Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.26

Michael Erler, Martin Andreas Stadler (ed.), Platonismus und spätägyptische Religion: Plutarch und die Ägyptenrezeption in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 364​.   Berlin:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. vi, 335.  ISBN 9783110531404.  €99,95.  

Reviewed by Elsa Giovanna Simonetti, Durham University - KU Leuven (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The present study collects thirteen contributions — diverse in focus and perspective — that aim at assessing the legacy of Egyptian culture in the Platonic philosophy of the first centuries AD. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

This edited volume bears witness to the recent scholarly tendency of questioning traditional disciplinary barriers, and results from the discussions that animated an intense three-day conference held in Würzburg in May 2014. The meeting gathered together specialists from the two different fields of Greek studies and Egyptology, with the hope of inaugurating a fruitful dialogue and an enduring collaboration between these two areas of specialism, all too often isolated and secluded in their own separate territories. In their Introduction, the editors Michael Erler and Martin Andreas Stadler wisely point out the risks connected to an inter-disciplinary synergy between the branches of Greek studies and Egyptology, in light of their distinct, and sometimes even conflicting, terminologies, methodologies and historical developments.

As the volume’s subtitle suggests, the various approaches brought about by the contributors are centred around a key ancient text: Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. The thematic unity among the chapters is similarly attained by their shared (implicit or explicit) reference to one leading question: which kind of Egypt — and, in particular, the religions and customs of which age — had Plutarch in mind when writing his essay? And, more specifically, how and with what aim did he deal with, and re-employed, such material? The choice of De Iside as the main textual source and the formulation of this core research question proved perfect for provoking far-reaching reflection, extending to the wider late-antique cultural and religious landscape, and to the broader issue of the relationship between Greek philosophy and foreign sources of wisdom.

I now turn to look at some key points raised by each chapter — an overview that, for reasons of space, does not pretend to be exhaustive.

Görgemanns’s opening study establishes an articulated connection between Plutarch’s De Iside and the eleventh book of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses — the so-called ‘Isis-book’. Görgemanns emphasises Plutarch’s resolute tone of the ‘ritual reformer’, who authoritatively suggests and promotes a form of superior, intellectual-philosophical worship to Isis’ followers. Very convincingly, he analyses Plutarch’s passion for Egyptian lore, rituals, mysteries and myths in connection with his Platonist dualistic ontology, as developed in De animae procreatione in Timaeo. Plutarch’s view thus conforms with the syncretistic Graeco-Roman conception of Isis (as attested in Apuleius’ Isis-book), which he re-elaborates in De Iside’s allegorical reading of the Egyptian gods as cosmogonic principles. From this perspective, Plutarch emerges as establishing his own ‘correct methodology’ for reading contemporary mystery cults and beliefs, with clear ascetic aims and in a philosophical-didactic mode.

Martin Andreas Stadler investigates the reception of Egyptian culture in the Roman empire, and emphasises from the very beginning the nature of Platonist philosophy as inherently open to dialogue with distant, foreign sources of wisdom. After addressing the pragmatic concern as to how Greeks and Egyptians could communicate, Stadler’s Egyptological survey analyses, in succession: the Iseum Campense in Rome as a meaningful case study for the role of Isis and Osiris outside Egypt; Plutarch’s correct intuitions about Egyptian culture, in light of papyrological evidence; and, finally, his overall knowledge of Egypt. Stadler — with great skill and expertise — stresses, behind the merely linguistic aspects of their ceaseless and variable interactions, the intrinsically discontinuous character of both Egyptian religious culture and Greek philosophical thinking over time.

Océane Henri offers a fresh and thought-provoking approach — based on the analysis of papyri and inscriptions — to the notion of interpretatio Graeca. As an Egyptologist, she focuses on how Greeks re-named the Egyptian deities, by making use of epithets that expressed the different virtues, abilities, and even ontological aspects and distinct facets of the gods — thus responding to the typical religious needs of the first centuries AD. As shown in particular by the archaeological findings that Henri analyses, gods were exported, imported and ‘disguised’ under chosen divine names, obtained by processes of etymological creativity or inventive translation.

