All good moral philosophy is but a handmaid to religion.
Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
After Marcus Aurelius’s successful visit to Alexandria there were many in the city who believed that relations with their Roman masters were restored, and this view was endorsed when all Egyptian cities were granted a municipal council by Emperor Septimius Severus in 200. But if the people of the city believed they had woken from the rebellion of Avidius Cassius into a new Roman dawn, it was to prove a false one. Alexandria was used to speaking its mind, and Rome did not always like what it heard.
Septimius Severus had two sons, and it was his wish that both should succeed him on the imperial throne. Though the two boys, Aurelius Antoninus and Geta, were only eleven months different in age, they loathed each other from early childhood. To try to generate some rapprochement between the two, the aging Septimius took them off to Britain, where he placed his younger son, Geta, in charge of civil affairs while Aurelius Antoninus commanded the army in their campaigns against the northern barbarians. It was here that Antoninus got the nickname by which he would be remembered from thenceforth—Caracalla, from the hooded Gallic tunic, or caracallus, that he always wore.
After two years in Britain, on February 4, 211, Septimius died at York, and the two boys were declared joint emperors. They determined to return immediately to Rome to arrange their father’s funeral, but such was their mutual antagonism that during the entire journey back they never traveled or ate together, and they slept every night in separate houses.
Back in Rome the imperial palace was split in half, doors were sealed, and guards were mounted at every entrance, as if each half of the building was under siege. The only hope of resolving the latent civil war lay with the two boys’ mother, Julia Domna, a formidable woman who was renowned for her coteries of learned men, including Galen. Edward Gibbon, the famed eighteenth-century classicist, is full of praise:
She possessed, even in old age, the attractions of beauty, and united to a lively imagination a firmness and strength of judgement seldom bestowed on her sex. . . . In her son’s reign she administered the principal affairs of state of the empire with a prudence that supported his authority and with a moderation which sometimes corrected his wild extravagances. Julia applied herself to letters and philosophy, with some success and with the most splendid reputation. She was the patroness of every art and the friend of every man of genius.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, volume 1, chapter 6
That is not to say, however, that the somewhat prudish Gibbon found her character to be faultless. The more salacious ancient sources also suggest that Julia enjoyed more than just mental stimulation from the men around her, and Gibbon was forced to rather elliptically point out that if those sources were true, then chastity was “very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the empress Julia” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 1, chapter 6).
Naturally it fell upon Julia to attempt to resolve her sons’ differences. She convinced Caracalla to meet with his brother in her apartments to attempt a reconciliation. But the minute Geta entered the room he was set upon by a troop of Caracalla’s men. According to the contemporary chronicler Cassius Dio, Geta died in his mother’s arms while his faithless brother ran, blood-soaked, to the camp of the Praetorian Guard, pretending he had escaped an ambush aimed at assassinating both of them.
Now absolute ruler of the Roman Empire, Caracalla soon showed his true colors. There followed an appalling bloodletting in Rome in which all of Geta’s supporters and their families—men, women, and children—were slaughtered, one contemporary observer putting the figure at twenty thousand dead. It was also rapidly becoming clear that the emperor’s megalomania would allow for no criticism. Anyone who dared to offer a different opinion, from senators down to the charioteer Euprepes, who “showed enthusiasm for a cause that the Emperor opposed” (Cassius Dio,Roman History, book 77, chapter 1), was summarily executed.
This alone should have been warning enough to the outspoken Alexandrians, but already growing in the emperor’s mind was an idea that would have far worse consequences for them. Caracalla was rapidly coming to the belief that he was the new Alexander, destined to recapture the Macedonian’s empire in the East. According to Cassius Dio, he carried with him items that were said to have belonged to Alexander, including his personal weapons and the cups he was supposed to have drunk from. He created a new army unit, a traditional phalanx made up of sixteen thousand Macedonian soldiers, which he armed with period weapons already half a millennium out of date. From his reading of the histories of Alexander he had also come to believe that Aristotle had taken a part in his hero’s murder, so Caracalla persecuted Aristotelian philosophers, arguing that their books should be burned and ordering the abolition of their communal dining room in the museum in Alexandria.
