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Religious Competition

in the Third Century CE:

Jews, Christians, and the
Greco-Roman World
edited by
Jordan D. Rosenblum, Lily C. Vuong
and Nathaniel P. DesRosiers

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Gottingen

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Heidi Marx-Wolf

Pythagoras the Theurgist

Porphyry and Iamblichus on the Role of Ritual
in the Phil osophical Life

In his wo rk, On the Mysteries, the philosopher and th eurg ist, lamblichus of
Chalcis famously criticised his fo rmer teach er, Porphyry, for his views on
ritual and, in pa rti cula r, blood sac rifi ce. The aim of thi s paper is to
demonstrate that this is not the only text in whi ch Iamblichus registered
criticisms of Po rphyry. The debate between these two thinkers co ntinued in
the context of their respective biographical sketches of the pre-Socratic sage,
Pythagoras, a figure shrouded in mystery and the subj ec t of a good dea l of
myth -maki ng in later antiquity.'
The contex t for eac h philosopher's sketch is importantly different.
Porphyry wro te his Life of Pythagoras as pa rt of a larger historical work
devoted to d esc ribing the lives of a number of key philosophical figures
starting with Homer (whom Porphyry considered a philosoph er, but one who
wrote primarily in a figural mode) and e nding with Plato. 2 Ia mblichus'
biography of Pythago ras, on the other hand, serves as an introductio n to a tenbook work on Pythagoreanism as the true philoso phical path, a work whose
fun ction was to lead the stud ent into the study of philosophy in general, a nd
then fo r the mo re d iligent, into the study o f Pythago rean thought and life more
specificall y. 3 If we consider th e o th er main biographical account which
Porphyry wrote, namely his Life of Plotinus with which h e prefaced the
Enneads, it may not be too grea t a stretch to suppose that Iamblichus wrote his
On the Pythagorean Way of Life a nd his Pythagorean program as an alte rnative
to (and competitor with) th e philosophical program of th e Enneads. The
choice of Pythagoras is telling in thi s regard. Many m iddle a nd late Roman
Platonists saw Py th ago ras as Pla to's most important predecessor. Hence,
I As Mark Edwa rds notes. many scholars have as su med that lamblich us was not aware of or did not
use his teacher's account of Pythagoras' li fe . However, Edwards contends that this was not the
case, that lamblichus was in fact fami liar with the work and made use of it. Although Edwards
notes some of the e pisodes discussed in this paper, he does not comment on the significance of the
connections. Sec M. Edwards, "Two Images of Pythagoras : la mblichus and Po rphyry", in ).
Blumcntha l/ G. Clark (ed .), T/Jc Divine /11111blichus: Philosopher and Man of Gods ( Bristol: Bristol
Classical Press: 1993) I 59 - 72.
2 References to Porphyry's Life of Py thagoras (Por ph. VP) make use of Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie' s
translatio n: The Py thagorean Sourcebook 1111d Library, edited by David l'idcler (G rand Rapids:
Phanes Press, 1987).
3 References to la mblichus' On the Py 1l111g<>re1111 Way of Lif e (Iambi. VPyth.) refer to the edition and
t ranslation by J. Dillo n/ ). Hershbcll (Atla nta : Scholar's Press, 199 1).

