Praetextatus – Cultural Pursuits: Philosophical Studies (Ch. 3.2)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.

Analytica priora et posteriora

Boethius states that Praetextatus translated from Greek to Latin the paraphrases of Aristotle’s Analytica priora and posteriora written by the Constantinopolitan philosopher and rhetorician Themistius: Mihi maior persequendi operis causa est, quod non facile quisquam vel transferendi vel etiam commentandi continuam sumpserit seriem, nisi quod Vetius [sic] Praetextatus priores postremosque analyticos non vertendo Aristotelem latino sermoni tradidit, sed transferendo Themistium, quod qui utrosque legit, facile intellegit.[1] Themistius is known to have commented on the Categoriae, Analytica, Topica and other Aristotelian works, though his commentaries on the Categoriae and the Topica are lost. His paraphrases of the Analytica posteriora, still extant in Greek, are a general introduction to the Aristotelian theory of syllogisms and scientific knowledge.[2]

Praetextatus probably knew Themistius personally for it is possible that he had become acquainted with Themistius when he was in Constantinople (ch. 1.2) or when Themistius visited Rome. In 357 Themistius took part in Emperor Constantius’ visit to Rome, as a leader of the delegation of the senate of Constantinople, and delivered a speech (or. 3) there. In 376 he visited Rome again and delivered a speech (or. 13) in honour of Emperor Gratian in the Roman senate. He must have met eminent senators during these visits, probably Praetextatus and Symmachus among them.[3] Themistius seems to have influenced both of them because Praetextatus translated his paraphrases and Symmachus used similar arguments for religious tolerance in his third relatio as Themistius did in his speeches.[4]

The number of Latin translations of Greek literature increased in the fourth century because the knowledge of Greek in the Latin West was in decline. Teaching both in Greek and in Latin was still an ideal in late antiquity but the Greek of the Westerners was not usually good and there was often a lack of competent Greek teachers as an edict from 376 implies.[5] Praetextatus was among those who transmitted the Greek philosophical tradition to the Latin West; among them was also the Roman philosopher and teacher of rhetoric Marius Victorinus who translated texts of Plato, Aristotle and Porphyry into Latin.[6]

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Praetextatus was able to read philosophy in Greek. His knowledge of Greek is also attested by his activity as a quindecemvir sacris faciundis (CIL VI 1778 and 1779, see ch. 2.3) since a quindecemvir had to know Greek to be able to interpret the Sibylline books. Some aristocratic families cherished the Greek traditions in Rome and at the court in Milan and also had economic and administrative connections with the Eastern part of the Empire. E.g. Nicomachus Flavianus is known to have translated Philostratus’ biography of Apollonius of Tyana. Greek rhetors and philosophers were still invited to teach in Rome at the end of the fourth century. However, the general standard of the Hellenic culture and knowledge of Greek was not particularly high and only a few learned magistrates in the Western part of the Empire knew Greek. Symmachus, who in his letters prided himself on his Greek culture, did not know Greek very well and his references to Greek literature derive from Latin authors.[7]


Speculations on the Categoriae decem

In the Latin West in the fourth century, a number of intellectuals and learned aristocrats are known to have occupied themselves with Aristotle’s works, especially his logical and dialectical writings.[8] Particularly Aristotle’s Categoriae was ‘discovered’ again in the fourth century when Marius Victorinus translated and commented on the Categoriae; according to Augustine, the Categoriae was studied enthusiastically in the Latin schools in the 370s.[9]

The writer of the treatise Categoriae decem ex Aristotele decerptae earlier attributed to Augustine has sometimes been identified with Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, e.g. by G. Pfligersdorffer[10] but it is impossible to identify Praetextatus with the writer of the Categoriae decem because he is the only person – apart from Aristotle and Themistius – who is mentioned by name in the treatise: … apud Graecos keîsthai, apud nos ‘iacere’, sive ut Augorius [sic], quem ego inter doctissimos habeo, voluit, ‘situs’ dicitur.[11] The ‘Augorius’ whom the author of the treatise regards as one of the most learned men must be identified with Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. Themistius is mentioned several times in the Categoriae decem.[12] The editor of the treatise, L. Minio-Paluello, does not believe that Marius Victorinus’ commentary on the Categoriae is identical with the Pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae decem. Instead, he suggests that the Pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae Decem was written between 350 and 380 and that Augustine probably used it. Consequently, the treatise was connected with Augustine from the end of the eighth century until the end of the seventeenth century.[13] The presence of Agorius (Praetextatus) in the Categoriae decem and the connection with Themistius might offer a clue to identifying the author within the circle of Praetextatus’ philosophical influence. Minio-Paluello proposes an Albinus, one of the three learned Albini mentioned in Macrobius’ Saturnalia[14] Pfligersdorffer argues against Minio-Paluello’s identification, claiming that Praetextatus is chronologically more suitable than e.g. Albinus, the consul of 335 because the author of the Categoriae decem refers to Themistius as belonging to his period, erudito nostrae aetatis Themistio; Themistii nostra memoria egregii philosophi magisterium. According to Pfligersdorffer, the passage ut Augorius, quem ego inter doctissimos habeo, voluit was added later by a friend or disciple of Praetextatus because in this passage the first person is in singular while elsewhere the writer refers to himself in plural, nostrae, nobis, nostra; dicamus.[15] However, the first person is also in singular in some other passages; not all of these passages can be later additions. Thus, Praetextatus as the writer of the Categoriae decem seems improbable.


