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Apollonius of Tyana

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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.

This is the eighth part of an article in nine pieces.
 

Philostratus' Life of Apollonius
Local traditions
Apollonius' Letters
Apollonius' books
Maximus of Aegae
Moeragenes
Damis of Nineveh
Evaluation of the sources
Contemporaries
'Divine men'
Magic in what sense?
Literature
Apollonius' world. Map design Jona Lendering.

'Divine men'

Apollonius was not the only charismatic miracle worker. Our sources mention several 'divine men' - people who were considered to have a personal shortcut to the gods, and frequently tried to reform the religious practices of their age, which sometimes brought them into conflict with more conservative people. We already met Alexander of Abonutichus, who was called 'the oracle monger' by Lucian (above). This man introduced the hitherto unknown god Glykon and started a new oracle, which was extremely successful; Lucian's satire proves that this new god threatened at least some vested interests.

Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander of Abonutichus were the best known, but not the only 'divine men'. What to think of Peregrinus Proteus, who called himself a Cynical philosopher, burned himself alive to show mankind that death was nothing to be feared, and was posthumously ridiculed by Lucian in a rather tasteless satire? And there is the first century BCE Epicurean doctor Asclepiades of Prusa, who raised a deceased person, and 'convinced almost the whole of mankind that he had been sent down from heaven' (Pliny the Elder, Natural history, 26.13).

 
Pythagoras. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Pythagoras (Musei Capitolini)

Another example is the story by Cassius Dio about the rain miracle: in the year 172, the twelfth legion of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, himself a philosopher, was besieged by barbarians and was under severe pressure from both thirst and heat, but an Egyptian magician in the emperor's staff, one Harnuphus, managed to create a violent rain shower. This suggests that the distinction between magicians and philosophers became blurred in the second half of the second century.

In short, at the end of the second century, most Greek and Romans were convinced that between there was a special group of 'divine men' between the eternal gods and the ordinary mortals, people who combined philosophy and magic and were able to cure ill persons. Pythagoreanism seems to have played an important role in the popularization of this idea; one of the central tenets of this philosophical school was that there were mortals, gods and 'beings like Pythagoras'.




The concept of the 'divine man' played an important role in the rise of Christianity. Like Jesus of Nazareth, the first Christians were Jews who believed that a Messiah was a teacher and/or a military leader who was to explain the Law of Moses correctly and was to restore Israel to its rightful first place among the nations. When Paul of Tarsus started to convert pagans, many of these converts believed that Jesus had been some kind of 'divine man'; where a Jewish messiah was still a mortal being, the 'Christ' of the (formerly pagan) Christians received divine attributes. At the same time, he was stripped of his political significance.

Since Jesus of Nazareth had become 'paganized', it became possible to compare him to the pagan 'divine men', as if he had not been a Jewish messiah. This opened a new way to attack Christianity, because the crucified carpenter could be presented as a failed 'divine man'. Sossianus Hierocles, a very important Roman official, used the LoA to write such an attack. He compared the badly written gospels and the miracles of the peasant Jesus to the beautiful Life of Apollonius and the acts of the Tyanean sage. A Christian author named Eusebius [note 13] felled compelled to write a response, in which he points to certain inconsistencies in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius: e.g., if Apollonius was a prophet and knew that he could disappear from Domitian's court (LoA 8.8), why did he prepare a speech to defend himself?

Ever since, Jesus and Apollonius have been compared. Although there are certain similarities (a charismatic teacher performing miraculous healing), the differences are larger. After all, the notion of a 'divine man' is distinctly pagan and not Jewish.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 1998
Revision: 29 Dec. 2009




Part nine



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