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Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 12





Leuven – Walpole, MA

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Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

1. ‘Pagan Monotheism’? Towards a Historical Typology . . . 15


2. One God and Divine Unity. Late Antique Theologies between

Exclusivism and Inclusiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . 33

3. Eadem spectamus astra. Astral Immortality as Common

Ground between Pagan and Christian monotheism . . . 57

4. Orphic God(s): Theogonies and Hymns as Vehicles of

Monotheism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77

5. Pagan Conceptions of Monotheism in the Fourth Century:

The Example of Libanius and Themistius . . . . . . . 101

6. From Philosophic Monotheism to Imperial Henotheism:

Esoteric and Popular Religion in Late Antique Platonism . 127

7. Monotheism, Henotheism, and Polytheism in Porphyry’s

Philosophy from Oracles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 149

8. Refuting and Reclaiming Monotheism: Monotheism in the

Debate between “Pagans” and Christians in 380-430 . . . 167

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9. Augustine’s Varro and Pagan Monotheism . . . . . . . 181


BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203

INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 223

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In his Treatise on the Laws, Georgius Gemistus Plethon, also known

as “the last of the Hellenes,” distinguishes three ways in which people
think about the divine. Some, says Plethon, believe in one unique
god. Others believe in many gods of about equal divinity. Thirdly,
there are those who believe in one superior god, who rules as an
archegetes among lesser gods who vary in respect to their divinity.1
Plethon is a spokesman of this last group. The view he summarises
and represents is typically Neoplatonic. To take the words of one of
Plethon’s major sources of inspiration, Proclus: “there is one god and
many gods.”2
Let us set aside the question of how to denote in modern terms
each of the patterns described by Plethon and concentrate instead on
a phenomenological approach to the third one. How exactly do these
“gods” relate to “god” within the context of late antique Hellenism?
Neoplatonic philosophic sources describe the plurality of gods as
emanations and powers of a First Cause. Gods do not derive from
this First Cause arithmetically, but proceed and participate in it
ontologically and causally. They are not separate personalities or
individual deities, but principles, causes, Platonic Ideas. However, a
different vocabulary is used to describe the relation between “gods”
and “god” in the domains of civil religion and imperial rhetoric. This
allows the acknowledgment of a supreme god, while encouraging the
cultic worship of national and local gods predicated with distinct
capacities and qualities. These gods are divine personalities that serve
the supreme god just as provincial administrators serve their emperor
and captains serve their general. Intermediate between these two motifs

Plethon, Nomoi 1.1.108-13.
Proclus, Theol. Plat. 3.14.4.

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is that of theos ek theon, according to which gods are parts or members

of one divine personality that is identifiable with the world.
This article provides a heuristic model for exploring the ambiguities
between these three subpatterns of describing the relation of “gods”
to “god.” At its root is what Louis Ménard — one of the great nine-
teenth-century advocates of Hellenic religion — called “cette lutte de
la philosophie et de la religion,” that is, the tension between philo-
sophic monotheism and popular religion. Ménard thought that the
“natural and inevitable antagonism between philosophy and religion”
led to philosophical abstractions responsible for the desacralisation of
the pagan cosmos and the degeneracy of polytheism.3 In this paper I
argue that pagan intellectuals in Late Antiquity endorsed and worked
on a particular religious worldview in order to moderate the conse-
quences of the antagonism between philosophic monotheism and
popular religion. Employing modern vocabulary, this religious para-
digm may be defined as inclusive or imperial henotheism and is aptly
represented by philosophers such as Celsus, Porphyry, Julian and
Proclus. I shall conclude by focusing on the question of why pagan
henotheism proved unable to compete with Christian monotheism.
The henotheistic reading of Platonist philosophic monotheism
offered a formula that rendered philosophic monotheism compatible
with popular religiosity and the Roman state religion. From the
point of view of pagan intellectuals, henotheism legitimated the co-
existence of various religious activities and provided the basis for
substantiating a universal religion based on a pax deorum analogous
to the pax romana. It functioned as an exoteric religion and Massen-
religion enabling communication with the divine through mytho-
logical and cultic pluralism. Hence henotheism corresponded to the
popularised version of philosophic monotheism, as well as to its
political manifestation. At the level of Platonist philosophic theology,
the Hellenic worldview was a systematic form of esoteric monotheism;
but at that of popular religion, civil theology and imperial rhetoric,
philosophic monotheism acquired the qualities of inclusive henotheism
and functioned as a “workaday mass religion” (Alltagsreligion).
The position I am arguing is that the Achilles heel of Platonist
henotheism lay in precisely what the Hellenes considered to be its
strength: inclusivity. Inclusive henotheism was unable to confront

Ménard 1863: xxiii-xxv.

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the emergence of religious exclusivity without refuting itself. Reli-

gious exclusivity remained for pagan intellectuals pure absurdity: it
meant an eventuality they could not account for. Defenceless against
the actual development of exclusivist theistic tendencies, the Hellenic
paradigm was eroded and subverted from within by a rapidly growing
Judeao-Christian hegemony of discourse. It was ultimately defeated
by the kratountes on the ground level of those changing socio-political
parameters that fostered exclusive monotheism and religious
orthodoxy — and not on the philosophic level, where this paradigm
resurfaces on the eve of modernity with the emblematic figure of
Preliminary words of caution are needed here. Philosophic mono-
theism, cultic and imperial henotheism are heuristic concepts. They
are used under the presupposition that their essence as religious phe-
nomena predates their actual categorization as either “monotheistic”
or “henotheistic,” in the same sense that, for example, phenomena of
masochism predate von Sacher-Masoch. The Hellenes did not elabo-
rate explicit conceptual distinctions between these motifs because no
supra-civic authority ever demanded an exclusive set of canonical
doctrines, or a definite taxonomy of myths and cultic practices. This
need first arose with the emergence of the Church, Christian globali-
sation and the anxiety of apologists to differentiate their “orthodox”
theology from Hellenic and “heretical” conceptual patterns.4 In order
to avoid the accretion of successive Christian rewritings and appro-
priations, one should be careful not to project Christian concerns
onto Platonist philosophic theology.