But it was when the emperor arrived in Alexandria in person that its citizens realized just what they had to fear from a man who considered himself the heir of their founder’s destiny. At the time, certain Alexandrian satires appear to have been in circulation that criticized the murder of Geta and lambasted the emperor’s claims to be another Alexander. In response he decided to visit the city in the winter of 215-16. His mission was ostensibly intellectual and religious, as Caracalla had a passion for religious institutions, having already stayed at the famous temple of Asclepius in Pergamum, where Galen trained, and received all the holy rites there. According to Cassius Dio, however, this was just a subterfuge. When Caracalla reached the suburbs he stopped and waited for the leading citizens of the city to come to meet him, as was customary. This they did, bringing with them the sacred symbols of the city and their offices. The emperor, in apparently jovial spirits, met them and led them to believe that they would enjoy a banquet and entertainments with the royal retinue before proceeding into the city. When they were thus put off their guard, he had them all slaughtered.
The emperor then marched into the city, taking up residence in the Serapeum and attending the temple’s sacrifices and other rites. As he considered himself both a deeply religious man and a scholar, he doubtless also took advantage of the extensive library housed in this temple, although we cannot imagine that any Aristotelian texts housed there fared well. But if Caracalla hoped the chastised inhabitants of the city would now take him as their new Alexander, he was badly mistaken. Sporadic rioting seems to have erupted in the city, and rumors flew around town that the emperor intended to marry his mother, Julia—an idea Caracalla perhaps thought Egyptians would appreciate. Instead, it was whispered that he was Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta. Incestuous marriage might have been allowable among divine pharaohs, but in Roman emperors it was laughable.
Revenge was swift. Caracalla ordered all the young men of the city arrested, regardless of their race or creed. He then unleashed upon the city his army, which set to looting and pillaging. Next he had the city cordoned off into zones to prevent freedom of movement, and suspended the local games, abolished all the communal messes of the museum, and revoked all Roman privileges. Finally he gave the order which would scar the city’s life for generations to come so that no one would forget what they called “the fury of Caracalla.” The young men seized during the looting were taken to the city walls and systematically slaughtered. Within a few hours the flower of Alexandria’s youth, some twenty-five thousand young men, lay dead. And then as a last tilt at his tormentors Caracalla had the governor of the city publicly executed.
Fortunately, Caracalla’s reign of terror was not to last, and ironically, this ruthless emperor would meet his end pursuing yet another act of religious devotion. According to the colorful but not overly reliable Historia Augusta, in the spring of 217 he set off to make a visit to the temple of the moon god at Carrhae accompanied only by a select corps of bodyguards. On his way back he stopped to defecate, and at that moment a bodyguard named Martialis struck him down, only to be killed moments later by a loyal Scythian archer. The emperor died quickly. The scars he inflicted on Alexandria would take longer to heal.
Caracalla had certainly taught the Alexandrians a lesson they would never forget, but if he thought he had cowed them into silent submission in the process he was very wrong. From then on the city would be a focus of discontent and rebellion, and thus an almost irresistible magnet for rebellious generals and would-be emperors, who would be welcomed into the city with open arms.
It is uncertain just what effect the “fury of Caracalla” had on the museum and library beyond the statement in Cassius Dio that the emperor abolished the “communal messes” of the Alexandrians (Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 77, chapter 23). This may refer simply to the dining clubs in the city, but may also refer to the communal dining halls of the museum where the scholars, who held everything in common, ate together. Considering his loathing of the Aristotelians, this is not unlikely.
Academic life in the city was clearly not extinguished, however, as the few details we have of one of the great mathematicians of this era confirm. Diophantus of Alexandria, a Hellenized Babylonian, was probably just a child at the time of the fury, but he survived it, and went on to master enough of the knowledge left in the museum for him to become one of the greatest mathematicians of his or any age. By adapting Babylonian techniques and concentrating on arithmetic rather than geometry he invented a whole new area of mathematics, where numbers were replaced with symbols, allowing problems to be solved for any number, not just specific instances. As such he has become known as the “Father of Algebra,” the originator of the hugely complex collections of Greek letters and symbols which fill the blackboards of modern mathematicians and the exercise books of their often baffled students. Indeed, it was his book the Arithmetica, a collection of 130 problems and their various solutions, that inspired one of the most complicated pieces of mathematical research of all time. When the great seventeenth-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote in the margins of his copy of the Arithmetica that he had discovered a remarkable proof of a theorem suggested by Diophantus, he also noted that he hadn’t the space to prove it there. Sadly, he never found time to write it out anywhere else either, setting off a 357-year mathematical search for the proof to what became known as “Fermat’s Last Theorem.” The problem, originated in the second century and formulated in the seventeenth, was not finally published until 1995, in a paper so complex that most modern mathematicians still don’t fully understand it.
