Theocracy against Science and Philosophy; the less known face of ancient Athens

In Hellenistic and Roman times, the prevailing view was still the geocentric one. The brilliant heliocentric theory advanced by Aristarchos in the early third century B.C. was never established, because it met with hostility in Athens—Aristarchos was accused of impiety and faced the death penalty.

The textual evidence suggests that the tight connection which existed between religion and the city-state (polis) in ancient Greece, and which led to a series of impiety trials against philosophers in Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., would have made any contrary opinion expressed by the astronomers seem almost a high treason against the state.


The heliocentric theory of Aristarchos of Samos met with strong opposition in Athens. Indeed, Athens does not seem to have been as tolerant and open-minded with regard to deviant religious actions and opinions, as some romantic views about Athenian democracy want us to believe (Cohen, 1991: 211, 215; Dodds, 1951: 189-190, 201 n.63; Garnsey, 1984; Price, 1999: 67 f.).

As the most important city of the Greek world, Athens became a great intellectual centre in the second half of the fifth century B.C. It attracted many philosophers and sophists, who formed part of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ movement, which drew its origins in midsixth century B.C. Ionia (Xenophanes, Heracleitos). Especially, Pericles attracted around him a circle of intellectuals, the most eminent among whom was Anaxagoras, who introduced Ionian philosophy into Athens. The free, rational thinking of all these intellectuals about the gods and the world was a great challenge to traditional Athenian religion. It brought about atheism and it was checked by a series of trials (Derenne, 1930; Dodds, 1951: 179-206; Garland, 1994: 97-102). Between 432 B.C. and the end of the fourth century B.C., a series of philosophers, including astronomers, were prosecuted for impiety because of their ‘blasphemous’ beliefs, besides other people (intellectuals or not).

Impiety (asebeia) referred both to sacrilegious actions and to the expression of scandalous beliefs concerning the gods (Cohen, 1991: 203-217; Derenne, 1930: 9-12, 217-245; Price, 1999: 82). It was considered a major crime and it was punished by death or perpetual exile.

All these impiety trials started with the introduction of the famous law or decree of Diopeithes (432 B.C.), which stated that “… public accusation should be laid against persons who did not believe in gods or who taught doctrines regarding the heavens.” (Plutarch, Pericles, 32. 1). This decree was especially designed by the seer Diopeithes to eliminate his main rival, the philosopher and astronomer Anaxagoras. As a professional seer, Diopeithes was fighting for the preservation of the traditional religious beliefs, since his own craft assumed that the sky was replete with divine omens (Derenne, 1930: 19-24; Garland, 1992: 139-141, 205f.; 1996: 94; MacDowell, 1978: 200-201).

Anaxagoras was prosecuted “… for saying that the sun is a stone and the moon is made of earth.” (Plato, Apology, 26d). This was a very shocking idea indeed, given that ancient Greek religion (like any ancient religion) regarded the heavenly bodies and the heavens themselves as gods (Vegetti, 1995: 277f.; Vernant, 1974: 104-112; 1983: 197).

Anaxagoras appears therefore to have been prosecuted, because he dared reduce the celestial divinities into stones and earth. Eventually, Anaxagoras was not executed, but fled Athens with the assistance of Pericles (Derenne, 1930: 39-41; Plutarch, Pericles, 32).

Around 416 B.C., Protagoras, the sophist, was brought to trial for impiety, accused for his impious book On the Gods, as well as most probably for his astronomical theories. Protagoras escaped death, either because he was banished or because he fled before his trial. After his exile or escape, all the copies of his book were burnt in the public square, the agora (Derenne, 1930: 46-55)—this was the first public burning of a book in history!

In a significant passage, Plutarch talks about Anaxagoras and Protagoras, as proof of the Athenians’ aversion towards natural philosophers and astronomers:

The first man to put in writing the clearest and boldest of all doctrines about the changing phases of the moon was Anaxagoras. But he was no ancient authority, nor was his doctrine well-known, but it was still under seal of secrecy and circulated among a few people only, who received it with a certain caution, rather than with implicit confidence. For there was widespread intolerance of natural scientists and “star-gazers”, as they were called at the time, on the grounds that they reduced the divine to irrational causes, blind forces and necessary incidents. Hence it was that Protagoras was banished and Anaxagoras cast in prison and rescued with difficulty by Pericles, and Socrates, though he had nothing whatever to do with such matters, nevertheless lost his life, because of philosophy. (Plutarch, Nicias, 23, 2-3).