Neoplatonic philosophic monotheism was substantiated with refer-

ence to the exegesis of Plato’s ontology. According to Simplicius,
One (∏n), Principle (ârxß), Good (âgaqón) and God (qeóv) are different,
conventional names for the same divine cause: “For God is the first
See for example the effort of Gregory of Nyssa (Ad Abl. 39.8-40.4) to show
that no “community of doctrine” exists between the Hellenes — who are credited
with perceiving their gods “arithmetically” — and the Christian concept of a trini-
tarian god.

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cause and the cause of all.”5 This “cause of causes” is “the first god,”
the “highest god,” the “god of all gods,” the “fountain of deity,” the
“unity of all unities,” the “principle of principles.”6 According to
variants of Neoplatonic philosophic monotheism, gods relate to the
first cause by means of participation, union and communion as
thoughts or conceptions relate to nous.7 In Proclan terms, Platonic
Ideas are gods, having their subsistence in deity in the same manner
as the Chaldean Oracles consider them the conceptions of the divine
nous.8 Gods are conceived of qualitatively, rather than quantitatively.
In Simplicius’ words, “All partial causes do really subsist, and are
contained, in the universal one, not locally or numerically
(pljquntik¬v) but as the parts in the whole, as the multitude in the
one, and as numbers in a unit. For this indeed is itself All, and before
all; and out of one principle many principles grow, and in one com-
mon Good many goodnesses subsist.”9 The following quotation from
Proclus’ Platonic Theology in the inspired translation of Thomas Taylor
epitomises in simple terms the evolution of Platonic exegesis into a
coherent theological system:
Again therefore, the mystic doctrine concerning The One must be
resumed by us, in order that proceeding from the first principle, we
may celebrate the second and third principles of the whole of things.
Of all beings therefore, and of the gods that produce beings, one
exempt and imparticipable cause pre-exists — a cause ineffable indeed
by all language, and unknown by all knowledge and incomprehensible,
unfolding all things into light from itself, subsisting ineffably prior to,
and converting all things to itself, but existing as the best end of all
things. This cause therefore, which is truly exempt from all causes, and

Simplicius, In Epict. 5.12-13. See also Porphyry, Hist. Phil. Frg. 15.1-11
Nauck; Julian, Or. 4.5.8-15.
See e.g. Simplicius, Epict. 100.46-51; 101.26-8; Porphyry, Abst. 2.37.1-8;
Proclus, Theol Plat. 2.65.11-15, 5.55.8-11, In Parm. 1109.7.
Porphyry, Agalm. 3.38-40; Sallustius, De deis 2.1.2-2.6. Cf. Olympiodorus, In
Grg. 47.2.
Proclus, In Parm. 935.10-15 (tr. Morrow and Dillon): “If any wish to attack
the concept of Ideas […] let them bear in mind that Parmenides declared the Ideas
to be gods, and that they subsist in God, as the Oracle also declares (Chaldean
oracles Frg. 37 des Places): The Intellect (noÕv) of the Father whirred, conceiving
with his unwearying will / Ideas of every form”. Cf. Proclus, In Parm. 732.6-10;
830.18-20, 962.22-8.
Simplicius, Epict. 5.40-6; see also Porphyry, Hist. Phil. Frg. 15.11-17.

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which gives subsistence unically to all the unities of divine natures, and
to all the genera of beings, and their progressions, Socrates in the
Republic calls The Good, and through its analogy to the sun reveals its
admirable and unknown transcendency with respect to all intelligibles.
But again, Parmenides denominates it The One. And through nega-
tions demonstrates the exempt and ineffable hyparxis of this one which
is the cause of the whole of things. But the discourse in the epistle to
Dionysius proceeding through enigmas, celebrates it as that about
which all things subsist, and as the cause of all beautiful things. In the
Philebus however, Socrates celebrates it as that which gives subsistence
to the whole of things, because it is the cause of all deity. For all the
gods derive their existence from the First God.10
Already Plotinus declared that god is the gods.11 The concept of a
personified, individual deity that functions as a transcending ulti-
mate cause is alien to the Neoplatonists. Rather, “the intelligible
genus of gods is unical, simple and occult, conjoining itself to the
One itself which is prior to beings; and unfolds into light nothing
else than the transcendency of the One.”12 Henry Corbin described
Neoplatonic philosophic theology as esoteric monotheism and drew
a fundamental distinction with the Judaeo-Christian exoteric mono-
theism that postulates the existence of an individual ens supremum.13
According to Corbin, the paradox of “exoteric monotheism” consists
in a form of metaphysical idolatry, according to which a supreme
entity is superior to Being as such. Yet the First Cause cannot be an
ens, an individual entity, since all entities are particular whereas the
First Cause transcends Being as such.14
In its subtlest versions, Platonist philosophic monotheism is a
carefully delineated and philosophically coherent esoteric religion.
However, philosophic monotheism inevitably conflicts with popular
or exoteric religion at the socio-political level. Varro and Porphyry were
among the first philosophers to note this in somewhat melancholic

Proclus, Plat. Theol. 3.29.7-30.2.
See Athanassiadi Forthcoming.
Proclus, Plat. Theol. 3.50.13-16.
Corbin 1976.
Proclus formulates a variant of this paradox in his commentary on the Par-
menides. The One is god and nous. Yet it is not god so far as it is intellect, since
otherwise “a partial intellect” (merikòv noÕv) would also be a god. Rather, it is god
so far as it transcends and at the same time unifies essence. See Proclus, In Parm.