Nor was this the only riddle Diophantus left behind. As with so many Alexandrians, it can be painfully difficult to extract personal details from his work, but the Father of Algebra did leave us his own mathematical clues. His epitaph, describing his life, is itself an algebraic problem:
This tomb holds Diophantus. Ah, what a marvel! And the tomb tells scientifically the measure of his life. God vouchsafed that he should be a boy for the sixth part of his life; when a twelfth was added, his cheeks acquired a beard; He kindled for him the light of marriage after a seventh, and in the fifth year after his marriage He granted him a son. Alas! Late-begotten and miserable child, when he had reached the measure of half his father’s life, the chill grave took him. After consoling his grief by this science of numbers four years, he reached the end of his life.
Epitaph recorded in W. Gunnyon, A Century of Translations
from the Greek Anthology, chapter 14, no. 126
Those with mathematical talents can rewrite the above as two equations which can be solved simultaneously to discover something of Diophantus’s life. From this we learn that his boyhood lasted fourteen years, he entered his majority at twenty-one, was married at thirty-three, and had a son at thirty-eight. His son died aged forty-two while Diophantus lived on into great old age, dying four years later aged eighty-four.
Diophantus’s biographical riddles may have illuminated the twilight of Alexandrian mathematics, but it was the spiritual investigations of the Alexandrians of this turbulent age that were now having the most profound effect not just on their city, but on the world as a whole. Uncertain times drive many to question the nature of the world and the motives of the gods, or even their very existence. Any Alexandrian street philosopher could have told you that Caracalla wasn’t divine, but the question as to what was divine increasingly vexed the inhabitants of the museum. Strangely, for both the main schools of thought that would fight for supremacy in the city’s final days, the answer came not from the porticoes of the library, but from the waterfront.
The somewhat unlikely father of this process was a man named Ammonius Saccas. Born into a very poor family, he may initially have had a Christian upbringing in the institution which preceded Pantaenus’s catechetical school. After school Ammonius went to work on the Alexandrian harbor front as a porter or sack bearer, hence his second name—Saccas. There he enjoyed a second education, talking to the traders and captains with their travelers’ tales of distant lands, surprising customs, and alien religions. For anyone who wanted to learn of the world, these wharves and quays were a university in themselves, a gathering together of people and goods from the whole known world, the most cosmopolitan place on earth. It was a setting to get anyone thinking, and that’s exactly what Ammonius Saccas did, both on the dockside and in the public lectures in the pagan philosophy schools which he attended after work.
Ammonius was not content to follow any one school of thought, however, but was all the time developing his own theories. Indeed, so deeply did he think about what he heard during the days that, it was said, these ideas followed him into his dreams at night, and during these dreams he found his insights. That was how he came to be known as theodidactos, or “God-taught,” though he referred to himself as merely a philolethian, a “lover of the truth.”
At some point in the early third century, perhaps even during the upheavals of the fury, Ammonius set up his own school of philosophy. He taught only orally, and like Pythagoras, he bound his advanced students with a vow of secrecy, so it is difficult to discover what his actual philosophy was. There is a further complication in understanding Ammonius, in that he was formally adopted as the founder of Theosophy by the spiritualist medium H. P. Blavatsky when she founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. This led to an enormous amount of speculation about Ammonius’s life and thoughts and a considerable attribution of eccentric Victorian quasi-religious ideas about universal brotherhoods and the like to Ammonius, with virtually no evidence to support it.
However, the pupils that Ammonius attracted do throw some light on the man and his ideas. Two of these pupils would go on to become the most influential thinkers and authors of the third century. From them we learn that Ammonius was very selective in allowing pupils to attend his school, taking on only a few pupils every year. His pupils were initially divided into three groups—novices, initiates, and masters—and he divided his teachings into two sections, the exoteric and the esoteric. This division was very widespread at the time and can be traced to many early philosophers, including Pythagoras. The exoteric teachings were openly available to all and were characteristically ethical, like the ones Ammonius himself attended as a young man. These were the lectures that the public could attend. The esoteric or “greater” mysteries were different. These were taught in private and were reserved for the fully trained and dedicated few.
