Philostratus, Life of Apollonius

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.

The summaries of the eight books were - with permission - copied from J.J. Flinterman, Power, paideia & pythagoreanism (1995 Amsterdam).

Book one

After the first three introductory chapters of Book 1, chapters 4-17 deal with the birth of Apollonius and the miraculous portents that accompanied it, his education and embracing of Pythagoreanism, his five years spent in silence in Pamphylia and Lycia, and his stay in Antioch. Chapters 18ff are concerned with Apollonius' journey to Mesopotamia and Iran. In Nineveh he meets Damis, who will remain his loyal disciple and companion virtually to the end of Apollonius' earthly existence (1.19).

In Cissia the travelers encounter a Greek community descended from the Eretrians deported by Darius, who are living in miserable circumstances (1.23f). Chapters 25ff describe their stay in the court of the Parthian king Vardanes in Babylon and Ecbatana. The length of their stay with their king, in accordance with Apollonius' interpretation of an omen (1.22), is one year and eight months. During this period Apollonius has regular contact with the Magi (1.26 and 39) and gains considerable influence over the king. He manages to secure an improvement in the situation of the descendants of the Eretrians (1.35) and argues for a peaceful policy toward Rome (1.37). The book ends with their departure from king Vardanes (1.40).

Book two

Book 2 recounts the adventures of Apollonius and his followers on their journey to India. They pass through the "Caucasus" (i.e. the Hindu Kush), where they marvel at the chains of Prometheus (2.3) and drive away a hobgoblin (2.4). This journey is the pretext for an exchange between Apollonius and Damis, leading to the conclusion that mountaineering does not benefit those in search of the Divine (2.5). The company of travelers cross the river Cophen, visit the shrine of Dionysus on mount Nysa (2.8), but decline to go and see the Aornus rock which Alexander the Great captured (2.10). They kill time on the way to the Indus with learned discussions about the training, character, life expectancy, physical and habits of elephants (2.11-16). With the assistance of the satrap of the Indus region, Apollonius and his followers cross the river (2.17-19) and continue their journey to Taxila (2.20). Chapters 23ff contain an account of their three-day stay with the Indian philosopher king Phraotes, who tells Apollonius about the place where the Indian sages live (2.33). Apollonius discusses dream divination with the king (2.35-37) and advises him on a legal dispute (2.39). The travelers leave Taxila for the castle of the Indian sages, visit the scene of the battle between Alexander and Porus (2.42), cross the Hydraotes and the Hyphasis, and pass the point where Alexander was forced to turn back.

Book three

Book 3 is almost entirely devoted to Apollonius' journey to and stay with the Indian sages. The travelers pass a mountain where pepper trees grow, and reach the Ganges plain (3.5), where they witness a sensational snake hunt (3.6-8). Four days later they reach the castle of the sages (3.10). Apollonius is immediately invited to hold a discussion with the sages, while his fellow travelers are accommodated in a neighboring village (3.12). Chapters 13-15 deal with the castle and environs and with the life-style of the sages. During the first discussion (3.16-25), their leader Iarchas displays the prophetic gifts and explains that the sages regard themselves as gods because of their virtue (3.18). The conversation also ranges over reincarnation, Homeric and Indian heroes, justice, and the Indian cult of Tantalus. It is interrupted by the arrival of an Indian king (3.26f), who proves to be inferior to Phraotes because of his complete lack of interest in philosophy (3.28) and his antipathy to everything Greek (3.31). Apollonius manages to cure him of this antipathy, but refuses to accept an invitation from the king (3.32f).

In a second discussion involving Apollonius and the sages (3.34-37), to which Damis is also invited, they discuss views of the cosmos and other questions. The sages perform a number of acts of healing (3.38-40). Later private discussions between Iarchas and Apollonius concern astrology and cultic practices; Apollonius' writings on these topics are supposed to be the result of these conversations (3.41). The wonders of nature in India also come up for discussion (3.45-49). After staying with the sages for four months, Apollonius and his companions begin the return journey (3.50). Book 3 concludes with their return via the Persian Gulf, Babylon and Antioch to Ionia (3.51-58).

Book four

Most of Book 4 is concerned with Apollonius' visits to the Greek cities in Ionia and the mainland. He provides their citizens with advice, admonition and assistance. In Ephesus (4.1-4) he condemns the idle amusement to which the Ephesians are addicted, urges them to adopt a sense of community, and warns them of the outbreak of a plague epidemic. In Smyrna (4.5-9) the Ionian league comes under attack because a number of Roman names occur in one of its decrees. Apollonius also discusses how civic life should function with the people of Smyrna. When the plague breaks out in Ephesus, Apollonius miraculously travels there, exposes an old beggar as the plague demon, and eggs the Ephesians on to stone him (4.10). A statue is erected for Apollonius near the theater.

