Coenobium (κοινόβιον, from κοινός, common, and βίος, life is equivalent to monastery in the later sense of that word. Cassian says "monasterium" may be the dwelling of a single monk, "coenobium" must be of several; the former word expresses only the place, the latter the manner of living (Coll. 18:10). The neglect of this distinction has led to much inaccuracy in attempting to fix the date of the first "coenobia or communities of monks iunder one roof and under one government. Thus Helvot. ascribes their origin to Antony, the famous anchorite of the Thebaid in the 3d century
(Ordres Relig. Diss. Prelim. § 5). But the counter opinion, which ascribes it to Pachomiuis of Tabenna a century later, is more probable; for it seems to. have been the want of some fixed rule to control the irregularities arising from the vast number of eremitae, with their cells either entirely isolated from olne another or merely grouped together casually, which gave the first occasion to "coenobia." In fact, the growth of coenobitism seems to have been very gradual. Large numbers of ascetics were collected near the Mons Nitrius SEE CELLITE, and doubtless elsewhere also, long before Pa'chomius had founded his coenobium. But the interval is considerable between this very imperfect organization of monks thus herding lawlessly together and the symmetrical arrangement of the Benedictine system. Very probably the earliest ccenobia were of women; for, though the word "virgins," in the account of Antony having his sister in the charge of devout women, is by no means conclusive, the female eremites would naturally be the first to feel the need of combination for mutual help and security. The origin of the caenobitic life is traced back to the time before the Christian aera. Something similar is seen in the pages of Plato (Legg. 780:1), and the Pythagoreans are described by Aulus Gellius as living together and' hlaving a community of goods (Noctes Atticae, 1:9).
Opinions have been divided among the admirers of asceticism as to the comparative merits of the solitary life and the coenobitic. Cassian (Coll. 19:3) looks up to the life of perfect solitude as the pinnacle of holiness, for which the coenobitic life is only a preparatory discipline. Theophylact (St. Narc., 4:20) interprets "those who bear fruit an hundred-fold" in the parable as virgins and eremites. Basil (Reg. c. 1), On the contrary, and the sagacious Benedict (Reg. c. 1), prefer the life of the coenobite as safer, more edifying, less alloyed by the taint of selfishness. Even Jerome (EBpp. ad Rustic. p. ad Rutc 125; Ad Heliod. 14), his monastic fervor notwithstanding, prefers life in the community to life in utter solitude, though at first he seems to have been a zealous upholder of the contrary opinion. Doubtless experience had impressed on him the perils of solitude. Legislators found it expedient to curb the rage for eremitism. Justinian ordered monks to stay within the "coenobia." Similarly Charlemagne discouraged hermits, while protecting coenobitic monks, and the seventh council of Toledo censured roving and solitary monks. Even in the East the same distrust prevailed of persons undertaking more than they could bear. Thus the council in Trullo enjoined a sojourn of some time in a ccenobium as the preliminary to life in the desert. Benedict aptly illutstrates the difference, from his point of view, between these two forms of asceticism. The solitary, he says, leaves the line of battle to fight in single combat. SEE MONASTICISM.
"Coenobium" is used sometimes in mediaeval writers for the "basilica," or church of the monastery. "Cloister" and "convent" are frequently used for "coenobium." SEE ASCETICISM; SEE BENEDICTINE RULE; SEE MONASTARY.