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terms. Real impiety, one reads in Ad Marcellam, does not consist in

neglecting cult, but rather in attributing to god the views of the mul-
titude.15 Porphyry was careful enough to note elsewhere that “I,
however, shall not attempt to destroy the legal institutes which prevail
among each people. The state is not my present subject.”16 These
views of the “multitude” (“pagan” or Christian) were protected and
nourished within the framework of polis-religion and state-religion.
As Porphyry knew well, it could not have been otherwise. I shall
clarify my argument in terms of Weber’s sociology of religion.
In Economy and Society Max Weber diagnosed a practical “imped-
iment to the development of monotheism” in “workaday mass religion.”
This consists in the “religious need of the laity for an accessible and
tangible familiar religious object which could be brought into relation-
ship with concrete life situations.”17 According to Weber, the “hope
for and expectation of just compensation, a fairly calculating attitude,
is, next to magic (indeed, not unconnected with it), the most widely
diffused form of mass religion all over the world.”18 Weber’s concept
of “popular religion” is linked to the expectations of release from suf-
fering and salvation typical of unprivileged social strata, but primarily
to traditional magic practices and the need for “tangible instruments
of grace.”19 Late antique Hellenic religiosity verifies Weber’s point
no less than Christian apologetics do in the same context when legiti-
mating the cult of the martyrs.
In his Olympic Oration, Dio Chrysostom acknowledges that philo-
sophers are the best interpreters of the divine. But he also presents us
with Pheidias explaining the natural love of mankind towards wor-
shipping god from nigh at hand (êggúqen). People enjoy “coming
near and touching god” in a way that reassures them, offering sacri-
fices and crowning him. Just as children newly weaned from their
parents put out their hands in their dreams as if they were still
Porphyry, Marc. 17.9-10.
Porphyry, Abst. 2.33.1-3. See Augustine, Civ. 6.4: “For he [Varro] says that,
if he were himself founding a new city, he would have written according to the rule
of nature, but since he found himself to be a member of an old one, he could do
nothing but follow its custom.” Cf. Ibid. 6.10: “For he [Seneca] says: The wise man
will observe all these things as commanded by the laws, but not as pleasing to the
Weber 1978:419.
Weber 1978: 492.
Weber 1978: 559.

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present, says Dio, men love to have god present with them and to
communicate with him. This is why barbarous nations lacking art
call the trees, the stones and the mountains gods.20 Essentially antici-
pating Weber’s concept of Alltagsreligion, this analysis of popular
religion effectively shows the limitations of Platonist philosophic
monotheism once beyond the walls of philosophic schools. The
demagicised language of Neoplatonic negative theology referred to a
god who is, as Damascius tells us, unknowable, remote and even
dazzling to the human intellect: “First we endeavour to see the sun,
and we do indeed see it afar off; but by how much the nearer we
approach to it, by so much the less do we see it; and at length we
neither see other things, nor it, the eye becoming dazzled by its
light.”21 The Neoplatonic first god abides in an autarkic state that
renders him not only ineffable and incomprehensible, but ultimately
alien to human nature and needs. By contrast, popular piety in the
framework of civil religion relied on a reciprocal communication
with the divine that accommodated the expectations and needs of
the laity in return for devotion. Zeus, says Aelius Aristides, “created
the gods to care for mankind and mankind to be worshippers and
servants of the gods, an arrangement which was going to be espe-
cially fitting and expedient for both.”22 As Cotta puts it in Cicero’s
De natura deorum, devotion is justice towards the gods. But how can
any claims of justice exist between us and them, if there is no com-
munity of man and god? How can you owe anything at all to one
who has done you no service?23
This arrangement of expediency between man and the divine,
epitomised in Livy’s History,24 conflicts not only with Platonist nega-
tive theology, but also — and this needs particular emphasis — with
Jamblichan theurgy. Jamblichus makes sufficiently clear that gods do
not require “the aid of men” or supplication of any kind.25 As the
Epistle to Anebo attributed to Porphyry shows, Neoplatonic philo-
sophic theology could be interpreted as implicitly challenging the
raison d ’être of civil religion. If gods are really impassive, then the

Dio Chrysostom, Or. 12.60.5-61.8.
Damascius, Princ. 1.56.1-4.
Aristides, Or. 42.22 (tr. Behr).
Cicero, Nat. D. 1.115-16.
Livy 44.1.11.
Jamblichus, Myst. 1.11.19-27.

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invocations of the gods, which purportedly appease the anger of the

divinities and procure our reconciliation with them, are in vain; and
still more, “what are called the necessities of the gods, will be in vain
too.”26 In order to avoid these paradoxes and achieve a rapproche-
ment between the religion of the philosophers and “workaday mass
religion,” Jamblichus and Proclus chose to explain the function of
cultic practices to philosophers initiated in Platonic philosophic
monotheism. This was certainly an easier task than preaching philo-
sophic monotheism to the multitude of philothytai, the pious “lovers
of sacrifices.”27
A further example of the inadequacy of philosophic monothe-
ism at the level of popular religion is demonstrated by myth. One
of the archetypical functions of myth is to “convert numinous
indefiniteness into nominal definiteness and to make what is
uncanny familiar and addressable.”28 Like magic and cultic activity,
the mythical pantheon presupposes a religious framework that enables
the anthropomorphic depiction of gods, to the extent that they
acquire a name and a distinct personality, that is, to the extent
that the divine appears to men in the form of national gods and
daemons reflecting the needs, wishes and weaknesses of their wor-
shippers. It is only thus that myth functions at the level of popular
religion, since, to take the words of Hans Blumenberg, “the most
secret longing of myth is not only to moderate the difference in
power between gods and men and deprive it of its bitterest serious-
ness but also to reverse it.” Working on myth, man enters the role
in which he is indispensable, that is, he makes himself indispensable
to god.29 By contrast, the Neoplatonic “god of gods” who is “more
ineffable than all silence and more unknown than all essence” and
the “incomprehensible and uncircumscribed nature of the One,”
which is “manifested through negations,”30 could hardly initiate the
Porphyry, Aneb. 1.2c3-7.
They thus formulated a theory of ritual based, inter alia, on the idea of gods
being impassive but projecting divine phasmata (luminous appearances). Proclus,
for example, asserts the autophaneiai of gods to various ends and explains them on
the grounds of the principle of sympathy. Hence, he attributes specific powers to
tangible objects ranging from plants and sulphur to red coral and metals. See Proclus,
In R. 1.39.1-40.5, De sacrificio et magia 151.5-23. Cf. Proclus, ap. Olympiodorus,
In Meteor. CAG XII.2, 266.37-267.11; Jamblichus, Myst. 2.3.6-41.
Blumenberg 1985:25.
Blumenberg 1985:32.
Proclus, Plat. Theol. 2.65.5-15, In Parm. 1074.4-21.