Pythagoras the Theurgist


where Porphyry presents Plotinus as the true heir of Platonic philosophy in

part through h is association with Ammonius Saccas, Iamblichus chooses the
more ancient sage, one who was supposed to h ave influenced Plato.
Before turning directly to the debate on ritual that takes place in the
Pythagorean works of Porphyry and Iamblichus, it is important to review
briefly the main points of difference between the two philosophers on this
topic. 4 In the course of making an impassioned plea for vegetarianism as a
facet of th e philosophical life, Po rp hyr y, in his work On Abstinence from
Animal Food, argued that blood sacrifice was part of a conspiracy on the part
of fallen, evil daemons to secure t he vapors and moisture that fed their
pneumatic vessels, weighing them down and keeping them in cosmic realms
that were not their true domain.s In turn, these malign spirits were responsible
for al l manne r of human and natural misfortune as well as various
misconceptions about the true and highest gods.6 Iamblichus disagreed
with Po rphyry on the issue of blood sacrifice. He held the view that it was a
god-given ritual effective in activating certain cosmic connections between
hum ans and greater spirits that would aid souls in one part of th ei r journey
toward union with the highest gods. The debate over blood sacrifice was one
moment in a larger disagree ment between Porphyry and Iamblichus on the
place of ritual in the life of the philosopher seeking union with his or her divine
origins. It was this larger debate tha t served as the sta rting point for
lamblichus' writing of his On the Mysteries. Porphyry seems to have held the
view that ritual (or theurgy as it was called by some sages) could only get one
so fa r on the path to reunion with th e highest gods and was in fact optiona l for
philosophers. 7 Iamblichus, on the other hand, held that every stage of the path
toward union was attended by god-given, efficacious rituals without which
even the most devoted philosopher could not adva nce. It is this argument
which, I contend, lamblichus co ntinued in his po rtrai t of the Pythagorean way
of life.
In order to understand both the aforementioned debate over ritual and the
intellectual milieu in which Porphyry a nd Ja mblichus wro te their biographical
sketches a nd philosophical programs, we must keep a few points regarding
ancie nt philosophy in mind as we proceed. In The Inner Citadel, Pier re Hadot
clearly demonstrates that philosophy in antiquity involved a good deal more
than the mere subscription to a particular sch ool o r system of thought or
4 The best overview o f this debate can be found in Chapte r 4, "Schis m in the Ammonian Com
munity : Porphyry v. lamblichus'', of E.D. Digeser, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Plato nists,
and the Great Persecution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 98- 127. See also recent work
by Daniel Ullucci in which he discusses this deba1e as a kind of co mpetitio n between c ultural
producers over how to define proper o r ideal s acrifice; The Christian Rejectio11 of Animal Sa
crifice (Oxford : O xford University Press, 201 2), S - 6; 58 - 9.
5 Porph. Abst. 2.40; 2.42.
6 Porph. Abst. 2.40.
7 Digeser. A Th reat to Public Piety. 119- 27.


Heidi Marx-Wolf

training in certain rational principles. 8 Rather philosophy's true value lay in its
practical dimensions, its prescriptions for how to live, and its ability to supply
its adherents with a comprehensive approach to life. This understanding of
philosophy did not end in the second century. Indeed, philosophy as a guide to
right thought, action, and passion continued into the third century and also
expanded to include previously de -emphasised spheres of action. Fo r
instance, in the worldview of late Platonist thinkers such as Porphyry and
lamblichus, we find an increasing focus on the philoso pher's involvement in
civic affairs or politics, an d on the proper practice and mea ning of traditional
religious ritual - the subjec t of the debate between the two philosophers under
discussion here. 9 As we shall see, these two aspects of the philosophical life in
late Roman Pia ton ism are not unrelated. Both are part of the larger discussion
between Porphyry and Iamblichus on the role of the philosopher and theurge
in the salvation of other souls.
Although Iamblichus does not address Porphyry's portra it of Pythagoras in
any explicit manner, there are a number of junctures in the text where he
appears to correct Porphyry on matters of both detail and significance.
Indeed, even their approach to their subject matter reveals important
differences. Porphyry's approach is more diverse. He records multiple
acco unts of the sa me events, especially with referen ce to Pythagoras'
parentage, place of origin, and childhood, and he does not resolve the
contradict ions he notes among diverse accou nts. As Dominic O'Meara notes,
Porphy ry writes more as a historian a nd compiler. 10 He pays homage by giving
as co mplete an account as possible of the varying reports concerning his
subject. Porphyry's account, as mentioned earlier, "was once part of the first
book of a philosophical history in four books, beginning with Homer and
ending with Plato." 11 Apart from th e sections on Pythagoras and so me short
extracts, thi s work is no longer extant. When placed side by side with some of
Porphyry's o th er writings, his approach to Pythagoras is consistent with what
emerges from a more general survey of his works as a search for a universa l
reli gious philosophy re flected in the teachings of the ancient Greek sages and
poets, the Egyptian and Chaldean priesthoods, Indian Brahmans, and even
Hebrew wise men and prophets. Thus Porphyry is not a "Pythagoreanising
Platonist." Acco rding to O'Meara, however, Iamblichus is.

