Is the Sage the Sophist's Mouthpiece?

Political Interpretations of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius

Corpus Christi Classical Seminar, Oxford 8 February 1995

Jaap-Jan Flinterman

This is the text of a talk for the Corpus Christi Classical Seminar in February 1995. It was essentially a viva voce prepublication of the final section of the fourth chapter of my Power, Paideia & Pythagoreanism, that at the time was being translated by Peter Mason, who also corrected the English of this paper.

  1. Introduction
  2. Political interpretations of Philostratus' Life of Apollo­nius: a survey
  3. Political interpretations of Philostratus' Life of Apollo­nius: four objections
  4. Allusions to the Severan period in the Life of Apollonius
  5. Concluding remarks
  6. Titles mentioned


In a footnote to a major article, published in 1978, on the traditions concerning Apollonius of Tyana and on Philostra­tus' romanticized biography of this first century Pythagorean philosopher and miracle worker, Ewen Bowie referred to a couple of publications which contained an interpretation of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius as a politically tendentious piece of writing: an 1889 dissertation by a young German, Johannes Gött­sching, and an article published in 1941 by the Italian scholar Aristide Calderini. Bowie briefly dismissed the thesis defended by Calderini, but he saw "some plausibility in Göttsching's argu­ments, though they cannot be taken so far as Göttsching wishes." Today's talk may be considered an elaboration of Ewen Bowie's footnote. What I intend to do is the following. In the first place, I shall present a survey of what, for brevity's sake, I have labelled 'political interpretations' of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, starting with Gött­sching's dissertation and following the trail up to the 1980's. Second­ly, I shall point out what are, in my opin­ion, four objections to these interpreta­tions. In the third place I shall try to formulate some criteria which should be followed in tracking down allusions to the author's lifetime, the Severan period, in the Life of Apollonius, and I shall present and discuss the results of the applica­tion of these criteria. Some concluding remarks will round off this talk.

Before I make a start with the implementation of this pro­gramme, however, three preliminary points should be brought up. Firstly, we should recognize that political interpreta­tions of Philostratus' Life of Apollonius are very tempting indeed, given both the biography of the author and the contents of the work. Julia Domna, Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon - Foto: Vassil, Wikimedia Commons, <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mus%C3%A9e_des_BA_Lyon_260709_01_Julia_Domna.jpg>Philostratus was a member of a family which belonged to the upper echelons of the Athenian citizen body and which produced members of the sena­torial order in the next generation. He was probably a member of the Athenian council and held the position of hoplite general in that city in the first decade of the third century. Moreover, for some ten years he was a protégé of Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus and the mother of his successor Caracal­la. The Life of Apollo­nius itself was commissioned by the empress, although it was completed after her death in 217. Philostratus' other major work, the Lives of the sophists, was dedicated to the proconsul of Africa, Gordi­an senior, in the winter of 237/238. As for the contents of the Life of Apollo­nius, even a cursory reading is suffi­cient to convey the impression that the pro­tagonist is a philosopher involved in politics, a man who intervenes in civic conflicts and who establishes rela­tions of varying cordiality with several first-century emperors, among them Vespasian, Titus and Domit­ian. Besides, even students familiar with imperial Greek lit­erature will be struck by the presence of a very pronounced sense of Greek superior­ity in the Life. At first sight, there­fore, the search for a politi­cal tenor in the Life of Apollo­nius does not seem too far-fetched.

The second preliminary point I want to bring up concerns the meaning of a few words which, until now, I have used rather uncritically. What is a politically tenden­tious piece of writing? When do I classify the interpretation of a literary work as 'political'? I have to admit that an attempt to answer these questions on the level of literary theory is beyond my capabilities as a historian. Therefore, I shall confine myself to a somewhat less ambitious undertak­ing and offer you a preliminary inventory of the main charac­teris­tics of the interpretations of the Life of Apollonius that I have labelled political. We are dealing with a text about a first-century figure who had been dead for more than hundred years, when his biographer reached maturity. Consequently, the first condition that political interpreta­tions of the Life of Apol­lonius have to meet is a willing­ness on the part of their defenders to perceive a substantial number of allusions to early third-century situations and events in a narrative set in the first century. Naturally, one should distin­guish an uninten­tional anachronism from a delib­erate allusion. The second character­istic of the interpreta­tions under discussion is, therefore, a willingness on the part of their advocates to argue that such allusions have been included by Philostra­tus with the intention of drawing the atten­tion of his readers to certain events and situations. The most sweeping political interpreta­tions of the Life of Apollonius thus consider sub­stantial parts of the text to reflect Philo­stratus' opin­ions on issues ranging from relations inside the imperial family to foreign and military policies and from taxation to socio-political life in Greek cities. Moreover, they envisage the act of writ­ing the text as a con­scious effort to convey these opinions to an intended reader­ship. If such interpre­ta­tions are valid, we may, without further ado, consider the Life of Apollonius a politically tendentious piece of writing.

