Around the year 350 a young orator and philosopher by the name of Themistius delivered a speech to the emperor Constantius II (337-361) in Ancyra. Although Constantius was a committed Christian and Themistius a non-Christian educated in traditional Hellenic paideia, imperial favour quickly followed. Constantius continued to show Themistius great favour until the emperor’s death as did three subsequent vigorous Christian emperors, deeply committed to the Christian cause. The dynamic underlying the relationship between Themistius and Constantius somehow continued to apply. Themistius pronounced keynote speeches for the emperors Jovian (363-364), Valens (364-378) and Theodosius (379-395), before he eventually disappeared from public life, probably through retirement in around 384/5. Themistius kept himself centre stage in the political and cultural life of the capital city of the eastern half of the empire impressively negotiating his way through four changes of imperial regime; his relationship with emperor Julian (361-363), a pagan and former pupil, was not as warm as one might expect (note 2).

Was Themistius’ extraordinary survival act a case of a yet another late antique religious overachievement, albeit a passive one? Or was Themistius simply an opportunist with admirable diplomatic skills? What was it about his work that attracted imperial attention and admiration and sometimes even unrestrained enthusiasm? Why did a whole sequence of Christian emperors find him such an attractive addition to their regimes? (note 3) In order to make sense I have mainly concentrated on Themistius’ political speeches which were translated with annotations and introductions by Heather and Moncur in Liverpool University Press, 2001; eighteen speeches (note 4) that were delivered on major state occasions, the vast majority of which before ruling emperors. These speeches allow us privileged access to how the orator himself wished others to view and judge him.

Themistius began his career as professor of philosophy in his own school in Constantinople in the early to mid 350s (note 5), was promoted by Constantius to the Senate of Constantinople (note 6) in 355 and finally became urban perfect of Constantinople (note 7) for a brief period (sometime between late 383 and autumn of 384) under Theodosius. A letter of Libanius (note 8) suggests that he was still alive in 388, but no speeches of substance can be dated after Oration 34 of late 384 or early 385.

Pagan Themistius enjoyed extravagant success in the courts of Christian emperors. Other pagan orators had their moments of glory in the imperial court of the fourth century, but as scholars Heather and Moncur wrote: ‘compared to Themistius, such men were briefly flickering candles indeed’ (note 9). In a court-dominated political world access to the emperor was jealously sought. Maintaining pre-eminence for over thirty years under a variety of regimes, without generating hatred or boredom to cause one’s downfall was an extraordinary feat for late antique standards. It is unexpected that all of the emperors to whom Themistius was close: Constantius, Jovian, Valens and Theodosius I, were Christians, and it is even more surprising, at first at least, that he was particularly close to the most fervent Christian emperors of them all: Constantius and Theodosius, who pursued aggressive Christianizing policies.

Constantius for a start was an avowedly Christian ruler who identified himself closely with his religion both in settling its internal disputes and in furthering its interests against the competition provided by pagan temples. He maintained and probably even extended the anti-pagan initiatives of his father Constantine (note 10) who must have legislated against pagan blood sacrifice as Eusebius maintained and has finally only recently been recognized by scholarship (note 11). Constantius imposed considerable restrictions on the practice of the pagan cult. Themistius had to deal with an emperor who in his laws repeatedly proclaimed the demise of the false religion and warned that death and confiscation of property awaited its adherents (note 12). Α milestone in Themistius’ career came in 355 when Constantius promoted him, a man of non-senatorial background, to the Senate of Constantinople by formal letter of adlection. Themistius kept a Greek translation of the letter, which was originally written in Latin, among his manuscripts in his archive and presented it to the library of Constantinople in 357 since such imperial letters were public marks of high favour. The letter allows us to see how the emperor viewed Themistius, even if we assume that Themistius was the one who actually composed the letter. The emperor made a Themistian remark that true philosophy does not banish itself from communal life, and commended Themistius for his paideusis (system of education), for not allowing the ancient teachings to wither away but rather ensuring that they are renewed, and most importantly because he knew when to remain silent. (Did Constantius have Themistius’ ‘outdated’ religious preferences in mind?)

