The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, by Philostratus, tr. F.C. Conybeare, , at sacred-texts.com
The Life of Apollonius of Tyana has only been once translated in its entirety into English, as long ago as the year 1811, by an Irish clergyman of the name of E. Berwick. It is to be hoped therefore that the present translation will be acceptable to the English reading public; for there is in it much that is very good reading, and it is lightly written. Of its author, Philostratus, we do not know much apart from his own works, from which we may gather that he was born in the island of Lemnos about the year 172 of our era, that he went to Athens as a young man to study rhetoric, and later on to Rome. Here he acquired a reputation as a sophist, and was drawn into what we may call the salon of the literary and philosophic Empress Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus. She put into his hands certain memoirs of Apollonius, the sage of Tyana, who had died in extreme old age nearly
[paragraph continues] 100 years before during the reign of the Emperor Nerva, and she begged him to use them for the composition of a literary life of the sage in question. These memoirs had been composed by a disciple and companion of Apollonius named Damis, a native of the city of Nineveh, whose style, Philostratus says, like that of most Syrian Greeks, was heavy and wanting in polish. Besides these memoirs Philostratus used for his work a history of the career of Apollonius at Aegae, written by an admirer of the name of Maximus. He also used the many letters of Apollonius which were in circulation. His collection of these agreed partly, but not wholly, with those which are preserved to us and translated below. He tells us further that the Emperor Hadrian had a collection of these letters in his villa at Antium. Philostratus also possessed various treatises of Apollonius which have not come down to us. Beside making use of the written sources here enumerated Philostratus had travelled about, not only to Tyana, where there was a temple specially dedicated to the cult of Apollonius, but to other cities where the sage's memory was held in honour, in order to collect such traditions of the sage as he found still current. From these sources then the work before us was drawn, for although Philostratus
also knew the four books of a certain Moeragenes upon Apollonius, he tells us he paid no attention to them, because they displayed an ignorance of many things which concerned the sage. The learned Empress seems never to have lived to read the work of Philostratus, for it is not dedicated to her and cannot have been published before the year 217.
It has been argued that the work of Damis never really existed, and that he was a mere man of straw invented by Philostratus. This view was adopted as recently as the year 1910 by Professor Bigg, in his history of the origins of Christianity. But it seems unnecessarily sceptical. It is quite true that Philostratus puts into the mouth of the sage, on the authority of Damis, conversations and ideas which, as they recur in the Lives of the Sophists of Philostratus, can hardly have been reported by Damis. But because he resorted to this literary trick, it by no means follows that all the episodes which he reports on the authority of Damis are fictitious, for many of them possess great verisimilitude and can hardly have been invented as late as the year 217, when the life was completed and given to the literary world. It is rather to be supposed that Damis himself was not altogether a credible writer, but one who, like the so-called
aretalogi of that age, set himself to embellish the life of his master, to exaggerate his wisdom and his supernatural powers; if so, more than one of the striking stories told by Philostratus may have already stood in the pages of Damis.
However this be, the evident aim of Philostratus is to rehabilitate the reputation of Apollonius, and defend him from the charge of having been a charlatan or wizard addicted to evil magical practices. This accusation had been levelled against the sage during his life-time by a rival sophist Euphrates, and not long after his death by the author already mentioned, Moeragenes. Unfortunately the orations of Euphrates have perished, and we know little of the work of Moeragenes. Origen, the Christian father, in his work against Celsus, written about the year 240, informs us that he had read it, and that it attacked Apollonius as a magician addicted to sinister practices. It is certain also that the accusations of Euphrates were of similar tendency, and we only need to read a very few pages of this work of Philostratus to see that his chief interest is to prove to the world that these accusations were ill-founded, and that Apollonius was a divinely-inspired sage and prophet, and a reformer along Pythagorean lines of the Pagan
religion. It is possible that some of the stories told by Byzantine writers of Apollonius, notably by John Tzetzes, derive from Moeragenes.
