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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

  [26] With respect to the Magi,[1] Apollonius has said all there is to be said, how he associated with them and learned some things from them, and taught them others before he went away.

But Damis is not acquainted with the conversations which the sage held with the Magi, for the latter forbade him to accompany him in his visits to them; so he tells us merely that he visited the Magi at mid-day and about midnight, and he says that he once asked his master: "What of the Magi?" and the latter answered: "They are wise men, but not in all respects."

[27] But of this later on. When then he arrived at Babylon, the satrap [2] in command the great gates, having learnt that he had come to see the country, held out a golden image of the king, which everyone must kiss before he is allowed to enter the city. Now an ambassador coming from the Roman Emperor has not this ceremony imposed upon him, but anyone who comes from the barbarians or just to look at the country, is arrested with dishonor unless he has first paid his respect to this image. Such are the silly duties committed to satraps among the barbarians. When therefore Apollonius saw the image, he said: "Who is that?"

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Head of a bronze statue of a Parthian prince, found at Shami, Khuzistan (SW Iran). Archaeological Museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Head of a bronze statue of a
Parthian prince, found at
Shami, Khuzestan.
(Archaeological Museum,

And on being told that it was the king, he said: "This king whom you worship would acquire a great boon, if I merely recommended him as seeming honorable and good to me."

And with these words he passed through the gate. But the satrap was astonished, and followed him, and taking hold of his hand, he asked him through an interpreter his name and his family and what was his profession and why he came thither; and he wrote down the answers in a book and also a description of his dress and appearance, and ordered him to wait there.

[28] But he himself ran off to the persons whom they are pleased to call "Ears of the King",[3] and described Apollonius to them, after first telling them both that he refused to do homage and that he was not the least like other men. They bade him bring him along, and show him respect without using any violence; and when he came the head of the department asked him what induced him to flout the king, and he answered: "I have not yet flouted him."

"But would you flout him?" was the next question.

"Why, of course I will," said Apollonius, "if on making his acquaintance I find him to be neither honorable nor good."

"Well, and what presents do you bring for him?"

Apollonius answered afresh that he brought courage and justice and so forth. "Do you mean," said the other, "to imply that the king lacks these qualities?"

"No, indeed," he answered, "but I would fain teach him to practice them, in case he possesses them."

"And surely it was by practicing these qualities," said the other, "that he has recovered the kingdom,[4] which you behold, after he had lost it, and has restored his house, - no light task this nor easy."

"And how many years is it since he recovered his kingdom?"

"This is the third year since," answered the other, "which year began about two months ago."

Apollonius, then as was his custom, upheld his opinion and went on: "O bodyguard, or whatever I ought to call you, Darius[II Nothus] the father of Cyrus and Artaxerxes[II Mnemon] was master of these royal domains, I think, for sixty years, and he is said, when he felt that his end was at hand, to have offered a sacrifice to Justice [Ahuramazda] and to have addressed her thus: 'O lady mistress, or whosoever thou art.' This shows that he had long loved justice and desired her, but as yet knew her not, nor deemed that he had won her; he brought up his two sons so foolishly that they took up arms against one another, and one was wounded and the other killed by his fellow.[5] Well, here is a king perhaps who does not even know how to keep his seat on the throne, and you would have me believe that he combines already all virtues, and you extol him, though, if he does turn out fairly good, it is you and not I that will gain thereby".

The barbarian then glanced at his neighbor and said: "Here is a windfall! 'tis one of the gods who has brought this man here; for as one good man associating with another improves him, so he will much improve our king, and render him more temperate and gracious; for these qualities are conspicuous in this man."

They accordingly ran into the palace and told everybody the good news, that there stood at the king's gates a man who was wise and a Hellene, and a good counselor.

Coin of Vardanes I.
Vardanes I (!!)

[29] When these tidings were brought to the king, he happened to be sacrificing with the Magi, for religious rites are performed under their supervision. And he called one of them and said: "The dream is come true, which I narrated to you when you visited me in my bed."

Now the dream which the king had dreamed was as follows: he thought that he was Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes, and that he had altered and assumed the latter's form; and he was very much afraid lest some change should come over his affairs, for so he interpreted his change of appeareance. But when he heard that it was a Hellene, and a wise man, that had come, he remembered about Themistocles of Athens, who had once come from Greece and had lived with Artaxerxes, and had not only derived great benefit from the king, but had conferred great benefit himself. So he held out his right hand and said: "Call him in, for it wake the best of beginnings, if he will join with me in my sacrifice and prayer."

[30] Accordingly Apollonius entered escorted by a number of people, for they had learnt that the king was pleased with the newcomer and though that this would gratify him; but as he passed into the palace, he did not glance at anything that others admired, but he passed them by as if he was still traveling on the highroad, and calling Damis to him he said: "You asked me yesterday what was the name of the Pamphylian woman who is said to have been intimate with Sappho, and to have composed the hymns which they sing in honor of Artemis of Perga, in the Aeolian and Pamphylian modes."

"Yes, I did ask you," said Damis, "but you did not tell me her name."

"I did not tell you it, my good fellow, but I explained to you about the keys in which the hymns are written, and I told you about the names; and how the Aeolian strains were altered into the highest key of all, that which is peculiar to the Pamphylians. After that we turned to another subject, for you did not ask me again about the name of the lady. Well, she is called -this clever lady is- Damophyle, and she is said, like Sappho, to have had girlfriends and to have composed poems, some of which were love-songs and others hymns. The particular hymn to Artemis was transposed by her, and the singing of it derives from Sapphic odes."

How far then he was from being astonished at the king and his pomp and ceremony, he showed by the fact that he did not think such things worth looking at, but went on talking about other things, as if he did not think the palace worth a glance.

Philostratus: Life of Apollonius : next

  Note 1:
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.

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.

Note 3:
"Eyes and ears of the king" was a title from the Achaemenid Empire.

Note 4:
King Vardanes was the son of Artabanus II, whose reign ended in 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.

Note 5:
A reverence to the conflict that followed on the death of Darius II; his two sons fought a bloody civil war. The conflict parallels the war between Vardanes and Gotarzes, but Philostratus' contemporaries will have seen parallels with the conflicts between the emperors Caracalla and Geta (in 211) and between Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander (in 222) as well. There's also a parallel to the presumed conflict between Vespasian's sons Titus and Domitian: according to Philostratus, Titus was poisoned by his brother.

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