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The Nature of the Project

The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy prudently ends its official story around 100 BC, rather than take it down to the end of the Hellenistic age, 27 BC (although its very fine 'Epilogue', by Michael Frede does look forward to developments in the remainder of the period). Most formal histories of late ancient philosophy pay the 1st century BC scant attention, and begin in earnest with the Middle Platonism of the 1st -2nd centuries AD. While a few major thinkers of the first century BC have been the subjects of major studies, it is no accident that its philosophical history remains unwritten.

This was a century of cataclysmic change in the philosophical world. The nature of philosophy was permanently altered, and it is to that transformation that we owe the great philosophical enterprises of Plotinus, Proclus and other towering thinkers of late antiquity. To understand fully the forces behind that enormous and irreversible change, along with its philosophical and institutional consequences, is a task destined to exceed the capacities of any individual scholar.

The most important single feature of this change was the decentralisation of philosophy from its traditional Athenian headquarters, a process which gathered pace in 88-86 BC with Sulla's protracted siege of Athens during the Mithridatic War. How did the rise of Roman power contribute to this? What forces governed the pattern of migration to specific new or emerging regional centres, such as Alexandria, Rhodes, Tarsus, and especially Rome itself? What can we learn about this from the political and cultural history of the regions? Do the fortunes of other centres of higher education, e.g. rhetorical and medical schools, follow the same pattern, and even influence it?

A closely related set of issues concerns the diversification of philosophical thought itself: the re-emergence of classical Platonism and Aristotelianism, the internal changes undergone by Stoicism and Epicureanism, scepticism's diminishing role in the Academy and its ensuing re-emergence in the revived Pyrrhonist school , and this latter's debt to medical theory. Undoubtedly such changes owed much to the growing importance of Rome and Alexandria as philosophical centres, as also to the emergence of other regional centres. But the precise nature of the process remains opaque.

The impact that the new situation had upon the history of philosophy as a whole has never been adopted as a key for explaining either the changes that late Hellenistic philosophies underwent or the concurrent emergence of new schools and methodologies. This gap in our understanding has in its turn discouraged scholars from pursuing the study of the less well-attested philosophers of the period, for many of whom not even an edition of fragments and testimonia is available, and has almost certainly hindered a full understanding even of those who are already the subject of widespread study.

Thus, the project has two complementary goals. One is to rescue 1st -century philosophical movements and authors that are little more than bare names for us. The other is to reconstruct the historical and cultural context in which not only these neglected thinkers, but also those who have already been studied at depth, can be best understood.

References:

  • Michael Frede, 'Epilogue', in K. Algra et al. (ed.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (1999), 771-97
  • David Sedley, 'Philodemus and the decentralisation of philosophy', Cronache Ercolanesi 33 (2003), 31-42

Topics

1. Global studies of the work of individual thinkers and movements:
a) Stoics of the period - some original and influential, but not yet systematically studied;
b) Epicureans - especially Philodemus, Demetrius of Laconia;
c) Revivals:
   (i) Pythagoreanism, in Alexandria (Eudorus) and Italy (Nigidius Figulus);
   (ii) Pyrrhonism (Aenesidemus);
   (iii) Aristotelianism (re-emergence of the Aristotelian corpus);
   (iv) The 'Old Academy'
   (v) Classical Platonism
   (vi) Eclecticism;
d) Roman philosophers - not just Cicero and Lucretius, whose work is widely studied, but Cato, Varro, Brutus, and numerous other historical figures too rarely treated as the philosophers they in fact were.

2. Cultural, social and political history
a) The role of libraries, patronage, the legal and institutional status of schools, etc. in the process of regionalisation and recentralisation;
b) The emergence of philosophical history as a literary genre, and associated developments in doxography;
c) The canon of four main schools (Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean Stoic) and its educational role;
d) Dissemination and study of classical texts, philosophical and other;
e) The context and character of whatever philosophical activity remained at Athens;
f) The political causes and effects of cultural regionalisation;
g) Global study of specific cultural centres, e.g. Rhodes, Tarsus;
h) The emergence of the Latin philosophical vocabulary.

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