Twin Venuses: A Diachronic Approach

Photo: Gustave Moreau, Aphrodite, 1871, Fogg Art Museum

Twin Venuses: A Diachronic Approach

By Achilleas A. Stamatiadis


Plato’s Symposium, composed around 385 BCE,[1] is about the nature of love. Pausanias, the second speaker in the dialogue, distinguishes between two aspects of the goddess Venus: Venus Urania and Venus Pandemos.[2] In later works of western literature, this distinction led to the concepts of Heavenly and Terrestrial love. This essay focuses on two writers who used the Twin Venuses in their work:[3] the Renaissance humanist Marsilio Ficino, and the Victorian-era poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, both of whom utilized and developed the Platonic model. In particular, this essay will discuss Ficino’s Commentarium in Convivium Platonis (1475 CE) and Tennyson’s poem Lucretius (1868 CE).

Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Urania are introduced at the beginning of the Symposium (180c-181d). Pausanias in his speech associates them with two discrete types of love.[4] The first type, associated with Pandemos,[5] is base love, a profane type under the influence of which the lover seeks only sexual gratification, ‘ἐρῶσι τῶν σωμάτων μᾶλλον ἢ τῶν ψυχῶν’(181b). The second type of love, related to heavenly Aphrodite Urania, encourages us to love honorably ‘καλῶς προτρέπων ἐρᾶν’ (181a). Moreover, love under the influence of Urania concerns honoring both a partner’s soul ‘τῶν ψυχῶν’ (181b) and wisdom.[6] As Socrates notes, philosophers ought to pursue the second type of love.[7]

Plato’s concept of the Twin Venuses was adopted by Marsilio Ficino, a distinguished Renaissance humanist. Ficino mentions that annually on November 7th a banquet was held to commemorate Plato’s birthday. Consistent with this tradition, the Neoplatonic Academy of Ficino met in 1475 CE at the Villa Medicea di Careggi in the Florentine hills.[8]The participants imitated the original structure of Plato’s Symposium in which a group of nine notable Athenian men gathered at Agathon’s house to discuss the subject of ‘eros’. Ficino’s so-called ‘Academy’ consisted of nine members: Diotifeci Ficino, the physician; Christophoro Landino, the poet; Antonio Agli, the Bishop of Fiesole; Bernardo Nuzzi, the rhetorician; Tomasso Benci, Giovanni Cavalcanti, the two Marsuppini brothers Christophoro and Carlo and finally Bandini.[9] After Bernardo Nuzzi read the Symposium in its entirety, each humanist provided an explanation of one of the Symposium speeches they had heard.

In Agli’s speech, which concerns Pausanias’ distinction of the twin Venuses, the Bishop makes important observations about the so-called double nature of Venus.[10] Agli associates Venus Urania with the Plotinian concept of the Angelic Mind and Venus Pandemos with the Plotinian concept of the World-Soul.[11] Both Ficino and Agli were influenced by the philosopher Plotinus. They conceived of the universe as divided into five levels, namely, The One, Mind, Soul, Body and Formless Matter.[12] These levels correspond in their Christian adaptation to God, Angelic Intelligences, Soul, Body, and Evil, which corresponds to the Plotinian realm of Formless Matter.[13] Agli associates Aphrodite Urania with the second highest level of Plotinus, the Angelic Mind. Conversely, he associates Aphrodite Pandemos with the Plotinian realm of the ‘Soul’ or ‘World Soul’ which is only one level higher than ‘Evil’ and ‘Formless Matter’,[14] the lowest level in the Plotinian hierarchy. The influence of Plotinian ideas on Ficino and his circle has been attested by several scholars.[15] Ficino himself published the complete works of Plotinus in 1492 CE,[16] seventeen years after his Commentarium in Convivium Platonis.[17]

Agli’s speech provides valuable information on how the Renaissance received Plato’s Twin Venuses.  The prevalence in Renaissance literature of a Heavenly Venus, who is divine, and a Terrestrial Venus, who is closer to material things, manifests the distinct nature of two different types of love. Once we appreciate that Heavenly love is a non-bodily love while Terrestrial love is related to body, form and matter, we can better understand Ficino’s fascination with Heavenly love as described by Diotima in Plato’s Symposium.[18] It is clear from a letter Ficino sent to Bernardo del Nero and Antonio Manetti that people had been ‘led astray’ in his time by bodily or terrestrial conceptions of love. Therefore Ficino proposes that non-bodily love as envisioned by Diotima ought to be revived through close study of his Commentarium in Convivium Platonis. Such close study will enable the attentive reader to progress from the love of beautiful bodies to that of beautiful souls and further to a contemplation of the idea of beauty itself.[19] From a contemplation of the idea of beauty itself, Ficino believes that beautiful actions in the realm of politics, lawmaking and philosophy, similar to those described by Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, will ensue.[20] This particular type of love would as ‘a cure’ heal the souls of Renaissance men of letters, thus leading them towards acts of virtue.[21]

