the Black Sea’s southern coast in present-day Turkey. His mother and sister joined him and attracted other devout women. Here, Basil composed his monastic rule—now known as the Rule of St. Basil—which he adapted and edited throughout his life. Through Basil’s influence, contemplatives increasingly favored disciplined community life over the solitary life of the desert hermits (who could be wild and anarchic). Basil referred to the life he chose, life in community, as “the way that is in tune with Christ’s politics.”

Basil the Great, Father of the Church (330-379), Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges, Belgium.

Basil poured the fruit of his contemplation into his theological works and letters, which drew attention for their erudition and style. His old classmate Julian, now emperor, tried to entice Basil to life at court, but Basil refused.

Basil was ordained a priest around 362 and made an auxiliary bishop shortly afterward. It was a time of doctrinal crisis in the Church. Arian heretics, who denied the full divinity of Jesus, had been condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325, but their heresy continued to mutate like a virus and spread throughout the world. Most emperors in the eastern Roman Empire were Arian, and Arianism was effectively the state religion. Basil’s bishop, Eusebius, was an ardent advocate of the true faith, but he was intellectually ill-equipped for the subtleties of theological disputation and became utterly dependent on Basil.

There was also a major social crisis in 368, when a series of natural calamities—including hailstorms, floods and earthquakes—brought famine to Cappadocia. Basil was appalled when some merchants seized the opportunity to grow rich from the scarcity of food, leaving the poor to starve. Basil’s preaching shamed the wealthy and led them to share what they had. He led by example by selling his inheritance and giving the proceeds to relief efforts.

Basil’s management of these crises established his reputation with Christians. When Bishop Eusebius died in 370, Basil was made bishop of Caesarea, where he championed the Nicene faith until his death in 379.

Historians say that Basil was the first to produce a sustained theological reflection on the Church’s social concerns, which recur in his homilies and letters, mostly addressed to monks and nuns. The ideal monk, Basil said, is one whose prayer is augmented by work, but whose work is done so “that they may have something to distribute to those in need.”

Solid gold coin commemorating the reign of Flavius Claudius Julianus (361-63 AD). The solid gold coin (solidus) was introduced by Constantine I in 309 AD and was in circulation throughout the Byzantine Empire until the 10th century.

He did not invent this ideal but had observed it in practice in his tour of the great monastic communities in Egypt and elsewhere. Monks and solitaries served their neighbors as physicians, pharmacists, spiritual directors and friends.

What set Basil apart from his contemporaries—and predecessors—was his efficiency and productivity in realizing his ideal. Basil’s doctrine was (literally) concretized in the construction of the campus known as Basileidas. It was a vast complex of facilities built to serve a variety of needs—so massive that locals referred to it as “The New City.” Basil’s friend Gregory compared it to the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Basil’s charity was as mighty and imposing as the Great Pyramids.

The Basileidas included a soup kitchen, poorhouses, a trade school, a hostel for needy travelers, personal care for the elderly and a hospice for the dying. His staff of monks and nuns dispensed food and medical care to all who approached, regardless of religious affiliation. This was not something added on to devotions but integral to religious life. This mixed life of prayer and action was Basil’s ideal for monks and nuns—and for all Christians. In his eulogy for Basil, Gregory described Basil’s church-wide program of charitable work as “the short road to salvation, the easiest ascent to heaven.”

Historians sometimes call Basil’s program a “monasticizing” of the city in that he wanted the laity’s charitable work to flow from a sustained and disciplined life of prayer in community.

Basil set his efforts on a solid intellectual foundation. His theological reflections produced key insights in the development of a distinctive Christian social doctrine. He affirmed, for example, the universal equality of all people before God: “[T]o every man belongs by nature equality of like honor with all men, and … superiorities in us are not according to family, nor according to excess of wealth, nor according to the body’s constitution, but according to the superiority of our fear of God.”

Nor can one tribe or nation, he wrote, claim superiority to another: “The saints do not all belong to one country … . The homeland of each is common to all, and they give to each other everywhere whatever they have to hand.”

