Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 3.31-35

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.

[3.31] While they were thus conversing, the king kept trying to interrupt them, constantly breaking off their every sentence by his silly and ignorant remarks. He accordingly again asked them what they were conversing about, and Apollonius replied: "We are discussing matters important and held in great repute among the Hellenes; though you would think of them but slightly, for you say that you detest everything Hellenic."

"I do certainly detest them," he said, "but nevertheless I want to hear; for I imagine you are talking about those Athenians the slaves of Xerxes."

But Apollonius replied: "Nay we are discussing other things; but since you have alluded to the Athenians in a manner both absurd and false, answer me this question: Have you, O King, any slaves?"

"Twenty thousand," said the other, "and not a single one of them did I buy myself, but they were all born in my household."

Thereupon Apollonius, using Iarchas as his interpreter, asked him afresh whether he was in the habit of running away from his slaves or his slaves from him. And the king by way of insult answered him: "Your very question is worthy of a slave, nevertheless I will answer it: a man who runs away is not only a slave but a bad one to boot, and his master would never run away from him, when he can if he likes both torture and card him."

"In that case," said Apollonius, "O king, Xerxes has been proved out of your mouth to have been a slave of the Athenians, and like a bad slave to have run away from them; for when he was defeated by them in the naval action in the Straits, he was so anxious about his bridge of boats over the Hellespont that he fled in a single ship."

"Yes, but he anyhow burned Athens with his own hands," said the king.

And Apollonius answered: "And for that act of audacity, O king, he was punished as never yet was any other man. For he had to run away from those whom he imagined he had destroyed; and when I contemplate the ambitions with which Xerxes set out on his campaign I can conceive that some were justified in exalting him and saying that he was Zeus; but when I contemplate his flight, I arrive at the conviction that he was the most ill-starred of men. For if he had fallen at the hands of the Hellenes, no one would have earned a brighter fame than he. For to whom would the Hellenes have raised and dedicated a loftier tomb? What jousts of armed men, what contests of musicians would not have been instituted in honor of him? For, if men like Melicertes and Palaemon and Pelops the Lydian immigrant, the former of whom died in childhood at the breast, while Pelops enslaved Arcadia and Argolis and the land within the Isthmus, - if these were commemorated by the Greeks as Gods, what would not have been done for Xerxes by men who are by nature more enthusiastic admirers of the virtues, and who consider that they praise themselves in praising those whom they have defeated?"

[3.32] These words of Apollonius caused the king to burst into tears, and he said: "Dearest friend, in what an heroic light do you represent these Hellenes to me."

"Why then, O king, were you so hard upon them?"

"The visitors who come hither from Egypt, O guest," replied the king, "malign the race of Hellenes, and while declaring that they themselves are holy men and wise, and the true law-givers who fixed all the sacrifices and rites of initiation which are in vogue among the Greeks, they deny to the latter any and every sort of good quality, declaring them to be ruffians, and a mixed herd addicted to every sort of anarchy, and lovers of legend and miracle mongers, and though indeed poor, yet making their poverty not a title of dignity, but a mere excuse for stealing. But now that I have heard this from you and understand how fond of honor and how worthy the Hellenes are, I am reconciled for the future to them and I engage both that they shall have my praise and that I will pray all I can for them, and will never set trust in another Egyptian."

But Iarchas remarked: "I too, O king, was aware that your mind had been poisoned by these Egyptians; but I would not take the part of the Hellenes until you met some such counselor as this. But since you have been put right by a wise man, let us now proceed to quaff the good cheer provided by Tantalus, and let us sleep over the serious issues which we have to discuss tonight. But at another time I will fill you full with Hellenic arguments, and no other race is so rich in them; and you will delight in them whenever you come hither."

And forthwith he set an example to this fellow guests, by stooping the first of them all to the goblet which indeed furnished an ample draught for all; for the stream refilled itself plenteously, as if with spring waters welling up from the ground; and Apollonius also drank, for this cup is instituted by the Indians as a cup of friendship; and they feign that Tantalus is the wine-bearer who supplies it, because he is considered to have been the most friendly of men.

[3.33] And when they had drunk, the earth received them on the couches which she had spread for them; but when it was midnight they rose up and first they sang a hymn to the ray of light, suspended aloft in the air as they had been at midday; and then they attended the king, as much as he desired.

