home  :  index  :  ancient Greece  :  ancient Rome  :  Apollonius of Tyana  :  Philostratus
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] It was at this time also that he had a difference with Bassus of Corinth; for the latter was regarded as a parricide and believed to be such. But he feigned a wisdom of his own, and no bridle could be set upon his tongue. However, Apollonius put a stop to his reviling himself, both by the letters which he sent him, and the harangues which he delivered against him. For everything which he said about his being a parricide was held to be true; for it was felt that such a man would never have condensed to mere personal abuse, not to have said what was not true.

[§27] The career of our sage in Olympia was as follows:  when Apollonius was on his way up to Olympia, some envoys of the Lacedaemonians met him and asked him to visit their city; there seemed, however, to be no appearance of Sparta about them, for they conducted themselves in a very effeminate manner and reeked of luxury. And seeing them to have smooth legs, and sleek hair, and that they did not even wear beards, nay were even dressed in soft raiment, he sent such a letter to the Ephors [i.e., magistrates] that the latter issued a public proclamation and forbade the use of pitch plasters in the baths,[1] and drove out of the city the men who professed to rejuvenate dandies [i.e., hair-pluckers], and they restored the ancient régime in every respect.

The consequence was that the wrestling grounds were filled once more with the youth, and the jousts and the common meals were restored, and Lacedaemon became once more like herself. And when he learned that they had set their house in order, he sent them an epistle from Olympia, briefer than any cipher dispatch of ancient Sparta; and it ran as follows:

Apollonius to the Ephors sends salutation.
     It is the duty of men not to fall into sin, but of noble men, to recognize that they are doing so.
[§28] And looking at the statue [of Zeus by Phidias] set up at Olympia, he said: "Hail, O thou good Zeus, for thou art so good that thou dost impart thine own nature unto mankind."
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Model of Olympia. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Olympia (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam) 

And he also gave them an account of the brazen statue of Milo [2] and explained the attitude of this figure. For this Milo is seen standing on a disk with his two feet close together, and in his left hand he grasps a pomegranate, whole of his right hand the fingers are extended and pressed together as if to pass through a chink.

Now among the people of Olympia and Arcadia the story told about this athlete is, that he was so inflexible that he could never be induced to leave the spot on which he stood; and they infer the grip of the clenched fingers from the way he grasps the pomegranate, and that they could never be separated from another, however much you struggled with any one of them, because the intervals between the extended fingers are very close; and they say that the fillet with which his head is bound is a symbol of temperance and sobriety.

Apollonius while admitting that this account was wisely conceived, said that the truth was still wiser. "In order that you may know," said he, "the meaning of the statue of Milo, the people of Croton made this athlete a priest of Hera. As to the meaning then of this mitre, I need not explain it further than by reminding you that the hero was a priest. But the pomegranate is the only fruit which is grown in honor of Hera; and the disk beneath his feet means that the priest is standing on a small shield to offer his prayer to Hera; and this is also indicated by his right hand. As for the artist's rendering the fingers and feet, between which he has left no interval, that you may ascribe to the antique style of the sculpture."

Phidias' Zeus on a coin from the Bode-Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Phidias' Zeus (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

[§29] He was present at the rites, and he commended the solicitude with which the people of Elis administered them, and the good order with which they conducted them, as if they considered themselves to be as much on trial as the athletes who were contending for the prizes, anxious neither willing nor unwillingly to commit any error. And when his companions asked him what he thought of the Eleans in respect of their management of the Olympic games, he replied: "Whether they are wise, I do not know, but of their cleverness I am quite sure."

[§30] How great a dislike he entertained of people who imagine they can write, and how senseless he considered those to be who essay a literary task beyond their powers, we can learn from the following incident: A young man who thought he had talent met him in the precincts of the temple and said: "Pray honor me with your presence tomorrow, for I am going to recite something."

When Apollonius asked him what he was going to recite, he replied: "I have composed a treatise upon Zeus."

And as he said these words he showed, with no little pride at its stoutness, a book which he was carrying under his garments. "And," said Apollonius, "what are you going to praise about Zeus? Is it the Zeus of this fane, and are you going to say that there is nothing like him on the whole earth?"

"Why that, of course," said the other, "and a great deal more that comes before that and also follows it. For I shall say how the seasons and how everything on earth and above the earth, and how the winds and all the stars belong to Zeus."

And Apollonius said: "It seems to me that you are a past-master of encomium."[3]

"Yes," said the other, "and that is why I have composed an encomium of gout and of blindness and deafness."

"And why not of dropsy too," said Apollonius; "for surely you won't rule out influenza from the sphere of your cleverness, since you are minded to praise such things? And while you are about it, you do as well to attend funerals and detail the praises of the various diseases of which the people died; for so you will somewhat soothe the regrets of the fathers and children and the near relations of the deceased."

And as he saw that the effect of his words was to put a bridle on the young man's tongue, he added: "My dear author, which is the author of a panegyric likely best to praise, things which he knows or things which he does not?"

"Things which he knows," said the youth. "For how can a man praise things which he does not know?"

"I conclude then that you have already written a panegyric of your own father?"[4]

"I wanted to," said the other, "but as he appears to me rather a big man and a noble one, and the fairest of men I know, and a very clever housekeeper, and a paragon of wisdom all round, I gave up the attempt to compose a panegyric upon him, lest I should disgrace my father by a discourse which would not do him justice."

Thereupon Apollonius was incensed, as he often was against trivial and vulgar people. "Then," said he, "you wretch, you are not sure that you can ever sufficiently praise your own father whom you know as well as you do yourself, and yet you set out in this light-hearted fashion to write an encomium of the father of men and of gods and of the creator of everything around us and above us; and you have no reverence for him whom you praise, nor have you the least idea that you are embarking on a subject which transcends the power of man."[5]

Philostratus: Life of Apollonius : next

  Note 1:
They were used to remove hair from the body.

Note 2:
Milo of Croton was a famous athlete and a son-in-law of Pythagoras.

Note 3:
An encomium was a speech in which a sophist praised a person or a thing. An encomium on Zeus was a serious subject, but more light-hearted subjects like "In praise of baldness" were also possible.

Note 4:
A funeral speech.

Note 5:
The idea that Zeus transcends human knowledge is also present in the one single identifiable quote from the real Apollonius of Tyana (Porphyry, On abstinence, 2.34):

In no other manner, I believe, can one exhibit a fitting respect for the Divine being, beyond any other men make sure of being singled out as an object of his favor and good-will, than by refusing to offer to God -whom we termed First, who is One and separate from all, as subordinate to Whom we must recognize all the rest- any victim at all; to Him we must not kindle fire or make promise unto Him of any sensible object whatsoever. For He needs nothing even from beings higher than ourselves. Nor is there any plant or animal which earth sends up or nourishes, to which some pollution is not incident. We should make use in relation to Him solely of the higher speech, I mean of that which issues not by the lips; and from the noblest faculty we possess, and that faculty is intelligence, which needs no organ. On these principles then we ought not on any account to sacrifice to the mighty and supreme God.

home  :  index  :  ancient Greece  :  ancient Rome  :  Apollonius of Tyana  :  Philostratus