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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

 
  [§11] But as matters in the west were in such an inflamed condition, Apollonius and his friends returned thence towards Libya and the Tyrrhenian land; and, partly on foot and partly by sea, they made their way to Sicily, where they stopped at Lilybaeum. Then they coasted along to Messina and to the Straits, where the junction of the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Adriatic gives rise to the dangers of the Charybdis.[1]

Here they say they heard that Nero had taken to flight, tough Vindex was dead; and that various claimants were snatching at the throne, some from Rome itself, and others from various countries. Now when his companions asked him what would be the issue of these events, and who would gain possession of the throne, he answered: "Many Thebans will have it."

For he compared the pretenders, namely, Vitellius and Galba and Otho, in view of the short lease of power which they enjoyed, to Thebans, for it was only during a very short time that they held dominion over the Hellenic world.

[§12] That he was enabled to make such forecasts by some divine impulse, and that it is no sound inference to infer, as some people do, that our hero was a wizard, is clear from what I have already said. But let us consider these facts also: wizards, whom for my part I reckon to be the most unfortunate of mankind, claim to alter the course of destiny, by having recourse either to the torture of lost spirits or to barbaric sacrifices, or to certain incantations or anointings; and many of them when accused of such practices have admitted that they were adepts in such practices. But Apollonius submitted himself to the decrees of the Fates, and only foretold that things must come to pass; and his foreknowledge was gained not by wizardry, but from what the gods revealed to him.

And when among the Indians he beheld their tripods and their dumb waiters and other automata, which I described as entering the room on their own accord, he did not ask how they were contrived, nor did he ask to be informed; he only praised them, but did not aspire to imitate them.

[§13] Now when they reached Syracuse a woman of a leading family was brought to bed of such a monster as never any woman had delivered of before: for her child had three heads, and each head had a neck of its own, but below them was a single body. Of the vulgar and stupid interpretations of this prodigy, one was that it signified the impending ruin of Sicily -for it has three headlands- unless the inhabitants composed their feuds and could live together in peace; for as a matter of fact several of the cities were at variance both with themselves and with one another, and such a thing as orderly life was unknown in the island. Another explanation was that Typhon, a many-headed monster, was threatening Sicily with his violence.

But Apollonius said: "Go, O Damis, and look if the child is really made up as they say." For the thing was exposed to public view for the miracle-mongers to exercise their ingenuity upon it.

When Damis reported that it was a three-headed creature and of the male sex, Apollonius got together his companions and said: "It signifies three emperors of Romans, whom yesterday I called Thebans; and not one of them shall enjoy complete dominion, but two of them shall perish after holding sway in Rome itself, and the third after doing so in the countries bordering upon Rome; and they shall shuffle off their masks more quickly than if they were tragic actors playing the part of tyrant."

And the truth of his statement was almost immediately revealed; for Galba died in Rome itself, just after he grasped the crown; and Vitellius died after only dreaming of the crown; and Otho died among the Gauls of the west,[2] and was not even accorded a public funeral, but lies buried like any private person. And Fate's episode was past and over within a single year.

[§14] Next they came to Catana, where is Mount Etna; and they say that they heard from the inhabitants of the city a story about [the mythological monster] Typho being bound on the spot and about fire rising from him, and this fire sends up the smoke of Etna;[3] but they themselves came to more plausible conclusions and more in keeping with philosophy. And they say that Apollonius began the discussion by asking his companions: "Is there such a thing as mythology?"

"Yes, by Zeus," answered Menippus, "and I mean by it that which furnishes poets with their themes."

"What then do you think of Aesop?"

"He is a mythologist and writer of fables and no more."

"And which set of myths show any wisdom?"

"Those of the poets," he answered, "because they are represented in the poems as having taken place."

"And what then do you think of the stories of Aesop?"

"Frogs," he answered, "and donkeys and nonsense only fit to be swallowed by old women and children."

"And yet for my own part," said Apollonius, "I find them more conducive to wisdom than the others. For those others, of which all poetry is so fond, and which deal with heroes, positively destroy the souls of their hearers, because the poet relates stories of outlandish passion and of incestuous marriages, and repeats calumnies against the gods, of how they ate their own children, and committed crimes of meanness, and quarreled with one another; and the affectation and pretense of reality leads passionate and jealous people and miserlike and ambitious persons to imitate the stories.

Aesop on the other hand had in the first place the wisdom never to identify himself with those who put such stories into verse, but took a line of his own; and in the second, like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.

And the poet, after telling his story, leaves a healthy-minded reader cudgeling his brains to know whether it really happened; whereas one who, like Aesop, tells a story which is false and does not pretend to be anything else, merely investing it with a good moral, shows that he has made use of the falsehood merely for its utility to his audience.

And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent.

And whereas the poet, after telling us that there are 'many forms of heavenly visitation' or something of the kind, dismisses his chorus and departs, Aesop adds an oracle to his story, and dismisses his hearers just as they reach the conclusion he wished to lead the up to.

[§15] And as for myself, O Menippus, my mother taught me a story about the wisdom of Aesop when I was a mere child, and told me that he was once a shepherd, and was tending his flocks hard by a temple of Hermes, and that he was a passionate lover of wisdom and prayed to Hermes that he might receive it. Many other people, she said, also resorted to the temple of Hermes asking for the same gift, and one of them would hang on the altar gold, another silver, another a herald's wand of ivory, and others other rich presents of the kind.

Now Aesop, she said, was not in a position to own any of these things; but he saved up what  he had, and poured a libation of as much milk as a sheep would give at one milking in honor of Hermes, and brought a honeycomb and laid it on the altar, big enough to fill the hand, and he thought too of regaling the god with myrtle berries, or perhaps by laying just a few roses or violets at the altar. 'For,' said he, 'would you, O Hermes, have me weave crowns for you and neglect my sheep?'

Now when on the appointed day they arrived for the distribution of the gifts of wisdom, Hermes as the god of wisdom and eloquence and also of gain and profit, said to him who, as you may well suppose, had made the biggest offering: 'Here is philosophy for you'; and to him who had made the next handsomest present, he said: 'Do you take your place among the orators'; and to others he said: 'You shall have the gift of astronomy or you shall be a musician, or you shall be an epic poet and write in heroic metre, or you shall be a writer of iambics.'

Now although he was a most wise and accomplished god he exhausted, not meaning to do so, all the various departments of wisdom, and then found that he had quite forgotten Aesop. Thereupon he remembered the Hours, by whom he himself had been nurtured on the peaks of Olympus, and bethought him of how once, when he was still in swaddling clothes, they had told him a story about the cow, which had a conversation with the man about herself and about the earth, and so set him aflame for the cows of Apollo.[4] Accordingly he forthwith bestowed upon Aesop the art of fable called mythology, for that was all that was left in the house of wisdom, and said: "Do you keep what was the first thing I learnt myself."

Aesop then acquired the various forms of his art from that source, and the issue was such as we have seen in the matter of mythology.

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Note 1:
A monster mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, associated with the violent tides at the Strait of Messina.

Note 2:
For Philostratus, there were kinds of Gauls: those of the east, which are better known as Galatians, and those of the west, i.e. the inhabitants of France, Belgium and northern Italy. Otho died after a defeat on the plains of the river Po.

Note 3:
The name of the monster, Typho, means something like "smoker".

Note 4:
According to myth, Hermes, still a child, stole Apollo's cows.

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