BMCR 2000.04.19

Simplikios und das Ende der neuplatonischen Schule in Athen

, Simplikios und das Ende der neuplatonischen Schule in Athen. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1999. 59. DM 32,-. ISSN 0002-2977.

For quite a few decades there has been an ever-growing interest in a comparatively brief but very significant period of time that has been called “The Last Days of the Academy at Athens”. Such is the title of a famous article by Alan Cameron.1 He deals, here and elsewhere, with some of the main questions and their implications concerning a moment in history which has often symbolized — rightly or not — the end of pagan antiquity and the final victory of Christianity in the 6th century. When Alan Cameron speaks of “Academy”, however, we should perhaps be more careful and not think of Plato’s school, the historical so-called Old Academy. For the latter has to be dissociated — as John Glucker in particular has shown in his book Antiochus and the Late Academy, Göttingen 1978 (= Hypomnemata, Heft 56) — from the much later Athenian teaching and meeting place of the late Platonist philosophers to which Alan Cameron refers. We might better understand this new institution as a private “school” — I prefer to put “school” in quotation marks because we do not know very much about its internal structure and organization — of some outstanding Platonists of late antiquity who to be sure wished to continue Plato’s spiritual heritage by refounding his school. But we know that there cannot really have been any geographical, institutional, economical or personal continuity within one organizational entity. In spite of this fact the respective heads of this new Platonist “school” were called “successors” ( διάδοχοι, i.e. of Plato) and often saw themselves in a strong and basically uninterrupted tradition reaching back to Plato.

But not only specialists in the field of ancient history have treated the intriguing and very complex issues related to the “closing” of the late Platonist “school” at Athens in 529, the following exile of some of its main philosophers and their eventual return from exile. Historians of philosophy, classicists, orientalists, archaeologists and others have also made considerable efforts to solve some of the problems that are on the one hand directly connected with the imperial decision to end pagan (philosophical) activities in Athens (exact date, reasons, questions of application, direct impact) and on the other with the wider consequences — especially for the people concerned — following from Justinian’s act. Thiel’s succinct book is another attempt to shed light on some aspects of the time after the teaching activities of these Platonist philosophers in Athens had ceased and also on the possibility of an afterlife of the “school” under one of its last leading figures, Simplicius, a pupil of both Ammonius and particularly Damascius, the last head of the Athenian school. Thiel’s main emphasis is, in what one could consider as the first part of his little book or fascicle (pp. 8-24), on some important details which concern the exile of these Platonists and Agathias’ report on it. This exile is probably related to the emperor’s ban, which may have hit them fully in 529 or shortly after (there is a discussion on how influential Justinian’s decision really was: could it force them into exile?). In its second part (pp. 25-55) Thiel considers various options about the philosophers’ return from exile, and his main focus here is on Simplicius.

Considering the format of Thiel’s treatise one would expect, within the vast complex of questions which surround these rather fascinating last “Greek” philosophers,2 some elucidation or at least exploration of one or two specific points or issues which have not yet sufficiently been brought into the discussion. The reader is confirmed in his hope for a specialist contribution not only by the scholarly character of the series in which Thiel’s work appeared but also by the author’s own words. In the introduction to his treatise Thiel promises the reader (pp. 6-7) that with regard to the problem of Simplicius’ exile and return to the Byzantine empire one could still achieve a more balanced result on the question of his exact residence after his return. Thus we would know, for example, where and under what conditions Simplicius composed most of his commentary oeuvre, which was mainly written after the period of exile. Thiel wants to achieve this result by means of a quick overview of the arguments adduced so far in the scholarly discussion and by reconsidering some important evidence that has so far only played a minor role, if any, in this debate.

What Thiel as a matter of fact does in the main part of his treatise seems to me somewhat in conflict with these promises. He does provide us with another discussion of some of the judgements rendered or arguments produced previously by scholars like Michel Tardieu (in particular), Ilsetraut Hadot, Philippe Hoffmann, Simone van Riet3 and those who preceded them in this debate. But unfortunately Thiel gives us no fresh discussion of all these elements but, on the whole, a rather unoriginal confirmation of existing theses or a rejection of them on the basis of counter-arguments which are in turn already well known. His sometimes superficial summarizing of arguments and the omission of many interesting details also prevent him from really finding an independent viewpoint. The reader guesses quickly that Thiel’s result will be a modified, corrected and slightly up-dated version of Tardieu (cf. the anticipation on p. 24). Such a result cannot convince a reader who would have preferred if Thiel had attempted to confirm (or reject) perhaps only one element of Tardieu’s series of theses and assumptions by means of a thorough and critical discussion of one or two of Tardieu’s arguments. Instead, his quick summary (with the details of which I would also sometimes disagree) of all the enjeux and main arguments leads to a book which is — to describe it positively — a synthetical introduction into the status quaestionis useful for any reader who is a newcomer to the topic and who wishes to get a first impression of what the discussion is all about. I cannot see that Thiel reconsiders any important evidence that has so far been neglected. His result is therefore perhaps more balanced than that of Tardieu but not so in comparison to those who have already modified Tardieu (like Hadot or van Riet), whom Thiel sometimes follows a little too closely.