He then proceeds to Pergamon, where he visits the shrine of Asclepius, and to Troy, where he spends the night on the mound of Achilles (4.11). He boards a ship bound for Greece, visiting the grave of Palamedes on the Aeolian coast (4.13) and the shrine of Orpheus on Lesbos (4.14) on the way. During the rest of the voyage, at Damis' request, he describes his nocturnal meeting with the ghost of Achilles (4.15f). After arriving in Athens (4.17), Apollonius wants to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. At first the hierophant refuses to admit a charlatan to the mysteries. A match for the occasion, Apollonius gives the name of the hierophant who will initiate him on a subsequent occasion (4.18).

He lectures the Athenians on cultic practices (4.19), on the effeminate manner in which they celebrate the Anthesteria (4.21), and criticizes the gladiatorial shows held in the theater of Dionysus (4.22). He also expels a demon (4.20). On behalf of Achilles, he convinces the Thessalians of the need to resume his cult, and he pays a visit to Thermopylae (4.23). He corrects cultic practices during his visits to Greek shrines and predicts Nero's (unsuccessful) attempt to dig a canal through the Isthmus (4.24). In Corinth he is joined by the Cynic philosopher Demetrius, where he rescues the latter's pupil Menippus from the claws of a female vampire (4.25). After a brief reference to Apollonius' conflict with the Corinthian Bassus (4.26), the scene shifts to Olympia. As he is on his way there, Apollonius comes across Spartan envoys; he criticizes their effeminate appearance in a letter to the ephors, resulting in an ethical revival in Sparta (4.27). In Olympia he discusses a few of the statues with his companions, takes part in the religious ceremonies, and rebukes the pretentious young author of an encomium on Zeus (4.28-30). His ethical exhortations meet with general admiration, but he refuses divine honors. In Sparta (4.31-33) he discusses religious and judicial affairs with the magistrates. He brings a young man who shuns community responsibilities to see the error of his ways, and he advises the Spartans on how to answer an imperial letter. He sails from the Peloponnese to Crete, where he visits the shrine of Asclepius in Lebena and diagnoses the geological effect of an earthquake (4.34).

Chapters 35ff of Book 4 deal with Apollonius' first stay in Italy and his conflict with the regime of Nero. As they are traveling to Rome, Apollonius and his disciples encounter Philolaus of Citium, who is on the run from Nero and urges Apollonius to follow his example. These words result in a radical diminution in the number of Apollonius' followers. The sage of Tyana discusses philosophical resolution in the face of tyrants with those disciples who are left (4.36-38). Not long after their arrival in Rome, Apollonius and his companions become engaged in a conflict with a drunken harpist who sings Nero's songs (4.39). Next day Apollonius has a meeting with the consul Telesinus, who is well disposed toward him and gives the sage permission to stay in various temples in Rome (4.40). After Demetrius is banished from Rome by the praetorian prefect, Tigellinus, for criticizing the baths which Nero has had built, suspicion also falls on Apollonius (4.42). These suspicions grow after Apollonius interprets an eclipse of the sun as an omen of Nero's narrow escape from being killed by lightning (4.43). A remark by Apollonius on Nero's vocal capacities serves as a pretext for his arrest by Tigellinus on a charge of lese majesty. When the scroll containing the indictment is unrolled, the text proves to have been mysteriously erased. Apollonius gets the better of Tigellinus during a private hearing, and the prefect has him released out of fear of his supernatural powers (4.44). Apollonius brings a young woman, a member of a consular family, back to life (4.45). Using Menippus and Damis as intermediaries, he corresponds with the philosopher Musonius Rufus, who has been imprisoned by Nero. Musonius declines the offer to release him (4.46). Book 4 closes with Apollonius' departure for Hispania, occasioned by a prohibition on all philosophical activity which Nero had decreed before his departure for Greece.