Here Ammonius’s pupils learned of his notion of absolute deity, utterly transcendent and indescribable, something that both Christ and Plato could agree upon. He believed that the human soul was an immortal radiation from the universal soul or ether, and that gave every individual the possibility of experiencing divinity. But he also considered that there was a universal ethical basis within all metaphysical systems, and that in essence all philosophies and religions shared this universal ethical and spiritual foundation. In short, therefore, there was no underlying conflict between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and even Christ’s teaching could be seen as an authentic expression of the timeless wisdom. In this way his views came to be known as “eclectic,” capable of embracing all religious and philosophical systems.
Ammonius also posited that the best way to understand all sacred myths, legends, and mysteries was to interpret them by analogy, seeking correspondences between them and thus revealing the universality of their content. In this he is, of course, methodologically aligned with his illustrious Jewish predecessor, Philo. As his most able students began to employ these ideas, they became known as “Analogeticists.”
The broad base of Ammonius’s philosophy attracted students from a wide range of philosophical backgrounds, and among the most able of those were two young men who between them would describe the shape of Alexandria’s last years. The first of these was a Greek speaker with a Roman name who was probably born in Egypt in 205—Plotinus.
Because Ammonius himself left no written testimony, the title of “founder” of the pagan movement that became known as Neoplatonism is usually given to Plotinus, although his own ideas were certainly born out of what he heard from Ammonius in those secret lectures. Neoplatonism was not merely a revival of Plato’s teaching, but a whole new interpretation and development of his philosophy, as closely related to the original as, say, Protestantism is to Catholicism. Plotinus’s philosophical ideas began with his physical being, and they were none too flattering. Recalling that in Plato’s cosmos the waking, conscious world of humans and nature was the most debased and corrupted level of existence, he took the idea much more personally. He could hardly bear the thought that his soul was trapped in so base a thing as his body, which he sometimes called a “detestable vessel,” one which acted as an obstacle to spiritual development. He insisted that “to rise up to very truth is altogether to depart from bodies. Corporeality is contrary to soul and essentially opposed to soul” (Plotinus, Enneads, 3, 6.6).
In a similar ascetic vein he refused to reveal his birthday, as he did not wish his friends to celebrate it, avoided eating meat, and took a daily massage instead of indulging in the rather Roman luxury of bathing. When a pupil, friend, and physician suggested he sit for a portrait, he castigated the unfortunate doctor, roaring that surely it was bad enough to be entrapped in the form in which nature had cast him without making an image of that image, as if that would be something worth staring upon.
Much of this idea of self must have come from the diminutive Alexandrian porter whom Plotinus first met when, at twenty-seven, he came to Alexandria in search of a philosophy teacher. At first he was depressed and disappointed with the offerings in the public lecture halls, until a friend mentioned Ammonius. They went to one of his lectures, after which Plotinus exclaimed, “This was the man I was looking for” (Porphyry, Introduction to Plotinus).
He stayed with Ammonius for eleven years, then decided he would travel to the East in search of the philosophies of the Persians, Chaldeans, and Indians. To this end he got himself attached to the army of the Roman emperor Gordian III, which was intent on invading Persia. However, Gordian was assassinated before he reached his destination and Plotinus found himself abandoned in the wilderness. It took him the best part of two years to make his way back to Antioch, and from there he took a ship to Rome, where he lived the rest of his life. He never returned to the city that had nurtured his dream.
In Rome Plotinus quickly became something of a star, commanding the respect of the emperor and his wife, along with many prominent citizens, particularly some of the more important and influential women. So deeply was he revered that several families decided to endow him with property and income in exchange for educating their children, so his house became full of young boys and girls who mixed with senators and foreign students—even Alexandrians—who had become his pupils.
One of his most able students was Malchus of Tyros, who was known in Rome as Porphyry, a humorous allusion to the purple robes of the emperor. It was he who eventually persuaded his master that for posterity’s sake he must break with Ammonius’s injunction never to write down the secrets of his philosophy, and commit his teachings to paper. So from about the age of fifty Plotinus started to record his ideas, his dialogues with his students, and his lecture notes. But he was not a patient scribe. His handwriting was tiny and very untidy, and he cared not a jot for spelling. Fortunately for us, Porphyry was the soul of patience and tact, and he both copied and edited Plotinus’s meanderings, later completing the work and considerably reordering it, as well as writing a biography of his master, before the work was finally published under the title of the Enneads,meaning “Groups of Nine”—each book consisting of nine discussions.
