Throughout the first century A.D. Apollonius taught and exemplified the philosophic life Pythagoras had shown to be the surest path to self-conscious immortality. His life stood as a rebuke to later Christian entrepreneurs who sought personal power cloaked in the name and ethics of the Man of Sorrows. Early Church Fathers launched attacks upon the life and work of Apollonius, dismissing him as a charlatan and wizard. But when attempts to discredit Apollonius became more vicious during the reign of Septimius Severus (193–211 A.D.), the empress Julia Domna, devoted to literary and philosophic studies, became convinced that the noble and amazing life of Apollonius should be preserved in a literary work at once dignified and faithful to available sources. She commissioned Philostratus to undertake this task, and he was provided with the diary kept by Damis of Nineveh, the life companion of Apollonius, along with a host of letters written by Apollonius and then in wide circulation. Philostratus was so taken with his subject that he travelled extensively throughout Greece and Anatolia, visiting shrines and gathering local traditions. From this material he composed a biography in eight books, attempting to discern without judgement the lineaments of Apollonius' life and teachings. By the end of the third century Christians were rapidly forcing Jesus out of the great line of Teachers of Humanity, foisting on him the role of being the only one who had ever taught the truth – along with the peculiar doctrine of his alleged lineage. Apollonius could only be a threat to this pretension and was therefore attacked more viciously than ever. But while the traditions, shrines and treatises perished in the rush to eradicate every sign and symbol of pre-Christian wisdom, the biography of Philostratus remains as testimony to this compassionate Pythagorean who sacrificed every amenity to serve suffering humanity by gaining and sharing the wisdom of the gods.
Apollonius was born shortly before the beginning of the Christian era, into an old and wealthy family descended from the first settlers of Tyana in Cappadocia. Shortly before he was born his mother had a dream in which a god appeared. When she asked what kind of child she would have, he answered, "Myself." "And who are you?" "Proteus, the god of Egypt." Proteus could assume any form to defy capture, yet if subdued, he would reveal the past and foretell the future. From an early age Apollonius' powerful memory, refined Attic dialect and physical beauty attracted the notice of the entire community. His companions were followers of Plato, Chrysippus and the Peripatetics, and he listened to the discourses of Epicurus, though he turned with great devotion to the teachings of Pythagoras. By his sixteenth year he had learnt what could be taught without living the teachings and determined to give his life to philosophy, the love of wisdom. Apollonius began where a physician might, with diet. Renouncing all flesh as unclean and heavy upon the mind, and wine because it disturbs mental balance and darkens the aether of soul, he chose to live on dried fruits and vegetables. He abandoned shoes which were worn only for appearance, declined to don clothing which had come from animals and allowed his hair to grow unshorn. He dwelt in the temple of Asclepius with the god's oracular approval and was soon known for the many cures he performed there. He insisted that the priests reject offerings made to purchase the god's favour on the grounds that religious practices were meaningless unless accompanied by an ethical attitude and appropriate moral conduct. His own prayer was simple: "O ye gods, grant unto me that which I deserve", for, he taught, the gods are just.
When Apollonius was twenty, his parents died, and freed from family bonds, he set out to discover the full extent of wisdom intimated by his spiritual teacher, Pythagoras. He imposed a vow of silence upon himself for five years, during which he never gave voice to a word, while training his eyes, ears, mind and memory to absorb everything. An ancient hymn he chanted throughout his life held that "everything is worn and withered away by time, whereas time itself never ages, but remains immortal because of memory". His vow of silence fulfilled, Apollonius journeyed to Antioch in Syria where he began to gather and teach disciples. At sunrise Apollonius would perform rites in secret, instructing only those who had kept a four-year vow of silence. He taught that philosophers of his school were bound by duty to converse with the gods at earliest dawn, talk about the gods throughout the morning and discuss human affairs during the remainder of the day. His speech was authoritative and oracular, crisp and clear. When asked why he never raised questions, he replied, "Because I asked questions when I was a lad; and it is not my business to ask questions now, but to teach people what I have discovered."
