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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


Summary of Book 7:

The dramatic climax of the Life of Apollonius is formed by the sage's confrontation with the tyrant Domitian in Book 7 and the first part of book 8. After an introduction comparing Apollonius' actions with the attitude of philosophers to tyrants in the past -a comparison which naturally comes down in favor of Apollonius (7.1-4)-, Philostratus relates Apollonius' public opposition to the tyrant and his exhortations to the governors and senators -including Orfitus, Rufus and the future emperor Nerva- to revolt against the tyrannic regime (7.5-8). As a part of the preparations for a trial of these senators, Domitian issues a warrant for the arrest of Apollonius, who has been maligned by Euphrates to the emperor. Apollonius foresees this warrant and on his own initiative he leaves Smyrna for Dicaearchia (Puteoli), accompanied by Damis. He meets Demetrius there (7.9) and resists his attempts to deter him from engaging in a confrontation with Domitian (7.11-14). Apollonius and Damis sail to Rome, where the sage of Tyana is arrested and has a meeting with the praetorian prefect, Aelianus, who is well disposed toward him (7.15-21). Apollonius is incarcerated in a prison with a mild regime; he instills courage in Damis and his fellow prisoners (7.22-26) and sees through the trickery of one of Domitian's spies (7.27). A servant of Aelianus advises him on the line to adopt with the emperor (7.28). At his first meeting with the emperor, Apollonius defends himself against the charges (7.32f). The emperor orders him to be shaved and put in irons (7.34). Philostratus dismisses a letter attributed to Apollonius, in which the philosopher begs for Domitian's mercy, as a forgery (7.35). Apollonius brushes off another of Domitian's spies (7.36f) and inspires Damis with new courage by miraculously shaking off his fetters (7.38). Through the intervention of Aelianus, Apollonius is transferred to the prison with a mild regime (7.40). He sends Damis back to Dicaearchia (7.41) and listens to the story of a young man from Messene, who has been imprisoned for spurning the emperor's advances.

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[§1] I am aware that the conduct of philosophers under despotism is the truest touchstone of their character, and am in favor of inquiring in what way any one man displays more courage than another. And my argument also considers me to consider the point; for during the reign of Domitian, Apollonius was beset by accusations and writs of information, the several origins, sources and counts of which I shall presently enlarge upon; and as I shall be under the necessity of specifying the language which he used and the role which he assumed, when he left the court after convicting the tyrant rather than being himself convicted, so I must first of all enumerate all the feats of wise men in the presence of tyrants which I have found worthy of commemoration, and contrast them with the conduct of Apollonius. For this I think is the best way of finding out the truth.

[§2] Zeno then of Elea, who was the father of dialectic, was convicted of an attempt to overthrow the tyranny of Nearchus the Mysian; and being put to the rack he refused to divulge the names of his accomplices, though he accused of disloyalty those who were loyal to the tyrant, with the result that, whereas they were put to death on the assumption that his accusations were true, he effected the liberation of the Mysians, by tripping despotism up over itself.

And Plato declares that he took up the cause of the liberation of the people of Sicily, and associated himself in this enterprise with Dion.

And Phyton, when he was banished from Rhegium, fled to Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily; but being treated with more honor than an exile might expect, he realized that the tyrant had designs also upon Rhegium; and he informed the people there of this by letter. But he was caught doing so by the tyrant, who forthwith fastened him to one of his siege engines alive, and then pushed it forward against the walls, imagining that the inhabitants of Rhegium would not shoot at the machine in order to spare Phyton. He, however, cried out to them to shoot, for, said he: "I am the target of your liberty."

And Heraclides and Python who slew Cotys the Thracian were both of them young men, and they embraced the principles of the Academy and made themselves wise and so free men.

And who does not know the story of Callisthenes of Olynthus? He on one and the same day delivered a panegyric and of an attack upon the Macedonians, just at the time when they were at the acme of their power [during the reign of Alexander the Great]; and they put him to death for exciting their displeasure.

Then there were Diogenes of Sinope and Crates of Thebes, of whom the former went direct to Chaeronea, and rebuked Philip for his treatment of the Athenians, on the ground that, though asserting himself to be a descendant of Heracles he yet was destroying by force of arms those who had taken up arms in defense of the descendants of Heracles.

The other Crates, when Alexander declared that he would rebuild Thebes for his sake, replied that he would never stand in need of a country or of a city, which anyone could raze to the ground by mere force of arms.

Many more examples of this kind can be adduced, but my treatise does not allow me to prolong them. It is indeed incumbent upon me to criticize these examples, not in order to show that they were not as remarkable as they are universally famous, but only to show that they fell short of the exploits of Apollonius, in spite of their being the best of their kind.