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personal relation to the divine that lovers of myth, cult and mys-
teries seek.
To the extent that Neoplatonic philosophic monotheism appeared
to fall short of penetrating the landscapes of cult and myth, scholar-
ship thought it sensible to follow Varro in drawing the often tacit
dichotomy that separates civil and mythic theology from philosophic
theology. Apparently there are things “which the ears can more easily
endure inside the walls of a school than outside in the forum.”31 The
need for this distinction between the “religion of the professors” and
traditional religion is accentuated by the inappropriateness of philo-
sophic monotheism for the construction of political metaphors, and
moreover by its correlated conflict with imperial rhetoric. The wide-
spread analogy between the monarch’s rule and “the royal art of
Zeus”32 presupposed the attribution of specific characteristics and
affirmative qualities to a divine personality. According to Themistius,
virtue towards mankind, gentleness, and kindness are qualities of
both god and the emperor: “This is what makes him godlike, this is
what makes him divine; it is thus a king becomes divinely nourished,
thus divinely born and we will not be lying when we attribute divinity
to him on these terms.”33 The gods, says Themistius, are givers of
blessings and by associating with them in the same task, the emperor
“will be enrolled in their ranks” and the divine epithets shall be his
from that time on: “the saviour, the god of cities, the god of strangers
and the god of suppliants, names more elevated than Germanicus
and Sarmaticus.”34 In the positive theology of Aelius Aristides (117-
189 A.D.), Zeus the King is not only “benefactor, overseer and
patron of all.” He is also Zeus the Saviour, Zeus of Freedom, Zeus of
Gentleness; further, he is “City Protector, Descender, Of Rain, Of
Heaven, Of the Summit, and all the other great and appropriate
epithets, which he himself has discovered.”35 Hence, in the late
antique socio-political context this need for political metaphors and
analogies between the imperial and the divine hierarchical structures
procured a significant shift in the vocabulary employed to describe
the relation of “gods” to “god.”

Varro ap. Augustine, Civ. 6.5.
Dio Chrysostom, Or. 4.21.2-3.
Themistius, Or. 6.79ab (tr. Heather and Moncur).
Themistius, Or. 15.193d-194a. Cf. Or. 5.64bc.
Aristides, Or. 43.29-30.

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In the domains of imperial rhetoric and civil religion, gods are god’s
lieutenants, satraps or governors, participating in a chain of com-
mand and serving the hierarchy,36 rather than Platonic Ideas, powers,
principles or causes. Analogously, god is not the cause of ontological
union and communion, but a divine personality presiding over a
clearly articulated hierarchical order. In this sense late antique pagan
political theology appears to fully support Odo Marquard’s claim
that the modern political separation of powers has its roots in poly-
theism: “It does not first begin with Montesquieu, with Locke, or
with Aristotle; it already begins in polytheism: as the separation of
powers in the absolute, through the pluralism of gods.”37 In the
words of Maximus of Tyre, barbarians and Hellenes are in accord
that there is one god (qeòv efiv), King and Father of all, and many
gods (qeoì polloí), the children of god, who co-rule with him
(sunárxontev qeoÕ).38 So far as these provincial administrators are
agents predicated with distinct responsibilities and characteristics,
this political-theological pattern is not monotheistic; yet it is not
polytheistic, so far as these national or sectional gods are neither
autarkic nor autocratic, but dependent on and conducted by their
king. Rather, this pattern is thoroughly henotheistic.
The term “henotheism” was first applied by the pioneer of com-
parative religious studies Max Müller to describe “a belief in single
supreme beings” that tended to become either a belief in one God,
presiding over the other, no longer supreme gods; or a belief in one
god, excluding the very possibility of other gods. 39 Müller used the
term in relation to Vedic religion. But as he well knew, it proved to
be flexible and applicable to different contexts.40 The difficulty is
that henotheism often acquires different connotations. Although
commonly used to denote personal veneration of one god without
entailing the non-existence of other gods (inclusive henotheism), the

The classic passage in this context is Celsus ap. Orig. Cels. 8.35. Cf. Plethon,
Nomoi 1.5.8-27, 3.43.46-60.
Marquard 1989:101.
Maximus of Tyre, Or. 11.5a3-b1.
Müller 1898:384. As Müller notes (ibid. 266, n. 1), the term derives “from
heis, one, as opposed to monos, one only.”
See e.g. Versnel 1998:194-5 for the henotheistic elements in Euripides’ Bacchae.

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term is also employed to describe the magnification and elevation of

one particular god above all others in a way that not only subverts
the divine hierarchy, but in effect excludes the co-existence of gods
(monistic henotheism) — even if allowing for worship of that one
god “under different forms, with various rites, and by manifold
names.”41 Hence, Plutarch’s description of Apollo in E apud Delphos
is a form of monistic henotheism inasmuch as Apollo is elevated —
in this philosophic treatise — to the status of a unique god and Zeus
implicitly loses his primacy.42
According to Müller’s initial conception, henotheism is, “if I may
say so, anarchy, as preceding monarchy, a communal as distinct from
an imperial form of religion.” It is “the dialectic period of religion,”
a phase anticipating monotheism in the same sense that the dialects
of a language exist before a language.43 Yet it is imperative to note
here that in the Graeco-Roman world monistic henotheism was a
contingent phenomenon: it did not extend beyond particular philo-
sophic or ritualistic contexts, which thus restrict and moderate its
wider impact. Consequently, monistic henotheism never clashed
with traditional and civil religion and should not therefore be con-
fused with absolute exclusivist theism in the Judaeo-Christian sense.
Indeed, far from leading to polytheistic anarchy or monotheism,
inclusive henotheism as conceived by pagan intellectuals acquired
particular rhetorical and political parameters. From their point of
view inclusive henotheism served as an imperial religion. In support
of this claim I shall provide two descriptions, one by the anonymous
Hellene in Macarius Magnes’ Apocriticus, the other by the Emperor
Julian, which clarify how henotheism might function as an imperial
religion within the late antique context.
The “pagan” interlocutor in Macarius’ Apocriticus explains the
interdependency of monarchy and polyarchy.44 The monarch reigns
Apuleius, Met. 11.5. As Queen Isis says to Lucius, “my own person manifests
the aspect of all gods and goddesses.”
Boulogne 1997:291-3. Cf. Müller 1898:292: “When these individual gods
are invoked, they are not conceived as limited by the power of others, as superior
or inferior in rank. Each god is to the mind of the suppliant as good as all the gods.
He is felt at the same time as a real divinity, as supreme and absolute, in spite of
the necessary limitations, which, to our mind, a plurality of gods must entail on
every single god.”
Müller 1898:293.
Macarius Magnes, Apocr. 4.199.1-11 (Porphyry, Christ. Frg. 75 Harnack).