In Antioch he decided upon an arduous journey to India to dwell with the Brahmin sages and to visit the Magi of Babylon and Susa. Upon revealing his plan to his seven chief disciples, he found them not only reluctant to go with him but even bent on dissuading him from his resolve. "I have taken the gods into counsel and have told you their decision", he said. "And I have tested you to see if you are strong enough to undertake the same things as myself." He wished them well, but added, "I must depart whither wisdom and the gods lead me." Apollonius turned his face towards the East and the deep reservoirs of wisdom it has always shared with those who truly seek them. He travelled first to Nineveh where Damis, a native of the city, immediately recognized Apollonius' profundity and offered himself in service to the wandering sage. "Let us depart, Apollonius," he said, "you following God and I you." He pointed out that he knew the region around Babylon and spoke several languages, especially those of the Armenians, Medes and Persians. "And I, my good friend," Apollonius replied, "understand all languages, though I never learnt a single one." Damis was stunned. "You need not wonder at my knowing all human languages; for, to tell you the truth, I also understand all the secrets of human silence." Damis hailed Apollonius as a daimon, offered service to him and remained at his side for the rest of his life. He recorded every conversation he heard and all those Apollonius recounted to him for the reason that "If the gods have banquets, and there take food, they must have attendants whose business it is that not even the bits of ambrosia that fall to the ground should be lost."
Having secured the loyal companionship of Damis, Apollonius left Nineveh for Babylon. There he entered the dazzling splendour of the royal palace without giving it the slightest regard. His confident demeanour and refusal to pay homage to the king's image, coupled with a recognition of the king's virtues, quickly brought him into the royal presence. Vardanes was about to sacrifice a white Nisaean horse to the sun and invited Apollonius to join him. The sage declined and instead took up a handful of frankincense and addressed the sun: "O thou Sun, send me as far over the earth as is my pleasure and thine, and may I make the acquaintance of good men, but never hear anything of bad ones, nor they of me." He threw the offering into the fire, declared the omen good and excused himself from the sacrifice of the horse.
Vardanes insisted that Apollonius stay in the royal apartments but he refused. He lodged with a modest man of reputation and prepared to make daily visits to the court. From that time, Apollonius attended the king, offered judicial advice, healed illness and provided the keys to sound government: "Respect many, and confide in few." Apollonius also conversed with the Magi, declaring that they were wise for the most part. When the time for departure came, he asked Vardanes to care for the Magi and remunerate his host. The king asked what he would bring back on his return trip. "A graceful gift, for if I am turned into a wiser man by the society of people yonder, I shall return to you here a better man than I now am.'' The king embraced him, saying, "May you come back, for that will indeed be a great gift."
The journey to the Indus river was rugged, fraught with physical and psychic dangers, but when the small group reached the Indus, Phraotes, the king of Taxila, welcomed Apollonius to his palace. Apollonius was charmed by its unguarded entrances, simple rooms and chaste style. "I am delighted, O king, to find you living like a philosopher."
"And I", the king replied, "am delighted that you should think of me thus." And the king, speaking perfect Greek, insisted that Apollonius invite him to a banquet, since the sage, he believed, was his superior, "for wisdom has more of the kingly quality about it". At the banquet Phraotes described philosophical training in India:
Phraotes had been taken at age twelve to the sages Apollonius sought, and they had raised him as their son. Phraotes explained, "The genuine sages live between the Hyphasis and the Ganges, in a country which Alexander never assailed – not because he was afraid of what was in it, but because the omens warned him against it. After Phraotes gave Apollonius a letter addressed to Iarchas, the chief of the sages, the party pushed beyond the frontier of Alexander's empire.
