Apollonius of Tyana (4)

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.

Apollonius' books

Apollonius' biographer Philostratus claims to have read several works by Apollonius. His list is not identical to the tenth-century Byzantine catalogue known as Suda (A 3420).

Life of Apollonius
a hymn in honor of Memory (LoA 1.14)
a testament (1.3, 7.35),
written in the Ionian dialect
same title
a book containing Pythagoras' doctrines (8.20),
'to be consulted in Antium'
Life of Pythagoras
four books On astrology (3.41)
different title
a book On sacrifices (3.41, 4.19),
written 'in Apollonius' native tongue'
different title

Apollonius' testament and the hymn in honor of Memory are otherwise unknown.

The book with the title Pythagoras' doctrines is also unknown, but there is nothing implausible in Philostratus' statement that it was kept in the emperor Hadrian's palace at Antium. Probably, it is identical to the Life of Pythagoras mentioned in the Suda. This is a plausible identification, since a Life of Pythagoras by a certain Apollonius was known to two later authors, the above mentioned Porphyry of Tyre and Iamblichus of Chalkis (c.280-c.350). Since the Tyanean Apollonius was well known from the second century onward (above), Porphyry and Iamblichus would certainly have named the birthplace of their Apollonius if he were to be distinguished from the famous neo-Pythagorean from Tyana. It is therefore highly improbable that the Apollonius known to these authors is not identical to 'our' Apollonius. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to establish which parts of the works of Porphyry and Iamblichus can be attributed to the treatise/biography by Apollonius of Tyana.

Philostratus is skeptical about the existence of Apollonius' books On astrology. He informs us that it is mentioned by the unreliable Moeragenes, and continues to state that he thinks that astrological knowledge transcends human nature and that he does not know if anyone can really deduce the future from the course of the stars (Life of Apollonius 3.41). There are more convincing arguments to deny the existence of a book.

The treatise On sacrifices certainly existed. Philostratus claims to have seen it "in several cities and in the houses of several learned men" and claims that "if anyone should translate it, he would find it to be a grave and dignified composition" (LoA 3.41). Philostratus' confession that On sacrifices was written in Apollonius' native tongue (probably Aramaic) is at odds with his portrait of Apollonius as a champion of the Greek culture, and this suggests that the book did really exist. In fact, we can be certain of its existence, since it is quoted in a treatise On abstinence (2.34) by the above mentioned philosopher Porphyry and also by the church father Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel 4.13):

In no other manner, I believe, can one exhibit a fitting respect for the Divine being, beyond any other men make sure of being singled out as an object of his favor and good-will, than by refusing to offer to God - whom we termed First, who is One and separate from all, as subordinate to Whom we must recognize all the rest - any victim at all; to Him we must not kindle fire or make promise unto Him of any sensible object whatsoever. For He needs nothing even from beings higher than ourselves. Nor is there any plant or animal which earth sends up or nourishes, to which some pollution is not incident. We should make use in relation to Him solely of the higher speech, I mean of that which issues not by the lips; and from the noblest faculty we possess, and that faculty is intelligence, which needs no organ. On these principles then we ought not on any account to sacrifice to the mighty and supreme God.


This is the only quote that we can attribute to the sage of Tyana with a substantial degree of certainty. Similar prescriptions can be found in Letter 26, to the priests in Olympia ("The gods are in no need of sacrifices"), and 27, to the priests in Delphi ("The priests defile the altar with blood"). The notion of a transcendental "God who is One and separate from all" was not uncommon in the first century and bears close resemblance to what is known from other neo-Pythagorean and middle-Platonic philosophers, such as Numenius of Apamea and Nicomachus of Gerasa. It is also comparable to the ideas found in LoA 4.30 and one of the Letters of Apollonius (58), a letter of consolation to the Roman governor of Asia Minor, Valerius Festus (in office 82/83), on the death of his son.