In the Enneads we can look into the mind of the last great pagan philosopher of antiquity. Plotinus’s universe is, broadly speaking, of a similar structure to Plato’s, graded in the Great Chain of Being from the divine to the mundane, from the eternal to the mortal, from God the One to nature, matter, and the observed world.
At the top of this hierarchy is the One, beyond all categories of being and nonbeing. It is totally indivisible and even unthinkable. It is both self-caused and the cause of everything else in the universe. Thought cannot be applied to the One, as that would imply a distinction between the thinker and the object being thought of. The One is both thinker and thought. The One is the source of the world, not through any act of creation, though, as activity cannot be ascribed to this unchangeable idea. From this One then come “emanations” which are, of necessity, less perfect than the One, and which make up our universe.
The first of these is Thought or Intellect (Nous). Intellect is the home of all of Plato’s forms, the repository of the cognitive identity of all things and the way we recognize things to be as they are, by perceiving them in ideal type. Intellect thus provides the principle or essence of all things. And from Intellect emanates the Soul.
Soul is related by analogy to Intellect in the same way that Intellect is related to the One; that is, put crudely, Intellect is the sum of all the Souls in existence. Beneath Soul is mere matter, the stuff of the universe, including our own bodies, which Plotinus so despised.
With respect to Soul, Plotinus departs from Plato by splitting it in two. His view is that in all things, and especially people, there is an upper Soul, which remains pure, divine, and untarnished eternally; and there is a lower Soul, which, though it is actually divine, may become tarnished and forget its divine origin as it provides the motivation for material beings (in our own cases our bodies) to find their way through the trials of a conscious life. In Plotinus’s view the way to discover our upper Soul and restore our tarnished lower Soul is through ethics. The keys to human salvation are thus the cultivation of Virtue, which refreshes the Soul with divine Beauty; the practice of “dialectics” (debate), which reveals the true nature of Souls; and finally through Contemplation, which is the proper occupation of the purified Soul.
Let every soul recall, then, at the outset the truth that soul is the author of all living things, that it has breathed the life into them all, whatever is nourished by earth and sea, all the creatures of the air, the divine stars in the sky, it is the maker of the sun, itself formed and ordered this vast heaven and conducts all that rhythmic motion, and it is a principle distinct from all these to which it gives law and movement and life, and it must of necessity be more honorable than they, for they gather or dissolve as soul brings them life or abandons them, but soul, since it never can abandon itself, is of eternal being.
Plotinus, Enneads, 5, 2.1
The legacy of these ideas was enormous, not just in the last days of the pagan ancient world but throughout later history. In the later classical world the theological traditions of Christianity (most particularly in the work of Saint Augustine), Islam, and Judaism all looked to Platonic philosophy, as described by Plotinus, as a method for formulating and articulating their own theologies. After the obscurity of the medieval period, the Enneads reemerged in 1492 as one of the driving forces behind the writings of the Italian Renaissance philosophers and in the works of humanists like Erasmus and Thomas More.
Plotinus’s influence further continued into the seventeenth century in the works of the Cambridge Platonists, and by the eighteenth century Plotinus was recognized as one of the formative influences on Western Christianity, as the classicist Lemprière noted:
He was the favourite of all the Romans, and while he charmed the populace by the force of his eloquence, and the Senate by his doctrines, the emperor Galienus courted him, and admired the extent of his learning. . . . He was a great mystic, and his Neoplatonism had a profound effect upon the theology and philosophy of the Christian Church.
Lemprière, Classical Dictionary Writ Large, pp. 500-501
The German idealists of the following century, especially Hegel, considered Plotinus’s work the basis for their opposition to the growing schools of scientific philosophy, and his influence can even be traced in the twentieth-century Christian imaginative literature in England, spearheaded by C. S. Lewis. Few philosophies have lasted so long, appealing to so many peoples of different nations and from different times, all of whom have in their own ways tried to live up to Plotinus’s last injunction, as recorded by his student and personal physician, Eustochius of Alexandria, as the master lay on his deathbed: “Strive to give back the Divine in yourselves to the Divine in the All” (Eustochius of Alexandria, Letter to Porphyry).
