Apollonius of Tyana (9)

Apollonius of Tyana: charismatic teacher and miracle worker (first century CE). Born in Tyana, he may have belonged to a branch of ancient philosophy called neo-Pythagoreanism. He received divine honors in the third century. Although the Athenian sophist (professional orator) Philostratus wrote a lengthy Life of Apollonius (summary), hardly anything about the sage is certain. However, there are several bits and pieces of information that may help us reconstruct something of the life of this man, who was and is frequently compared to the Jewish sage and miracle worker Jesus of Nazareth.

Magic in what sense?

We have seen above hat Apollonius lived in the second half of the first century, was a magician (extremely probable), adhered to the neo-Pythagorean philosophy, and published books On astrology and On sacrifices (all very probable).

The final problem we must address is: what kind of magician was Apollonius? Just like today, the word "magician" could have various meanings: it might indicate evil sorcerers, charlatans, wizards, diviners and exorcists. 

The fact that the Greek word magos could also indicate the Persian religious specialist known as Magians, and a Median tribe, makes things really complex. It should be noted that the words magos, astrologos, mathematikos, and chaldaios, which originally indicated the religious specialists of the Achaemenid Empire, astrologers, astronomers, and the priests of the Esagila temple in Babylon, had become synonyms in the first century CE. The most famous example of this confusion is the story of the magoi who came to see the baby Jesus after an astronomical observationnote - they were not wizards, Persian religious specialists, or Medes, but astrologers.

Philostratus is adamant in his condemnation of all types of magic; in the Life of Apollonius (LoA), he remarks several times that his hero was not a magician, even though some may think that certain acts were the result of wizardry. On the other hand, we possess a far more positive appreciation of  magic practices in the Letters of Apollonius. We have already seen Letter 16:

I think that those who follow no matter whom, ought to be called "magicians", if only they are determined to be divine and just men.

The plural "magic practices" three sentences ago is important. There was not one "magic creed", there were many.

Is it possible to be a bit more precise about Apollonius' magic? The answer may be "yes" and the key may be LoA 3.41, a story about the Indian sages that Philostratus has found in Damis:

Apollonius and Damis then took part in the interviews devoted to abstract discussions; not so with the conversations devoted to occult themes, in which they pondered the nature of astronomy or divination, and considered the problem of foreknowledge, and handled the problems of sacrifice and of the invocations in which the gods take pleasure. In these Damis says that Apollonius alone partook of the philosophic discussion together with Iarchas [the chief Indian sages].

This is a bit odd, because there is no logical connection between "the nature of astronomy", "sacrifice" and "invocations". However, the triad is repeated in the next lines:

In these Damis says that Apollonius alone partook of the philosophic discussion together with Iarchas, and that Apollonius embodied the results in four books concerning the divination by the stars, a work which Moeragenes as mentioned. And Damis says that he composed a work on the way to offer sacrifice to the several gods in a manner pleasing to them.

Not only then do I regard the work on the science of the stars and the whole subject of such divination as transcending human nature, but I do not even know if anyone has these gifts; but I found the treatise On sacrifice in several cities, and in the houses of several learned men; moreover, if anyone should translate it, he would find it to be a grave and dignified composition, and one that rings of the author's personality.

And Damis says that Iarchas gave seven rings to Apollonius named after the seven stars [i.e., the planets], and that Apollonius wore each of these in turn on the day of the week which bore its name.

Even though Philostratus feels embarrassed with the existence of the book On astrology and with the fact that On sacrifice was not written in Greek, he cannot deny that he has found references to these books in both Damis and Moeragenes, and that these books belonged together.

Scientific astronomy was not an Indian specialism. The leading astronomers of Antiquity were those of the Esagila, the temple of Marduk in Babylon; the Greeks usually called them Chaldaeans, but as we have seen above, this name had become synonym with several other words. The Babylonian name for the temple astronomer was tupšar Enûma Anu Enlil. We know quite a lot about these officials: they made astronomical observations and were able to predict the course of the planets, observed the entrails of the victims, "read" the future from the smoke of the sacrifices, noticed what troubles were approaching, advised the authorities on the kind of sacrifices they had to bring to ward of the dangers, and they cured people with incantations and exorcisms.

This is remarkably similar to the above quoted words that Apollonius took an interest in "the nature of astronomy or divination, and considered the problem of foreknowledge, and handled the problems of sacrifice and of the invocations in which the gods take pleasure". Nearly all the tasks of the tupšar Enûma Anu Enlil are covered by these words and it is possible that it was also covered in Apollonius' books On astrology and On sacrifice. In LoA 1.31 we even encounter "read" the future from the smoke of the sacrifices. That Apollonius was capable of exorcism, we have already seen above.

Of course it is far from proved that Apollonius knew in some way something about the activities of the tupšar Enûma Anu Enlil. But on the other hand, the Babylonian culture was not dead. If a contemporary of Apollonius, Seneca, could imitate Socrates, there is nothing implausible in a Pythagorean sage following in the footsteps of his role model and visiting the Esagila. He would not have been the only foreigner who visited Babylon to study the recently developed scientific astronomy; in the third century, a rabbi Samuel did the same, graduated and became known under the age-old Babylonian professional title "astronomer and physician" (Talmud Babli, Baba Mesi'a 85b).

Perhaps it was not even necessary to travel all the way to Babylon to be taught by a tupšar Enûma Anu Enlil. In Syria, there was an enclave of Babylonian culture: Emesa, where, as we have seen, the Sun was venerated with the rituals of the Babylonian New Year's festival. And it should be noted that Philostratus received "Damis" from an empress who was born in Emesa; it is possible that Damis contained an Emesian tradition about an Apollonius whose concept of magic was essentially Babylonian.


The collection of Apollonius' letters was published by Robert J. Penella, The Letters of Apollonius of Tyana: A Critical Text (1979 Leiden). Philostratus' Life of Apollonius was - together with the Letters and the Treatise of Eusebius - published in two volumes in the Loeb Classical Library in 1912, with a translation by F.C. Conybeare; it has been quoted several times in this article and is also available online.

The most important recent discussion of the problems related to the Life of Apollonius, can be found in Jaap-Jan Flinterman's Power, paideia & pythagoreanism. Greek identity, conceptions of the relationship between philosophers and monarchs and political ideas in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius (1995 Amsterdam), pages 67ff. He questions the vision of Damis that had been published by E.L. Bowie, "Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality" in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.16.2 (1987) 1652-99; Bowie had maintained that Damis never existed, but Flinterman convincingly shows otherwise.

M. Dzielka's Apollonius of Tyana in legend and history is especially useful on the local traditions before Philostratus and the post-Philostratean elaborations. Mark Geller's article "The Last Wedge" (in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 87 [1997] 43-95) is useful on the last centuries of the Babylonian civilization.

On the theoretical problems of the study of the "divine man", see Jaap-Jan Flinterman's article "The ubiquitous 'Divine Man'" in Numen 43 (1996) pp 82-98.