Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

The Life of Apollonios of Tyana
Flavius Philostratus

Introduction: A curious feature of the long line of philosophers who claimed descent from Pythagoras of Samos (c. 560–490 B.C.) is the persistent report that many of them, Pythagoras included, possessed more-than-human wisdom. This reputation was certainly enhanced by the few secretive Pythagorean brotherhoods or monasteries which kept themselves under a perpetual blanket of silence, so that hardly anything firsthand became known of their practices. What little information we have today has come from outsiders, and in later times during the Roman Empire, these tended to be romanticists whose reliability was rarely taken seriously.

One of the most famous in this succession of Pythagorean philosophers was a man named Apollonios, of the Greek city of Tyana in the Province of Cappadocia, in what is today eastern Turkey. Although he lived in the second half of the first century A.D., we have little direct information about Apollonios, except for this biography by Philostratus of Lemnos, written much later, i.e., around A.D. 218.

The reason for his writing is noteworthy in itself. When the emperor Caracalla was on his way to capture the territories to the East, he stopped at Tyana to pay tribute to “the divine Apollonios,” even donating the funds to build a temple to him there. And Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, commissioned one of the professional writers in her entourage to publish a fitting account of Apollonios’ life.

This conjunction of events suggests that the title of Philostratus’ work might best be translated: “InHonor of Apollonios of Tyana” for the entire account from beginning to end consists of carefully constructed praise, using every device known to this well-trained writer. In other words, just as Caracalla’s architects built a shrine for Apollonios out of marble, one of his court rhetoricians built a temple out of words—for the same purpose, i.e., to celebrate Apollonios’ God-like nature and inspire reverence for him. Thus, Philostratus’ narrative is a virtual catalogue of every rhetorical device known to the professional sophistic writers of that time: sudden supernatural omens, minidialogues on the favorite topics of the day, colorful bits of archeological lore, plenty of magic, rapid action scenes, amazing descriptions of fabled, far-off lands, occasional touches of naughty eroticism, and a whole series of favorite “philosophical” scenes: the Philosopher lectures his disciples on being willing to die for truth; the Philosopher is abandoned by his cowardly disciples; the Philosopher confronts the tyrant; the brave Philosopher is alone in prison unafraid; the Philosopher victoriously defends himself in the court, and so on. On the other hand, Philostratus included enough accurate historical details

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