The concept of Urania and Pandemos,[22] prevalent in art and literature during the 18th century,[23] remained so in Britain during the Victorian era, not least in Lucretius, a lengthy poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson published in 1868. Tennyson’s poem describes the sufferings of the Roman philosopher Lucretius at the end of his life. The poem was in fact based on an ancient source, albeit a questionable one.[24] In the poem, Lucilla, Lucretius’ wife, becomes ‘wrathful’ upon seeing her husband so ‘cold’, with his mind ‘half buried in some heavier argument’ as he re-reads the Epicurean scrolls, which writings he considered divine. Lucilla imagines there is ‘some rival’ for her husband’s affection. Such is her jealousy that she seeks help from a witch to prepare a ‘philtre’[25] which she is told would have the power to ‘lead an errant passion home again’. When Lucretius drinks this potion he behaves as if he were possessed by Aphrodite Pandemos. He starts dreaming of ‘Hetairai’, and then again of:

‘The breasts of Helen, and hoveringly a sword

Now over and now under, now direct,

Pointed itself to pierce…’

These nightmares, at odds with Epicurean teachings, made Lucretius, according to Tennyson, feel utterly ashamed, and ultimately led to the poet-philosopher’s suicide.[26]  Interestingly, as we read in Martin’s biography, Tennyson himself was preoccupied with what he saw as dangerous sexual license around the time the poem was composed.[27] Throughout his life, Martin explains, and inreasingly as he grew older, Tennyson held a prudish attitude towards sex.[28] As with Ficino, the bifurcative Platonic model of the Twin Venuses gave Tennyson a symbol for expressing his concerns about contemporary society.

Like Ficino in Florence, Tennyson was preoccupied by what he saw as the appalling state of morals in London around the time he wrote Lucretius.[29] Unlike Ficino, however, who chose to rectify this state of morals by reminding his fellow Humanists of a ‘Heavenly’ appreciation of Beauty and the Good via Diotima’s dialogue with Socrates,[30] Tennyson chose another route. For Tennyson, the suicide of a philosopher who is destroyed by the intrusion of ‘overwhelming sexual passion’ into his rationalistic world[31] serves as a warning of where one’s excessive passions may lead.

Throughout this analysis, I have attempted to shed new light on how Plato’s bifurcative model of the Twin Venuses was applied to literary texts of different eras[32]. Such an analysis shows how later authors like Ficino and Tennyson tailored the use of Plato’s Twin Venuses to conform to their own personal aims and agendas.


Achilleas A. Stamatiadis holds an MA in Humanities (MAPH ‘21) from the University of Chicago. His MA thesis focuses both on Classical reception studies and Comparative literature.


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[1] See Dover (1965:2) who proposes 385/4 BCE as the likely date of Plato’s Symposium.

[2] Pausanias’s distinction is found in Plato’s Symposium 180d-181e. In much later contexts, the bifurcation described by Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium led to readings that came to be known as allegorical interpretations. Worton and Still (1990:12) emphasize how under such interpretations, each work of art says something other than what it means per se. The allegorical interpretation of Plato began with Philo Judaeus in the 1st c. CE and continued with Plotinus and Proclus in Neoplatonism, See Niehoff (2010:35-60), Kutash (2020: 128, 136-137, 148-49), and Struck (2010:58-59,66-70). See also Gale (1994:19-26) on allegory and allegorism.

[3] Referred to colloquially by Ficino in his Commentarium as ‘Geminae Venere’. See Sears (1944:191-192, 208). The term refers to Platonic Aphrodite Urania and Pandemos.

[4] For the classification of the supernatural in celestial and chthonian categories in classical times see Faraone (2004: 213-14). The origin of Pausanias’ distinction is likely apparent in ancient sources. Strauss (2001:62) notes that both Agathon and Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium were students of Prodicus. Perhaps one of the earliest instances of an exemplum resembling a philosophical dichotomy appears in Prodicus’s ‘Ὧραι’ in Diels (1922:270). It makes sense to me that the model of the Twin Venuses that Plato attributes to Pausanias of Athens in his dialogue, may have drawn philosophical inspiration from Prodicus’ exemplum of the choice of Hercules in the Seasons, ‘Ὧραι’. In fact, Plato in his Symposium (Plat. Sym. 177b) mentions the ‘eulogies of Hercules’ by Prodicus. If, at any rate, Schol. Aristoph. 361 in Diels (1922:271) is accurate, we may indeed surmise that Prodicus’ exemplum appeared in the Ὧραι before Plato’s Symposium and that Plato could have known of its existence.

