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date: 20 July 2019

Athens, philosophy at

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Edward J. WattsEdward J. Watts

Athens, philosophy at 

Athens began the Late Antique period as one of the most respected centres of philosophical study in the Roman Empire, a position it maintained into the 6th century. At the same time, Late Antiquity saw dramatic changes to the institutional and doctrinal nature of Athenian philosophical teaching as well as a significant reduction in the variety of philosophical traditions actively taught in the city.

Third-century developments

In the Antonine period, Athens had four imperially endowed chairs set aside for teachers of Platonic, Stoic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean philosophy. It is unclear how long these chairs remained in existence, but it seems unlikely that they endured beyond the sack by the Heruli which devastated the city and its environs in 267. Platonists dominated philosophical teaching in post-Herulian Athens, but the Platonism taught by Athenian teachers like Longinus was quite conventional and, by the early 260s, students like Porphyry had begun leaving Athens to study under more innovative teachers elsewhere. Athens proved slow to adapt and much philosophical teaching remained in the hands of men like Nicagoras, scion of a well-established family and torch-bearer of the mysteries at Eleusis, whose members had long taught in Athens.

The Athenian Iamblichean tradition

A significant shift in the direction of Athenian philosophy occurred when a nephew of the Syrian philosopher Iamblichus brought his uncle’s system of thought to the city in the mid-4th century. Iamblichean Neoplatonism blended the interpretation of Platonic and Aristotelian texts with pagan religious works like the Chaldean Oracles and the rituals associated with theurgy. The philosophy took hold with an Athenian named Nestorius, who supposedly used theurgic rituals to prevent an earthquake in the 370s (Zosimus, IV, 18) and to cure a woman of depression (Proclus, Commentary on the Republic, II, 324, 12–325, 10). His son, Plutarch of Athens, integrated the Iamblichean system into Athenian Platonic teaching more comprehensively and opened a school based in his home.

The Neoplatonic Academy

The school that Plutarch established in the later 4th century proved appealing both to Athenians and to students travelling from abroad. The instruction it offered appears to have begun with the study of grammar; Plutarch’s successor Syrianus composed a commentary on a grammatical work. It extended to the most advanced philosophical training. The philosophical curriculum proper was based upon a hierarchy of philosophical virtues first laid out by Plotinus and later elaborated upon by Iamblichus. It began with mathematical training, moved through Aristotelian philosophy, and then walked the students through a progression of Platonic dialogues. Advanced students under Plutarch and Proclus read Chaldean and Orphic texts. The Athenian Neoplatonic school encouraged students to develop deeply personal relationships with their teacher and fostered a powerful identification with the Platonic tradition more generally. Members of the school commemorated Plato, Socrates, and other intellectual ancestors. Proclus even shared a tomb with his teacher Syrianus. While it created a generally cohesive community, this tendency also encouraged a degree of insularity that permitted Athenian Neoplatonists to pursue lines of philosophical interpretation and engage in religious practices that put them at risk in an increasingly Christian Empire.

Christianity and Athenian philosophy

Unlike their colleagues in Alexandria, Athenian teachers showed no inclination to dialogue or compromise in the face of Christianity. The Christian population of Athens was small for most of Late Antiquity and, because of the nature of Athenian Neoplatonic teaching, few Christian students attended the city’s philosophical schools. Even as Christians began to assert control of the city of Athens in the 5th century, Athenian philosophers like Proclus continued to go into temples and perform traditional religious rites. This Athenian tendency grew more pronounced when Isidore and Damascius arrived in the city in 489. Damascius in particular saw any compromise with Christian authorities as unphilosophical, an idea illustrated by his Life of Isidore and explained by his disciple Simplicius in his commentary on the Enchiridion. This tendency ultimately led to the demise of their school and the apparent suspension of philosophical teaching in Athens with the closure of the Academy in 529.

Edward J. Watts


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A. Frantz, ‘Pagan Philosophers in Christian Athens’, PAPS 119 (1975), 29–38.Find this resource:

M. Vinzent, ‘Oxbridge in der ausgehenden Spätantike. Oder Ein Vergleich der Schulen von Athen und Alexandrien’, ZAC 4 (2000), 49–82.Find this resource: