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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

  [21] He left Ctesiphon behind, and passed on to the borders of Babylon;[1] and here was a frontier garrison belonging to the king, which one could not pass by without being questioned who one was, and as to one's city, and one's reason for coming there. And there was a satrap [2] in command of this post, a sort of "Eye of the King", I imagine; for the Mede [3] had just acceded to the throne, and instead of being content to live in security, he worried himself about things real and imaginary and fell into fits of fear and panic.

Apollonius then and his party were brought before this satrap, who had just set up the awning on his wagon and was driving out to go somewhere else. When he saw a man so dried up and parched, he began to bawl out like a cowardly woman and hid his face, and could hardly be induced to look up at him. "Whence do you come to us," he said, "and who sent you?" as if he was asking questions of a spirit.

And Apollonius replied: "I have sent myself, to see whether I can make men of you, whether you like it or not."

He asked a second time who he was to come trespassing like that into the king's country, and Apollonius said: "All the earth is mine, and I have a right to go all over it and through it."

Whereupon the other said: "I will torture you, if you don't answer my questions."

"And I hope," said the other, "that you will do it with your own hands, so that you may be tested by the touchstone of a true man."

Now the eunuch was astonished to find that Apollonius needed no interpreter, but understood what he said without the least trouble or difficulty. "By the gods," he said, "who are you?" this time altering his tone to a whine of entreaty.

And Apollonius replied: "Since you have asked me civilly this time and not so rudely as before, listen, I will tell you who I am: I am Apollonius of Tyana, and my road leads me to the king of India, because I want to acquaint myself with the country there; and I shall be glad to meet your king, for those who have associated with him say that he is no bad fellow, and certainly he is not, if he is this Vardanes who has lately recovered the empire which he had lost."

"He is the same," replied the other, "O divine Apollonius; for we have heard of you a long time ago, and in favor of so wise a man as you he would, I am sure, step down off his golden throne and send your party to India, each of you mounted on a camel. And I myself now invite you to be my guest, and I beg to present you with these treasures."

And at the moment he pointed out a store of gold to him saying: "Take as may handfuls as you like, fill your hands, not once, but ten times."

And when Apollonius refused the money he said: "Well, at any rate you will take some of the Babylonian wine,[4] which the king bestows on us, his ten satraps. Take a jar of it, with some roast steaks of bacon and venison and some meal and bread and anything else you like. For the road after this, for many stades, leads through villages which are ill-stocked with provision."

And here the eunuch caught himself up and said: "Oh! ye gods, what have I done? For I have heard that this man never eats the flesh of animals, nor drinks wine, and here I am inviting him to dine in a gross and ignorant manner."

"Well," said Apollonius, "you can offer me a lighter repast and give me bread and dried fruits."

"I will give you," said the other, "leavened bread and palm dates, like amber and of good size. And I will also supply you with vegetables, the best which the gardens of the Tigris afford."

"Well," said Apollonius, "the wild herbs which grow free are nicer than those which are forced and artificial."

"They are nicer," said the satrap, "I admit, but our land in the direction of Babylon is full of wormwood [5] so that the herbs which grow in it are disagreeably bitter."

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Relief from Nineveh, showing a lion killed during a lion hunt. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Relief from the Palace of Aššurbanipal in Nineveh, showing a lion killed during a hunt (British Museum, London)

In the end Apollonius accepted the satrap's offer, and as he was on the point of going away, he said: "My excellent fellow, don't keep your good manners to the end another time, but begin with them."

This by way of rebuking him for saying that he would torture him, and for the barbaric language which he had heard to begin with.

[22] After they had advanced twenty stades they chanced upon a lioness that had been slain in a chase; and the brute was bigger than any they had ever seen; and the villagers rushed and cried out, and to tell the truth, so did the huntsmen, when they saw what an extraordinary thing lay before them. And it really was a marvel; for when it was cur asunder they found eight whelps within it.

And the lioness becomes mother in this way. They carry their young for six months, but they bring forth young only three times; and the number of the whelps at the first birth is three and at the second two, and if the mother makes a third attempt, it bears only one whelp, but I believe a very big one and preternaturally fierce. For we must not believe those who say that the whelps of a lioness make their way out into the world by clawing through their mother's womb;[6] for nature seems to have created the relationship of offspring to mother for their nourishment with a view to the continuance of the race.

Apollonius then eyed the animal for a long time, with attention, and then he said: "O Damis, the length of our stay with the king will be a year and eight months; for neither will he let us go sooner than that, nor will it be to our advantage to quit him earlier. And you may guess the number of months from that of the whelps, and that of the years from the lioness; for you must compare wholes with wholes."

And Damis replied: "But what of the sparrows of Homer, what do they mean, the ones which the dragon devoured in Aulis, which were eight in number, when he seized their mother for a ninth? [Iliad 2.303ff] Calchas surely explained these to signify nine years and predicted that the war with Troy would last so long; so take care that Homer may not be right and Calchas, too, and that our stay may not extend to nine years abroad."

"Well," replied Apollonius, "Homer was surely quite right in comparing the nestlings to years, for they are already hatched out and in the world; but what I had in mind were incomplete animals that were not yet born, and perhaps never would have been born; how could I compare them to years? For things that violate nature can hardly come to be; and they anyhow quickly pass to destruction, even if they do come to existence. Follow my arguments, and let us go, first praying to the gods who reveal thus much to us."

[23] And as he advanced into the Cissian country [7] and was already close to Babylon, he was visited by a dream, and the god who revealed it to him fashioned its imagery as follows: there were fishes which had been cast up from the sea on to the land, and they were gasping, and uttering a lament almost human, and bewailing that they had quitted their element; and they were begging a dolphin [8] that was swimming past the shore to help them in their misery, just like human beings who are weeping in a foreign land.

Apollonius was not in the least frightened by his dream, and proceeded to conjecture its meaning and drift; but he was determined to give Damis a shock, for he found that he was the most nervous of men. So he related his vision to him, and feigned as if it foreboded evil.

But Damis began to bellow as if he had seen the dream himself, and tried to dissuade Apollonius from going any further, "Lest," he said, "we also like fishes get thrown out of our element and perish, and have to weep and wail in a foreign land. Nay, we may even be reduced to straits, and have to go down on our knees to some potentate or king, who will flout us as the dolphins did the fishes."

Then Apollonius laughed and said: "You've not become a philosopher yet, if you are afraid of this sort of thing. But I will explain to you the real drift of the dream. For this land of Cissia is habited by the Eretrians, who were brought up here from Euboea by Darius five hundred years ago, and they are said to have been treated at their capture like the fishes that we saw in the dream; for they were netted in, so they say, and captured one and all.

It would seem then that the gods are instructing me to visit them and tend their needs, supposing I can do anything for them. And perhaps also the souls of the Greeks whose lot was cast in this part of the world are enlisting my aid for their land. Let us then go and diverge from the highroad and ask only about the well, hard by where the settlement is."

Now this well is said to consist of a mixture of pitch and oil and water, and if you draw up a bucket and pour it out, these three elements divide and part themselves from one another.

That he really did visit Cissia, he himself acknowledges in a letter which he wrote to the sophist of Clazomenae [Scopelianus]; for he was so kind an loyal, that when he saw the Eretrians, he remembered the sophist and wrote to him an account of what he had seen, and of what he had done for them; and all through this letter he urges the sophist to take pity on the Eretrians, and prays him, every time that he is declaiming a discourse about them, not to deprecate even the shedding of tears over their fate.

[24] And the record which Damis left about the Eretrians is in harmony with this. For they live in the country of the Medes, not far distant from Babylon, a day's journey for a fleet traveler; but their country is without cities; for the whole of Cissia consists of villages, except for a race of nomads that also inhabits it [Cossaeans], men who seldom dismount from their horses. And the settlement of the Eretrians is in the center of the rest, and the river is carried round it in a trench, for they say that they themselves diverted it round the village in order to form a rampart of defense against the barbarians of the country.

But the soil is drenched with pitch, and is bitter to plant in; and the inhabitants are very short lived, because the pitch in the water forms a sediment in most of their bowels. And they get their sustenance off a bit of rising ground on the confines of their village, where the ground rises above the tainted country; on this they sow their crops and regard it as their land.

And they say that they have heard from the natives that 780 of the Eretrians were captured, not of course all of them fighting men; for there was a certain number of women and old men among them; and there was, I imagine, a certain number of children too, for the greater portion of the population of Eretria had fled to Caphereus and to the loftiest peaks of Euboea. But anyhow the men who were brought up numbered about 400, and there were ten women perhaps; but the rest, who had started from Ionia and Lydia, perished as they were marching up.

And they managed to open a quarry on the hill; and as some of them understood the art of cutting stone, they built temples in the Greek style and a market-place large enough for their purpose; and they dedicated various altars, two to Darius, and one to Xerxes, and several to Daridaeus [Darius II Nothus?]. But up to the time of Daridaeus, 88 years after their capture, they continued to write in the manner of the Greeks, and what is more, their ancient graves are inscribed with the legend: "So and so, the son of so and so." And though the letters are Greek, they said that they never yet had seen the like.

And there were ships engraved on the tombstones, to show that the various individuals had lived in Euboea, and engaged either in seafaring trade, or in that of purple, as sailors or as dyers; and they say that they read an Elegiac inscription written over the sepulcher of some sailors and seafarers, which ran thus:[9]

Here, we who once sailed over
the deep-flowing billows of the Aegaean Sea
are lying in the midst of the plain of Ecbatana.
Farewell, once-famed fatherland of Eretria,
farewell Athens,
Ye neighbor of Euboea, farewell thou darling sea.
Well, Damis says that Apollonius restored the tombs that had gone to ruin and closed them up, and that he poured out libations and made offering to their inmates, all that religion demands, except that he did not slay or sacrifice any victim; then after weeping and in an access of emotion, he delivered himself of the following apostrophe in their midst: "Ye Eretrians, who by the lot of fortune have been brought hither, ye, even if ye are far from your own land, have at least received burial; but those who cast you hither perished unburied round the shores of your island ten years after yourself; for the gods brought about this calamity in the Hollows of Euboea."[10]

And Apollonius at the end of his letter to the sophist writes as follows: "I also attended, O Scopelianus, to your Eretrians, while I was still a young man; and I gave what help I could both to their dead and their living."