Book five

The first ten chapters of Book 5 recount Apollonius' stay in Hispania. Apollonius and his companions discuss Nero's trip to Greece (5.7). The governor of Andalusia has a private interview with Apollonius, who urges him to join the revolt of the governor of Gaul, Vindex, against Nero (5.10). After traveling through Sicily, Athens and Rhodes, they reach Alexandria. During this journey they receive news of the flight of Nero and the death of Vindex (5.11). Apollonius predicts the political and military events of the year of the three emperors Galba, Vitellius and Otho (5.13). He also discusses volcanic phenomena and the merits of the fables of Aesop with his companions in Catana, at the foot of Mount Etna (5.14-17). He is initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in Athens and meets Demetrius, who tells him that Musonius has been sentenced to forces labor on the Isthmus (5.19). Apollonius spends the winter in various Greek shrines (5.20). On Rhodes he pays a visit to the Colossus, discusses flute playing with Canus, a virtuoso flautist (5.21), and rebukes a young nouveau riche (5.22). Upon arriving in Alexandria, he rescues an innocent condemned man from the executioner (5.24). He voices his disapproval of the blood sacrifices in the temple, i.e. the Serapeum (5.25), and reproves the Alexandrians for their vandalism at the horse races (5.26).

Chapters 27ff are centered on Apollonius' contacts with the new emperor Vespasian. After his arrival in Alexandria, Vespasian immediately inquires about the whereabouts of Apollonius, who proves to be staying in the temple (5.27). Apollonius replies to his request to make him emperor that he has already done so by praying to the gods for a ruler like Vespasian (5.28). The latter justifies his bid for power to Apollonius, who urges him to carry out his resolutions. Apollonius also mentions the destruction of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus the previous day during the struggle between the emperor Vitellius and Vespasian's son Domitian in Rome (5.29). The next day Apollonius pays a visit to the emperor; at his request the philosophers Dio and Euphrates, who are both on Alexandria, are also admitted to the conversation (5.31). Vespasian asks the philosophers to advise him on how to exercise the authority that has been brought into discredit by his predecessors (5.32). Euphrates refuses to met the request; instead, he argues for the abolition of the monarchy and the restoration of the republic (5.33). Dio is in favor of a constitutional referendum (5.34). Apollonius rejects the arguments of these speakers as unrealistic sophistries and puts forward a vigorous plea for the monarchy (5.35), followed by an account of how rule by one man should be carried out (5.36). Euphrates reveals his true colors by attacking Pythagoreanism in the emperor's presence (5.37) and asking him for money (5.38). After Vespasian has left, the conflict between Apollonius and Euphrates reaches a climax (5.39). Dio is criticized by Apollonius for the rhetorical character of his philosophy, but the relations between the two men remain cordial (5.40). The later rift between Apollonius and Vespasian is explained by Apollonius' disapproval of the cancellation of the liberty which Nero had bestowed on Greece (5.41). After Apollonius has recognized a lion as a reincarnation of Egypt's last pharaoh Amasis (5.42), he sets out in the company of ten disciples for the Ethiopian gymnosophists.

Book six

Book 6 deals mainly with the period that Apollonius and his followers spend with gymnosophists, who turn out to be less wise than the Indians. The travelers cross the border between the Roman province Egypt and independent Ethiopia (6.2) with a young Egyptian, Timasion, as their guide (6.3). After a visit to the statue of Memnon (6.4) near the home of the gymnosophists, they come across a suppliant, who is purified of his blood guilt (6.5). Then comes a description of the abode of the gymnosophists (6.6). Euphrates has sent one of his disciples there to slander Apollonius, who accordingly meets a cool reception (6.7f). Euphrates' machinations are revealed by an incidental remark by Timasion to Damis (6.9). Next day a discussion is held with the gymnosophists, who are lead by Thespesion (6.10-14). The latter defends the unpretentious philosophy and life-style of the gymnosophists; Apollonius replies with a speech justifying his choice of Pythagoreanism and emphasizing the priority and superiority of Indian wisdom in relation to that of the gymnosophists. The first discussion is concluded with a rebuttal of the allegations made by Euphrates. A young gymnosophist, Nilus, is attracted by Apollonius' wisdom (6.15-17). A second conversation with the gymnosophists is held the following day (6.18-21), ranging over peculiarities of the Egyptians and the Greeks, justice, the immortality of the soul and cosmology. Apollonius and his disciples take their leave of the gymnosophists and set off for the source of the Nile (6.22f); Apollonius, Timasion and Nilus reach the third cataract (6.26). During their return voyage Apollonius overmasters a satyr in an Ethiopian village (6.27). The conflict with Euphrates grows more acute after Apollonius gets back from Ethiopia (6.28). Chapters 29-34 focus on Apollonius' contacts with Vespasian's son and crown prince Titus. Apollonius writes a letter of eulogy of Titus for having refused to be crowned after the fall of Jerusalem (6.29). Titus invites Apollonius for a discussion in Tarsus before returning to Rome. The sage praises the harmony existing between Vespasian and Titus (6.30) and assigns Demetrius to the heir apparent as his philosophical advisor (6.31). He issues a cryptic prophecy of Titus' death (6.32) and brings about the immediate granting of a request made by the people of Tarsus.