Among Basil’s gifts was his ability to inspire others, which was no easy task in his time. Christianity was legal, but both Valens, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and Modestus, the local governor, held to Arianism and were not congenial to Basil’s efforts. They tried to win Basil over—or force him through threats and bribes—but failed repeatedly.

In resistance, Basil demonstrated the value of detachment gained through a life vowed to poverty and celibacy. He had no fear of confiscation since he owned nothing. When Modestus threatened exile, Basil replied, “I belong to no place. This earth in which I live is not mine. I should be in my own place in whatever country to which I was sent. I know that the whole earth is God’s; and wherever I may be I consider myself a stranger and a pilgrim.”

Infuriated, Modestus replied, “Never have I been spoken to with so much liberty.”

“Maybe you never met a Catholic bishop,” Basil responded.

Even so, when Valens attended Basil’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharistic service of the Byzantine Rite), he was so impressed he donated land for the building of the Basileidas. This interaction helped to define the limits of governmental power over the church.

Soon after his death in 379, Basil was commonly called Basil the Great and became a saint, claimed by everyone devoted to a culture of life.

Julian the Apostate

Basil and his classmate Julian were brilliant intellectuals with mighty ambitions. Both were disciplined men who could defer pleasures and gratifications for the sake of a chosen cause. They modeled fortitude for their followers—Julian in the army and Basil in the Church.

Historically, both men loom colossal even though Basil didn’t see his 50th birthday, and Julian reigned less than three years.

Julian was born in 331 into a brutal family and a bloody business. His father was the Emperor Constantine’s half-brother. One historian noted that “Julian’s family spent a great deal of [their days] developing ingenious ways to kill each other.” The motive was usually intrigue, grabs for the throne or just the suspicion bred by such an atmosphere.

In 326, Constantine ordered the execution of his own wife and eldest son. The three remaining sons succeeded their father in 337 and rather quickly dispatched almost all their male relatives. Only two young boys were spared, five-year-old Julian and his teenage brother Gallus. Julian was too young to be a threat and Gallus too sickly.

Although Julian continued to live the privileged life of the imperial family, he kept the memory of that purge, whose victims included his father. And he nursed the grudge. Years later, he wrote with incredulity about his cousin, the Emperor Constantius: “Our fathers were brothers, sons of the same father. And close relations as we were, how this most humane emperor treated us … . He put to death six of our cousins, my father who was his uncle, another of our uncles on my father’s side and my eldest brother, [all] without trial.”

The imperial family was officially Christian by this time—the irony of which was not lost on Julian, who was also raised Christian. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to locate the origins of Julian’s anti-Christian drive.

Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus (331-363), known as Julian the Apostate in the Christian tradition.

Julian learned to keep his thoughts to himself, since Constantius was his patron and alienation from the emperor meant certain death. So Julian studied diligently. With Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, he took up philosophy and rhetoric at Athens. But, unlike the others, Julian secretly began investigating the “old religion,” the pagan mysteries. He found a group that practiced the ancient rituals and joined them. Although he kept up his outward practice of Christianity, his mind and heart now belonged to the old gods.

Appointed to leadership in the military, Julian rose rapidly with stunning campaigns in the western provinces and barbarian lands. He gained a reputation for toughness. Unlike other generals, he shared the hardships of his troops. He ate what they ate; slept where they slept. And he rewarded them handsomely. All this made for tenacious loyalty. Not surprisingly, they eventually declared him emperor.

In 360, Julian began marching toward Byzantium to confront Constantius. But the meeting never happened since Constantius died of natural causes before Julian arrived.

Then began the reign that gave Julian his place in history. He did some things extremely well, including tax reform and military leadership. But he is remembered as “The Apostate,” as the man who renounced Christianity in a public and forcefully institutional way. The Christian Church had enjoyed the favor of emperors for a half-century. Julian made clear that his reign would be different.

Julian immediately made vast sums available to restore pagan temples that had fallen into disrepair. He promoted pagans to prominent positions in the capital and boosted the wages of the pagan priesthoods. In the beginning, he tried to include Christians and invited Basil to take a seat at the imperial court. The Church leadership was wary, however, and Basil refused the honor. Julian became more hardened in his anti-Christian position, and pagan restoration became the keynote of his rule.

