Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 2.11-15

Philostratus' Life of Apollonius: third-century biography of a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE, who is often likened to Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Life of Apollonius, Athenian author Philostratus (a sophist who lived from c.170 to c.247) tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE. (A summary of this work can be found here.) It is an apologetic vie romancée, in which Philostratus tries to prove that Apollonius was a man with divine powers, but not a magician.

The translation was made by F.C. Conybeare and was published in 1912 in the Loeb Classical Library.

[2.11] And as they made their way to the Indus they met a boy of about thirteen years old mounted on an elephant and striking the animal. And when they wondered at the sight, Apollonius said: "Damis, what is the business of a good horseman?"

"Why, what else," he replied, "than to sit firm upon the horse, and then control it, and turn it with the bit, and punish it when it is unruly, and to take care that the horse does not plunge into a chasm or a ditch or a hole, especially when he is passing over a marsh or a clay bog?"

"And shall we require nothing else, Damis, of a good horseman?" said Apollonius.

"Why, yes," he said, "when the horse is galloping up a hill he must slacken the bit; and when he is going down hill he must not let the horse have his way, but hold him in; and he must caress his ears and man; and in my opinion a clever rider is not always whipping, and I should commend any one who rode in this way."

"And what is needful for a soldier who rides a charger?"

"The same things," he said, "O Apollonius, and in addition the ability to hurl and avoid missiles and to pursue and to retire, and crowd the enemies together without letting his horse be frightened by the rattling of shields or the flashing of the helmets, or by the noise made when the men raise their war-cry and give a whoop; this, I think all belongs to good horsemanship."

"What then will you say of this boy who is riding on the elephant?"

"He is much more wonderful, Apollonius. For it seems to me a superhuman feat for such a tiny mite to manage so huge an animal and guide it with the crook, which you see him digging into the elephant like an anchor, without fearing either the look of the brute or its height, or its enormous strength; and I would not have believed it possible, I swear by Athena, if I had heard another telling it, and had not seen it."

"Well then," said Apollonius, "if anyone wanted to sell us this boy, would you buy him, Damis?"

"Yes, by Zeus," he said, "and I would give everything I have to possess him. For it seems to me the mark of a liberal and splendid nature, to be able to capture like a citadel the greatest animal which earth sustains, and then govern it as its master."

"What then would you do with the boy," said the other, "unless you bought the elephant as well?"

"I would set him," said Damis, "to preside over my household and over my servants, and he would rule them much better than I can."

"And are you not able," said Apollonius, "to rule your own servants?"

"About as able to do so," replied Damis, "as you are yourself, Apollonius. For I have abandoned my property, and am going about, like yourself, eager to learn and to investigate things in foreign countries."

"But if you did actually buy the boy, and if you had two horses, one of them a racer, and the other a charger, would you put him, O Damis, on these horses?"

"I would perhaps," he answered, "upon the racer, for I see others doing the same, but how could he ever mount a war-horse accustomed to carry armor? For he could not either carry a shield, as knights must do; or wear a breast-plate or helmet; and how could he wield a javelin, when he cannot use the shaft of a bolt or of an arrow, but he would in military matters be like a stammerer."

"Then," said the other, "there is, Damis, something else which controls and guides this elephant, and not the driver alone, whom you admire almost to the point of almost worshipping."

Damis replied: "What can that be, Apollonius? For I see nothing else upon the animal except the boy."

"This animal," he answered, " is docile beyond all others; and when he has once been broken in to serve man, he will put up with anything at the hands of man, and he makes it his business to be tractable and obedient to him, and he loves to eat out of his hands, in the way little dogs do; and when his master approaches he fondles him with his trunk, and he will allow him to thrust his head into his jaws, and he holds them as wide open as his master likes, as we have seen among the nomads. But of a night the elephant is said to lament his state of slavery, yes by heaven, not by trumpeting in his ordinary way, but by wailing mournfully and piteously. And if a man comes upon him when he is lamenting in this way, the elephant stops his dirge at once as if he were ashamed. Such control, O Damis, has he over himself, and it is his instinctive obedience which actuates him rather than the man who sits upon and directs him."

[2.12] And when they came to the Indus, they saw a herd of elephants crossing the river, and they say they heard this account of the animals. Some of them are marsh elephants, others again mountain elephants, and there is third kind which belong to the plain: and they are captured for use in war. For indeed they go into battle, saddled with towers big enough to accommodate ten or fifteen Indians all at once; and from these towers the Indians shoot their bows and hurl their javelins, just as if they were taking aim from gate towers. And the animal itself regards his trunk as a hand and uses it to hurl weapons. And the Indian elephants are as much bigger as those of Libya, as these are bigger than the horses of Nisa.

And other authorities have dwelt on the age of the animals, and say that they are very long-lived; but our party too say that they came on an elephant near Taxila, the greatest city in India, who was anointed with myrrh by the natives and adorned with fillets. For, they said, this elephant was one of those who fought on the side of Porus against Alexander; and, as it had made a brave fight, Alexander dedicated it to the Sun. And it had, they say, gold rings around its tusks or horns, whichever you call them, and an inscription was on them written in Greek, as follows:

Alexander the son of Zeus dedicates Ajax to the Sun.

For he had given this name to the elephant, thinking so great an animal deserved a great name. And the natives reckoned that 350 years had elapsed since the battle, without taking into account how old the elephant was when he went into battle.

[2.13] And Juba, who was once sovereign of the Libyan race, says that formerly the knights of Libya fought with one another on elephants, and division of these had a tower engraved upon their tusks, but the others nothing. And when night interrupted the fray the animals which were so marked had, he says, got the worst of it, and fled into Mount Atlas; but he himself 400 years afterwards caught one of the fugitives and found the cavity of the stamp still fresh on the tusk and not yet worn away by time.

This Juba is of opinion that the tusks are horns, because they grow just where the temples are, and there is no grinding of one upon another, and they remain as they grew and do not, like teeth, fall out and then grow afresh.

But I cannot accept this view; for horns, if not all, at any rate those of stags, do fall out and grow afresh, but the teeth, although in the case of men those which may fall out, will every one of them grow again, on the other hand there is not a single animal whose tusk or dog-tooth falls out naturally, nor in which, when it has fallen out, it will come again. For nature implants these tusks in their jaws for the sake of defense. And moreover, a circular ridge is formed year by year at the base of the horns, as we see in the case of goats and sheep and oxen; but a tusk grows out quite smooth, and unless something breaks it, it always remains so, for it consists of a material and substance as hard as stone.

Moreover the carrying of horns is confined to animals with cloven hoofs, but this animal has five nails and the foot branches into more toes than two, and since these are not squeezed into a hoof, the elephant has a pliable sole.

And in the case of all animals that have horns, nature supplies cavernous bones and causes the horn to grow from outwards, whereas she makes the elephant tusk full and equally massive throughout; and when in the lathe you lay bare the interior, you find a very thin tube piercing the center of it, as is the case with teeth.

Now the tusks of the marsh elephants are dark in color and porous and difficult to work, because they are hollowed out into many cavities, and often knots are formed in them which oppose difficulties to the craftsman's tool; but the tusks of the mountain kind, though smaller than these, are pretty white and there is nothing about them difficult to work; but best of all are the tusks of the elephants of the plain, for these are very large and very white and so pleasant to turn and carve that the hand can shape them into whatever it likes.

If I may also describe the characters of these elephants; those which come from the marshes, and are taken there, are considered to be stupid and fighty by the Indians; but those which come from the mountains they regard as vicious and treacherous and, unless they want something, not to be relied upon by man; but the elephants of the plain are said to be good and tractable, and fond of learning tricks; for they will write and dance, and will sway themselves to and fro and leap up and down from the ground to the sound of the pipe.        

[2.14] And Apollonius saw a herd, I think, of about thirty elephants crossing over the River Indus, and they were following as their leader the smallest among them; but the bigger ones had picked up their young ones on their projecting tusks, where they held them fast by twining their trunks around them. Said Apollonius: "No one, O Damis, has instructed them to do this, but they act of their own instinctive wisdom and cleverness; and you see how, like baggage-porters, they have picked up their young, and have them bound fast on, and so carry them along."

"I see," he said, "Apollonius, how cleverly and with what sagacity they do this. What then is the sense of this silly speculation indulged in by those who idly dispute whether the affection that men feel for their young is natural or not, when these very elephants, by their conduct, proclaim that it is so, and that it comes to them by nature? For they have certainly not learnt to do so from men, as have other creatures; for these have never yet shared the life of men, but have been endowed by nature with their love of their offspring, and this is why they provide for them and feed their young."

"And," said Apollonius, "you need not, Damis, confine your remarks to elephants; for this animal is only second to man, in my opinion, in understanding and foresight; but I am thinking rather of bears, for they are the fiercest of all animals, and yet they will do anything for their whelps; and also of wolves, among which, although they are so addicted to plunder, yet the female protects its young ones, and the male brings her food in order to save the life of the whelps.

And I also equally have in mind the panther, which, from the warmth of its temperament, delights to become a mother, for that is the time when it is determined to rule the male and be mistress of the household; and the male puts up with anything and everything from her, subordinating everything to the welfare of the offspring.

And there is also told a story of the lioness, how she will make a lover of the panther and receive him in the lion's lair in the plain; but when she is going to bring forth her young she flees into the mountains to the haunts of the panthers; for she brings forth young ones that are spotted, and that is why she hides her young and nurses them in winding thickets, pretending that she is spending the day out hunting. For if the lion detected the trick, he would tear the whelps in pieces and claw her offspring as illegitimate. You have read not doubt, also, of one of Homer's lions, and of how he made himself look terrible in behalf of his own whelps and steeled himself to do battle for them.

And they say the tigress, although she is the cruelest animal, will in this country and also on the Read Sea approach the ships, to demand back her whelps; and if she gets them back, she goes off mightily delighted; but if the ships sail away, they say that she howls along the sea-coast and sometimes dies outright.

And who does not know the ways of birds, how that the eagles and the storks will not build their nests until they have fixed in them, the one an eagle-stone, and other a stone of light, to help the hatching out of the eggs and to drive away the snakes.

And if we look at creatures in the sea, we need not wonder at the dolphins loving their offspring, for they are superior creatures; but shall we not admire the whales and seals and the viviparous species? For I once saw a seal that was kept shut up at Aegae in the circus, and she mourned so deeply for her whelp, which had died after being born in confinement, that she refused food for three days together, although she is the most voracious of animals.

And the whale takes up its young ones into the cavities of its throat, whenever it is fleeing from a creature stronger than itself. And a viper has been seen licking the serpents which it had borne, and caressing them with her tongue, which she shoots out for the purpose.

But we need not entertain, Damis, the silly story that the young of vipers are brought into the world without mothers; for that is a thing which is consistent neither with nature nor with experience."

Damis then resumed the conversation by saying: "You will allow me then to praise Euripides, for this iambic line which he puts into the mouth of Andromache"

And in the case of all men, then, their life lay in their children.

"I admit," said Apollonius, "that that is said cleverly and divinely; but much cleverer and truer would have been the verse, if it had included all animals."

"Then you would like," said Damis, "O Apollonius, to rewrite the line so that we might sing it as follows:

And in the case of all animals, then, their life lay in their children.

and I agree with you, for it is better so." 

[2.15] "But tell me this: did we not, at the beginning our conversation, declare that the elephants display wisdom and intelligence in what they do?"

"Why certainly," he replied, "we did say so, Damis; for if intelligence did not govern this animal, neither would it subsist, nor the populations among which it lived."

"Why then," said Damis, "do they conduct their passage over the river in a way so stupid and inconvenient to themselves? For as you see, the smallest one is leading the way, and he is followed by a slightly larger one, then comes another still larger than he, and the biggest ones come last of all. But surely they ought to travel in the opposite fashion, and make the biggest ones a wall and rampart in front of themselves."

"But," replied Apollonius, "in the first place they appear to be running away from men who are pursuing them, and whom we shall doubtless come across, as they follow the animals' tracks; and they must and ought to use their best strength to fortify their rear against attack, as is done in war; so that you may regard this maneuver as tactically excellent on the part of the brutes.

Secondly, as they are crossing a river, if their biggest ones went first, that would not enable the rest of the herd to judge whether the water is shallow enough for all to pass; for the tallest ones would find the passage practicable and easy, but the others would find it dangerous and difficult, because they would not rise above the level of the stream.

But the fact that the smallest is able to get across is a sign in itself to the rest that there is no difficulty. And moreover, if the bigger ones went in first, they would deepen the river for the small ones, for the mud is forced to settle down into ruts and trenches, owing to the heaviness of the animal and the thickness of his feet; whereas the larger ones are in no way prejudiced by the smaller ones, crossing in front, because they sink in less deeply."