Sosipatra (fl. 4th c.)

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Sosipatra (fl. 4th c.)

Ephesian philosopher. Flourished in the 4th century; born in Ephesus in Asia Minor; educated by two male guardians who were seers; married Eustathius (an orator and diplomat); after the death of Eustathius, became the consort of the philosopher Aedesius and they founded a school of philosophy together; children: (with Eustathius) three sons, including Antoninus.

Sosipatra was a late pagan "philosopher" and wife of Eustathius, an orator and occasional diplomat. Eustathius was also a kinsman of Aedesius, a noted neo-Platonic philosopher. According to Eunapius in Lives of Philosophers (a work which treated pagan intellectuals about as objectively as contemporary Christian writers did their "saints" in their own Lives, that is, with much adoration and little concern for historical accuracy), Sosipatra was a towering pagan intellectual during an age when Christians were doing all they could to expunge paganism. Again according to Eunapius, as great a man as Eustathius was, Sosipatra's wisdom made that of her husband seem insignificant by comparison.

Sosipatra was born near Ephesus in Asia Minor. As Eunapius has it, her father was prosperous, and she lived a decorous youth until she was five, when two mysterious strangers, dressed in skins, made their way to her father's estate. There the strangers were employed by the steward to tend to the estate's vines. When the earth brought forth a bounty beyond all expectation, Sosipatra's father suspected the work of the gods. He invited his enigmatic employees to dine with him and showed them every consideration. Thus fêted, the two met Sosipatra and were captivated by her charm. They then revealed that their powers far transcended what they had so far demonstrated, and asked Sosipatra's father to surrender both her and his estate to them for four years, and also that he absent himself while they nurtured both. They promised that daughter and land would be well cared for, and that when the father returned he would scarcely recognize either. Sosipatra's father agreed, telling his servants, who remained, to do the bidding of the pair.

In the following years, these "heroes" (or maybe "demons," as Eunapius allows) initiated Sosipatra into such mysteries as even those who wanted to discover, could not. When the father returned, he was awestruck at the improvements brought to his estate and daughter—especially after the latter, without his speaking, revealed to him everything that he had done and felt while he was away. Thinking Sosipatra some sort of a goddess, the father fell before the strangers and besought their identities. They revealed that they were initiates in "Chaldean" wisdom, after which he begged them to stay on and continue their husbandry. They nodded an assent, but said nothing more. Then, Sosipatra's father fell asleep, and they gave to Sosipatra clothes adorned with magic symbols and books which they ordered her to seal in a chest. As day broke, the Chaldeans went out as if to work as usual and Sosipatra went to her father to tell him about how she had spent the night. He wished to reward the strangers richly, but they were nowhere to be found, and it was then that Sosipatra apparently understood their cryptic statement that they were about to travel to the "western ocean."

Sosipatra was by this time fully initiated into the lore of the Chaldeans, so that even though she returned to her father's charge, he went in awe of what she had become and meddled in none of her affairs. Sosipatra is said to have had no other teachers, but forever after she not only constantly quoted the works of famous poets, philosophers and sophists, she also understood them fully, even when others around her could only dimly perceive their wisdom.

She then decided to marry and chose Eustathius as the only living man somewhat worthy of herself. In her proposal to him (a stunning role reversal at the time), she predicted that they would have three children together, that all of these would know the happiness of the gods but none of them would know human success, that Eustathius would die in five years and be rewarded in the next life (with his spirit rising to the "orbit of the moon")—although his reward would not equal hers. Immediately the happy couple married and all came to pass as Sosipatra foretold.

After Eustathius died, Sosipatra lived in Pergamon (Pergamum) with Aedesius where the two founded a school. Although Aedesius was renowned and drew many students to his lectures, Sosipatra is said to have outshone him in the eyes of their students. During this period, Sosipatra is reported to have been the victim of Philometor (one of her kinsmen) who fell in love with her and resorted to magic to have her return his passion. Philometor was successful until Sosipatra, who had no need anymore for such attachments, convinced Maximus, another of her students, to counter Philometor's spell with another. The remedy worked and, although Maximus had operated in secret, Sosipatra nevertheless related to him exactly what he had done, where he had done it, and when. We are told that far from being angry at Philometor, Sosipatra actually admired him all the more after his plot to win her affections, because he had the good sense to so greatly esteem her.

Somewhat later, the same Philometor is said to have suffered a carriage accident, which Sosipatra recognized from afar as it was happening. Since she accurately described to those around her the details of the accident, she gained a reputation for having the gift of omnipresence. She died leaving three sons, only one of whom, Antoninus, is said to have been worthy of his parents. He devoted his life to studying esoteric lore and magic in Egypt, where he lived almost like a Christian hermit while doing his best to keep alive the worship of the old gods. He also is said to have had the gift of prophecy and to have foretold of the ultimate defeat of the gods he so passionately served.

Eunapius' account of Sosipatra provides us a fascinating picture of what passed for pagan philosophy in the 4th century, for clearly, the logical regimens of the past were being enveloped by esoteric learning, magical initiation and theurgy, as Christianity pressed hard upon the disappearing culture of pagans.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California