Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Maria Dzielska, Kamilla Twardowska (ed.), Divine Men and Women in the History and Society of Late Hellenism. Byzantina et Slavica Cracoviensia, 7. Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2013. Pp. 168. ISBN 9788323336792. $42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Todd C. Krulak, Samford University (tkrulak@samford.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is derived from papers delivered at a 2010 conference at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków at which an international contingent of scholars convened to consider late antique examples of men and women who, as a result of their personal standards of religiosity and the relationships they were perceived to have had with the divine, were adjudged by others to be holy or even theios. Theoretical assessments of the category, theios aner, are eschewed for the most part in favor of treatments of specific subjects, though the volume would have benefited from at least one definitional essay or an extended discussion in the introduction. Because some degree of latitude appears to have been granted to the authors—topics include a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and the status quaestionis of a network of rooms found in the excavations of Kom el-Dikka—it is even more important to mark the boundaries of titular terms such as "Divine men and women" and "late Hellenism."

Polymnia Athanassiadi's essay, which follows a foreword and an introduction by Maria Dzielska and Maciej Salamon, respectively, does address one role of the "dynamic and elusive" divine man or woman, the introduction of social reform through teaching, which Athanassiadi deems one of the "stable characteristics" of this type. An examination of the letters of Iamblichus to his pupils on topics like virtue, education of the young, politics, and fate demonstrates the philosopher's engagement in civic life, both its political and social aspects, and his desire to encourage those who would be in positions of authority towards principled governance. Athanassiadi next compares the protreptic epistles of Iamblichus and the "pastoral letters" of the Emperor Julian who took to heart Iamblichus' holistic philosophy and finds a "family likeness." Julian's missives outlined the virtues, desired in the priests who were crucial to his political and religious reforms, and emphasized the "cosmic and eschatological solicitude of the gods for the world" (27). This message is repeated in Sallustius' On the gods and the cosmos, a catechetical epitome of Iamblichan philosophy, in which beneficent Providence offers comfort in a harsh world. All three authors, Athanassiadi concludes, worked to preserve "a culture that [was] at once humane and heavenly- minded" (27)

In the second essay, Pierre Chuvin examines three familial funerary inscriptions from northwest Phrygia, dating to 249 C.E., 313 C.E., and sometime after 313, all bearing the name Epitynchanos. Chuvin provides the Greek text and English translation for each inscription, which speak of the Epitynchanoi's functions as priests, legislators, astrologers, and oracles. Allusion also is made to the immortal natures of both the deceased and his surviving brothers. A brief comparison is made between the inscription on the 313 text and Christian funerary texts, but Chuvin concludes that there is little in these similarities. Instead, the funerary texts demonstrate the similarity of terminology and practice amongst Christians and non-Christians in this period of supposed "religious neutrality" (46).

The third and fourth essays focus on a pupil and his teacher. In the former, Dimitar Y. Dimitrov scrutinizes the role philosophy and culture played in Synesius of Cyrene's theory of divine ascent. Through an analysis of a sampling of Synesius' hymns and letters, some of the latter addressed to his eminent teacher, Hypatia, Dimitrov contends that the initial stages of ascent began with the paideutic regimen of the philosopher and culminated with intellectual, de-ritualized mysteries.

The fourth essay finds Maria Dzielska reflecting anew on Hypatia's death, a topic covered also in her book on the Alexandrian philosopher.1 She analyzes an array of ancient sources and incorporates scholarship published subsequent to her monograph to conjure a comprehensive portrait of Hypatia and her last days. The philosopher is cast as a tragic, but noble, figure who, distraught by the city's increasing political and religious tensions, sought to use her virtuous reputation to influence and orient a larger audience towards the Good. In this, she follows the example of Socrates, descending, in a sense, back into the cave where she met a fate similar to her Athenian predecessor.

Agnieszka Kijewska is responsible for the next entry which addresses Boethius' De consolatione, a work produced while the author was imprisoned for treason. The essay examines some of the literary traditions underlying the work which include consolatio, protreptic, and philosophy. This last finds expression in the consideration of topics such as divine foreknowledge and the existence of evil, but also in O qui perpetua, a poem found in Book III, Metrum 9, which possesses parallels to the Timaeus. Ultimately, however, Kijewska contends that De consolatione is not about the potency of philosophy, but rather its inability to affect ultimate salvation. This was the domain of Christianity and, thus, "one shouldn't be surprised that Boethius refuses to follow the path of Neoplatonic transcendence in order to become 'divine man' [sic] for he was a Christian philosopher and martyr" (89).

In the volume's sixth essay, Krzysztof Kościelniak introduces the reader to the Sufi mystic, Farīd al-dīn Attār (d. ~1221). Following a summary of Attār's life and a discussion of the debates over which works attributed to him are to be viewed as genuine, the focus of the essay shifts to The Conference of Birds (Manṭiq-aṭ-Ṭayr), "an allegory of the spiritual way of Sufism with its demands, its dangers, and its infinite rewards" (98). Kościelniak finds connections between the Sufism of Attār and Neoplatonism, but on the evidence given—both seek union with God, a common goal of numerous late antique and medieval movements, and the claim, disputable as it relates to Neoplatonism, that in each "God and the universe are the 'One'"—these appear to be tenuous.

