Ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

5. The imperial era

The crucial watershed belongs, however, not at the very end of the Hellenistic age (31 bc, when the Roman empire officially begins), but half a century earlier in the 80s bc. Political and military upheavals at Athens drove most of the philosophers out of the city, to cultural havens such as Alexandria and Rome. The philosophical institutions of Athens never fully recovered, so that this decentralization amounted to a permanent redrawing of the philosophical map. (The chairs of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism which the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (§1) established at Athens in ad 176 were a significant gesture, but did not fully restore Athens’ former philosophical pre-eminence.) Philosophy was no longer, for most of its adherents, a living activity within the Athenian school founded by Plato, Aristotle, Zeno or Epicurus. Instead it was a subject pursued in small study groups led by professional teachers all over the Greco-Roman world. To a large extent, it was felt that the history of philosophy had now come to an end, and that the job was to seek the correct interpretation of the ‘ancients’ by close study of their texts. One symptom of this feeling is that doxography – the systematic cataloguing of philosophical and scientific opinions (see Doxography) – concentrated largely on the period down to about 80 bc, as did the biographical history of philosophy written c. ad 300 by Diogenes Laertius.

Another such symptom is that a huge part of the philosophical activity of late antiquity went into the composition of commentaries on classic philosophical texts. In this final phase of ancient philosophy, conveniently called ‘imperial’ because it more or less coincides with the era of the Roman empire, the Hellenistic creeds were gradually eclipsed by the revival of doctrinal Platonism, based on the close study of Plato’s texts, out of which it developed a massively elaborate metaphysical scheme. Aristotle was usually regarded as an ally by these Platonists, and became therefore himself the focus of many commentaries (see Platonism, Early and Middle; Peripatetics; Neoplatonism; Aristotle Commentators). Despite its formal concern with recovering the wisdom of the ancients, however, this age produced many powerfully original thinkers, of whom the greatest is Plotinus.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. The imperial era. Ancient philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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