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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

 
Detail of the decoration of a stupa at the monastery of Jaulian at Taxila. Photo Marco Prins. Buddha (Taxila, Jaulian)
[§21] "And I could enumerate many more merits of this great man, if I did not shrink from pronouncing a panegyric upon myself; for I may tell you I am the person in question, as I clearly proved when I was four years old. For this Ganges on one occasion fixed seven swords made of adamant in the earth, to prevent any monster approaching our country; now the gods ordered us to sacrifice if we came where he had implanted these weapons, though without indicating the spot where he had fixed them. I was a mere child, and yet I led the interpreters of their will to a trench, and told them to dig there, for it was there I said that they had been laid.

[§22] "And you must not be surprised at my transformation from one Indian to another; for here is one," and he pointed to a stripling of about twenty years of age, "who in natural aptitude for philosophy excels everyone, and he enjoys good health as you see, and is furnished with an excellent constitution; moreover he can endure fire and all sorts of cutting and wounding, yet in spite of all these advantages he detests philosophy."

"What then," said Apollonius, "O Iarchas, is the matter with the youth? For it is a terrible thing you tell me, if one so well adapted by nature to the pursuit refuses to embrace philosophy, and has no love for learning, and that although he lives with you."

"He does not live with us," replied the other, "but he has been caught like a lion against his will, and confined here, but he looks askance, at us when we try to domesticate him and caress him. The truth is this stripling was once Palamedes of Troy,[1] and he found his bitterest enemies in Odysseus and Homer; for the one laid an ambush against him of people by whom he was stoned to death, while the other denied him any place in his Epic [the Iliad]; and because neither the wisdom with which he was endowed was of any use to him, nor did he meet with any praise from Homer, to whom nevertheless many people of no great importance owe their renown, and because he was outwitted by Odysseus in spite of his innocence, he has conceived an aversion to philosophy, and deplores his ill-luck. And he is Palamedes, for indeed he can write without having learned his letters."

[§23] While they were thus conversing, a messenger approached Iarchas and said: "The King will come early in the afternoon to consult you about his own business."

And Iarchas replied: "Let him come, for he too will go away all the better for making acquaintance of a man from Hellas."

And after this, he went on with his former discourse. He accordingly asked Apollonius the question: "Will you tell us," he said, "about your earlier incarnation, and who you were before the present life?"

And he replied: "Since it was an ignoble episode, I do not remember much of it."

Iarchas therefore took him up and said: "Then you think it ignoble to have been the pilot of an Egyptian vessel, for I perceive that this is what you were?"

"What you say," said Apollonius, "is true, Iarchas; for that is really what I was; but I consider this profession not only inglorious but also detestable, and though of as much value to humanity as that of a prince or the leader of an army, nevertheless it bears an evil repute by the reason of those who follow the sea; at any rate the most noble of the deeds which I performed no one at the time saw fit to praise."

"Well, and what would you claim for yourself in the way of noble achievement? Is it your having doubled the capes of Malea and Sunium, by checking your ship when it was drifting out of its course, and your having discerned so accurately the quarters from which the winds would blow both fore and aft, or you getting your boat past the reefs in the Hollows of Euboea, where any number of ships' ornamental signs show sticking up?"[2]

[§24] But Apollonius replied: "Since you tempt me to talk about pilotage, I would have you hear what I consider to have been my soundest exploit at that time. Pirates at one time infested the Phoenician Sea, and were hanging about the cities to pick up information about the cargoes which different people had. The agents of the pirates spied out accordingly a rich cargo which I had on board my ship, and having taken me aside in conversation, asked me what was my share in the freight; and I told them that it was a thousand drachmas, for there were four people in command of the ship. "And," said they, "have you a house?"

"A wretched hut," I replied, "on the Island of Pharos, where once upon a time Proteus used to live."[3]

"Would you like then," they went on, "to acquire a landed estate instead of the sea, and a decent house instead of your hut, and ten times as much for the cargo as you are going to get now? And to get rid of a thousand misfortunes which beset pilots owing to the roughness of the sea?"

I replied that I would gladly do so, but that I did not aspire to become a pirate just at a time when I had made myself more expert than I ever had been, and had won crowns for my skill in my profession. However they persevered and promised to give me a purse of ten thousand drachmas, if I would be their man and do what they wanted. Accordingly I egged them on to talk by promising not to fail them, but to assist them in every way.

Then they admitted that they were agents of the pirates, and besought me not to deprive them of a chance of capturing the ship, and instead of sailing away to the city whenever I weighed anchor thence, they arranged that I should cast anchor under the promontory, under the lee of which the pirate ships were riding; and they were willing to swear that they would not only not kill myself, but spare the life of any for whom I interceded. I for my part did not consider it safe to reprehend them, for I was afraid that if they were driven to despair, they would attack my ship on the high seas and then we would all be lost somewhere at sea; accordingly I promised to assist their enterprise, but I insisted upon their taking oath to keep their promise truly. They accordingly made oath, for our interview took place in a temple, and then I said: "You betake yourselves to the ships of the pirates at once, for we will sail away by night."

And they found me all the more plausible from the way I bargained about the money, for I stipulated that it must all be paid me in current cash, though not before they had captured the ship. They therefore went off, but I put straight out to sea after doubling the promontory."

"This then," said Iarchas, "O Apollonius, you consider the behavior of a just man?"

"Why yes," said Apollonius, "and of a humane one too! for I consider it was a rare combination of virtues for one who was a mere sailor to refuse to sacrifice men's lives, or to betray  the interests of merchants, so rising superior to all bribes of money."

[§25] Thereupon the Indian smiled and said: "You seem to think that mere abstention from injustice constitutes justice, and I am of opinion that all Greeks do the same. For as I once learned from the Egyptians that come hither, governors from Rome are in the habit of visiting your country, brandishing their axes naked over your heads, before they know they have bad men to rule or not; but you acknowledge them to be just if they merely do not sell justice.

And I have heard that the slave merchants yonder do exactly the same; for when they come to you with convoys of Carian slaves and are anxious to recommend their characters to you, they make it a great merit of the slaves that they do not steal. In the same way do you recommend on such grounds the rulers whose sway you acknowledge, and after decorating them with such praises as you lavish upon slaves, you send them away, objects, as you imagine, of universal admiration.

Nay more, your cleverest poets will not give you leave to be just and good, even if you want to. For here was [the legendary king of Crete] Minos, a man who exceeded all men in cruelty, and who enslaved with his navies the inhabitants of continent and islands alike, and yet they honor him by placing in his hand a scepter of justice and give him a throne in Hades to be umpire of spirits; while at the same time they deny food and drink to Tantalus, merely because he was a good man and inclined to share with his friends the immortality bestowed upon them by the Gods. And some of them hang stones over him, and rain insults of a terrible kind upon this divine and good man; and I would much rather that they had represented him as swimming in a lake of nectar, for he regaled men with that drink humanely and ungrudgingly."

And as he spoke he pointed out a statue which stood upon his left hand, on which was inscribed the name "Tantalus". Now this statue was four cubits high, and represented a man of fifty years who was clad in the fashion of Argolis, though he differed in his cloak, that being like a Thessalian's, and he held a cup sufficient at least for one thirsty man and drank your health therefrom, and in the goblet was a liquor, an unmixed draught which frothed and foamed, though without bubbling over the edge of the cup.

Now I will presently explain what they consider this cup to be, and for what reason they drink from it. In any case, however, we must suppose that Tantalus was assailed by the poets for not giving rein to his tongue, but because he shared the nectar with mankind; but we must not suppose that he was really the victim of the gods' dislike, for, had he been hateful to them, he would never have been judged by the Indians to be a good man, for they are most religious people and never transgress any divine command.

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Note 1:
The Greek hero Palamedes was credited with several inventions, such as dice, measures, and numbers. Because he was also believed by some to have invented the alphabet, he became some sort of patron saint for sophists like Philostratus.

Note 2:
Three well-known problems for sailors in the Aegean Sea. The Malea was a dangerous cape south of the Peloponnese, Cape Sunium was the south-east of Attica, and the Hollows were a notorious place because of the winds and the rocks. In 480, Xerxes lost a large fleet at the Hollows.

Note 3:
Pharos was an island opposite Alexandria, famous for its Lighthouse. The island, however, was a well-known place well before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria. In the Odyssey, Homer mentions Proteus as one of Pharos' inhabitants in the legendary age.

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