After marching several days toward the East, they came to a village near the base of the sages' mountain. Here they were met by a dark Indian youth who addressed them by name in fluent Greek. He commanded Damis and the remainder of the party to stay in the village while Apollonius ascended the mountain with him to the seat of the Masters. "We have reached men who are unfeignedly wise," Apollonius said to Damis, "for they seem to have the gift of foreknowledge." Ascending the mountain wreathed in a magically maintained cloud, he passed the Well of Testing, whose indigo waters were never drunk and whose surface created a rainbow of light each midday, passed the Fire of Pardon, a natural fiery crater, and passed the Jar of Rains and Jar of Winds. Near the summit Apollonius saw "Indian Brahmins living upon the earth and yet not on it, and fortified without fortifications, and possessing nothing, yet having the riches of all men".
When Apollonius entered the presence of the sages, Iarchas greeted him in Greek and spoke of the letter from Phraotes. The sage proceeded to tell Apollonius the exact contents of the letter, including a missing delta in one of the words. Then Iarchas recounted all that had happened during Apollonius' journey. "You came with a share in wisdom", Iarchas concluded, "but you are not yet an adept."
"Will you teach me, then, all this wisdom?"
"Aye, and gladly, for that is a wiser course than grudging and hiding matters of interest."
"Have you really discerned", Apollonius asked, "my exact disposition?"
"We", Iarchas responded, "can see all spiritual traits, for we trace and detect them by a thousand signs. We know everything just because we begin by knowing ourselves, for no one of us would be admitted to this philosophy unless he first knew himself." When asked who the sages considered themselves to be, Iarchas answered, "Gods, because we are good men." Iarchas then told Apollonius of his previous lives. When Apollonius enquired about the number of the sages, which was eighteen, Iarchas answered, "Neither are we beholden to number nor number to us, but we owe our superior honour to wisdom and virtue."
Iarchas discoursed on the universe as a living creature and on the five elements – the fifth being aether, the highest aspect of which fills the wise soul. He spoke of suffering caused by disruption of the order of nature and gave Apollonius seven rings for help and protection. In addition to these conversations, Apollonius had many more which were never reported to Damis, and several which included Damis himself. After four months Apollonius made ready to leave the eighteen sages. He gave Iarchas a letter:
Apollonius now undertook a tour of the Roman world, beginning with Ephesus. The oracles at Colophon, Didyma and Pergamum hailed his wisdom, and the city's business and industry closed down as the populace turned out to greet the sage. He enjoined the Ephesians to pursue philosophy and to live in a communitarian spirit, supporting and being supported by each. He warned of an encroaching plague, gave advice on how to minimize its effects, and then accepted an invitation to visit Smyrna. He encouraged the Smyrnians to take pride in themselves as human beings rather than in the famous beauty of their cities, and taught that a harmonious balance between party spirit and concord would best secure the safety of the state, for then each person would do what he could do best and pretension would not erode the social structure. While he was in Smyrna, the plague reached epidemic proportions in Ephesus and the city sent a delegation to beg for help. Apollonius simply said, "Let us go", and instantly appeared in Ephesus, emulating Pythagoras who was once in Thurii and Metapontum simultaneously. The Ephesian populace joined Apollonius in the amphitheater and there he identified a demon in the form of an old man, accused it, and destroyed it when it turned into a wild dog. The plague vanished.
Apollonius turned from Ionia and set his course for Hellas. At Ilium Apollonius spent the night amidst the tombs of the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, and then sailed for Methymna near Lesbos in Aeolia, for he had discovered from his vigil that the tomb of Palamedes lay there. Palamedes, famed for his wisdom, and the inventor of lighthouses, scales, the alphabet and the discus, had joined in the expedition against Troy, but was falsely accused of treachery and stoned to death by the Greeks. Throughout his life, Apollonius insisted that he had been Palamedes in a previous incarnation. No sooner had he disembarked than he found the tomb and uncovered a statue buried next to it. He restored the statue and offered an invocation:
Apollonius came into Athens on the day of the Epidaurian festival to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, but the hierophant refused to initiate Apollonius on the grounds that he dabbled in other rites. The sage rebuked the priest for being afraid of wisdom greater than his own, but when the priest recanted, Apollonius refused the initiation, predicting that he would be initiated by another in the future. The assistant he named assumed headship of the Mysteries four years later, and Apollonius was initiated into the secrets of Eleusis. During his stay in Athens he showed how a religious man could adapt a basic bloodless sacrifice and libation to any god, healed a youth possessed by a demon and reorganized the festival of Dionysius. On invitation, the sage visited Sparta and encouraged the people to hold fast to their traditional values. The Lacedaemonians had been accused of abuses of liberty by Nero, and Sparta was divided on whether to respond by taking an aggressive or an appeasing line. "Palamedes discovered writing", Apollonius suggested, "not only in order that people might write, but also in order that they might know what they must not write." The Lacedaemonians took a middle way and the matter was quickly settled. Apollonius was warned in a dream to go to Crete. Shortly after he arrived, an earthquake struck terror in the hearts of the populace. But Apollonius calmed them by declaring that the earth had in fact given birth to a new land. Travellers from Cydoniatis soon reported that a new island had arisen between Thera and Crete.
