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Statue of a sophist from the reign of Septimius Severus. Archaeological museum of Izmir (Turkey).

Flavius Philostratus:

The Life of Apollonius

Translated by F.C. Conybeare

 
  [§16] After the term of his silence was over he also visited the great Antioch, and passed into the Temple of Apollo of Daphne, to which the Assyrians [1] attach the legend of Arcadia. For they say that Daphne, the daughter of Ladon, there underwent her metamorphosis, and they have a river flowing there, the Ladon, and a laurel tree is worshipped by them which they say is the one substituted for the maiden; and cypress trees of enormous height surround the Temple, and the ground sends up springs both ample and placid, in which they say Apollo purifies himself by ablution.[2]

And there it is that the earth sends up a shoot of cypress, they say in honor of Cyparissus, an Assyrian youth; and the beauty of the shrub lends credence to the story of his metamorphosis.

Well, perhaps I may seem to have fallen into a somewhat juvenile vein to approach my story by such legendary particulars as these, but my interest is not really mythology. What then is the purport of my narrative? Apollonius, when he beheld a Temple so graceful and yet the home of no serious studies, but only of men half-barbarous and uncultivated, remarked: "O Apollo, change these dumb dogs [3] into trees, so that at least as cypresses they may become vocal."

And when he had inspected the springs, and noted how calm and quiet they were, and how not one of them made the least babble, he remarked: "The prevailing dumbness of this place does not permit even the springs to speak."

And when he saw the Ladon, he said: "It is not your daughter alone that underwent a change, but you too, so far as one can see, have become a barbarian after being a Hellene and an Arcadian."

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Antioch today. Photo Marco Prins.
Antioch today

And when he was minded to converse, he avoided the frequented regions and the disorderly, and said, that it was not a rabble he wanted but real men; and he resorted to the more solemn places, and lived in such Temples as were not shut up. At sunrise, indeed, he performed certain rites by himself, rites which he only communicated to those who had disciplined themselves by a four years' spell of silence; but during the rest of the day, in case the city was a Greek one, and the sacred rituals familiar to a Greek, he would call the priests together and talk wisely about the gods, and would correct them, supposing they had departed from the traditional forms. If, however, the rites were barbarous and peculiar, then he would find out who had founded them and on what occasion they were established, and having learnt the sort of cult it was, he would make suggestions, in case he could think of any improvement upon them, and then he would go in quest of his followers and bid them ask any questions they liked. For he said that it was the duty of philosophers of his school to hold converse at the earliest dawn with the gods, but as the day advanced, about the gods, and during the rest of the day to discuss human affairs in friendly intercourse.

 
And having answered all the questions which his companions addressed to him, and when he had enough of their society, he would rise and give himself up for the rest to haranguing the general public, not however before midday, but as far as possible just when the day stood still. And when he thought he had enough of such discussion, he would be anointed and rubbed, and then fling himself into cold water, for he called hot baths the old age of men.

At any rate when the people of Antioch were shut out of them because of the enormities committed there, he said: "The emperor, for your sins, has granted you a new lease of life."

And when the Ephesians wanted to stone their governor because he did warm their baths enough he said to them: "You are blaming your governor because you get such a sorry bath; but I blame you because you take a bath at all."

[§17] The literary style which he cultivated was not dithyrambic or tumid and swollen with poetical words, nor again was it far-fetched and full of affected Atticisms; for he thought that an excessive degree of Atticising was unpleasant. Neither did he indulge in subtleties, nor spin out his discourses; nor did anyone ever hear him dissembling to an ironical way, nor addressing to his audience methodical arguments; but when he conversed he would assume an oracular manner and use the expressions, "I know," or "It is my opinion," or, "Where are you drifting to?" or, "You must know."

And his sentences where short and crisp, and his words were telling and closely fitted to the things he spoke of, and his words had a ring about them as of the dooms delivered by a sceptred king. And when a certain quibbler asked him, why he asked himself no questions, he replied: "Because I asked questions when I was a stripling; and it is not my business to ask questions now, but to teach people what I have discovered."

