We are at a dinner party, perhaps held in Rome sometime after A.D. 75, although the guests are Greek and they speak in Greek. Between them they represent the major schools of philosophy, Platonism, Stoicism and Aristotelianism, but their subject on this occasion is not philosophy as such but the problem of whether the moon has a face. This might seem a recondite—or perhaps a trivial—theme, but it allows the guests to explore the central questions of astronomy in some depth. The diners debate whether the patterns on the moon are a reflection of the earth’s oceans, why the moon does not fall into the earth, the relative sizes of the two, the distances between them and the distance between each and the stars. These are not just speculations. Among the speakers are a geometrician, Apollonides, and a mathematician, Menelaus. They discuss how the size of the moon can be measured by timing eclipses and speculate that the moon is maintained in the sky by its own velocity “just as missiles placed in slings are kept from falling by being whirled around in a circle,” and that it may act as its own centre of gravity. They are aware of, even if they do not accept, Aristarchus’ hypothesis that the sun, not the earth, is the centre of the universe, and in discussing the distance between the earth and the stars they show themselves at home with Archimedes’ work The Sand Reckoner, which deals with the issues raised by very large numbers. Furthermore, they relate their astronomical views to the philosophies each champions, and when in need of illustrative material they quote from the great poets of previous generations, Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Pindar. These are highly educated men engaged in sophisticated conversation.1
The author of this reconstruction is Plutarch, a Greek from Chaeronaea in central Greece, writing sometime in the late first or early second century A.D. This period has often been derided for its lack of intellectual energy. In the magnificently sardonic words of Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator usurped by the sophists [for whom see below]. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”2 Yet, as the conversation at Plutarch’s dinner party illustrates, the quality of intellectual life remained high, and in recent years scholars have shown increasing respect for the continuing achievements of the Greeks under the Roman empire.
The experience of conquest by the Romans had been crushing, and one finds little evidence of a revival of Greek confidence before the middle of the first century A.D. Then begins the period known as the second sophistic, the first being the period of the sophists—“those who make a profession from being clever and inventive”—of fifth-century Athens. The second sophistic was led by members of the Greek city elites and characterized by a renewed interest in the glories of classical Greece and in the art of rhetoric.3 It was essentially conservative, even reactionary, in contrast to the radicalism of the thinkers of the first sophistic, but this does not mean that it lacked sophistication. A speech by Dio Chrysostom (Dio the Golden-tongued), made at the Olympic Games of A.D. 97, in which he praises Zeus, the glory of his image in the monumental statue by Pheidias that stood in his temple at Olympia and the greatness of Hellenism, is fully equal to the best formal speeches of the fifth and fourth century B.C. 4 The leaders of the second sophistic openly recognized the contribution of Rome. As Plutarch put it, while Rome ruled the empire, Greece was culturally superior. Greeks should recognize Roman political hegemony but need not abase themselves before Romans. In his influential, and atmospheric, series of Lives Plutarch presented selected Greeks and Romans alongside each other as equals.
The movement owed its origins to a visit to Greece in A.D. 66–67 by Nero, the successor to Claudius as emperor. Nero viewed himself in the role of a Hellenistic monarch, familiar with the arts, and as the benevolent patron of his subjects.5 His visit, judging by the gossipy report of Suetonius, writing some fifty years later, appears to have been a farce. Nero was determined to take part in a wide range of traditional contests. Suetonius, a typically upper-class Roman, is clearly appalled by Nero’s exhibitionism and regales his readers with tales of chariot races in which Nero falls out of his chariot (but is still awarded first prize) and musical contests in which members of the audience pretend to be dead so that they can be carried out while the emperor is playing. Yet, despite Suetonius’ mockery, the Greeks themselves seem to have been flattered by the imperial attention to the traditions of their culture.
