My bedtime reading for a while now has been a biography of Apollonius of Tyana, an alleged near-contemporary of our alleged saviour. The biography was written by one Philostratus, who lived about a century after Apollonius was said to have lived, and who was commissioned to write it by his patron, the Roman Empress, Julia Domna, who killed herself before it was completed. Philostratus finished it anyway.
The biography is one of the amazing series of parallel texts of classical literature (that is, Greek and Latin, with the original on one page and the translation on the facing page) now going under the Loeb Classical Library rubric, and now published by Harvard University. It must surely be a labour of love to the people involved. All the greats are there – Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripides, and so on – along with a great swag of lesser known writers whose works would be unavailable otherwise. Included are the early “Christian fathers” as well as many pagan thinkers of the Christian era, including our dear Apollonius.
Apollonius was a Pythagorean, or so Philostratus says. Like Jesus, the evidence of his historical reality is slender, though there is some.
I bought this book – or rather trilogy* – in a real bookshop, and it was faintly pricey. At the time I was labouring under the delusion that Apollonius was someone else, and when I got the book home, and started reading it, I realised my mistake and put it aside. My aim had been to incorporate a view of the life of Jesus into a novel, but I at length decided that no one could do that without being labeled an imitator of Dan Brown due to the immense success of The Da Vinci Code, so dropped the plan though maybe some other time I’ll find a way.
A year or so later I picked it up again, and was surprised to discover that Apollonius was famous to practically the entire planet, but not to me. I would mention to someone that I was reading this biography, and that person would say, “Oh, right – the one people think was the real Jesus,” or, “The book people think was the first gospel,” or, “the fellow people think was the competitor of Jesus”…or, finally, “yes, the first travelogue”…for so it very well may be: Apollonius, as well as a philosopher, was also a great tourist who traveled the known world more or less. Originally from Asia Minor, he was “Greek” in the cultural sense but went to India, returned, went to Spain, returned, went to Egypt and then Ethiopia…he knew people who became emperors, and was tried by an emperor (Domitian) who was the son of one of his earlier acquaintances who later became an emperor, and he had all kinds of interesting skills such as being able to see things that were happening quite far away, and foretell the future. He had some other skills I won’t go into as that would spoil a friend’s opportunities. One that won’t is that he knew how to deal with satyrs. These wee beasties, which have legs like goats but human bodies, enjoy the pleasures of the female of our species almost as much as I do**, but they don’t know how to treat them: first they ravish them, and then they eat them! Or I think that is what they do. Anyway, visiting a village where a satyr was hanging around shagging and then killing the women he admired, Apollonius knew how to handle the situation: get the dude drunk. Problem solved. Apollonius was a teetotaller, and waxed very eloquent on the poor quality of spirituality alcohol provides, but here was a use for the stuff that obviously saved the day.
Well! Back in Greco-Roman land, Apollonius thrust himself vigorously into politics, only in such a weird, sideways manner it’s hard not to think the neighbours thought him just eccentric. But the author, Philostratus, certainly stands up for his approach, and compares him favourably even with Plato.***
What is all this about? In one way I found this book appalling rather than apollo-ing. Apollonius was reckoned to have written a biography of Pythagoras, and keeps talking about “philosophy” and its wonders throughout the hundreds of pages of this biography by Philostratus, but the reality is that there is precious little philosophising in it. Compared to say, Plato and Socrates, or the Stoic Epictetus, who was a contemporary, his philosophy is random, inconsequential, and even quite silly.
The biggest interest for me was Apollonius’ belief that the philosophy of Pythagoras – known but sketchily to us today – came from India. I have seen other accounts of Greek philosophy in general claiming that for example Plato’s ideas on reincarnation (shared apparently by Pythagoras) were no better than pale imitations of very sophisticated Indian doctrines. Apollonius went to India to get the real story, and while he may have, his encounter with the sages there is disappointingly skimpy.
There are some good moments, and there are times when Apollonius shows himself very intelligent and more. I have only now cracked the third and accompanying volume, of letters by the great man, and while they are for the most part very short, they do show that Apollonius knew the difference between Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Sophistry. He engaged in rivalry with a Stoic named Euphrates, blasting away at Euphrates for all manner of slipshod lifestyle “issues” (making pots of money, for one).
All the same, there is something unsettling in some one who openly declares himself “virtuous” in comparison to the rest of humanity – one would think that humility also is a virtue – in the same way that a non-Christian might find some of Jesus’ remarks unsettling.
To compare the Jesus of the gospels to Apollonius, however, is both unfair and pointless. Christians have had several thousand years to mess around with the accounts of their hero, to improve him and make all his sayings consistent, and so on, and no one would think of doing this with Apollonius. When Christianity began to become a force in the philosophic/moral world, Apollonius was sometimes hoisted as an example of a non-Christian miracle worker to show that Jesus was nothing special, but that attempt was easily seen off (by Eusebius, for one). If, however, there were “Apollonians” beavering away concocting and revising and improving on Philostratus for a few millennia, there might be quite a different take on the man.
Those who suggest that Apollonius was indeed the “first Jesus”, meanwhile, might be right, but the revising and improving would have had to be amazingly dramatic for this to be true.
For anyone interested in the philosophy of this era, this is not the book. Epictetus, the great Stoic, IS the book say I, particularly in the translation by “Mrs (Elizabeth) Carter”, a contemporary of Samuel Johnson.****
For someone so ignorant as I, it was a revelation to encounter Apollonius’ expertise in libanomancy – the art of divination using incense. This explanation is from the website Mermade Magickal Arts: “Signs are read in the flares, pops and crackling sounds as the incense burns upon the coals and also the shapes formed in the the rising smoke. Incense containing small seeds (corriander, jesamine, fennel, hemp) or vesta powder (salt peter) works well when asking a question of the oracle censer. As you ask your question aloud, listen for the answer in the popping of the seeds or the flashing of the powder. For example , one sign for “yes,” two in quick secession for “no”, silence for “the outcome is unclear”. Signs can be read by scrying in the smoke, watching its direction. If drifts toward you it is a positive omen.”
Now you know.
* Two books of the trilogy are Philostratus’ Life. The third is letters and other documents alleged to be by Apollonius, and other writings about him, including Eusebius’ attack on any attempt to give him exalted status.
** That is to say, rather a lot.
*** Plato was a real politician and advised “rulers” in particular in Sicily. Plato was a great philosopher in many respects but politically he was very conservative, an enemy of democracy. Karl Popper demolished his reputation in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and though some have tried to restore it, it is fair to say it is gone forever.
****Anyone who really wants to get into this needs to read Epictetus, and beyond that, to read Plutarch’s Moralia and Diogenes Laertius’ history of philosophy, which runs from the earliest Greeks like Pythagoras through Epicurus. All these wild-eyed ancients – and many more – may be encountered in the Loeb series, available at any good-sized public library.