Only one other philosophy has lasted as many centuries as that of Plotinus, and it was championed by his own fellow student in the secret lectures of Ammonius Saccas. He was about twenty years older than Plotinus and of the other great emerging school of thought in Alexandria: Christianity.
Origen, or more properly Origenes Adamantius, was born and brought up in Alexandria as a Christian by his father, Leonides, a Greek teacher, and his mother, who was Jewish and taught him to sing the psalms in Hebrew. His father gave him an excellent education, and as an adolescent he attended the lectures of both Clement at the catechetical school and those of Ammonius in his school of philosophy. His precocious brilliance attracted such attention, it is said, that by the time he was seventeen his father was known as “Leonides, father of Origen.”
But in that year (202) the emperor Septimius Severus ordered another of the periodic persecutions of Christians, and Leonides was dragged from his house by Roman soldiers. Origen, the oldest of seven children, insisted upon accompanying his father, but, according to the story, his mother hid his shoes or his clothes. Still, he followed his father to the Caesareum, where he saw him executed, his head thrown onto a pile of heads, his body cast aside.
As was the practice in those days, all of the Christian Leonides’ property was confiscated by the state, and Origen, his mother, and his six brothers were left destitute. Origen was forced to provide for his family by teaching and copying manuscripts until a new opportunity was presented to him by the bishop of Alexandria. The pogrom which had taken his father’s life was the one that led Bishop Clement of Alexandria to abandon the catechetical school and seek refuge in Palestine, so the next year Bishop Demetrius appointed Origen as the new dean of the school, at just eighteen years old.
Origen’s reformed school was open to all and taught a wide range of subjects besides Christian doctrine. Prayer and fasting were practiced by teacher and pupil alike, and simplicity of lifestyle was encouraged. It was clearly an immensely stimulating environment, and one of Origen’s pupils, Gregory, later known as Thaumaturgus (“Wonder-Worker”), recalled that they were given complete freedom to find their way around the entire world of knowledge, and to investigate anything which took their interest, enjoying any mode of teaching and savoring the sweet pleasures of the intellect:
To be under the intellectual charge of Origen was like living in a garden where fruits of the mind sprang up without toil to be happy with gladness by the happy occupants. . . . He truly was a paradise to us, after the likeness of the paradise of God . . . and to leave him was to renascent the experience of Adam and the Fall.
Gregory Thaumaturgus, Address to Origen, 13
Origen himself is said to have taught all day and studied the Bible for much of each night, leading a life of exemplary asceticism. Perhaps because many of his students were women, and also because at that time he wished to follow the gospel to the letter, one report claims he decided to obey the words of Matthew literally and mutilate himself. The passage from Matthew 19:12 concerns the nature of eunuchs—both those who are born that way and those who decide to take matters into their own hands “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Matthew ends the discussion with the words “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it,” and this Origen took as a direct order.
There is some debate as to whether Origen did actually castrate himself, and it has been argued that he put the story about to mask his own homosexuality, though there is no evidence to support what sounds like a slur from his detractors. Later in life he admitted that it was an extreme act and probably beyond the call of his faith.
For ten years Origen devoted himself to teaching, with only two short breaks—a brief visit to Rome in 211-12 and a journey to Arabia at the request of the prefect of the province in 213 or 214, during which he visited the rose-red city of Petra. On his return he became friendly with Ambrose of Alexandria, a wealthy man whom Origen converted from Valentinian Gnosticism—a heretical Christian sect formed by the original Saint Valentine—to orthodox Christianity. From then on he acted as Origen’s sponsor and promoter.
When the fury of Caracalla was unleashed on the city, Origen and Ambrose fled to Caesarea together. Around 218 Ambrose of Alexandria made a formal agreement with Origen to promote his writings, and thereafter all his published works were dedicated to Ambrose. With the help of seven stenographers to take dictation in relays, another seven scribes to prepare longhand copies, and a team of girls to make copies of the copies, Origen’s output was phenomenal. He set to work on a huge commentary on the Bible, two books on the Resurrection, and one of the most important works in early Christian literature, On First Principles, in which he began to lay out a systematic analysis of his vision of the Christian faith.
Over the following twenty years Origen set about teaching and writing, organizing his textual criticism of the Bible by the Alexandrian method. To do this, he took the unusual and hugely significant step of mastering Hebrew—the language in which the Bible had first arrived in Alexandria. Having mastered the language, he then gathered together all the known versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek and systematically compared them all.