[§3] About the conduct of Zeno of Elea then, and about the murder of Cotys there is nothing very remarkable; for as it is easy to enslave Thracians and Getae, so it is an act of folly to liberate them; for indeed they do not appreciate freedom, because, I imagine, they do not esteem slavery to be base.

I will not say that Plato somewhat lacked wisdom when he set himself to reform the affairs of Sicily rather than those of Athens, or that he was sold in all fairness when, after deceiving others, he found himself deceived, for I fear to offend my readers.

But the despotic sway of Dionysius over Sicily was not solidly based when Phyton of Rhegium made his attempt against him, and in any case he would have been put to death by him, even if the people of that city had not shot their bolts at him; his achievement, then, I think, was by no means wonderful: he only preferred to die in behalf of the liberty of others rather than to endure the death penalty to make himself a slave.

And as for Callisthenes, even today he cannot acquit himself of baseness; for in first commending and then attacking one and the same set of people, he either attacked those whom he felt to be worthy of praise, or he praised those whom he ought to have been openly attacking. Moreover a person who sets himself to abuse good men cannot escape the charge of being envious, while he who flatters the wicked by his very praises of them draws down upon his own head the guilt of their misdeeds, for evil men are only rendered more evil when you praise them.

And Diogenes, if he had addressed Philip in the way he did before the battle of Chaeronea instead of after it, might have preserved him from the guilt of taking up arms against Athens; but instead of doing so he waited till harm was done, when he could only reproach him, not reform him.

As for Crates, he must needs incur the censure of every patriot for not seconding Alexander in his design of recolonizing Thebes.

But Apollonius had not to fear for any country that was endangered, nor was he in despair of his own life, nor was he reduced to silly and idle speeches, nor was he championing the cause of Mysians or Getae, nor was he face to face with one who was only sovereign of a single island or of an inconsiderable country, but he confronted one who was master both of sea and land, at a time when his tyranny was harsh and bitter; and he took his stand against the tyrant in behalf of the welfare of the subjects, with the same spirit of purpose as he had taken his stand against Nero.

[§4] Some may think that his attitude towards Nero was a mere bit of skirmishing, because he did not come to close quarters with him, but merely undermined his despotism by his enocuragement of Vindex, and the terror with which he inspired Tigellinus. And there are certain braggarts here who foster the tale that it required no great courage to assail a man like Nero who led the life of a female harpist or flautist. But what, I would ask, have they to say about Domitian?

Bust of Domitian. Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico,  Sevilla)

For he was vigorous in body, and he abjured all those pleasures of music and song which wear away and soften down ferocity; and he took pleasure in the sufferings of others and in any lamentations they uttered. And he was in the habit of saying that distrust is the best safeguard of the people against their tyrants and of the tyrant against the multitude; and though he thought that a sovereign ought to rest from all hard work during the night, yet he deemed it the right season to begin murdering people in.

And the result was that while the Senate had all its most distinguished members cut off, philosophy was reduced to cowering in a corner, to such an extent that some of its votaries disguised themselves by changing their dress and ran away to take refuge among the western Celts, while others fled to the deserts of Libya and Scythia, and others again stooped to compose orations in which his crimes were palliated.

But Apollonius, like Tiresias, who is represented by Sophocles as addressing to Oedipus the word:

For 'tis not in your slavery that I live, but in that of Loxias [1]
chose wisdom as his mistress, and escaped scot-free from paying tribute to Domitian.

Applying to himself, as if it were an oracle, the verse of Tiresias and of Sophocles, and fearing nothing for himself, but only pitying the fate of others, he set himself to rally round him all the younger men of the Senate, and husband such intelligence as he saw discerned in many of them; and he visited the provinces and in the name of philosophy he appealed to the governors, pointing out to them that the strength of a tyrant is not immortal, and that the very fact of their being dreaded exposes them to defeat. And he also reminded them of the Panathenaic festival in Attica, at which hymns are sung in honor of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and of the sally that was made from Phyle, when thirty tyrants at once were overthrown; and he also reminded them of the ancient history of the Romans, and of how they too had been a democracy, after driving out despotism, arms in hand.[2]

The theater of Ephesus. Photo Jona Lendering.
Theater of Ephesus

[§5] And on occasion when a tragic actor visited Ephesus and came forward in the play called the Ino, and when the governor of Asia was one of the audience, a man who was though still young and of very distinguished rank among the consuls, was nevertheless very nervous about such matters, just as the actor finished the speech in which Euripides describes in his iambics how tyrants after long growth of their power are destroyed by little causes, Apollonius leapt up and said: ""But yonder coward understand neither Euripides nor myself!"

Philostratus: Life of Apollonius : next

Note 1:
Sophocles, Oedipus 410; Loxias is another name for Apollo.

Note 2:
A reference to the expulsion of the kings by Junius Brutus.

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