Until the quarrel of Philo of Larissa and Antiochus of Ascalon early in the second decade of the first century bce, the Platonic school had been led since Plato by a series of designated ‘successors’ (diadochoi). The dispute which broke this succession arose from the long-standing problem of what to do with the Stoics’ views on cognition and from the so-called New Academy’s ploy of brandishing scepticism against Stoic sureness. The Academy split into rival parties, each claiming the inheritance of Plato, and ceased to exist. The changing political fortunes of the Greek world had a part to play in this event, the consequences of which are important both for the structural-scholastic organization and for the technical-philosophical development of Greek thought. For the modification of Platonic doctrine which so antagonized Antiochus of Ascalon was worked out by Philo at Rome, where he was in exile from Athens during and after the first war with Mithridates. Given Athens’ central place in Greek culture, the siege and storming of the city by Sulla at this time must have made plain to Greeks everywhere their impotence in the face of Roman power. Although old Greece did not become a province in its own right until the time of Augustus, the area was already de facto subject to the governor of the Roman province of Macedonia. Each stage in the ending of Greek freedom marks a stage in the beginning of the Greek past. For a break with the political inheritance of the Greek past allowed the past to take on the ideological meaning it bears in the period of the second sophistic. The end of the Academy as a continuous line of philosophers since Plato had a similar result. For now the possibility existed of approaching Plato in person, without the distraction of his successors.
Indicative of this new situation is the beginning of doxographical / exegetical commentary on Platonic works (especially the Timaeus) sometime in the mid-to late first century bce. Until this point, Plato’s written work had become increasingly less important, the more the anti-Stoic tactics of scepticism and distrust of doctrine came to dominate. We also see a revealing shift in the nomenclature of Platonic philosophers. Platonists had till now been known as Akademaikoi. With one major exception, it seems to be the case that Platonists henceforth became known to themselves and others as Platonikoi. The exception is Plutarch, who, together with his pupil Favorinus (at least in the context of Favorinus’ relationship with Plutarch), still kept up the fictional notion of a living Academic inheritance as late as the early second century ce. It seems likely that for Plutarch himself, close association with Athens as a physical witness to the Athenian past was a significant reason behind this desire to see a continuity from Plato to himself through the Academic succession. Another reason is his strong philosophical-historical interest in the sceptical New Academy, whose anti-Stoicism he was happy to adopt when it suited him. But other consumers of Plato had no need to bother with anyone but the master. After Antiochus, the doctrines of the sceptics went out of fashion. The term ‘Academic’ itself was now used to designate the tainted New Academy and its perceived rejection of Plato’s dogmata.
But Plato was not enough on his own. All aspects of classicism were at risk from the difficulty of identifying the best model. Plato was in fact a model of Attic vocabulary and style, and, though some impugned his value in this respect, his linguistic credentials have been seen as a contributory factor in his rise as a philosophical model. However, as a model for philosophers, Plato suffered from three potential defects. He was by no means the first Greek philosopher. Worse, some suggested that Plato and his Greek predecessors had acquired the rudiments of their philosophy from older barbarians. And even if Plato reigned supreme among men, there was the problem of his mortal nature: his wisdom lacked a divine pedigree.
These problems were countered by appeal to the sixth-century sage Pythagoras, the figure who is never far from the mind of Philostratus’ Apollonius. Pythagoras was not the oldest Greek philosopher, but his fame and his influence on Plato led Platonists to view him as a major source of Plato’s own philosophy. Pythagoreanism had retained some of its early importance during the later classical and Hellenistic ages, as the production of pseudo-Pythagorica attests. But after the demise of the Athenian Academy, modified Pythagorean beliefs began to play a serious role within Platonism. The key mediator here was Eudorus of Alexandria, who was active in the 40s and 30s of the first century. It was always believed that Plato himself had been sympathetic to a number of important Pythagorean concepts. The dialogue that is the most influential among later Platonists, the Timaeus, is named after a (fictitious) Pythagorean of Locri, whose name is associated with one of the better-known pseudo-Pythagorean tracts. Aristotle famously alleges that the theory of the Forms owed a good deal to Pythagorean belief (Metaphysics, A, 987a-b). But Eudorus (if we understand him rightly) goes much further in directly ascribing to Pythagoras various of Plato’s central tenets. Most important is his attribution to the Pythagoreans of the concept of the ‘Supreme God’ who transcends the dualist principles of the material world. This ‘most fruitful development for later Platonism’ was certainly based on Platonic thought, but its concise expression seems to be original to Eudorus. Making it a cardinal belief of hoi Puthagorikoi again seems to be Eudorus’ move. It is plausible to hold that his aim was that of trumping rival Platonists by advertising his familiarity with Plato’s own (but so far unnoticed) main source.
