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Maria Dzielska

Apollonius of Tyana and His Historicity

Flavius Philostratus of Lemnos, a distinguished man of letters and sophist of the first half of the third century AD, describes in book four of his biography of Apollonius of Tyana (The Life of Apollonius of Tyana = Vita Apollonii Tyanensis) a wondrous miracle that Apollonius performed while in Rome under emperor Nero.
He raised from the dead, on her burial day, a girl in a prominent consular family who had died just in the hour of her marriage.
Seeing the despair of her groom and of all those attending the funeral - and all Rome was there - he stopped the procession saying: Put down the bier, for I will stay the tears that you are shedding for this maiden. He then asked what her name was, stooped over her and touched her.
He also whispered in secret some spell over her and at once woke up the maiden from her seeming death.
The girl rose, spoke out loud, and returned to her father's house.
Philostratus comments that whether the magus had detected some spark of life in her, which those who were nursing her had not noticed, for it is said that although it was raining at the time, a vapor went up from her face - or whether life was really extinct and he restored it by the warmth of his touch is a mysterious problem which neither I myself nor those who were present could decide. (VA IV.
45) Although Philostratus compares the event with Hercules restoring to life Alcestis, the wife of Admetos, king of Pherae, we have reasons to suspect that the biographer, although he makes no reference to Christianity and its scriptures in VA, borrowed the story from the gospel.
A clear parallel suggests itself between the story and the evangelical account of the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue in Galilee (Mt 9, 23-26; Mk 5, 35-43; Lk 8, 49-56) or of the young man of Nain, also in Galilee (Lk 7, 11-17).
Philostratus must have known the New Testament and perhaps other evangelical writings (the Acts and New Testament apocrypha).
As he was writing his biography of Apollonius, the first canon of the New Testament was defined, and the growing Christianity - at precisely the time of Septimus Severus, with whose wife, empress Julia Domna, Philostratus was intellectually linked - was hit by a new wave of persecution.
It was Julia Domna, the daughter of a sun god priest from Emesa, Syria, who encouraged Philostratus to write a biography of Apollonius, and handed to him the Hypomnemata (Recollections) of Damis, a supposed disciple of Apollonius, which Philostratus quotes throughout his work.
Given her background, Julia Domna must have known the figure of the Pythagorean ascetic of Tyana from stories circulated about him in Eastern cities.
She and Severus's court - officially supportive of religious syncretism - wanted to bring to light the figure of a Greek magus and philosopher who pursued the wisdom of the East.
It was believed that in the face of the growing popularity of Christ and his teaching, the people needed a protection from Christian influences and a revival of the old religion.
This would be achieved by advancing a competitive figure, a pagan divine man, a personal model of ethical and religious conduct. Considering the similarities between VA and the scriptures, and the unmistakable ideological overtones of that biography, from the mid-19th century till today research has continued to study its links with New Testament literature.
Without going into its complexities, I only want to mention that from the early 19th century it became fashionable to compile comparisons between Apollonius and Christ, their miracles, ethical virtues, piety, and wise counsel.
Such set pieces became early literary practice for beginner European intellectuals.
One of them was a young artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Elsewhere in the same book IV of VA, we see Apollonius traveling to Thessalians on a mission, on behalf of the hero Achilles (IV, 23).
During his stay at Troy, Apollonius had raised the spirit of Achilles and spoke with him about topics relating to the Trojan war (IV, 16).
On this occasion, Achilles complained to Apollonius about the Thessalians, who neglected his tomb and failed to offer him the sacrifices due to the dead.
They had forgotten that the homeland and kingdom of Achilles was Phthia in Thessaly (Achaia Phthiotis) and there also was his tomb, Philostratus want us to believe.
Moreover, the great Greek hero warned the Thessalians that by making him angry they were risking a fate similar to that he helped inflict on the Trojans.
And so Apollonius arrived at a congress at Thermopylaea, where twice a year assembled the Amphictiony, a council supervising the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and presented Achilles' message to representatives of Thessaly.