There are, however, less far-reaching forms of the same approach. For example, the position of the alleged allu­sions in the narra­tive may range from central to marginal. Thus some inter­preters may look upon the characterisation in action and speech of the protagon­ist or other important char­acters as reflecting Philostratus' views on contempor­ary socio-pol­itical reality, while others regard only a couple of minor anec­dotes or remarks as possibly signifi­cant. Moreover, inter­preters may confine them­selves to the proposition that the alleged allu­sions to early third-century events and situ­ations betray an awareness on the part of Philostratus of such events and situ­ations, without suggesting that the Athenian sophist wanted to convey a specific message to the readers of his Life of Apollonius. For the moment, I want to include these less far-reaching interpretations in my enquiry, but it should be obvious that I do not disregard the differences between such interpretations and the interpretation of the Life as politi­cally tendentious in the proper sense of the word.

My third and last preliminary point is a warning. Perhaps some of the older interpreta­tions which will pass in review will strike you as either far-fetched or outdated or both. None the less, my aim is not to entertain you with some curi­osities from the past of classical scholarship nor to score easy vic­tories over convenient whipping-boys. On the contrary, by uncov­ering and discussing the assumptions of these inter­preta­tions and by presenting my objections to them, I hope to sharpen our insight into the presuppositions on which more fashionable readings - including my own - are founded. The extent to which I have succeeded will, in other words, become apparent from your will­ingness to criticise the assump­tions in the second and third parts of my talk, dealing with the objections to political interpretations and with what I consider allusions to contempor­ary events and situ­ations in the Life of Apollonius.

Political interpretations of Philostratus' Life of Apollo­nius: a survey

So much for my preliminary points. I shall now present a brief survey of political interpreta­tions of the Life of Apollonius which have been proposed during the last hundred years. The first of these, defended by Johannes Göttsching in his 1889 disserta­tionThe addressee according to Göttsching: Severus Alexander - Photo: Carolemadge1,  Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Museum Dion), certainly falls within the limits of pol­iti­cal interpre­tations in the proper sense of the word. Gött­sching claimed that with the estab­lish­ment of the Severan dynasty the imperial power had passed into the hands of Afri­can and Asi­atic barbar­ians. In reaction to this develop­ment, which was lamented by traditionally-minded Romans and cultured Greeks alike, Philostra­tus assigned his hero the role of 'Herold des Hellenismus', 'herald of Hellen­ism'. According to Göttsching, the stark contrast between Hellenic virtues and barbarian vices that is to be found in the Life should be read in this light. Göttsching also claimed to be able to detect numerous allusions to the behav­iour of the Severan emperors. Thus he believed that the de­scriptions of Vespasian, Titus and Domiti­an and their mutual relations presented Septi­mius Severus, Geta and Caracalla in disguise, while Philostra­tus' portrait of Nero stood for that of Elagab­alus. Assuming that the writer would not have dared to publish a work of this kind during the reign of Elagabalus, so that the Life could not have been issued before the reign of Severus Alexander, Göttsching formulated the hypothesis that at least one of Philostratus' intentions was to advise the young emperor by means of the explicit recommendations and the positive and negative examples of monarchi­cal behaviour contained in the Life of Apollonius.