Then Theodosius who was the first Roman emperor to renounce the old imperial title of pontifex maximus and had done so at the moment of his accession in January 379 (note 13). The rejection of the ancient pontifical robes was an act of huge symbolic importance and represented a fundamental break with the past. This was followed in February 380 by a clear statement of how Christian orthodoxy was to be defined and a major council of eastern bishops in Constantinople in May 381. Adherence to the old religion, both public and private, was treated in his laws as an act of high treason and the local authorities were held responsible for the enforcement of the laws and were to pay in gold from their own personal property if they put up or showed indifference towards the practice of pagan rites (note 14). This was Theodosius’ religious policy while Themistius was around. Theodosius became even more intolerable towards the old gods as time went by (note 15). Heather and Moncur believe that it must be no coincidence that the first radical round of pagan temple destruction by Christians was unleashed right after Themistius left the court and that Themistius ‘must surely have acted as a brake upon overly vigorous Christianisation’ (note 16); but the truth is that is a mere conjecture.

The centrality of Themistius’ position in the Christian court was an unexpected and unprecedented pagan victory (note 17). Themistius won also the respect of his colleagues, both pagans and Christians: for Libanius for example he was the leading orator of his day and for Gregory Nazianzen he was ‘the king of words’ (note 18); although not all of them. It seems that some went around accusing Themistius that he was merely a sophist (i.e someone who used philosophy as a cover for personal gain in this world) rather than the true philosopher he pretended to be. Palladas, for example, the famous grammarian from Egypt, resident in Constantinople by the early 4th century, composed an epigram which attacked Themistius for worldliness and hence betrayal of the philosophical vocation (note 19). This accusation persisted throughout Themistius’ lifetime and made Themistius incredibly upset.

Modern views of Themistius have been heavily influenced by ancient debates. Older scholarly opinion sided with Themistius’ critics and understood him as an individual who used flattery primarily for self-advancement (note 20). More recently a consensus of opinion has emerged which is much more favourable and tends to take Themistius’ own account of himself at face value and believe that his ideals indeed derived from the study of Aristotle and Plato exactly as Themistius repeatedly claimed (note 21). The truth must be found in between; the image Themistius created for himself was designed to hide as much as it revealed about the nature of his career, the honesty of his intentions and his modes of operation.

We perhaps need to begin by considering, even briefly, the cases, those that we know of, of other pagan intellectuals holding prominent places in the early Christian court. Let us deal with Sopater of Apamea (died in 337) first, a disciple of Iamblichus who achieved great standing in the court of the first Christian emperor Constantine in the 320s, but only for a very short period of time, until he was brought low by a hostile clique of jealous courtiers according to Zosimus (note 22) and eventually was executed (note 23). Eunapius claims that Sopater was charged with detaining by magical arts a fleet laden with grain. Another interesting case is that of Ausonius (309-394) who in 334 became a grammaticus at a school of rhetoric in Bordeaux and afterwards a rhetor. His teaching attracted many pupils, some of whom became eminent in public life; his most famous pupil was probably the poet Paulinus, who later became a Christian and bishop of Nola. After thirty years of teaching Ausonius was summoned by emperor Valentinian I to tutor his son and heir Gratian. When Valentinian took Gratian on the German campaigns, Ausonius accompanied them. In recognition of his services emperor Valentinian bestowed on Ausonius the rank of quaestor. Gratian admired and respected his tutor, and when he himself became emperor in 375 he began bestowing on Ausonius and his family the highest civil honors including the consulate (note 24). The question of Ausonius’ religious preferences has always been a matter of heated dispute. Tradition has it that he was a late convert to Christianity even though a not very enthusiastic one, based mainly on Paulinus of Nola assuming his Christianity (note 25). The truth is that the evidence confirming or even pointing to Ausonius’ Christian beliefs is extremely flimsy. It all seems as if Christians since Ausonius’ lifetime felt rather uncomfortable with Ausonius being around Christian emperors and not being a Christian himself; it made much more sense had Ausonius eventually converted to Christianity.We also need to mention Maximus of Ephesus (note 26) (ca.310-372), a pagan philosopher and theurgist who exercised great influence over and under Julian. Maximus survived under Jovian, but was first deported and then eventually horribly tortured and executed under Valens. It seems pagan intellectuals in early Christian courts were short-lived unless assumed Christian. Finally, Libanius of Antioch (314–ca.393), a rhetorician of rare eloquence and competence. His school of rhetoric in Roman Syria was among the most prestigious in the Eastern Empire. Libanius cultivated friendships within Antioch’s Christian community and taught notable leaders of the Church including John Chrysostom and possibly Basil of Caesarea. In an interesting recent study he has been called a ‘gray pagan’ (note 27). Theodosius might have made him praetorian prefect (note 28), but from my research so far it seems that he was not a regular in the court the way Themistius was. As far as I know Themistius was the only intellectual who for more than three decades thrived in the Roman court despite the fact that he did not hide his religious preferences which did not coincide with the religious preferences of his imperial patrons; that being said we must also note that Themistius was extremely careful not to make a flashy display or them either. Themistius was successful primarily because he promoted the idea that cultural and religious coexistence was possible.