The memory of Anaxagoras’ trial must have been still very vivid in Athens in 399 B.C., the time of the most famous impiety trial, that of Socrates (Cohen 1991: 213-215; Derenne, 1930; Stone, 1989). Prosecuted “… for not believing in the gods of the city-state, but in other new divinities …” (Plato, Apology, 24b; cf. Diogenes Laertius 2. 40), the philosopher, in his defense, refuses to be associated with the astronomers “… because those who hear them think that men who investigate these matters do not even believe in gods.” (Plato, Apology, 18c), thereby disclaiming any knowledge of astronomy attributed to him by Aristophanes in the Clouds (423 B.C.); a little later in his apology, Socrates denies that he is a complete atheist and affirms that he does “… believe that the sun and the moon are gods, like all the other people do …”, unlike Anaxagoras, implying that the astronomers’ beliefs do support the accusation of impiety (Plato, Apology, 26d).

Xenophon expresses even more clearly the opinion of Socrates about Anaxagoras and the astronomers, in general, as reckless atheists (talking about hybris), when he declares that: “With regard to the phenomena of the heavens, [Socrates] disapproved strongly of attempts to work out the machinery by which the god operates them; he believed that their secrets could not be discovered by man, and that any attempt to search out what the gods had not chosen to reveal must be displeasing to them. He said that he who meddles with these matters runs the risk of losing his sanity as completely as Anaxagoras, who took an insane pride in his explanation of the divine machinery … When [Anaxagoras] pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor lasts long, whereas the sun-god shines with unequalled brilliance for ever.” (Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV, 7, 6f.; see also Liritzis, 2003).

Anaxagoras and his astronomical doctrine was also attacked by Plato, who alludes to him in his Laws, when he makes the Athenian say:

But as to our younger generation and their wisdom, I cannot let them off when they do mischief. For do but mark the effect of their words: when you and I argue for the existence of the Gods, and produce the sun, moon, stars, and earth, claiming for them a divine being, if we would listen to the aforesaid philosophers we should say that they are earth and stones only, which can have no care at all of human affairs, and that all religion is a cooking up of words and a make–believe. (Laws, 886de).

Immediately afterwards, Plato declares such philosophers to be “… unholy men … impiously disposed …” (Laws, 887a), and therefore people who would be liable to “… be punished with death …” by the impiety law of his ideal State (Laws, 910c-d; Cohen, 1991: 216-217; Derenne, 1930: 248-252).

The disapproval and distrust of the astronomers (and their supporters) on religious grounds was widespread in Classical Athens (Dodds, 1951: 201 n64). In the Laws (967a), Plato writes that people “… imagine that those who study [the heavenly bodies] in astronomy … become atheists through observing … that all things come into being by necessary forces …” And he continues:

… all that moves in the heavens appeared to them to be full of stones, earth and many other soulless bodies … These were the views which … caused them many charges of atheism and much antipathy, and which also incited the poets to abuse them by likening philosophers to ‘dogs howling at the moon. (Laws, 967c).

Even more vehemently, the tragedian Euripides declared:

Has not the man … who apprehends god cast far away the crooked deceits of those who observe the heavens? Their poisonous tongue, although it possesses no way of knowing, talks at random of invisible things. (Derenne, 1930: 24; Nauck, 1964: Frag. 913).

And Eupolis, in his comedy Kolakes (421 B.C.), made fun of Protagoras in these words: “… that man, who boasts like a criminal about celestial phenomena, while eating the things that come from the earth.” (Diels 1907, Volume II: 530, 14-16).

About one hundred and fifty years after the trial of Anaxagoras, ca. 286 B.C., the astronomer Aristarchos of Samos, the proponent of the revolutionary heliocentric theory, living in Athens, appears to have been accused of impiety by the head of the Stoic school at Athens, Cleanthes (Derenne, 1930: 215; Heath, 1913: 304; Lloyd, 1973: 58; 1991: 157 n.46; Noack, 1992:4), who even wrote a book entitled Against Aristarchos (Diogenes Laertios, 7, 174). In the words of Plutarch:

Cleanthes thought that the Greeks ought to lay an action for impiety against Aristarchos the Samian on the ground that he was disturbing the Hearth of the Universe [i.e. the Earth], because he sought to save the appearances by assuming that the heaven is at rest while the earth is revolving along the ecliptic and at the same time is rotating about its own axis. (Plutarch, On the Face in the Orb of the Moon, 6, 923a).

