Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.31-35

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.

In the Life of Apollonius, Athenian author Philostratus (a sophist who lived from c.170 to c.247) tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE. (A summary of this work can be found here.) It is an apologetic vie romancée, in which Philostratus tries to prove that Apollonius was a man with divine powers, but not a magician.

The translation was made by F.C. Conybeare and was published in 1912 in the Loeb Classical Library.

[5.31] Next day at dawn Apollonius came to the palace and asked the guards what the emperor was doing; from whom learning that he had long risen and was engaged in his correspondence, he went off and remarked to Damis: "This man shall be sovereign."

About sunrise he returned to find Dion and Euphrates already at the door, in return to whose eager inquiries concerning the interview, he repated the defense of his policy which he had heard from the emperor, though at the same time he let no word escape him of his own opinions. But on being summoned to enter in advance of them, he said: "O King, Euphrates and Dion, long your acquaintances, are at your door, being highly anxious for your welfare. I pray you, call them in also to join in our conversation, for they are both of them wise men."

"I throw my doors open," he replied, "to wise men; but to you I purpose to open my breast as well."

[5.32] When they had been called in, he continued: "In defense of my own plans, I said, gentlemen, what I had to say, yesterday to Apollonius our esteemed friend."

"We have heard that defense," said Dion, "and it was most reasonable."

"Well, today," henote went on, "my dear Dion, let us concert some wise conclusions in support of the counsels adopted by me, of a kind to ensure my general policy being honorable and salutary to mankind. For I cannot forget how Tiberius was the first to degrade the government into an inhuman and cruel system, of how he was followed by Gaius,note who filled with Bacchic frenzy, dressed in Lydian fashion, won sham fights and by his disgraceful revels violated all Roman institutions. There followed the worthy Claudius, and I remember that he was so much the thrall of women as to lose all sense of sovereignty, nay even of self-preservation; for they say he was murdered by them. Nero I hardly need assail, for Apollonius in brief and terse remarks has exposed the faults of over-indulgence and undue severity by which he disgraced his reign. Nor need I dwell on the system of Galba, who was slain in the middle of the Forum in the act of adopting those strumpet sons of his Otho and Piso. As for Vitellius, we had rather Nero should come to life again than surrender the empire to him, the most dissolute of all.

Perceiving then, my friends, that the throne has fallen into hatred and contempt by reason of the tyrants I have enumerated, I would fain have you advise me how best I can restore it, so that it should not remain what it has become, namely, a stumbling block to mankind."

Apollonius replied as follows: "There was a first-rate pipe-player, it is said, who used to send his pupils to much worse players than himself, that they might learn how not to pipe. As then you, my sovereign, have learned from these your good-for-nothing predecessors, how not to rule, let us, then, now turn our attention to the problem, how a sovereign ought to rule."note

[5.33] While Apollonius spoke, Euphrates concealed the jealousy he already felt of one whose utterances clearly interested the emperor hardly less than those of an oracular shrine interest those who repair to it for guidance. But now at last his feelings overcame him, and, raising his voice above its usual pitch, he cried: "We must not flatter men's impulses, nor allow ourselves to be carried away against our better judgment by men of unbridled ambition; but we should rather, if we are enamored of wisdom, recall them to the sober facts of life. Here is a policy about the very expediency of which we should first calmly deliberate, and yet you would have us prescribe a way of executing it, before you know if the measures under discussion are desirable.

For myself, I quite approve of the deposition of Vitellius, whom I know to be a ruffian drunk with every sort of profligacy; nevertheless, although I know you to be a worthy man and of pre-eminent nobility of character, I deny that you ought to undertake the correction of Vitellius without first establishing an ideal for yourself. I need not instruct you in the excesses chargeable to monarchy as such, for you have yourself described them; but this I would have you recognize, that whereas youth leaping into the tyrant's saddle does but obey its own instincts -for playing the tyrant comes natural to young men as wine or women, and we cannot reproach a young man merely for making himself a tyrant, unless in pursuit of his role he shows himself a murderer, a ruffian, or a debauchee- on the other hand when an old man makes himself a tyrant, the first thing we blame in him is that he ever nursed such an ambition.

