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A Threat to Public Piety

Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution

by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser

Publication Year: 2012

In A Threat to Public Piety, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser reexamines the origins of the Great Persecution (AD 303-313), the last eruption of pagan violence against Christians before Constantine enforced the toleration of Christianity within the Empire. Challenging the widely accepted view that the persecution enacted by Emperor Diocletian was largely inevitable, she points out that in the forty years leading up to the Great Persecution Christians lived largely in peace with their fellow Roman citizens. Why, Digeser asks, did pagans and Christians, who had intermingled cordially and productively for decades, become so sharply divided by the turn of the century?

Making use of evidence that has only recently been dated to this period, Digeser shows that a falling out between Neo-Platonist philosophers, specifically Iamblichus and Porphyry, lit the spark that fueled the Great Persecution. In the aftermath of this falling out, a group of influential pagan priests and philosophers began writing and speaking against Christians, urging them to forsake Jesus-worship and to rejoin traditional cults while Porphyry used his access to Diocletian to advocate persecution of Christians on the grounds that they were a source of impurity and impiety within the empire.

The first book to explore in depth the intellectual social milieu of the late third century, A Threat to Public Piety revises our understanding of the period by revealing the extent to which Platonist philosophers (Ammonius, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus) and Christian theologians (Origen, Eusebius) came from a common educational tradition, often studying and teaching side by side in heterogeneous groups.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

What is the relationship between philosophical or religious thought and violence? In attempting to understand religious violence, sociologists and other social scientists often assume that material conditions and economic interests are the real motivations for violence directed against particular religious groups. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xvi

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Introduction: From Permeable Circles to Hardened Boundaries

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pp. 1-22

In 299 CE a priest, striving to read the auspices before the emperor Diocletian’s Antioch court, claimed that the animal’s entrails bore no signs of any kind. For centuries, Roman leadership, to discern a venture’s promise, depended on haruspicy, the Etruscan art of divining from marks on sacrificial organs. ...

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1. Ammonius Saccas and the Philosophy without Conflicts

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pp. 23-48

Ammonius (fl. 232–43), Porphyry averred, “made the greatest advance (έπíδοσιν) in philosophy of our time” (ap. Eus. HE 6.19.6). Identifying him as the philosophical inspiration for both Origen, the Christian theologian (6.19.6), and the great Platonist Plotinus (Porph. Plot. 3.10), ...

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2. Origen as a Student of Ammonius

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pp. 49-71

A liminal, hybrid figure whose shadow looms over the third and fourth centuries, Origen of Alexandria is key to understanding both the wide-ranging influence of Ammonius’s “philosophy without conflicts” and the new pressures that contributed to the Great Persecution two generations later. ...

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3. Plotinus, Porphyry, and Philosophy in the Public Realm

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pp. 72-97

Porphyry and Hierocles lauded Ammonius as the founder of their philosophical community, but Plotinus brought Ammonius’s teaching into wider renown: Plotinus took Ammonius’s ideas to Rome and, by teaching them openly there, gave them a heightened prominence and a more political context. ...

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4. Schism in the Ammonian Community: Porphyry v. Iamblichus

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pp. 98-127

The split that developed among third-century Hellenes who could trace their lineage to Ammonius concerned the value of rituals. As far as the sources indicate, this disagreement, centered around Porphyry and Iamblichus, first focused on the role that rituals played for members of the philosophical community. ...

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5. Schism in the Ammonian Community: Porphyry v. Methodius of Olympus

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pp. 128-163

Iamblichus was a revolutionary Hellene. Not only did his theology address the salvific needs of ordinary people by asserting the efficacy of rituals involving matter. But it also insisted that all human souls—even those closest to the divine—ought to participate in them. ...

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Conclusion: The Ammonian Community and the Great Persecution

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pp. 164-192

Although the tensions between Porphyry and Origenists, apparent in Methodius’s writings were intramural disagreements, the Hellene’s criticisms helped fan the hostility toward Christians that culminated in the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of 303. Christians had been tolerated for the last four decades of the third century, ...


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pp. 193-214


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pp. 215-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780801463969
E-ISBN-10: 0801463963
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801441813
Print-ISBN-10: 0801441811

Page Count: 218
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1