Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 5.6-10
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.
[5.6] They tell also of how they sailed up the river Baetis,note[Guadalquivir.] which throws no little light upon the nature of the ocean. For whenever it is high tide, the river in its course remounts towards its sources, because apparently a current of air drives it away from the sea. And the mainland of Baetica,note[Andalusia.] after which the river is called, is the best by their account of any continent; for it is well furnished with cities and pastures, and the river is brought by canals through all the towns, and it is very highly cultivated with all sorts of crops; and it enjoys a climate similar to that of Attica in the autumn season when the mysteries are celebrated.
[5.7] The conversations which Apollonius held about things which met his eyes were, according to Damis, many in number, but the following he said deserve to be recorded. On one occasion they were sitting in the temple of Heraclesnote[Melqart in Gadeira.] and Menippus gave a laugh, for it happened that Nero had just come to his mind, "And what," he said, "are we to think of this splendid fellow? In which of the contests has he won wreaths of late? Don't you think that self-respecting Hellenes must shake with laughter when they are on their way to the festivals?"
And Apollonius replied: "As I have heard from Telesinus,note[A Roman senator.] the worthy Nero is afraid of the whips of the Eleans; for when his flatterers urged him to win at Olympia and to proclaim Rome as the victor, he answered: 'Yes, if the Eleans will only not depreciate me, for they are said to use whips and to look down upon me.' And many worse bits of nonsense than this forecast fell from his lips. I however admit that Nero will conquer at Olympia, for who is bold enough to enter the lists against him? But I deny that he will win at the Olympic festival, because they are not keeping it at the right season. For custom requires that this should have been held last year, but Nero has ordered the Eleans to put it off until his own visit, in order that they may sacrifice to him rather than to Zeus.
And it is said that he has announced a tragedy and a performance on the harp for people who have neither a theater nor a stage for such entertainments, but only the stadium which nature has provided, and races which are all run by athletes stripped of their clothes. He however is going to take the prize for performances which he ought to have hidden in the dark, for he has thrown off the robes of Augustus and Juliusnote[Caesar.] and has dressed himself up in the garb of an Amoebeus or a Terpnus.
What can you say of such a record? And then he betrays such a meticulous care in playing the part of Creon and Oedipus, that he is afraid of falling into some error, of coming in by the wrong door, or of wearing the wrong dress, of using the wrong scepter; but he has so entirely forgotten his own dignity and that of the Romans, that instead of carrying on the work of making laws, he has taken to singing, and strolls like a player outside the gates within which the Emperor ought to take his seat on his throne, deciding the fate of land and sea.
There are, O Menippus, several troupes in which has inscribed himself as an actor. What next? Supposing any one of these actors quitted the theater after playing Oenomaus or Cresphontes, so full of his part as to want to rule others, and imagine himself to be a tyrant, what would you say of him? Surely you would recommend a dose of hellebore and the taking of drugs of a kind that clear the intellect?
Well, here is the man himself who wields absolute power, throwing in his lot with actors and artists, cultivating a soft voice and trembling before the people of Elis or of Delphi; or if he does not tremble, yet misrepresenting his art so thoroughly as [not] to anticipate he will be whipped by the people over whom he has been set to rule.
What will you say of the unhappy people who have to live under such a scum? And in what light do you think the Hellenes regard him? Is it as a Xerxes burning their houses down or as a Nero singing songs? Think of the supplies they have to collect for his songs, and how they are thrust out of their houses and forbidden to own a decent bit of furniture or slave.
Think of how Nero picks out of every other house women and children, to gratify his infamous desires, and of the horrors they will suffer over them, of the crop of prosecutions which will be brought, and without dwelling upon the rest, just fix your attention upon those which will arise out of his theatrical and singing ambitions. This is what you hear: 'You did not come to listen to Nero,' or: 'You were present, but you listened to him without enthousiasm, 'You laughed,' or 'You did not clap your hands, 'or 'You have not offered a sacrifice in behalf of his voice not prayed that it may be more splendid than ever at the Pythian festival.'
