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The Dark Side of Late Antiquity: Marginality and integration of esoteric trends in late antique spirituality and philosophy

Panel Chair: Chiara O. Tommasi | Tuesday, August 25, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

The present workshop aims at presenting the results – and therefore paving the way for further researches and scholarly cooperation – of a triennial project (2013-15) sponsored by the French Maison des Recherches de l’Homme, the German DFG and Italian Villa Vigoni Foundation. The project involved an international team. Following the recent scholarly revival for Western esotericism (which, however, is mainly concerned with modern and contemporary phenomena), the proponents aimed to establish how some esoteric or ‘marginal trends’, that is only partially falling in line with mainstream culture, permeated late antique spirituality (II-VI cent.) and interacted with the major philosophy of the period, Platonism, being either rejected or incorporated by the predominant culture.

Chiara O. Tommasi

Ancient esotericism: a new labelling for an old phenomenon?

In ancient world it is also possible to find out an array of doctrines or teachings addressed to a small group of adepts or initiates, often conceived as alternative to official religious traditions, which can be useful paralleled to the areas covered by the academic studies of modern esotericism. These trends became quite widespread during late antiquity, being characterized by foreign influences and the introduction of new rituals, which implied either the compresence of trivial practices (magic, superstition) or their elitist or secret character. Underlining the tension between mainstream and marginal groups (such as Gnostics, Hermetists, etc.) and discussing their reciprocal interaction appears much more challenging than reiterating the opposition between orthodoxy and heresy or the dialectic confrontation between rational or irrational trends. As remarked by some scholars of early Christianity, ‘orthodoxy’ can be seen as a fluid and continuous process that implies a progressive process of self-definition.

Ilinca Tanaseanu Döbler


A crucial question in the study of marginal trends involves the practice of performing or even ‘inventing’ rituals. Alongside with traditional cultic practices, a key feature of late antique paganism is the ascription of a ‘sacred’ status to particular authoritative texts (such as the Chaldaean Oracles or the Orphic writings or even the Homeric poems), based on a distinctive way of interpretation. Theoretical knowledge derived not least from the exegesis of such texts establishes and shapes rituals or religious practices, as theurgical texts or magical papyri witness, and, at the same time, textual exegesis can be employed to found or justify the existing ritual praxis. All these textual and ritual endeavours are aimed eventually at a progressive ascension of the soul, especially as far as the insertion of prayers in a specific ritual or the (philosophical as well) techniques of the “spiritual exercises” are concerned.

Luciana Gabriela Soares Santoprete

Gnosticism and Neoplatonism in the Digital Era

The paper will approach the issues that led to the implementation of an electronic project which deals with “traditional” Middle and Neoplatonic philosophers illustrating the interconnectedness of Platonism and the other main philosophic-religious Platonising “marginal” currents, in order to furnish the scientific community with new digital resources, such as

- a database capable of performing cross-disciplinary searches between the Philosophic, Gnostic, Hermetic, and Chaldean texts using vocabulary and doctrines;

- a bibliographic index.

The philosophical references will be analysed to answer the following questions, among others: What are the polemic viewpoints, the vocabulary and the elements from Gnostic, Hermetic, and Chaldean tenets that can be seen in the works of the Middle and Neoplatonic authors? What philosophical doctrines can be found in Gnostic, Hermetic, and Chaldean texts? What is the current state of research on all of these different references and what conclusions can be drawn today on their relationship?


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Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)