Praetextatus as a philosopher

What kind of philosopher was Praetextatus? We know that he translated Themistius’ paraphrases of Aristotle’s Analytica and that at least his name is mentioned in the Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Categoriae. He is thus closely connected with the Aristotelian tradition in the Latin West. It is often claimed that the Roman pagan intellectuals were inspired by Neoplatonic philosophy or Neoplatonic ideas in general; e.g. Bloch, Klein and Cracco Ruggini labelled Praetextatus as a Neoplatonist[16] but can we really call Praetextatus a Neoplatonic philosopher? If Praetextatus was a Neoplatonic philosopher why did he not write commentaries on Platonic texts, e.g. Porphyry, or why do we not have a single piece of information on his Platonic activities? All we know of Praetextatus’ philosophical studies is that he occupied himself with Aristotle’s logic. Should we then call him an Aristotelian rather than a Neoplatonist?

The attitudes of Neoplatonists towards Aristotle were not unambiguous. Porphyry, Plotinus’ disciple, for instance, had studied Aristotle’s logic and dialectics in the third century, commenting on Aristotle’s Kategoríai and Perì hermeneías and writing Eisagogé, an introduction to the Categoriae. His interest in Aristotle influenced a revival of interest in Aristotle’s logical and dialectical works in the Latin West in the fourth century. As a matter of fact, the Organon, the corpus of Aristotle’s logical and dialectical writings, was formed at the end of the fourth century. Other Neoplatonists like Iamblichus and Marius Victorinus also commented on Aristotle’s logical and dialectical texts.[17]

Aristotle’s logical and dialectical works formed a part of the education of a philosopher, including a Neoplatonic philosopher, although Neoplatonists studied Aristotle’s works as a preparation for the studies of Plato’s philosophy, not for Aristotle’s own sake. Marinus writes in his biography of Proclus that Syrianus initiated Proclus into Plato’s mystical philosophy after Proclus had studied Aristotle’s works first and had thus prepared himself for Platonism. Thus, Neoplatonists took over not only the Platonic tradition but the Aristotelian tradition as well and interpreted Aristotle from a Neoplatonic standpoint (e.g. Ammonius, Philoponus, Olympiodorus, Simplicius, Syrianus and Proclus), attempting to reconcile Platonism with Aristotelian philosophy.[18] Thus, Praetextatus’ Aristotelian studies could be regarded as a preparation for Neoplatonic philosophy.

The Greek philosophy adapted in the Latin West was eclectic and the Neoplatonic philosophy tended to influence nearly every branch of the late antique culture. Many Western intellectuals were influenced by Platonic ideas though they cannot be called Neoplatonists. I am inclined to think that Praetextatus – very much like Themistius – was probably this kind of eclectic philosopher like many of his contemporaries.
The philosophical studies of the Roman aristocracy

Praetextatus was not the only Roman aristocrat who devoted himself to philosophy. There were several philosophically orientated aristocrats in the Latin West, though not all of them could be regarded as philosophers. Some of them wished to be called philosophers on epitaphs, as Caeionius Rufius Albinus (cos. 335) who is called philosophus in CIL VI 1708 or to be otherwise remembered as cultured men, such as Cronius Eusebius whose contemplation of life is pointed out.[19] Augustine states that Marius Victorinus taught many noble senators and there were also a few Greek philosophers teaching in Rome.[20] It was perhaps Nicomachus Flavianus who edited a collection of philosophers’ teachings called De Vestigiis philosophorum that was mentioned later by John of Salisbury.[21] An Albinus, perhaps Caeionius Rufius Albinus (cos. 335), Caeionius Rufius Albinus (PVR 389-391) or Publilius Caeionius Caecina Albinus, is known to have studied Aristotle’s logic and dialectics and written treatises on geometry and dialectics.[22]