Nero’s imperial initiative reached its climax in Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138. Hadrian was born in Spain (and spoke Latin with a rustic accent for which he was much mocked), but family connections to the previous emperor, Trajan, and his overall competence as a commander and administrator placed him in an excellent position to take over as emperor himself when Trajan died suddenly in 117.6 No emperor was to be better travelled or, perhaps, seen by more of his subjects than Hadrian, and his buildings, the Pantheon and his Mausoleum in Rome, his great villa outside Rome at Tivoli and Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain remain outstanding monuments to his name. Yet, despite his achievements, he was clearly a complex and troubled man whom his contemporaries found impossible to fathom. “In one and the same person stern and cheerful, affable and harsh, impetuous and hesitant, mean and generous, hypocritical and straightforward, cruel and merciful, and always in all things changeable,” as one observer put it. 7
Hadrian’s love of all things Greek was to become the dominant cultural influence of his life. In 124 he was initiated into the ancient Eleusinian mysteries (Eleusis was a shrine close to Athens) and set about finally completing the massive temple to Zeus in Athens, which had by then stood unfinished for 600 years. A new quarter of the city was created through his patronage. In the 130s he founded a council of ancient Greek cities, the Panhellenion. The representatives of the cities, mostly provincial grandees, met in the precincts of the now completed temple to Zeus and offered cult worship to Hadrian. He was proud of his learning. In the museum at Alexandria he summoned the academics to his presence, asking the most difficult philosophical questions and then providing the answers himself. His patronage of a beautiful Bithynian adolescent, Antinous, was another manifestation of his Greekness, although this seems to have been a far more intense and passionate relationship than would have been approved of in classical Athens. Antinous appears to have cracked under the pressure, and his death in the Nile in 130 may have been suicide. Hadrian mourned his lover hysterically, even declaring that he was a god. A city, Antinoopolis, was founded in Egypt in his memory, and cult statues of the boy are found throughout the Greek world.
There were eastern themes too in the monumental country villa Hadrian built outside Rome at Tivoli; echoes of Hadrian’s journeys are to be found throughout the surviving ruins. The temple complex to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis at Canopus on the Nile (visited by Hadrian in 130) is commemorated by a pool surrounded by statues; the celebrated temple to Aphrodite at Cnidus, which contained the first nude statue of Aphrodite by Praxiteles (an exemplar for female nudity for centuries), was re-created; and a gorge beside the villa was called the Tempe, after the beautiful valley in Thessaly. Other parts of the building were named after the philosophical schools of Athens, the Academy and the Lyceum.
Yet despite the complexities of his personality, Hadrian was a generous and effective ruler. In the twenty-one years of his reign he lavished over 200 benefactions on 130 cities across the empire. Many were effected directly through their leading citizens, enabling Hadrian to cement his ties with members of the elite while in turn reinforcing their own status with their fellow citizens. Hadrian often fostered local pride by restoring or finishing an ancient building, to which would be added a statue of himself or a dedicatory inscription. About a third of his known building projects involved temples, and, while a few were dedicated to the cult of the emperor, the majority honoured Olympian or local gods. So religious toleration, local pride and the beneficence of the emperor were celebrated in unison.8
The reign of the emperor Trajan, Hadrian’s immediate predecessor (emperor A.D. 98–117), had seen a transformation in the public perception of the emperor, from his role as its “first citizen,” so effectively played by Augustus, to that of “parent” of the empire. Trajan had developed schemes by which poor children in Italy were given assistance, and children maltreated by their fathers were aided. He even set up a rescue service for babies who had been exposed to die (so long as they were free-born). He thus established the convention of the “good” emperor, who actively cared for his people. Hadrian himself was once accosted by an old woman who attempted to foist a petition on him. He turned her away, but she courageously persisted, saying that if he would not respond to her, he should cease being emperor. He took the point and paused to read the petition. Hadrian is credited with laws forbidding the castration of slaves and the shackling of agricultural slaves together in prison. His successor, Antoninus Pius, restricted the circumstances under which the torture of slaves could be ordered. A famous relief panel of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, from the late 170s, represents imperial clemency. Two barbarians kneel in front of the emperor while he raises his right hand in a gesture of forgiveness. These are the images of benevolence that the emperors fostered of themselves and, even though the reforms were arguably minor and presumably difficult to enforce, they contributed to preventing the post of emperor from degenerating into unrestrained dictatorship.
