Podcast episode

Episode 128: Porphyry and the Barbarians: Ethnicity, Religious Practice, and Esoteric Interpretation

[Corrigendum: As an alert listener has reminded me, the plural of the Greek word ethnos isn’t ethnoi; it’s ethnē. One of those deceptive neuters. I got it right in the text below, but I somehow screwed it up in the actual podcast.]

Before we get to some observations of Porphyry’s complex and fascinating reception of various ‘nations’ (ethnē) and texts as sources of esoteric wisdom, we take this opportunity to go back to basics a bit, discussing the cultural realities of two important conceptual dichotomies in late antiquity, to wit: Hellene and barbarian and philosophy and religion. Having brought our discussion of these categories up to date (and having tried to excuse our constant ill-advised translation of barbaros as ‘barbarian’ in the podcast) we turn to Porphyry.

Where do we find wisdom among the Hellenes, and how is it hidden from the masses? Where de we find it among the barbarians? And where do we emphatically not find it? (Spoiler alert: in Christianity.)

Works Cited in this Episode:

Citations of the Letter to Anebo are to Angelo Raffaele Sodano, editor. Lettera ad Anebo. L’Arte tipographica, Naples, 1958.


Plotinus on Pythagoras and Pherecydes of Syros as founders of ‘the tradition’: Enn. V.1[10]8.

Eusebius: Porphyry was originally a Christian, but turned against the faith after a run-in with some Christian thugs: Euseb. HE 3.32.


  • Porphyry critically refutes the Gnostic Book of Zoroaster, proving that it cannot really be the ancient text it claims to be: Plot. 16.
  • Oracle of Apollo stating that the Greeks have strayed from the path toward the gods, unlike certain wise barbarians: fr. 324 Smith.
  • On the Styx on Homer’s exceptionally esoteric discourse: Stob. 2.1.19.
  • Homer as ‘the ancient wisdom’ (palai sophia): De antr. nymph. 44.6.18 and 36.34.9.
  • Orpheus on Zeus: 354F Smith = Euseb. PE III 8.2 – 9.9.
  • The Egyptians limited to the kosmos in their world-view: Ep. Anebo 2, p. 25.1-2 Sodano. They are astral determinists: fr. 271, 41-57 Smith.
  • The Magoi and Persians (a.k.a. the cult of Mithras) teach metempsychosis: De abst. 4. 16.2-3.
  • Various testimonies to Porphry’s work on the Chaldæan Oracles: Æneas of Gaza: fr. 368 Smith. John Lydus: fr. 365 Smith. The Suda: test. 362 Smith.
  • Wise barbarians more generally: e.g. frr. 323, 324 Smith; De abst. 4.2.1.
  • The Christian esoteric hermeneutics unjustified: Euseb. HE 6.19.4-8.
  • Digs the Jews: Phil Orac. frr. 323-4 Smith, on the god of the Hebrews. The Essenes: De abst. 4.13.7. His wife, Marcella, was a Jewess: Tub. Theos. 85, p. 55.1 Erbse.
  • For references to Eusebius and Origen, see our special episode Ammonius, Origen, and Plotinus: Exploring an Enigma.


  • E. R. Dodds. New Light on the “Chaldæan Oracles”. Harvard Theological Review, 54 (4):263–273, Oct. 1961.
  • Pierre Hadot. Citations de Porphyre chez Augustin. Revue des études augustiniennes, 6:205–44, 1960.
  • Aaron P. Johnson 2012 (see below), we cite p. 56. Idem 2013 (see below), we cite pp. 273 (on Porphyry as the most Jew-loving intellectual to be found before Constantine) and 279-80 on how Porphyry’s disparaging remark about the Jews was likely an echo of Origen rather than Porphyry’s opinion.
  • Lamberton 1989 (see below), we cite pp. 113 (On the Styx translation) and 115 on Porphyry’s rather modern way of reading Homer.
  • Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
  • Dominic O’Meara. Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, we cite p. 27.

Recommended Reading:

  • P. Athanassiadi. Hellenism: A theological koinê. In V. Karageorghis, editor, The Greeks Beyond the Aegean: from Marseilles to Bactria, pages 189–207. Onassis Cultural Center, New York, NY, 2003.
  • Matthias Becker, editor. Porphyrios, Contra Christianos. Neue Sammlung der Fragmente, Testimonien und Dubia mit Einleitung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen. Number 52 in Teste un Kommentare. De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston MA, 2016.
  • Robert M. Berchman, editor. Porphyry against the Christians. Number 1 in Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition. Brill, Leiden, 2005.
  • J.G. Cook. Porphyry’s Attempted Demolition of Christian Allegory. International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 12, 2008.
  • Mark Edwards. Porphyry and the Christians. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement: Studies on Porphyry, (98):111–26, 2007.
  • Aaron P. Johnson. Philosophy, Hellenicity, Law: Porphyry on Origen, Again. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 132:55–69, 2012.
  • Idem. Religion and Identity in Porphyry of Tyre: The Limits of Hellenism in Late Antiquity. The University Press, Cambridge, 2013.
  • Robert Lamberton. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1989, esp. 108-133.
  • Jean Pépin. Porphyre, éxègete d’Homère. In Porphyre, volume 12 of Entretiens Hardt, pages 229–66. Fondation Hardt, Geneva, 1966.
  • Andrew Smith. Porphyry and Pagan Religious Practice. In J.J. Cleary, editor, The Perennial Tradition of Neoplatonism, Leuven University Press, Leuven, 1997, pages 29–35. .
  • Ilinca Tanseanu-Döbler. ’Nur die Weise ist Priester’: Rituale und Ritualkritik bei Porphyrios. In I. Tanseanu-Döbler and U. Berner, editors, Religion und Kritik in der Antike, pages 109–155. LIT Verlag, Münster, 2009.


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