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alone, but this does not mean that he exists alone: “for a monarch is
not he who exists alone, but who rules alone.”45 In order for him to
be monarch, he has to rule over others of his own kind and species
(ömo⁄oi, ömogene⁄v). Emperor Hadrian did not become monarch
because he was the only man to exist, nor because he ruled over
flocks of sheep, but because he ruled over men, who participated,
like himself, in the species of man.46 Analogously, “god could not
rightfully be called a monarch if he did not rule over gods.”
In Julian’s Contra Galilaeos the relation between god and gods is
described according to the same pattern, but in terms that are more
rhetorical and less philosophic:
If the immediate creator of the universe be he who is proclaimed by
Moses, then we hold nobler beliefs concerning him, inasmuch as we
consider him to be the master of all things in general, but that there
are besides national gods (êqnárxai) who are subordinate to him and
are like viceroys of a king (Àparxoi), each administering separately his
own province; and, moreover, we do not make him the sectional rival
of the gods whose station is subordinate to his. But if Moses first pays
honour to a sectional god, and then makes the lordship of the whole
universe contrast with his power, then it is better to believe as we do,
and to recognise the god of the All, though not without apprehending
also the god of Moses; this is better, I say, than to honour one who has
been assigned the lordship over a very small portion, instead of the
creator of all things.47
What is important here is the shift from philosophic monotheism to
a different pattern of describing the relation of “gods” to “god,”
which has the function of rendering the national gods nameable and
definable and therefore rhetorically and politically exploitable. In
terms of Neoplatonic theology, this shift is manifested in the change
of focus from the realm of the intelligible and intellectual gods to
Cf. Cicero, Hort. Frg. 62 Straume-Zimmermann (Lactantius, Inst. 1.7.4): “If
god is one, what happiness can he have in his solitude?”
Cf. Aristides, Or. 26.107: The emperor is the highest ruler (korufaíov
™gemÉn) and great leader (mégav ãrxwn) who treats “as equals his partners in the
administration of the empire, whom he regards as kinsmen.”
Julian, Gal. 148b-c (tr. Wright). Cf. Celsus ap. Origen, Cels. 1.23-4 (tr. Chad-
wick): “the goatherds and shepherds who followed Moses as their leader were
deluded by clumsy deceits into thinking that there was only one God called the
Most High, or Adonai, or the Heavenly One, or Sabaoth, or however they like to
call this world; and they acknowledged nothing more.”

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that of celestial, mundane and subterranean gods, and furthermore

in the concomitant transition from the language of negative theology
to that of divine appellation.
Divine appellation is particularly significant. It offers the funda-
mental substratum for the hypostatisation of the gods and stimulates
the religious awe and piety of the laity described by Socrates in the
Cratylus and the Philebus.48 It is the first step towards the reduction
of gods to distinct and concrete characters. To take the words of
Hans Blumenberg, “the name breaks into the chaos of the unnamed”
since “all trust in the world begins with names, in connection
with which stories can be told.”49 Rhetors like Aelius Aristides, Dio
Chrysostom and Themistius identify the “king” of gods with Zeus,
rather than with the One or the Good. This is the “Zeus of many
names” of traditional religion, hymnody and Orphism, described in
the Phaedrus as the “great leader” (mégav ™gemÉn) of those gods that
have been designated “captains” (ãrxontev) in the “army of gods and
daemons” and preside, according to Proclus, over the whole of mun-
dane concerns.50 It is according to a similar conception that Varro
“not only names the gods who ought to be worshipped by the Romans,
but also describes the tasks which belong to each of them. For it is
of no profit, he says, to know the name and appearance of some man
who is a physician and not to know that he is a physician.”51
There is a particular subpattern for describing the relation between
Zeus and the gods that prepares the ground for the transition from
philosophic monotheism to imperial henotheism and combines
structural elements from both. It deserves particular attention for
transgressing the conceptual boundaries between philosophic mono-
theism, henotheism and pantheism, and for reminding us of the
fluidity of conceptual frames and of the relative value of our heuristic
tools. This is the motif of theos ek theon, “god consisting of gods”
(Porph. Agalm. 3.38), according to which gods relate to god like
parts to the whole: they are parts or “limbs” of one god, rather than
individual governors or abstract causes. We invoke the supreme god’s

Plato, Cra. 400d6-401a. Cf. Phlb. 12c1-4 (tr. Fowler): “My awe, Protarchus,
in respect to the names of the gods is always beyond the greatest human fear. And
now I call Aphrodite by that name which is agreeable to her.”
Blumenberg 1985:34-5.
Plato, Phdr. 246e4-247a4; Proclus, Plat. Theol. 4.18.1-15.
Augustine, Civ. 4.23 (tr. R. W. Dyson).

