Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Maria Carmen De Vita, Giuliano imperatore filosofo neoplatonico. Temi metafisici e problemi del pensiero antico. Studi e testi, 121. Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 2011. Pp. 421. ISBN 9788834320396. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Gábor Buzási, Eötvös Loránd University (buzasi.gabor@btk.elte.hu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The controversial figure of the Emperor Julian (331/332-363) has attracted considerable attention since the beginning of his short reign (361-363). For some the last hero of Greco-Roman polytheism, for others the Apostate who turned against his own faith (and that of an entire age to come), this passionate defender of classical culture and the Platonic tradition has prompted lively reactions ever since.1 Until recently, modern research has been preponderantly focused on Julian's religious policy, public action and personality, much more so than on his philosophy and theology proper. The latter, deeply rooted as it is in the poorly documented milieu of fourth century Neoplatonism, evoked little interest and could not be properly appreciated until sufficient clarity was brought to this field by serious research on Later Neoplatonism, especially on the few extant writings of its founder, Iamblichus of Apamea (d. ca. 325). From the 1970s, then, research on various aspects of Julian's thought underwent substantial development and came to new conclusions.2 The monograph of Maria Carmen De Vita, based on her doctoral thesis (Salerno 2009) supervised by Franco Ferrari, is the most recent synthesis of these results. The scope of the book is wider than the title suggests since Julian is not (and, as the author argues, cannot be) presented as a Neoplatonic philosopher in a strict sense. What we have is a detailed and comprehensive picture of various aspects of the Emperor's intellectual profile, similar in genre to earlier monographs on the subject.3 Besides providing a critical summary of recent developments in the area, the book also offers a number of new emphases and fresh insights, opening new paths for further research.

The author's main question concerns Julian's character as a philosopher. She concludes that the emperor was neither a professional nor a dilettante but rather a pragmatist who aimed at achieving his religious and political goals partly through his rhetorical writings, in which he expressed his views in a typically non-systematic way (cf. pp. 326-7). Moreover, the author argues that Julian's thought, his explicit statements notwithstanding, did not depend on Iamblichus as much as is often believed, pointing to influence from earlier thinkers instead, including Middle Platonists. Finally, she also stresses the emperor's tendency to emulate Christian theology, an aspect of his thought relatively neglected in the past. I will reflect on these three main points below, after an outline of the book's structure.

The main argument, framed by an introduction and a conclusion, breaks down into three parts, each of which is divided into three main sections. Much of the author's new results are contained in endnotes constituting more than a third of the volume (bibliography and index not included).

The Introduction ('Does Julian have a philosophy?', pp. 13-17) is a brief overview of the status quaestionis and the plan. (The answer to the subtitle's question is postponed to the Conclusion.)

Part One ('The historical-cultural context', pp. 23-50), after providing essential information on Julian's life, works, and intellectually relevant personal connections (pp. 23-31), elaborates on three central topics necessary for the further argument: the role of rhetoric in Julian's works, the history and main doctrines of Neoplatonism in the fourth century, and Julian's attitude to Christianity (pp. 32-50). At the end of Part One we find fifteen illustrations relating to various themes touched upon in the book (pp. 77-87).

Part Two ('Philosophy in the works of Julian: definitions and methodologies', pp. 91-120) introduces the reader to Julian's concept of philosophy, his main sources, and his exegetical method. The first section ('Definitions and subdivisions of philosophy', pp. 91-7) is an analysis of Julian's own reflections on philosophy and its parts (with theology in the most prominent place). The second section ('Models', pp. 97-106) is concerned with Julian's most significant philosophical sources: Plato, Aristotle, the Chaldean Oracles and Iamblichus. The author follows Bouffartigue (1992) (see again n. 3) in drawing a distinction, based on explicit citations, between an ideal and a real library of Julian. The most marked conclusion here is the limit of Iamblichus' influence (pp. 103-5). The third section ('Methodologies: the allegorical exegesis of myths', pp. 107-19) discusses Julian's (Iamblichan) interpretation of pagan myths, considered as his characteristic mode of philosophical exposition.

Part Three ('Problematic points in Julian's Neoplatonism', pp. 139-252), comprising more than a half of the book's main exposition, contains thematic discussions of various aspects of Julian's Neoplatonic philosophy.

In the larger part of the first section ('The cosmological-theological system', pp. 139-202), the author analyzes Julian's three main theological works – his two prose hymns (To King Helios and To the Mother of the gods) and his anti-Christian tractate Contra Galilaeos – followed by a thematic chapter and a conclusion. The analyses primarily focus on Julian's division of reality into three ontological levels, each of which is governed by a 'sun' (pp. 139-53); the theological interpretation of the Attis myth and the associated ritual (pp. 153- 66); Julian's contrast of the Biblical and the Platonic account of cosmogony together with his political-theological concept of the gods of the nations (pp. 166-85); also his Iamblichan theory of higher beings (angels, demons and heroes) (pp. 185-98). At the end of Part Two the author provides a list of obscure points and contradictions in Julian's theology, explaining them through the Emperor's primarily political aims and the rhetorical nature of his writings (pp. 198-202).

The second section ('The theory of the soul', pp. 202-24) investigates Julian's statements about the human soul. The discussion consists of three subdivisions: the definition and origin of the soul, its constitutive parts and functions, and its connection to the body and ascent to higher reality. In her conclusion, De Vita points out the lack of a systematic exposition of psychology in the emperor's oeuvre, and claims that Middle Platonic theories were at least as influential on his views as those of the Neoplatonists.

