Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
The Biographer of Apollonius
“Like most of the Africans, Severus was passionately addicted to the vain studies of magic and divination, deeply versed in the interpretation of dreams and omens, and perfectly acquainted with the science of judicial astrology, which in almost every age except the present, has maintained its dominion over the mind of man. He had lost his first wife whilst he was governor of the Lionnese Gaul. In the choice of a second, he sought only to connect himself with some favourite of fortune; and as soon as he had discovered that a young lady of Emesa in Syria had a royal nativity, [The italics are Gibbon’s.] he solicited and obtained her hand. Julia Domna [More correctly Domna Julia; Domna being not a shortened form of Domina, but the Syrian name of the empress.] (for that was her name) deserved all that the stars could promise her. She possessed, even in an advanced age, [She died A.D. 217.] the attractions of beauty, and united to a lively imagination, seldom bestowed on her sex. Her amiable qualities never made any deep impression on the dark and jealous temper of her husband. [The contrary is held by other historians.] but in her son’s reign, she administered the principal affairs of the Empire with a prudence that supported his authority, and with a moderation that sometimes corrected his wild extravagances. Julia applied herself to letters and philosophy with some success, and with the most splendid reputation. She was the patroness of every art, and the friend of every man of genius.” [Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, I, vi.]
We thus see, even from Gibbon’s somewhat grudging estimate, that Domna Julia was a woman of remarkable character, whose outer acts give evidence of an inner purpose, and whose private life has not been written. It was at her request that Philostratus wrote the Life of Apollonius, and it was she who supplied him with certain MSS, that were in her possession, as a basis; for the beautiful daughter of Bassianus, priest of the sun at Emesa, was an ardent collector of books from every part of the world, especially of the MSS of philosophers and of memoranda and biographical notes relating to the famous students of the inner nature of things.
That Philostratus was the best man to whom to entrust so important a task, is doubtful. It is true that he was a skilled stylist and a practised man of letters, an art critic and an ardent antiquarian, as we may see from his other works; but he was a sophist rather than a philosopher, and though an enthusiastic admirer of Pythagoras and his school, was so from a distance, regarding it rather through a wonder loving atmosphere of curiosity and the embellishments of a lively imagination than from a personal acquaintance with its discipline, or a practical knowledge of those hidden forces of the soul with which its adepts dealt. We have, therefore, to expect a sketch of the appearance of a thing by one outside, rather than an exposition of the thing itself from one within.
The following is Philostratus’ account of the sources from which he derived his information concerning Apollonius: [I use the 1846 and 1870 editions of Kayser’s text throughout.]
“I have collected my materials partly from the cities which loved him, partly from the temples whose rites and regulations he restored from their former state of neglect, partly from his own letters. [A collection of these letters (but not all of them) had been in the possession of the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), and had been left in his palace at Antium (viii 20). This proves the great fame that Apollonius enjoyed shortly after his disappearance from history, and while he was still a living memory. It is to be noticed that Hadrian was an enlightened ruler, a great traveller, a lover of religion, and an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries.] More detailed information I procured as follows. Damis was a man of some education who formerly used to live in the ancient city of Ninus. [Nineveh.] He became a disciple of Apollonius and recorded his travels, in which he says he himself took part, and also the views, sayings, and predictions of his master. A member of Damis’ family brought the Empress Julia the note-books [ ta? de?t??? writing tablets. This suggests that the account of Damis could not have been very voluminous, although Philostratus further on asserts its detailed nature (i 19)] containing these memoirs, which up to that time had not been known of. As I was one of the circle of this princess, who was a lover and patroness of all literary productions, she ordered me to rewrite these sketches and improve their form of expression, for though the Ninevite expressed himself clearly, his style was far from correct. I also have had access to a book by Maximus [One of the imperial secretaries of the time, who was famous for his eloquence, and tutor to Apollonius.] of Ægæ which contained all Apollonius’ doings at Ægæ. [A town not far from Tarsus.] There is also a will written by Apollonius, from which we can learn how he almost defied philosophy. [ ?? . The term ??? occurs only in this passage, and I am therefore not quite certain of its meaning.] As to the four books of Mœragenes [This Life by Mœragenes is casually mentioned by Origenes, Contra Celsum, vi 41; ed Lommatzsch (Berlin 1841), ii 373.] on Apollonius they do not deserve attention, for he knows nothing of most of the facts of his life” (i. 2. 3).
These are the sources to which Philostratus was indebted for his information, sources which are unfortunately no longer accessible to us, except perhaps a few letters. Nor did Philostratus spare any pains to gather information on the subject, for in his concluding words (viii 31), he tells us that he has himself traveled into most parts of the “world” and everywhere met with the “inspired sayings” [ ?? ] of Apollonius, and that he was especially well acquainted with the temple dedicated to the memory of our philosopher at Tyana and founded at the imperial expense (“for the emperors had judged him not unworthy of like honours with themselves”), whose priests, it is to be presumed, had got together as much information as they could concerning Apollonius.
A thoroughly critical analysis of the literary effort of Philostratus, therefore, would have to take into account all of these factors, and endeavour to assign each statement to its original source. But even then the task of the historian would be incomplete, for it is transparently evident that Philostratus has considerably “embellished” the narrative with numerous notes and additions of his own and with the composition of set speeches.
