Evaluation of the sources
Having discussed what little we know about the pre-Philostratean traditions,
we can try to add things up, using four criteria of authenticity.
Using these criteria, we can say that the following elements are almost
Independent confirmation: when an author who is not primarily interested
in Apollonius confirms something in a source on Apollonius, we may assume
that we are approaching the historical truth.
Multiple attestation: when independent, pre-Philostratean traditions
about Apollonius are in agreement, we may be reasonably certain that they
contain some historical truth. The problem with this method is, of course,
that it is not always easy to establish independence.
Embarrassment: embarrassing information about the man from
Tyana also has a claim to historical reliability.
sometimes the truth of statement can be confirmed after
other facts have been established.
The following elements are likely:
Apollonius was considered
a magician. Independent confirmation: it is taken for
granted by Cassius
Dio, Lucian (the latter referring to a disciple) and Anastasius Sinaitica
to be found in the Reminiscences of Moeragenes, in the memoirs of
Damis, in the Letters of Apollonius, and in the Antiochene tradition.
Philostratus clearly felt uncomfortable with this, and three times offers
Apollonius performed healings.
confirmation: taken for granted by Cassius Dio, Lucian (both referring
to Apollonius' disciples) and Anastasius Sinaitica [note
8]. Fivefold attestation:
to be found in the infancy narrative
by Maximus of Aegae, in the Tyanean tradition, the story about the plague
in Ephesus, the story of the rabies patient in Tarsus, and in Damis.
Apollonius lived in the second half of the first
century. Independent confirmation: Lucian mentions a
disciple of Apollonius who lived in the first half of the second century.
Sixfold attestation: Moeragenes, Letters of Apollonius (especially
58, a consolation of a Roman governor
whose governorship can be dated in 82/83), Damis, Anastasius Sinaitica
[note 8], mentioned by one Domninus
[note 9]. Consistency:
must have been a contemporary of Euphrates of Tyre (and Domitian).
Apollonius was a neo-Pythagorean philosopher.
Independent attestation: Lucian, Life of Alexander. Fourfold
attestation: to be found in the Letters of Apollonius, implied
in the title of one Apollonius' publications, to be found in Damis, which
presupposes a conflict with Stoicism and Cynicism. Consistency:
the ideas expressed in the fragment of On sacrifices resemble what
is known of first century Pythagoreanism [note
Apollonius wrote a book On sacrifices.
This cannot be established by the criteria used, but it is quoted
Apollonius wrote a book On astrology. Twofold
attestation: On astrology is mentioned by Moeragenes and Damis.
Philostratus expresses his disbelief about the existence of On astrology.
The following elements may be very ancient elaborations:
Apollonius wrote a book on Pythagoras'
doctrines (or a biography). Independent confirmation: Probably
used by Iamblichus and Porphyry.
Apollonius traveled to India. Threefold
attestation: Damis, Letter 59, mentioned in Porphyry, The
Styx [note 11]. (Independent
confirmation from India remains possible.)
Apollonius traveled to Egypt. Twofold
attestation: Damis, John Malalas.
The following elements cannot be substantiated:
Apollonius could predict the future: Twofold
Mentioned in the Ephesian tradition and Damis. Embarrassment:
Philostratus tries to explain this away.
Euphrates of Tyre and Apollonius were quarreling.
Threefold attestation: To be found in the Letters of Apollonius;
Moeragenes and Damis tell the same story.
Apollonius tried to reform certain cultic practices.
Twofold attestation: First, there is the quote from On sacrifices;
furthermore, it is expressed in the Letters of Apollonius.
The story of Apollonius' vision of the murder
of Domitian: Independent confirmation: Philostratus has picked
up the story in Ephesus, and Cassius Dio tells it too.
The story about the birds' language:
Independent confirmation: Philostratus claims to have heard this story
at Ephesus and there is a different account of it in Porphyry's treatise
Apollonius' relation to the common cults was strained:
Philostratus tries to explain away failures (at the oracle of Trophonius,
at Eleusis, and on Crete).
Stated briefly, it is almost certain that Apollonius
lived in the second half of the first century, was a magician and cured
several people. Probably, he adhered to the neo-Pythagorean philosophy,
and published books
On astrology and On sacrifices. This
may have brought him into conflict with the institutionalized religion
Apollonius was a champion of Greek culture.
Only to be found in the Letters of Apollonius.
Apollonius traveled to Hispania: Only
to be found in Damis .
Apollonius and his contemporaries
There remain several questions that cannot be solved. To start with, in
the LoA, we read short Platonic dialogues, encounter a self-defense
like the apology of Socrates
(LoA 8.7), and learn that Apollonius was a very moderate man (LoA
1.8). Elements like these are suspicious: Philostratus may have added these
commonplace stories in order to prove that Apollonius was a real philosopher.
On the other hand, many ancient philosophers did model their lives to
earlier examples. For example, when the Roman philosopher Seneca was forced
to commit suicide, he choose to imitate Socrates by drinking hemlock. We
will never know who was responsible for the philosophical anecdotes in
the LoA, the Tyanean or his biographer.
Another problem is the parallelism of the lives of Apollonius and Pythagoras.
In other sources, Pythagoras is said to have been initiated in all religious
rites and mysteries, to have descended in a cave, to have visited Babylonia
and Egypt, to have been able to remember former incarnations, to have abstained
from wine and meat, to have worn a special dress, to have kept a vow of
silence for five years, to have been on two places at the same time, to
have confronted a tyrant, and to have died in a temple at a venerable old
age. For all these stories, we find parallels in the LoA [note
There are three explanations for these parallels:
We are unable to choose between these three solutions.
It may be that Philostratus or one of his sources has modeled the life
of Apollonius to the life of Pythagoras.
It may be the other way round, because many stories about the life of Pythagoras
were written after the death of Apollonius.
Another explanation is that Apollonius imitated Pythagoras.
A final problem is what to make of elements that are without parallel.
To repeat an earlier example, Philostratus
frequently mentions Apollonius' prayers to the sun, something for which
we do not find antecedents in the Pythagorean literature. Maybe, Philostratus
found this information in one of his sources, or maybe, he invented it,
because it was a popular theme in the third century. In this case, the
first alternative is to be preferred, because the second option would imply
that Philostratus read some contemporary philosophers, which is extremely
Another example is Apollonius' abstinence from sex. This is really unprecedented
in Greek society, and the inevitable conclusion is that Apollonius of Tyana
has invented celibacy.
Jona Lendering for
Revision: 4 Aug. 2012