Apollonius of Tyana (7)

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.

Evaluation of the sources

Having discussed what little we know about the pre-Philostratean traditions, we can try to add things up, using four criteria of authenticity.

  1. Independent confirmation: when an author who is not primarily interested in Apollonius confirms something in a source on Apollonius, we may assume that we are approaching the historical truth.
  2. Multiple attestation: when independent, pre-Philostratean traditions about Apollonius are in agreement, we may be reasonably certain that they contain some historical truth. The problem with this method is, of course, that it is not always easy to establish independence.
  3. Embarrassment: embarrassing information about the man from Tyana also has a claim to historical reliability.
  4. Consistency: sometimes the truth of statement can be confirmed after other facts have been established.

Using these criteria, we can say that the following elements are almost certain:

The following elements are likely:

The following elements may be very ancient elaborations:

The following elements cannot be substantiated:

Stated briefly, it is almost certain that Apollonius lived in the second half of the first century, was a magician and cured several people. Probably, he adhered to the neo-Pythagorean philosophy, and published books On astrology and On sacrifices. This may have brought him into conflict with the institutionalized religion and philosophy.

Apollonius and his contemporaries

There remain several questions that cannot be solved. To start with, in the LoA, we read short Platonic dialogues, encounter a self-defense like the apology of Socrates (LoA 8.7), and learn that Apollonius was a very moderate man (LoA 1.8). Elements like these are suspicious: Philostratus may have added these commonplace stories in order to prove that Apollonius was a real philosopher.

On the other hand, many ancient philosophers did model their lives to earlier examples. For example, when the Roman philosopher Seneca was forced to commit suicide, he choose to imitate Socrates by drinking hemlock. We will never know who was responsible for the philosophical anecdotes in the LoA, the Tyanean or his biographer.

Another problem is the parallelism of the lives of Apollonius and Pythagoras. In other sources, Pythagoras is said to have been initiated in all religious rites and mysteries, to have descended in a cave, to have visited Babylonia and Egypt, to have been able to remember former incarnations, to have abstained from wine and meat, to have worn a special dress, to have kept a vow of silence for five years, to have been on two places at the same time, to have confronted a tyrant, and to have died in a temple at a venerable old age. For all these stories, we find parallels in the LoA.note

There are three explanations for these parallels:

  1. It may be that Philostratus or one of his sources has modeled the life of Apollonius to the life of Pythagoras.
  2. It may be the other way round, because many stories about the life of Pythagoras were written after the death of Apollonius.
  3. Another explanation is that Apollonius imitated Pythagoras.

We are unable to choose between these three solutions.

A final problem is what to make of elements that are without parallel. To repeat an example, Philostratus frequently mentions Apollonius' prayers to the sun, something for which we do not find antecedents in the Pythagorean literature. Maybe, Philostratus found this information in one of his sources, or maybe, he invented it, because it was a popular theme in the third century. In this case, the first alternative is to be preferred, because the second option would imply that Philostratus read some contemporary philosophers, which is extremely unlikely.

Another example is Apollonius' abstinence from sex. This is really unprecedented in Greek society, and the inevitable conclusion is that Apollonius of Tyana has invented celibacy.