Origen accepted the notion of the Holy Trinity, but he gave it a hierarchy. As in Plato, God the Father is the One, the omnipotent, all-encompassing, purely spiritual being. God the Son, however, is a product of the One, equivalent to Logos or Wisdom (Sophia) in Neoplatonism, the first emanation. The Holy Spirit, third element of the Trinity, emanates from the Son and is related to the Son as the Son is to the Father. A passage of Origen’s writing, preserved in the original Greek, explains his position:
The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imports to each one from his existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father). The Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the power of the Holy Spirit exceeds that of every other holy being.
Origen, De Principiis [On First Principles], book 1, section 8
This is a masterful synthesis of classical Platonic and mystical Christian perspectives, but it was this application of Neoplatonic cosmology to the Holy Trinity which would eventually lead to Origen’s expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church several centuries later.
Origen is quite close to Plotinus in his view of the human soul. Though he doesn’t differentiate the soul into upper and lower parts, he does state that in the first creation human souls were close to and “warmed” by
God. He sees Jesus as a perfect product of this first creation, his soul still warm and intimately close to God, his father. But “the Fall” led the rest of humanity’s souls to fall away from God and become cool. The job of the faith is to return us to God’s warmth and love.
An absolutely central tenet of Origen’s theology is the resurrection of all beings, even ultimately the devil, his argument being that God would not create anything, even Satan, if he did not want all of creation to be saved at the end of time.
The devil, however, did seem to be snapping at Origen’s heels. His work was repeatedly interrupted by persecutions. In 235, it is said, he was forced to hide in a house in Caesarea, where he stayed in hiding for two years. During this period he wrote a book appropriately entitled On Martyrdomwhich is preserved in a later text, the Exhortation to Martyrdom.
Origen is best remembered today for a work that we have already met. In 248 his old friend Ambrose, aware of the growing sophistication of anti-Christian literature, particularly among the Neoplatonists, prevailed upon him to write eight books refuting the damning critique of their religion composed by Celsus. This collection, Against Celsus, became the most celebrated defense of the faith produced by the early church, partly because it inadvertently preserved Celsus’s own work. It also opens a window onto the dangerous religious politics of the day and shows the real fear and danger that lay behind the ethereal arguments of the philosophers. Here we see Origen not as simply the defender of the faith but as a man who knew that Celsus’s clever words were often backed up by the tip of a sword, and that where persuasion failed, the empire was quite happy to force conformity. In dealing with Celsus’s complaint that Christians were secretive whereas other great iconclasts, like Socrates, had been prepared to speak openly, regardless of the risk, when they knew themselves to be right, Origen answered that the situation was now different. Socrates had died for his philosophy and in the process proven the Athenians wrong—this they had quickly realized. Rome, however, had not learned from the deaths of many Christians: “But in the case of the Christians, the Roman Senate, and the princes of the time, and the soldiery, and the people, and the relatives of those who had become converts to the faith, made war upon their doctrine” (Origen, Against Celsus,book 1, chapter 3).
Prophetic words these turned out to be, as two years later what he termed the “whole world’s conspiracy” against Christianity caught up with Origen himself. In 250 he was captured during yet another pogrom, this time ordered by the emperor Decius. Bound hand and foot for days on end, Origen was repeatedly tortured; but Decius died before him, and the old man was released. Crippled and broken, he died of his wounds shortly afterward.
By the time of his death Origen had done a thoroughly Alexandrian job on Christianity. In so doing he portrayed his religion for the Hellenistic world as a faith with a philosophy, not simply another localized cult. This was a religion that now offered a whole cosmology, not just the forlorn hope of a better life after death for those whose current life was almost unbearably hard. This was a religion that the scholars of the museum could understand. Origen’s lifework was an act of integration, the conversion of a blind faith into a rationalized set of ideas, a plausible worldview and system of thought and action designed to elevate its practitioners, in this world and the next.
The two disciples of the Alexandrian porter Ammonius Saccas had accomplished extraordinary feats: the codification of the last great pagan philosophy of the ancient world and of the primary philosophy of the world that would follow. Yet these two ideas were not destined to grow happily side by side, and in Ammonius’s secret lectures had been planted the seeds of Alexandria’s destruction.