It is no use his showing himself an example of humanity and moderation, for of these qualities we shall give the credit not to himself, but to his age and mature training. And men will believe that he nursed the ambition long before, when he was still a stripling, only that he failed to realize it; and such failures are partly attributed to ill luck, partly to pusillanimity. I mean that he will be thought to have renounced his dream of becoming a tyrant, because he distrusted his own star, or that he stood aside and made way for another who entertained the same ambition and whose superior manliness was dreaded.

As for the count of ill luck, I may dismiss it; but as for that of cowardice, how can you avoid it? How escape the reproach of having been afraid of Nero, the most cowardly and supine of rulers? Look at the revolt against him planned by Vindex, you surely were the man of the hour, its natural leader, not he! For you had an army at your back, and the forces you were leading against the Jews, would they not have been more suitably employed in chastising Nero? For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies. What sense then or reason was there in chastising them for revolting from us, whom we had better have never annexed? As for Nero, who would not have prayed with his own hand to slay a man well-nigh drunk with human blood, singing as he sat amidst the hecatombs of his victims?

I confess that I ever pricked up my ears when any messenger from yonder brought tidings of yourself, and told us how in one hand battle you had slain thirty thousand Jews and in the next fifty thousand. In such cases I would take the courier aside and ask him: 'But what of the great man? Will he not rise to higher things than this?' Since then you have discovered in Vitellius an image and ape of Nero, and are turning your arms against him, persist in the policy you have embraced, for it too is a noble one, only let its sequel be noble too.

You know how dear to the Romans are the popular institutions, and how nearly all their conquests were won under a free polity. Put then an end to monarchy, of which you have repeated to us so evil a record; and bestow upon Romans a popular government, and on yourself the glory of inaugurating for them a reign of liberty."

[5.34] Throughout Euphrates' long speech, Apollonius noticed that Dion shared his sentiments, for he manifested his approval both by his gestures and the applause with which he hailed his words; so he asked him he could not add some remarks of his own to what he had just heard.

"By heaven, I can," answered Dion, "and I should agree in part and in part disagree with his remarks; for I think I have myself told you that you would have been much better employed deposing Nero than setting Jewry to rights. But your anxiety appeared to be never to have him deposed, for anyone who composed the disorder of his affairs merely strengthened the fellow against all the victims in his power. I approve however of the campaign against Vitellius; for I consider it a greater achievement to prevent a tyranny from ever growing up, than to put an end to it when it is established.

And while I welcome the idea of democracy -for though this form of polity is inferior to an aristocracy, nevertheless moderate men will prefer it to tyrannies and oligarchies- I fear lest the servility to which these successive tyrannies have reduced the Romans will render any change difficult to effect; I doubt if they are able to comport themselves as free men or even to lift their eyes to a democracy, any more than people who have been kept in the dark are able to look on a sudden blaze of light.

I conclude that Vitellius ought to be driven from power, and would fain see this effected as quickly and as well as can be; I think however that though you should be prepared for war, yet you yourself instead of declaring war against him, ought rather to threaten him with condign punishment, in case you capture him, as I believe you will easily do, then I would fain see you give the people of Rome the right to choose their own polity, and, if they choose a democracy, allow it them.

For this will bring you greater glory than many tyrannies and many victories at Olympia. Your name will be inscribed all over the city, and brazen statues will be erected everywhere; and you will furnish us with a theme for harangues in which neither Harmodius nor Aristogeiton will bear comparison with you. If however they accept monarchy, whom can they all possibly decree the throne except yourself? For what you already possess, and are about to resign into the hands of the public, they will surely rather confer on yourself than on another."

[5.35] There followed a spell of silence during which the emperor's countenance betrayed contending emotions; for though he was an absolute ruler both in title and fact, it looked as if they were trying to divert him from his resolution to remain such; and accordingly Apollonius remarked:

"It seems to me you are mistaken in trying to cancel a monarchical policy when it is already a foregone conclusion; and that you indulge a garrulity as childish as it is in such a crisis idle. Were it I that had stepped into such a position of influence as he has, and were I, when taking counsel about what good I could do to the world, treated to such advice as you now give, your arguments would carry some force, for philosophic aphorisms might amend the philosophically-minded of your listeners; but as it is a consul and a man accustomed to rule, whom you pretend to advise, one moreover over whom ruin impends if he fall from power, need we carp, if instead of rejecting the gifts of fortune, he welcomes them when they come, and only deliberates how to make a discreet use of what is his own?