Göttsching's ability to recognise allusions to the Severan emperors is very great, so a couple of examples must be enough to illustrate his method. In book 4 chapter 22, Apollonius rebukes the Athenians for watch­ing gladiatorial games in the the­atre of Dionysus. Gött­sching refers to Cassius Dio (77.6.2) for Caracalla's enthus­iasm for such spectacles and suggests that the rebuke of Philostra­tus' Apollonius should be understood as in fact aimed at Cara­calla. In book 6 chapter 32, Philostra­tus reports that Titus was poisoned by Domitian. Göttsching points out that Geta was murdered by Caracalla and claims that the relation between the Flavian brothers, as described by Philo­stratus, refers to the Severan brothers.

A second scholar who interpreted the portrayal of the Flavi­an emperors by Philo­stratus as a complex of deliberate allu­sions to Septimius Severus and his sons and who claimed that the Life of Apollonius contained an explicit message for a specific addressee was Aristide Calderini, The addressee according to Calderini: Septimius Severus - Photo: Marco Prins (Museum Thessaloniki)who also proposed a new dating of the Life. According to Calderi­ni, the Life of Apollonius - or at least a first ver­sion of the work - was not completed after Julia Domna's death in 217, but in the years between 202 and 205, between the author's arrival in Rome and the death of Plautian­us. The main argument adduced by Calderini for this claim is the fact that Philo­stratus repeat­edly makes mention of the disastrous effect of bad counsellors and informers on emperors; in this connec­tion Calderini referred, among other passages, to book 8, chapter 7, section 16 (section 50 in Jones' Loeb), the peroration of the speech in his defence which Apollo­nius, according to Philo­stratus, had written for his trial before Domitian. Such passages, Calderi­ni claimed, were intended to warn Septi­mius Severus of the prae­fectus praetorio Plauti­anus, and Philostratus functioned as a politi­cal instru­ment in Julia Domna's struggle against the influen­tial prefect. On the basis of this hypoth­esis, Calderi­ni postulated the death of Plautia­nus as the terminus ante quem for the composition of the first version of the Life. He then pro­ceeded to find further support for this hypoth­esis. For example, he interpreted the encomium of the harmonious partici­pation of young and old in political power which Philo­stratus puts in the mouth of Apollonius before Titus (VA 6.30), as an allusion to the position of Cara­calla as co-regent of Septimius Severus. The report that Vespasian was sixty years old in 69 (VA 5.29) referred, according to the Italian scholar, to the age Septimius Severus was to reach in 206.

A third attempt to interpret part of the Life of Apollonius in terms of relations in the Severan court was undertaken by Friedrich Lenz, in an article published in 1964. Lenz' reason­ing, at least in this article, is not particularly convincing, and there would not be any reason to rescue this publication from a well-deserved obliv­ion, were it not for the fact that Lenz named Caracalla as the addressee of a hidden message in the Life of Apollonius, thus bringing the number of alleged addres­sees of Philostratus' work in the Severan family to three.

A Marxist version of the interpretation of the Life of Apollonius as a politically tenden­tious piece of writing was produced by the Russian scholar Elena Schtajerman in a work first published in 1957, The crisis of slave society in the western half of the Roman empire. I have consulted the German translation, published in 1964. Schtajer­man's book contains a long chapter on the political programmes and ideological currents of the early third century, which assigns a prominent place to Philostratus' Life of Apollonius. She regards the Greek intellectuals who surrounded Julia Domna as represen­tatives of an intelligentsia which was closely connected with the municipal aristocracy. The addressee according to Lenz: Caracalla - Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/05/eust/ho_40.11.1a.htm>As a result of the decline of the cities, this intelligentsia became increas­ingly dependent on the provincial aristocracy, a dependency which was accompanied by feelings of hostility on the part of clients towards their patrons. The imperial bureaucracy offered a way out of this depend­ency. However, Caracalla objected to sophists and other representatives of the intelligent­sia. At the instigation of Julia Domna, who disagreed with her son on this score, Philo­stratus addressed his Life of Apollonius to the municipal aristocracy with a political programme that reflected the interests and views of this aristocracy. His political ideal was an empire, as it had been in the Antonine period, founded on a smoothly functioning urban self-govern­ment. This ideal implied respect for the rights of the social elite in the cities; at the same time, it demanded that the members of this elite should not evade their obligations and should allow the rest of the citizen body to share to some extent in their possessions in order to guaran­tee social harmony. The implementation of this ideal was to be guaranteed by a strong imperial authority, which must neither degenerate into tyranny, nor be dependent on the representa­tive body of the provin­cial aristocracy, the senate. As regards foreign policy, the municipal aristocracy, unlike the provincial aristocracy, advocated a policy of peace: plans of conquest should be abandoned and war should be avoided at all costs.

