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Apamea and the Chaldean Oracles (1)

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01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

12 Assyrian Identity

12 Assyrian Identity

03 Religious festivals, cults, rituals and practices

11 Language, communication, libraries and education

Roman Empire
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Both archaeological surveys and late antique literary sources suggest that the oracular temple of Bel in Apamea dominated the market place of the city. Its sheer size and splendour conveyed the omnipotence of the cosmic god who dwelt in it. Bel, meanining ‘Lord’, was an epithet of the Babylonian storm god Adad, who was also a god of oracles. Proclus identified him with the Twice-Beyond, the creative principle of the Chaldean Oracles and a central divinity of the system in both theological and philosophical terms. In addition, there are connections of the philosophical system expounded in the Oracles with that of Numenius of Apamea.

The continuing influence of Babylonian religious culture to Syria was reinvigorated in Hellenistic times, when ‘Chaldean’ as a technical term acquired wide notoriety. Besides the wandering diviners, the term denoted a local priestly caste involved with the cult of Bel. The huge monuments to Bel in the territories of Palmyra and Apamea indicate that the ‘Chaldeans’ perpetuated a venerable tradition firmly rooted in pre-Seleucid Babylon, and it is within this context that the inscription KLDY from Roman Palmyra should be read as ‘Chaldeans’. The title of Apamean priests of Bel is not known, but their involvement with the intellectual life of the town is epigraphically attested. A caste of hereditary priests continued the Babylonian tradition of enthusiastic divination, through which the oracles of the Apamean Bel enjoyed high credence in the Roman Empire, until the priest Julian the Theurgist produced a collection of Chaldean Oracles, a revelation in the theological idiom of the region and of the times and yet firmly rooted in the millennial Babylonian tradition.

The crucial piece of evidence linking the Apamean Bel with the Chaldean Oracles is found in the lines of a Greek inscription on an altar dedicated to the god by a certain Sextus in far away Vaison-la-Romaine (Vasio): ‘To the ruler of fortune Belus, Sextus dedicated an altar in remembrance of the Apamean oracles.’ Whether the dedicator of the inscription is Sextus Varius Marcellus of Apamea, the father of Elagabal, or some soldier, it is extremely likely that the phrase ‘the logia at Apamea’ refers to a collection of oracles which was to become universally known as ‘the Chaldean Oracles’.

Among the later Neo-Platonists who became associated with Apamea were the westener Amelius, and the Syrian Iamblichus. Amelius espoused the theology of the Oracles and interpreted Plato along its lines. The Syrian Iamblichus based himself in Apamea as an exegete of the mysteries of the Beyond, and gathered around him students from all over Mediterranean world. He also wrote a commentary on the Chaldean Oracles that is now lost. These two leading Platonists settled in Apamea probably because they were attracted by an archive of sacred verses in the temple of Bel. Apamean temple was regarded by the Christians as a particularly important pagan symbol and a major scandal. The gigantic edifice was destructed by Bishop Marcellus in 380s.


Athanassiadi 1999, 153-156Athanassiadi, Polymnia. “The Chaldean Oracles: Theology and Theurgy.” In: P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede (eds.). Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1999, 149-183.

Links (external links will open in a new browser window)
Cf. Adad as the greatest god (1)
Cf. Proclus on the Chaldaean Oracles (1)

Amar Annus

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