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powers under various names, wrote the sophist Maximus of Madaura

to Augustine, “because we are obviously all ignorant of his real name.
The outcome is that while with our various prayers we each honour
as it were the limbs separately, all together we are seen to be worship-
ping him in his entirety.”52 Some pagans, says Augustine, contend that
“the whole life” of Jupiter “is that of a living being which contains
all the gods as powers or members or parts of itself.”53 In Peri Agal-
maton Porphyry describes Zeus as “the whole world, a living being
consisting of living beings, a god consisting of gods.”54 According to
the Orphic tradition reported by Porphyry and Proclus, “everything
exists within the mighty body of Zeus.” In Porphyry’s version, his
head is heaven, his eyes the sun, ether is his nous, earth his belly and
his feet are rooted in Tartarus.55 This multivalent anthropomorphic
conception eventually led to a form of panentheism according to
which god is the whole world and at the same time transcends the
world: Zeus, says Porphyry, is the whole world and inasmuch as he
is the nous from which he brings forth all things, he creates by means
of thoughts.56 On this view, notes Augustine, nothing at all remains
that is not a part of god. And whenever anyone tramples on some-
thing, he tramples on a part of God!57
The henotheistic account of the dispersal of divine personality
makes out of god’s parts individual and concrete personalities partici-
pating in a hierarchical order. This move provided the ideal frame-
work for the rhetorical and political manipulation of popular religion.
There are many poleis and many governors, hence it is sensible to
believe in many gods; but there is one Empire and it is sensible
to believe in one “god of gods” and “king of kings” just as one
acknowledges the primacy of one Emperor. A ruler of splendid charac-
ter is highly favoured by the gods, says Dio Chrysostom: he enjoys
their greatest respect and confidence and “he will give the first and
chief place to religion, not merely confessing but also believing that
there are gods, to the end that he too may have worthy governors

Augustine, Ep. 16 quoted in 156.
Augustine, Civ. 4.12.
Porphyry, Agalm. 3.38.
Porphyry, Agalm. 3.15-37; Proclus, In T. 1.307.30-1.
Porphyry, Agalm. 3.38-40, 3.2.
Augustine, Civ. 4.11-12; Cf. Porphyry, Antr. Nymph. 2.9. Cf. Plato, Leg.

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under him.”58 The underlying principle here is, as Erik Peterson

noted in paraphrasing a maxim of nineteenth-century political dis-
course, that “le roi règne, mais il ne gouverne pas:” the king rules,
but he does not govern.59
The projection of political vocabulary on traditional religion was
not without problems. Already Origen could not help noting that
the analogy between the divine and the Roman bureaucratic-military
hierarchy results in the anthropomorphic description of gods: “Notice
how he [Celsus] introduces anthropomorphic satraps of the supreme
God and subordinate governors, and officers, and procurators, and
those who hold lesser positions and responsibilities.” Origen’s disa-
greement with Celsus does not concern the use of this vocabulary,
but its actual significations and correspondences. It is the Christian
“angels,” Origen corrects Celsus, who are the “true satraps, subordi-
nate governors, officers and procurators of God,” not the pagan
gods!60 Both Christians and Hellenes appropriated the Hellenistic
and Philonic analogy of the divine and the human aristocratic mon-
archy. Yet as Peterson argued in Der Monotheismus als politisches
Problem, a coherent “political theology” of this type was possible
only within the frameworks of either Judaism or Hellenism. The
Christian eschatology as well as the doctrine of a trinitarian god
eventually undermined the possibility of consistently interpreting the
Pax Augusta as a reflection of an everlasting “divine monarchy.”61
Arnaldo Momigliano drew attention to the importance and con-
sequences of Peterson’s extraordinary book, noting that his “inter-
pretation of the decline of political theology after the fourth century
was perhaps too unilateral.”62 Momigliano’s position on the subject
is that “the pagans never managed, even with Julian, to produce a
consistent case for the interdependence between polytheism and plu-
ralism in the Roman Empire. (…) As polytheists, men like Celsus
and Julian were making too many concessions to monotheism. Julian
at least never really ceased to be a monotheist.”63 This is indeed so
provided we reconstruct “pagan” political theology in terms of a binary

Dio Chrysostom, Or. 3.51.1-6.
Peterson 1935:49.
Origenes, Cels. 8.35-36.
Peterson 1935:99-100.
Momigliano 1986: 293.
Momigliano 1986: 296.

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opposition between monotheism and polytheism. Julianic and Neo-

platonist political theology appears in a different light only once we
interpret it as essentially henotheistic, rather than as confined to the
polarizing conceptual dichotomy between monotheism and poly-
theism. The actual desideratum for Julian was not to be at once a
monotheist and a polytheist, but to align esoteric philosophic mono-
theism to an exoteric workaday mass religion. Moving between these
two interrelated but never overlapping levels of religious experience,
Hellenic political theology had clear objectives. Further, it was solidly
founded upon Plato’s advocacy in the Laws of the necessity of pre-
serving ancestral traditions as an Alltagsreligion contributing to the
well being of the State.64



In his Anthropology of Religion Max Müller comments on the distinc-

tion between esoteric and exoteric religion as follows:
I know how strong a feeling there is against anything like a religion for
the few, different from the religion for the many. An esoteric religion
seems to me to be a religion that cannot show itself, that is afraid of
the light, that is, in fact, dishonest. But so far from being dishonest,
the distinction between a higher and a lower form of religion is in reality
the only honest recognition of the realities of life. If to a philosophic
mind religion is spiritual love and the joy of his full consciousness of
the spirit of God within him, what meaning can such words convey to
the millions of human beings who nevertheless want a religion, a
positive, authoritative, or revealed religion, to teach them that there is
a God, and that His commands must be obeyed without questioning?65
In Müller’s terms, I have argued that Platonist philosophic mono-
theism corresponds to the doctrinal core of an esoteric Hellenic religion
that is complemented by a henotheistic exoteric or popular religion.66
The latter assumes the role of an inclusive “workaday mass religion”
See e.g. Plato, Leg. 717a6-718a6, 828a7-d3, 885b4-9.
Müller 1892:21-2.
On the Neoplatonic attribution of the actual distinction between esoteric and
exoteric doctrines to the Pythagorean, Platonist and Peripatetic schools alike, see
Proclus, In Parm. 1024.2-13.

