|home : ancient Greece : index : article by Jona Lendering ©|
Apollonius of Tyana
|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
This is the sixth part of an article in nine pieces.
Maximus of Aegae
Damis of Nineveh
Evaluation of the sources
Magic in what sense?
claims to have had access to the memoirs of one of Apollonius' followers
when he wrote his Life
of Apollonius (LoA). The empress Julia
Domna had brought this booklet to his notice, and Philostratus'
states that his aim was just 'to recast and edit Damis' essays, paying
attention to the style and diction of them' (LoA 1.2).
This sounds quite plausible, but many modern scholars think the memoirs of the Assyrian disciple are a literary fiction. This is not impossible. Neo-Pythagoreans were quite capable of fabricating 'old' texts. But the possibility that 'Damis' is a fabrication, does not mean that is a fraud. We can overestimate the extent of Philostratus' creativity.
Philostratus writes that Apollonius met his disciple in a town called Ninos, which is the usual Greek name for the ancient city that once had been the capital of the legendary Assyrian empire, Nineveh [note 7]. The author of the LoA maintains that Damis remained with his master until the end of his life on earth (LoA 1.19 and 8.28). However, he is only present in Philostratus' narrative during Apollonius' voyages to India, Egypt and Hispania, and during the second visit to Rome. Damis is conspicuously absent from the stories about the first trip to Rome and Apollonius' travels in Greece and Asia Minor. This suggests that Philostratus interpreted his orders to rewrite the memoirs of Damis in a rather broad sense, adding stories he had heard in the Greek mainland and in towns like Ephesus, Tyana, Aegae and Antioch. It does not prove, however, that the memoirs of Damis did not exist.
There are very strong indications that the Scraps from the manger contained information that Philostratus found embarrassing. For example, Damis mentions that Apollonius wrote a book On astrology; as we have seen above, Philostratus was skeptical about its existence, because he did not like magic (LoA 3.41). Related is the example of Apollonius' predictions of the year of the three emperors, which causes Philostratus to write
That he was enabled to make such forecasts by some divine impulse, and that it is no sound inference to infer (as some people do) that our hero was a wizard, is clear from what I have already said. But let us consider these facts also: wizards, whom for my part I reckon to be the most unfortunate of mankind, claim to alter the course of destiny by having recourse either to the torture of lost spirits or to barbaric sacrifices, or to certain incantations or anointings; and many of them when accused of such practices have admitted that they were adepts in such practices. But Apollonius submitted himself to the decrees of the Fates, and only foretold that things must come to pass; and his foreknowledge was gained not by wizardry, but from what the gods revealed to him. (LoA 5.12)The same apology can be found in LoA 7.39, where Philostratus repeats his argument that Apollonius was not a wizard or a magician, but performed his supernatural acts (i.c., miraculously striking a fetter off his leg) because he had a superior wisdom and deeper insights in the nature of the universe. It is obvious that Philostratus felt uncomfortable with the Scraps from the manger, and this makes it likely that a source -whatever its precise nature- did really exist. Of course it is imaginable that Philostratus invented a source to disagree with, but this is a bit too far-fetched, although there is one other example from Antiquity (the Historia Augusta).
There are several additional arguments for the existence of the Damis source.
When we accept the existence of Damis, we are not forced to believe that the historical Apollonius traveled all the way to India, Kush (modern Sudan) and Hispania. It merely proves that there was a second century pseudo-biography that claimed that the Tyanean had made these voyages.
We can understand why these fantasies were added: they must have served as a weapon in the intellectual discourse of the second century. The gymnosophists of Kush represent the Cynics, a popular school of Greek philosophy, and the Indian sages represent the Pythagoreans; since Apollonius is presented as correcting the gymnosophists, the message of the Scraps from the manger must have been that neo-Pythagoreanism was superior to Cynicism. Another polemic in the memoirs of Damis can be found in the story of the hostility between Apollonius and Euphrates: neo-Pythagoreanism defeats Stoicism. This conflict was hardly important in the age of Philostratus, and suggests that Damis -whatever its precise nature- was in fact composed at an earlier age.
It should be noted that the fact that the Scraps from the manger were given to Philostratus by the empress Julia Domna is significant too. She was born in a Syrian town named Emesa, which was famous for its cult for a sun god, Elagabal. Now it is very remarkable that the neo-Pythagorean sage who is described by Damis, worships the Sun. This element is almost absent from earlier pythagorean works but can be explained when we accept that 'Damis' was written in Emesa.
|Jona Lendering for
Revision: 2 June 2009