Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
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Apollonius and the Rulers of the Empire
This influence, however, was invariably of a moral and not of a political nature. It was brought to bear by means of philosophical converse and instruction, by world of mouth or letter. Just as Apollonius on his travels conversed on philosophy, and discoursed on the life of a wise man and the duties of a wise ruler, with kings, [He spent, we are told, no less than a year and eight months with Vardan, King of Babylon, and was the honoured guest of the Indian Râjâh “Phraotes.”] rulers, and magistrates, so he endeavoured to advise for their good those of the emperors who would listen to him.
Vespasian, Titus, and Nerva were all, prior to their elevation to the purple, friends and admirers of Apollonius, while Nero and Domitian regarded the philosopher with dismay.
During Apollonius’ short stay in Rome, in 66 A.D., although he never let the slightest word escape him that could be construed by the numerous informers into a treasonable utterance, he was nevertheless brought before Tigellinus, the infamous favourite of Nero, and subjected to a severe cross-examination. Apparently up to this time Apollonius working for the future, had confined his attention entirely to the reformation of religion and the restoration of the ancient institutions of the nations, but the tyrannical conduct of Nero, which gave peace not even to the most blameless philosophers, at length opened his eyes to a more immediate evil, which seemed no less than the abrogation of the liberty of conscience by an irresponsible tyranny. From this time onwards, therefore, we find him keenly interested in the persons of the successive emperors.
Indeed Damis, although he confesses his entire ignorance of the purpose of Apollonius’ journey to Spain after his expulsion from Rome, would have it that it was to aid the forthcoming revolt against Nero. He conjectures this from a three days’ secret interview that Apollonius had with the Governor of the Province of Bætica, who came to Cadiz especially to see him, and declares that the last words of Apollonius’ visitor were: “Farewell, and remember Vindex” (v 10).
It is true that almost immediately afterwards the revolt of Vindex, the Governor of Gaul, broke out, but the whole life and character of Apollonius is opposed to any idea of political intrigue; on the contrary, he bravely withstood tyranny and injustice to the face. He was opposed to the idea of Euphrates, a philosopher of quite a different stamp, who would have put an end to the monarchy and restored the republic (v 33); he believed that government by a monarch was the best for the Empire, but he desired above all other things to see the “flock of mankind” led by a “wise and faithful shepherd” (v 35).
So that though Apollonius supported Vespasian as long as he worthily tried to follow out this ideal, he immediately rebuked him to his face when he deprived the Greek cities of their privileges. “You have enslaved Greece,” he wrote. “You have reduced a free people to slavery” (v 41). Nevertheless, in spite of this rebuke, Vespasian in his last letter to his son Titus, confesses that they are what they are solely owing to the good advice of Apollonius (v 30).
Equally so he journeyed to Rome to meet Domitian face to face, and though he was put on trial and every effort made to prove him guilty of treasonable plotting with Nerva, he could not be convicted of anything of a political nature. Nerva was a good man, he told the emperor, and no traitor. Not that Domitian had really any suspicion that Apollonius was personally plotting against him; he cast him into prison solely in the hope that he might induce the philosopher to disclose the confidences of Nerva and other prominent men who were objects of suspicion to him, and who he imagined had consulted Apollonius on their chances of success. Apollonius’ business was not with politics, but with the “princes who asked him for his advice on the subject of virtue” (vi 43).