"How then," the other asked him afresh, "O Apollonius, should the sage converse?"

"Like a law-giver," he replied, "for it is the duty of the law-giver to deliver to the many [i.e., the populace] the instructions of whose truth he has persuaded himself."

This was the line he pursued during his stay in Antioch, and he converted to himself the most unrefined people. 

[§18] After this he formed the scheme of an extensive voyage, and had in mind the Indian race and the sages there, who are called Brahmans and Hyrcanians; for he said that it was a young man's duty to go abroad to embark upon foreign travel. But he made quite a windfall of the Magi, who live in Babylon and Susa. For he would take the opportunity to acquaint himself thoroughly with their lore while he was on his way.[4]

And he announced his intention to his followers, who were seven in number; but when they tried to persuade him to adopt another plan, in hopes of drawing him off from his resolution, he said: "I have taken the gods into counsel and have told you their decision; and I have made trial of you to see if you are strong enough to undertake the same things as myself. Since therefore you are so soft and effeminate, I wish you very good health and that you may go on with your philosophy; but I must depart whither wisdom and the gods lead me."

Having said this he quitted Antioch with two attendants, who belonged to his father's house, one of them a shorthand writer and the other a calligraphist. 

[§19] And he reached the ancient city of Nineveh,[5] where he found an idol set up of barbarous aspect, and it is, they say, Io, the daughter of Inachus, and horns short and, as it were, budding project from her temples.[6] While he was staying there and forming wiser conclusions about the image than could the priests and prophets, one Damis, a native of Nineveh, joined him as a pupil, the same, as I said at the beginning, who became the companion of his wanderings abroad and his fellow-traveller and associate in all wisdom, and who has preserved to us many particulars of the sage.

He admired him, and having a taste for the road, said: "Let us depart, Apollonius, you follow God, and I you; for I think you will find that I can serve you. I can't say you how much more, but at least I've been to Babylon, and I know all the cities there are, because I have been up there not long ago, and also the villages in which there is much good to be found; and moreover, I know the languages of the various barbarous races, and there are several, for example the Armenian tongue, and that of the Medes [7] and Persians, and that of the Kadusii, and I am familiar with all of them."

"And I," said Apollonius, "my good friend, understand all languages, though I never learnt a single one."

The native of Nineveh was astonished at this answer, but the other replied: "You need not wonder at my knowing all human languages; for, to tell you the truth, I also understand all the secrets of human silence."

Thereupon the Assyrian worshipped him, when he heard this, and regarded him as a demon; and he stayed with him increasing in wisdom and committing to memory whatever he learnt. This Assyrian's language, however, was of a mediocre quality, for he had not the gift of expressing himself, having been educated among the barbarians; but to write down a discourse or a conversation and to give impressions of what he heard or saw and to put together a journal of such matters - that he was well able to do, and carried it out as well as the best. At any rate the volume which he calls his scrap-book, was intended to serve such a purpose by Damis, who was determined that nothing about Apollonius should be passed over in silence, nay, that his most casual and negligent utterances should also be written down.

And I may mention the answer which he made to one who caviled and found fault with this journal. It was a lazy fellow and malignant who tried to pick holes in him, and remarked that he recorded well enough a lot of things, for example, the opinions and ideas of his hero, but that in collecting such trifles as these he reminded him of dogs who pick up and eat the fragments which fall from a feast. Damis replied thus: "If banquets there be of gods, and gods take food, surely they must have attendants whose business it is that not even the parcels of ambrosia that fall to the ground should be lost."[8]

20] Such was the companion and admirer that he had met with, and in common with him most of his travels and life were passed. And as they fared on into Mesopotamia, the tax-gatherer who presided over the Bridge (Zeugma) led them into the registry and asked them what they were taking out of the country with them. And Apollonius replied: "I am taking with me temperance, justice, virtue, continence, valor, discipline." [9]

And in this way he strung together a number of feminine nouns or names. The other, already scenting his own perquisites, said: "You must then write down in the register these female slaves."

Apollonius answered: "Impossible, for they are not female slaves that I am taking out with me, but ladies of quality."