The philosophical culture of many aristocrats was certainly quite superficial, as Symmachus’ letters show. Symmachus wants to appear as a philosophically cultivated man and drops the names of Socrates, Aristotle, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras but he is not really interested in philosophical questions.[23] He admits to Praetextatus that he leaves the metaphysical problems to philosophers, verum haec philosophorum disputationibus reliquantur. Philosophical speculations belong to those who spend their time in otium: sed haec otiosorum disputatio est.[24] It seems that in late antiquity the serious devotion of philosophy, especially the Neoplatonic one, was an isolated discipline of the few, as Augustine asserts, philosophiae virtutequae ardua nimis atque paucorum est.[25]

Neoplatonic philosophy had a long tradition in Rome since Plotinus and Porphyry had influenced the senatorial elite in Rome. Porphyry writes that there were some members of the senate and a number of men and women of position among Plotinus’ students.[26] Several Roman aristocrats belonged to Neoplatonic circles at the end of the third century[27] but were Roman pagan aristocrats also inspired by Neoplatonism in the late fourth century? I am inclined to think that the circle around Praetextatus and Symmachus cannot be labelled Neoplatonic, as it is often done, because Symmachus was not philosophically orientated at all, and as we have seen, there is no evidence for Praetextatus’ Neoplatonic studies.

In late fourth-century Platonism was not as important for Western paganism as for Eastern paganism. Alan Cameron claims that “there was no hard-core pagan Neoplatonist” in the West at the end of the fourth century for Praetextatus cannot be regarded as a Neoplatonist. While Western pagans neglected Platonic philosophy (as far as we know), the Christian intellectuals concentrated on Plotinus and Porphyry, e.g. Manlius Theodorus, Ambrose, Marius Victorinus and Firmicus Maternus. After having converted to Christianity, Marius Victorinus and Firmicus Maternus  tried to combine Neoplatonic ideas and Christian belief; thus, Platonism often served as a bridge to Christianity, as Augustine’s example indicates.[28]


[1] Boeth. in herm. comm. sec. 1, p.3-4 Meiser.

[2] Vanderspoel 225-228; Ross 1-2, 51. For Themistius as a commentator on Aristotle, see Blumenthal 113-123.

[3] Them. or. 13.162C, 13.177D-180B refers to the Roman senators. Dagron 1968, 191-193, 205-212;  Vanderspoel 25, 101, 179-184; Cracco Ruggini 1993, 49; Cracco Ruggini 1972, 177, 184-187; Stegemann 1650. J. Shiel 367-368 falsely places both Praetextatus and Macrobius in the same circle; for my discussion on the subject, see ch. 5.2.

[4] E.g. Symm. rel. 3.8; 3.10; Them. or. 5.68D-70A. For the ideas of religious tolerance, see ch. 2.5.

[5] CTh 13.3.11 (May 23, 376). Marrou 1965, 383-384; Nellen 123-124. E.g. Auson. commem. 8.6; 8.13 of the decline of Greek studies in Gaul.

[6] I. Hadot 1984, 248; Solmsen 71. In the fifth and sixth centuries Boethius, Cassiodorus and other translators concentrated on ‘practical’ texts (dialectics, arithmetic, grammar and medicine).

[7] Sidon. epist. 8.3.1. Marrou 1965, 384, 595 n.19; Courcelle 1943, 4-6. Nellen 123-124 has listed Western magistrates competent in Greek, among them Praetextatus, Nicomachus Flavianus, Ambrose and Claudius Mamertinus; I. Hadot 1984, 248-249 mentions also Manlius Theodorus, Claudian and Macrobius. Greek rhetoricians and philosophers in Rome: Symm. epist. 1.15; 1.29; 1.94; 3.50; 9.1; rel. 5.2. Symmachus writes that he started learning Greek  so that he could assist his son in his studies: Symm. epist. 4.20.2.

[8] Cracco Ruggini 1993, 48-52; Ebbesen 374.

[9] Marius Victorinus’ translation: Cassiod. inst. 2.18; the Categoriae: Aug. conf. 4.16. Minio-Paluello 1945, 65-66; Pfligersdorffer 1953, 136; P. Hadot 1971, 179, 188, 194.

[10] Pfligersdorffer 1950-51, 131-137; Ensslin 1579; Bloch 1945, 205 n.23; Flamant 31; Schanz – Hosius – Krüger 1920, 412, 414; Courcelle 1943, 4; P. Hadot 1971, 194. As early as in 1793 J.A. Fabricius suggested Vegetius [sic!] Praetextatus as a possible author of this work.

[11] Categ. Dec. col. 1434, PL 32 = 125 Minio-Paluello. Minio-Paluello 1945, 67; Chastagnol 1962, 172.