In certain respects, Schtajerman's treatment of the Life has to be distinguished from the interpretations by Göttsching, Calderini and Lenz. The Soviet scholar did not claim that the Life of Apollonius was addressed to a member of the imperial family; in her view, Philo­stratus' work was addressed to the urban elites of the Roman empire. As a result, she was less fixated on the episodes involving emperors in the Life and paid more attention to those episodes in which the protag­onist intervenes in the socio-political life of cities. Never­the­less, she did interpret the Life as the packaging of a pol­itical programme and the main character as the author's mouth­piece. For instance, she claimed to detect a clear preference for dynastic suc­cession above adoption in the Life. In this con­nection, she referred to the meeting between Apollo­nius and Vespasian in Alexandria, as described in book 5 (chapters 28 and 35). The activities and speeches of Philostratus' Apollonius in Greek cities reflected, in her opinion, the views of the author of the Life on the problems of civic life in the Severan period.

In the 1970s and 1980s, bourgeois scholars again took over the torch. Both Geza Alföldy, in an article published in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies of 1974 and Lukas de Blois in his inaugural lecture of 1981 (published in Histo­ria in 1984) used the Life of Apollonius as evi­dence for the percep­tion of the onset of the third-century crisis by contem­porary Greek authors. Alföldy and De Blois especially referred to book 5 chapter 36, a speech of Apollonius before Vespasian containing recommenda­tions on the exercise of imperial power. In this speech, whose contemporary relevance had already been stressed by Schtajerman, the emperor is advised to moder­ate the tax burden, to use his absolute power wisely, to respect the law, to honour the gods, to keep his sons properly under control, to curb the extravagance of the imperial slaves and freedmen, etc. Alföldy considered this speech, together with the Maecenas speech in book 52 of the Roman History of Cassius Dio, an expression of the author's conviction "that, in spite of all present evil, the sound world of the past could be restored." De Blois referred to the advice of Philostratus' Apollonius to moderate the tax burden as one of several examples to illus­trate the frequency of complaints on this score among Greek authors of the first half of the third century - complaints that were often combined with expressions of dissatisfac­tion at the amounts of money squandered on the military.

There are important differences between the approach of Göttsching, Calderini, Lenz and Schtajerman, on the one hand, and the utilization of Philostratus by Alföldy and De Blois, on the other. Neither Alföldy nor De Blois claimed that Philo­stra­tus tried to convince an intended readership of the views con­tained in Apollonius' speech to Vespasian, nor did they explicitly label the Life a politically tendentious piece of writing. They did sug­gest, however, that the recommen­dations of the main charac­ter of the Life of Apollon­ius are evidence of a 'con­scious­ness of crisis' - a Krisen­bewusst­sein in Alföl­dy's phrasing - on the part of the author. In their opinion, the speech of Apoll­onius bears wit­ness to the perception of early third-century socio-politi­cal reality by Philo­stratus as well as to the remedies that the Athenian sophist envis­aged for contemporary ills. In all fairness I should add that Philo­stratus' work is not central to their respective argu­ments. Of the witnesses adduced by Alföldy and De Blois, other authors, for example historiographers such as Cassius Dio and Herodian and orators such as the author of the Eis basilea, a mid third-century encomium, play a much more important part. Neverthe­less, Alföldy and De Blois do make assumptions about Philo­stratus' perception of the situ­ation of the Roman empire in the first half of the third century, and these assumptions should be stated and examined with the same rigour as the more sweeping suppositions of scholars who offer a full-blown political interpretation of the Life of Apollonius.

Political interpretations of Philostratus' Life of Apollo­nius: four objections

The arguments presented in favour of political interpreta­tions of the Life of Apollonius have generally met with a degree of scepticism. Göttsching's ideas were almost immedi­ate­ly dis­missed in a review by J. Miller, and Emilio Gabba refuted Calderini's hypothesis in an appendix to an article on Cassius Dio, pub­lished in 1955. Moreover, Friedrich Solmsen and Jonas Palm criticized the search for a contemporary political tenor in general. Graham Anderson too, in his monograph on Philo­stratus, has made pertinent observations on this score. In passing, these scholars mentioned several fundamental objec­tions to political interpretations of the Life, without, however, going into a full consideration of the subject.

