Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Paganism


Did Justinian close the Athens Academy in 529 AD?

by Ι. Τ.

Supervision: Th. F. D.

Most of the information in this article was taken from: http://www.geocities.com/porta_aurea/arhaioplixia.html

In their desire to convince the uninformed of the alleged persecutions of the Gentiles by the Christians, the Neo-Paganists have been propagating the HISTORICALLY FALSE information that Justinian had shut down the Athens Academy, based on his supposed anti-Hellenic sentiment.

Needless to say, the Athens Academy was NOT CLOSED by Justinian.  Furthermore, the accusations that are being utilized by Neo-Paganists in their attempt to slander Christianity have been proven by contemporary research to be historically incorrect.

Numerous neo-Paganists (and those influenced by them) are under the impression that the Roman/Byzantine emperor Justinian had imposed the closing of the Philosophical School of Athens in the year 529 A.D., allegedly plunging mankind into darkness, and thus leading it into the ignorance of the Middle Ages.  

This accusation is a pure myth, which we shall prove, further down…  Therefore, in light of the neo-Paganistsstance, which refuses to acknowledge historical reality and instead maintains that the closing of the Academy of Plato was “an act of excommunicating knowledge”, we have prepared this article, with the intent to prove that the Academy had closed because:

a)  it had already entered in a course of spiritual decline, on its own.  

b) it had ceased to function as a school of classical thought, as it had been transformed in to a degraded Paganist center, which, instead of producing philosophy, produced miscellaneous teachings on sorcery and superstition, eventually corroding Plato’s philosophy.

c) many lies have been spread by neo-Paganists regarding the alleged closing of the Athens Academy by Justinian.

To quote from various sources:

“Plato owned a block of land in the area of the Academy” […]  legally, the School was a religious, sacred association, whose purpose was the common worship of the Muses  […]  The Academy was situated inside an enclosed garden, away from the noise of the city. It was run as a company, by a certain director, and entry was permitted only to those who were its members   […]  We furthermore have information that certain members of the Academy were commissioned, ex-officio, to organize the sacrifices, the festive banquets and the messes”  (Encyclopedia PAPYROS-LAROUSSE-BRITTANICA, Volume 6, under the entry: “Academy”)

Justinian had not prohibited the teaching of law and philosophy in Athens –as claimed by Malalas- because this same historian contradicts himself when also claiming that later on, in 530 A.D., the emperor had sent his Codex on Legislation to Athens and Beirut. We must surmise from this, that law schools existed in Athens and Beirut (Malalas would not have mentioned these two cities only, if he simply implied that the emperor had sent his Codex to the law courts of Athens and Beirut), therefore, if he is contradicting himself on the issue of law being taught, then the chances of him telling the truth about philosophy are equally slim.  Prokopios (the historian) mentions no such prohibition  [F. Gregorovius, Ιστορία των Αθηνών - History of Athens, Marasli Library, Athens 1904, vol.1, page 122].

“On this testimony alone (by Prokopios, in Απόκρυφη Ιστορία – Secret History), according to which, Justinian had revoked the salaries of public teachers and had confiscated private property in favor of establishments with scientific scopes, it was conjectured that this act pertained mainly to the Academy of Athens” [F. Gregorovius, Ιστορία των Αθηνών - History of Athens, Marasli Library, Athens 1904, vol.1, page 122].  But, it is one thing to confiscate private property, and another thing to forbid the teaching of philosophy or closing down the Academy.  Besides, Prokopios himself nowhere mentions Athens by name, nor does he say that Justinian had revoked any salaries.

Apart from the fact that the book Απόκρυφη Ιστορία Secret History has been acknowledged as an unreliable work of libel, we have absolutely no evidence, whether an edict or an author’s report, which states with clarity or explicitly claims that Justinian had forbidden the teaching of philosophy in Athens, or had ordered the closing of the Academy.  In the special clauses of the codex “Pandektis” that was drafted by Justinian, the teaching of all lessons by Gentile teachers was prohibited (which was something that Julian had done earlier, with Christian teachers. One could say this was History’s revenge, albeit somewhat belated, when Paganism had already become obsolete), however, there was no explicit clause in the codex, pertaining to the abolition of the schools of Athens.

