Program in Hellenic Studies


Athens in Late Antiquity:
Civic, Intellectual, and Religious Life Between Paganism and Christianity

Friday May 14, 2010
10:00 am - 3:30 pm
Scheide Caldwell House, Room 103

Athens in Late Antiquity (3rd – 6th cent. AD) - Civic, Intellectual and Religious Life Between Paganism and Christianity

The proud city of Athens, once the birthplace of democracy, a leading military power in the Mediterranean, and the cradle of much of the ancient intellectual and political tradition, could, in Late Antiquity, not boast of any political importance: No emperor, so far as we know, ever visited the city, and she was, in the insignificant province of Achaea, only second to Corinth, the capital.

In stark contrast with its political irrelevance and economic insignificance, Athens, in Late Antiquity, regained an extraordinary importance in the cultural and intellectual life of the Greek East. In fierce competi­tion with centres like Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch and Berytus, she maintained the leading position in the intellecttual and educative life of the Greek speaking world. Her flourishing rhetorical and phil­osophical schools, with their famous sophists and renowned philosophical teachers, in particular of the soon dominating Neoplatonic diadochê, covered in their intellectual pursuits a breathtakingly wide range of intellectual fields and knowledge and were to yield, in some respect, highly original work of lasting importance.

As a centre of traditional paideia, Athens, in a rapidly Christianizing empire, harboured a vital and visible paganism and, at the same time, remained a stronghold of lively pagan cults and traditions. The city’s elite, apparently almost untouched by the radical shifts in political culture and religious life under the late Roman empire, continued to cultivate its traditional political institutions and its ancient system of civic education, the ephebia. The polis celebrated its age-old festivals, in particular the famous Panathenaia, and, though to a lesser scale, lavishly honoured high Roman officials and benefactors.

Still, it was a hallmark of the city’s cultural life that there worked and studied pagan and Christian teachers and students side by side. The beginnings of Christianity in Athens, where Paul gave his famous Areopagus speech, on the other hand, are remarkably dark - and dark it stayed well into Late Antiquity, leaving the development and the history of the church in this important intellectual and religious centre a puzzle, almost unique in the urban world of the eastern Mediterranean.

Although tension was not totally unheard of, the coexistence of civic traditionalism and pagan philo­so­phy with the new religion was peaceful. The often cited conflict of Christianity and paganism, including, in other vibrant metropoleis of the East, sporadically violent encounters of followers of the new religion and adherents of pagan cults or other religious denominations, or the destruction of cult sites did not come off in Athens.

It is thus questionable whether in Athens there took place a simple sequence ‘From Paganism to Christianity’ (A. Frantz) or, more fundamental, that there ever existed, in this idiosyncratic local fabric of social, political and cultural loyalties, bonds and preferences, a plain dichotomy of pagan and of Christian partisanship and simple religious antagonism. The transformation of the city’s most important temples into churches at unknown (or disputable) date still needs explanation as does the so-called closure of the Athenian Neoplatonic school by Justinian 529 A.D. and its impact on Athens’ life.

So far, no comprehensive, multidisciplinary and up to date survey or full discussion of Athens’ history in late antiquity exists. Such an enterprise needs to spell out, within the structure of the late Roman state, the external preconditions and forces as well as the local specifics of the transformative proces­ses in Athens’ urban life in this period. At the same, it has to take into account the full range of literary and material sources, including the results of recent excavations, and make use of comparative per­spec­tives and new approaches. In order to analyse the relationship of society, culture and religion, and the transformation of the urban fabric and of civic life, it will be necessary to identify and context­ua­lise the various forces of persi­stence and change, the social and material basis of Athenian life, the role of imperial institutions and leading personalities, the impact of the schools and of intellectuals’ mobi­li­ty, and of the church.

This agenda should allow to recognize the formative characteristics of late Athenian history, to identify, on one hand, common patterns with urban evolution elsewhere in Greece and beyond, and, on the other hand, to work out and account for idiosyncratic elements in the intellectual and religious develop­ment of the city within this period. The resulting insights should, not at least, help to under­stand the persistence of antiquity and the legacy of Athens in the Byzantine empire and beyond.


Johannes Hahn

Provincial Backwater Town or Mediterranean Intellectual Metropolis. Foreigners and Urban Identity in Late Antique Athens

Academic life managed to thrive in Athens despite widespread damage caused by military incursions in 267 and 394/5 AD. The paper tries to explain the maintenance of much of the city’s public life and urban prosperity as well as traditions through the impact of the presence and visits of affluent foreigners: The schools themselves run by intellectuals coming from abroad and attended by overwhelmingly ‚foreign’ students channeled wealth to the city. No less important were the many Roman high officials, in particular governors and praetorian prefects, who entertained special relationships with Athens and actively shared in her cultural and religious traditions

Andreas Gutsfeld

Lokale Eliten im spätantiken Athen / Local Elites in Late Antique Athens

Elites are commonly better attested than other strata of ancient societies in the surviving documen­ta­ti­on as they were practically the only ones who could represent themselves. In late antiquity, however, this is true only for the imperial elite. From the third century on, the local elites appear less and less in our evi­den­ce due to the marked decrease in the number of inscriptions which form the main source for our knowledge of these groups.
Late antique Athens, though, is an exception in this respect: Here, the local elites are comparatively well attested. Scholars, however, have neglected them for two reasons: first, the old hypo­thesis of the actual downfall of Athens at the hands of the Herulians and their in­vasion in 267 AD has dimmed the focus. Secondly, interest has concentrated on the philosopher’s schools. Thus, the late antique Athenian elites have never been the explicit subject of inquiry so far. The sour­ces, however, reveal that it was the local elites in particular whose commitment secured the city’s vitality and the blossoming of the philosophical and rhetorical schools well into the sixth century.

The paper tries to offer a comprehensive and structural analysis of Athen’s local elites in this period. From a primarily socio-historical point of view the following aspects will be discussed: 1) the delimitation of the local Athenian elites; b) their action in Athens; 3) the role of the Athenian elites in the imperial elite of late antiquity.

Edward Watts

Athens between West and East: How Fourth-Century Political Liminality led to Fifth-Century Pagan Survival

The paper will argue that, because Athens spent most of the fourth century (and, in particular, much of the reign of Theodosius I) under Western imperial control, its religious trajectory should be understood in Western and not Eastern terms.  This political liminality meant that, unlike Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, Athens emerged from the fourth century with its pagan religious infrastructure relati­ve­ly undisturbed. Athenian intellectuals who were particularly interested in preserving and making use of Athenian temples then had physical resources available for their use that no longer existed in com­peting intellectual centers like Alexandria. This made their interests (and, to a degree, their prac­ti­ces) somewhat distinct from their peers.

Christian Wildberg

“Imagining the Material Culture of Intellectual Life in Late Antique Athens”

The main focus of this paper is an attempt to think once again about the demise of the Neoplatonic School at Athens. The closing of the School is still almost universally dated to 529, although it is undoubtedly the case that the famous exodus of the philosophers did not take place until the early 530s. Developing the implications of this example, the paper points out that, in addition to paying close attention to our literary sources, it is, in the course of an historical reconstruction of this momentous event, both helpful and important to take aspects of material culture into account and, even where these fail, to try to imagine as concretely as possible the cultural circumstances under which a Hellenic philosophical school might function within an increasing closed and Christian society.

Last updated 5/13/10