Within the empire the connections between the emperor and the cities rested on his recognition of their elites, the giving of patronage (Hadrian threw games in any city he visited) and, in the last resort, protection from invaders. In the east the greatest threat (until its overthrow by the Sassanids in the early third century) was the Parthian empire; when an emperor secured the frontier, cities showed their appreciation with great monuments of imperial propaganda. One of the finest was the Antonine Altar at Ephesus, whose sculptures survive only in fragments. The subject of the altar is the emperor Lucius Verus (ruled 161–69), who was adopted by Hadrian’s chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, as his son alongside the better-known Marcus Aurelius. On Antoninus’ death, both became emperor. Lucius led a successful campaign against the Parthians. In 164 he came to Ephesus, one of the most opulent cities of the Greek east, where imperial unity was cemented through his marriage to Marcus Aurelius’ daughter. After his death, the city chose to glorify his achievements. The Antonine Altar celebrates the imperial family. Lucius is shown as a baby being held by Antoninus Pius in the presence of Hadrian. He then appears in battle against the Parthians. Next he is shown being received into heaven and finally he is deified among the gods. In other fragments he is placed alongside personifications of cities rejoicing in their deliverance from the Parthian threat.9 The emperor is portrayed as a soldier protecting the eastern cities of his empire from invasion and earns the favour of the gods as a reward.10
Contrary to Gibbon’s claim, the intellectual achievements of the period were not only sophisticated but also wide-ranging. Greek rationalism continued to prove fruitful. In mathematics Diophantus (although his precise dates are unknown, he probably lived in the third century A.D.) achieved a breakthrough in algebra by suggesting the use of symbols for unknown numbers. While the geometricians had hitherto used only powers up to three (all that is needed when working in three dimensions), Diophantus postulated greater powers and found ways to express them. Much of his work was in the study of indeterminate equations, and this branch of algebra is still known as Diophantine analysis.11
The most significant figure in medicine at this time was Galen (who was born in A.D. 129 and lived at least until the end of the century), a physician from Pergamum. He eventually made his way to Rome, where he served as a doctor in the court of Marcus Aurelius and his successors. Both Galen’s versatility and his energy were remarkable—he wove medical knowledge into philosophy (like many of his time a Platonist by temperament, he borrowed Plato’s concept of the tripartite soul, linking its rational elements with the brain, its “spirited” aspects with the heart and its grosser [in Platonic terms] desires or appetites with the liver), wrote prodigiously (some 20,000 pages of his works survive; many have still not been properly studied) and carried out hundreds of dissections. It was Galen who finally understood the function of the arteries as vessels for carrying blood, as well as the workings of the bladder. He was particularly interested in the operation of the nerves and would display his understanding by taking a pig and destroying one function of its nervous system after another before an astonished audience. He was also remarkable for his attempts to define the foundations of certainty in medicine. Geoffrey Lloyd writes: “Galen is probably unique among practising physicians in any age or culture for his professionalism also as a logician . . . conversely he is also remarkable among practising logicians for his ability in, and experience of, medical practice.” His work dominated his field for the next thousand years, so successfully, however, that many earlier advances in medicine were assumed to be superseded and texts describing them discarded.12
It seems appropriate to refer to the work of Ptolemy in astronomy (his period of most intense work in Alexandria took place between A.D. 127 and 141) as marking the apogée of the science. The word “apogée” (the root is in the Greek “from the earth”) was coined by him to describe the moment in its orbit when the moon is furthest from the earth. (It was first used in English in its sense of “a climax” in 1600.) Ptolemy drew on earlier astronomical observations but improved them through the use of the armillary astrolabe, which allowed him to identify the position of stars more effectively and quickly than earlier methods. He then set about plotting and predicting the movements of the moon, the sun and the planets. Sharing as he did the conventional wisdom that the sun moved around a stationary earth, he was forced to come up with extraordinarily complicated models of circles whose own centres moved around other circles. While his models were all flawed, in that his basic assumptions were wrong, the intellectual achievement was magnificent: “extraordinary for the rigour of its mathematical arguments, for the range of data encompassed and the comprehensiveness of the results proposed,” as Geoffrey Lloyd puts it. Though the Greek original is lost, his major work on astronomy, now known as the Almagest (from the Arabic “the greatest”), survived intact in its Arab edition and was eventually translated back into Latin. Like Galen’s, Ptolemy’s mind ranged widely—he speculated on geography, studied acoustics and carried out experiments with mirrors.
As a recent review of his Geography reminds us:
Ptolemy was the pioneer who established the graticle (a grid of carefully mapped coordinates) as the basis for serious cartography; who introduced “minutes” and “seconds” to facilitate the division of degrees; who argued for the primacy of the simplest hypothesis that did not contradict observations; who demanded that observations calling for precision should be checked and rechecked over a long period; who insisted that maps be drawn to scale; who developed the use of both gnomon and astrolabe for celestial angle-measurements to determine latitude; who, most notably, tackled the perennial problem of how to represent the globe, in whole or in part, on a flat surface.
Despite his achievements as a scientist, Ptolemy remained in awe of the universe.
