chapter  1
10 Pages


But the old gods of classical antiquity, however august their power and intimate their presence, were not transcendental beings. Never did they break free from the dome of the physical cosmos, independent of the constraints of time and space. They inhabited the same universe as humans, although their status within that sphere was highly exalted and their power greatly to be feared. They were the invisible ones, the immortal ones, whose life was a continuous and everlasting prolongation of time. They were readily to be envied, for the human imagination could grasp quite immediately the joys of their unending existence. Their cult often required physical proximity, while claims of their occasional association with mortals demanded that their presence be made ascertainable in human lives. Yet they too were bound in their immortality by time, defined by the logic of their everlasting existence. They were free only from the exigencies of temporality, not time itself. Nor were they independent of space, however remote the locus of their dwellings. Their invisibility itself betokened spatiality, attenuating this dimension by redrafting its defining visual field. Indeed the gods were so worthy of human fear, respect, and tender gratitude, because they were common members of our cosmos. (Burkert 1985; 1987)

There was more, however, to the story of Greco-Roman religion than the gods of polytheistic cult. Beside the tapestried pantheon, there was another, less

anthropomorphic spiritual tradition, one whose distinctive representation of divinity would grow increasingly persuasive in late antiquity. This alternative trajectory was given definition by a tangled cluster of self-described philosophers who claimed the mantle of Plato. While the origins of this separate current in ancient theology are various and its history replete with differing accounts of the character of sacred reality, it was the Platonist school that emerged by the second century AD as the dominant strain. The Platonists of late antiquity understood themselves to be the inheritors of a spiritual tradition of great antiquity. Even by the standards of contemporary scholarship, this claim is credible. The Platonism of Plotinus and his school has demonstrable foundations in archaic Pythagoreanism and more directly in the Old Academy of Plato and his successors (Dillon 1977: chapters 1, 5-7).