8 P. Hadot, Tire Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Cambridge: Harvard Uni versity Press, 1998).
9 Both Dominic J. O'Meara and Jeremy Schott have brought this polit ical facet of laie Platonism 10
the attcnlio n of scho lars in rccenl years . Sec D.J. O'Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political
Plrilosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) a nd J. Schott, "Founding
Plaionopolis: The Plaionic 'Poli1cia' in Euscbius, Porphyry, and la mblichus", JECS 11 (2003)
SOI - 31.
10 D.J. O'Mcara, Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosopl1y in I.ate A11tiq11ity (Oxfo rd :
Cla rendon Press, 1989), 26.
11 O'Mcarn. t>ytl1ngorns Revived. 25.

Pythagoras the Theurgist


Unlike Porphyry's more ad hoe approach, lamblic hus weaves a h armonised

and for the most part internally consistent portrait of Pythagoras a nd h is way
of life. For instance, he resolves a number of key differences that Porphyry lets
stand. Some of these resolutions are accomplished by ordering the diversity we
find in Porphyry's life within hierarchical frameworks. In general, Iamblichus
very consciously sets fo rth the definitive view of Pythagoras. This may be
because he has judged Porphyry's to be deficient in some way.
One exa mple of Iamblichus' efforts to set the reco rd straight on Pythagoras
occurs at VPyth. 5.2 1 - 25. lamblic hus tells th e stor y of how Pythagoras, when
he returned to Samos and found a less than enthusiastic reception, chose a
poor athletic youth as a pupil and offered to keep him well-provisioned if the
youth would agree to accept lessons from Pythagoras. In this way the
philosopher hoped to "give his fellow countrymen a taste of the fineness of his
teachings", perhaps by showi ng them through this Pygmalionesque scenari o
that his teachings could transform such an ignorant creature into a true
adherent. 12 Pythagoras managed very well in this regard. The youth, who also
happened to be named Pythagoras, grew so addicted to his master's teachings
th at not only did h e continue when Pythagoras begged poverty and could no
longer pay him to learn, but in the end, the youth was paying Pythagoras for
his lessons, as any good pupil of philosophy should do. After describing the
scene of the young athlete's conversion to philosophy, Iamblichus n otes that
"treatises on the art of athletic training are ascribed to this one [namely
Pythagoras the younger), including the decree that athletes have a meat diet
instead of dried figs." "These treatises", writes Iamblichus, "are not correctly
attributed to Pythagoras, so n ofM nemarchus." 13 In Porphyry's account, up on
returning to Samos, Pythagoras trained the Samian athlete Eurymenes, who
"though he was of small stature, co nquered at Olympia through his surpassing
knowledge of Pythagoras' wisdom." 14 How did h e accomplish this feat, and
what part of Pythagoras' great store of knowledge did he find particula rly
helpful in this regard ? The athlete achieved his victory by following the sage's
advice " to feed daily on flesh rather than on the usual athlete's di et of cheese
and figs." 15 It is not a stretch to see Iamblichus as setting Porphyry st raight on
this episode. For Porphyry, who in On Abstinence from Animals remarks that
eating meat binds the soul more closely to the body, it makes good sense that if
Pythagoras were to undertake the training of an athlete that he would enjoin
practices that strengthen this connection and nourish the body. Furtherm ore,
the young man was an athlete and not a philosopher, hence, he was not on the
path toward union with the highest gods. Therefore, it was acceptable to
engage in polluting practices such as eating meat. But Iamblichus, by