When Nero launched a severe persecution of philosophers in Rome, Musonius of Babylon was imprisoned and Apollonius sailed for Italy to see what could be done. Though thirty-four companions sailed with him, only eight dared to enter Rome with Apollonius. When interviewed by the sympathetic but frightened Telesinus, Apollonius refused to adjust his speech and public behaviour to avoid confrontation with the emperor. Instead, he visited temples and sparked a spiritual revival in Rome. Tigellinus, Nero's chief henchman, arrested Apollonius and charged him with impiety against the emperor. Unrolling the scroll on which the charges had been written, Tigellinus found it utterly blank. He quickly released the sage. Apollonius met a funeral procession passing through the streets and discovered that the deceased had died in the hour she was to have been married. Apollonius ordered the bier set down, bent over and whispered into her ear, and the girl immediately awoke. He refused any reward for the act.
Nero embarked for Greece and Apollonius set sail for Iberia where he often told the inhabitants what Nero was doing in Greece. Encouraging the populace to resist Nero, Apollonius left for Sicily where he accurately predicted that Vitellus, Galba and Otho would each rule briefly. Taking a Syracusan ship for Greece, he transferred to a Leucadian vessel at Leucas, warning that the former would sink. At Lechaeum his companions learnt that the Syracusan ship had sunk in the Crisaean Gulf. After visiting Athens and Rhodes, Apollonius set sail for Alexandria, where he critically examined Egyptian fire worship. Rejecting the unctuous fire rites of the priests, he said, "If you really had any acquaintance with the lore of fire worship, you would see that many things are revealed in the disc of the sun at the moment of its rising. Vespasian, sent by Nero to suppress the Jewish revolt in Palestine, invited Apollonius to visit and advise him. When Apollonius refused to travel to Palestine because it was polluted, Vespasian came to Alexandria with his counsellors, Dion and Euphrates, to consult the sage. Before Vespasian officially entered the city, he came to Apollonius in a temple and offered him a prayer: "Do thou make me king."
"I have already done so," the sage replied, "for I have offered a prayer for a king who should be just and noble and temperate."
"O Zeus," Vespasian called out, "may I hold sway over wise men, and wise men hold sway over me."
Apollonius spent several days in deep consultation with the general, earning the respect of Dion and the lasting hatred of Euphrates, for the sage held that the guidance of a wise emperor was better than a constitution followed by mediocre men – "for myself I care little about constitutions, seeing that my life is governed by the gods". After Vespasian was declared emperor in Alexandria, the sage warned him to act as a sovereign when ruling and as a private citizen in personal matters.
With the empire reassuming some semblance of order, Apollonius turned his attention to Upper Egypt and Ethiopia. The sage discussed every city, temple and religious site as his party journeyed up the Nile to meet the naked ascetics known as Gymnosophists. He was disappointed, for though they could trace their wisdom to India, Thespesion their leader taught that the Brahmins had no real wisdom. The Gymnosophists had reduced their knowledge to ritual and their insight to dogma. During Apollonius' long discourses, only Nilus, the youngest Gymnosoph, understood him. When Apollonius left for Ethiopia, Nilus entered his company. On his return he learnt that Titus had been offered the crown of Rome and had refused it because he had shed blood. Apollonius hastened to Antioch to confer with him, warning the future emperor to beware of his father's enemies until he himself became emperor, and then to beware of his own kin.