The Thessalians, Philostratus assures us, were frightened by the threat they heard and passed a resolution for the resumption of the ceremonies at the tomb. (IV 23) Unfortunately, despite the vivid account, we have no source evidence to believe that Apollonius really visited Rome or Thermopylaea, nor can we put much faith in his other travels and exploits listed at length in Philostratus's work.
The biographer, who represented the great Greek rhetorical and literary movement called the Second Sophistic, simply executed a task commissioned by Julia Domna.
He created a romanticized biography based on a study of a historical but relatively obscure figure, written in accordance with the artistic tenets of sophistic composition, placed in the context of first-century Roman history, embellished with rich geographic and ethnographic descriptions, Apollonius's prophecies and thaumaturgies.
In this artistically lavish tale, Philostratus told the story of the sage's life, placing his youth in the reign of emperor Tiberius and his death during the principate of Nerva (the authentic Apollonius, as I prove in my book, probably lived from ca.
AD 40 to 120).
Philostratus's other purpose was to demonstrate that Apollonius was not a magus or goes (a charlatan, dabbler in black magic), but rather a divine man (theios aner) possessed of superhuman knowledge and wisdom.
The developments start from his miraculous birth at Tyana in Cappadocia (today the village of Kemer Hisar, Turkey) and conclude in a Apollonius's posthumous apotheosis - his ascent to heaven at the temple of Artemis Dyctynna in Crete, accompanied by choirs of virgins leading him to eternity (VIII, 30).
His holiness and elevated position Apollonius owed to the fact that early in his youth he opened himself to the Pythagorean way of life and emulated the divine Master Pythagoras, who had long been considered a semi-divine figure, somewhere between the gods and men.
Dressed - as Pythagoras before him - in a white robe, barefoot or in sandals, long-haired and striking-visaged, he observed the rules of Pythagorean asceticism in a more uncompromising manner than Pythagoras himself had.
He renounced hot baths, meat dishes, and wine - as depleting the powers of concentration - in favor of vegetable fare and pure water.
In his struggles with the desires and longings of the flesh he surrendered his possessions, rejected marriage or indeed any friendly or philosophical ties with women.
Not that this lone aristocrat of the spirit ever did have many disciples or friends in lasting association.
Few could have lived up to the challenges Apollonius presented to them.
In truth, his most faithful companion and observer of his acts was the already mentioned Damis, whom he met in Nineveh, the former Assyrian capital.
Wandering with his Pythagorean and religious mission from India to Gibraltar, Apollonius talked to high officials, and instructed common people.
In Ephesus, Smyrna, Miletus, Pergamon, Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Tarsus, Antioch, and many other places he proclaimed the need for renewal of Hellenistic customs, morality, and the classical paideia.
Reminding audiences of the Greek self-awareness and identity was a crucial part of his mission, as was his religious involvement.
This sage and religious reformer concerned with the renewal of the neglected pagan religious life in the empire not only instructed priests in temples, restored forgotten cults, reinterpreted obsolete rituals and foundation myths, but also argued for the bloodless nature of sacrifices. During his travels he drew heavily from the wisdom of other peoples.
His most beneficial stay was with the Brahmans in India, where he traveled after a visit with the Parthian king Vardanes, crossing the Caucasus mountains (in reality a reference to the Hindu-Kush).
The Brahmans received him with the greatest reverence and introduced him to the arcanes of thaumaturgy, divination, healing, and confirmed his Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls.
From them he learned the secrets of the cosmos and the laws of astronomy, they acquainted him with levitation, and reaffirmed his sun worship.
They finally convinced him that true wealth comes from possessing nothing. The chief Brahman Iarchas presented to Apollonius a gift of seven rings with the names of seven celestial bodies.
Apollonius would always wear them alternating between them according to the astrological name for the day.
Called by Philostratus not only a divine man (theios aner) but also divine being or even god by virtue of his wisdom and supernatural abilities, Apollonius showed qualities to justify such claims.