The story of the life of Apollonius as narrated by Philostratus is briefly as follows. He was born towards the beginning of the Christian era at Tyana, in Cappadocia, and his birth was attended according to popular tradition with miracles and portents. At the age of sixteen he set himself to observe in the most rigid fashion the almost monastic rule ascribed to Pythagoras, renouncing wine, rejecting the married estate, refusing to eat any sort of flesh, and in particular condemning the sacrifice of animals to the gods, which in the ancient world furnished the occasion, at any rate for the poor people, of eating meat. For we must not forget that in antiquity hardly any meat was eaten which had not previously been consecrated by sacrifice to a god, and that consequently the priest was the butcher of a village and the butcher the priest. Like other votaries of the Neo-Pythagorean philosophy or discipline, Apollonius went without shoes or only wore shoes of bark, he allowed his hair to grow long, and never let a razor touch his chin, and he took care to wear on his person nothing but linen, for it was accounted by him, as by Brahmans, an impurity to allow any
dress made of the skin of dead animals to touch the person. Before long he set himself up as a reformer, and betaking himself to the town of Aegae, he took up his abode in the temple of Aesculapius, where he rapidly acquired such a reputation for sanctity that sick people flocked to him asking him to heal them. On attaining his majority, at the death of his father and mother, he gave up the greater part of his patrimony to his elder brother, and what was left to his poor relations. He then set himself to spend five years in complete silence, traversing, it would seem, Asia Minor, in all directions, but never opening his lips. The more than Trappist vow of silence which he thus enforced upon himself seems to have further enhanced his reputation for holiness, and his mere appearance on the scene was enough to hush the noise of warring factions in the cities of Cilicia and Pamphylia. If we may believe his biographer he professed to know all languages without ever having learned them, to know the inmost thoughts of men, to understand the language of birds and animals, and to have the power of predicting the future. He also remembered his former incarnation, for he shared the Pythagorean belief of the migrations of human souls from body to body, both of animals and of human beings. He preached
a rigid asceticism, and condemned all dancing and other diversions of the kind; he would carry no money on his person and recommended others to spend their money in the relief of the poorer classes. He visited Persia and India, where he consorted with the Brahmans; he subsequently visited Egypt, and went up the Nile in order to acquaint himself with those precursors of the monks of the Thebaid called in those days the Gymnosophists or naked philosophers. He visited the cataracts of the Nile, and returning to Alexandria held long conversations with Vespasian and Titus soon after the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the latter. He had a few years before, in the course of a visit to Rome, incurred the wrath of Nero, whose minister Tigellinus however was so intimidated by him as to set him at liberty. After the death of Titus he was again arrested, this time by the Emperor Domitian, as a fomenter of sedition, but was apparently acquitted. He died at an advanced age in the reign of Nerva, who befriended him; and according to popular tradition he ascended bodily to heaven, appearing after death to certain persons who entertained doubts about a future life.
Towards the end of the third century when the struggle between Christianity and decadent Paganism
had reached its last and bitterest stage, it occurred to some of the enemies of the new religion to set up Apollonius, to whom temples and shrines had been erected in various parts of Asia Minor, as a rival to the founder of Christianity. The many miracles which were recorded of Apollonius, and in particular his eminent power over evil spirits or demons, made him a formidable rival in the minds of Pagans to Jesus Christ. And a certain Hierocles, who was a provincial governor under the Emperor Diocletian, wrote a book to show that Apollonius had been as great a sage, as remarkable a worker of miracles, and as potent an exorcist as Jesus Christ. His work gave great offence to the missionaries of the Christian religion, and Eusebius the Christian historian wrote a treatise in answer, in which he alleges that Apollonius was a mere charlatan, and if a magician at all, then one of very inferior powers; he also argues that if he did achieve any remarkable results, it was thanks to the evil spirits with whom he was in league. Eusebius is careful, however, to point out that before Hierocles, no anti-Christian writer had thought of putting forward Apollonius as the rival and equal of Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible of course that Hierocles took his cue from the Emperor Alexander Severus (A.D. 205-235), who instead of setting up
images of the gods in his private shrine, established therein, as objects of his veneration, statues of Alexander the Great, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, Abraham, and Christ. This story however in no way contradicts the statement of Eusebius, and it is a pity that this significant caution of the latter has been disregarded by Christian writers of the last three centuries, who have almost unanimously adopted a view that is utterly unwarrantable, namely, that Philostratus intended his life of Apollonius as a counterblast to that of the Christian gospel. The best scholars of the present generation are opposed to this view, for they realise that demoniac possession was a common feature in the ancient landscape, and that the exorcist driving demons out of afflicted human beings by use of threats and invocations of mysterious names was as familiar a figure in old Pagan society as he was in the early church.
We read that wherever Apollonius travelled, he visited the temples, and undertook to reform the cults which he there found in vogue. His reform seems to have consisted in this, that he denounced as derogatory to the gods the practice of sacrificing to them animal victims and tried to persuade the priests to abandon it. In this respect he prepared the ground for Christianity and was working along
the same lines as many of the Christian missionaries. In the third century Porphyry the philosopher and enemy of Christianity was as zealous in his condemnation of blood-offerings, as Apollonius had been in the first. Unquestionably the neo-Pythagorean propaganda did much to discredit ancient paganism, and Apollonius and its other missionaries were all unwittingly working for that ideal of bloodless sacrifice which, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple, by an inexorable logic imposed itself on the Christian Church.
It is well to conclude this all too brief notice of Apollonius with a passage cited by Eusebius 1 from his lost work concerning sacrifice. There is no good reason for doubting its authenticity, and it is an apt summary of his religious belief:—
"In no other manner, I believe, can one exhibit a fitting respect for the divine being, beyond any other men make sure of being singled out as an object of his favour and good-will, than by refusing to offer to God whom we termed First, who is One and separate from all, as subordinate to whom we must recognise all the rest, any victim at ail; to Him we must not kindle fire or make promise unto him of any sensible
object whatsoever. For He needs nothing even from beings higher than ourselves. Nor is there any plant or animal which earth sends up or nourishes, to which some pollution is not incident. We should make use in relation to him solely of the higher speech, I mean of that which issues not by the lips; and from the noblest of beings we must ask for blessings by the noblest faculty we possess, and that faculty is intelligence, which needs no organ. On these principles then we ought not on any account to sacrifice victims to the mighty and supreme God."
The text followed by the translator is that of C. L. Kayser, issued by B. G. Teubner, at Leipzic in 1870.
1:xvi:1 Eusebius, On the Preparation for the Gospel, Bk. iv. Ch. 13.