Ironically, Julian’s paganism was not really the old religion. Rather it was a mirror image of Christianity, which Julian recognized. In The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, Adrian Murdoch wrote, “Julian’s attempts at creating a pagan doctrine betray his Christian upbringing … . By the very fact of his early education, he was already, as he would have put it, polluted.”

Whereas the old religion had been a riot of gods, cults, and feasts, Julian strove, in a very Roman way, to impose unity and uniformity on paganism’s worldwide polytheism. And it was the religious equivalent of herding cats. In Julian’s scheme, the emperor served as a sort of pope over a hierarchy that mirrored the Catholic structure of archbishops, bishops and priests. He set up pagan philanthropies in imitation of Catholic charities. He urged his clergy to lead lives of virtue and preach philosophy to the people. Julian even chose to lead a celibate life after the death of his wife. As Adrian Murdoch put it, “He wanted the pagans to out-Christian the Christians.”

Still, Julian despised Christianity and led the charge to re-paganize the empire. His pagan “coming out” climaxed during an extended stay in Syrian Antioch, a city of a half-million people situated en route to the battlegrounds where he would face the Persians. While in Antioch, Julian renewed the pagan practices, although he was hardly satisfied with the priests’ performance. He was prissy and uptight as any of history’s most fanatical puritans. In Antioch—a city known for its comedians and satirists—the majority-Christian population openly laughed at Julian’s efforts.

This infuriated him and led to harsher restrictions on the Christians. He began by banning believers from teaching grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. He made the requirements for schoolteachers so stringently pagan that no Christian could fulfill them. Banished from the public square, Christianity could be minimized as a cultural force. Yet Julian retained the veneer of religious freedom. Christians remained free to do and think whatever they wanted on Sundays, as long as they didn’t let it seep into the wider society Monday through Saturday.

According to Murdoch, this was Julian’s “master stroke.” Julian “marginalised Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.” As Julian said of the Christians: “If they want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark: Let them go back to their churches and expound on them.” Julian wanted to remove Christians from public discourse—neutralize their public influence—and drive them into a cultural ghetto.

And briefly—briefly—he succeeded. It was not to last, however.

As Julian shook the dust of Antioch from his feet, he marched his troops toward Persia—and to their devastating defeat at the hands of Emperor Shapur II.

On the battlefield at the Persian frontier, Julian fell hard, and with him the Eastern Empire began to crumble. According to one account, he was struck by a spear and suddenly saw matters clearly. His last words were: “You win, O Galilean!”

End of the Pagan World

Julian’s death was a critical moment in the fall of the old empire. As Murdoch concluded: “To all intents and purposes we can say that paganism died as a credible political and social force in the last days of June 363.”

The historian Robert Royal, in his study of Western religion, The God That Did Not Fail, gives us an excellent summary answer to the question of why Julian’s project came to nothing:

Julian … crafted one of the strongest early critiques of Christian beliefs and made great efforts to stop Christianity’s growth as a social force in the empire. Yet Julian conceded, in a realistic appraisal of what he had to overcome, that the Christian churches were carrying out relief efforts among the poor, pagan as well as Christian, that the pagans themselves were not.

Julian—and the whole classical world—suffered two disadvantages in competing with the new faith. First, there was no substantial set of principles within classical religion and philosophy to inspire such charitable works. The Stoics had come closest with their conception of the entire world as one city, the cosmopolis. But by Julian’s day, Platonism was the only real pagan philosophy still standing and even the old Stoic principle was a far cry from the active and lively sense of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood within the Kingdom of God that the Christians called caritas. Had such ideas been influential in pagan societies, they would not have faced a second problem: the absence of the social structures needed to implement large-scale works of charity.

The empire and its municipalities sometimes provided a public dole. But love and empowerment of the common people is something quite different from a state subsidy. No ancient city, let alone the whole empire, had ever even attempted that. In the world of Late Antiquity, Christianity introduced not only new beliefs and ideas, but new social practices that transformed ancient Mediterranean life.