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antagonistic to Judaeo-Christianity while serving as a tool of imperial

ideology. In the intellectual universe of late antique Hellenism, philo-
sophic monotheism and variants of cultic henotheism co-exist in a
fragile relationship. There is, stricto sensu, a tension between these two
patterns of conceiving the relationship of god to gods, that is, between
the philosophic and the popular manifestation of Hellenic religiosity.
This tension derives from the anxiety to maintain both the union
and communion of the multiplicity of gods to god as well as the
distinct predicates of each of the divine personalities. Are Neoplatonic
gods Ideas, or individual deities with separate responsibilities, capaci-
ties and spheres of influence? It is one thing to say that gods are causes
proceeding from and subsisting unified in the first cause or the One;
and another thing to say that they are provincial administrators and
satraps of a supervising King. The difficulties here are best formu-
lated in Porphyry’s Epistle to Anebo: how can it be that different gods
are allotted different places, though they have an infinite, impartible,
and incomprehensible power? How can it be a union of them with
each other, if they are separated by the divisible circumscriptions of
parts, and by the difference of places and subject bodies?67 These are
precisely the type of ambiguities systematically exploited by the apol-
ogetical “bricolage” of those Fathers of the Church who, while appro-
priating Plato as a “monotheist,” pilloried and re-categorised Platon-
ists after Plotinus as misled “polytheists” and idolaters.68
The late antique Hellenes oscillate between a philosophic perception
of gods as principles, causes and Platonic Ideas and a popularised
anthropomorphic description of gods as “national” deities. There is no
reason to assume that this is either necessarily paradoxical, or poten-
tially disadvantageous. On the contrary, for a multi-centred and inclu-
sive religion this is an essential characteristic and important asset. Put
otherwise, gods are Platonic Ideas as well as individual deities, depend-
ing on the education, the emotions, the needs, the concerns and the
disposition of the person who seeks them. Platonist philosophic theol-
ogy is consciously multivalent and faithful to Plato’s own strategy of
refraining from the explicit distinction between the esoteric and exo-
teric dimensions of religion. Consequently, the distinction between

Ep. ad Aneb. I.2b3-8. See also Augustine, Civ. 4.12.
On the apologetical manipulation of Platonist philosophy, see Siniossoglou

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monotheism and henotheism possesses relative and heuristic, rather

than absolute value. As we have already seen, it was always possible to
elaborate new variants and subpatterns — such as the motif of theos ek
theon — that combined monotheistic and henotheistic elements with
natural theology, mythology and traditional religion. This eclecticism
and flexibility was as unthinkable and inexplicable for the Christians as
was Judaeo-Christian exclusive theism for the Hellenes.
What actually legitimates and makes these boundary transgres-
sions possible within the wider frame of Hellenism is the conception
of Platonic theology as an open paradigm in a reciprocal relation to
one’s imaginative and intellectual resources. Avoiding dogma and
canonization of belief, the Hellenes employed symbolism, metaphor
and allegory to maintain a multi-faceted relation to one’s faculties
that was permanently subject to redefinition. By means of these
tools, the tension between philosophic theology and popular religion
could potentially be overcome. What god is not, says Ficino, we can
find out by negation; but “how god acts and how others exist with
regard to him we can find out by analogy.”69 For example, in response
to Porphyry’s queries in the Epistle to Anebo mentioned above, Jam-
blichus employs ontological analogy and implicit metaphor in order
to explain the relation of gods to god:
A divine nature, therefore, whether it is allotted certain parts of the uni-
verse, such as heaven or earth, or sacred cities and regions, or certain
groves, or sacred statues, externally illuminates all these, in the same
manner as the sun externally irradiates all things with his rays. (…) The
light of the gods illuminates separately, and being firmly established in
itself, wholly proceeds through all beings. Moreover, the light which is
the object of sensible perception, is one, continuous, and everywhere the
same, whole; so that it is not possible for any part of it to be separate and
cut off from the whole, nor to be inclosed in a circle, nor at any time to
depart from its illuminating source. After the same manner, therefore, the
whole world being partible, is divided about the one and impartible light
of the gods. But this light is everywhere one and the same whole, and is
impartibly present with all things that are able to participate of it; through
an all perfect power fills all things, and by a certain causal comprehen-
sion, incloses and terminates the whole of things in itself, and is every-
where united to itself, and conjoins ends to beginnings.70

Ficino 1975:108.
Jamblichus, Myst. 1.9.16-40 (tr. Taylor).

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In his Commentary on the Parmenides Proclus falls back on an anal-

ogy involving another archetypical symbol, that of the tree, in order
to explain the relation of gods to god: “For even as trees by their
“topmost” parts are fixed in the earth and are earthy in virtue of
that,” says Proclus, “so in the same way the divine entities also are by
their summits rooted in the One, and each of them is a henad and
one through its unmixed union with the One.”71 Just as man in the
strict sense is so in virtue of his soul, explains Proclus in more philo-
sophic terms, so god in the strict sense is so in virtue of the One.72
Hermeneutical processes of this kind remain permanently open to
be completed by the recipient of symbolic and metaphorical language.
As Paul Ricoeur put it commenting on the Platonic metaphor of the
sun, it is not metaphor that carries the structure of Platonic metaphys-
ics; rather, philosophic discourse “seizes” the metaphorical process.73
The play of metaphor and analogy introduces “the spark of imagina-
tion” at the conceptual level,74 which vivifies, in the case of the Neo-
platonists, the act of Platonist interpretation. Porphyry’s Peri Agalma-
ton and Proclus’ De sacrificio et magia are appropriate examples of
Platonist handbooks aiming at initiating this play of symbol, analogy
and metaphor. The figurative and parabolic interpretation of the Hel-
lenes eventually culminates in the alignment of popular religious
imagery and myth with Plato’s ontology. Hence, Proclus renders the
Orphic myth of Zeus swallowing Phanes compatible with the doctrine
of the Good as the unifying principle of the Ideas.75


The question of how far Neoplatonic hermeneutics really succeed at

diminishing the ambiguities between philosophic monotheism and
cultic henotheism, thus reconciling esoteric and exoteric religion by
means of metaphor, analogy and allegory, is ultimately one of intel-
lectual preference. Rather, the decisive and persistent question is
Proclus, In Parm. 1050.9-17.
Proclus, In Parm. 1069.8-10.
Ricoeur 2003:348.
Ricoeur 2003:358.
Proclus, In T. 1.313.2-316.11.