Now as the ancient writers did not separate their notes from the text, or indicate them in any distinct fashion, we have to be constantly on our guard to detect the original sources from the glosses of the writer. [Seldom is it that we have such a clear indication, for instance, as in i 25; “The following is what I have been able to learn . . . about Babylon.”] In fact Philostratus is ever taking advantage of the mention of a name or a subject to display his own knowledge, which is often of a most legendary and fantastic nature. This is especially the case in his description of Apollonius’ Indian travels. India at that time and long afterwards was considered the “end of the world,” and an infinity of the strangest “travellers’ tales” and mythological fables were in circulation concerning it. One has only to read the accounts of the writers on India [See E A. Schwanbeck, Megasthenis Indica (Bonn 1846), and J W. M’Crindle, Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (Calcutta, Bombay, London 1877). The Commerce and Navigation of the Erythræan Sea (1879), Ancient India as described by Ktesias (1882), Ancient India as described by Ptolemy (London 1885) and The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great (London 1893, 1896.] from the time of Alexander onwards to discover the source of most of the strange incidents that Philostratus records as experiences of Apollonius. To take but one instance out of a hundred, Apollonius had to cross the Caucasus, an indefinite name for the great system of mountain ranges that bound the northern limits of Âryâvarta. Prometheus was chained to the Caucasus, so every child has been told for centuries. Therefore, if Apollonius crossed the Caucasus, he must have seen those chains. And so it was, Philostratus assures us (ii 3). Not only so, but he volunteers the additional information that you could not tell of what they were made! A perusal of Megasthenes, however, will speedily reduce the long Philostratian account of the Indian travels of Apollonius (i 41—iii 58) to a very narrow compass, for page after page is simply padding, picked up from any one of the numerous Indica to which our widely read author has access. [Another good example of this is seen in the disquisition on elephants which Philostratus takes from Juba’s History of Libya (ii 13 and 16)] To judge from such writers, Porus [Perhaps a title, or the king of the Purus.] (the Râjâh conquered by Alexander) was the immemorial king of India. In fact, in speaking of India or any other little known country, a writer in these days had to drag in all that popular legend associated with it or he stood little chance of being listened to. He had to give his narrative a “local colour,” and this was especially the case in a technical rhetorical effort like that of Philostratus.
Again, it was the fashion to insert set speeches and put them in the mouths of well-known characters on historical occasions, good instances of which may be seen in Thucydides and the Acts of the Apostles. Philostratus repeatedly does this.
But it would be too long to enter into a detailed investigation of the subject, although the writer has prepared notes on all these points, for that would be to write a volume and not a sketch. Only a few points are therefore set down, to warn the student to be ever on his guard to sift out Philostratus from his sources. [Not that Philostratus makes any disguise of his embellishments; see, for instance, ii 17, where he says: “Let me, however, defer what I have to say on the subject of serpents, of the manner of hunting which Damis gives a description.”]
But though we must be keenly alive to the importance of a thoroughly critical attitude where definite facts of history are concerned, we should be as keenly on our guard against judging everything from the standpoint of modern preconceptions. There is but one religious literature of antiquity that has ever been treated with real sympathy in the West, and that is the Judæo-Christian; in that alone have men been trained to feel at home, and all in antiquity that treats of religion in a different mode to the Jewish or Christian way, is felt to be strange, and, if obscure or extraordinary, to be even repulsive. The sayings and doings of the Jewish prophets, of Jesus, and of the Apostles, are related with reverence, embellished with the greatest beauties of diction, and illumined with the best thought of the age; while the sayings and doings of other prophets and teachers have been for the most part subjected to the most unsympathetic criticism, in which no attempt is made to understand their standpoint. Had even-handed justice been dealt out all round, the world today would have been richer in sympathy, in wide-mindedness, in comprehension of nature, humanity, and God, in brief, in soul-experience.
Therefore, in reading the Life of Apollonius let us remember that we have to look at it through the eyes of a Greek, and not through those of a Jew or a Protestant. The Many in their proper sphere must be for us as authentic a manifestation of the Divine as the One or the All, for indeed the “Gods” exist in spite of commandment and creed. The Saints and Martyrs and Angels have seemingly taken the place of the Heroes and Dæmons and Gods, but the change of name and change of viewpoint among men affect but little the unchangeable facts. To sense the facts of universal religion under the ever changing names which men bestow upon them, and then to enter with full sympathy and comprehension into the hopes and fears of every phase of the religious mind - to read, as it were, the past lives of our own souls is a most difficult task. But until we can put ourselves understandingly in the places of others, we can never see more than one side of the Infinite Life of God. A student of comparative religion must not be afraid of terms; he must not shudder when he meets with “polytheism,” or draw back in horror when he encounters “dualism,” or feel an increased satisfaction when he falls in with “monotheism”; he must not feel awe when he pronounces the name of Yahweh and contempt when he utters the name of Zeus; he must not picture a satyr when he reads the word “dæmon,” and imagine a winged dream of beauty when he pronounces the word “angel.” For him heresy and orthodoxy must not exist; he sees only his own soul slowly working out its own experience, looking at life from every possible view-point, so that haply at last he may see the whole, and having seen the whole, may become at one with God.
To Apollonius the mere fashion of a man’s faith was unessential; he was at home in all lands, among all cults. He had a helpful word for all, an intimate knowledge of the particular way of each of them, which enabled him to restore them to health. Such men are rare; the records of such men are precious, and require the embellishments of no rhetorician.
Let us then, first of all, try to recover the outline of the early external life and of the travels of Apollonius shorn of Philostratus’ embellishments, and then endeavour to consider the nature of his mission, the manner of the philosophy which he so dearly loved and which was to him his religion, and last, if possible, the way of his inner life.