Our chief source of information on St Anthony is an account of his life written by St Athanasius. He was born into a rich family in Egypt in the year 251. When his parents died, he renounced his inheritance and followed the words of Our Lord to the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me.”
He visited the many ascetics and holy people of his time, learning from each of them, and he took up his abode in one of the tombs, near his native village. The account of his life records many struggles with wild beasts and demons.
After fifteen years, at the age of thirty-five, Anthony sought out absolute solitude. He crossed the Nile and found an old fort on a mountain, where he lived for twenty years in complete isolation, with food being thrown to him over the wall. Gradually a number of disciples established themselves in caves and huts around the mountain where Anthony lived, and a community of ascetics was formed. They begged Anthony to come out and guide them in their spiritual life. Around the year 305 he emerged from his fortress and, to the surprise of all, he appeared to be as when he had gone in, not emaciated, but vigorous in body and mind.
For a few years he devoted himself to the instruction and organization of the community of monks that had grown up around him, but then he once again withdrew into the desert between the Nile River and the Red Sea. On only two occasions did he return to Alexandria, once to strengthen the Christian martyrs in the persecution of 311, and once at the close of his life to preach against the Arians.
Anthony died at the age of 105. At his own request his grave was kept secret, lest his body should become an object of reverence.