Satan knew how to tempt St. Antony. One day, in a far corner of the Roman Empire, in Egypt, this prosperous young man caught the attention of the Evil One when he did something that was at the time very unusual. Aged about twenty, Antony walked out of his house, sold his possessions, gave all his land away and went to live in a pigsty.
The Roman world of AD 270 was not one that usually celebrated the simple life. Indeed, if he had looked out across this realm at this time then Satan might have allowed himself a satisfied glow that his work had been well done. The sins of lust, gluttony and avarice stalked the land. Where once the aristocrats of Rome had prided themselves on wearing simple home-woven tunics, now the wealthy strode about sweating under scarlet fabrics that gleamed with embroidered gold. Women were even worse, wearing jewel-encrusted sandals and expensive silk dresses so diaphanous that every curve of their bodies could be seen even when fully dressed. Where once upon a time Roman noblemen had boasted of enjoying fortifyingly cold swims in the swirling Tiber, this generation preferred to go to the baroquely decorated bathhouses, taking with them countless rattling silver bottles of ointment.
The behavior inside those steamy rooms was said to be wanton. Women stripped naked and allowed slaves, their fingers gleaming with oil, to rub every inch of their bodies. Men and women bathed together, each one “divesting themselves of their modesty,” as one observer put it, “along with their tunic.” That writer, in his embarrassment, only managed to mutter in abstract nouns about the “lust” and “licentious indulgence” that might brew in those humid rooms. The frescoes in Pompeian bathhouses were rather more precise. In one changing room, above a shelf where bathers left their clothes, was a small painting of a man performing oral sex on a woman. Indeed, above each of the shelves in that room was a different image: a threesome above one, lesbian sex above another, and so on. A rather more memorable method, it has been speculated, of marking where you left your clothes than a locker number.
Had Satan looked at the empire’s dining tables then he might have concluded with satisfaction that the behavior here was little better. Centuries before, the emperor Augustus had (somewhat ostentatiously) relished a simple diet of coarse bread and handmade cheese. Such parsimoniousness didn’t last: soon, gourmands were supping one-hundred-year-old wines cooled with snow water out of jeweled goblets and sourcing their oysters from Abydos. All this, while many starved. Though not even those at the best tables could be sure of the best food and drink: in this showy, hierarchical world, hosts stratified the wine they served their guests, giving the worst wine to the least important diners, the mediocre wine to mediocre men and the best wine to the best men.
The young Antony, before he set out to that pigsty, had been the sort of man who could, in time, have earned the finer wines at dinner. He was a provincial, true, but he was also youthful, handsome, fit and healthy; he had been offered a reasonable education (even if, in the time-honored way of privileged young men, he had declined to make the most of it), and he was wealthy: he had recently inherited hundreds of acres of enviably good farmland. He was at just the age when a man ought to start making his mark on the world.
Instead, Antony abandoned it all. Not long after his parents’ deaths, he had been in church when he heard a chapter from the Gospel of Matthew being read. “If thou wilt be perfect,” it said, “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” And he had promptly done so. Fifteen years later, Antony ?— ?soon he would become so famous that he could be known by this name alone ?— ?decided to go even farther, setting out to live in a deserted Roman fort on the edge of the Egyptian desert where he stayed for twenty years. Later, he would go farther still, making his home on a mountain by the Red Sea. He would stay there until he died in AD 356.
Antony was not one of the empire’s gourmands. No Sicilian lampreys for him; instead he ate only bread, salt and water ?— ?and precious little of that, eating only once a day, after sunset. It can’t have been a meal to look forward to: while he was in the fort, bread was brought to him only twice a year. Little about his life would have whetted the appetite of an aesthete. Antony slept on a simple rush mat, covering himself with a goats’-hair blanket. Often he didn’t sleep at all, preferring to spend the whole night awake in prayer. While other young men daubed themselves with expensive perfumes and ointments, and plucked their hair so assiduously that (the moralists muttered) it was impossible to tell the jawlines of young men from those of women, Antony scorned his body. He assaulted it on a daily basis, refusing to use oils to anoint and clean it, and instead wore a hair shirt and never washed. He only cleaned the mud from his feet when he happened to cross a stream. It was said that no one saw his body naked until he died.
His was a life devoted to isolation, humility (or, to give it a less Christian gloss, humiliation) and self-abnegation. Yet just a few decades after his death, Antony became a celebrity. The story of his life, written down by a bishop named Athanasius, was a literary sensation, devoured by readers from Egypt to Italy, and remained a bestseller for centuries. Young men read this account of punishing self-denial and, inspired, headed out into the desert in imitation. So many men went, it was said, that the desert was made a city by monks. Centuries later, Antony would be revered as the founding father of monasticism; one of the most influential men in the history of Christianity. A few years after his death, people had already started to recognize his importance. When St. Augustine heard the story of Antony’s austere life he was apparently so moved by its power that he rushed out of the house into the garden, tore his hair and beat his head with his hands. Such simple men, he said, were rising up and taking “heaven by force.”
Not everyone was so delighted. According to Antony’s biographer, Athanasius, Satan looked on the hair shirt–wearing, sleepless saint and was revolted. This was intolerable virtue in one so young and so the Prince of Darkness had to act. He was in no doubt what form his attack should take: Antony was a man who scorned the pleasures of the flesh and so it was with the pleasures of the flesh that he would be tempted. Unclean thoughts were, Athanasius explains, Satan’s standard weapon for tempting youths, and so he began sending seductive dreams to disturb the young innocent by night. Alas, the holy Antony was a match for this: he pushed them away with the power of constant prayer.
The Devil was forced to move to a second-tier temptation. One night the thwarted Satan turned himself into the form of a beautiful young woman omitting, adds Athanasius ?— ?a master of the intriguing aside ?— ?“no detail that might provoke lascivious thoughts.” Antony struggled but stood firm by calling to mind “the fiery punishment of hell and the torment inflicted by worms.” Satan gnashed his teeth with fury; but he wasn’t done yet. He decided to send his trump card: an apparition in the form of a young black boy who prostrated himself at Antony’s feet. As he lay there the demon announced that he was the “friend of fornic...