He possessed the extrasensory capability of prognosis (foreknowledge, foresight, or prescience) of future events.
From this supernatural wisdom (sophia), from prognosis, from the purity of his life sprung his spiritual power, divine energy - daimonia kinesis (V, 12) which enabled him to perform miracles (IV, 25; VII, 38), expel demons (IV, 10; IV, 20), unmask evil spirits such as the empusa or lamia, or creatures like the satyr (II, 4; IV, 25; VI, 27).
He was capable of bilocation (IV, 10; V, 30; VIII, 25), understood the speech of birds and beasts, commanded every human language, and could read the minds of those who were silent.
His divine power and extrasensory perceptions Apollonius also used as a physician, a healer, a role that was directly related to his gift of prognosis.
He learned that art of healing at the temple of the god Asclepios at Aegae and then perfected it in India, where Brahmans taught him that medicine was the art of divine men. He thus acquired power over diseases and even, as we remember, over death.
He relieved entire cities of plagues as was the case e.g.
in Ephesus, where he recognized the demon of the pestilence (IV, 10).
He participated in empire's political events and was a politically active philosopher.
He met with emperors and instructed them on the correct way to exercise sole rule, fought against the tyranny of Nero and Domitian, while he supported the rulers Titus and Nerva.
In the end he faced Domitian's trial on charges of goeteia (black magic) and of human sacrifice conducted with Nerva to overthrow Domitian.
Miraculously, he disappeared from the imperial court without making the triumphal apology pro vita sua which he had prepared (VIII, 6-7).
He lived to be over a hundred years old and yet to the end he kept his vigor and fitness, and an appearance even more pleasing than in his youth (VIII, 29).
Nor was he without a posthumous episode.
After his death he appeared in a dream to a young man in Tyana to confirm his belief on the eternal soul.
(VIII, 31) Although Philostratus make Apollonius appear a crucial figure in the empire in the second half of the first century AD, extant sources from the first and early second centuries are completely silent about his achievements and elevated station in the Roman world as related by Philostratus.
The period's historians and philosophers do not even know his name.
The silence in the time's sources and the fragmentary information about Apollonius in second-century writing make it extremely difficult to study the authentic Tyanean.
We must use a whole complex of pre-Philostratean and later post-Philostratean, Byzantine, and even Arabic records, pseudoepigraphs signed in the name of Apollonius, and information from Christian authors who referred to him.
The memoirs of Damis that Philostratus treats as his fundamental source are considered by scholars studying Vita Appollonii as an invention, a falsification by Philostratus serving to lend credibility to his story.
No source independent of VA makes a reference to Damis as the author of memoirs about Apollonius.
We can place some trust in two other authors of records concerning Apollonius whom Philostratus quotes.
The first is Moeragenes, whose historicity has been confirmed.
His work on Apollonius titled Memorabilia of Apollonius of Tyana, Magician and Philosopher is mentioned by the Church Father Origen in his treatise Contra Celsum written ca.
Most likely, the other of the two writers was also a historical figure.
Maximus of Aegae supplied Philostratus with an account of Apollonius staying at the temple of Asclepios is Aegae, Cilicia.
Philostratus writes in his VA that he was emperor's secretary ab epistulis graecis (I, 12).
His mention of a function in the imperial civil service makes it extremely likely that there was indeed such a historical person as Maximus and it renders a date in the period between Trajan and Caracalla possible.
Both Moeragenes and Maximus of Aegae - in contrast to Philostratus's claims - showed Apollonius primarily as a magus, only later a philosophus.
The magus Apollonius was remembered and referred to - with scorn and contempt- by the well known writer in the second half of the second century, Lucian of Samosata in his satire on Alexander of Abonoutichus in Paphlagonia, the prophet of New Asclepios, who appeared in the form of a serpent named Glycon.
He wrote that the false prophet Alexander had learned the magic tricks and gimmicks from a certain Tyanean who was a follower of Apollonius.
