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'I, Porphyry': the narrator of the Vita Plotini

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 04:56 authored by Graeme MilesGraeme Miles

Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus is an oddity among ancient biographies, which themselves are an often surprising group of texts, especially if approached from the expectations of modern biography. Particularly notorious is the text’s unusual structure. Written by Porphyry as an introduction to his edition of his master’s works (The Enneads), it is in several respects a unique document. It opens with the surreptitious creation of an image of its protagonist, who was unwilling to have his portrait painted, rejecting such a representation as merely ‘an image of an image’. His students overcome this difficulty by bringing the artist Carterius to his lectures, where he is able to form mental impressions of his subject, allowing him to create a full portrait (Plot. 1). From this anecdote the Life moves directly to his death, before recounting a series of observations and personal anecdotes and concluding with an oracle on Plotinus’ posthumous fate. Incorporated into this account are personal recollections (‘I, Porphyry…’) as well as the words of others (Longinus, Eustochius, Apollo), and of Plotinus himself.

John Dillon has recently argued for a reading of the Life of Plotinus as a fairly straightforward, factual account, opposing his interpretation to that of Patricia Cox. There is much to be said for this, and it is true that within certain limits, Porphyry was attempting to give as much factual information as he could. Nonetheless, even factual accounts are never entirely straightforward, and the unusual narrative choices in this short biography, far more than choices of motif, call for explanation. An analysis of these narrative choices, by shedding light on the most fundamental formal characteristics of the text, and in particular the construction of its narrator, provides an approach to the text’s functioning as an idealising account, and the kinds of meaning which can legitimately be read into it. Narrative choices have philosophical implications, and in a writer (and reader) as interested in issues of interpretation as Porphyry, a high level of awareness is to be expected in the construction of the text and his own persona in it.


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Open Acess Australasian Society for Classical Studies Proceedings


N O'Sullivan




School of Humanities


Australasian Society for Classical Studies

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Australasian Society for Classical Studies

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Perth: University of Western Australia

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Copyright 2010 the Author

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Expanding knowledge in history, heritage and archaeology

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