Frederick E. Brenk’s Searching for Truth seems itself an adventurous quest for truth among the many works of Plutarch considered (including the Amatorius, De defectu oraculorum, De animae procreatione and the works on animals), and among many scholarly studies, of which he offers an excellent survey. The main two recent books that Brenk takes into account are: George Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen (Oxford 2001), and Peter Van Nuffelen, Rethinking the Gods. Philosophical Readings of Greek Religion in the Post-Hellenistic Period (Oxford 2011) — employed to draw a distinction between two opposite views of ancient philosophers either as “actively searching” for truth in primeval and therefore authoritative sources of knowledge (as in the two books just mentioned), or as using their own philosophy to “interpret and domesticate” foreign wisdom (p. 62).

Svenja Nagel’s rich contribution returns to the connection between Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses XI. She questions the value of these writings as sources of information for Egyptian myth, rites and religious ideas in the Graeco-Roman world, in light of recent improvements in knowledge that Egyptologists have attained concerning religious texts from the Late Period onwards. Nagel acknowledges the Middle-Platonist background in which Plutarch and Apuleius were operating, and she effectively analyses their contributions on two main levels: one content-related, centred on the variegated image of Isis (a goddess of many names, faces, and functions) and on the actual sources available to the Greeks (literary texts as well as testimonies of private religious and magical practices); the other form-related, thus addressing the divergent literary genres chosen by Plutarch and Apuleius. The fairly unified image of Isis as a universal goddess that emerges is that of an intermediary between the world and the absolutely transcendent god, close to us and our earthy pains; it is defined by Nagel as reflecting the developments and spread of Isism inside and outside of Egypt in the first centuries AD.

David Klotz places emphasis on local religious traditions, circumscribed to specific civic centres, as a framework within which Plutarch’s testimony has to be read and evaluated. Klotz concentrates on specifically Theban rites, traditions, and cosmogonic theories, and he explores how these notions were exchanged through direct communication between Greek intellectuals and Egyptian priests. Klotz’s proposal to restrict our focus to cultural and religious examples linked to specific places and times proves appropriate to reconstruct, and do justice to, the creative and variegated panorama of late antiquity — thus discarding the general, all-too-comprehensive, category of ‘syncretism’. In this framework, Plutarch, as well as later Platonists, appear to have had access to first-hand information from the Nile Delta.

Joachim Friedrich Quack analyses De mysteriis aegyptiorum chaldaeorum assyriorum — a work seldom studied by Egyptologists, in order to prove its Egyptian background and inspiration. After dismantling the theory that the Chaldean Oracles had a pervasive influence on De Mysteriis — by a careful examination of three textual case studies —, Quack discloses the Egyptian derivation that characterises the three main themes of the essay, which are: the idea of a hierarchical theological structure, the fondness for divination and the notion of theurgy. The investigation is conducted from a rigorous philological perspective and takes into account an extremely fascinating set of case studies — ranging from the iconography of Horus, to the obscure etymology of ‘Anebo’.

Christian Tornau concentrates on the relations between Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride and the Corpus Hermeticum — two admittedly different works, whose main discrepancy Tornau sees in the fact that the former presents a Platonic exegesis of Egyptian mythology, while the latter — with its revelations, aretalogies and epiphanies — is myth itself. Tornau admits (beside the notoriously elusive nature of the Hermetica) the objective difficulty of tracing historical connections between these two distant worlds, which nevertheless display some intriguing conceptual meeting points (e.g., the centrality, and soteriological connotation, of the concepts of ἐπιστήμη and γνῶσις) and textual-stylistic similarities (e.g., their apostrophic, didactic-assertive tone). He concludes that both De Iside and the Hermetica are rooted in (and part of a creative process of transformation of) Greek philosophical tradition.

Geert Roskam, for his part, revives the Platonic-Academic spirit of Plutarch by stressing the centrality of the ‘zêtêma’ as a form of philosophical enquiry in the writings of the Chaeronean, and in those of his age. Roskam takes us on a stimulating intellectual journey through Plutarch’s ascending philosophical path, in which every step manifests an ever higher degree of verisimilitude. De Iside et Osiride manifests precisely this zetematic structure. And here comes Roskam’s caveat — which acknowledges the impressive amount of information that Plutarch offers to Egyptologists, without distorting nor concealing it: every interpretation of the myth that Plutarch presents has its own dignity, contains a grain of truth, and therefore must not be disregarded. Plutarch’s philosophical target lies indeed in the process of searching rather than in the impossible acquisition of a definitive truth.