In reality Themistius’ principal role in the court was to sell items of imperial policy to the Senate. His orations were about publicizing, expounding and justifying imperial policy. In either c. 347 or c. 350 Themistius delivered the first of his formal political orations, Oration 1, before the emperor Constantius at Ancyra in Asia Minor. Right from his first appearance before the emperor, Themistius made a audacious move. He almost ignored the rhetorical manuals of his time which prescribed specific rules in style and arrangement when composing panegyrics, and declared that the emperor was about to hear something new, exciting and useful (note 29) (an idea borrowed by Dio Chrysostom’s On Kingship composed two centuries before. The influence of Dio is clear throughout the speech), and how he has put great amount of preparation (an element of self-contradistinction from sophists, some of whom prided they could improvise). Themistius’ approach in the fourth century context was bold and carried a high risk of failure. Themistius skillfully deployed (and retained this image throughout his entire career) a public persona of an impartial and objective philosopher commenting with parrhesia (i.e. frankly, boldly and without fear or favour) on contemporary politics (note 30). He systematically portrayed himself as a serious philosopher with great truths to proclaim primarily to the emperor and then to all others who would listen. However, a careful reading of his speeches leaves hardly any doubt that he was half the leader he was claiming to be; he was just elaborating, in an eloquent and elegant manner, upon imperial decisions known to him in advance (note 31). Themistius envisaged himself as the ultimate intellectual who guides. And he made the crucial clarification that he was far from a show orator, a sophist performing for reward, but a true philosopher deploying his art for the advancement of the state. And a competent philosopher’s guidance was everything a successful emperor first and foremost needed, he repeatedly stressed (note 32). In Hellenic cultural tradition most philosophers were expected to show a total disinterest in worldly concerns. Eunapius for example in his Lives of the Sophists portrayed the ideal Neoplatonic philosopher after the example of Plotinus and his disciples as an ascetic, withdrawn holy man. Themistius’ philosophical programme set itself up in direct opposition to the Neoplatonic Holy Man as it promoted an Aristotelian, socially active and religiously more neutral version of hellenism and wanted philosophers to have real interest in practical matters. Themistius throughout his life was anxious to convince emperors that only philosophers could identify the forces of evil at moments of high political drama and they had the moral obligation to warn. And that was one of the very few ideas he was consistent and remained faithful to. Themistius never failed to praise himself (note 33) and presented his services as indispensable to the court; and Christian emperors bought what he was selling, if you would allow me this expression.