In the early third century, under the Severi, Apollonius was remembered by Philostratus's contemporary, the well known historian Cassius Dio.
In his Roman History, he once contemptuously called Apollonius a genuine goeta and magus (77.
18, 4), and elsewhere spoke admiringly of the Tyanean as capable of foretelling, clairvoyance, and bilocation.
This latter appreciation was occasioned by an extraordinary event that took place in Ephesus in 96 AD (67.
18, 1).
In that location, the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana was watching the murder of emperor Domitian perpetrated in Rome.
Highly antagonistic to Domitian as we know he was, Apollonius accompanied the conspirators in their act as if he had been with them in Rome.
He jumped on some pedestal in the town and shouted encouragement for one of them by the name of Stephanus to deal a final blow to the emperor.
Philostratus describes the event in a similar way: Apollonius stopped an address in Ephesus in mid-sentence and shouted Smite the tyrant, smite him. (VIII, 26) We have no doubt that the event really took place.
The historical Apollonius, to whom we are led by the accounts of both a significant writer and an outstanding historian of Rome, was certainly clairvoyant like many mystics and esoterics in history.
He also certainly had his own attitude toward emperor Domitian.
He regarded him as a tyrant and considered his death to be a positive and joyous event.
Thanks to a coincidence with an account of a serious historian like Cassius Dio, the fabled biography by Philostratus received another suggestion of legitimacy.
It also supplies us with a clue that Ephesus is a city where Apollonius is certain to have been.
Both Cassius Dio and Philostratus probably knew of the event from a local, perhaps Ephesian, tradition.
Philostratus declares in VA that he drew intensely from Apollonian traditions cherished in cities that loved him (I, 2) and we must concede that he is right on this matter.
Traditional stories of the magus and sage from Tyana were treasured until late-Byzantine and Arab times by Greek cities in Asia Minor and further into the Greek east.
Those cities possessed objects of cult associated with Apollonius, and had preserved tales of his prophecies, thaumaturgies, healing powers, and talismans.
His moral exhortations were likewise remembered.
Some of those cities Philostratus might have visited during his sophistic journeys; others he might have seen traveling with the imperial court.
He is known to have traveled with emperor Caracalla and Julia Domna in 215 AD across Asia Minor to Antioch in Syria, from where Caracalla planned to attack Persia.
The first such city was, of course, Apollonius's native TYANA in Cappadocia.
We read in Philostratus as well as in Cassius Dio that Caracalla erected a hero shrine in honor of Apollonius during his expedition across Asia Minor to the east.
In it were placed images of Apollonius.
His cult in Tyana is certain to have existed much earlier, before Caracalla.
It is possible that the emperor, who admired Apollonius for his magical and medical achievements, converted an existing memorial into a more sumptuous cult shrine.
The shrine of Apollonius in Tyana remained an object of veneration even for an early fourth-century Christian pilgrim - wandering from Bordeaux in 333 AD - whose travel-narrative has survived. From Arab sources we hear that in Tyana (Tuwana in Arabic) and in other eastern Greek cities Apollonius's talismans were in use.
According to the same tradition, Apollonius (Balinas in Arabic) discovered in Tyana the Book of the Secret of Creation by Hermes Trismegistos and the Emerald Tablet - the oldest and most important source of Arab and later European alchemic knowledge.
Both these precious works Apollonius was supposed to have received from Hermes Trismegistos himself in Tyana. AEGAE (now Yumurtalik) in Cilicia, neighboring on Cappadocia, is the next city undoubtedly connected with the historical Apollonius.
Here, Philostratus reports after Maximus of Aegae, in a famous temple of the god Asclepios, which was also a center of sophistic and philosophical studies, Apollonius, then aged 16 years old, experienced a final conversion to Pythagoreanism.
Also here he became a healer and a priest of Asclepios.
He performed his ministry to the sick using typical methods of Asclepian art but he also resorted to magic and divination in his medical practices.
