Apollonius of Tyana (6)

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.

Damis of Nineveh

The memoirs of Damis of Nineveh, the Scraps from the manger, are the pièce de résistance of Apollonius scholarship. Apollonius' biographer Philostratus claims to have had access to the memoirs of one of Apollonius' followers when he wrote his Life of Apollonius (LoA). The empress Julia Domna had brought this booklet to his notice, and Philostratus' states that his aim was just "to recast and edit Damis' essays, paying attention to the style and diction of them" (LoA 1.2).

This sounds quite plausible, but many modern scholars think the memoirs of the Assyrian disciple are a literary fiction. This is not impossible. Neo-Pythagoreans were quite capable of fabricating "old" texts. But the possibility that "Damis" is a fabrication, does not mean that is a fraud. We can overestimate the extent of Philostratus' creativity.

Philostratus writes that Apollonius met his disciple in a town called Ninos, which is the usual Greek name for the ancient city that once had been the capital of the legendary Assyrian empire, Nineveh.{{There has been some debate about this identification, because Apollonius would take a very strange route if Ninus were identical to ancient Nineveh: he travels from Antioch (LoA 1.18) to Nineveh (1.19) and returns to the bridge across the river Euphrates (1.20). This is indeed illogical and it has been argued that "Ninus" was another name of a Syrian town called Bambyce. The only evidence for this is an emendated text from the late fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman History 14.8.7). However, if Philostratus could choose between the names Bambyce and Ninus, he would have chosen the first, because he must have known that every reader would be sceptical about a visit to Ninus; everyone who had read the first book of Herodotus' Histories knew that it had been destroyed centuries ago (more), and no Greek knew that it had been repopulated in the Parthian age. The most likely explanation is that Philostratus (who was not a great topographer) inserted the anecdote about the bridge at the wrong place in another story, which may be identified as "Damis".}} The author of the LoA maintains that Damis remained with his master until the end of his life on earth (LoA 1.19 and 8.28). However, he is only present in Philostratus' narrative during Apollonius' voyages to India, Egypt and Hispania, and during the second visit to Rome. Damis is conspicuously absent from the stories about the first trip to Rome and Apollonius' travels in Greece and Asia Minor. This suggests that Philostratus interpreted his orders to rewrite the memoirs of Damis in a rather broad sense, adding stories he had heard in the Greek mainland and in towns like Ephesus, Tyana, Aegae and Antioch. It does not prove, however, that the memoirs of Damis did not exist.

There are very strong indications that the Scraps from the manger contained information that Philostratus found embarrassing. For example, Damis mentions that Apollonius wrote a book On astrology; as we have seen above, Philostratus was skeptical about its existence, because he did not like magic (LoA 3.41). Related is the example of Apollonius' predictions of the year of the three emperors, which causes Philostratus to write

That he was enabled to make such forecasts by some divine impulse, and that it is no sound inference to infer (as some people do) that our hero was a wizard, is clear from what I have already said. But let us consider these facts also: wizards, whom for my part I reckon to be the most unfortunate of mankind, claim to alter the course of destiny by having recourse either to the torture of lost spirits or to barbaric sacrifices, or to certain incantations or anointings; and many of them when accused of such practices have admitted that they were adepts in such practices. But Apollonius submitted himself to the decrees of the Fates, and only foretold that things must come to pass; and his foreknowledge was gained not by wizardry, but from what the gods revealed to him. (LoA 5.12)

The same apology can be found in LoA 7.39, where Philostratus repeats his argument that Apollonius was not a wizard or a magician, but performed his supernatural acts (i.c., miraculously striking a fetter off his leg) because he had a superior wisdom and deeper insights in the nature of the universe. It is obvious that Philostratus felt uncomfortable with the Scraps from the manger, and this makes it likely that a source -whatever its precise nature- did really exist. Of course it is imaginable that Philostratus invented a source to disagree with, but this is a bit too far-fetched, although there is one other example from Antiquity (the Historia Augusta).

There are several additional arguments for the existence of the Damis source.

  1. There are chronological inconsistencies with the parts of the LoA derived from Maximus of Aegae: the latter dates Apollonius' youth in the first quarter of the first century, which is hardly compatible with Damis' account of Apollonius' assumption into heaven after the accession of the emperor Nerva in 96 CE.
  2. Damis correctly describes Babylon as a "living city"; Philostratus cannot have found this information in a more common Greek or Roman text, as these all state that it was in ruins. The same can be said for Nineveh.
  3. In the Indian episode of the LoA, which is derived from Damis, a new notion of the relationship between kings and philosophers is introduced, which is something we would not expect from an unphilosophical man like Philostratus, but can be expected in texts of a Pythagorean character.
  4. In those parts of the LoA that are attributed to Damis, the author shows himself to be aware of the Alexander historians, especially Nearchus. However, in those parts that are clearly Philostratus' own, he manages to ignore remarkable sites like Gaugamela and Choara, although his heroes actually pass along these sites.

A final remark about the reality of Damis is the existence of an old Indian text, the Agamasâstra, a commentary on the Mandukya Upanisad by the great Hindu teacher Gaudapâda (c.500 CE). It mentions Apalûnya, Damîça, Ayârcya and Prâvrti (i.e., Apollonius, Damis, Iarchas and Phraotes - the main characters of Philostratus' Indian account). It can, however, not be excluded that this account derives from the LoA.

When we accept the existence of Damis, we are not forced to believe that the historical Apollonius traveled all the way to India, Kush (modern Sudan) and Hispania. It merely proves that there was a second century pseudo-biography that claimed that the Tyanean had made these voyages.

We can understand why these fantasies were added: they must have served as a weapon in the intellectual discourse of the second century. The gymnosophists of Kush represent the Cynics, a popular school of Greek philosophy, and the Indian sages represent the Pythagoreans; since Apollonius is presented as correcting the gymnosophists, the message of the Scraps from the manger must have been that neo-Pythagoreanism was superior to Cynicism. Another polemic in the memoirs of Damis can be found in the story of the hostility between Apollonius and Euphrates: neo-Pythagoreanism defeats Stoicism. This conflict was hardly important in the age of Philostratus, and suggests that Damis - whatever its precise nature - was in fact composed at an earlier age.

It should be noted that the fact that the Scraps from the manger were given to Philostratus by the empress Julia Domna is significant too. She was born in a Syrian town named Emesa, which was famous for its cult for a sun god, Elagabal. Now it is very remarkable that the neo-Pythagorean sage who is described by Damis, worships the Sun. This element is almost absent from earlier pythagorean works but can be explained when we accept that "Damis" was written in Emesa.