12 Iambi. VPyth . 5.2 1 - 5.

13 Iambi. VPytli. 5.25.
14 Porph. VP. I5.
15 Porph . VP. I 5.


Heidi Marx-Wolf

attributing knowledge of th ese matters to a different Pythagoras, divorces the

sage from involvement in anything so base as the training of athletes for
com pe tition and the injunction that one ought to eat meat in order to win in
physical contests. Although lamblichus' Pythagoras knew everything there
was to know about medicine and di et as it pertained to the purification and
healing of the body, h e was no t involved in anything so contrary to the
philosophical life as preparing an a thlete for competition. Indeed, Iamblichus'
Pythagoras would h ave seen the participation in athletic co ntests as anathema
to the virtue of friendship which ought to govern human bei ngs' relations with
each other and indeed the entire cos mos, a point which he makes in
Chapter 33.16 On the contrary, through Pythago ras' friendship, the athlete is
turned into a philosopher and thus is saved.
Additionally, at VPo rph. 18.84, we find Iamblichus interpreting some of
Pythagoras' acusmata in ways that differ from Porphyry's. These acusmata, or
"things heard," are supposedly the authentic teachings of Pythagoras passed
down over th e course of centuries. They tend to be brief, pithy, a nd at times
cryptic or at least opaque philosophical principles and behavioural prescription s. For instance, both Porphyry and lambl ichus address the injunction "Do
not wear a god 's image as a signet on a ring." In explanation, Porphyry writes
that this saying indicates that one should not reveal to the vulgar one's
opinions about the gods or discourse about them with the ignorant. 17
lamblichus corrects this interpretation by arguing that to wear an image in
this way pollutes it, "for it is an image which ought to be set up in the house." 18
In other words, wh ere for Porphyry the concern is about ensuring that the
vulgar are not privy to the philosopher's knowledge about the gods, for
Iamblichus, Pythagoras is indicating which kind of divin e images ought to be
where, which is one aspect of the way in which they ought to be used in a ritual
contex t. Misuse, in this case wearing a sacred image on one's finger, is a source
of pollution a nd is contrary to r ight practice. Again, Porphyry seems to
distinguish betwee n d ifferent orders of human existence, outlining what is
appropriate for philosophers as opposed to what ordinary people may do.
Iamblichus, on the other ha nd, reads this saying as a universal principle
concerning ritual as it pertains to everyone.
Even more telling is the way in which Iamblichus harmonises conflictin g
opinions on Py th ago ras' positio n on animal sacrifice and eatin g meat. Famous
for enjoining a vegetarian diet, so m e reports also describe Pythagoras or his
adherents as participating in a nimal sacrifices. Porphyry, despite his strong
argum ents for the necessity of a vegetarian diet amo ng true philosoph ers,
records accounts of Pythagoras that assert he a te meat on occasion, as well as
other reports tha t he kept to a very st rict vegetarian regimen an d found the
16 Iambi. VPy1l1. 33. 230 - I.
17 Po rp h. VP. 4 2.
18 Ia mbi. VPy1lr. 18.84.