Titus was shortly succeeded by Domitian, the persecutor of Apollonius' friends, especially Nerva. Euphrates went to Rome to convince the emperor that the sage was involved in a conspiracy against the throne. Domitian sent an order to the governor of Asia for the sage's arrest, but Apollonius' foreknowledge allowed him to depart for Rome before the order arrived. As Apollonius sailed up the Tiber to Rome, Aelian, a counsellor to Domitian who had met the sage in Egypt, outlined the charges and described the travesties of justice in the court. According to agreement, Aelian arrested Apollonius and put him in prison. Rather than prepare a defense, Apollonius spent his time encouraging the other prisoners. Damis protested that "it is a mistake to talk philosophy with men so broken in spirit as these". "Nay," answered the sage, "they are just the people who most want someone to talk to them and comfort them." Apollonius wrought such a transformation among the prisoners, though he was chained and his head shaven, that Domitian rapidly advanced the date of the trial. Damis worried that Apollonius would not have sufficient time to prepare his defense. "Are you going to defend your life ex tempore?" Damis asked. "Yes, by Heaven, for it is an ex tempore life that I have always lived."
Damis wept to see his master cruelly fettered, but Apollonius insisted, "So far as it rests with the verdict of the court, I shall be set at liberty this day, but so far as depends upon my own will, now and here." Then, effortlessly slipping his foot out of the tight fetter, he added, "Here is proof positive to you of my freedom, so cheer up." Damis wrote that only then did he realize that Apollonius was not merely blessed by the gods, but was divine himself. Just before his trial, Apollonius sent Damis away by land to Dicaearchia, "for there you shall see me appear to you".
"Alive, or how?"
"Alive," Apollonius smiled, "but you will believe risen from the dead."
The court was full to overflowing, for Domitian wanted many witnesses to see Apollonius revealed as a conspirator. Apollonius was not allowed to defend himself; rather, Domitian asked leading questions. "Why is it men call you a god?"
"Because every man that is thought to be good is honoured by the title of god."
"What suggested your prediction to the Ephesians that they would suffer from a plague?"
"I used a lighter diet than others, so I was the first sensible to the plague."
Domitian, embarrassed at the effect such answers had on the audience, tried to adjourn the court but the sage interrupted: "Accord me opportunity to speak. If not, send someone to take my body, for my soul you cannot take. Nay, you cannot take even my body – for thou shall not slay me, since I tell thee I am not mortal." And Apollonius vanished before the eyes of all. Domitian was so stunned he refused to order a hunt for the sage. At Dicaearchia Apollonius appeared to Damis, told him all that had happened and made plans to sail for Hellas.
Arriving in Greece, Apollonius was worshipped as a god, for travellers quickly brought news of the startling events in Rome. The sage moved across Hellas, visiting shrines, including the cave of Trophonius where he received a volume of Pythagoras, and proceeded to Smyrna and Ephesus. There he saw the assassination of Domitian as it happened in Rome and informed the people of their liberation from the tyrant. When Nerva, whom Apollonius had defended while in prison, succeeded to the throne, he invited the sage to Rome. Apollonius refused to go, but gave a letter to Damis to take to the emperor with the instruction: "Live unobserved, and if that cannot be, slip unobserved from life." Seeing Damis off, he added: "Even if you have to philosophize by yourself, keep your eyes upon me." Damis left, and Apollonius disappeared from history. Many are the stories of his death, here and there, in Ephesus, in Lindus, on Crete. Some said he ascended directly into heaven or disappeared in a temple of Asclepius; others that he appeared after death to doubters; yet others that he never died. All agreed on his singular virtue, wisdom, sacrificial and beneficent life, and on the teaching he best exemplified: