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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] My argument does not allow me to pass over the accounts written of this Porus. For when the Macedonian [Alexander the Great] was about to cross the river [Hydaspes], and some of Porus' advisers wished him to make an alliance with the kings on the other side of the Hyphasis and the Ganges, urging that the invader would never face a general coalition against him of the whole of India, he replied: "If the temper of my subjects is such that I cannot save myself without allies, then for me it is better not to be king."

And when someone announced to him that Alexander had captured Darius, he remarked, "a king but not a man." And when the mule driver had caparisoned the elephant on which he meant to fight, he replied: "Nay, I shall carry him, if I prove myself the same man I used to be." And when they counseled him to sacrifice to the river, and induce it to reject the rafts of the Macedonians, and make it impassable to Alexander, he said: "It ill befits those who have arms to resort to imprecation."

And after the battle, in which his conduct struck Alexander as divine and superhuman, when one of his relations said to him: "If you had only paid homage to him after he had crossed, O Porus, you would not yourself have been defeated in battle, nor would so many Indians have lost their lives, nor would you yourself have been wounded," he said: "I knew from my report that Alexander was so fond of glory that, if I did homage to him, he would regard me as a slave, but if I fought him, as a king. And I much preferred his admiration to his pity, not was I wrong in my calculation. For by showing myself to be such a man as Alexander found me, I both lost and won everything that day."

Such is the character which historians give to this Indian, and they say that he was the handsomest of his race, and in stature taller than any man since the Trojan heroes, but that he was quite young, when he went to war with Alexander.

[22] While he was waiting in the Temple -and it took a long time for the king to be informed that strangers had arrived- Apollonius said: "O Damis, is there such a thing as painting?"

"Why yes," he answered, "if there be any such thing as truth."

"And what does this art do?"

"It mixes together," replied Damis, "all the colors there are, blue with green, and white with black, and red with yellow."

"And for what reason," said the other, "does it mix these? For it isn't merely to get a color, like dyed wax."

"It is," said Damis, "for the sake of imitation, and to get a likeness of a dog, or a horse, or a man, or a ship, or of anything else under the sun; and what is more, you see the sun himself represented, sometimes borne upon a four horse car, as he is said to be seen here, and sometimes again traversing the heaven with his torch, in case you are depicting the ether and the home of the gods."

"Then, O Damis, painting is imitation?"

"And what else could it be?" said he: "for if it did not effect that, it would voted to be an idle playing with colors."

"And," said the other, "the things which are seen in heaven, whenever the clouds are torn away from one another, I mean the centaurs and stag-antelopes, yes, and the wolves too, and the horses, what have you got to say about them? Are we not to regard them as works of imitation?"

"It would seem so," he replied.

"Then, Damis, God is a painter, and has left his winged chariot, upon which he travels, as he disposes of affairs human and divine, and he sits down on these occasions to amuse himself by drawing these pictures, as children make figures in the sand."

Damis blushed, for he felt that his argument was reduced to such an absurdity. But Apollonius, on his side, had no wish to humiliate him, for he was not unfeeling in his refutations of people, and said: "But I am sure, Damis, you did not mean that; rather that these figures flit through the heaven not only without meaning, but, so far as providence is concerned, by mere chance; while we who by nature are prone to imitation rearrange and create them in these regular figures."

"We may, he said, "rather consider this to be the case, O Apollonius, for it is more probable, and a much sounder idea."

"Then, O Damis, the mimetic art is twofold, and we may regard the one kind as an employment of the hands and mind in producing imitations, and declare that this is painting, whereas the other kind consists in making likenesses with the mind alone."

"Not twofold," replied Damis, "for we ought to regard the former as the more perfect and more complete kind, being anyhow painting and a faculty of making likenesses with the help both of mind and hand; but we must regard the other kind as a department that, since its possessor perceives and imitates with the mind, without having the delineative faculty, and would never use his hand in depicting its objects."

"Then," said Apollonius, "you mean, Damis, that the hand may be disabled by a blow or by disease?"

"No," he answered, "but it is disabled, because it has never handled pencil nor any instrument or color, and has never learned to draw."

"Then," said the other, "we are both of us, Damis, agreed that man owes his mimetic faculty to nature, but his power of painting to art. And the same would appear to be true of plastic art. But, methinks, you would not confine painting itself to the mere use of colors, for a single color was often found sufficient for this purpose by our older painters; and as the art advanced, it employed four, and later, yet more; but we must also concede the name of a painting to an outline drawn without any color at all, and composed merely of shadow and light. For in such designs we see a resemblance, we see form and expression, and modesty and bravery, although they are altogether devoid of color; and neither blood is represented, nor the color of a man's hair or beard; nevertheless these compositions in monochrome are likenesses of people either tawny or white, and if we drew one of these Indians with a pencil without color, yet he would be known for a negro, for his flat nose, and his stiff curling locks and prominent jaw, and a certain gleam about his eyes, would give a black look to the picture and depict an Indian to the eyes of all those who have intelligence.

And for this reason I should say that those who look at works of painting and drawing require a mimetic faculty; for no one could appreciate or admire a picture of a horse or of a bull, unless he had formed an idea of the picture represented. Nor again could one admire a picture of Ajax, by the painter Timomachus, which represents him in a state of madness, unless one had conceived in one's mind first an idea or notion of Ajax, and had entertained the probability that after killing the flocks in Troy he would sit down exhausted and even meditate suicide.

But these elaborate works of Porus we cannot, Damis, regard as works of brass founding alone, for they are cast in brass; so let us regard them as the chefs d' oeuvre of a man who is both painter and brass-founder at once, and as similar to the work of Hephaestus upon the shield of Achilles, as revealed in Homer. For they are crowded together in that work too men slaying and slain, and you would say that the earth was stained with gore, though it is made of brass."

[23] While the sage was engaged in this conversation, messengers and an interpreter presented themselves from the king, to say that the king would make him his guest for three days, because the laws did not allow of strangers residing in the city for a longer time; and accordingly they conducted him into the palace. I have already described the way in which the city is walled, but they say that it was divided up into narrow streets in the same irregular manner as in Athens, and that the houses were built in such a way that if you look at them from outside they had only one story, while if you went into one of them, you at once found subterranean chambers extending as far below the level of the earth as did the chambers above.

[24] And they say that they saw a Temple of the Sun in which was kept loose a sacred elephant called Ajax, and there were images of Alexander made of gold, and others of Porus, though the latter were of black bronze. But on the walls of the Temple there were red stones, and gold glittered underneath, and gave off a sheen as bright as sunlight. But the statue was compacted of pearls arranged in the symbolic manner affected by all barbarians in their shrines.

[25] And in the palace they say that they saw no magnificent chambers, nor any bodyguards or sentinels, but, considering what is usual in the houses of magnates, a few servants, and three or four people who wished, so I suppose, to converse with the king. And they say that they admired this arrangement more than they did the pompous splendor of Babylon, and their esteem was enhanced when they went within. For the men's chambers and the porticoes and the whole of the vestibule were in a very chaste style.

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