August 2, 2023
Episode 171: ‘Visibly a Goddess’: Heidi Marx on Sosipatra of Pergamum
[Thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum for use the above image, from the ‘Symmachi Panel‘]
We speak with Heidi Marx on the divine Sosipatra of Pergamum, an oracular seer and philosophic teacher in the eastern empire of the fourth century.
Topics discussed include:
- The basics of what we know of Sosipatra’s life (or rather of Eunapius’ quite romantic telling of it), including her initiatory education by two mysterious strangers, her marriage to Iamblichus’ student Eustathius, her prophetic and clairvoyant powers, &c,
- A quick run-through of the Iamblichean lineage as recorded by Eunapius, with a somewhat-pointless aside from me on how the philosopher Eustathius is meant to have persuaded the Sassanian king Shapur on his embassy to him,
- Some discussion of what the scene at Pergamum might have been like, with (as Eunapius tells us) Ædesius teaching students during the day, and Sosipatra teaching those same students more elevated matters later on in the evening,
- With a discursus on Late Platonist eschatological theories contextualised more broadly in late-antique debates, including Christian ones,
- And Marx’s plausible reading of Eunapius as presenting Sosipatra as one of the theurgic ‘returners’, souls of an exalted spiritual rank who voluntarily choose to descend into the kosmos for the salvation of kosmic reality,
- A brief detour onto the question of whether the Emperor Julian saw himself as one of these ‘returners’,
- Some discussion of what it meant to be a philosopher in the fourth century, taking Sosipatra and Macrina (as immortalised in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life) as case-studies,
- A coda, discussing the theurgic/philosophical exploits of Sosipatra’s son Antoninus, and what they might mean,
- And a discussion of how Eunapius might be intentionally pitting his portrayal of Sosipatra against the current trend of Christian hagiographical writing in which female saints are developing a very different model of holiness from that of the upper-class Græco-Roman philosophic teacher with both erudition and a family life, represented by Sosipatra.
Heidi Marx is a Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg). She is also an Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts. She is the author of three books, Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century CE, Sosipatra of Pergamum: Philosopher and Oracle, and Medicine, Health, and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean (500 BCE-600CE): A Sourcebook (with Kristi Upson-Saia and Jared Secord). She is also a co-founder and co-director of ReMeDHe (A Working Group for Religion, Medicine, Disability, Health and Healing in Late Antiquity).
Works Cited in this Episode:
Ammianus on the embassy to Shapur: XVII.5.15. Eustathius is sent as a ‘master of persuasion’ (opifex suadendi).
Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina.
Averil Cameron. Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.
David Frankfurter. Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ/Chichester, 1998.
Gore Vidal. Julian. Heinemann, London, 1976.
Edward J Watts. The Final Pagan Generation: Rome’s Unexpected Path to Christianity. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2020.
Patricia Cox-Miller. “Strategies of Representation in Collective Biography: Constructing the Subject as Holy. In Tomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau, editors, Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity, Transformation of the Classical Heritage, pages 209–54. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000.
Nicola Denzey Lewis. Living Images of the Divine; Female Theurgists in Late Antiquity. In Dayna S. Kalleres and Kimberly B. Stratton, editors, Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World, pages 274–97. The University Press, Oxford, 2014.
Richard Goulet, editor. Eunapius. Vies de philosophes et de sophistes. Number 508 in Collection des universités de France. Série grecque. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2014.
Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer. Das Seelengefährt in Der Lehre Der Theurgin Sosipatra (Eunapios VPS 466,5,1-471,9,17). Archaiognosia Supplement 8, pages 61–71, 2009.
Sarah Iles Johnston. Overtime in the Afterlife; Or, No Rest for the Virtuous. In Ra’anan S. Boustan and Annette Yoshiko Reed, editors, Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, pages 85–102. The University Press, Cambridge, 2004 [a good intro to the theurgic ‘returners’].
Heidi Marx. Sosipatra of Pergamum: Philosopher and Oracle. The University Press, Oxford, 2021.
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler. Sosipatra – Role Models for Pagan ‘Divine’ Women in Late Antiquity. In Maria Dzielska and Kamilla Twardowska, editors, Divine Men and Women in the History and Society of Late Hellenism, pages 123–47. Jagiellonian University Press, Kraków, 2013.
Arthur P. Urbano. The Philosophical Life: Biography and the Crafting of Intellectual Identity in Late Antiquity. Number 21 in Patristic Monograph Series. Catholic University of America Press, Washington, DC, 2013.