Category: Historical subjects

Migration of philosophers and decline of the Neoplatonic school of Athens

The prohibition of the teaching of philosophy in Athens by a decree issued by Justinian in 529 AD (as recorded by the chronicler John Malalas), and the subsequent exile of the Neoplatonic philosophers at the court of the Persian king Chosroes II (as recorded by the historian Agathias): the two events marked the beginning of the decline of the Neoplatonic school of Athens, which flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

According to the testimony of the Byzantine chronicler John Malalas (first half of 6th century AD), “during the consulship of Decius”, that is, in 529 AD, “the emperor (i.e. Justinian) issued a decree and sent it to Athens ordering that no one should teach philosophy nor interpret the positions of the stars nor in any city should there be lots cast using dice; for some who cast dice had been discovered in Byzantium indulging themselves in dreadful blasphemies. Their hands were cut off and they were paraded around on camels”. Although Malalas’ report is too piecemeal to allow a safe interpretation, it seems that philosophy was linked to astrology and the casting of dice in Justinian’s decree because of its blasphematory character against Christianity. Therefore, the decree was not issued against the teaching of philosophy in general but banned specifically the pagan philosophers of Athens, whose school was rejuvenated by the last Platonic successor Damascius (see Neoplatonic school of Athens), from teaching philosophy. Justinian’s decree complemented previous edicts of the Justinian Law, which excluded Greek polytheists and other non-Christians heretics (e.g. Manicheans and Samaritans) from public offices. Such edicts, however, did not previously affect the pagan philosophers of Athens who, unlike their colleagues of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria, did not hold public offices but based their living expenses and their teaching activities on the private property of the School. Subsequent decrees imposed even more stringent measures: any person unwilling to embrace Christianity should have his property confiscated and any inconvincible pagan teacher should be expatriated. It was apparently because of such a growing pressure that the Neoplatonic philosophers of Athens decided, two years after Justinian’s decree, to exile themselves to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sasanian Empire. According to the historian Agathias (second half of the 6th century AD), the Athenian philosophers took refuge at the court of Chosroes II, who ascended on the throne of the Sassanids in September 531.

More specifically, Agathias says that “Damascius of Syria, Simplicius of Cilicia, Eulamios (or Eulalios) of Phrygia, Priscian of Lydia, Hermes and Diogenes of Phoenicia and Isidore of Gaza, all of them, to use a poetic turn of phrase, the quintessential flower of the philosophers of our age, had come to believe, since the official religion of the Roman empire was not to their liking, that the Persian state was much superior. So they gave a ready hearing to the stories in general circulation according to which Persia was the land of Plato’s philosopher king in whom justice reigned supreme. Apparently the subjects too were models of decency and good behavior: no thieves, brigands or any other sort of criminals were born there. Quite on the contrary, even if some valuable object were left in no matter how remote a spot nobody who came across it would make off with it, but it would stay put and, without any one’s guarding it, would be virtually kept safe for whoever left it until such a time as he should return. Therefore, convinced that all these reports were true, and also because they were forbidden by law to take part in public life without fear, owing to the fact that they did not conform to the established religion, the philosophers left immediately and set off for a distant land whose ways were completely foreign to their own, determined to make their homes there”. Agathias’ report implies that the Neoplatonic philosophers, because they wanted to remain faithful to their spiritual mission and would not abandon at any cost the religion of their forefathers, did not enjoy civil protection in Athens and were thereby suffering from increasing injustices and attacks from Christian citizens. The narrative suggests further that even their lives were at risk: disgusted by Persian manners, the seven self-exiled philosophers preferred to enter the territory of the Roman Empire and die there instantly than to remain in Ctesiphon.

Nevertheless, according to Agathias’ testimony, the philosophers were able to end their lives in the most pleasant way. For upon request of Chosroes a clause was inserted in the treaty of peace concluded between Romans and Persians in 532, according to which “the philosophers should be allowed to return to their homelands (eis ta sphetera êthê) and to live out the rest of their lives fearlessly, without being compelled to alter their ancestral religious beliefs or to accept any view which did not coincide with theirs”. Despite the fact that the text of the treaty, as recounted by Agathias, makes clear that the philosophers were granted by the Roman emperor the right to live freely and safely in their homelands, several scholars have surmised that Simplicius and possibly the rest of the philosophers established themselves either in Alexandria or in Athens, or in ancient Carrhae (Harran) of Mesopotamia. None of these cities, however, was homeland to any of the seven philosophers. As is testified by a funerary stele found at Emesa in Syria, Damascius indeed returned home. It is likely that, if they themselves did not return to their homelands, Simplicius and the other philosophers followed the last Platonic successor into Syria, wishing to continue with their communal life. Some confusions in the manuscript tradition of the works of these last philosophers of Athens (the first book of Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle's On the heavens is transmitted under the name of Damascius, whereas Priscian’s commentary on Aristotle’s On the soul is attributed to Simplicius) seem to favor the opinion that at least some of the Neoplatonic philosophers of Athens continued to live and to work together.

The closure of the school of Athens in 529 AD and the subsequent migration of the philosophers in 531/532 AD did not coincide with the end of Athenian Neoplatonism. Simplicius’ extensive commentaries on Aristotle, in which the Hellenic philosophical and religious tradition is defended in a monumental way, were all written after his leaving Persia.

Author: Pantelis Golitsis
  • Golitsis, P, Les Commentaires de Simplicius et de Jean Philopon à la Physique d’Aristote. Tradition et innovation. Berlin, 2008.
  • Watts, E. "Justinian, Malalas, and the End of Athenian Philosophical Teaching in A.D. 529." JRS 94 (2004)
  • Wildberg, C. "Philosophy in the Age of Justinian." Maas, M. ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge, 2005.
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