Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.01.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.01.19

Polymnia Athanassiadi, Mutations of Hellenism in Late Antiquity. Variorum collected studies series, CS 1052.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2015.  Pp. xviii, 374.  ISBN 9781472443663.  $170.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Guy G. Stroumsa, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Oxford (

Table of Contents

This hefty, welcome volume of opera minora includes twenty-one of the author’s essays in French and English (none of her Greek writings are included). A leading scholar of Platonic philosophy in late antiquity, Athanassiadi has sought to understand in depth, probably more than anyone else in the last generation, the interface of Hellenic philosophy with other trends in the intellectual and religious history of the Eastern Mediterranean. From the publication of her Oxford doctoral thesis on the Emperor Julian to a book on the growth of ‘pagan’ intolerance in late antiquity, through the masterly edition and translation of an important philosophical text and her co-editing of a highly influential collection of articles, her career at the University of Athens has always retained a major international element.1 Athanassiadi often invigorates discussions on both sides of the Atlantic and of the Channel; she constantly reminds colleagues who are now more and more inclined to reflect on the Christian dimensions of Late Antique religious thought about the continued, powerful presence of Hellenic, or non-Christian, thinkers, throughout late antiquity.

The volume under review offers a synoptic view of the main elements of Athanassiadi’s intellectual achievement. The volume is appropriately divided into five parts, and concluded by a short ‘Envoi,’ comparing, sadly but convincingly, the ‘educational illiteracy’ of late antiquity to that of our own times. In the first part, ‘Methodological Concerns,’ one article discusses various definitions of late antiquity as a historiographical model, the other treats the oecumenism of Iamblichus. Then, in ‘A Religious Koine,’ seven studies analyze various theological aspects of Neo-Platonism and, by using the concept of osmosis as an exegetical tool, present it as a theology (and a religious practice) in tune with the era's general ideological climate. In a third part, ‘Prophecy and Revelation,’ the author includes five essays dealing with oracles and their fate as well as dreams and their interpretation from late antiquity until Psellos and Plethon in the middle and late Byzantine periods. Three articles, forming the fourth part of the book, ‘Theios Aner’, deal with the divine man and his status, with a focus on Julian the Theurgist, the author of the Chaldean Oracles. A final part, entitled ‘Dissidence and Persecution,’ includes three studies. The last, most important one (Chapter XX) focuses on “Christians and others: the conversion ethos in late antiquity.” Dealing with the cardinal and vexed question of the transformation of an ethos, it reflects the thought of its author in its present stage. In it, she shows how for centuries, Hellenism remained an attractive option for intellectuals in the Eastern Empire. In a sense, this chapter offers a sequel to A. D. Nock’s classic study of conversion from Alexander to Augustine.2

It is notoriously hard to review a collection of essays, even if written by a single author: they reflect different stages of her thought, are addressed to various audiences, were originally published in journals or volumes requiring different levels of detail or Fragestellung, etc…. And yet, one can detect some major trends in this volume that are worth highlighting here. First, each word of its title deserves comment. Mutation, essentially a biological metaphor, indicates a radical change, a dramatic transformation. Hellenism is essentially ambivalent. It usually refers to the historical period starting with Alexander’s conquests. Here, it refers to the Greek classical (or ‘pagan’) tradition, in both philosophical and religious thought, and in contradistinction with that of the Christians, those upstarts Emperor Julian called the ‘Galileans.’ Late antiquity, finally, once called, in deprecatory terms, ‘le bas empire,’ is a period highly fashionable in contemporary scholarship, the limits of which are however still rather flexible. They seem to constantly start earlier and end later. One now often refers, rather laxly, to early Christian texts of the second or even first century as belonging to late antiquity, and at least one scholar (Garth Fowden) would like to equate late antiquity to the whole first Christian millennium, up to Avicenna, which is rather stretching it. More traditionally, Athanassiadi ends the period with the birth of Islam — a surprise choice precisely as we now know how important Greek remained in the Near East for quite some time after the Islamic conquest.

Rather than discussing even a few of the articles, I wish to highlight here what I think is the most important contribution of their author to the current state of scholarship on late antique intellectual and religious history. Far from disappearing with the Christianization of the Empire, Athanassiadi insists that the Hellenic tradition remained alive intellectually and religiously throughout late antiquity, while undergoing deep transformations. While the main agents of these transformations were persons and books, the key word is perhaps prophecy (or oracle). We knew already the central importance of prophecy for the Abrahamic religions in late antiquity, i.e., for Judaism and Christianity up to the birth of Islam. Athanassiadi’s work reveals its continued prominence also in ‘pagan’ intellectual circles. To be sure, prophecy is not only revealed in books, but also (or mainly) in the speech acts of prophets, and is directly related to the growing thread of orthodoxy in late antique society. And from orthodoxy to exclusion of the heterodox and intolerance of the other, there is only one small step, a step made too commonly and too easily in late antiquity. Athanassiadi goes here against the mainstream opinion, for which terms such as orthodoxy and intolerance are mainly meaningful in monotheist (i.e., mainly Christian) context. She also breaks new ground: exclusivism and intolerance were as much the case among the Platonists as among the Christians. One wonders whether the fact that, as she has shown elsewhere, the Neo-Platonists could be considered, to a significant degree, monotheists, is not directly related to this fact. The dialectics of orality and writing, of persons and books, of prophecy and orthodoxy, are parallel and complementary antinomies. Athanassiadi is right when she believes the antithesis between monotheism and polytheism to be a false one. Often, in late antiquity, the theological koine was one of inclusive monotheism (p. 24). Her work gives powerful cumulative evidence to the fact that the “great divide” between religious systems in late antiquity, rather than being presented as one between monotheists and polytheists, should be conceived as having been mainly between Abrahamists (i.e., Jews and Christians, who shared a view of revelation and of history), and Hellenists. But even there, Athanassiadi keenly insists on conversion from one world-view to the other. In French as in English, Athanassiadi has a gift for striking formulas and lapidary sentences, which offer much food for thought. I shall conclude with one: On V, 135, she refers to the Chaldean Oracles as “the precursor of the Koran.”


1.   See Polymnia Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, eds., Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, 1999); Polymnia Athanassiadi, ed., transl., Damascius, The Philosophical History (Athens: Apamea, 1999); Polymnia Athanassiadi, La lutte pour l’orthodoxie dans le platonisme tardif: de Numénius à Damascius (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006); Polymnia Athanassiadi, Vers la pensée unique: la montée de l’intolérance dans l’antiquité tardive (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010) On this last book, see the balanced, wise review of Arietta Papaconstantinou, BMCR 2011.07.32.
2.   A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933).

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