Since the topic of the late Platonist philosophers’ exile and their return is intriguing, it may be permitted to go through the contents of Thiel’s work, which somewhat resembles a revised version of a German “Seminararbeit”. Thiel starts (p. 9ff.) with the philosophers’ emigration and exile to Persia as reported by Agathias, our only source. He fully accepts (pp. 10-12), as opposed to Tardieu, Agathias’ report on the common trip of the pagan philosophers (one could add that they might not have been exclusively philosophers; there might also have been other pagan intellectuals like rhetoricians etc.) to Persia and, later on, their common return from Persia. In his rejection of Tardieu’s argument, Thiel does not go any further than Hadot (cf. Manuel, p. 41) and others who do not accept Tardieu’s argument that only Damascius actually went to Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. Next (pp. 13-18) Thiel analyses Agathias’ intention and manner of presentation in his report, which poses multiple problems, such as Agathias’ opinion concerning the philosophers, the reasons that led them to go into exile and the Persian king Chosroes. The latter suffers from a clearly tendentious representation in Agathias (I do not think that Chosroes is “in gewissem Masse entlastet” by Agathias’ ironic statement (cf. p. 14)) which contradicts the independent (conclusive) evidence that leads to a much more positive image of this king and of Persian politics at the time. There has been a debate as to whether or not Agathias thinks as highly of the pagan exiles as he appears to when he presents them. Hadot (cf. Manuel, p. 12) thinks that Agathias really holds them up to ridicule because of their naive and unrealistic convictions. Thiel is anxious to find some compromise between the majority and Hadot’s opinion. He therefore says that Agathias represents them as politically unrealistic (according to Agathias they think that the Persian kingdom is the Platonic ideal state) on the one hand but recognizes their philosophical superiority on the other. Thiel overlooks, however, the fact that Agathias’ judgment about the philosophers serves one purpose above all: to paint the blackest possible portrait of the Persian kingdom. Thus it appears as the opposite of the Platonic ideal state and as the opposite of what these fine and noble Platonic philosophers represent. I think Agathias does not so much make a statement about the naivety and lack of common sense of these pagans — whose intellectual capacities and character he obviously appreciates even though they might have made the wrong decision to go there — but rather about the Persians who are to his mind barbarians. This is also the reason why Agathias mentions Justinian’s ban, i.e. the real reason for the forced exile of the philosophers, only in passing. He would otherwise be at risk of destroying the implicitly positive image of the Roman/Byzantine empire which made its best men leave the country. Concerning the imperial ban and the closing of the Platonist school at Athens, Thiel (pp. 17-18) seems to adhere to the older hypotheses (Cameron, Glucker) which do not accept an abrupt actual ending of the “school’s” teaching activities in 529, a fact which is, however, strongly confirmed by the archaeological evidence (the work of e.g. Alison Frantz is summarized by Hoffmann, Damascius, pp. 548-559) whose relevance Thiel neglects here although he mentions it later (pp. 39-40).

Then (pp. 19-24) Thiel analyses more closely a portion of Agathias’ text that makes mention of the protection clause favourable to the exiled pagan philosophers that was included in the 532 peace treaty between the Persian and the Byzantine empire. This clause is a guarantee for the philosophers that “these men, in returning to their country, must be able to live there without fear and freely for the rest of their lives, without being forced to think anything which might be in contradiction with their views or to change the beliefs of their ancestors” (Agathias Hist. 2,31,4; p. 81,17-19 Keydell). As far as the problematic formula ἐφ’ ἑαυτοῖς is concerned Thiel rejects Hadot’s translation (accepted here) “librement, selon leur propre choix” in favour of the traditional (p. 22 n. 60) translation “privat für sich.” Personally I prefer Hadot’s translation because it is less specific and in line with what precedes (unspecific: without fear) and what follows (explicative and specific: freedom of thought and creed) in the text of the treaty. If the formula were given a sense as precise as Thiel’s, which takes up the sense traditionally attributed to this prepositional expression (they may not be active publicly, meaning that they may not teach), it would almost become a reservation with respect to the immediately following words of Agathias about the freedom of belief (even if it is limited to the private sphere). And then the meaning would actually be too negative — like a condition that must be fulfilled — for a phrase which is clearly expressed in a positive way. The intention that Thiel thinks led Hadot to her translation (force the case in favour of a return from Persia to Harran) is, it should be noted, not expressed that way by Hadot. Thiel finishes his first part with the astonishing statement that the ban on teaching activities which he thinks the clause of the pax perpetua contains, actually confirms the residence and teaching activity of the philosophers in a place like Harran.