Another factor that led or contributed to Themistius’ recognition must have been his eagerness to deliberately alter his professed opinions in order to suit the needs of the regime he served currently. After the deaths of his patrons Themistius was entirely ruthless, whatever favours he may have received from them. Undiluted praise of emperors in their own lifetimes was matched by equally pointed critiques after their deaths. Themistius managed to leap from one regime to another, even if at the ideological cost of abandoning former patrons. He exercised post mortem criticism with no reservation whatsoever, and the difference between Themistius’ characterizations of emperors from one oration to the next is striking. All of Themistius’ previous imperial employers had been characterized by him as ideal philosopher kings, up to the moments of their deaths that is (note 34). Oration 5, addressed to Jovian, contained a sharp reference to the dynastic murders which followed Constantine’s death, in which Constantius was deeply involved. The same accusation against his first patron, along with the notion that emperor Jovian was not divinely appointed, was repeated in Oration 6, addressed to Valens. In Oration 14 Themistius was quick to damn Valens by implication, as a man lacking in mildness and philanthropia. In Orations 15 and 16 yet again space was devoted to the denigration of past regimes in order to celebrate the present one and assist in its establishment: Valens had suppressed parrhesia where Theodosius now cherished it. Valens had generated fear among his subjects by sentences of exile, confiscation and death, where Theodosius had not issued a decree of death in three years, and had even returned confiscated land to the heirs of those who had lost it under Valens. Valens had promoted unworthy subordinates, but Theodosius knew how to pick men who shared his own virtues. None of the regimes Themistius served was the product of a smooth transfer of power and the posthumous critiques of dead imperial patrons were dictated by the immediate needs of current rulers. And Themistius knew precisely well what particular ends any given speech was required to serve.

Another reason why Themistius was so successful must have been because he consistently identified areas where common ground existed between traditional Hellenic values and the new Christian religion of his imperial masters. The cultural overlaps were more than sufficient to allow Themistius to draw upon common ideas and language. At Oration 1 he referred to tyrants as individuals who exchange their good name for silver; he must have wanted Christian listeners to recall Judas Iscariot. Oration 4 mentioned human weakness in only believing in things that can be seen or touched, recalling the gospel story of Thomas. Oration 6 celebrated God as the father of all mankind making all men brothers. Themistius stressed constantly what was shared by old and new, and that was primarily philanthropia (= love for mankind). (Julian in his Letter to Edessians boasted that he treated Christians with philanthrophia; to his understanding, as he explained in the same letter that meant that all the money of the church of Edessa was to be confiscated and given to Roman soldiers). A public figure evoking philanthropia in late antiquity was ‘the equivalent of modern politicians saying that they believe in low inflation, low interest rates and full employment: bland reassuring generality’; to quote Heather and Moncur again (note 35).

Themistius strived not to offend his Christian listeners even when he echoed Scripture (note 36) in order to imply that traditional Greaco-Roman paideia had proclaimed the greatest truths well before Christianity. Arguments over whether Moses had preceded Plato and vice versa had become a standard part of pagan-Christian polemic, (as we gather for example from Julian) (note 37). Themistius never entered overtly the debate over the priority of Greek versus Judaeo-Christian moral teaching; he did it much more subtly. In Oration 19 he claimed that according to Lycurgus it was important to return good for evil. Oration 7 declared that the sum of the moral teaching of Plato and Socrates amounted to the idea that one should love one’s neighbour and even one’s enemy. (Socrates by the way never achieved as much popularity as during late Roman times, especially among Christians, note 38) A common pagan attack on Christianity of Themistius’ time was that it represented nothing new since Plato had already articulated on all the ideas that Christians promoted as new and attractive (note 39)  in an idiotically simple manner fit only for ‘inferior beings’ like slaves and females (note 40). According to Themistius Plato alone has ascended even beyond heaven itself (note 41), and a unyielding Christian like Theodosius could be heir to the precepts of the divine Plato (note 42).Onlyrarely Themistius was more daring and claimed that was Royal Zeus was his intended audience (note 43), or that humans were inferior to animals, a clear allusion to Christian propaganda which understood animals as lesser creations, designed by God solely to serve man (note 44). Having said that it is significant how Themistius portrayed Julian in Oration 5: as a false pagan prophet who had followed the ridiculous path of trying to constrain individual conscience; a remark which surely must have pleased immensely his Christian listeners (note 45).

It was fortunate that Themistius never needed to lay out in his speeches an entire theological system. Τhemistius never hid the fact that he accepted a number of basic Neoplatonic ideas: a strong sense of metaphysical hierarchy with higher order entities generating lower ones. According to Roman imperialist ideology which Themistius happily endorsed, Roman emperors were chosen by the Divinity and stood in a special relationship to It (note 46). ‘God is governing your course’, Themistius announced to Constantius in Oration 3; ‘you have been promoted from heaven’ he told Valens in Oration 6; and in Oration 16 it was G/god who had actually chosen Theodosius for the purple (note 47). The belief in the divine legitimacy of the Roman state distinguished Themistius from contemporary Neoplatonists who believed in inner spiritual development.