At this point, Philostratus abandons the chronological framework of his narrative (6.35). The remaining chapters of the book (6.36-43) are filled with disconnected stories about Apollonius' activities; where locations are given, they are situated in the cities of Asia Minor and Syria. He advises a rich but uneducated young man to study rhetoric (6.36); attacks a foolish myth that is current in Sardes (6.37); warns the citizens of Antioch of the divine wrath incurred by civil disobedience (6.38); and helps to solve the dowry problem of a man with four daughters (6.39). He cures a man of his passion for the famous statue of Aphrodite in Cnidus (6.40), and recommends the inhabitants of the cities on the left bank of the Hellespont on how to appease the divine anger which is evidenced in earthquakes (6.41). The author records a witticism on the emperor Domitian's edicts against castration and viniculture (6.42), and concludes the book with an account of the healing of a man with rabies in Tarsus (6.43).

Book seven

The dramatic climax of the Life of Apollonius is formed by the sage's confrontation with the tyrant Domitian in Book 7 and the first part of book 8. After an introduction comparing Apollonius' actions with the attitude of philosophers to tyrants in the past - a comparison which naturally comes down in favor of Apollonius (7.1-4) -, Philostratus relates Apollonius' public opposition to the tyrant and his exhortations to the governors and senators - including Orfitus, Rufus and the future emperor Nerva - to revolt against the tyrannical regime (7.5-8). As a part of the preparations for a trial of these senators, Domitian issues a warrant for the arrest of Apollonius, who has been maligned by Euphrates to the emperor. Apollonius foresees this warrant and on his own initiative he leaves Smyrna for Dicaearchia (Puteoli), accompanied by Damis. He meets Demetrius there (7.9) and resists his attempts to deter him from engaging in a confrontation with Domitian (7.11-14). Apollonius and Damis sail to Rome, where the sage of Tyana is arrested and has a meeting with the praetorian prefect Aelianus, who is well disposed toward him (7.15-21). Apollonius is incarcerated in a prison with a mild regime; he instills courage in Damis and his fellow prisoners (7.22-26) and sees through the trickery of one of Domitian's spies (7.27). A servant of Aelianus advises him on the line to adopt with the emperor (7.28). At his first meeting with the emperor, Apollonius defends himself against the charges (7.32f). The emperor orders him to be shaved and put in irons (7.34). Philostratus dismisses a letter attributed to Apollonius, in which the philosopher begs for Domitian's mercy, as a forgery (7.35). Apollonius brushes off another of Domitian's spies (7.36f) and inspires Damis with new courage by miraculously shaking off his fetters (7.38). Through the intervention of Aelianus, Apollonius is transferred to the prison with a mild regime (7.40). He sends Damis back to Dicaearchia (7.41) and listens to the story of a young man from Messene, who has been imprisoned for spurning the emperor's advances.

Book eight

The first five chapters of Book 8 contain an account of Apollonius' trial before Domitian, his acquittal, and his miraculous departure from the court. This is followed by the full text of the speech which Apollonius wrote for the defense, though it was never actually delivered (8.7). Domitian is astonished by Apollonius' inexplicable departure (8.8f). After a mere half day's travel from Rome, Apollonius joins Damis and Demetrius in Dicaearchia (8.10-14) and sets out for Greece. The Tyanean sage visits Olympia again (8.15-18) and the oracle of Trophonius in a cave near Lebadea; he spends seven days there underground and returns with a book containing the teachings of Pythagoras (8.19). Philostratus mentions that this book and a number of letters written by Apollonius are preserved in the emperor Hadrian's villa in Antium (8.20). After staying in Greece for two years, Apollonius moves on to Ionia, staying in Smyrna, Ephesus and elsewhere (8.24). During his stay in Ephesus he miraculously witnesses the murder of Domitian in Rome (8.25-27). Apollonius rejects Nerva's request to act as his advisor, and sends Damis to the new emperor with his recommendations in writing instead (8.28). According to Philostratus (8.29), this is where the memoirs of Damis, which have served him as a main source for the adventures of Apollonius since the start of his journey to the East, come to an end. The writer culls various versions of the end of Apollonius' earthly existence from other sources, devoting the most attention to Apollonius' ascension from the Dictynna temple on Crete (8.30). The sage of Tyana appears posthumously to a young man in a dream to confirm the immortality of the soul (8.31).

This page was created in 1998; last modified on 10 August 2020.