Episode 08: Rome in the 3d Century

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Alexander the Great bust from Acropolis Museum

Alexander the Great bust from Acropolis Museum

Alexander the Great died in June of 323 BC at the age of thirty-two. So intent was he on conquering all the known world, he never really got to rule his vast empire, or live in the city to which he gave his name. But his was the character of a conqueror, not a governor, and it is hard to imagine him settling down to rule. If his own army had not mutinied before his planned attack on India, he may well have continued his brutal march all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Empire of Alexander the Great

The Empire of Alexander the Great

After his death, his empire was divided up among his generals, and a period of relative peace followed. While local cultures were allowed to remain largely intact, the ruling classes spoke Greek, and it along with Greek learning became the standard for the empire. However, the learning that spread largely had the outward-looking influence of Aristotle. While the Academy of Plato continued in Athens, and similar esoteric schools flourished in Alexandria and other major cities, much of the literature and teaching during this period had a distinctly practical bent. The famous library at Alexandria was constructed and operated according to Aristotelian principles, and had the mission of collecting copies of all known books, which at the time consisted of papyrus scrolls. It also supported a large population of scholars, and no doubt contained complete works of Plato, and possibly those of Pythagoras and Parmenides as well. Athens and other major cities also developed great libraries, although not on the scale of Alexandria’s.

During this time, Athens and the rest of Greece, while nominally subjects of Macedonia, retained a fair amount of independence. Athens itself, as a major trading port, prospered, and maintained its tradition of intellectual inquiry. Many people from all over the world came to study at the Academy and to be initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis.

The next major wave of conquest also came from the West in the form of Rome. Beginning in about 200 BC, the Romans began to exert their influence over Macedonia, largely through alliances and diplomacy, although always backed with the potential of military might. By about 150, Greece had become a subject state, although for practical purposes they had exchanged one set of rulers for another, and life went on pretty much as before. It is a cliché, but true, to say that while Rome conquered Greece, Greece actually conquered Rome, which adopted much of the Greek pantheon, mythology and literature. A hundred years later, the Romans would also conquer Egypt, and with it Alexandria, in the process burning the famous library.

But like the Macedonians, the Romans were relatively hands-off rulers—they installed their own governors, but as long as the subject states paid their tribute, they were ruled with a light hand. The Greek language and cities continued to be the repositories for culture and things of the spirit. After the ministry of Jesus, for example, when St. Paul was working to establish Christian churches, he wrote in Greek largely to people in Greek cities: Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi.

The Romans were also an outward-oriented, practical people, and we do not know of any individuals during this time who was a clear heir to the Platonic tradition. Its influence though can be seen in the work of some scholars at the beginning of the current era. Plutarch was a native Greek, and a priest at the oracle of Delphi, who wrote on a wide variety of topics; it could be said that he originated the essay form. But while he demonstrates his knowledge of Plato, his concern is more with living a conventional virtuous life—he does not display a deep first-hand knowledge of the Ideal. Similarly, Philo (20 BC – 50 AD), born into a Jewish family in Alexandria, also displays a thorough understanding of “Platonism” and other schools of Greek thought, but quotes them primarily in support of Jewish doctrines.

Roman Empire in the 3d century

Roman Empire in the 3d century

By the third century, the Roman empire had reached its maximum size, covering the entire Mediterranean world and reaching further north to Britain, and what are now France and Germany. But because of its size and the rebellious natures of those at its borders, it had become ungovernable, resulting in what is usually called “the crisis of the third century”–a rapid turnover of emperors, and attendant political and military instability. The legitimate emperor during most of the period we will be looking at next, was Gallienus (c. 218 – 268), son of Valerian, who was forced to spend most of his reign putting out fires–attacks on the empire, as well as the division of the empire for a time into three separate parts.  (He would ultimately meet the fate of many emperors during that century: assassination by his own soldiers.)  But to most in the empire, these were distant problems, and unaware that the empire had begun its long slow decline, their lives went on pretty much as usual.

Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

Bust of Plotinus (204/5–270)

Plotinus (ca. AD 204/5–270), was born in Egypt, although his ancestry is not known. Little is actually known of his life, and this was according to his wish.  His student Porphyry¹ begins his biography of him by saying, “Plotinus, the philosopher, our contemporary, seemed ashamed of being in the body. So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace.” It is generally acknowledged though that he came to Alexandria at the age of about 27 in order to study philosophy, but could not find any teacher who inspired him. At the suggestion of a friend, he finally went to hear one Ammonius, of whom also little is known, and declared “This was the man I was looking for.” He stayed in Alexandria and studied with him for 11 years. After an ill-fated attempt to learn more of the teachings of Persia and India, he went to Rome at the age of forty and established his own circle of followers.

(The emperor Gallienus², while perhaps not part of the circle, did know Plotinus, and seemed to be sympathetic to his teaching.  At one point Plotinus petitioned him for a plot of land on which to build a Platonic city, but the senate, with which Gallienus had bad relations, turned it down.)

Medieval Illuminated Manuscript of Porphyry and Plotinus

Medieval Illuminated Manuscript of Porphyry and Plotinus

Almost all that we know of Plotinus comes from Porphyry, who was to him pretty much what Plato was to Socrates.  Although Plotinus was not averse to writing down his teaching, he did so with little regard to grammar, spelling or continuity, and Porphyry provided those editorial services.  According to Porphyry, “He used to work out his design mentally from first to last; when he came to set down his ideas, he wrote at one jet all that he had stored in his mind as though he were copying from a book.”

Porphyry arranged Plotinus’ works into six books of nine essays, hence Enneads.  It is sometime hard to believe they were written by the same person, since their tone can range from inspired poetry to hair-splitting pedantry.  But he is consistent in his inconsistency; with no regard for himself or how he appeared, he seems to have been most set on being true to the source of the words.  In the same biography, Porphyry says: “Interrupted, perhaps, by someone entering on business, he never lost hold of his plan; he was able to meet all the demands of the conversation and still keep his own train of thought clearly before him; when he was free again, he never looked over what he had previously written–his sight, it has been mentioned, did not allow of such rereading–but he linked on what was to follow as if no distraction had occurred.”

For someone who provided one of the West’s enduring mystical masterpieces, Plotinus seems to have been remarkably down-to-earth.  Porphyry tells us that often his students, “on the approach of death,” had turned over their children and property to his care, and that “He always found time for those that came to submit returns of the children’s property, and he looked closely to the accuracy of the accounts: ‘Until the young people take to philosophy,’ he use to say, ‘their fortunes and revenues must be kept intact for them.’  And yet all this labour and thought over the worldly interests of so many people never interrupted, during waking hours, his intention towards the Supreme.”  He goes on to describe him as “Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging…, sleeplessly alert…, pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being….”

“The One” is Plotinus’ word for this divine, the Ideal, and he never loses sight of it, even when splitting the finest of hairs.  As Elmer O’Brien, S.J. says in his enlightening introduction to him, “Anyone who would succeed in understanding Plotinus must seat himself squarely before the concept of The One.”³  And so it is to that which we turn our attention in the next episode.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.  Special thanks to Richard G. Geldard.

¹Porphyry: On the Life of Plotinus and His Work.  Reprinted in The Enneads: Abridged Edition (Penguin Classics), translated by Stephen McKenna, Penguin Books, 1991.

²For more on Rome in the 3d century (most all centuries, actually), subscribe to The History of Rome, a podcast by Mike Duncan.  In particular, episodes 111-116 deal with this era, and provide a balanced portrait of Gallienus. No mention of Plotinus, however.

³Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus: Representative Treatises from the Enneads, translated by Elmer O’Brien, S.J.  Hackett Publishing, 1964.

For a contemporary treatment, see Brian Hines, Return To The One: Plotinus’s Guide To God-Realization,Unlimited Publishing, 2004.