Athanasius was born to a Christian family in the city of Alexandria or possibly the nearby Nile Delta town of Damanhur in 293. His parents were wealthy enough to afford giving him a fine secular education. Alexandria was the most important trade center in the whole empire during Athanasius’s boyhood. Intellectually, morally, and politically—it epitomized the ethnically diverse Graeco-Roman world, even more than Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles.
Athanasius recounts being a student, as well as being educated by the Martyrs of the Great (tenth) and last persecution of Christianity by pagan Rome. In 319 the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen. Finally In 325 Athanasius attended Bishop Alexander as deacon at the Council of Nicaea.
A recognized theologian and ascetic, Athanasius was the obvious candidate to succeed Alexander when the latter died in 328. The first years of his episcopate were devoted to visitation of his extensive patriarchate, which included all of Egypt and Libya. During this time he established important contacts with the Coptic monks of Upper Egypt and their leader St. Pachomius.
Soon began the struggle with imperialist and Arian churchmen that occupied much of his life. He used political influence against the Meletians, followers of the schismatic bishop Meletius of Lycopolis, who had gone back on the plans made at Nicaea for their reunion with the church, but he refuted specific charges of mistreatment of Arians and Meletians before a hostile gathering of bishops at Tyre (in modern Lebanon) in 335, which he refused to recognize as a general council of the church. When both parties met the emperor Constantine at Constantinople in 336, Athanasius was accused of threatening to interfere with the grain supply from Egypt, and without any formal trial Constantine exiled him to the Rhineland.
The emperor’s death in 337 allowed Athanasius to return to Alexandria, but Constantine’s son Constantius, emperor in the East, renewed the order of banishment in 338. Athanasius took refuge at Rome under the protection of Constantius’s brother Constans, emperor in the West. An Arian bishop, Gregory, was installed at Alexandria. Athanasius, however, kept in touch with his flock through the annual Festal Letters announcing the date of Easter. Pope Julius I wrote in vain on his behalf, and the general council called for 343 was no more successful—only Western and Egyptian bishops met at Serdica (modern Sofia, Bulgaria), and their appeal for Athanasius was not accepted in the East. In 346, however, Constans’s influence secured his return to Egypt, where he was welcomed as a popular hero.
Athanasius’s “golden decade” of peace and prosperity followed, during which he assembled documents relating to his exiles and returns in the Apology Against the Arians. Nevertheless, after the death of Constans in 350 and the following civil war, Constantius, as sole emperor, resumed his pro-Arian policy. Again political charges were brought against Athanasius, his banishment was repeated, and in 356 an attempt was made to arrest him during a vigil service. This time he withdrew to Upper Egypt, where he was protected in monasteries or friendly houses. In exile he completed his massive theological work Four Orations Against the Arians and defended his conduct in the Apology to Constantius and Apology for His Flight. The emperor’s persistence and reports of persecution at Alexandria under the new Arian bishop George led him, in the more violent History of the Arians, to treat Constantius as a precursor of Antichrist.
The death of Constantius, followed by the murder of the unpopular George in 361, allowed Athanasius to return triumphantly once more to his see. In 362 he convened the Synod of Alexandria, during which he appealed for unity among those who held the same faith but differed in terminology. The way was thus prepared for the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity—“three Persons in one substance”—which stresses distinctions in the Godhead more than Athanasius usually had done.
The new emperor, Julian the Apostate, rather petulantly ordered Athanasius to leave Alexandria, and he sailed up the Nile again, remaining in exile in Upper Egypt until Julian’s death in 363. In 365 the emperor Valens, who favoured Arianism, ordered his exile once more, but this time the popular bishop merely moved to the outskirts of Alexandria for a few months until the local authorities persuaded the emperor to reconsider. Finally, Athanasius spent a few years in peace before his death in 373.