home   :    ancient Greece   :   index    :    article by Jona Lendering ©

Apollonius of Tyana

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus. Archaeological museum of Izmir (Turkey).
Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus (Izmir)
The charismatic teacher and miracle worker Apollonius lived in the first century AD. He was born in Tyana and may have belonged to a branch of ancient philosophy called neo-Pythagoreanism. He received divine honors in the third century. Although the Athenian sophist (professional orator) Philostratus wrote a lengthy Life of Apollonius, hardly anything about the sage is certain. However, there are several bits and pieces of information that may help us reconstruct something of the life of this man, who was and is frequently compared to the Jewish sage and miracle worker Jesus of Nazareth.
Philostratus' Life of Apollonius
Local traditions
Apollonius' Letters
Apollonius' books
Maximus of Aegae
Damis of Nineveh
Evaluation of the sources
'Divine men'
Magic in what sense?

Philostratus' Life of Apollonius

The longest and most important source on the life of Apollonius is a vie romancée by the Athenian author Philostratus (c.170-c.245 CE). It describes the sage of Tyana as a superhuman, neo-Pythagorean philosopher who tried to reform cultic practices in modern Greece, Turkey and Syria. We learn that he had several disciples, traveled extensively, met important Roman officials (a.o. the emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian), and discussed with several other philosophers. The author of the Life of Apollonius (LoA) takes a special stand against the accusation that the man from Tyana had been a magician and stresses that the miracles that Apollonius performed were the result of his superior knowledge, not of wizardry (summary).
The aqueduct of Tyana. Photo Jona Lendering.
The center of Tyana

The LoA is not a biography in our sense. It is written by a professional orator who wanted to show that the divine Apollonius was above all a champion of the Greek culture and a wise philosopher. Unfortunately, Philostratus had little affinity with philosophy; when the sage of Tyana speaks his words of wisdom, they are very hackneyed (e.g., an emperor must act as emperor as far as his imperial duties require, but as a private citizen as far as his own person is concerned) or even silly (e.g., although the soul wants to ascend to heaven, mountaineering does not bring it closer to God). Philostratus' lack of interest in philosophy and his own preoccupation with rhetoric, make the LoA a very unreliable source, as was already recognized by the Byzantine scholar Photius (more...).

However, it is possible -but difficult- to study the sources of Philostratus' book and try to see a little bit more of the true Apollonius. Philostratus mentions several sources:

Finally, he refers to the Memorabilia of Apollonius of Tyana, magician and philosopher, written by one Moeragenes. According to Philostratus, this book is utterly unreliable because its author does not know enough about the man from Tyana.

In this article, we will try to analyze the pre-Philostratean traditions and try to find out which parts of the LoA antedate Philostratus. When these older accounts are independent from each other and in agreement, we may assume that they contain some element of historical truth. The result will be a portrait of Apollonius rather different from the one offered by Philostratus.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 1998
Revision: 30 Oct. 2011

Part two

 home   :    ancient Greece   :   index