Jan Tattko brings attention to the rhetor Aelius Aristides, whom he portrays as a model of reception and appropriation of Egyptian ideas in the Roman empire, thus attesting to the pervasiveness of this influence outside Platonist philosophy as well. He focuses especially on two works of Aristides that show his familiarity and eyewitness knowledge of Egyptian wisdom, probably acquired in Alexandria: the Αἰγύπτιος Λόγος (Or. 36, a composition marked by a strong geographic-antiquarian taste) and the hymn to Sarapis (Εἰς Σάραπιν = Or. 45, praising all the different faces and virtues of the Alexandrian god).

The last three contributions deal with different examples of the charming iconographic power of the Egyptian world, as read through the prism of Greek philosophy. Alexandra von Lieven proposes a thorough investigation of Porphyry’s De cultu simulacrorum, fr. 10, preserved in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica (3.11.45-3.13.2): here, Porphyry illustrates a series of Egyptian idols, of which he develops his own allegorical interpretation. Andreas H. Pries, in his original, captivating study, explores the function of hieroglyphics to display a possible connection between Platonic and Egyptian mindset — thus identifying a common point between Greek philosophy as “Denken in Bildern” (Hirsch-Luipold 2002)1 and Egyptian “hieroglyphischem Denken” (Hornung 1999)2 (pp. 296-297). Pries’ investigation is centred on three main texts, of which he shows unexpected points of contact: the Demotic Book of the Dead, the Gnostic treatise Evangelium Veritatis and Plotinus, Enneads 5.8.6. Rene Pfeilschifter finally takes into account Synesius’ Egyptian Tale, or On Providence, and proves that its significance extends far beyond historiography — with its re-elaboration of the Osiris myth, and more broadly its stress on Egyptian culture as a lively, sublime repository of iconographies and enigmatic messages.

What we get from the book as a whole is the image of late antiquity as a vibrant world, whose real character is brought to light by all these accurate, close studies devoted to the manifold interactions between ancient Greek and Egyptian wisdom. This fertile interplay — which appears to have produced always surprising results in antiquity, given the incessant mutability of the two main speakers involved in this dialogue, and of all the many factors in play — is thus well reflected in the present volume, and is confirmed by the original, always instructive outcomes reached by its chapters.

More specifically, this collection clarifies that the testimonies of Plutarch (as well as of other Platonists) must be read and assessed within a sound methodological framework, and require the preliminary consideration of the specific content and literary form, also in light of their broader philosophical-ideological agenda. All too often, indeed, scholars quote passages of Plutarch (sometimes drawn from the words of a random character in his dialogues) in an uncritical and decontextualised way, and treat them as pieces of secure information. Conversely, in the pages of this book we also find an important invitation for scholars of ancient philosophy to open up to precious (but mostly neglected or dismissed as ‘too eccentric’) textual sources, such as the Corpus Hermeticum and the Papyri Graecae Magicae.

These are only some of the many valuable instructions offered by Platonismus und spätägyptische Religion to anyone willing to initiate profitable interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of classical studies.

Authors and titles

Michael Erler, Martin Andreas Stadler, Zur Einführung
Herwig Görgemanns, Plutarchs Isis-Buch
Martin Andreas Stadler, Ägyptenrezeption in der römischen Kaiserzeit
Océane Henri, A general approach to interpretatio Graeca in the light of papyrological evidence
Frederick E. Brenk, ’Searching for Truth’?
Svenja Nagel, Mittelplatonische Konzepte der Göttin Isis bei Plutarch und Apuleius im Vergleich mit ägyptischen Quellen der griechisch-römischen Zeit
David Klotz, Elements of Theban Theology in Plutarch and his Contemporaries
Joachim Friedrich Quack, (H)abamons Stimme?
Christian Tornau, Im Namen des Gottgeziemenden
Geert Roskam, On the multi-coloured robes of philosophy
Jan Tattko, Ägypten auf der Bühne der sophistischen Rhetorik in der römischen Kaiserzeit
Alexandra von Lieven, Porphyrios und die ägyptische Religion vor dem Hintergrund ägyptischer Quellen
Andreas H. Pries, ἔμψυχα ἱερογλυφικά II


1.   Hirsch-Luipold, Rainer (2002), Plutarchs Denken in Bildern. Studien zur literarischen, philosophischen und religiösen Funktion des Bildhaften, Tübingen.
2.   Hornung (2001): Erik Hornung, „’Hieroglyphisch denken’. Bild und Schrift im alten Ägypten“, in: Gottfried Boehm (Hg.), Homo pictor (Colloquium Rauricum 7), München/Leipzig, 76– 86.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010