A line engraving of Claudius Ptolemaeus (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s difficult to imagine classical philosophy without Plato and Aristotle. But as Charles Freeman writes in his engrossing new book, The Children of Athena, it’s a minor miracle their works, which date from the fourth century BC, survived the devastating decline of the Roman Empire and were even available to form the foundation of the Western philosophical tradition.

“The works of Aristotle appear to have been neglected after his death,” Freeman writes, “and by the time they were recovered in the first and second centuries there were immense problems of interpretation of the corrupted texts.” After Rome’s collapse, the majority of Aristotle’s works were lost again until the twelfth century, when they were reacquired through movements in Spain and Sicily to translate Arabic and Greek sources into Latin. The intellectual achievements of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas would have been impossible without the foundation of Aristotle’s work, fully translated and integrated into the curriculum of the new universities of Europe.

Still, as Freeman shows, had Plato and Aristotle’s works been lost for good, there still would have been a rich vein of Greek thought to draw on. The book covers the many important Greek-speaking intellectuals who thrived between the second century BC and the beginning of the fifth century AD. Works of science, philosophy, literature, and social commentary by unique scholars continued to enrich civilization long after Rome’s economic and military might had eclipsed that of Greece.

In twenty brief biographical chapters punctuated by interludes in which the author steps back to survey the period more broadly, Freeman fleshes out the portraits of luminaries such as the astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, the philosophers Plutarch and Plotinus, the satirist Lucian of Samosata, the imperial court orator Themistius, the physician Galen, and the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, among the more familiar figures. Taken as a group they represented the era’s leading lights, and their influence was as crucial to later Christian thinkers like Thomas More and Erasmus (to say nothing of Shakespeare) as that of their forefathers Plato and Aristotle.


Claudius Ptolemy (circa 100–170 AD) cast an immense shadow over European astronomy up until the Copernican Revolution of the fifteenth century. Building on the earth-centered system and observations Hipparchus had adopted from the Babylonians in the second century BC, Ptolemy composed what came to be known as The Almagest to provide sophisticated geometric models for predicting in perpetuity the positions of the sun, the moon, and the five known planets. Indeed, so lasting was Ptolemy’s influence that even Copernicus’s shift to a sun-centered model did not immediately produce predictions superior to Ptolemy’s models; they were only surpassed in the seventeenth century, when Johannes Kepler refined the Copernican system.

Although very little is known about Ptolemy’s life, Freeman cites one poignant personal statement that has survived:

Well do I know that I am mortal, a creature of one day,
But if my mind follows the winding paths to the stars
Then my feet no longer rest on earth, but by standing by
Zeus himself I take my fill of ambrosia, the divine dish.

Whereas Ptolemy followed a winding path from the material to the divine, the philosopher Plotinus (205–270 AD) seemed to dwell always in the heavens. Freeman offers a striking portrait of his unworldly devotion to the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. His contemporary Porphyry, who assembled and edited all his teachings, once remarked that Plotinus would never reread what he had written; his eyesight was limited, his writing slovenly, his spelling poor. And like a true Platonist, all he cared about was ideas. His impact on Christian theologians of the Middle Ages, including Aquinas, was immense. One offshoot of his thinking, Freeman writes, is the concept of negative or apophatic theology, which holds that God must only be defined and described in terms of what he is not.

Whereas Ptolemy followed a winding path from the material to the divine, the philosopher Plotinus (205–270 AD) seemed to dwell always in the heavens.

Themistius (317–388 AD) was also a philosopher, but one who embarked upon a very successful career as an orator to Roman emperors. Despite Christianity’s status as the empire’s official religion, he was eager to persuade the successors of Constantine to adopt a policy of religious toleration. Of more interest to historians of medieval philosophy, his commentaries on Aristotle would aid Aquinas in his public clashes with radical teachers at the University of Paris who upheld the unicity of the intellect (the idea that all humans share in one intellect) and questioned the immortality of the individual soul (since, according to them, only the shared intellect itself is immortal).

The book closes somberly with the life of Hypatia (355–415 AD), the brilliant mathematician and philosopher who aroused the wrath of Alexandria’s Christian patriarch Cyril for speaking out against the Church’s attempts to curtail paganism in the city. She was brutally murdered by a mob in his service, although historians debate the degree to which Cyril was directly responsible for her killing.


Freeman presents these biographies in chronological order in an engaging and informal style. The text would have benefitted from a detailed map of the Mediterranean world of the period, such as the one included with Freeman’s earlier book, The Closing of the Western Mind. (One is especially stuck by how many of Athena’s luminaries hailed from Greek cities in Asia Minor, now Turkey.) Without it, at first glance, the chapters seem disconnected, stretched across more than five centuries. But in Freeman’s assessment, the common tradition that Greek-speaking writers and thinkers inherited under the shadow of Rome’s dominance was itself already fragmented. “One of my aims in writing this book,” he writes, “is to restore the integrity of that tradition through bringing these lives together without neglecting the immense variety of their achievements.”

According to Freeman, if there is a uniting theme that runs through the lives of all his far-flung subjects, it is the Greek notion of paideia, or what we might call “mindfulness.” The term was understood to denote a culture of learning with a particular focus on the need to develop a life of virtue. As one second-century philosopher named Albinus puts it:

Since it is necessary for us to become contemplators of our own soul and of divine things and of the gods themselves and to attain intelligence, which is most beautiful of all, we must first purify our thinking from false opinions. And after the purification we must awaken and call forth our natural intuitions, and purify these and make them shine out distinctly, to be our first principles.

Albinus echoes the views of many scholars whose work is contemporaneous with the emergence of Christianity throughout the Greek-speaking world. It is hardly surprising, Freeman writes, that a charismatic Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived during the reigns of the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, “would be written about in Greek even though he was not Greek speaking.”

Needless to say, Greek philosophical traditions—especially Neoplatonism—made a deep impression on the Church Fathers, two of whom, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, wrote in Greek. Their positions on evolving Christian doctrine prior to the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), were deeply influenced by Plotinus and his school of thought. However, as Freeman points out, by the time the era was waning with Rome’s decline in the fourth century, it was too late for their theological reflections to illuminate St. Augustine, who, in any case, never learned Greek. As for Origen, his theological arguments suggesting that in the end of time all souls would be saved were officially anathematized in the sixth century.

In earlier books, including The Closing of the Western Mind and The Reopening of the Western Mind, Freeman has criticized Christianity’s role in suppressing public theological and philosophical discussion after Constantine. Augustine comes in for particular condemnation in the latter book, which blames his ignorance of Greek thought for the triumph of an “authoritarian” Platonism over more open-minded Aristotelian thought. Despite criticism from fellow scholars, who’ve questioned this neat division, Freeman remains undaunted. His latest book adds to an impressive series on an important era in intellectual history.

The Children of Athena
Greek Intellectuals in the Age of Rome: 150 BC-400 AD
Charles Freeman
Pegasus Books
$32 | 400 pp.

John W. Farrell is the author most recently of The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without.

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