Damis, however, says that Apollonius was not present at the king's conversation with them, because he thought that the interview had to do with secrets of state. Having then at daybreak offered his sacrifice, the king approached Apollonius and offered him the hospitality of his palace, declaring that he would send him back to Greece an object of envy to all. But he commended him for his kindness, nevertheless he excused himself from inflicting himself upon one with whom he was on no sort of equality; moreover, he said that he had been longer abroad than he liked, and that he scrupled to give his friends at home cause to think they were being neglected.

The king thereupon said that he entreated him, and assumed such an undignified attitude in urging his request, that Apollonius said: "A king who insists upon his request in such terms at the expense of his dignity, is laying a trap."

Thereupon Iarchas intervened and said: "You wrong, O king, this sacred abode by trying to drag away from it a man against his will; and moreover, being one of those who can read the future, he is aware that his staying with you would not conduce to his own good, and would probably not be in any way profitable to yourself."

[3.34] The king accordingly went down into the village, for the law of the sages did not allow a king to be with them more than one day; but Iarchas said to the messenger: "We admit Damis also hither to our mysteries; so let him come, but do you look after the rest of them in the village."

And when Damis arrived, they sat down together, as they were wont to do, and they allowed Apollonius to ask questions; and he asked them of what they thought the cosmos was composed; but they replied: "Of elements."

"Are there then four?" he asked.

"Not four," said Iarchas, "but five."

"And how can there be a fifth," said Apollonius, "alongside of water and air and earth and fire?"

"There is the ether", replied the other, "which we must regard as the stuff of which gods are made; for just as all mortal creatures inhale the air, so do immortal and divine natures inhale the ether."

Apollonius again asked which of the elements came first into being, and Iarchas answered: "All are simultaneous, for a living creature is not born bit by bit."

"Am I," said Apollonius, "to regard the universe as a living creature?"

"Yes," said the other, "if you have a sound knowledge of it, for it engenders all living things."

"Shall I then," said Apollonius, "call the universe female, or of both the male and the opposite gender?"

"Of both genders," said the other, "for by commerce with itself it fulfills the role both of mother and father in bringing forth living creatures; and it is possessed by a love for itself more intense than any separate being has for its fellow, a passion which knits it together into harmony. And it is not illogical to suppose that it cleaves unto itself; for as the movement of an animal dictates the function of its hands and feet, in co-operation with a soul in it by which it is set in motion, so we must regard the parts of the universe also as adapting themselves through its inherent soul to all creatures which are brought forth or conceived.

For example, the sufferings so often caused by drought are visited on us in accordance with the soul of the universe, whenever justice has fallen into disrepute and is disowned by men; and this animal shepherds itself not with a single hand only, but with many mysterious ones, which it has at its disposal; and though from its immense size it is controlled by no other, yet it moves obediently to the rein and is easily guided.

[3.35] "And the subject is so vast and so far transcends our mental powers, that I do not know any example adequate to illustrate it; but we will take that of a ship, such as the Egyptians construct for our seas and launch for the exchange of Egyptian goods against Indian wares. For there is an ancient law in regard to the Red Sea, which the king Erythras laid down, when he held sway over that sea, to the effect that the Egyptians should not enter it with a vessel of war, and indeed should employ only a single merchant ship.

This regulation obliged the Egyptians to contrive a ship equivalent to several at once of those which other races have; and they ribbed the sides of this ship with bolts such as hold a ship together, and they raised its bulwarks and its mast to a great height, and they constructed several compartments, such as are built upon the timber balks which run athwart a ship, and they set several pilots in this boat and subordinated them to the oldest and wisest of their number, to conduct the voyage; and there were several officers on the prow and excellent and handy sailors to man the sails; and in the crew of this ship there was a detachment of armed men, for it is necessary to equip the ship and protect it against the savages of the Gulf that live on the right hand as you enter it, in case they should ever attack and plunder it on the high seas.

Let us apply this imagery to the universe, and regard it in the light of a naval construction; for then you must apportion the first and supreme position to God the begetter of this animal, and subordinate posts to the gods who govern its parts; and we may well assent to the statements of the poets, when they say that there are many gods in heaven and many in the sea, and many in the fountains and streams, and many round about the earth, and that there are some even under the earth. But we shall do well to separate from the universe the region under the earth, if there is one, because the poets represent it as an abode of terror and corruption."