A Byzantine commentary on 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.

Photius (c.815-897) was one of the greatest scholars of the Byzantine world, and patriarch of Constantinople between 858-867 and 878-886. One of his main publications is the Myrobiblion, a collection of 280 excerpts of all kinds of literature on every possible subject. He quotes various sources: the Acts of the Councils, the stories about martyrs, but also pagan authors.

Here is the text of Photius' excerpt (Myrobiblion 44) from Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, in the translation by J.H. Freese.

Photius on Philostratus' Life of Apollonius

[44.1] Read the eight books of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus of Tyre. His style is clear, agreeable, concise, and full of charm, due to his fondness both for archaisms and for novel constructions.

[44.2] He tells us that Apollonius visited the Indians, whom he calls Brahmins, from whom he learnt much of their divine wisdom. He also visited the wise men of Ethiopia, whom he calls Gymni, because they pass all their life naked and never wear clothes even in the most trying weather. But he declares that the wise men of India are far superior to those of Ethiopia, since they are older in point of time and their intellect is purer and keener, owing to their living nearer to the rays of the sun.

[44.3] He does not, however, assert that Apollonius worked any wonders such as legend ascribes to him; he merely extols him as leading a philosophic and temperate life, in which he exhibits the teaching of Pythagoras, both in manners and doctrine. Various accounts are given of his death, the circumstances of which are obscure, as he himself desired; for during his lifetime he was in the habit of saying that the wise man should keep his life a secret from others, or, if he could not, should at least keep his death a secret. The place of his burial is unknown.

[44.4] Philostratus states that Apollonius had a great contempt for riches; he gave up all he possessed to his brother and others, and could never be persuaded to accept money from those in authority, although they pressed it upon him as deserving it. He asserts that he long foresaw the famine at Ephesus and stopped it after it broke out. He once saw a certain lion, which he declared to be the soul of Amasis, king of the Egyptians, which had entered the body of the animal as a punishment for the crimes Amasis had committed during his lifetime. He also exposed an Empusa, which, under the guise of a courtesan, pretended to be enamored of Menippus. He recalled to life a Roman girl who had apparently just died, and loosed his limbs from his fetters, while bound in prison. Before Domitian he defended himself and extolled Nerva (Domitian's successor); after which he vanished from the court, and joined Demetrius and Damis as had been arranged, not after a long time, but in a few moments, though they were several days' journey apart. Such are the fictions of Philostratus concerning Apollonius. He denies, however, that he was a wonder-worker, if he performed some of the wonders that are commonly attributed to him, but asserts that they were the result of his philosophy and the purity of his life. On the contrary, he was the enemy of magicians and sorcerers and certainly no devotee of magic.

[44.5] All that he says about the Indians is a tissue of absurd and incredible statements. He asserts that they have certain jars full of rains and winds, with which in time of drought they are able to water the country, and again to deprive it of moisture, after the rain has fallen, since in these casks they have the means of controlling the alternate supply of wind and rain. He tells similar stories, equally foolish and preposterous, and these eight books are so much study and labor lost.