What are the main objections to the interpretations that have passed in review until now? In the first place, scholars like Göttsching, Calderini and Schtajerman have neglected the fact that Philostratus must have taken consider­able pains in out­lining the his­torical background to the alleged activities of his hero. In my opin­ion, there can be no doubt that the soph­ist drew heav­ily on imperial biography and historiography on the Roman empire in the first century.The Flavian dynasty portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Triumph of Titus (1885) I should add that this holds true regard­less of the question as to whether he found some indica­tions for contacts of Apollonius with emperors in tradi­tions directly connected with the Tyane­an sage. Even where Philostratus had access to such tradi­tions, he elabor­ated them with material taken from imperial biographical and historiographical sources. The results of his efforts are quite respectable, in spite of some chronological mistakes and historical improbabilities.

Let me try to illus­trate the consequences of this observa­tion. We have seen that Calderini took the report that Vespasian was sixty years old when he came to power as an allusion to the age that Septimius Severus was to reach in 206. Tacitus' Histories (2.74.2 and 5.8.4), however, show that Vespasi­an's age played a part in dis­cussions during the estab­lishment of the Flavian dynasty. The same is true of the emphasis on dynastic succession that Schtajerman noticed in Philostratus' description of the alleged meeting between Apollonius and Vespasian and that she interpreted as the expression of the Athenian sophist's opinion. Again, dynastic continuity was an important topic in the historiography on the first years of the Flavian regime, as can be seen from Tacitus' Histories (4.52.1) and Josephus' Jewish war (4.596). The references to the disastrous effects of the activ­ities of informers, accord­ing to Calde­rini intended as a warning to Septimius Severus of the influence of Plautianus, are nothing more than an authen­tic touch in Philo­stratus' portrait of Domitian. The activ­ities of informers under the last Flavian emperor are high­lighted by Pliny (Panegyricus 35.2). As for Gött­sching's view that Apollonius' prophecy of the poisoning of Titus by Domitian was an allusion to Geta's death at the hand of his brother Cara­cal­la, we should note that Cassius Dio (66.26.2) held Domit­ian respon­sible for Titus' death, although he does not mention poison in this connection. The first refer­ence to poisoning in the extant literature is not found until the fourth cen­tury, in Aurelius Victor (Caesares 10.5 and 11.1). It does not seem implaus­ible, however, that rumours of poison­ing had already found expression in second-century literary versions of Titus' death. The development of the tradition on the death of Titus and Domitian's alleged part in it were over­looked by Gött­sching.

I realise, of course, that a reference to a first-century event by Philostratus, even if he found it in historiography or imperial biography, can still have been understood by his contempor­aries as an allusion to a third-century event. Such a read­ing can even have been intended by Philostratus him­self. The report of Titus' death and of Domitian's part in it may be a case in point. Interest­ingly, Herodian (4.5.6) has Caracal­la, in his defence before the senate after the liquidation of GetaThe Severan imperial family portrayed by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Caracalla and Geta (1907), refer to earlier instances of emperors having elimin­ated their brothers, expli­citly citing the case of Domitian and Titus. However, by reckoning with the probabil­ity that Philostratus did a quite respectable amount of home­work for his portraits of first-century emperors, we can elim­inate at least a number of the more far-fetched interpreta­tions of passages in the Life as allusions. Moreover, if the observa­tion that in drawing his imperial portraits Philostratus used imperial biography and historiography on the first cen­tury on a con­siderable scale is correct, it belies the assump­tion that he systematically attempted to fit the characterisation of first century emperors into a third-century mould. Once again, this does not exclude the possibility of allusions to the behaviour of the Severan emperors, but such allusions, if they can be made plausible, have a much more incidental character than was suggested by scholars such as Göttsching, Calderini and Schta­jerman.