In the second part Thiel discusses three options concerning the philosophers’ and especially Simplicius’ return from the Persian exile made possible by the protection clause just mentioned. In the first section of this second part (pp. 25-31) Thiel rejects rightly I think the hypothesis of a possible return of our group of philosophers to Alexandria (cf. e.g. Blumenthal, Verrycken). He has two arguments for this. First, the Platonists’ anti-Christian propaganda and their “gegen das Christentum gerichtete religionspolitische Betätigung” (pp. 26-28. 31), which would be unthinkable in an Alexandrian environment strongly characterized by Christianity. Second, the fact that Simplicius claims never to have personally known Philoponus, who was active in Alexandria at the time. The first argument is an old prejudice that remains problematic as far as the Platonists from Proclus onward are concerned. They did not build up their own theology in reaction to that of the Christians, as Thiel’s footnote 70 on p. 26 seems to suggest. Their own philosophical developments are generally speaking not reactions or anti-writings at that stage of history. It is also rather unlikely that an active anti-Christianism at the time would have been politically possible. Their interest in pagan cults and rituals may not, I think, be driven by the necessity to oppose themselves to something but is perfectly conceivable on its own. The second argument is well known and Thiel accepts Hadot’s judgment here. But I think that the difficult personal relation with Philoponus at which Simplicius’ statement hints might be more complicated than Hadot supposes. It might actually be a more decisive argument against Simplicius’ return to Alexandria that we do not possess any evidence that would positively confirm his stay and literary activity in that city after his return from exile.

In the second section (pp. 32-40) Thiel rejects — again rightly — the hypothesis of a possible return to Athens (cf. e.g. Tannery, Cameron, Glucker, Lynch). I think that Hadot and Hoffmann (taken up by Thiel 39-40) are right in insisting on the importance of the archaeological evidence which among many other indications hints that there was not any further Platonist teaching activity after Justinian’s ban. Furthermore (pp. 32-37), Thiel equally rejects (against Cameron) an important and problematic passage in Olympiodorus’ commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades I in its value as a testimony for the active presence of pagan Platonist philosophers in Athens (long) after Justinian’s drastic measures against them. He also restates the irrelevance of a passage in Paul Silentiarius adduced by Cameron. Again there is nothing really new in Thiel’s discussion of these two passages.

In the third and final section (pp. 41-55) Thiel gives his reasons for accepting Tardieu’s (who was followed by Hadot) spectacular (and probable) thesis that Simplicius returned from Persia to Harran, a city near Edessa where an authentic and important Neoplatonic school could survive at least until the 10th century! But, as I stated at the beginning, Thiel’s confirmation of this thesis and the modifications of it are as disappointing as most of the rest of his essay. Thiel’s justified doubts about Tardieu’s calendar argument (pp. 43-48) have for the most part already convincingly been formulated by van Riet. The following (pp. 49-55) positive arguments that Simplicius took up residence in Harran and there pursued, in the context of a Neoplatonic school, literary and possibly teaching activities after his return from Persia are not much more than a very short summary of some of the arguments advanced by Tardieu and taken up by Hadot.

It remains to hope that Thiel’s treatise may at least serve as an introduction to readers who are interested in this fascinating topic and have hitherto ignored the existence of these new theses concerning the revived scholarly debate on the late Platonists who were indeed not the last Neoplatonics. Since most of the relevant discussion and secondary literature has so far been in French and English only, contributions in other languages should in principle always be welcome.


1. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 195 (n.s. 15), 1969, p. 7-29. There is some confusion in Thiel’s short bibliography (pp. 57-59) on p. 57 where his two instances of “ders.” just below the name of Averil Cameron should refer not to her but to Alan Cameron. The corresponding bibliographical data on p. 6, note 6 is, however, correct.

2. They are “Greek” or Hellenic insofar as their intellectual background and their philosophizing are Greek, not their origins. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the first language of at least five of the seven philosophers mentioned in Agathias’ report — Hermias and Diogenes (both from Phoenicia), Isidorus of Gaza, Damascius of Syria and perhaps even Simplicius of Cilicia — was Syriac (or some other Aramaic dialect close to Syriac). Such a knowledge of Syriac might with some probability also be attributed to Iamblichus of Coele-Syria.

3. Cf. in particular M. Tardieu, Sabiens coraniques et “Sabiens” de Harran, in: Journal Asiatique 274, 1986, pp. 1-44. Id., “Les calendriers en usage à Harran d’après les sources arabes et le commentaire de Simplicius à la Physique d’Aristote”, in: I. Hadot (ed.), Simplicius: Sa vie, son oeuvre, sa survie, Berlin-New York 1987, pp. 40-57. Id., Les paysages reliques. Routes et haltes syriennes d’Isidore à Simplicius, Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, Sciences Religieuses, vol. 94, Louvain-Paris 1990. Id., “Chosroès”, in: R. Goulet, Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. 2 (Babélyca d’Argos – Dyscolius), Paris 1994, pp. 309-318. I. Hadot, Simplicius. Commentaire sur le Manuel d’Épictète. Introduction et édition critique du texte grec (Philosophia Antiqua 66), Leiden-New York-Köln 1996, cf. in particular chapters I-II (pp. 3-50) of the introduction. Ph. Hoffmann, “Damascius”, in: R. Goulet, Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. 2 (Babélyca d’Argos – Dyscolius), Paris 1994, pp. 541-593. S. van Riet, “À propos de la biographie de Simplicius”, in: Revue Philosophique de Louvain 89, 1991, pp. 506-514.