A Threat to Public Peity

A Threat to Public Peity: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    A Threat to Public Peity
    Book Description:

    In A Threat to Public Piety, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser reexamines the origins of the Great Persecution (AD 303-313), the last eruption of pagan violence against Christians before Constantine enforced the toleration of Christianity within the Empire. Challenging the widely accepted view that the persecution enacted by Emperor Diocletian was largely inevitable, she points out that in the forty years leading up to the Great Persecution Christians lived largely in peace with their fellow Roman citizens. Why, Digeser asks, did pagans and Christians, who had intermingled cordially and productively for decades, become so sharply divided by the turn of the century? Making use of evidence that has only recently been dated to this period, Digeser shows that a falling out between Neo-Platonist philosophers, specifically Iamblichus and Porphyry, lit the spark that fueled the Great Persecution. In the aftermath of this falling out, a group of influential pagan priests and philosophers began writing and speaking against Christians, urging them to forsake Jesus-worship and to rejoin traditional cults while Porphyry used his access to Diocletian to advocate persecution of Christians on the grounds that they were a source of impurity and impiety within the empire.

    The first book to explore in depth the intellectual social milieu of the late third century, A Threat to Public Piety revises our understanding of the period by revealing the extent to which Platonist philosophers (Ammonius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus) and Christian theologians (Origen, Eusebius) came from a common educational tradition, often studying and teaching side by side in heterogeneous groups.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6396-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction: From Permeable Circles to Hardened Boundaries
    (pp. 1-22)

    In 299 CE a priest, striving to read the auspices before the emperor Diocletian’s Antioch court, claimed that the animal’s entrails bore no signs of any kind. For centuries, Roman leadership, to discern a venture’s promise, depended on haruspicy, the Etruscan art of divining from marks on sacrificial organs. Desperate for a diagnosis, Diocletian (284–305) and Galerius, his junior eastern colleague, consulted a local oracle of Apollo.¹ The god’s spokesman blamed the failed ritual on Christian courtiers who had crossed themselves during the proceedings, an act that, all acknowledged, warded off the beings who inscribed portents on the animal’s...

  6. Chapter 1 Ammonius Saccas and the Philosophy without Conflicts
    (pp. 23-48)

    Ammonius (fl. 232–43), Porphyry averred, “made the greatest advance (έπίδοσιν) in philosophy of our time” (ap. Eus. HE 6.19.6). Identifying him as the philosophical inspiration for both Origen, the Christian theologian (6.19.6), and the great Platonist Plotinus (Porph. Plot. 3.10), Porphyry saw Ammonius as the fountainhead of the true philosophy for his own generation. This view held for over a century: Hierocles of Alexandria (fl. 430) also believed Ammonius had set philosophy back to rights after centuries of error, and he identified Plotinus as one of his most illustrious pupils.¹ Today, the schools of Ammonius’s successors, Plotinus and Origen,...

  7. Chapter 2 Origen as a Student of Ammonius
    (pp. 49-71)

    A liminal, hybrid figure whose shadow looms over the third and fourth centuries, Origen of Alexandria is key to understanding both the wide-ranging influence of Ammonius’s “philosophy without conflicts” and the new pressures that contributed to the Great Persecution two generations later. Scholars have not appreciated Origen’s role in this regard for one of two reasons: either they assumed that he studied with an Ammonius other than Plotinus’s teacher, an error addressed in chapter 1, or they downplayed the significance of the Christian theologian’s education under Ammonius, assuming that a different philosopher, “Origen the Platonist,” was the true heir of...

  8. Chapter 3 Plotinus, Porphyry, and Philosophy in the Public Realm
    (pp. 72-97)

    Porphyry and Hierocles lauded Ammonius as the founder of their philosophical community, but Plotinus brought Ammonius’s teaching into wider renown: Plotinus took Ammonius’s ideas to Rome and, by teaching them openly there, gave them a heightened prominence and a more political context. For these reasons, Porphyry, Plotinus’s student, called him “the philosopher of our times.”¹ For Eunapius, the Iamblichaean historian writing toward the end of the fourth century, contemporary philosophy began with Plotinus, not Ammonius. Regardless of Plotinus’s status as founder or promoter of the late antique approach to Plato, however, modern knowledge of him is almost entirely dependent on...

  9. Chapter 4 Schism in the Ammonian Community: Porphyry v. Iamblichus
    (pp. 98-127)

    The split that developed among third-century Hellenes who could trace their lineage to Ammonius concerned the value of rituals. As far as the sources indicate, this disagreement, centered around Porphyry and Iamblichus, first focused on the role that rituals played for members of the philosophical community. As the schism developed, however, they came to debate also the value of rituals for the souls of ordinary persons. After issues of common ground and terminology among Platonists are addressed, Plotinus’s view of rituals will be discussed, since both Iamblichus and Porphyry claimed to draw their positions from his. Amelius, Plotinus’s disciple of...

  10. Chapter 5 Schism in the Ammonian Community: Porphyry v. Methodius of Olympus
    (pp. 128-163)

    Iamblichus was a revolutionary Hellene. Not only did his theology address the salvific needs of ordinary people by asserting the efficacy of rituals involving matter. But it also insisted that all human souls—even those closest to the divine—ought to participate in them. Porphyry, discovering Iamblichus’s theology, concluded that some of Ammonius Saccas’s philosophical descendants, in devising their own philosophy without conflicts, had violated fundamental hermeneutical principles. Late in the third century, he decided to explain their errors and set theology back on the right track for everyone. Porphyry’s response was typical of many philosophers before him who had...

  11. Conclusion: The Ammonian Community and the Great Persecution
    (pp. 164-192)

    Although the tensions between Porphyry and Origenists, apparent in Methodius’s writings were intramural disagreements, the Hellene’s criticisms helped fan the hostility toward Christians that culminated in the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of 303. Christians had been tolerated for the last four decades of the third century, and Diocletian himself had appointed Christians to his court (Lact. Mort. 10), but imperial officials and oracular priests began lobbying to repress Christian practice at the cusp of the fourth century. Their concern united Porphyry’s criticism of Christian doctrines resulting from the rebuttal of Origenist exegesis with the warnings he had voiced to philosophers about...

    (pp. 193-214)
  13. Index
    (pp. 215-218)