The second objection to political interpretations is the commonplace, not to say hack­neyed character of most of the recom­mendations on political topics that the main charac­ter of the Life of Apollonius expresses, especially in his speech to Vespasian on the exercise of autocracy in book 5 chapter 36. With one exception - to which I shall return presentlyAristotle - Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna - photo: Jona Lendering - I can find nothing in this speech that could not have been written around 100 A.D. and much that could have been written - and in fact was writ­ten - in any speech on kingship from the fourth cen­tury B.C. onwards. Consider, for example, the recommenda­tion to moderate the tax burden (VA 5.36). In other third-century authors, state­ments on the tax burden are directly linked to the problem of the demands made by the mili­tary, as in Cassius Dio (77.10.4) and the speech Regarding the emperor ([Aristides], or. 35.30); the relevance to the first half of the third century of utter­ances that stress the con­nection between the costs of the armies and the tax burden goes without say­ing. In the Life of Apollonius, this link is notably absent. The admoni­tion to help the needy and guar­antee the rich the safe enjoy­ment of their wealth seems to be simply an elabor­ation of a standard ingredi­ent of manuals on royalty, and I fail to see any special indi­cation pointing to the early third century, as De Blois does. Two very similar pieces of advice from the fourth century B.C. can be found in Isocrates and Aristotle. Isocrates (Ep. 7.4) preaches to Timotheus of Heraclea the usual respect for the pos­sessions of the rich, while Aristotle (Politica 5 1310b40-1311a2) states that the king ensures that neither the wealthy nor the mass of the people suffer injus­tice - a clear parallel with the policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds advised by Philo­stratus' Apollonius.

There are, admittedly, passages in the Life of Apollonius that can be interpreted as an allusion to Roman military policy. For example, in book 2 chapter 26, the Indian king Phrao­tes tells Apollonius that he keeps the bar­barians on his borders in check by payments, and even uses them as border troops. This policy, which is judged very positively by Apol­lonius, must have been interpreted by at least a significant part of Philostratus' readers as alluding to a Roman practice that was common in the early third cen­tury. This has been pointed out by Herbert Grassl, and Schtajerman took this passage to reflect Philostratus' own point of view: the Athenian sophist was, in her opinion, advocating a low-profile military policy. It is not improbable that Philo­stratus was aware of some of the problems connected with the defence of the borders of the empire; after all, he had been present in the imperial head­quarters during Caracalla's oper­ations on the Rhine and Danube border in 213. But are we entitled to under­stand Phrao­tes' policy and Apollonius' appro­val as reflecting Philo­stratus' own opinion?

For the moment, I will leave this question unan­swered and turn to a third objection to political interpre­ta­tions of the Life of Apollonius. The description of the activ­ities and utter­ances of the main character in the realm of politics is an important compo­nent of Philostratus' por­trayal of Apollo­nius as a phil­osopher rather than as an obscure miracle worker. In other words, Apollonius' alleged contacts with emperors and his interven­tions in civic life in Greek cities are essen­tial to Philo­stratus' pro­fessed apolo­getic programme. The early imperial age had an aggre­gate of clear-cut concep­tions of the socio-politi­cal role of the philos­opher. These conceptions, which had their roots in the Classi­cal and early-Hellen­istic periods, have been listed and analysed by Johannes Hahn in Der Philosoph und die Gesell­schaft. Philo­stratus modelled his hero in accor­d­ance with these concep­tions. In his contacts with Vespa­sian and Titus, Philo­stratus' Apollonius is the philo­sophical adviser of the virtuous king; the confrontation with Domitian is presented as the crowning event of a tradi­tion of philo­sophical resistance to despotism, and Apollonius reveals himself as an undaunted adversary of a tyrant. By inter­vening in situations of civic discord, Philo­stra­tus' hero fulfils another expec­tation bound up with the philo­sopher's role: the philos­opher as an impartial arbi­ter of con­flicts. Political inter­preta­tions of the Life of Apollonius tend to assume that the employment of such conceptions by Philostratus in his por­trayal of Apollonius betrays the sophist's own convictions. Schtajerman, for example, concluded from the behav­iour towards Domitian attributed to Apollonius that the author of the Life, despite his predilection for strong imperial authority, was opposed to tyrannical regimes. I am afraid that this amounts to an unacceptable identification of the author with the main character of his work. If Philostratus wanted to portray Apollonius as a philosopher, he had to turn to deeply rooted and widely held conceptions of the philosopher's role, such as the philosopher as the oppo­nent of a tyrant. We should not forget that such conceptions were rather idealistic. I venture the suggestion that many philosophers were wise enough not to model their actual behaviour in relations with autocrats on such conceptions. The claim that a sophist shared these con­ceptions cannot be considered valid on the basis of their presence in a literary text such as the Life of Apollonius. To make such a claim acceptable, one should adduce evidence from Philostratus' other writings.