Agathias, who recounts in detail the emigration of the seven philosophers of the Academy to the court of Hosroe, does not say that they had left because the school of Athens had been abolished –which would have been the natural thing to say, if the school had indeed been abolished- instead, he says that they had emigrated “because they did not like the Roman (“Byzantine”) beliefs that prevailed there” (επειδή αυτούς η παρά Ρωμαίοις κρατούσα επί τω κρείττονι δόξα ουκ ήρεσκεν), (K. Paparigopoulos, Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, History of the Greek Nation, 1885, re-published by Cactos Publishers, 1992, vol. 9, 3).  “The abolishment by Justinian of the Schools of Athens cannot be proved as being an official act of the State (…) they continued to exist in Athens as private schools of rhetoric and grammar” (the Academy was such a private school, owned by Plato) ” [F. Gregorovius, Ιστορία των Αθηνών - History of Athens, Marasli Library, Athens 1904, vol.1, pages 122, 123.]

In the magazine Prominent Figures of the Past” ("Μεγάλες Μορφές του Παρελθόντος") (Periskopio Publications), in the edition : “Justinian, the greatest Byzantine Emperor”, (by John Chatzakis, page 36), we read the following:

“According to older theories, among other things, the closing of the Philosophical School of Athens in 529, which comprised the continuation of Plato’s Academy, had also been attributed to Justinian. However, recent research has proved that it was more of a temporary suspension in operation for internal reasons, and not because of any external pressures. Specifically, during that period of time, seven of the neo-Platonic teachers had – for unknown reasons and probably pressured by the persecutions that were taking place - (OODE note: with the expression ‘persecutions’, the author is referring to the prohibition by law of the Gentiles’ sacrificial practices, which he described in the preceding chapter) they sought refuge in the court of Hosroe I in Persia.  They naturally realized very soon that their conditions of stay were not the best possible. The official zoroastric religion of the Persian kingdom was no more tolerant towards foreign ideas than “Byzantine” Christianity was.  Thus, in less than a year, the Greek philosophers were compelled to return to the–albeit limited- safety of Athens, and there recommenced the operation of the school, which appears to have finally ceased its lessons around the end of the 6th century.”

From the above text, we can safely conclude that :  a) The Academy was closed by the philosophers themselves and not by Justinian, b) It remained closed for less than one year, c) there was far greater tolerance towards the gentiles in the Byzantine dominion than there was elsewhere, evidenced by the philosophers’ return home, d) the “persecutions” imposed by Justinian legislation were nothing more than laws of discouragement, which obviously did not threaten the SAFETY of the philosophers, e) the school recommenced its operation, to the end of that century (and as we shall prove further along, that philosophy continued to be taught, even up to the 7th century!)

As we all know, the Academy, thanks to its immense fortune, was able to accept all of its students free of charge, whereas the other schools demanded tutorial fees.  Consequently, the confiscation of its property –if it did occur, and to the degree that it occurred- would not necessarily imply the actual closing of the Academy; only that its students would have to thenceforth pay for their lessons. It is one thing to confiscate property, and another thing to close down the Academy.

Blumenthal: (“529 and its Sequel: What happened to the Academy” Revue Internationale des Etudes Byzantines XLVIII [1978], Bruxelles 1979, 370-385) introduces another problem that concerns the date of issuance of the law. It is considered quite possible, that the year the law was enforced was 534 A.D., therefore, there is some uncertainty as to whether some of the provisions of that law existed from as early as 529 A.D.  “Recent studies have shown that thirty-one years later, in 560 AD, the requisitioning of the property of the exceptionally flourishing Academy had not been fulfilled (Paolo Cesaretti, “Θεοδώρα˙ η άνοδος μιας αυτοκράτειρας” Theodora: the rise of an Empress, Oceanis Publications, page 240).

“It is frequently mentioned, that the emperor had closed down the Academy in Athens in 529.  Nevertheless, that Academy continued to operate for several more decades.  And in Alexandria, the idolater Olympiodorus still taught philosophy, even after 565, when Justinian died.” (Sture Linnér, Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού Πολιτισμού, History of the Byzantine Civilization, Govostis Publications, page 93).

A. Cameron (“The Last Days of the Academy of Athens”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 195 [1969], 8, 25) believes that the teaching of philosophy continued in Athens, from 532 A.D., up until the Slavs besieged the city, i.e., almost fifty years later. Cameron supports this view, based on an excerpt from Olympiodorus’ commentary on Plato’s work “Alkibiades”.  This commentary mentions that the concession of Plato’s School to its successors was for purely practical reasons, given that Plato himself was financially well off.  Olympiodorus notes that the status of the School was successional until his time*, despite the form of partial confiscation that it underwent.  According to Cameron’s rationale, in 529 A.D. the Platonic Academy had no financial support, as a result of which, its activities were significantly reduced, but not entirely discontinued.  We notice that the Paganist philosopher Olympiodorus mentions the existence of the Academy during his time (he said: until his time* - and he was at his peak, around 565 A.D.), while also mentioning –and this makes his commentary a credible witness- the partial (and not total!) confiscation of property:  “[…] This place of learning and research centre that was founded by Plato was preserved [….] for almost ten centuries (4th – 6th centuries A.D.) […]  (EncyclopediaDOMI”, under the entry: “Academy”)