Only in two of his political speeches, Oration 5 and Oration 6, Themistius devoted substantial space to religious matters. Oration 5 was given in Ancyra on 1 January 364 to celebrate the joint consulship of the emperor Jovian and his infant son Varronianus. Themistius laid out in surprisingly great detail the reasons why religious toleration was the best policy, for pragmatic reasons of social peace and because Divinity actually wanted to be worshipped in a variety of ways. He referred to Christianity as one among three more or less equal religions and further pointed out how divided Christianity itself was (note 48): Let us have a look at a selection of relevant quotes: ‘A king cannot compel his subjects in everything’ (67c), ‘some matters are superior to threat and injunction, like reverence for the divine’ (67c). ‘He who applies compulsion removes the license which God allowed’ (68a). ‘While you will persecute the body and kill it, as it may turn out, the soul however shall escape’ (68b). ‘While there exists only one Judge, not all religions travel by the same route’ (69a). ‘You do not allow only one path’ (69a). ‘We {=Pagans-Christians} were worse towards one another than the Persians, the legal disputes of the two religious factions throughout the city were more damaging than their attacks’ (69c). ‘Let the scale find its own level, do not force the balance down on one side or the other’ (69c). ‘The creator of the universe takes pleasure in such diversity, the Syrians, the Greeks and the Egyptians. And does not wish to be uniformity among the Syrians but has already fragmented them to small sects’ (70a). ‘Why use force where it is ineffectual?’ (70a).Before we jump into conclusions we need to place the speech in context: once Jovian ascended the throne he was forced to come to humiliating terms with the Persians; that is what we learn from Ammianus Marcellinus (note 49). It seems Themistius produced an account of the topic, his Oration 5, which was entirely in line with the demands of the ruling regime. The new emperor proclaimed the peace with Persia as a victory, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Themistius took the same line and referred the peace treaty in astonishing brevity. For all its importance the topic merited but one paragraph, no more than two or three minutes of speaking time. The brevity no doubt reflected the topic’s inherent embarrassments. In order to detract popular attention from such a thorny subject Themistius deliberately concentrated instead on an equally thrilling for the masses and certainly less discomforting for the emperor issue: i.e. religious toleration (note 50). Jovian died only about six weeks after the speech was given (note 51).

Oration 6 was probably given in early winter 364/5 in the Senate of Constantinople in front of the emperor Valens, recently established as ruler of the eastern half of the empire. Themistius started by stating plainly his own credentials for speaking and standing within the regime: affinity between kingship and philosophy comes from on high, and God sent both down to earth for the same purpose, to care and correct mankind. Then he explained, much more briefly than he had done in Oration 5, how different religions, although tolerated are not necessarily to be considered equally proficient in leading the individual to God. ‘While all tend towards the same end, some religions allow the individual to see God more clearly than others’ (77c). ‘We alone of all creatures recognize our Father, either more clearly or more dimly’ (77c). The bottom line being ‘love your enemy’ (80d) (note 52). Valens’ regime quickly chose sides of a non-Nicene doctrinal settlement in the hope of bringing peace to the Church. The contents of Oration 6 essentially reflected the concerns of the regime, rather than any personal agenda of Themistius. Heather and Moncur (note 53) examined Oration 6 in detail and rightly understood from it that Valens and Valentinian adopted from a very early stage a markedly less tolerant form of toleration against non-Christians than had Jovian (note 54).

