It was the philosophical approach that allowed to discover, in the late 19th century, close parallels and even quotes in Dionysius from Proclus. Recently it resulted in discovering of many correspondences with Damascius (Lilla 1997: 135–152, but also Griffith 1997) which culminates in the attempt to identify the author of the Corpus with Damascius by Carlo Maria Mazzucchi (2006). The very idea that Dionysius Areopagite could be no one but Damascius was first proposed by Alexandre Kojève (Kozhevnikov), the French specialist in Hegel, in a personal letter in 1964.
The lists of parallels between Dionysius and Damascius, especially those presented by Lilla (1997), are, indeed, impressing. Salvatore Lilla and Rosemary Griffith take as granted that the direction of borrowing was from Damascius to Dionysius and not vice versa. Perczel (2004: 421, n. 27) has rightly noted, that such way of thinking is a petitio principii unless one has first demonstrated that Damascius’ activity took place earlier than the publication of the Corpus. Perczel himself believes that Dionysius is earlier than Damascius (cf. an explication of his reasons in Perczel 2008) who died after 532 and wrote his academic writings before 529 (according to Westerink 1971, mostly in the 520s). Lilla is imprecise about the date of Dionysius he accepts. Griffith (1997: 243) is open to the idea “to push the date of the Dionysian corpus even further forward”, including such date as 529 AD (that betrays her innocence in the monophysite theological traditions).
Mazzucchi resolved the debate on priority between Damascius and Dionysius seemingly in the most economic way, but, in fact, to the cost of a fantastic portrait of Damascius as a pagan spy-subversive acting in the Christian camp. Indeed, the Ockham razor is not the best tool to write fiction. His article is a fascinating reading, though.
Perczel’s interpretation of the parallels between Dionysius and Damascius seems to me the only realistic one: “the similaritites... should be attributed to the general atmosphere of the school to which both authors belonged, rather to any literary dependence” (2004: 421, n. 27).
Seconding Perczel, I think that there is no need to reconsider the previously established dates of the Corpus on the ground of these newly detected parallels with Damascius.
I define here “Philological approach” as a study of the Corpus Areopagiticum in the context of non-theological and non-philosophical literature. Indeed, regardless to its theological and philosophical contents, the Corpus can be considered as a high-quality literary work. Such studies became important to the search of the Sitz im Leben of Dionysius after keen observations of the late Sergei S. Averintsev, a brilliant Russian scholar in classic philology (Averintsev 1977, 1978). Unfortunately, to my knowledge, these studies remain unknown to the Western students of Areopagite, despite the availability of (Averintsev 1977) in Italian translation (Averincev 1988).
In the late Roman empire, “[t]o capture a clever and able poet like Claudian was like gaining control of a leading newspaper” (Cameron 1965: 502). The Church politics was not exempt from this rule. This is why the history of the poetry of this time could be not less important, for the patristic studies, than the history of the hagiography.
Dionysius and Nonnus: a fundamental stylistic unity
Averintsev posed the Corpus into the context of two large poems of the middle of the 5th century, one of a pagan poet, another one of a Christian poet. One poem is dedicated to the god Dionysus (and its title is Διονυσιακά), another one is a paraphrase of the Gospel of John. However, both poems are ascribed to the same author, Nonnus of Panopolis (fl ca second quart of the 5th cent.; cf. Cameron 1982). And this is not all: the gospel paraphrase quotes extensively from the poem on Dionysus, sometime, in a rather risky manner (e. g., the words shown to describe swimming Peter are taken verbatim from a voyeuristic scene depicting Zeus looking at swimming Semela: Gospel paraphrase 21:45-46 = Dionysiaka 7:185-187, 189).
Averintsev managed to demonstrate a fundamental stylistic unity between the two poems ascribed to Nonnus, on the one hand, and the Corpus Areopagiticum, on the other. All of them, according to Averintsev, share the following fundamental feature: they are not trying to find out precise and graphic descriptions but, instead, try to describe their objects through enumerating of things that are not these objects. These things form a circumference whose centre is the object to be described. This procedure is by no means trivial. Everybody could easily recall how important this manner is in Dionysius’ way to express his idea of “apophatic theology.” Stylistic differences between Dionysius and neoplatonic philosophers explaining their ideas on the “apophatic” way of knowledge are obvious. The corresponding feature of Dionysius’ style is preceded by Nonnus and not by philosophers. So far Averintsev.
