News of Antony of Egypt, especially his sacrificial solitude, spread widely long before he died. At Rome, Marcella, a wealthy noblewoman already widowed at age 17, heard about him around 340, and in response, turned her mansion into an ascetic community devoted to prayer and Bible study. Other Roman matrons followed her pioneering example.

But when Athanasius, who had been one of those who told Marcella about Antony, put Antony's story down in writing, Antony's influence became greater still. As Athanasius told his readers at the beginning of his Life of Antony, "I feel that, once you have heard the story, you will not merely admire the man but will wish to emulate his commitment as well."

Within a decade or so of publication, a Latin version (Athanasius wrote the Life in Greek) had been published and a copy came into the hands of two Roman officials in Trier, a prosperous regional center in what is now part of Germany.

As one ancient account records, "One of them began to read it. He was amazed and set on fire . …He was filled with holy love and sobering shame. Angry with himself, he turned his eyes on his friend and said to him: 'Tell me, I beg you, what do we hope to achieve with all our labors? What is our aim in life? … Can we hope for any higher office in the palace than to be friends of the emperor? … If I wish to become God's friend, in an instant I may become that now.' "

He turned back to the book in turmoil as he experienced an inner conversion. "I have decided to serve God," he said, "and I propose to start doing that from this hour in this place." His companion joined him in this resolve. Soon their wives followed suit, vowing themselves to ascetic abstinence.

We know this dramatic story from Ponticianus, who told ...

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