Pythagoras the Theurgist


slaughter of animals abhorrent. In other words, he prese nts a number of

conflicting reports on this subject without providing an explanation for the
divers ity. 19 Iamb lichus does two things in the VPyth. with regard to this
question. First, he marks a distinction between those animals which ca n be
eaten and those which should not be: one can eat an imals that are lawful to
sacrifice, the reason being that they are not the ones into which human souls
enter when reincarnated. 20 However, acco rding to Iamblichus, certain orders
within the Pythagorean community were completely abstemious, avoiding
meat altogether. 21 Here Iamblichus mirrors his stance fou nd in On the
Mysteries where he argues that animal sacrifices were necessary for the
worship of the material gods, but they were not appropriate for the worship of
higher cosmic divinities, namely the ones with whom true theurgists have the
most involveme nt. Hence, we can see that, in a number of places in Iamblichus'
biography, he subtly but resolutely corrects Porphyry's portrait of Pythagoras.
Indeed, Iamblichus is at great pains to portray the ideal philosopher, in this
case Pythagoras, as someone universally concerned about and capable of
brokering the salvation of other souls. For instance, Iamblichus spends a good
portion of the work describing Pythagoras' and his followers' involvement in
civic affairs. They admonish tyrannical a nd unjust rulers, often imperiling
their own Jives. They also advise cities on proper governance and justice. 22 It is
easy to see this emphasis in the text as part and parcel of Iam blichus'
soteriological program, as the ideal philosopher must work to establish a
society in which it is possible for others to pursue v irtues such as piety, justice,
wisdom, and the ultimate Iamblichaean virtue, namely friendship. 23
Additionally, Pythagoras teaches others the arts of prayer and sac rifice
based on his extensive sacerdotal knowledge. In this regard, Iamblichus'
definition of piety in the VPyth. comes cu riously close to th at of the young
theologian with whom Socrates tangles in the Eu thyphro. Pythagoras'
knowledge in these matters is detailed and comprehensive. He even knows
what bedclothes one ought to use to commune with the gods. This signals
Iamblichus' firmly held view that the urgy (god-work) is more important than
theology ( philosophical discourse about the gods) for uni on with d ivi nity the main bone o f co nte ntion between Porphyry and himself.


Sec Porph. VP. 7, 16, 34, a nd 36.

Iambi. VPyth . 18.85.
Iambi. VPyth. 24.1 06 - 8.
In general, lamblic hus portrays the Pythagoreans as active participants in civic affairs. This
po rt rai t accords well with the a rgument O'Meara makes in Platonopolis about the political
philosophy of the la te Roman Platonists. Not only has he convincingly argued that they had a
political philosophy, but he notes that in this period, philosophers in the Platonic tradition
tended to favour the model found in the Laws, where the philosopher serves as the advisor to
rulers , rather than that of the Rep11blic, where the philosopher himself rules.
23 Like Porphyry, lamblichus o rders key ancient virtues into a hierarchy, friendship bei ng the
highest virtue for him. Porphyr y's hierarchy of virtues can be found in Sent. 32.


Heidi Marx-Wolf

Iamblichus' Pythagoras is also involved in ministering to th e physical

bodies of his charges, healing them with his knowledge o f both music and
medicine. Pres umably by doing so he makes it possible for th eir souls to
become increasingly free from attachment to the body, a process he indicates
is aided by goo d dae mon s in On the Mysteries. 24
Iamblic hus' emphasis on th e salvific work of the ideal philosopher is further
demonstrated in two rather delightful episodes in the VPyth. where
Pythagoras contends with the proble matic eating habits of animals. At one
juncture h e successfull y admonishes an ox with a penchant for beans to give
up this particular victual. 25 On another occasion h e convinces a bear to stop
eating humans. 26 These episodes demonstrate Iamblichus' view that the true
sage participates in salvific work that affects all creatures, all aspects a nd
realms of the cosmic hiera rchy. This attention to animals should not b e
surprising given the widely held view among late ancient Platonists and
Pythagoreans that human so uls can be reincarnated in an imal form. 27
This focus in the VPyth. a lso serves as a co rrective to Porphyry's view of the
philosophical life as a path quite separate from the lives of ordinary people.
Ia mblic hus was deeply critical of Porphyry's inte rpretation of blood sacrifi ce
because it co nsigned large portions of humanity to a deceived and polluted
existence. Instead, Iamblichus saw these sacrifices as th e starting p oint on a
pa th of ordered ritual ac tions, the end of which was uni on with the highest
gods. Philosophers such as Pyth agoras could serve as guides for others along
this via universalis. Iamblichus' Pythagoras both teaches and models an ideal
way of life in which all c reat ures and persons can participate to so me measure.
But desp ite the universality of the path, la mblichus makes it clear that a select
few are suited to g uide others to th eir salvation, their suitability be ing
dependent on their vast wisdom, impeccable virtue, and most important, the ir
close association and even identity with divinity.


Iambi. Mys t. 5. 16.

Iambi. VPytli. 13.61.
Iambi. VPytli . 13.60.
For exam ple, see Porphyr y's 0 11 What is i11 Our Power, a work entirely devoted to questions of
(re ) incarnation.