I know that I am mortal, ephemeral; yet when I track the
Clustering spiral orbits of the stars
My feet touch earth no longer: a heavenly nursling,
Ambrosia-filled, I company with God.13
Ptolemy’s words are a reminder that for the Greeks spirituality and rationality, muthos and logos, could co-exist without conflict. As we have seen, one of the most sophisticated of the Greek intellectual achievements was the distinction between the areas of knowledge in which certainty was possible and those that were not subject to rationalism. A mathematical proof could be sustained by deductive logic and was unarguably true, while a myth was fluid and flexible, open to individual interpretation. To the Greeks, the idea that anyone could insist that others respect the truth of a myth was absurd, yet this did not mean that a myth lacked power. Whether used to explain or justify a ritual or as a means to explore issues in tragic drama, myth was a crucial way of mediating between the real and imagined world. The mature mind, as Aristotle had stressed, was one in which reason and emotion could be sustained in harmony.
Although few Romans achieved the intellectual creativity of the finest Greek minds (we have no evidence of a Roman carrying out original mathematical work, for instance), like the Greeks, Romans appreciated that their own myths, those connected to the founding of their city, for example, were not dogma. They were woven into ritual in the service of tradition and good order but not as absolute and unassailable truths. Cicero makes the point well. In his On the Nature of the Gods he was openly sceptical about the existence of the gods, but he nevertheless served as a priest in civic cults. The fulfillment of public duties was an intrinsic part of being Roman; the question of what an individual believed about the gods or myths surrounding those gods was a private matter. It became relevant only if he publicly offended by disrupting a ritual or openly refusing to follow it. Religious practice was closely tied to the public order of the state and with the psychological well-being that comes from the following of ancient rituals. Religious devotion was indistinguishable from one’s loyalties to the state, one’s city and one’s family.14
The Romans assumed that other people’s gods were as important a part of the fabric of their society as their gods were of theirs, and this provides one reason why they were so easily prepared to tolerate other deities and beliefs. Their respect for gods was inclusive and involved a concern that local deities should not be offended. When Publius Servius conquered the city of Isaura Palaia in southern Galatia in 67, he set up a dedication to “whichever” gods protected the city he had taken. Again, when Roman legions arrived in the Libyan desert in 201, they conciliated the local god Gholia by placing a representation of him alongside the Roman gods in their camp. Often, over time, these local gods would become assimilated with the Roman deities. A local god of thunder might be Zeus, “in disguise” as it were, and the Romans would willingly make the connection by incorporating the local god into their rituals. One of the gods to whom they erected a temple in Libya was Zeus Hammon, Zeus in his role as protector of caravan routes, a role unimaginable in Greece or Italy, but enthusiastically adopted by the Romans as they encountered new types of territory. The Edict of Milan of 313, in which the emperor Constantine declared toleration of all cults including Christianity, marks the culmination of this process.
By the second century A.D. it was increasingly commonplace to see the divine world as subject to one supreme god, with the other gods being either manifestations of his divinity or as lesser divinities. The Egyptian goddess Isis, for instance, spreads across the empire as a mother goddess with many concerns. “I am nature, the universal mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of heaven, the wholesome sea breezes, the lamentable silence of the gods below,” she tells Lucius, the “hero” of Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass (c. A.D. 160).15 In Aphrodisias, a city in southern Asia Minor, a cult statue dedicated to Aphrodite, traditionally goddess of love and sexuality, has panels detailing her powers over the sea (where she was, in mythology, born) and the underworld. New cults emerged. A mass of inscriptions, found throughout the east and Egypt, are dedicated to theos hypsistos, “the Most High God,” and worshippers of this divinity seem to have modelled their practices on Judaism while remaining distinct from it. They observed a Sabbath but did not insist on circumcision, and they rejected the ceremonies or institutions of the Roman state. While the origin of this cult dates from before Christianity (it is first attested in the second century B.C.), Christ is also found in a later inscription to be attached as “an angel” to the God.16
What is central to these cults is their flexibility. The device of allowing different gods to be assimilated into a supreme deity was an effective one. “It makes no difference,” wrote the second-century Platonist Celsus, “whether we call Zeus the Most High or Zeus or Adonis or Sabaoth or Amun like the Egyptians, or Papaeus like the Scythians.”17 It is possible even to go so far as to say that a belief in an overriding deity was, by this period, the most widespread belief of pagan religion. While the cult of theos hypsistos is known to have attracted the poorer classes, and Zeus/Jupiter conventional Romans, Aristotelians could speak of the “unmoved mover” and Platonists of “the Good.” The Jews had the God of Israel and the Stoics one supreme rational principle that survived the conflagration that ended each cycle of cosmic history, absorbing all other divine forces into it and then allowing them to re-emerge. All these groups accepted that there was at the apex of the hierarchy of divine forces one higher being, even if the form of this being was conceptualized in different ways and addressed by different names in different cultures. As the sophist Maximus of Madaura put it in A.D. 390 (in a letter to the Christian Augustine):
That the supreme God is one, without beginning, without offspring [a reference here to the Christian belief in the Incarnation, which Platonists, in particular, found unsustainable], as it were the great and august father of nature, what person is there so mad and totally deprived of sense to deny? His powers diffused through the world that is his work we invoke under various names, because we are obviously ignorant of his real name. For the name “God” is common to all religions. The outcome is that while with our various prayers we each honour as it were his limbs separately all together we are seen to be worshipping him in his entirety.