By moving the Hearth of the Cosmos from its central location Aristarchos dared upset the tranquility of the Olympian gods. He claimed that the Earth was not the great goddess of the hearth, Hestia, the sister of Zeus (the master and king of the Universe, the incarnation of justice and order; see Vernant, 1974: 104-114), she who, according to the general belief, is enthroned immobile at the centre of the world and of the ‘House of the Gods’ (Plato, Phaedrus, 247a; Dicks, 1970: 114- 115; Heath, 1913: 304; Lloyd, 1973: 58; Vernant, 1983: 128, 159-161, 188-189, 195-196), but it was a mass, which, like the other planets, turned around the Sun. Aristarchos ventured to explain in a mechanical manner phenomena that were regarded by everybody as the work of divinities. It is to him that the Platonist philosopher Dercyllides (first century A.D.) alluded, when he announced that:

… we must suppose the Earth, the Hearth of the House of the Gods, according to Plato, to remain fixed, and the planets with the whole embracing heaven to move, and reject with abhorrence the view of those who have brought to rest the things which move and set in motion the things which by their nature and position are unmoved, such a supposition being contrary to the hypotheses of mathematics. (Theon of Smyrna, Mathematical Knowledge Useful for the Reading of Plato, iii 34; see also Heath, 1913: 304; Hiller, 1878: 200, lines 7-12).

It is worth noting here that although Dercyllides reacts with horror to an attempt to put the Earth in motion, he also says that it is contrary to the hypotheses of the mathematicians; so it seems that not only religious feeling, but also the mathematicians themselves were opposed to the idea. This, however, does not alter our basic hypothesis. Indeed, by placing the Earth at the centre of the cosmos, the mathematicians and astronomers could explain the seasons, the movements of the planets Venus and Mars, weather phenomena and other celestial parameters made by observations. And this could have been independent of their potential philosophical view that the Sun is at the centre.

Having, no doubt, scandalized the public opinion and facing the death penalty, Aristarchos had no option but to flee Athens and never come back.

Impiety trials were the violent reaction of the community of the Greek city-state or polis, which felt its integrity to be under threat. In the absence of any dogma or any organized priesthood in ancient Greek religion, it was the city-state itself, i.e. the citizen body or demos, that undertook to prosecute and punish those who were ‘impiously disposed’. In addition, in Athens, like in all Greek cities, the cult community was identified with the citizen body and the cult guaranteed the unity of the citizens, of the state.

Religion and the state being inextricably linked in ancient Greece, any crime against religion was considered as an attack against the whole of the citizen body, against the security of the state, i.e. as a crime of high treason. This is why attacks by the philosophers and natural scientists on traditional religious beliefs and on the sacred ‘ancestral customs’ (ta patria), were seen by the community as seriously undermining the social order, the stability of the polis, and were severely punished.

Given the nature of the evidence at our disposal, we have concentrated so far on the religious values of Classical Athens, the best-documented city of Greek antiquity. The evidence regarding impiety laws in the rest of the Greek world is much more scattered both in time and space, and we are not in a position to know whether the fear of prosecution for impiety actually applied to, say Rhodes, at the time of Hipparchos, around 120 B.C., or Alexandria, at the time of Ptolemy, around A.D. 150.

As far as pre-classical times are concerned, textual evidence going back to the sixth century B.C., to the time of the first Presocratic philosophers (Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes), suggests that there was already religious intolerance and talk about impiety not only in Athens, where, at the time of Solon (594 B.C.), it was considered that “… piety resided … in the absolute respect of the customs handed down by the ancestors …”, as mentioned by Isocrates (Areopageticus, 29-30; Derenne, 1930: 235-236; Mikalson, 2005: 183), but also elsewhere in Greece.

It is even likely that obedience to the ‘ancestral customs’ was imposed by law in Athens as early as the seventh century B.C.: the first Athenian lawgiver, Draco (621 B.C.), whose harsh legal code punished almost every offence with death, apparently was the first to introduce a law instructing the Athenians “… as a group to honour the gods and local heroes in accordance with the ancestral practices.” (Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food, 4.22; Garland, 1992: 138; 1996: 94; Mikalson, 2005: 183).

In view of the tight connection between state and religion in ancient Greece, religious conservatism and intolerance may, in fact, be as old as the eighth century B.C., the time of the formation of the city-state or polis (Garnsey, 1984; Sakellariou, 1999: 275).

(Source: “Ancient Greek heliocentric views hidden from prevailing beliefs?”, by Ioannis Liritzis and Alexandra Coucouzeli)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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