This brings me to my fourth objection to political interpretations of the Life of Apollo­nius: only too often, scholars who have proposed such interpretations have neglected, insuf­ficiently digested or misinterpreted Philostratus' other writings, especially the Lives of the sophists. Among Philo­stratus' writings, this work, in which he deals with his own cultural milieu and that of his predecessors, should take pride of place as a source for the Athenian sophist's values and convic­tions. The views on the relations between Greek intellectuals and Roman emperors that he expresses in the biographies of his cultural heroes are markedly different from the idealised conceptions of the relations between philos­ophers and rulers that we find in the Life of Apollonius. There is, of course, a certain amount of common ground. The 'Berlin Tondo' - Clockwise: Julia Domna, Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Geta (defaced after death and damnatio memoriae)Both in the Life of Apollonius and in the Lives of the sophists, emperors are expected to show respect towards people who represent Greek culture. This does not mean, however, that the relations between monarchs and Greek intel­lectuals as envis­aged in the Lives of the sophists exhibit the idealised con­ceptions that we find embodied in the Life of Apollonius. Philosophers were expected to display frankness in voicing criticism of monarchs: the ideal of parrhēsia. Philostra­tus' advice, on the other hand, is “not to provoke tyrants or excite to wrath their savage dispositions” (Vitae sophistarum 500), and he con­demns the behaviour of his senior colleague Anti­pater, who openly lamented the murder of Geta by Caracal­la, as essen­tially foolish (Vitae sophistarum 607). Philosophers were expected to cast themselves in the role of moral and spiritual guide and per­sonal confidant in their relations with those in power. Philo­stratus, on the other hand, views the relations between emperors and Greek intellectuals - philosophers and sophists alike - almost exclusively in terms of cultural patronage. For example, Hadrian's interest in Greek culture was, according to Philostratus, a form of diversion from imperial concerns (Vitae sophistarum 490). He certainly does not disdain such a view of Greek liter­ary culture; on the contrary, in the preface to the Lives of the sophists he expresses the hope that his work will serve pre­cisely this entertainment function for Gordian (Vitae sophistarum 480).

Here we touch on the wider issue of the conceptions that sophists themselves held of the social function of their chosen profession. Obviously, this is too comprehensive a prob­lem to be dealt with in brief, even if I had a firm view of the matter - which I have not. I can only say that I am inclined to side with those scholars who stress the self-awareness of the sophists as artists and who tend to play down their alleged sense of public responsi­bility. Aelius Aristides, in one of the most moving passages from his To Plato: in defence of oratory, compares his dedica­tion to oratory with an addiction to alcohol or sex (or. 2.432 Behr). The point of this comparison is, as Aristides himself makes explicit, the per­sonal and unsocial character of his enjoyment of practicing eloquence. He adds, however, that he derives from oratory "a joy and pleasure perhaps more fitting of a free man." This passage sums it up beautifully. There is no pretence of a function of oratory in political life; a few lines earlier, Aristides has explicitly stated that, due to changes in political reality, such pretensions are out­moded. Oratory is a goal in itself. On the other hand, it has a social func­tion in that it is a mark of distinction of the gentleman. It is an asset valued both for its own sake and as a strategy of social distinc­tion. The person who masters the intricacies of sophistic elo­quence accumulates sym­bolic capital -  to use a fashionable but not wholly inappro­priate Parisian express­ion.

The objections to political interpretations of the Life of Apollonius that I have listed can be subsumed under two headings. On the one hand, such interpretations tend to assume that the author's opinions and convictions can be deduced from the repertoire that he employs in portraying his protagonist as a philosopher involved in politics: a repertoire consisting of historical details, standard ingre­dients from speeches on kingship and conven­tional conceptions of the philosopher's role. In the second place, such interpre­tations tend to disregard the evidence for Philostratus' outlook contained in the Lives of the sophists.

