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Where to Live the Philosophical Life in the Sixth Century? Damascius, Simplicius, and the Return from Persia

Where to Live the Philosophical Life in the Sixth Century? Damascius, Simplicius, and the Return from Persia

By Edward Watts

Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 45 (2005)

Introduction: When establishing an endpoint for the classical philosophical tradition in the Greco-Roman world, scholars often choose the closing of the Athenian Neoplatonic school by the emperor Justinian in 529. This institution was not, as commonly supposed, the Academy founded by Plato in the fourth century B.C. It was instead the self-styled spiritual heir of Plato’s school, and its closure continues to excite a great deal of fascination. According to the traditional narrative, the closing was followed by a sad coda in which Damascius, the last head of the school, and his inner circle of philosophical initiates left the Roman Empire for thePersian court of Chosroes in 531. The historian Agathias, the only surviving source for the incident, states that the philosophers chose to make this trip because “they had come to the conclusion that, since the official religion of the Roman Empire was not to their liking, the Persian state was much superior.” The experience in Persia proved disappointing and the philosophers soon returned home with the freedom to practice their religion secured by the Roman-Persian peace treaty signed in 532.

This much of the story is well known, but a question lingers: What did the philosophers do when they returned? In at least two cases, they continued to philosophize. Simplicius authored the vast majority of his works in the period following his return. Priscian of Lydia also wrote two extant texts and he was an important enough thinker that John Philoponus attacked his ideas. But Damascius, the leader of the group, is known to have written only an epitaph of the slave girl Zosime that was erected in the city of Emesa in 538. There is no evidence of any other activity on his part.

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