Knowledge of his medical and magic skills became so widespread in Cilicia that it gave rise to a local proverb: Where are you running? Is it to see the stripling? (VA I, 8) That Apollonius's fame as a physician was great in Cilicia is also proved by an archeological fragment discovered recently, in the 1970's, in Adana Musem in Turkey, bearing a four-line elegiac poem on Apollonius.
This epigram speaks of Apollonius named after Apollo, born in Tyana, and a bearer of light, whom heaven sent to earth to extinguish human transgressions and free mortal men from sufferings. The stone was found at Misis (ancient Mopsuestia) on the banks of Pyramos, and thus it did not come from Aegae but from a building around the city of Mopsuestia, not too far away from Aegae.
As the text is carved on what seems to be an architrave block or a lintel, it suggests that the piece was part of some cult shrine of Apollonius or decorated his statue in the shrine.
And so MOPSUESTIA, too, wanted to honor the Tyanean, named after Apollo, a sage and physician of Asclepios, heaven-sent to offer his enlightened advice and use his supernatural knowledge to relieve people from physical suffering and - as a soul healer - from moral corruption.
Cilicia also gave rise to a piece of gossip (that forever remained an invention) of Apollonius's only love story.
It was told that the exceptionally beautiful mother of the sophist Alexander Peloplaton of Seleucia in Cilicia had fallen in love with Apollonius and did not make a secret of their relation.
She turned down other candidates and chose him because she wanted to have an offspring with the man who had more divinity in him than other mortals.
Although we can be certain - thanks to Maximus of Aegae - that Apollonius had for a long time, right from his death, been worshipped in Asclepios sanctuary in Aegae and in Cilicia in general, the epigram devoted to him probably dates back to the early fourth century.
Since it is clearly reminiscent of Philostratus's biography, it must have been made when that work had become widely known in educated circles in the east.
This came to pass in the early fourth century thanks to the high court official and sophist Sossianus Hierocles.
It was he who, at the outset of the Great Persecution launched by Diocletian in 303 AD, published the treaty The Word for the Love of Truth (Philalethes logos), in which he opposed Christ while vindicating Apollonius and favorably compared Philostratus's VA to the Scriptures.
In his assault on Christ's divinity and miracles, he contended that Apollonius had far outdone Christ in miracles and yet he was not held as a god but rather a friend of the gods.
With his treatise, Hierocles roused a considerable interest in Philostratus's work, in Apollonius himself, and in his cult centers.
The temple at Aegae, a center of worship of Asclepios and Apollonius, benefited from this and enjoyed a revival.
A sharp and violent response to Hierocles's work came from a Father of the Church, Eusebius of Caesarea, who published a comprehensive apologetic treatise briefly called Contra Hieroclem.
Eusebius concluded that based on Philostratus's book, Apollonius could not be held divine or indeed even honest.
Eusebius's treatise did not appear until 313, when political circumstances permitted its publication.
In that year persecution of the Church stopped; Christianity was legalized and equaled with the empire's other religions.
At this point, the favorable time for pagan revival - which lasted through the reigns of Diocletian and his successors - had come to an end.
In 331, Constantine the Great took an unexpected decision to destroy the temple of the god Asclepios at Aegae.
The question arises why this beneficent, helpful deity was singled out to have his temple destroyed, and why at Aegae of all places.
The fact also gives one to think that the emperor's confidant Eusebius of Caesarea describing the event in The Life of Constantine made no effort to conceal his joy and satisfaction.
He applauded the razing of the temple to the ground, soldiers overthrowing and hacking at such statues of Asclepios and philosophers (probably including that of Apollonius of Tyana) as stood there.
Does it not seem obvious that Eusebius of Caesarea's personal involvement in his struggle with Apollonius and his influence on the emperor resulted in the destruction of the Asclepieon at Aegae where next to the healing deity the magus and sage of Tyana received worship? Two rivals of Christ were overthrown with a single blow, for Asclepios, too, who bore the nickname Saviour, was seen by Christians as an evil demon and Christ's competitor! Philostratus repeats after Maximus of Aegae that Apollonius spent six years in Cilicia.
