• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Did Byzantium kill Athens? The closure of the Academy

Two major elements in the anti-Christian prism through which the jaded West has historically viewed late antiquity (mentioned in the article on Julian the Apostate) are the murder of Hypatia (immortalised in Agora [2009]) in AD 415 and the closing of the Athenian Academy in AD 529.

I want to address the latter, which is typically portrayed as falling victim to a Christian tyranny or, worse, philistinism, that was content to send its intellectual embers scudding towards the East (where an enlightened Persia welcomed them) in order to settle petty political scores with the pagans. The implied moral lesson is invariably that religious types should never be given free reins thanks to their pesky habit of plummeting civilization into the Dark Ages.

The reality is much more ambivalent. The only source to directly mention the closing of the academy is Malalas (Chronicle 18.47) AKA John the Rhetor (“mallala” being a rough Syriac translation of the Greek rhetor) whose reputation among Byzantinists is deservedly low – with the caveat that he’s accurate on his favourite sport, the hippodrome races, and laws (thanks to his bureaucratic roles under the comes orientis). W. Treadgold’s take-down in The Early Byzantine Historians (2007) is fairly conventional [1] when he claims that:

“Educated Byzantines would have deplored [Malalas’] style, both for its incorrect Greek and for lacking any care or grace… Though [his] history teems with glaring historical errors, it still sounds pedantic, repeatedly citing and praising obscure sources.”[2]

Behind the hyperbole of the academy being “closed” stood the more banal truth that the Christianisation of elites had rapidly shrunk the pool of pagan benefactors ever since Constantine’s reign i.e. only half a century after the original Academy fell victim to the Heruli invasion of AD 267.

Worse, the school didn’t just have an encroaching Christendom to blame. A series of unsavoury succession disputes at the end of Proclus’ life and the death of Marinus (his successor) drove many pagan honorati away.[3] And it hardly had a stable base to start with considering the account of Synesius (d.414), who went to Athens and found that:

“It is like a sacrificial victim at the end of proceedings, with only the skin left as a token of what once was. So philosophy has moved its home, and all that is left for a visitor is to wander around looking at the Academy, the Lyceum, and, yes, the Stoa Poikile [Painted Porch or Porch of Peisianax].”[4]

When Damascius, its last head, assumed control in AD 515, his efforts appeared too little too late. Attempts to reverse the damage hit a brick wall of indifference or anger from the Athenians who protested that the school had become a source of pagan hostility, no doubt focusing on the exasperating reign of Hegias. This descendant of Plutarch (of Athens) had divided not only Athenians between pagans and Christians (as he controversially sought to lead the public pagan processions) but also the school as he aimed at concentrating its efforts on religious matters rather than strictly intellectual ones. Damascius’ solution was to disavow Hegias’ teachings, question the interpretations of Proclus several of his predecessors had canonised, and set in place a more Iamblichus-friendly set of ideas.

According to Malalas, Justinian issued an edict to Athens that was (rather cryptically) caused by blasphemies being uttered by men using dice in Constantinople. The primary aim seems to have been to control divination, especially divination involving the pagan gods and particularly divination that attempted to influence the Justinian’s rule (or the end of it). But the version of this law sent to Athens contained an addition tagged to the end by a lower official who sought to restrict the teaching of astronomy and philosophy.

This was emphatically not a ban on pagans from teaching privately or an attempt to extirpate philosophy from the Eastern Roman Empire (both Damascius and Simplicius were published after the academy “closed”).[5] Instead, a Byzantine official wanted the school’s access to state funds blocked.

This was clearly not an empire-wide measure because the School of Alexandria continued to produce several pagan scholars, not least Olympiodorus (a student of Proclus’ student, Ammonius Hermeiou) who was active after Justinian had died. Moreover, Alexandria clearly had enough popular support or at least wealthy pagan dinosaurs to grease its financial cogs past the 529 watershed, which is not something that can be said for Athens.

Where the thinkers went was a question Agathias attempted to answer, claiming that Khusro welcomed Damascius and six other philosophers (whether they all came from Athens is a moot point). He also recounted how they all returned to the Eastern Roman Empire after a short stint having found the tyrant’s regime intolerable (though moderns are inclined to praise his programme, which translated Greek philosophical texts into Persian).[6]

Such was the interval (two years) between the edict and the self-imposed exile that Henry Blumenthal went so far as to suggest their travels may not have been related to the closure; they could have been “off in search of a pipe dream.”[7] The reality was probably that legislation such as CI 1.11.10 (see note 5) could be dated to c.531 and that it was in reaction to a feeling that the ratchet was only ever going to tighten one way that prompted the exile to Persia.

More to the point, the same scholar reminds us that Greek philosophy continued to be taught a century later when Stephanos was summoned to the capital to hold an official chair of philosophy during the reign of Heraklios.[8] A fact that suggests that while philosophy may have been considered potentially dangerous, the state’s main concern was not to crush it but to ensure it was entrusted to the right hands i.e. centralised in Constantinople.

[1] For a similar characterisation cf. E. Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire, I (Paris, 1949), 703.

[2] Warren Treadgold, The Early Byzantine Historians (New York, 2007), 246

[3] E. Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria (Yale, 2002), 186-208.

[4] Ep., 135 = PG. LXVI.1524C.

[5] The law (Codex Iustinianus 1.11.10) that’s often highlighted as the legal source of Athenian persecution was in fact a generic anti-pagan law that makes no mention of what constitutes the teaching of philosophy. It does not mention Athens, its situation, its schools or any variety of philosophy. Interestingly, Malalas’ edict states that all Athenians – not just pagans – were forbidden from teaching philosophy and astronomy. This meant that no one was permitted to teach these subjects and that pagans were able (just like Christians) to teach anything other than that. While CI 1.11.10 states that pagans were to restricted from teaching anything while Christians could teach anything – including philosophy in Athens!

[6] Where they ended up is the subject of intense debate with scholars proposing several destinations that include Athens (Cameron) and Harran (Tardieu).

[7] “529 and its Sequel: What Happened to the Academy?” Byzantion Vol. 48, No. 2 (1978), 386.

[8] H. Usener, De Stephano Alexandrino (Bonn, 1880) in Kline Schriften, III (Leipzig, 1914), 248 ff.