[12] Categ. dec. col. 1422, PL 32 = 20 Minio-Paluello: Sed, ut erudito nostrae aetatis Themistio philosopho placet, de his Aristoteles tractare incipit …; col. 1440, PL 32 = 176 Minio-Paluello: Haec sunt, fili carissime, quae iugi labore assecuti, cum nobis Themistii nostra memoria egregii philosophi magisterium non deesset, ad utilitatem tuam de Graeco in Latinum convertimus, …

[13] The Categoriae decem was preserved among Augustine’s works and in the 780s or 790s Alcuin attributed the Categoriae decem to Augustine. The copyist of a fourteenth-century manuscript (Bruxellensis bibl.reg. 49.62) suspected Augustine’s authorship and finally, at the end of the seventeenth century the Maurist editors excluded the treatise from the corpus of Augustine’s writings. For the manuscripts and the history of the treatise in the Middle Ages and in modern times, see Minio-Paluello 1961, lxxviii-lxxxiv; Minio-Paluello 1945, 65-66. Pfligersdorffer 1950-1951, 135 believes that the connection with Augustine was caused by a misunderstanding of the abbreviations Aug. or Ag. (=Agorius, Augorius) in the manuscripts.

[14] Minio-Paluello 1945, 67-68; Minio-Paluello 1961, lxxviii. Publilius Caeionius Caecina Albinus: Macr. Sat. 1.2.15-16, PLRE I, Albinus 8, 34-35; Caecina Decius Albinus: Macr. Sat. 1.1.7. PLRE I, Albinus 10, 35-36; Caeionius Rufius Albinus: Macr. Sat. 1.2.16, PLRE I, Albinus 15, 37-38.

[15] Pfligersdorffer 1950-1951, 133-137; Pfligersdorffer 1953, 131, 152-154. Categ. dec. col. 1422, PL 32 = 20 Minio-Paluello; col. 1440, PL 32 = 176 Minio-Paluello; col. 1435, PL 32 = 125 Minio-Paluello.

[16] Bloch 1945, 208-209; Klein 1972, 19, 32, 36; Klein 1971, 78-80; Wytzes 141; Cracco Ruggini 1993, 49. Moreschini 90-91, 116 criticizes these views. To be accurate, the term Neoplatonism is a modern eighteenth-century construction, often used in a pejorative sense in comparison with the ‘true’ Platonism of Plato; Plotinus, Porphyry and their followers considered themselves as Platonists. For the history of the term, see Gatti 22-27.

[17] E.g. Marius Victorinus translated Porphyry’s introduction to Aristotle (Eisagogé) and wrote commentaries and tractates on Aristotle’s logical and dialectical works. P. Hadot 1971, 179, 191, 194; Ebbesen 374; Solmsen 72.

[18] Marin. v. Procli 13.69. I. Hadot 1991, 176-177, 188-189; Sorabji 5-7; Solmsen 71-72; Strange 974.

[19] Albinus: CIL VI 1708 = ILS 1222; PLRE I, Albinus 14, 37; Cf. Euagrius called a philosopher in CIL VI 2153 (c. 320). Cronius Eusebius: CIL VI 1699 (in 399): contemplatione vitae.

[20] Aug. conf. 8.2.3: doctor tot nobilium senatorum.

[21] Ioh. Saresb. Policraticus 2.26. Courcelle 1943, 6; Schanz 1914, 530.

[22] Boeth. in herm. comm. sec. 1, p.4 Meiser mentions an Albinus who wrote on logic and geometry whom Schanz 1914, 530 and PLRE I, Albinus 3, 33 identify with Caeionius Rufius Albinus (cos. 335, PLRE I, Albinus 14, 37) while P. Hadot 1971, 41 suggests another Caeionius Rufius Albinus (PVR 389-391, PLRE I, Albinus 15, 37-38) and Cracco Ruggini 1986, 106, Cracco Ruggini 1985a, 142 proposes Publilius Caeionius Caecina Albinus (PLRE I, Albinus 8, 34-35).

[23] E.g. Symm. epist. 1.4.2; 2.46.1; 3.6.3; 9.115; Symm. rel. 5.

[24] Symm. epist. 1.48; Symm. rel. 3.10.

[25] Aug. civ. 10.27. Fowden 1982, 51.

[26] Porph. vita Plot. 7; 9.

[27] According to Byzantine scholiasts, Porphyry dedicated his Eisagogé to a Chrysaorius whose descendants were the Symmachi. Alan Cameron 1977, 17-18; Cracco Ruggini 1993, 48-49 n.22.

[28] Alan Cameron 1977, 17, 20-22; Nellen 147.


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