Let us take a similar case. Suppose we saw an athlete well endowed with courage and stature, and by his well-knit frame marked out as a winner in the Olympic contest, suppose we approached him when he was already on his way thither from Arcadia, and, while encouraging him to face his rivals, yet insisted that, in the event of his winning the prize, he must not allow himself to be proclaimed the victor, nor consent to wear the wreath of wild olive - should we not be set down as imbeciles, mocking at another's labors?

Similarly when we regard the eminent man before us, and think of the enormous army at his disposal, of the glint of their brazen arms, of his clouds of cavalry, of his own personal qualities, of his generosity, self-restraint, of his fitness to attain his object - ought we not to send him forward on the path that leads to his goal, with favoring encouragement, and with more auspicious pledges for his future than these you have recorded?

For there is another thing you have forgotten, that he is the father of two sons who are already in the command of armies,note and whose deepest enmity he will incur if he does not bequeath the empire to them. Is he not confronted by the alternative of embroiling himself in hostilities with his own family? If however he accepts the throne, he will have the devoted service of his own children, they will lean on him and he on them, using them as his bodyguard, and, by Zeus, as a bodyguard not hired by money, nor levied by force nor feigning loyalty with their faces only, but attached to him by bonds of natural instinct and true affection.

For myself I care little about constitutions, seeing that my life is governed by the Gods; but I do not like to see the human flock perish for want of a shepherd at once just and moderate. For just as a single man pre-eminent in virtue transforms a democracy into the guise of a government of a single man who is the best; so the government of one man, of it provides all round for the welfare of the community, is popular government.

You did not, we are told, help to depose Nero. And did you, Euphrates, or you, Dion? Did I myself? However, no one finds fault with us for that, nor regards us as cowardly, because, after philosophers have destroyed a thousand tyrannies, we have missed the glory of string a blow for liberty. Not but that, as regards myself, I did take the field against Nero, and besides frequent aspersions in my lectures assailed his cut-throat Tigellinus to his face; and the aid I rendered to Vindex in the western half of the empire was, I hardly need say, in the nature of a redoubt raised against Nero.

But I should not on that account claim for myself the honor of having pulled down that tyrant, any more than I should regard yourselves as falling short of the philosopher's ideal of courage and constancy, because you did nothing of the sort. For a man then of philosophic habit it is enough that he should say what he really thinks; but he will, I imagine, take care not to talk like a fool or a madman.

For a consul, on the other hand, who designs to depose a tyrant, the first requisite is plenty of deliberation, with a view to conceal his plans till they are ripe for action; and the second is a suitable pretense to save him from the reproach of breaking his oath. For before he dreams of resorting to arms against the man who appointed him general and whose welfare he swore to safeguard in the council-chamber and on the field, he must surely in self-defense furnish heaven with proof that he perjures himself in the cause of religion.

He will also need many friends, if he is not to approach the enterprise unfenced and unfortified, and also all the money he can get so as to be able to win over the men in power, the more so as he attacks a man who commands the resources of the entire earth. All this demands no end of care, no end of time. And you may take all this as you like, for we are not called upon to sit in judgment on ambitions which he may possibly have entertained, but in which fortune resolved to second him, ere ever he came to fight for them.

What answer, however, will you make to the following proposition? Here is one who yesterday assumed the throne, who accepted the crown offered by the cities here in the temples around us, whose rescripts ar as brilliant as they are ungrudging: do you bid him issue a proclamation today to the effect that for the future he retires into private life, and only assumed the reigns of government in an access of madness? As, if he carries through the policy on which he is resolved, he will confirm the loyalty of the guards relying on whom he first entertained it; so, if he falters and departs from it, he will find an enemy in everyone whom from that moment he must mistrust."