Following the fervor of studies aroused in the century. III both by Neoplatonic philosophers and scholars and by Christian theologians, we are presented in the century. IV a rich literary flourishing, which is usually expressed in the forms of eloquence – declamations, exhortations, speeches in general – and is connected with the new sophistry, of which it is, in a certain way, the latest offshoot. To this sophistry of the century. IV, which takes place above all in the East, the pagans as well as the Christians take part: on the one hand Imerius, Themistius, Libanius, Julian; on the other hand, Athanasius, Basilio, Gregory of Nazianzo, Gregory of Nyssa, Giovanni Crisostomo, etc. In all of them the attention to language and style, the luxury of images, the observance of rhetoric are common features. Everyone let themselves be conquered by the love of beautiful form. Contact with classical sources, to which not only Neo-Platonists but also Christians adhered in their conciliation efforts, has come to spread the disease of imitation, the study more of words than of things. Of course, there are those in whom strong thoughts and feelings are not lacking. In particular, Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nazianzo, Basilio, etc., are pervaded by a spiritual fervor that has no comparison in the past and that derives from the new faith. But even they are harmed by awe towards classical models and the norms of rhetoric; for the most part they do not know how to escape the prejudices of the school; they put their new wine in the old traditional wineskins. Hence Christian literature, while containing the seeds of a more fertile life, he did not succeed in creating anything truly autonomous and original; and it must be closely linked with contemporary secular literature. Which was dominated by the exaltation of the past and the apology of paganism. Its characteristics are especially signified to us by Libanius of Antioch (324-393), a very representative character of the Greek East, teacher of rhetoric, lecturer, panegyrist, advisor and friend of the emperor Julian. His very wide production, composed of epistles and speeches of all kinds, is important to let us know the conditions, trends, customs of the time, not only in the literary field, yes also in the political and religious one. The main reasons are the admiration for the great writers of antiquity, from the cult for all the memories and manifestations of Hellenism, which are to be restored and defended against the threats of Christianity and barbarism. But, in the adorned and stylized form of Libanius’s speeches, these motifs – which even belonged to contemporary reality and were sincerely dreamed of by the author – seem empty rhetorical aspirations: the soul, which is somewhat pedantic and swathed with rhetorical habits, is not he responds with quite vigorous and effective impressions. Instead, we find a very profound correspondence in the energetic and brilliant personality of the emperor Julian the Apostate (321-363), a disciple of Libanius, as well as of Iamblichus; who, moving from Neoplatonic principles, tried to translate into action, by force, the program of the pagan restoration. Self, on the ground of reality, Julian’s dream fell miserably, but he managed to express in his writings, with rare effectiveness, the torments of his struggling spirit. Everything that in others was or seemed the object of pure literary contemplation and almost empty rhetorical declamation acquires an exceptional value in Giuliano; it is passion in which he has committed his being, blood of his blood, life of his life. So, while usually adopting the forms and thoughts of contemporary sophistry (as it does in the series of Discourses), he leaves the domain of the conventional and the mediocre; in particular, then, in satirical compositions, such as the Misopogone and the Caesars, he finds the most suitable expression to interpret the contrasts of his soul and the crisis of his century: a century that struggled with the impossibility of reconciling form and content, the cult of the past and the demands of the new spirit.
According to SOURCEMAKEUP, some other personalities still appear from time to time, such as that of Synesius of Cyrene (370-413), who, after being a disciple of the famous Neoplatonic martyr Hypatia, passed in the last years of his life from Neoplatonism to Christianity, distinguishing himself as bishop of Ptolemais. In him the elegances of the sophisticated and classical culture are united with a certain breadth of ideas and depth of feeling, which is expressed above all in the series of Hymns and in the large collection of Letters.
However, it is clear that Greek literature could not have been maintained except by restoring faith in those principles and ideals that had given it nourishment from within. The inanity of Julian’s attempt shows us how even Greek literature is finished. Everything that continues to occur after then, extending throughout the century. V up to Justinian (with which the term extreme is usually marked), is generally only the effect of formal imitation or of erudite and archaeological care.
In the field of formal imitation, there are some notable attempts to revive the ancient epic; hence mythological and heroic poems are born, of great breadth, such as the Dionysiacs of Nonno di Panopoli (poet and thinker who from Orphic and Neoplatonic mysticism, widely expressed in this composition, later passed to Christianity, and also gave a paraphrase in verses of the Gospel di Giovanni), the Postomeric of Quintus Smyrnaeus, and other minor ones, such as the Conquest of Ilio by Trifiodoro, the Rape of Helenby Colluto. These attempts are naturally connected with the program of the Neoplatonists, who, as they aimed to reconstruct and justify, both rationally and mystically, the edifice of polytheism, so above all put Homer’s poetry back into vogue.
But now, rather than reliving and imitating the glories of ancient Greece, it was necessary to preserve the memory threatened by the decline of studies. Then the manuals, the abstracts, the encyclopedias, destined to collect and pass on the treasures of the classical heritage, come in great vogue. These erudite understandings are mixed with the philosophical, religious and poetic inclinations in the last sample of Neoplatonism, Proclus of Athens (410-485), a great figure of teacher, who with his varied activity, composed of theological treatises, hymns, comments to Plato, of literary crestomacies, with his whole thought enthusiastically aimed at exalting and renewing the spirit of Hellas, seems to conclude in a very significant way the long splendid cycle of Hellenic literature. Proclus practiced his teaching in Athens, at the head of a school that traced its origins to Plato, Aristotle, etc. He was again succeeded by Damascio and Simplicius (commentator of Aristotle). In 529 the emperor Justinian ordered the closing of the school of Athens. Not in Athens, not in Rome, but in Byzantium it was the center of a new civilization which, breaking the union of the Roman Empire, had long been preparing the formation of the new literature: Byzantine literature.