Before wrapping up, we need to consider even in passing Themistius’ relation with Julian. Julian’s celebrated attempt during his brief reign to revive traditional Roman religion and culture against the prevailing tide of inexorable Christianization must have been without much delay recognized by his contemporaries and by Themistius (note 55). As a child Julian was given a strict Christian upbringing (note 56) at the orders of Constantius and he sedulously retained the outward observance of Christianity while he remained on amicable terms with his imperial cousin (note 57). Once he ascended the throne though it became obvious that his heart was set on the revitalization of the traditional cults (note 58) and that he anticipated much greater devotion and passion from pagans. The depth of his frustration at pagan apathy was immense. One can fail to recall how he ends his disarmingly blunt and funny Misopogon with irony and even a curse: ‘may the gods hold in store for you (i.e. pagans in lethargy of Antioch) the exact same honour and respect you granted me’ During Julian’s reign occurred the lynching by a pagan mob of George the patriarch of Alexandria who had refused to hand over a church which was being built on a former Mithraeum (note 59), despite the fact that Julian at least twice called pagans to avoid religious violence (note 60). Julian must have been a stern pagan, not very appreciative of Themistius’ compromising spirit. Julian repeatedly described his own lifestyle as ascetic, one which completely sunned pleasure, even pleasure prescribed by nature (note 61). Pagan sources saw him in the same light, like Ammianus Marcellinus (note 62) and Claudius Mamertinus who wrote characteristically of Julian that the emperor was ‘even more chaste than the Vestals’ (note 63). It is fascinating that Christians saw him in the exact opposite light and like Gregory of Nanzianzus and Ephrem the Syrian criticized him for debauchery, excess (note 64), wild laughter and madness (note 65).

In 354-5 Julian began to correspond with his former teacher Themistius (note 66). Themistius composed a panegyric in honour of Julian’s consulship on 1 January 363 which has regrettably not survived apart perhaps in an uncertain arabic translation, the so-called Risalat (note 67). Julian’s reaction to it in a letter addressed to Themistius however has, and it enables us to reconstruct reasonably well Themistius’ points.  Themistius must have triumphantly declared that the divinity had picked out the new emperor for his superior semi-divine nature and how fortunate it was that Julian had now abandoned solitary philosophical studies in favour of a more active life. In his answer Julian refused the flattery outright, accused gracefully Themistius for lying and exaggeration, denied that he possessed a semi-divine nature and even made fun at Themistius’ claims to be a truth-teller par excellence. He cited Plato and Aristotle that tyche was the most important factor governing promotions and Themistius had apparently misread the classics. Julian’s tone is far from bitter, ‘a respectful academic disagreement’ according to Heather and Moncur. I am not sure I quite agree. In the Roman court, an environment in which flattery was reciprocated with flattery, Julian’s response must surely have come as a shock to Themistius. Suda maintains that Julian promoted Themistius to the post of urban prefect of Constantinople and early 20th century scholar Stegemann (note 68) claimed that Julian erected a statue in honour of Themistius; both quite doubtful.

One would be justified to ask why Julian did not favour Themistius when he favoured Himerius and even summoned Himerius to Antioch in 362 to act as his private secretary. Himerius was a pagan philosopher (note 69) whose surviving works like Themistius’ show no attacks against the Christians. I do not have a satisfactory answer. Maybe Themistius was far too closely identified with Christian Constantius (note 70).


To conclude: Themistius could very well have chosen the easiest path of proclaiming himself to be a Christian, for a guaranteed satisfaction of his imperial patrons, and he simply did not. It seems as if Themistius was willing to lie on several occasions in order to please his imperial patrons, but probably the only issue he did not lie about, were his religious preferences. Having said that we must also recognize that Themistius’ achievement was not entirely his own doing. In the middle fourth century, as Heather and Moncur rightly stressed, the local landowning elites were still predominately non-Christian and Christians still formed far from a majority of the population. The Christian emperors relied upon local initiative for the enforcement of imperial laws. The necessity of not alienating the class by and for whom the empire was run was pressing. Themistius positioned himself right between Christian emperors and Hellenic landowners. A philosopher who was willing to state that the new religion was perfectly compatible with traditional cultural norms was a very useful weapon in helping the regime to attract support from the landowning classes so essential for the governing of the empire. This pagan support had further importance because other contemporary strands of Hellenic philosophical opinion were overtly hostile to Christianity. Themistius sold the Christian regimes as pro-Hellenic. His strategy aimed at and must have been recognized as effective at establishing solid political control among landowners. Themistius was the symbol of traditional culture which allowed the first Christian emperors to establish some kind of a balanced ideological profile for their reign. That does not diminish Themistius’ accomplishment. It was him of all pagans who made it and no one else. Equally, it wasn’t solely a pagan victory; it was just as a Christian victory for it allowed pagans to excel in the Christian court; for a little while at least.


Despina Iosif

Hellenic Open University, School of Humanities, Faculty Member