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why, in the late antique context, Hellenic religion failed to carry the
conviction of a consistent alternative to Judaeo-Christianity. To be
sure, the exclusion of pagans from official positions, the progressive
alienation of pagan holy men from society and the Christian strategy
of appropriating and rewriting at will the philosophic sources of their
opponents explain to some extent the “pagan” failure. Yet there is
another factor that needs our attention.
Inclusive henotheism has no means to prevent or effectively
control the growth of theistic tendencies (monistic henotheism)
inside its own framework. Inclusiveness is at once its theoretical
ideal and its Achilles heel. This does not mean that cultic and
imperial henotheism equal unconditional religious toleration.
Roman state-religion in particular possessed reflexes capable of
isolating undesirable cultic practices — the suppression of the
Bacchanalia is typical (186 B.C.). Rather, the Graeco-Roman reli-
gious paradigm lacked something more fundamental: the instinct
and self-defence mechanisms to hinder the transition from monistic
henotheism to exclusive theism. The Graeco-Roman paradigm was
unprotected and particularly vulnerable to the eventuality of a reli-
gious community dynamically claiming uniqueness and exclusivity
at the doctrinal level.
Take for example the concept of theosophia in Porphyry and
Eusebius. Porphyry’s theosophy was inclusive, to the extent that it
acknowledged the oracles, prophets and sages of Hellenes, barbarians
and Jews alike — including the pietissimus Christ.76 In contrast, the
success of the Eusebian appropriation and re-conceptualisation of
theosophia in theistic terms as “new and true theosophy” depended
upon effectively excluding and superseding “what he [Porphyry] is
pleased to call theosophy.”77 Faith is exclusion and provocation,
wrote E. M. Cioran.78 Contrary to the Christians, the Hellenes were
unable to take advantage of the immense vitality and power stem-
ming from it.
Indeed the deist philosopher Charles Blount argued that in theory
the Hellenes could have caused serious problems to the clergy and its

Porphyry, Philos. orac. 141.2-145.10, 180.16-18.
Eusebius, Praep. ev. 4.6.3-4; I.5.12. The Tübingen Theosophy depicts an inter-
mediate stage in this shift from Hellenic to Christian theosophy.
Cioran 1995:1189.

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apologists, if only they had followed the Christian example and

claimed that their religious outlook was unique and infallible:
The Popish Clergie (in such a case) will tell us, That we must believe
reverently of things delivered to us in Holy Writ, for they have neither
Errour nor Fraud in them: And if that does not satisfy you, they will
then tell you, you must come to them for a further Answer: Not con-
sidering, that if the Gentiles should require the same credit to be given
to their own single Testimony, how we should do to shake them off:
the same Reason lying for us to believe the one, as the other, both
equally depending on Faith.79
But “the Gentiles” never made this manoeuvre in order to compete
with Christianity in a battle for the monopoly in revealed truth. In
particular people such as Celsus, Porphyry, Julian and Proclus were
either unwilling or unable (or both) to contradict the pluralism in
interpretation, myth and cult that had been –at least in philosophical
terms– the cornerstone of their worldview. Thus they prevented the
self-refutation of their inclusive paradigm, but not the unimpeded
rise of a Christian hegemony of discourse claiming “orthodoxy” and
hence exclusivity. Odo Marquard argued that one cannot abolish
myths — but that “it is possible, by establishing a monopolistic
myth, to centralise and thus depluralise them.” It is thus that mono-
theism and monomythical thinking marginalise polytheism and pol-
ymythical thinking from within.80 The late antique apologists suc-
ceeded in such an endeavour. The inclusivity of the Hellenic
henotheistic model collapsed under the pressure of the apologetic
rhetoric that (by means of, for example, the massive treatises of
bishop-apologists such as Eusebius and Theodoret) emphasised the
uniqueness of Jewish-Christian revelation. This rhetoric encouraged
the formation of a religious orthodoxy, which functioned on the
political level as an exclusive imperial religion. Still, on the philo-
sophical level the inclusiveness of Neoplatonist henotheism antici-
pates modern deism and fertilises — through Plethon — the early
modern and the Enlightenment attempts for a universal philosophical
The pattern behind the dialectical conflict between Hellenic inclu-
sive henotheism and Judaeo-Christian exclusive theism is illustrated

Blount 1683:7. Blount’s emphasis.
Marquard 1989:94.

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in a source that has not received the attention it deserves, the Laudatio
omnium martyrum by Constantine the Deacon. The work narrates
the fictive discussion between the members of a Roman jury and
Christians complaining about the idolatry and polytheism of their
misled fellow citizens. The Roman judges argued that traditional
religion too acknowledges “one deity (mía qeótjv) divided in many
persons (ên diairései prosÉpwn)” just like the Christians do and
alluded to doctrines inaccessible to the hoi polloi.81 The point was
that Hellenism comprehended the quest for one god and that Chris-
tian separatism was unfounded and unnecessary. In response to the
judges’ advocacy of religious inclusivity, Constantine the Deacon has
his fictive martyrs stand firm in their exclusive devotion to a unique
individual god by following a simple, yet well-tested “apologetical”
strategy consisting of two movements. First, they reject in toto the
figurative and pluralistic interpretation of Hellenic religious beliefs;
then, they easily point out the inconsistencies inadvertently emerging
between the esoteric and the exoteric manifestations of Hellenic
religiosity.82 In so doing, they are not only discrediting the argument
of their opponents; they are also reserving allegorical exegesis for
their own difficulties of harmonizing Judaeo-Christian monotheism
with an expanding Christian Alltagsreligion.

The use of the word prosopa in this sense is particularly intriguing, bringing
to mind the Trinitarian conception of the Christian god. Constantine the Deacon
is consciously choosing this word in order to stress the judges’ attempt to include
Judaeo-Christianity into the framework of Hellenic popular religion.
Constantine the Deacon, Laud. PG 88.500b-501d, 505b-508b.

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