Podcast episode

Episode 183: The Great God Pan Lives: Introducing the Athenian Academy

The Athenian Academy has a kind of legendary status as a last bastion of ‘paganism’ in the Roman world. It most certainly wasn’t that; the last bastion of ‘paganism’ was probably some out-of-the-way place where people kept worshipping the gods way into the middle ages, but we don’t have records of it. The Athenian Academy was, however, an unbelievably-important centre for a Platonist philosophy which would go on utterly to inform the Abrahamic faiths, both in terms of their ontologies and epistemologies, but also in terms of their framing of ‘mysticism’. It was also a centre for a thriving culture of theurgy, a form of esoteric ritual practice which was, by the fifth century, both illegal and dangerous to practice.

In this episode we go over some points of historical orientation, and ruminate over the notion of ‘the Academy of Plato’ as it was conceived of in late antiquity. we then introduce Plutarch of Athens, who revived the teaching of Platonist philosophy at Athens, his student Syrianus, and Proclus, the student of both men, who would help to write the history of western esotericism (and, of course, western thought) on numerous levels.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Plutarch (of Cheironeia, not the one from Athens) works to reclaim the title ‘Academic’ for Platonism from skepticism: he wrote a lost On the Unity of the Academy (see Charles Brittain. Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, pp. 225-36).

Athenian Academy:

  • Platonist teaching had been dormant for centuries at Athens: Marinus, Vita Procli 12, 28; Procl. In R. 2.64.6.
  • Inscriptions attesting to Plutarch’s cultic prominence: IG iv 2 436–7, IG ii 2 3818.
  • Students come to study under Plutarch: Hierocles, De Prov. 214.173a; Damasc. Phil. Hist. 56, 59e (Athanassiadi); Photius Bib. Cod. 214, vol. 3, p. 130 Henry; Marinus, Vita Procli 12.
  • Proclus learns Chaldæan rituals from Plutarch’s daughter Asklepigieneia: Marinus, Vita Procli 28.
  • Nestorius has divinatory powers to do with the stars: Proclus, In R. 2.64.5–66.3 Kroll.
  • Damascius tells us that Plutarch’s lessons would get derailed by students raising too many objections: Damascius, Vit. Isid. fr. 142 Zintzen = Philosophical History, fr. 65 Athanassiadi.
  • Plutarch arranges his succession: Marinus, Vita Procli 12.15.28–31.
  • Plutarch, following Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus and Origen, one of the chain of philosophers restoring Plato’s original purity: Photius Bibliotheca Cod. 214, 173 a, vol. 3.129.34–130.40 Henry.
  • Proclus acknowledges Syrianus as his ‘guide’: e.g. In Parm. 618.3 ff., 1061.20–31, Theol. Plat. 83.10–18.
  • Syrianus on the henads: Proclus, In Parm. 1049.37 ff.
  • Syrianus’ ‘tombstone’: see image above. Text:

[Oὗτος] μὲν Συριανὸς ἔχεν πόλον, εὖτ᾿ ἐπὶ γ[αῖαν]

[…]μενος μακάρων ἀρτιτελὴς ἔμολε[ν]·

[…] δ᾿ ἀνθρώποισιν ὅπως σοφόν ἐστιν […]

[… ἀ]θανάτων ἐς πόλον αὖτις ἔβη.]


The relevant Storytime episodes on Eunapius can be found here and here. The Oddcast interview with Tzvi Langermann on the Sefer Yetsira can be found here. The special SHWEPisode ‘Was Plotinus a Platonist? Lineage, Identity, and Scholarship’ can be found here. The special episode on the question, ‘How many Origens, how many Ammonii?’ can be found here.

Alan Cameron and Jacqueline Long. Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius. Number 19 in The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford, 1993 [we quote pp. 49-50].

John Dillon. The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274 BC). Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.

Ilsetraut Hadot. Le problème du néoplatonisme alexandrin: Hiéroclès et Simplcius. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.

Clyde Pharr, Theresa Sherrer Davidson, and Mary Brown Pharr, editors. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. A Translation with Commentary, Glossary, and Bibliography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1952.

Recommended Reading:


Elizabeth Depalma Digeser. Philosophy in a Christian Empire: From the Great Persecution to Theodosius I. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. I, pages 376-96. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010a.

Idem. From Constantine to Justinian. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. II, pages 585-607. The University Press, Cambridge, 2010b.

Garth Fowden. Late Polytheism. In Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsley, and Averil Cameron, editors, The Cambridge Ancient History, Second Edition, Volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193-337, pages 521-72. The University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Ilsetraut Hadot. Les introductions aux commentaires néoplatoniciens de oevres de Platon et Aristotle dans le cadre général du cursus des études philosophiques. In Michel Tardieu, editor, Les regles de l’interpretation, pages 99-122. Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1987.

Idem. Athenian and Alexandrian Neoplatonism and the Harmonization of Aristotle and Plato. Brill, Leiden, 2015.

Philippe. Hoffmann. Théologies et mystiques de la Grèce hellénistique et de la fin de l’Antiquité. Annuaire de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études. Section des Sciences Religieuses, 101:241-7, 1992-3.

Angela Longo. Plutarch of Athens. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. II, pages 608-15. The University Press, Cambridge, 2010a.

Idem. Syrianus. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Vol. II, pages 616-29. The University Press, Cambridge, 2010b.

Helen Saradi. Late Paganism and Christianisation in Greece. In Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan, editors, The Archæology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’, pages 263-309. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2011 [for information on the ‘House of Proclus’ at Athens].

D.P. Taormina. Plutarco di Atene. L’uno, l’anima, le forme. Saggio introduttivo, fonti, traduzione e commento. Catania, 1989.

Edward J. Watts. City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/London, 2006.

Syrianus, Useful Primary Bibliography

John Dillon and Dominic O’Meara, editors. Syrianus: On Aristotle Metaphysics 3-4. London, 2006.

Idem, editors. Syrianus: On Aristotle Metaphysics 13-14. London, 2008.

W. Kroll and G. Reimer, editors. Syrianus, In Aristotelis `Metaphysica’ commentaria. Berlin, 1902.

H. Usener and G. Reimer, editors. Syrianus, In Aristotelis `Metaphysica’ commentaria. Berlin, 1870.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,