You can imagine that the Greeks will endure whole Iliads of woenote[Demosthenes, On the false embassy 387.] at these spectacles. For I have long ago learned by the revelation of heaven that the Isthmus will be cut through and will not be cut through, and just now, they say, it is being cut."
Here Damis took him up and said: "As for myself, O Apollonius, I think this scheme of cutting through the Isthmus excels all other undertakings of Nero, for you yourself see how magnificent a project it is."
"I admit," he said, "that it is, O Damis; but it will go against him that he never could complete it, that just as he never finished his songs, so he never finished his digging. When I review the career of Xerxes, I am disposed to praise him not because he bridged the Hellespont, but because he got across it; but as for Nero, I perceive that he will neither sail his ships through the Isthmus, nor ever come to an end of his digging; and I believe, unless truth has wholly departed from among men, that he has retired from Hellas in a fit of panic."note[Early in 68, Nero was forced to return to Italy.]
[5.8] At this time a swift runner arrived at Gadeira, and ordered them to offer sacrifices for the good tidings, and to sing hymns in honor of Nero who had thrice won the prize at Olympia. In the city of Gadeira indeed they understood the meaning of the victory, and that there had been some famous contest in Arcadia; for, as I said before, the people of Gadeira affect Hellenic civilization.
But the cities in the neighborhood of Gadeira neither knew what the Olympic Festival was, nor what a contest nor an arena meant; nor did they understand what they were sacrificing for, but they indulged in the most ridiculous suppositions, and imagined that it was a victory in war that Nero had won and that he had taken captive some men called Olympians; for they had never been spectators either of a tragedy or of a harp-playing performance.
[5.9] Damis indeed speaks of the singular effect which a tragic actor produced upon the minds of the inhabitants of Ipola,note[Probably Ilipula.] which is a city of Baetica, and I think the story is worthy of being reproduced by me. The cities were multiplying their sacrifices in honor of the Emperor's victories, for those at the Pythian festival were already anounced, when an actor of tragedy, who was one of those that had not ventured to contend for the prize against Nero, was on a strolling tour round the cities of the west, and by his histrionic talent he had won no small fame among the less barbarous of the populations, for two reasons, firstly because he found himself among people who had never before heard a tragedy, and secondly because he pretended exactly to reproduce the melodies of Nero.
But when he appeared at Ipola, they showed some fear of him before he ever opened his lips upon the stage, and they shrank in dismay at his appearance when they saw him striding across the stage, with his mouth all agape, mounted on buskins extra high, and clad in the most wonderful garments; but when he lifted up his voice and bellowed out loud, most of them took to their heels, as if they had a demon yelling at them. Such and so old-fashioned are the manners of the barbarians of that country.
[5.10] The governor of Baetica was very anxious to have a conversation with Apollonius, and though the latter said that his conversation must seem tedious to any but philosophers, the other insisted in his demand. And as he was said to be a worthy person and detested the mimes of Nero, Apollonius wrote to him a letter asking him to come to Gadeira; and he, divesting himself of all the pomp of authority, came with a few of his most intimate friends.
They greeted one another, and no one knows what they said to one another in an interview from which they excluded the rest of the company; but Damis hazards the opinion that they formed a plot against Nero. For after three days spent in private conversations, the governor went away, after embracing Apollonius, while the latter said: "Farewell, and do not forget Vindex."
Now what was the meaning of this? When Nero was singing in Achaea, Vindex is said to have stirred up against him the nations of the West, and he was a man quite capable of cutting out the strings which Nero so ignorantly twanged. For he addressed a speech, inspired by the loftiest sentiments which a man can feel against a tyrant, to the troops which he commanded, and he declared in it that Nero was anything rather than a harpist, and a harpist rather than a sovereign. And he taxed him with madness and avarice and cruelty and wantonness of every kind, though he omitted to tax him with the cruelest of crimes; for he said that he had quite rightly put to death his mother, because she had borne such a monster.
Apollonius, forecasting how all this must be, had accordingly brought into line with Vindex the governor of a neighboring province, and so all but took up arms himself in behalf of Rome.