[5] For an anthology of passages on Pandemos, See the Wachsmuth and Hense edition of Stobaeus’ Περὶ Ἀφροδίτης πανδήμου καὶ περὶ ἔρωτος τῶν κατὰ τὸ σῶμα ἡδονῶν (1909:434-457).

[6] In Paus.1.14.7 we read about Aphrodite Urania: ‘παρὰ δὲ Φοινίκων Κυθήριοι μαθόντες σέβουσιν·’ In fact, according to ancient sources like s. GArat.243 even the way Aphrodite was born alludes to Ishtar’s birth. The common attributes of Aphrodite and Ishtar have been pointed out by Faraone (1990: 220-29, esp. 235), S.L. Budin in Faraone (2006:59) and Vered Lev Kenaan in S. Pickup and A.C. Smith (2010:42-44). Burkert (1987:155) specifically connects Ishtar with Aphrodite Urania. Strabo mentions a cult of Aphrodite in Bosporan Phanagoria indicating a connection of the goddess with Heracles who came to her aid after she was attacked by Giants. It has been argued from epigraphy that the cult that Strabo describes was that of Aphrodite Urania. See D. Braund (2019:202-3, 269-70).

[7] This pursuit becomes a tenet of what is later known as Platonic philosophy. See Plato Sym.206e. In fact, as we read in Destrée (2017:59-62) the love of Aphrodite Urania is not only good, it’s also lawful. Good lovers are admonished to act ‘lawfully’ according to Pausanias.

[8] According to Robichaud, (2018:114), this tradition was preserved by Porphyry in his Life of Plotinus. In this biographical text, Porphyry reiterates the custom of commemorating Plato with a banquet.

[9] As Robichaud notes in, ibid. (p.115). all words spoken in the De Amore (also known as the Commentarium) are Ficino’s, even if he places them in the mouths of various interlocutors. It would be ‘naïve’, as Robichaud notes, to assume that “the text” is an exact historical representation of an actual conversation.

However, that does not preclude the possible historical reality of Florentine Symposia or that Ficino may have drawn inspiration for his De Amore by actual conversations with real historical persons.

[10] In Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, VII in J. Sears edition (1944:141-143), Ficino describes celestial Venus as an angelic spirit devoted to the perception of divine beauty, while earthly Venus produces beauty in the material world. Ficino explains that Pausanias disapproves of a type of love ‘too eager for procreation and not for contemplation’ ibid. (p.143).

[11] For Ficino, in fact, there were three worlds: “The first world made by God was the Angelic Mind, the second was the Soul of the Universe [soul of the world]; the third was this whole structure which we perceive sensibly.” J.S. Sears (1944:127). For a translation of Ficino’s ‘universi corporis anima’ as ‘soul of the world’ see J.A. Devereux (1969:162).

As Michael J.B. Allen puts it (1955:140-141): “The three worlds are the Plotinian hypostases Mind, Soul, and Body which Ficino identifies respectively with the Angelic Intelligence (mens angelica), the World-Soul (anima-mundi) and the World-Body (corpus/machina mundi).”

[12] Ada Palmer is an Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at UChicago’s Department of History and at the College. She’s also a Renaissance Studies Faculty Member. Her (2002:129-152) article “Lux Dei: Ficino and Aquinas on the Beatific Vision” elucidates Plotinus’s influence on Ficino’s thought. Agli, as a member of Ficino’s circle, was undoubtedly  inspired by Plotinian ideas.

[13] Palmer (2002:135)

[14] See also M.J.B. Allen’s tripartite distinction of the worlds created by God in op.cit. (1955:141). Allen’s distinction helps us understand why the World-Soul is above the so-called World-Body plane.

[15] See for example Devereux (1969:170) who argues for a Plotinian influence on Ficino’s theory of love as well as Saffrey (1996: 488-89, 491-93).

[16] ‘Firstly, all of you came to hear the divine Plotinus, I urge you to consider that you are going to hear Plato himself speaking in the persona of Plotinus… It is altogether the same spirit which breathes both in the mouth of Plato and that of Plotinus…’ Robichaud (2014:112). Ficino’s Commentary on Plotinus, including a translation of the complete works of Plotinus, was published only 17 years after his Commentarium in Convivium Platonis.