In the fourth century, the orator Themistius, berating the emperor Valens for his intolerance in insisting on the worship of a narrowly defined Christian God, was to claim that there were some 300 ways of describing the Godhead and that God would actually enjoy being worshipped in a diversity of ways. “Pagan monotheism,” write Athanassiadi and Frede in summing up their own survey, “was a deeply rooted trend in ancient philosophy which developed under its own momentum, broadening sufficiently to embrace a good part of the population.” They go on to argue that Christianity, with its supreme God and his surrounding entourage of divine forces—Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints and martyrs—should be seen as an integral part of this trend, not as a force outside it.18 Belief in a supreme God was, of course, only the starting point for fresh debates as to “his” nature, powers and concerns. Discussion centred on whether the supreme deity had existed and would continue to exist eternally, whether all matter appeared with “him” at the beginning of time (as the Platonists assumed) or was a separate creation from nothingness, whether “he” interacted with the world, and if so benevolently, or was indifferent to it (as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” and the Epicurean gods were assumed to be). So long as no ruler attempted to enforce a definition of the supreme deity and his attributes, these fruitful speculations could continue.
While it is difficult to know what spiritual needs drew worshippers towards the adoption of a single deity, this development was accompanied by a renewed interest in mystery cults. The oldest Greek “mystery” shrine, that of Eleusis near Athens, which centred on cults to Demeter, the Greek goddess of corn, and her daughter Persephone, was by now centuries old and so respectable that emperors and other Roman notables would be initiated without embarrassment into its rituals. The new mystery cults, by contrast, were not tied to any fixed centre and thus could spread widely through the empire. The new cults tended to focus on deities from outside the traditional pantheon, from Persia, Egypt, or in the case of Christianity, which shares some of the features of the mystery cults, from Judaism. The initiation rites of Isis (vividly described in The Golden Ass) included a ritual bath, the transmission of secrets of the cult and then ten days of fasting before the final ceremony. No wonder Lucius describes the experience as intense and hallucinatory—he reaches “the borders of death,” “sees” the sun blazing at midnight and enters into “the world of the gods.” Another mystery cult, Mithraism, which originated in the worship of a Persian cattle god, Mithras, was particularly popular among soldiers and men of business. Initiates, exclusively male, met in “caves,” enjoyed communal meals and could rise through a hierarchy of grades as their commitment to the cult grew. Mithraism spread far to the west—among the 400 known Mithraic “caves,” one is in London. Christianity, through its initiation rites (baptism), communal meals and the promise of a blessed afterlife, had much in common with these cults, not least in the idea that a priestly elite had privileged access to the cult’s secrets and the absolute right to interpret them for others.19
While certain behaviours could offend the gods to the extent that individuals or the state were vulnerable to their revenge, Roman religion did not in itself provide an ethical system. Those who wanted to develop their own could turn to the schools of philosophy. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism preached “ideal” ways of living, and the Epicureans openly proselytized, although their idea of withdrawal from society did not impress the traditional Roman. Stoicism, with its celebration of public service, resistance to tyranny and stress on emotional restraint and endurance, even to the extent of committing suicide for one’s ideals, accorded rather better with traditional Roman values. Seneca, one of Nero’s principal advisers, wrote extensively on how one should behave in unsettling circumstances and became an exemplar for all Stoics by committing suicide as Nero’s rule became more intolerable. There was also much of the Stoic in the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who, although not trained as a soldier, saw it as his duty to remain on the northern frontier leading the legions against the onslaughts of the barbarians. His famous Meditations (which have inspired some and appeared platitudinous to others) were jotted down in Greek in spare moments during his campaigns.
