Babylonian / Persian wisdom: Philodemos, Seneca, and others on Chaldeans / Magians at Plato’s death (first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Babylonian / Persian wisdom: Philodemos, Seneca, and others on Chaldeans / Magians at Plato’s death (first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 29, 2024,

Ancient authors: Philodemos of Gadara (first century BCE) pictured citing Neanthes of Kyzikos (?) (ca. 300 BCE), who is citing Philip of Opous, FGrHist 1011 F1 (ca. 340s BCE) as preserved on Herculaneum papyrus 1021, columns 9 [old column 3], lines 35-42 and column 10 [old column 5], according to the edition by Dorandi (link); Seneca the Younger (first century CE), Epistles 58.31-31 (link); Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 3.25 (link); Anonymous (late sixth century CE but citing an earlier source), Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy 1.29-38.

Comments: Many traditions interested in the notion of foreign wisdom had important Greek figures travelling to interact with or receive wisdom from far-off peoples, particularly eastern ones. The Greek pursuer of wisdom needs to travel to where the special “barbarian” wisdom lies in these cases. So, for instance, legends grew up around Demokritos (link), Plato (link), and Pythagoras (link or link) as travellers to visit Chaldeans, Magians, Egyptian experts, and Indian sages. This implied that eastern wisdom was, at least in some areas, superior to Greek wisdom and that an eastern connection would be helpful locally to one-up other Greeks who made claims to superior wisdom.

The tradition reflected in the current post seems quite different, however. Here Plato is at the center of wisdom in Athens and the eastern sages come all the way to him, implying the clear superiority of Plato’s wisdom. (On this, also compare the story about the Magians coming all the way to visit the baby Jesus, though not quite a far as Athens [link]). The earliest version of such a story about Plato is preserved by Philodemos of the Epicurean sect (first century BCE, via the Herculaneum papyri) and involves a Chaldean meeting with Plato at the point of his feverish death. The scorched papyri (thanks to Vesuvius’ eruption) found at Herculaneum include a work by Philodemos and in the margin beside this Chaldean episode is a later commentator’s claim that Philodemos was drawing on Neanthes of Kyzikos (late fourth century BCE; FGrHist 84) (Gaiser 1988, 108-109). Furthermore, the reference to an “astrologer” who reports the incident points directly to Philip of Ochous, a contemporary of Plato and member of the Plato’s academy (whose name is reconstructed). This Philip the astrologer may or may not be the author of the Supplement to Laws (link).

It is difficult to know exactly what the episode means about the status of the “barbarian” in question here. Rather than a clear cut case of a “wise barbarian,” the surviving portions of the episode present Plato as ambivalent about the Chaldean, it seems. With the help of a Thracian slave, the Chaldean sings a song as a foreign incantation, presumably to help Plato in his feverish illness. However, Plato’s initial response is quite harsh, dismissing the whole thing as deranged. It is only after the Chaldean self-deprecates with a stereotype about how barbarians are generally stupid and lack rhythm that there is a positive response by Plato. So although Plato is not necessarily presented as affirming of barbarian wisdom, overall the episode does seem to engage the notion of barbarian wise men. In other words, the stance of the author of this story may come closer to that of Diogenes of Laertes with his great interest in such stories but mainly to critique the notion that true wisdom originated in the east among Chaldeans and Magians (link). Wisdom instead emanates from Athens (or at least Greece).

Greeks (even the “wise” ones) could not always keep straight their eastern wise men, and so Babylonian Chaldeans and Persian Magians were often interchangeable. A similar tradition related by both Seneca (in the first century CE) and by a later anonymous author interchange Chaldeans with Magians and assume a tale about Magians coming to visit Plato in Athens. Seneca says that they sacrificed to Plato himself after his death. Similarly, there is the tidbit in Diogenes of Laertes (early third century CE) about a Persian (not expressly a Magian here, but implied) named Mithradates who dedicated an image of Plato to the Muses after Plato’s death.

There is a comparable tradition associated with Socrates as reported by Diogenes of Laertes: “Aristotle relates that a Magian came from Syria to Athens and, among other evils with which he threatened Socrates, predicted that he would come to a violent end” (Lives of Philosophers 2.5.45).

I have re-published this since the Herculaneum papyrus in question is in the news. But as often happens, the spin on that information implies that the papyrus contains accurate information about the historical Plato and his death (link to Guardian version of the press release). The papyrus is, however, valuable for what people later believed about Plato’s connections with eastern figures.

Works consulted: T. Dorandi, Filodemo: Storia dei filosofi (PHerc. 1021 e 164) – Platone e l’academia (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1991); K. Gaiser, Philodems Academica: Die Berichte über Platon und die Alte Akademie in zwei herkulanensischen Papyri (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog Verlag, 1988), 108-109, 176-180, 421-438; P.S. Horky, “Persian Cosmos and Greek Philosophy: Plato’s Associates and the Zoroastrian Magoi,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 37 (2009): 47–103.