According to Robichaud (2015:124) Ficino was already working on his Latin translation of Plotinus’s Enneads ca.1484-1486 CE. He revised this version of his translation for Lorenzo Medici in 1491 CE and eventually published his translation in 1492 CE.

[17]  See Palmer (2002:130, 131-134). The Enneads of Plotinus were published around the year 300-305 CE along with Porphyry’s biography of Plotinus. Some parts of these were translated into Latin by Marius Victorinus in the 4th c.CE and were also almost certainly known to Augustine according to J.Hankins and A. Palmer (2008:52). Apart from Aquinas, the Church Father Augustine, also influenced the works of Ficino as noted by Robichaud (2014:88-89). In fact, Robichaud further notes that Ficino used Augustine to accommodate Neoplatonists and Plotinus to Christianity.

[18] Op. cit., J.R.Sears (1944:238). In fact, the Symposium advances by way of a climactic structure as F.C. White notes (2008:69). We need to ‘pass’ through the conceptual stage of the speech of Pausanias of Athens to gradually ‘conceptually ascend’ to that of Diotima’s dialogue with Socrates.

[19] According to F.C. White’s interpretation of Plato’s Symposium, this is achieved because “The true lover unities with Beauty, holds it in his embrace and begets true virtue” see White (2004: 374).

[20] Plat.Sym. 209A1-212Α7. 

[21] The importance of virtue for the Florentine society is highlighted by J.Hankins (2019: 98-103).

[22] In Proclus, this distinction becomes that of Demonic Aphrodite (Pandemos) and Celestial (Urania) Aphrodite. See Lankila (2009:21-31). See also Remes and Griffin (2014:168-169) for an account of how Pausanias’ distinction has influenced Plotinus.

[23] See Hadzstis (1935:317-332) and Gay (1967:459-473).

[24] The likely source of Tennyson could have been Jerome: an. Abr. 1923 (=660/94), See Pierrepont – Houghton (1950: 13-14) who notes that Tennyson seems to have gathered ‘several facts or traditions’ about Lucretius in his poem. As Palmer has shown in (2014:104-108) this account of ‘Jerome’ is not in fact attributed to ‘Jerome’ but to Eusebius. Furthermore, the scholar notes that there is great controversy about the actual Eusebius-Jerome source itself, see Palmer (2014: esp.127-129, 133-139). The scholar devotes a whole chapter of her book (2014:140-191) to explain misinterpretations of the Eusebius-Jerome source by Lucretius’ biographers from the 1490s through the end of the sixteenth century. See also Wilkinson (1949:47-48) who suggested, as Palmer does (ibid.:127-129), that the fates of Lucretius and Lucullus were confused by Jerome or his source when asserting that Lucretius died from a love potion.

[25] The ‘topos’ of a philtre is traditionally associated with sorcery and commonly appears in ancient Greek novels (Ach.Tat.5.22., Heliodorus 3.16). For a discussion of the magical properties of ‘philtra’ see Winkler in Faraone (1991:214-243).

[26] “Thus―thus: the soul flies out and dies in the air.” Ricks (1987:720). See Segal (2016: esp.44-49, 50-73) for a discussion of a “wind-scattered soul” in Lucretius’ book III.

[27] See Martin (1980:481).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Martin, op.cit.

[30] Ficino in fact has often used Platonic teachings to provide moral guidance to several leaders of his time. See Rees (2002:342-343,346-348,350-52). By understanding the idea of ‘the Good’ humans can reach the absolute summit of a philosophical life according to Plato. In his essay, ‘Greek conceptions of Immortality from Homer to Plato’ Herbert Weir Smyth (1912:284) describes the effects of such an understanding: ‘As the immortal part of us, the soul can gain through purification, through moral asceticism, the beatific vision which is its ultimate goal. Since man in his essential nature is divine his higher purpose is to become like unto God. To pass through the gates of death is to attain to the Supreme Good.’ In a passage by Ficino’s Summary of Hippias quoted by Rees (2009:87) we once again understand how a contemplation of Beauty relates to the Good: “Beauty is nothing other than the splendour of the highest good, shining in those things which are perceived by the eyes, ears and mind…From this it comes about that beauty is a circle of divine light, emanating from the Good, abiding in the Good, and forever turned back towards the Good by means of the Good.’

[31] As Martin puts it in (1980 :479).

[32] I used the term ‘diachronic’ in my essay’s title to denote an approach focusing on evolution and development through time. For an analysis of ‘diachrony’ as a model for studying the cultural structures of traditions, see Nagy in González (2015: esp.235-37, 238-40).