Adam Łukaszewicz next takes the reader to the heart of late antique Alexandria, to Kom el-Dikka, where excavations over the past fifty years have revealed portions of the street grid, colonnades, a bath complex, a theater, and the remains of houses. The essay concentrates on the theater and a nearby portico along which were discovered a series of twenty-one uniform rooms, dating to the late fifth/early sixth centuries, which are deemed to be classrooms belonging to an educational institution. Łukaszewicz notes that it is common now to view the theater, likely erected in the early fourth century, as being repurposed by school authorities for use as an auditorium maximum. Maria Dzielska's suggestion that this might have been the location of the violence carried out against Hypatia is considered briefly, but because the classrooms most likely date to a period subsequent to 415, Łukaszewicz concludes that Dzielska's contention is improbable.

Andrzej Iwo Szoka's essay mines Damascius' Philosophical History for information on Salustios, a philosopher associated there with Cynicism. By the late fifth century, the school had declined to such a degree that references to active Cynics are almost non-existent, so this characterization is intriguing. It is not in Salustios' philosophy that Cynic elements are found, but rather in his conduct. Damascius notes his subject's frankness in speech, his itinerant and free-spirited lifestyle, his austerity in diet and material comforts, and his fortitude in the face of trials. Szoka theorizes that these attributes were not Cynic in their derivation, but rather Salustios encountered and embraced these practices as a result of contact he had with Brahmans who displayed similar ascetic tendencies. The similarities between Cynic and Brahmanic practices led Damascius to associate Salustios not with the former's philosophical tenets, but rather with some of the more noticeable aspects of the Cynic lifestyle.

Holy women in the Platonic tradition are the focus of Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler's contribution. Following a brief but thoughtful consideration of the categories of "holy man/woman" and "holiness," Tanaseanu-Döbler turns to Eunapios of Sardes' portrait of the philosopher, Sosipatra, in his Vitae sophistarum, whose exceptional and unique nature is singular amongst the other depictions of women in Eunapios' account. Although she possesses both the philosophical and ritual knowledge of her male peers, Sosipatra's education does not follow the usual paideutic path and therefore her story does not and cannot serve to offer guidance to other aspiring female philosophers. Tanaseanu-Döbler next surveys sketches of Platonist holy women in the writings of Plutarch, Porphyry, Iamblichos, Julian, Synesios, Proklos, and Damaskios discerns two general patterns: women whose relationship with the divine resulted from perfect ritual practice and women whose deification came through the practice of philosophy. Unlike contemporaneous examples in the Christian tradition in which the devotional and lifestyle patterns of women are held up as exemplary (as, for instance, Macrina or Thecla), the religiosity of Platonist women, including that of remarkable individuals like Sosipatra, frequently is aligned with the more traditional feminine roles of wife and mother.

The volume's penultimate essay is Kamilla Twardowska's examination of an ekphrasis attributed to the Empress Athenais Aelia Eudocia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II, found in the Roman baths at Hammat Gader, a town 8 km east of the Sea of Galilee. Following a introduction that details the physical layout of the bath structure, Twardowska turns to the inscription, which was engraved into a slab located near the entrance to a frigidarium referred to as the Hall of Fountains. It is a playful poem that the author contends offered praise to God for the sixteen water outlets that flowed into the bath complex and brought health to the ailing. In the course of her discussion, Twardowska brings clarity to a variety of issues including the names found on the slab (which are appended to individual water outlets), the dating of the poem's composition (probably sometime between 455-460 C.E.), and the likelihood that, subsequent to a series of earthquakes in the early 450s, the empress was responsible for the restoration of the bath complex.

Finally, Edward Watts demonstrates that Damascius' Life of Isidore (alternately titled Philosophical History) is valuable to the understanding of both its subject and, more generally, late antique collective biography. Damascius is famously frank in his descriptions of his teacher, Isidore of Alexandria, and of the fifth-century Athenian and Alexandrian philosophical scene, and it is this willingness to expose his subjects' flaws that provides insight into which of these are fatal to living the philosophical life and which may be overcome through the virtuous life. An example of the former is found in the person of Ammonius, whose capitulation to Christian authorities is derided. Isidore's naivety and propensity to anger, on the other hand, did not mean that Isidore was unworthy of emulation.

The quality of the essays in the volume is uneven, but those by Athanassiadi, Tanaseanu-Döbler, and Watts stand out and are worthy of attention. A firmer editorial hand might have been beneficial as several of the articles betray their origin in a language other than English, which occasionally detracts from their respective arguments. More problematic is that some of the topics have only the remotest of connections to the purported subject of the collection, that is, divine men and women in late Hellenism, which might prove disappointing to readers with a particular interest in this category of religious specialist.

Table of Contents

Polymnia Athanassiadi, "The Divine Man of Late Hellenism: A Sociable and Popular Figure"
Pierre Chuvin, "Praying, Wonder-Making, and Advertising: The Epitynchanoi's Funerary Inscriptions"
Dimitar Y. Dimitrov, "Philosophy and Culture as Means to Divine Ascent in Late Antiquity: The Case of Synesius"
Maria Dzielska, "Once More on Hypatia's Death
Agnieszka Kijewska, "Boethius – Divine Man or Christian Philosopher?"
Krzysztof Kościelniak, "Farīd-al-dīn Attār Nīšāpūrī (died c. 1221)"
Adam Łukaszewicz, "Lecture Halls at Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria"
Andrzej Iwo Szoka, "Salustios – Divine Man of Cynicism in Late Antiquity"
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, "Sosipatra – Role Models for 'Divine' Women in Late Antiquity"
Kamilla Twardowska, "Athenais Eudocia – Divine or Christian Woman?"
Edward Watts, "Damascius' Isidore: Collective Biography and a Perfectly Imperfect Philosophical Exemplar"


1.   A topic she treats in detail in M. Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 83-100.

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