Arguably, he visited other cities in the area such as Tarsus (which Philostratus mentions several times) and frequently revisited it.
Philostratus as well as later sources, especially Byzantine, connect Apollonius with nearby, but already Syrian ANTIOCH (today's Antakya).
We know that Philostratus stayed in Antioch with Julia Domna in 216/217.
He thus had an opportunity to obtain information about Apollonius's links with this city and areas of Syria, and to confirm his previous knowledge.
Philostratus writes of several visits of Apollonius in Antioch during which he condemned Antiochians' proclivity for carnal pleasures and their disagreeable predilection for hot public baths.
A later historiographic tradition also associates Apollonius with Antioch.
The sixth-century Antiochian historian Malalas, drawing from earlier Antiochian historians, wrote in his Chronicle of a visit paid in the city during the reign of emperor Domitian by a Pythagorean philosopher and wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana.
On request from city councilors, he furnished the city with talismans to protect it from northerly wind, scorpions, mosquitoes, and seismic quakes which had always plagued Antioch.
Apollonius's visits to Antioch were also recounted by later Byzantine and Arab authors.
As concerns Apollonius's visits to western Asia Minor, as described by Philostratus, most records associate the sage with EPHESUS.
It was there, as we know, that Apollonius was remembered as a clairvoyant and magus with the gift of bilocation.
Also in Ephesus, Apollonius displayed other magic and medical skills.
First he prophesied to inhabitants a plague and when it broke out, he overpowered it (VA IV, 4; IV, 10).
At the location where he destroyed the demon of the plague, a statue was built of Hercules Apotropaios.
This was probably the name under which Apollonius received worship in Ephesus.
The cult of Apollonius under the name of Hercules Apotropaios was mentioned even in the early fourth century by the well-known Christian author Lactantus.
We can justifiably suppose, although only Philostratus mentions this, that Apollonius's travels in Asia Minor also included Smyrna and other Ionian cities.
Yet there is no evidence to believe that Apollonius ever journeyed west, visited Rome under Nero and Domitian, reached Baetica and Gadeira in Spain, spent time in Sicily, etc.
Except for Philostratus and outside the Severi court circle, which read his biography, no one ever mentions or seems to have heard of Apollonius making a presence in the west.
And even later, knowledge of Apollonius in Rome was confined to a limited group of intellectuals who made up the last pagan opposition in the latter half of the fourth century. Nor do we have any source evidence, apart form Philostratus's romance, to believe that Apollonius visited Persia, India, Egypt, or Ethiopia, although such suggestions of Philostratus sounded more plausible to his contemporary readers who knew that the historical Apollonius was active in the empire's eastern provinces, Asia Minor and northern Syria.
It should be remembered that after Alexander the Great's expedition, all kinds or exotica and Indica were widely circulated, arousing interest in the secret knowledge of the East.
Thus we can see that the absence of information about Apollonius in works of first and second-century Greek and Roman authors known to us (apart from a mention in Lucian) has its justification.
While he lived, the fame of this modest Pythagorean, Cappadocian mystic, physician of Asclepios, and magician was limited to some lands, cities, and circles (such as the community of the temple of Asclepios at Aegae).
Apollonius enjoyed only local cultic veneration and reputation, but in a larger framework of the empire he was unremarkable and went unnoticed.
It was only his legend that lent him importance and appeal.
But of the legend we will speak on another occasion.
Thus Philostratus's Life of Apollonius is to be pleasurably read, but not fully believed! Just as the main character in VA is a creation of Philostratus, the whole work is filled with liberties appropriate for the genre of romanticized biography in which it belongs and reflecting the tendencies that Philostratus conformed to.
The historical Apollonius remains a mystery to us.
All we can do is wait for new discoveries (such as the Adana inscription) that will help us solve the mystery.
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