Now Mesopotamia is bordered on one side by the Tigris, and on the other by the Euphrates, rivers which flow from Armenia and from the lowest slopes of Taurus;[10] but they contain a tract like a continent, in which there are some cities, though for the most part only villages, and the races that inhabit them are the Armenian and the Arab. These races are so shut in by the rivers that most of them, who lead the life of nomads, are so convinced that they are islanders, as to say that they are going down to the sea, when they are merely on their way to the rivers, and think that these rivers border the earth and encircle it. For they curve around the continental tract in question, and discharge their waters into the same sea.

But there are people who say that the greater part of the Euphrates is lost in a marsh, and that this river ends in the earth. But some have a bolder theory to which they adhere, and declare that it runs under the earth to turn up in Egypt and mingle itself with the Nile.

Well, for the sake of accuracy and truth, and in order to leave out nothing of the things that Damis wrote, I should have liked to relate all the incidents that occurred on their journey through these barbarous regions; but my subject hurries me on to greater and more remarkable episodes. Nevertheless, I must perforce dwell upon two topics: on the courage which Apollonius showed, in making a journey through races of barbarians and robbers, which were not at that time even subject to the Romans, and at the cleverness with which after the matter of the Arabs he managed to understand the language of the animals.

For he learnt this on his way through these Arab tribes, who best understand and practice it. For it is quite common for the Arabs to listen to the birds prophesying like any oracles, but they acquire this faculty of understanding them by feeding themselves, so they say, either on the heart or liver of serpents.






Philostratus: Life of Apollonius : next





Note 1:
Philostratus means Syrians.

Note 2:
According to an ancient legend, the god Apollo had tried to rape Daphne, but she had changed into a laurel tree. In the original legend, this metamorphosis had taken place near the Ladon in Arcadia; another tradition situated this incident in the Tempe ravine.

Note 3:
A possible sneer at the Cynics.

Note 4:
The Greeks knew several branches of oriental wisdom, and Philostratus confuses them. The Indian Brahmans are least problematic. The Babylonian sages were usually called Chaldaeans, but Philostratus calls them Magi, which is in fact the name of the sages of ancient Persia. The confusion is not unusual: the author of the gospel of Matthew also mentions Magi but ascribes to them the study of astral omens, a typical Chaldaean activity. Philostratus calls the Persian Magi "Hyrcanians", after a region where the religion of Zarathustra prospered.

Note 5:
Nineveh, called "Ninos" in Greek, was the capital of ancient Assyria, destroyed by the Medes and Babylonians in 612. Several scholars have argued that Apollonius can therefore not have met Damis in Nineveh, especially not because Apollonius reaches Zeugma (west of Nineveh) after he met Damis. It has therefore been assumed that the sacred city of Bambyce, close to Zeugma, was also once known as Ninos. There is no other evidence for this hypothesis, although it is possible to emendate line 14.8.7 in the Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, so that it reads that Bambyce was "once known as Ninos" (vetere Nino).

There is need to duplicate Ninos, however, because the city was refounded in the Parthian age, and the anecdote about the tax-gatherer at Zeugma (1.20) appears to be inserted in a story from another source. That Philostratus really thought about the capital of Assyria, can also be deduced from Philostratus' remark that it was close to Media (7.14) and that Damis speak the language of the Cadusians.

Note 6:
Perhaps Tiamat, the cow-like monster from the Mesopotamian creation epic.


Arete (virtue): statue in the façade of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus. Ephesos Museum, Wien (Austria). Photo Jona Lendering. Arete (Virtue): statue in the façade of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus
Museum, Vienna)

Note 7:
"Media": perhaps Philostratus' archaic name for the Parthian Empire, but there appear to be no parallels for this usage.

Note 8:
Cf. Mark 7.27-28.

Note 9:
It was common to personify these virtues as ladies. Cf. the Library of Celsus in Ephesus.

Note 10:
Since Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the Taurus was regarded as the mountain range that divided Asia into two halfs. The mountains of Armenia, the Elburz, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas were all considered to be part of the Taurus.





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