However, it was Platonism that was to become the dominant school of philosophy in these centuries. Not only did Platonism develop in new directions; it also absorbed aspects of other philosophies, especially Stoicism. Plato valued reason above emotion; indeed, he went further in showing an active distaste for sensual pleasure, which he believed diverted the soul from its highest purpose, which was understanding, through reason, the real world of the Forms that existed on a higher plane than the material world “below.” We have seen that “the Good” was to Plato a supreme Form in that it could be assumed that Beauty and Justice and other Forms had some “Good” within them that could be represented by an overriding “Good.” The most important development of later Platonism was to consider what this “Good” might be, and whether it was something more than a supreme and unchanging entity that just “was.” So, echoing the developments discussed above, evolved the possibility that “the Good” might actually be conceived of as some form of supreme “God.”
The traditional Platonic view was that “the Good” and the Forms were timeless; in other words, there was no act of creation, they had always been there. Did they, however, have a purpose? An important development in Middle Platonism (the name given by nineteenth-century scholars to developments in Platonic philosophy in the period between the 60s B.C. and A.D. 204, the birthdate of Plotinus, who introduces a new phase of Platonism, Neoplatonism) was the argument that “the Good” was something more than simply an entity to be recognized by the reasoning human soul—it had an active intelligence and the Forms were its “thoughts.” The Forms too had an active purpose in that they provided a blueprint for entities in the material world. One view was that the material world had been in chaos until the Forms had acted on it in some way to produce order. To put it crudely, the Form of Table had acted to produce actual usable tables, the Form of Beauty to produce objects with the characteristics of being beautiful.20
These ideas were drawn on by a Jewish philosopher, the Greek-speaking Philo of Alexandria (active in the first half of the first century A.D.), to offer a radically new approach to Jewish theology. If Plato was right and the Forms existed eternally, then others living before Plato might have been able to grasp them. Philo went so far as to argue that Moses had been a Platonic philosopher who had understood the Forms in the way Plato had hoped his followers would. Moses’ Old Testament God was none other than “the Good” of Plato. (The later Platonist Numenius [second century A.D.] went so far as to claim, “Who is Plato, if not Moses speaking Greek?”) For Philo, however, God was eternal and unchanging, outside space and time and free of all passion, but able to act creatively, in bringing into being the material world, the human soul and virtues, from what Philo, like other Platonists, believed to have been an original state of chaos, and in upholding good and punishing evil. The influence of Plato on Philo was so pronounced that, despite his Jewish background, Philo rejected Old Testament portrayals of God which talk of his face, his hands and his emotional power. As an entity who was beyond all human attributes and even beyond human understanding, he could not be classified in such an anthropomorphic way.
The Forms, Philo continued, had come into being at the same time as God but were organized by him through the divine power of reason (once again the word logos is used), which somehow acted as a directing force for the Forms, encapsulating them and ordering their work. It is not always clear from Philo’s writings whether he believed the logos to be an attribute of God employed for a specific purpose, or a separate entity acting under God’s control, but the distinction between God’s fundamental essence (ousia) and his power as manifested in the world was a crucial one. (It is paralleled in other Jewish writings, for example, in the Book of Proverbs 8:22 and 8:31, where it is said that Wisdom was created by God as “the oldest of his works” and “at play everywhere in the world delighting to be with the sons of men.”) For Philo the logos could actually appear in the world—he gave as an example the voice speaking to Moses from the Burning Bush—and it was the logos that organized the creation of the world in line with a blueprint that God had had in his mind from the beginning. (Philo makes an analogy with an architect who has a clear idea of the city he wishes to build before he commences work on it.) The Forms act as the ideals to which each entity in the material world aspires, in other words (as noted), a table in the material world can be judged as an imitation of the Form of Table, even if it is never likely to be so perfect. However, some tables will be closer to the ideal table than others, and the same can be said of men. Philo names some men, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for instance, as more “ideal” than others. What marked them out was their commitment to the Forms and God, a commitment implied through their desire for goodness and the avoidance of any emotion and sensuality that would draw them away from God.
Philo knew nothing of Christianity, but he was to prove enormously important in bridging the gap between Judaism and Greek philosophy in representing God of the Old Testament as a Platonic God, thus enabling Greek philosophers to find a home within the Jewish and, later, the Christian tradition. Although no direct connection with Philo has been established, John’s use of logos, translated into English as “word” in the prologue to his Gospel (“And the Word was made flesh”), uses logos as a force which was both “with God in the beginning” and actively involved in the creation, as Philo and earlier writers suggest. Where John innovates is to see the logos becoming flesh in Jesus, an idea unique to Christianity and deeply troubling to traditional Platonists.