We can see how this viewpoint on the closing of the Academy is no longer acceptable, but also that, despite the legislation prohibiting the teaching of philosophy by Paganists, neither Justinian himself nor the emperors after him enforced that law, at least to the degree that the neo-Paganists want us to believe. Otherwise, how would it have been possible for Olympiodorus to teach philosophy in Alexandria, the second largest Patriarchate and second largest city of the Empire?  The laws were not enforced. They merely had an avertive influence.  Thus, the question arises: why did the seven philosophers leave Athens, even though the Academy’s property had not been confiscated, and the teaching by Gentiles was not actually revoked?  Is Agathias’ narration true?  Or, was the reason for their flight only the one that Agathias mentioned?

Justinian therefore did not prohibit the general teaching of philosophy in the city. Proof of this, is that Theodore (602-690 A.D.), who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, England, had studied philosophy, mathematics and astronomy in Athens, at the beginning of the 7th century (V. Spandagos – P. Spandagos – D. Travlos, Οι θετικοί επιστήμονες της βυζαντινής εποχής, The positive scientists of the Byzantine period, Aethra Publications, page 56); furthermore, the philosopher Tychikos the Byzantine had also studied philosophy there, during that same period (Steven Runciman, Βυζαντινός πολιτισμός, Byzantine civilization, Galaxias Publications, page 253).

It is therefore a humungous lie, that the “lights of civilization were extinguished” in Athens, in 529 A.D..  The majority of students at the time were Christian, and there most certainly would have been Christian professors as well.  There is nothing to disprove that Christian professors continued to teach philosophy and rhetoric, after the expulsion of the idolaters.

And of course the view that all the philosophical schools were flourishing in 529 (even when supported by the findings of American excavations in the Athenian Agora-marketplace as evidence) is unfounded. If the schools were indeed flourishing, why aren’t there any Epicurian or Stoic or Aristotelian successors (as in previous centuries) in charge of the respective, “flourishing” schools?  Why is there no written evidence on these schools, which the “neo-Pantheonists” are trying desperately to prove were flourishing?  The Platonics were certainly flourishing, but only them. There is a difference between the prosperity of the city of Athens and the sound condition of the Agora-marketplace in general, and the existence of schools (no mention of them whatsoever) in the Agora of Athens in 529 A.D..  You cannot presume that the former confirms the latter.  

A. Cameron (“The Last Days of the Academy of Athens”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 195 [1969], 8, 25) points out that the school building that was ravaged at the end of the 6th century does not constitute an element of evidence for the preceding assertion (that the Academy was closed by a decree), since it was not deemed to be the result of Justinian’s law in 529 A.D., but only an indication of the general decay in Athenian life during that period.  We can see that the school building that was situated inside the Athens Agora was deserted at the end of the 6th century, and not at the beginning or in the middle. The latter would have applied, only if the Academy had closed down in 529 A.D.

Damascius [...] was a neo-Platonic philosopher from Damascus. He was the last headmaster of the Platonic Academy of Athens. When the school closed (in 529), he was self-exiled, together with Simplicius and several others, to Persia (531), from where he returned (533), when Justinian ceded to him and the others free residence within the territories of his empire. [….]  With Damascius, neo-Platonism reached the peak of its mystic teaching.” (Encyclopedia DOMI, under the entry: Damascius)

The last principal of the Athens Academy, Damascius, wrote a voluminous treatise on magic and miracles in four books, which, among other things, included 63 chapters on “strange narrations of after-death appearances of souls” (Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, History of the Greek Nation, Ekdotiki Athinon Publications S.A., vol.7, p.336). This is confirmed by Photios, the most educated man of the Middle Ages.

But even the Βίος Πρόκλου, The life of Proclos, which was written by his pupil, tells us that Proclos, the principal of the Academy (430-482 A.D.) performed miracles thanks to his magical knowledge; he put an end to a drought and also warded off earthquakes with his amulets. The god Aesclepius had performed miraculous cures for his sake, by curing the daughter of his teacher, and ridding him also of the arthritis in his knees.” (Pierre Chuvin, Οι τελευταίοι Εθνικοί, The last Gentiles, Thyrathen Publications, page 128). If Proclos dabbled in magic, Damascus most probably did the same.  The rationalizing of the Academy had been thrown in the waste basket ….