Julian could not manufacture the sort of love that drove the Christians, during centuries of persecution, to establish a network, a system, a society, a culture of voluntary mutual care and support. What Christians were willing to do for God, no one in his right mind would do for a program as boring as Julian’s. It may be sweet and beautiful, as the pagans said, to die for one’s country. But few people seemed willing to turn over their tithe for Rome or volunteer for pagan soup kitchens. They asked a sensible question—Isn’t that what our taxes are for?—and they went back to their games of horseshoes and checkers.

Julian had great ambitions for reshaping society, and when he failed he failed spectacularly. Yet Julian has fascinated Christians ever since. Perhaps he served as the model for Hazel Motes, the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant novel Wise Blood. Motes was a veteran who was scarred by his war experiences and rejected the Christianity of his upbringing. He then lived in rebellion against the Christian God, wandering the South and preaching what he calls the “Church without Christ.”

One of Motes’s followers is a scam artist who sees an opportunity to make a lot of money from this new religion, which he coins the “holy Church of Christ without Christ.” This is exactly what Julian wanted: a worldwide gathering of do-gooders, imagining there’s no heaven—it’s easy if you try—and no hell below us, above us only sky.

The Christian Revolution

Without Christ, however, there is no holiness on earth, no unity, and certainly no human dignity, equality or freedom. There is no reliable foundation for universal brotherhood or hope for world peace. These ideas were all results of the Christian revolution. In the pagan world, there was no talk of just war. There was no such thing as a hospital. No one was floating the idea that a slave was equal to his master. In pagan Rome, it had been legal to rape or kill a slave.

Christianity changed the way the world thinks. We may no longer recognize or remember this, and we might learn, the hard way, that this is true. We might acknowledge the failure of secularism and idolatry of the state only when it fails, as it eventually must, to feed us, heal us and save us from our enemies.

“Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” As noted above, this statement begins the first section of the Didache, perhaps the oldest surviving Christian text—and indeed it is one of the most profound and predictive ever written. Two roads diverge in our wood. Let us choose the way of Basil, even as our world tries to drag us the way of Julian. 

Christian Origins of Hospitals

An unguentarium like this one—small and made of glass—was probably used to hold medicine or cosmetics in powder or ointment form. In fact, the Latin word unguentarium could also mean a drugstore.

When this vessel was made, in the fourth century, Christian doctors were bringing about a revolution in health care. Immediately after the legalization of Christianity, the hospital emerged for the first time and became ubiquitous. It was, according to the modern historian Gary Ferngren, a distinctively Christian institution, unlike anything that had gone before.

An unguentarium from the ancient world. Photo by Susan Brown.
This text is an excerpt from A History of the Church in 100 Objects by Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina, Ave Maria Press (2017).

What passed for the medical profession until then was a riot of different types of practitioner: herbalists, magicians, folk healers, as well as doctors in the empirical tradition of Hippocrates and Galen. Most were traveling salesmen, offering their services in one village before moving on to the next. In the course of their careers, they could range across continents. The profession was unregulated and anarchic, and training happened through apprenticeship.

From the documents and inscriptions of the first three centuries, it seems that physicians were drawn to Christianity—and Christians were drawn to the practice of medicine. No other profession is as well represented as doctors are. They make up the single largest cohort by far. Saint Justin Martyr confirms their prevalence is in the second century, as does Origen in the third.

In the middle of the third century, Christian physicians distinguished themselves for their brave and generous service during the so-called Plague of Cyprian, the smallpox epidemic that lasted for decades and claimed the lives of thousands of city-dwellers in a single day. Christian doctors did not abandon their stations; the Church was the only institution willing and able to organize relief efforts. Christians, moreover, extended their care not only to their co-religionists, but to everyone—even their persecutors. …
Hospitals extended Christian “hospitality” to anyone in need. Their complexes often included not only wards for the sick, but also homeless shelters, hospices for the dying, hostels for travelers, and even trade schools to provide beggars with a better future.