Philodemos (first century BCE)

[Story of Plato’s interchange with a Chaldean]

Philip the philosopher and (?) . . . astrologer (astrologos), who became Plato’s recorder and a student of Plato, explains that, after Plato had grown old, he welcomed a Chaldean (Chaldaios) foreigner (xenon). . . [missing words] . . . He had a fever. But that man was harmonizing a song with a female Thracian [implied slave], striking up a dactylic rhythm [presumably as a healing incantation]. Now, on the spot, Plato responded that it sounded like the Chaldean might be deranged. But the Chaldean said: “You think that a barbarian is stupid in every way, considering that the barbarian land suffers from a lack of rhythm . . . [missing word] and it is not able to learn.” Plato was greatly delighted and in great calmness also congratulated (?) the man afterwards because this came to his mind and he shared it. After becoming very feverish from something, awaking at night it was becoming very troublesome. . . [remainder too fragmentary to translate but may involve Plato’s death].

(column 9) λε ̣[ ̣ Φίλιππο̣ς ὁ φ]ι[λό]|σ[οφος ἀσ]τρολόγος [τ’ ἐ]ξηγεῖ|τ’ αὐτῶι γεγονὼς ἀναγρα|φε̣ὺς τοῦ Πλάτωνο̣ς καὶ ἀ|κουστής, ὅτι ‘γεγηρακὼς || ἤδη π̣λάτων ξέν[ον] ὑπε|δέξ[ατ]ο Χαλδα[ῖο]ν̣ ε. | [ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣] τ̣ινα̣ς ἐπύρεξε̣[ν]. [ἐκεῖ]|ν[ο]ς (column 10) δ’ ὑπὸ θ̣ράιττης ἕγ γε | μέλο̣ς ἥρ<μ>οττε δάκτυλ⟦ωι⟧ον | ἐνδιδοὺ[ς] ῥ̣υθ̣μόν. αὐτόθι | δ’ ὡς πα[ρ]αφρονο[ί]η τε φωνεῖν|τὸν Πλάτ̣ωνα καὶ ἐπερωτῆ|σαι, τοῦ δ’ εἰπόντος· ἐννο|εῖς ὡς πάντηι τὸ βάρβαρον | ἀμα̣[θ]ές· ἅ̣τε γε παράρυθμον | οὖ[ς γ]ῆ̣ βάρβαρος φέρουσα || τ[ -3-6- ]ΕΙΑΣ [  ] ἀδυνατεῖ μα|[θεῖν], ἡ̣σ̣θῆναι μεγάλως καὶ | ἐν ε[ὐ]δίαι μεγάληι τὸν ἄν|δρα [ ̣ ̣ ̣]ομυτειν ἐπ̣[εὶ κ]αὶ ταῦ|τ’ ἐπὶ νοῦν ἤρχετ̣’ [α]ὐτῶι καὶ || [π]ροάγει. διαθερμαν̣θέν̣|τος δὲ̣ [μ]ᾶλλον ἔκ τ[ι]νος ἐ|γέρσεως νύκτωρ ἀ[κ]αιρ[ό]|τερον̣ [γε]νομέν[ης] επει[ ̣ ̣ ̣] | κυον̣[ ̣] ̣[ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣] ̣ ̣[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩] | [10 lines missing] || [ ̣ ̣ ̣]τ[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩] | [ ̣ ̣]ευ ̣δ̣ ̣ ̣[ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣]ουν[ ̣ ̣] | [ ̣ ̣] ̣ ̣ε̣ π̣λ̣άτ̣ω̣ν̣ο̣ς μ[αθη]|[τα]ὶ ἦ̣σ̣[α]ν ̣ ̣[⁦ -ca.?- ⁩]


Seneca (mid-first century CE)

[Magians in Athens sacrifice to Plato after his death]

Plato himself, by taking pains, advanced to old age. Certainly he was the fortunate possessor of a strong and sound body (his very name was given him because of his broad chest). However, his strength was really impaired by sea voyages and desperate adventures. Nevertheless, by frugal living, by setting a limit upon all that rouses the appetites, and by painstaking attention to himself, he reached that advanced age in spite of many hindrances. You know, I am sure that Plato had the good fortune, thanks to his careful living, to die on his birthday, after exactly completing his eighty-first year. For this reason, Magians (magi), who happened to be in Athens at that time, sacrificed to him after his death, believing that his length of days was too full for a mortal man, since he had rounded out the perfect number of nine times nine. I do not doubt that he would have been quite willing to forgo a few days from this total, as well as the sacrifice.


Diogenes of Laertes (early third century CE)

[Mithradates the Persian’s dedication of an image of Plato]

In the first book of the Memorabilia of Favorinus there is a statement that Mithradates the Persian set up a statue of Plato in the Academy and inscribed upon it these words: “Mithradates son of Orontobates, Persian, dedicated this image of Plato (made by Silanion) to the Muses.”


Anonymous (sixth century CE)

[Magians come to Plato mentioned in connection with his death and the meaning of his living until the age of 81]

Plato’s superiority to Pythagoras is also worth notice: Pythagoras travelled to Persia when he wanted to learn the wisdom of the Magians but the Magians came to Athens because of Plato, eager to be initiated in his philosophy.


Source of translations: Translation of papyrus by Harland; R.M. Gummere, Seneca ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, 3 volumes; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1920-1925), public doman, adapted by Harland; LG. Westerink, Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1962).

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