The Middle Platonists who followed Philo maintained his view that God or “the Good” was a simple unchangeable unity with an intelligence that worked actively in the material world through the Forms. He was to be “reached” by reason rather than emotion and through asceticism rather than sensuality; Philo went so far as to argue that the ideal human being would be asexual. Much debate focused on the act of creation. Plato suggested that the universe had existed eternally but (in the dialogue Timaeus) left open the possibility of a divine craftsman intervening to create from an already existing chaos (a possibility that might be reconciled with the account given in Genesis). An alternative strand of thought suggested that God existed before matter. Greek thinkers found it difficult to conceive of the notion of non-existence—some even proposed an entity termed “that which is not” (!)—but one thinker, Basilides, expounded the idea of creation from nothing in the early second century, and it is found adopted by Christians by A.D. 180.
The human race appears, of course, as part of God’s creation, although pagan philosophers disagreed as to whether it was created directly by God or through the agency of the Forms. Platonists continued to make a distinction between soul and body, and to place these within a hierarchy of creation. At the top of this was God (“the Good”), then the Forms, below which was the human soul, and finally the material world, including the human body. Here the human soul is the noblest part of the “material” world, but each level of the hierarchy is understood to be less divine and good than the one above it (rather as copies taken of copies gradually lose the quality of the original). Some argued that there would be a level in the hierarchy at which the original goodness of God was so diluted that evil would become part of that level, while others argued that the goodness of “the Good” or God could never, however diluted, become evil. It was human beings acting freely who created evil. Alternatively, others claimed that the human soul that had been good had been corrupted by the material world, or that it was still good but so deeply imprisoned in the material body (as “a divine spark”) that it was unable to show its goodness. This latter was the view put forward by of one important school of thinkers who drew on Platonism, the Gnostics. The Gnostics were dualists in that they saw the world as evil, the creation of an evil creator, but the human soul as good and imprisoned in it. (The body, the evil gaoler of the good soul, was to be despised, and many Gnostics were aggressively ascetic.) The soul was, however, capable of enlightenment (gnosis), possibly through a teacher, and could be released to be reunited with God. Jesus was adopted as one of the teachers able to release the soul, but the relationship between the Gnostics and mainstream Christianity (in so far as this existed in the early Christian centuries) was complex, and Christians eventually separated themselves from Gnosticism. (Gnostics accepted the possibility of there being many Christs, and it was as a rejoinder to this that Christian creeds later spoke of “one [my emphasis] Lord Jesus Christ.”)
The most sophisticated of the Platonic thinkers, and the one who conventionally marks the beginning of Neoplatonism, was Plotinus (204–70). Plotinus was from Egypt and had set off eastwards, to Persia and India, in search of wisdom, but when his travels were thwarted, he headed instead towards Rome. He can be seen as a mystic—for Plotinus, the supreme desire of the soul is to be reunited with “the One,” and he describes the moment of reunion as one that could not be exchanged for anything else, even for the kingdom of all the heavens. Plotinus drew heavily on Plato (and, as scholars now recognize, on Aristotle) but developed an overtly spiritual philosophy. It was written up by his follower Porphyry and circulated as the Enneads in the early fourth century.
There is “a One,” the Ultimate Being, who is supernatural, above all material being, self-caused and absolutely good. Plotinus preferred the term “the One” to “the Good” because it emphasized that “the One” was above all values. From this Being processes nous, or Mind. The procession is continual (and has existed through eternity), and nous appears in a whole range of manifestations in what might be called “thoughts” or, in Platonic terminology, the Forms. These in their turn project outwards to a “world soul,” which exists as a composite of all animate beings in the world although appearing as an individual soul in each human being. Each of the three entities exists as “lower” than the one above, but “the One” does not lose anything of its goodness during the procession of nous— any more, said Plotinus, than the brightness of a lamp is diminished when it gives out light. “The One,” the nous and the world soul share a single substance (ousia), but each maintains its distinct nature, its hypostasis, or personality. Plotinus went on to argue that the “lower” states would always be attracted back to the “higher.” So the soul would be attracted to the nous and then back to “the One,” in the final moment of mystical reunion achieved (as always in Platonic thought) by a very few. The material world has to exist in order for the soul to have something to live in, but as inanimate things cannot think, the material world represents the very furthest one can get from “the One.” It is, in short, a state in which goodness is virtually nonexistent. While the soul’s natural orientation is “upwards” to the nous and “the One,” an individual soul can choose to turn “downwards” to the natural world. Thus, through its free choice, it can turn towards evil, a view shared by Christian theologians such as Origen, although it has to be stressed that Plotinus himself had no direct links with Christians and Porphyry actively opposed them.
