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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

  [18] There was a man of Thessaly, named Isagoras, whom he met in Olympia and said: "Tell me, Isagoras, is there such a thing as a religious fair or festival?"

"Why yes," he replied, "and by heaven there is nothing in the world of men, so agreeable and so dear to the gods."

"And what is the material of which it is composed?" asked Apollonius; "It is as if I asked you about the material of which this image is made, and you answered me that it was composed of gold and ivory."

"But," said the other, "what material, Apollonius, can a thing which is incorporeal be composed of?"

"A most important material," replied Apollonius, "and most varied in character; for there are sacred groves in it, and race-courses and, of course, a theater, and tribes of men, some of them from neighboring countries, and others from over the borders, and even from across the sea. Moreover," he added, "many arts go to make up such a festival, and many designs, and much true genius, both of poets, and of civil counselors, and of those who deliver harangues on philosophic topics, and contests between naked athletes, and contests of musicians, as is the custom in the Pythian festival."

"It seems to me," said the other, "O Apollonius, that the festival is not only something corporeal, but is made up of more wonderful material than are cities; for there is summoned together into one community on such occasions the best of the best, and the most celebrated of the celebrated."

"Then," said Apollonius, "O Isagoras, are we to consider the people we meet there in the same light as some people regard walls and ships, or do you need some other opinion of the festival?"

"The opinion," answered the other, "which we have formulated, is quite adequate and complete, O man of Tyana, and we had better adhere to it."

"And yet," said the other, "it is neither adequate nor complete to one who considers about is as I do; for it appears to me that ships are in need of men and men of ships, and that men would never have thought about the sea at all if they had not had a ship; and men are kept safe by walls and walls by men; and in the same way I consider a festival to be not only the meeting of human beings, but also the place itself in which they have to meet, and the more so, because walls and ships would never have come into being, unless there had been men's hands to build them, while these places, so far forth as they are deprived of their natural and original characteristics, are by the hands of men spoiled; for it was owing to their natural advantages that they were held worthy of being made their meeting-places; for though the gymnasiums and porticoes and fountains and houses have been all created by human art, just like the walls and the ships, yet this river Alpheus with the hippodrome and the stadium and the groves, existed, I suppose, before men came here, the one providing water for drinking and for the bath, and the second a broad plain for the horses to race in, and the third provided just the space required fro the athletes to raise the dust in as they run along in their races, namely a valley a stadium in length, and the groves supplied wreaths for the winners and served the athletes who were runners as a place to practice in. For I imagine that [the legendary founder of the Olympic Games] Heracles considered these facts, and because he admired the natural advantages of Olympia, he found the place worthy of the festival and games which are still held here."

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Trophonius on a relief from Lebadeia. National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Trophonius on a relief from Lebadeia (National 
Archaeological Museum
, Athens)

[19] After forty days, given up to discussions in Olympia, in which many topics were handled, Apollonius said: "I will also, O men of Hellas, discourse to you in your several cities, at your festivals, at your religious processions, at your mysteries, your sacrifices, at your public libations, and they require the services of a clever man; but for the present I must go down to Lebadea, for I have never yet had an interview with [the oracular deity] Trophonius, although I once visited his shrine." And with these words he at once started for Boeotia attended by every one of his admirers.

Now the cavern in Lebadea is dedicated to Trophonius, the son of Apollo, and it can only be entered by those who resort thither in order to get an oracle, and it is not visible in the temple, but lies a little above it on a mound; and it is shut in by iron spits which surround it, and you descend into it as it were sitting down and being drawn down. Those who enter it are clad in white raiment, and are escorted thither with honey-cakes in their hands to appease the reptiles which assail them as they descend. But the earth brings them to the surface again, in some cases close by, but in other cases a long way off; for they are sent up to the surface beyond Locri and beyond Phocis, but most of them about the borders of Boeotia.

Accordingly Apollonius entered the shrine and said: "I wish to descend into the cave in the interests of philosophy."

But the priests opposed him and though they told the multitude that they would never allow a wizard like him to examine and test the shrine, they pretended to the sage himself that there were forbidden days and days unclean for consulting. So on that day he delivered a discourse at the springs of Hercyne, about the origin and conduct of the shrine; for it is the only oracle which gives responses through the person himself who consults it.

And when the evening approached, he went to the mouth of the cave with his train of youthful followers, and having pulled up four of the obelisks [i.e. the spits], which constitute a bar to the passage, he went down below ground wearing his philosopher's mantle, having dressed himself as if he were going to deliver an address upon philosophy - a step which the god Trophonius so thoroughly approved of, that he appeared to the priests and not only rebuked them for the reception they had given Apollonius, but enjoined them all to follow him to Aulis, for he said it was there that he [Apollonius] would come to surface in such a marvelous fashion as no man before.

And in fact he emerged after seven days, a longer period than it had taken anyone of those who until then had entered the oracle, and he had with him a volume thoroughly in keeping with the questions he had asked: for had gone down saying: "What, O Trophonius, do you consider the most complete and purest philosophy?" And the volume contained the tenets of Pythagoras, a good proof this, that the oracle was in agreement with this form of wisdom.

[20] This book is preserved in Antium, and the village in question, which is on the Italian seaboard, is much visited for the purpose of seeing it. I must acknowledge that I only heard these details from the inhabitants of Lebadea; but in regard to the volume in question I must set on record my conviction, that it was subsequently conveyed to the Emperor Hadrian at the same time as certain letters of Apollonius, though by no means all of them; and it remained in the palace at Antium, which was that one of his Italian palaces in which this Emperor took most pleasure.

[21] From Ionia also there came to see him the band of companions who were named in Hellas the company of Apollonius; and mixing with the people of the place they formed a band of youths, remarkable for their number and for their philosophical enthusiasm. For the science of rhetoric had been left neglected and little attention was paid to the professors of the art, on the ground that their tongue was their only teacher; but now they were all impelled to study his philosophy. But he, like Gyges and Croesus, who they left the door of their treasures unlocked, in order that all who needed might fill their pockets from them, threw open the treasures of his wisdom to those who loved it, and allowed them to ask him questions upon every subject.

[22] But certain persons accused him of avoiding attendance on governors at their visits, and of influencing his hearers rather to live in retirement instead; and one of them uttered the jest that he drove away his sheep as soon as he found any forensic orator approaching. "Yes, by Zeus," said Apollonius, "lest these wolves should fall upon my flock."

What was the meaning of this sally? He saw these forensic orators looked up to by the multitude as they made their way up from poverty to great riches; and he saw that they so welcomed the feuds of others, that they actually conducted a traffic in hatred and feud; accordingly he tried to dissuade these young men from associating with them, and those that did so associate with them he sharply reproved, as if to wash off them a monstrous stain.

For he had been long before on bad terms with them; and his experience of the prisons in Rome, and of the persons who were confined and perishing in them, so prejudiced him against the forensic art, as that he believed all these evils were due to sycophants and lawyers puffed up by their own cleverness, rather than to the despot himself.

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