The revival of interest in Pythagoras was no doubt accompanied by an extension and a refinement of the traditions surrounding his life. Polemic is again part of this. Most of our evidence comes from the third-and fourth-century accounts of Diogenes Laertius (8. I—50), Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras (the only fully surviving part of a four-volume history of philosophy to Plato), and Iamblichus’ On the Pythagorean Life (book I of On Pythagoreanism). These accounts, which rest on Hellenistic foundations, deal with the question of barbarian influence. Here Pythagoras was at risk, as Plato was, for his foreign travels were an important part of the Pythagorean story. For some, this was best played down, leaving Pythagoras’ authority to smother any problems. For others, Eastern influence could be an advantage. Porphyry (from Tyre) and Iamblichus (from the small Syrian town of Chalcis ad Belum) certainly had no difficulty here. But neither man felt the need to claim that Greek wisdom was older. And it would indeed be surprising if they did, since both came from regions where the antiquity of ‘oriental’ wisdom was a simple, unembarrassing fact, and where barbarian origin was no disadvantage, if one was prepared to make sufficient effort to define oneself as Greek. Diogenes Laertius is quite different. His Pythagoras is initiated into ‘Greek and barbarian rites’ and journeys to Egypt to learn about the gods (8. 2—4). There is nothing more. Leaving aside criteria of space and balance in his Lives, it is tempting to connect the scale of this information with Diogenes’ Hellenocentrism. We may recall that in the first half of his prologue he goes through the arguments for the ‘invention’ (heuresis) of philosophy by barbaroi, concluding: ‘so much, then, for invention; but the first to use the term philosophia and to call himself philosophos was Pythagoras’ (I. 11-12). Furthermore, he asserts that Musaeus and Linus invented the concept of philosophy, and makes it plain that he regards them as older and better than any barbarian candidate (i. 3-4). If we could be sure that Diogenes came from Nicaea, as is suggested by Lives, 9. 109, he could be attached to a part of the Greek world where Hellenic identity was always far clearer, and oriental wisdom more distant. In any case, he had coherent reasons of his own for not attributing too much of Pythagoreanism to the barbarians.
The problem of divine authority could also be addressed through Pythagoras. In the Second-Sophistic period the pagan gods were extraordinarily active. They not only appeared to humankind in person or in dreams. They were also diligent in giving out oracles. The paganism of the High Empire does indeed have a vibrant feel to it. The special relationship between very great men and the gods is an intrinsic part of Greek culture from the earliest times. If Plato had made such a claim in relation to his own wisdom, future generations would have had no problem accepting it. In this regard Pythagoras’ semi-divine parentage / ancestry was certainly advantageous in furthering his position in a religious age. Even if it was not credited in its own right, the main biographical accounts have no difficulty in accepting his semidivine nature. Diogenes Laertius makes the least of this. He records Heracleides Ponticus’ account (Lives, 8. 4-3 = Heracleides, fr. 89, Wehrli), where Pythagoras’ soul traces its ultimate origin to Hermes. Porphyry records a version of his divine birth (Pythagoras, 2), and has no doubt himself of the huge number of ‘really amazing and divine things about the man’ (28); he includes many examples of his miracles. Iamblichus goes a stage further. Although he is not interested in divine parentage, Pythagoras for him is ho theiotatos (Pythagorean Life, 162), and his status as a ‘divine’ (theios) man is mentioned on every page of his book. It would be right to connect this quest for divine authority with the general classicizing demand for the best model, rather than seeing it as the result of an upswing in ‘popular’ religiosity, or as a reaction against the impersonal mechanism of Hellenistic Tyche.
Pythagoras’ divine parentage and powers are among several elements which determined his rise to influence in Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. His travels and contacts with barbarians testified to his extensive experience and years of training. Plato’s acknowledged debt to Pythagoreanism was another crucial part. In addition to these factors, the Pythagoreans of the early empire could point to the especially positive morality of Pythagoras in the human community. The story of his life was dominated by his political role in the cities of southern Italy and by his teaching there, which was mystical and esoteric, yet designed to influence the masses and to promote stable government. All forms of ancient philosophy (even Cynicism) were linked with and interested in upholding elite rule at the same time as they sought to reform it according to their own beliefs. Platonism was no exception. The politics of Plato accorded well with the political-administrative arrangements of the Greek elites under Rome. Thus Pythagoras’ example of reinforcing the rule of the Thousand at Croton, by advising them how to gain the consent of the ruled (Iamblichus, Pythagorean Life, 43—30; cf. Porphyry, Pythagoras, 18; Diogenes, Lives, 8. 3), added to his list of credentials as a figure-head of Greek philosophy.
Since our main evidence for neo-Pythagoreanism comes from professional philosophers, to whom I shall turn in the next section, we should not forget Pythagoreanism’s widely acknowledged identity beyond technical philosophy, which again links it with Platonism in its own role as a philosophy to live by. The ‘Pythagorean way of life’, which makes its followers ‘distinct in society’s eyes’, is remarked on already by Plato at Republic, 600b. In our period, Lucian counts as an independent witness to various degrees of Pythagorean conduct (which is not always mocked). Although the trappings of Pythagoreanism were no doubt easy to affect, a Pythagorean life did not have to be lived per se to function as a worthwhile model. The account of it in Iamblichus’ On the Pythagorean Life acts as a protreptic to serious philosophy in the volumes which follow. We should bear this in mind when we come to Philostratus’ portrait of Apollonius. Here there is little philosophy in the technical sense. Nor do we have a simple Pythagorean life. Rather, Pythagorean living gives Apollonius irreproachable credentials for his own serious role as a champion of a Hellenism which Philostratus was keen to claim as a universal solution.