The third section ('Theurgy', pp. 225-52) explores Julian's ideas about religion and ritual, claiming that Iamblichus' theories, pace Van Liefferinge,4 played only a minor role in shaping them. The author investigates Julian's terminology as well as his views on sacrifice, prayer, divine images and priesthood.

The Conclusion ('Philosophiae magister', pp. 315-30) is a summary of the book's main results, closing with a general evaluation of Julian as a philosopher.

The author approaches the focal points of the Emperor's thought gradually and systematically. If this structure is not always evident, it is primarily due to the editorial format of the volume. Some of the subtitles do not seem to fit the actual division of the contents; the notes, which are particularly rich in information and innovative insights (often amounting to invaluable short essays), are printed at the end of each main part; and there are no cross-references and no index of subjects to help the reader in finding dispersed statements on interrelated subjects. Although there is an explicit aim to discuss most philosophical subjects covered by Julian's writings (cf. p. 43), it is only natural that not all of them could actually be discussed. Nevertheless, I missed a more systematic presentation of Julian's metaphysics and theology (the most important part of philosophy according to his own classification), which is treated mainly through interpretations of the most relevant source texts (Part Three, first section).

De Vita's reconstruction of Julian's philosophical profile is quite plausible. I would only point to the methodological difficulty of drawing a distinction between the philosophy of Julian and the philosophy represented by him. The author is clearly aware of this problem since she deals extensively with the sources and the literary character of Julian's writings, also emphasizing, very plausibly, the constant presence of philosophical advisors in his company (p. 104). If she had carried this insight to its logical conclusion, she would probably have focused less on how original Julian was as a philosopher (after all, he never claims to be a philosopher in the proper sense), but rather on his writings as a unique source for the otherwise little-known philosophical milieu of fourth century Neoplatonism, which bridges the gap between Iamblichus and the fifth-century Academy of Athens.

One of the author's central arguments is that Julian owes much less to Iamblichus in his metaphysics, theurgy and politics than hitherto maintained. She is aware that this question could only be settled after a systematic comparison of Julian's texts with those of the later Neoplatonists who also used Iamblichus. On several occasions she does an excellent job of finding and evaluating such parallels. Nevertheless in general she tends to adopt the conclusions of others. For example, in an interpretation of the hymn To King Helios the author enumerates (p. 143) certain terms allegedly used by the Emperor to describe the First Principle ('the Good', 'the One', etc.). Among these terms we also find τὸ νοητὸν ξύμπαν ('the totality of the intelligible'), which would suggest that the First Principle, in a rather unorthodox way for the Neoplatonic tradition, is identified with Being. However, in Julian's Greek text the reference of this term is at least ambiguous: Οὗτος τοίνυν, εἴτε τὸ ἐπέκεινα τοῦ νοῦ καλεῖν αὐτὸν θέμις εἴτε ἰδέαν τῶν ὄντων͵ ὃ δή φημι τὸ νοητὸν ξύμπαν . . . (132c-d, p. 106.8-10 Prato), i.e. "He/this, therefore (sc. the King of All or the First Principle), whether it is permitted to call him/it 'that which is beyond intellect', or 'the form of beings' – I mean the whole intelligible realm . . .' It should be clear that ὃ δή φημι ('I mean' / 'that is to say') can as well refer to τὰ ὄντα, i.e. Beings in an absolute sense, as to ἰδέα, i.e. a transcendent principle. In fact, the former is far more plausible in a Neoplatonic context, where the absolute transcendence of the First Principle is a fundamental tenet. Yet the author bypasses this textual and conceptual ambiguity without any reflection (also ignoring an important recent study).5 Eventually, she concludes in accordance with Ferrari (cf. Preface, pp. 9-11) that Julian's concept of the First Principle is closer to Middle Platonism than to Neoplatonism (p. 143) and goes as far as to say that transcendence in Julian is virtually absent (p. 326), or at least that the Emperor's speculative capacities were limited (cf. pp. 158-9).

Much more plausible is De Vita's evaluation of the impact of Christianity on Julian's thought. For example, in her interpretation of the Contra Galilaeos she convincingly demonstrates that the emperor's exegesis of Plato's account of creation in the Timaeus is a reply to Origen (pp. 179-80). Her claim that an important feature of Julian's Neoplatonic interpretation of Attis and the Mother of the gods is as an alter Christus and the Theotokos respectively (p. 165) is particularly illuminating.

The most important novelty of the book is this new emphasis on Julian's Christian context. Maria Carmen De Vita's careful study, interpreting Julian's thought in the wide context of both late antiquity and modern scholarship, will be indispensable for future students of Julian and his place in the Neoplatonic tradition.


1.   Cf. K. Rosen, Julian. Kaiser, Gott und Christenhasser, Stuttgart, 2006, pp. 394-462.
2.   Cf. J.-C. Foussard, "Julien philosophe" in R. Braun and J. Richer (eds.), L'empereur Julien, Paris, 1978, pp. 189-212; R. Turcan, Mithras Platonicus, Leiden, 1975, pp. 105-28; J. F. Finamore, Iamblichus and the Theory of the Vehicle of the Soul, Chico (Cal.), 1985.
3.   Cf. P. Athanassiadi-Fowden, Julian and Hellenism, Oxford, 1981 (2nd ed., 1992); J. Bouffartigue, L'Empereur Julien et la culture de son temps, Paris, 1992; R. Smith, Julian's Gods, London / New York, 1995.
4.   C. Van Liefferinge, La Théurgie, Liège, 1999, pp. 213-43.
5.   J. Opsomer's article in Ch. Schäfer (ed.), Kaiser Julian 'Apostata' und die philosophische Reaktion gegen das Christentum, Leiden, 2008, pp. 127-56, esp. 136-41.

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