Nonnus’ literary network
Going further, we meet Nonnus in close connection with the milieu of Empress Eudocia. I wrote on this in details in (Lourié 2001), but now I will add to the data from this article some new facts. Eudocia was a poet herself (cf. now Usher 1998), and even an author of another gospel paraphrase (in Homeric centons). However, the most brilliant Christian poet of the epoch was Cyrus Panopolitanus, a native of the same Egyptian town as Nonnus and his (most probably, a bit younger) contemporary, deeply influenced by Nonnus in his poetic work (see now, on all this, Cameron 1982). In the same time, Cyrus was a high imperial official close to Eudocia. He is known as one of the most energetic prefects of Constantinople, even while his tenure was relatively short, since 439 (or, maybe, 437) to his sudden fall in 441, when Eudocia’s court party has been destroyed. It is worth noting that Cyrus occupied the position of prefect, probably, either in 438 (when the historical visit of Eudocia took place) or, at least, a bit later when she pursued her policy in establishing a new Marial cult distributed between Jerusalem and Constantinople and opposed to the Marial cult of Ephesus.
Indeed, it is the prefect Cyrus who is reputed to construct the first church in the capital dedicated to the Virgin, lately known under the name τὰ Κύρου (Janin 1969: 193–195). Here, ἐν τοῖς Κύρου, Romanos the Melodos (before 493—551/555) received his famous revelation from Theotokos that made him the Melodos—already as a young man, in the years of the monophysite Emperor Anastasius (491—518). Romanos lived, died, and was buried here, and this was the central place of his cult. Thus, under Anastasius, this church continued to exist as a major place of the Theotokos cult.
After 441, he followed an extremely exotic career pattern as a bishop but left his see after the death of Theodosius II. He returned to the capital to live as a private person under the spiritual guidance of Daniel the Stylite (who accepted the Council of Chalcedon but subsequently accepted the Henotikon supporting it in a very large extent by his authority). Cyrus wrote a poetical inscription that decorated his pillar. Cyrus died in about 470, certainly under Leo and, thus, before the Henotikon.
As a bishop, Cyrus became famous by his unprecedentedly short Nativity sermon containing only one meaningful sentence before the concluding doxological phrase. However, in this sentence he managed to quote Evagrius and to allude to the polemical sermon of Proclus of Constantinople on Theotokos, against Nestorius (Cameron 1982: 243–245). Thus, he presented himself as a partisan of the philosophical monasticism (inevitably connected, more or less, with the Origenist tradition) and the Theotokos cult with strong anti-Nestorian inspiration.
These mutual links between Nonnus, Cyrus, Eudocia, and, finally, Daniel the Stylite—the further prophet Daniel of the epoch of Henotikon—could explain the stylistic kinship between Nonnus and Dionysius noticed by Averintsev. The author of the Corpus, if all these names are related to his own milieu, must be inspired by the Marial cult centred in Jerusalem (thus, implicitly opposed to the Marial cult of Ephesus) and having strong anti-Nestorian connotations, and, moreover, he must be an admirer of neoplatonic philosophy and of the poetry of Nonnus’ school. His asceticism is not exempt from the Evagrian influence, so transparent in the Corpus Areopagiticum and quite natural for the milieu of Eudocia (let us recall that Eudocia’s spiritual mother was Melania the Younger, the granddaughter of Melania the Elder who, in turn, was the spiritual mentor of Evagrius himself).
Such an identification of the milieu of origin of the Corpus is extremely favourable to the attribution to Peter Iberian.
There is no special need to attribute the very epithet “theandric” to Damascius who mention an Arabian god Theandrites (Life of Isidore, fr. 198; Griffith 1997: 241). The word is to be found already in Pindarus, Nemean Odes 4:10, who expressed intention to sing “Theandrides” (Θεανδρίδαισι). The word itself was nothing but a common legacy of the Ancient Greek culture.
The only interesting aspect seems here its Christological use considered as unprecedented before Areopagite’s Letter 4. Here Dionysius says that, in Christ, “God became male” (ἀνδρωθέντος θεοῦ) and “lived among us according to a certain new theandric energy”.
There is a precedent of such Christological formula in the Gospel paraphrase ascribed to Nonnus. Here, the author uses the term “God male” (θεὸς ἀνήρ) when one could anticipate “God man” (θεὸς ἄνθρωπος): there are two occurrences, 1:39 and 1:157, with no occurrence of “God man.” This terminology of the Gospel paraphrase has, I think, its own conceptual background in opposing to the perverse androgyny of the god Dionysus of another Nonnus’ poem and of the corresponding late Roman cult of Dionysus. Probably, even the apparent correspondence of the names between Dionysus and Dionysius is not a mere coincidence. (Cf., on these topics, Lourié 2001). Be that as it may, it is clear that Dionysius’ idea of God as “male” and the corresponding term “theandric energy” has its conceptual (Christological) precedent in the poetry of the Gospel paraphrase, while its wording is going back to a very remote Greek poetic tradition.
Let us recall that the Christology of the Gospel paraphrase has strong anti-Nestorian overtones, and its exegesis is depending on Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentaries on the Gospel of John (Grillmeier/Hainthaler 2004). Therefore, this text was conceptually close to the milieu of Dionysius.