What attention then did he show to their living? This - the barbarians in the neighborhood of the hill, when the Eretrians sowed their seed upon it, would come in summertime and plunder their crops, so that they had to starve and see the fruits of their husbandry go to others. When therefore he reached the king, he took pains to secure for them the sole use of the hill.

Map of Babylon. Map design Jona Lendering.

[25] I found the following to be an account of the sage's stay in Babylon,[11] and of all we need to know about Babylon. The fortifications of Babylon extend 480 stadia [85 km] and form a complete circle, and its wall is three half plethrons [44 m] high, but less than a plethron [29 m] in breadth. And it is cut asunder by the river Euphrates, into halves of similar shape; and there passes underneath the river an extraordinary bridge which joins together by an unseen passage the palaces on either bank.

For it is said that a woman, Medea, was formerly queen of those parts, who spanned the river underneath in a manner in which no river was ever bridged before; for she got stones, it is said, and copper and pitch and all that men have discovered for use in masonry under water, and she piled these up along the banks of the river. Then she diverted the stream into lakes; and as soon as the river was dry, she dug down two fathoms, and made a hollow tunnel, which she caused to debouch into the palaces on either bank like a subterranean grotto; and she roofed it on a level with the bed of the stream. The foundations were thus made stable, and also the walls of the tunnel; but as the pitch required water in order to set as hard as stone, the Euphrates was let in again on the roof while still soft, and so the junction stood solid.

And the palaces are roofed with bronze, and a glitter goes off from them; but the chambers of the women and of the men and the porticos are adorned partly with silver, and partly with golden tapestries or curtains, and partly with solid gold in the form of pictures; but the subjects embroidered on the stuffs are taken by them from Hellenic story, Andromedas being represented, and Amymonae, and you see Perseus frequently. And they delight in Orpheus, perhaps out of regard for his peaked cap and breeches, for it cannot be for his music or the songs with which he charmed and soothed others.

And woven into the pattern you perceive Datis tearing up Naxos out of the sea, and Artaphernes beleaguering Eretria, and such battles of Xerxes as he said he won. For there is, of course, the occupation of Athens and Thermopylae, and other pictures still more to the Median taste, such as rivers drained from off the land and a bridge over the sea and the piercing of Athos.

But they say that they also visited a man's apartment of which the roof had been carried up in the form of a dome, to resemble in a manner the heavens, and that it was roofed with lapis lazuli, a stone that is very blue and like heaven to the eye; and there were images of the gods, which they worship, fixed aloft, and looking like golden figures shining out of the ether. And it is here that the king gives judgment, and golden wrynecks are hung from the ceiling, to remind him of Adrastea, the goddess of justice, and to engage him not to exalt himself above humanity. These figures the Magi [12] themselves say they arranged; for they have access to the palace, and they call them the tongues of the gods.

Philostratus: Life of Apollonius : next

Coin of Vardanes I.
Vardanes I (!!)
Note 1:
Philostratus often uses "Babylon" to say "Babylonia".

Note 2:
A satrap was a governor of a Persian province. The title was still used in the Parthian age, but Philostratus uses the foreign expression in a very loose way. Later, he calls this particular "satrap" a eunuch.

Note 3:
A reference to the Parthian king Vardanes I. He was the son of Artabanus II, whose reign ended in some turmoil when the Romans supported two rebel kings, Phraates V (in 35) and Tiridates II (36-37). Artabanus died in 38, and Vardanes and his brother Gotarzes both claimed the throne. In 47, Vardanes was assassinated; new rebellions took place; Gotarzes was removed in 51; and in the end, Vologases reunited the empire again.

Note 4:

Note 5:

Note 6:
E.g., Herodotus of Halicarnassus.

Note 7:
Cissia was the country east of the Tigris, at the confluence with the Diyala. There were very ancient Greek settlements over here.

Note 8:
One of the surnames of Apollo was Delphinus, so the dolphin was an image suitable for Apollonius.

Note 9:
This epigram was in fact written by Plato. The valley of the Diyala leads to Ecbatana.

Note 10:
The Hollows were the notorious coast of northern Euboea, because of the winds and the rocks. In 480, Xerxes lost a large fleet at the Hollows.

Note 11:
One of the strongest points in the Life of Apollonius is that it is one of the few Greek/Latin texts that (correctly) present Babylon as a city that is still alive. Almost all other classical texts state that it was an abandoned town, left in ruins. The texts from Babylon itself, however, indicate the continuity of its cultural life; the Esagila was still there, the Chaldaeans were still doing their work, and the Gymnasium Inscription and Theater Inscription show that the Greek community still existed. The dimensions of the wall are remarkable: the length of 480 stadia is derived from Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the height and width are not.

Note 12:
The Greeks knew several branches of oriental wisdom, which they often confused. The Babylonian sages were usually called Chaldaeans, but Philostratus calls them Magi, which is in fact the name of the sages of ancient Persia.

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