It is also worth stressing that Plotinus, mystic though he might have been, was wary of attributing powers to supernatural sources. A record survives of a conversation he had as an old man in the 260s in which he discusses whether illnesses can be cured by casting out demons through special prayers. First, he says, there are no such things as demons, and, in any case, “real” gods would not respond to such mundane things as spells. There is a sense here, found in other pagan philosophers and arguably also in the Gospel of John, that a true god, secure in his own being, would not need to prove himself by effecting miracles. If one actually looks at cases of fever, he continues, one finds there are normally definable causes: exhaustion, overindulgence or the wrong kind of diet. They should be cured through medicines and a disciplined way of life. Here Plotinus remains fully within the Greek tradition, in which reason and empirical evidence remain central and the material world operates according to its own ascertainable laws rather than in response to the interventions of the gods.21 Miracles, in short, have no place in sophisticated thinking.
It is impossible to make any kind of assessment of how many adherents each of these movements and beliefs had. Most subjects of the Roman empire can hardly have had the time or the inclination to speculate about the nature of the spiritual world, and one can only assume that they continued with their traditional beliefs. Nevertheless, there clearly existed a wide range of spiritual possibilities, any of which could be followed without any sense of impropriety, and, even though there existed some degree of competition between the different movements for adherents, none excluded other beliefs. The traditional gods of the state might be offended by neglect, but they were not jealous of other cults. It is certainly too simplistic to argue, as many histories of Christianity have done, that spiritual life in the empire had reached some kind of dead end and that Christianity provided a solution all had been yearning for. In fact, studies of oracles in this period suggest that questioning, which had traditionally centred on personal affairs, was increasingly concerned with theological issues (such as what happens to the soul at death) that could be answered from within the very rich and varied pagan tradition and developed without inhibition.22 As we shall see, Christianity did provide for important spiritual needs, but it was one of many movements that attempted to do so, and it was by no means the most sophisticated.
The Roman empire in the second century had reached the height of its maturity in that it was relatively peaceful, was able to defend itself and its elites flourished in an atmosphere of comparative intellectual and spiritual freedom. The empire had a sophisticated legal system, and the parameters within which justice was enforced, for instance, were clearly set out—although those who were actually Roman citizens (all subjects of the empire except slaves from A.D. 212) were better protected than others. “Good” emperors acted with reasonable benevolence, as did the more moderate governors. Those who were talented could rise far, particularly through service in the army.23 Yet this is an idealized picture. There was a streak of cruelty in the Roman make-up that to us is nauseating. Criminals were deliberately humiliated by public execution, on the cross or in the amphitheatre. Even the most apparently benign of emperors watched such proceedings without flinching—in fact, they prided themselves on laying on a good show of slaughter. In religion there were limits to what the Romans would tolerate. They always distrusted fervour, superstitio, and indeed Christianity was mocked by one principal governor as “a degenerate superstitio carried to extravagant lengths.”24 Although Judaism was accorded some respect for its ancient roots, there are many accounts of open mockery of Jewish customs, and at times there was outright insensitivity: Hadrian, in his attempt to encourage Hellenism, tried to ban circumcision. The result was the outbreak of the Jewish revolt of 132, which was put down with great brutality and resulted in the reconstruction of Jerusalem as a Roman colony. Nor were things necessarily better at a local level. There were major riots between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria in A.D. 38 and 66. Then there was the problem of those who actively rejected the gods of the state and who expected to proselytize for converts. Such were the Christians, who referred in their sacred writings to Rome as “the whore of Babylon.” Eventually a state-sponsored campaign of persecution was to be launched against them.
This was also a society which depended heavily on slaves and operated few effective controls over their treatment. Indeed, in the requirement that the evidence of slaves was admissible only after torture, the state participated in the cruellest of subjections. Although the Stoics preached the need for respect for slaves (“Remember, if you please, that the man you call slave springs from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you . . . ,” wrote Seneca in one of his letters), and individual slaves were often released for good behaviour or on the death of their master, slavery was so deeply embedded in Roman society (as it was also in Greek) that even Christians did not challenge it. 25 At the same time there was continual low-level violence, banditry and the threat of overreaction by the authorities. The Golden Ass provides vivid descriptions of life in the less wealthy provincial towns, where the local youth ransack the town on an evening out and valuables have to be protected by servants in the very centre of the house. When suspects are arrested, torture is freely used. This is the wider context within which must be set the undoubted achievements of the Roman empire at its height.