Why, then, are they grieving over the closing of the Academy?  Are the rationalists mourning over “theurgy”?  Doesn’t philosophy’s lapse into the occult bother them at all?  We read the following:  “One of the most reprehensible characteristics of the neo-Platonics in general was their particular fondness for superstition, magic and the occult. [….]  It was charlatanisms such as these [….], that precipitated its inevitable end.ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΥ ΕΘΝΟΥΣ, History of the Greek Nation», Volume 7, page 336).

The following excerpt also confirms this course of decadence, when it verifies that even before Christianity was properly established, the School had ceased to offer any significant work:  “Schematically, we can discern three periods in the history of the second sophistic one [….] The second period began approximately in the middle of the 3rd century, and ended in the time of Constantine the Great.  We have minimal information on this period, because no noteworthy works were preserved by its representatives or by its historians [….]”. ΙΣΤΟΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΥ ΕΘΝΟΥΣ», History of the Greek Nation, Vol.7, page 396)

“[...] Indeed, demonology, magic and theurgy (a kind of magic) are acquiring an ever-increasing significance during the two last periods of neo-Platonism, whose teachings contain an ever-increasing number of existences and divinities, which is a sign of the influence exerted by a philosophical-religious theory of oriental inspiration. [….] (Encyclopedia DOMI, under the entry: “neo-Platonic school”).

Apart from its literary and historical ties, the official pantheon was of little significance in the latter-day idolatrous world. By that time, philosophy had already drifted far away from its Hellenic starting point. It was no longer inspired by any spiritual curiosity; it basically became religious.  In the religious manuals of the time, it was customary to project a dogma in the form of a revelation by some divine sage, as for instance, Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian Thoth. The most prominent schools of neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorian times were diarchy systems, which were based on faith and the belief that matter is evil; that the body is a tomb and that salvation depends on the subjugation of the flesh and viewing God in a cleanness of spirit; God – that mysterious One, whom human intellect can never certify. Neither was philosophy considered incompatible with faith in astrology and magic” (A. M. Jones, Ο Κωνσταντίνος και ο εκχριστιανισμός της Ευρώπης, Constantine and the Christianization of Europe, Galaxias Publications, pages 41, 42).

Anyway, prohibiting the founding of schools was not something unfamiliar in ancient times.  In the year 316 b.C. in Athens, (according to C. Krüger) or, between 307 and 302 b.C.(according to Renos Apostolides and most others, which was after the restoration of democracy) a law had been proposed and was voted, whereby no-one was permitted to have a philosophical school without the permission of the court and the municipal authorities, and any transgression of that law was punishable by death. (Diogenis Laertios, V, 38, «νόμον εισενεγκόντος μηδένα των φιλοσόφων σχολής αφηγείσθαι αν μη τη βουλή και τω δήμω δόξη· ει δε μη, θάνατον είναι την ζημίαν»˙ Athenaios, 13, 610f ˙ Polydefkis, 9, 42). In fact, Athens had instituted a law that forbade the education of the young, without the prior approval of the authorities” (Ξενοφώντα, Απομνημονεύματα,  Xenophon, Apomnimonevmata –Memoirs- 1, 2, 31)» (Fustel De Coulanges, Η αρχαία Πόλη, the Ancient City, Eirmos Publications, page 348). Well, why did the Ancients pass such laws?  Were they not free to teach?  Obviously no. It was natural, for some traces of Gentile behaviour to still exist within Romanity/Byzantium; a centuries-long mentality could not be changed that easily, regardless how beneficial the influence of Christianity was.

           There have been quite a number of instances, where certain ambitious fools (whom even Palladas the Gentile mocked) - certain pagan “philosophers” (theurgists) - had attempted to overthrow the rightful emperor. It was for this reason, that Justinian would not tolerate (theoretically, since in reality nothing had happened) the sustaining of possible conspiracy hotbeds by such foolish philosophers with political ambitions.

If Justinian was opposed to philosophy in general, he would have shut down every University, including the one in Constantinople!   

           Justinians century was undoubtedly a very productive era culturally, which can boast significant architects and mathematicians (Isidoros, Anthemios), important historians (Prokopios), important poets and hymn-writers (Agathias, Romanos the Melodian), as well as unprecedented creations (the Church of Hagia Sophia, the Ravenna mosaics).

           As we can see here, “cultural regression” is non-existent!


By I.T.

Supervision: Th. F. D.

Translation by K. N.

Greek Text

Article published in English on: 14-12-2005.

Last update: 14-12-2005.