Allusions to the Severan period in the Life of Apollonius

The objections to interpretations of the Life of Apollonius as Tendenzliteratur that I have put forward so far do not imply that the possibility can be ruled out that the Life contains incidental allusions to early third century situations and events. In fact, I have left open the possibility of reading allusions to the murder of Geta in Philostra­tus' version of the death of Titus (VA 6.32) and to Roman payments to barbar­ian enemies in the policy ascribed to the Indian king Phraotes (VA 2.26). Before dealing with these and similar cases, however, I shall try to formulate some criteria that should be followed in attempting to track down allusions.

I think that there are two types of case in which it is justified to suspect allusions to early third-century events and situations: when in describing first-century actions or situations and the comments on them by the protagonist of the Life of Apollonius, the author commits certain evident anach­ronisms which reflect recent events or the situation of his own day; and when there are very close correspondences between activities attributed to first-century emperors and rulers outside the Greco-Roman world in the Life, on the one hand, and the actions of early third-century emperors, on the other. In both cases, it must be shown to be plausible that contemporaries of Philostratus who were reason­ably well informed about the relations in court and the course of action of the imperial administra­tion in the previous decades must have been reminded of recent events or existing situations when they read certain passages in the Life. Only in cases where these criteria are satisfied can we speak of a genuine allusion.

What results do we get when we apply such criteria? I think that it is almost inevitable to conclude that the report of Titus' death and the alleged part of Domit­ian in it must have been understood by Philostratus' readers as an allusion to the murder of Geta by Caracalla, and the same applies to the report of Phraotes' habit of buying off barbarian invasions:Elagabalus - Musei Capitolini - Photo: Giovanni Dall' Orto readers of the Life must have understood the passage as alluding to Roman practice. In 'The pepaideumenos in action', Graham Anderson has made the interesting sugges­tion that the claim of a fool­ish Indian king that he is 'identical with the Sun' is an allu­sion to Elagabalus (VA 3.28). I think that Anderson is right, and I would take this as a confirma­tion of Gött­sching's dating of the completion of the Life of Apolloni­us after Elagabalus' death in 222. In drawing conclusions from allusions such as these, however, great caution should be exercised. To take one example, I do not want to deny that Philostratus regarded imperial fratricide as a regrettable form of action and that he probably retained rather unpleasant memories of his stay in the Severan court as far as the years 211 and 212 were concerned. This seems to be confirmed by his letter to an ‘Antoninus', possibly Caracalla, accusing the addressee of having sacked his own house (Ep. 72), a letter which, I suspect, was written after 217. In view of Philostratus' reaction to the behaviour of his colleague Antipater in connection with the murder of Geta, however, it seems likely that his main conviction in matters of this kind was that they were no concern of his.

Two other passages which meet my criteria for being taken as allusions to early third-century situations deserve more serious consideration as evidence of Philo­stratus' concerns. The first of these (VA 7.42) is a charming story about a boy from Messene whom Apollo­nius meets in Domitian's dungeons. The reason for the boy's captivity is his refusal to give in to the emperor's amorous advances, but he blames his father in the first place for his unenviable situation. Instead of giving him a proper Greek education, his old man has sent him to Rome to study law. Fortunately, the boy has at least fruitfully followed the lessons of a grammaticus, so he has a ready answer to Apolloni­us' allusion to Hippo­lytus. The anecdote is clearly anachron­istic; it reflects the situation in the second half of the second and early third centuries, when the study of Roman law became popular among young men from the eastern provinces. The development is beautifully illustrated by the autobiography of Gregory the Wonder-worker, who in the 230s was told by his tutor that the study of Roman law opened up several attractive career perspectives. It is a develop­ment that must have filled a sophist such as Philostratus with apprehension; for the author of the Lives of the sophists literary culture was the quintessence of a cherished Greek identity. In spite of the playful character of the allusion, something of this apprehen­sion shows through in the anecdote about the boy from Messene.

The second allusion that may be evidence of Philostratus' concerns is Apol­lonius' final recommenda­tion to Vespasian (5.36) . The sage advises the emperor to send Greek-speaking proconsuls to Greek public provinces, while Latin-speaking public provinces should be ruled by Latin-speaking proconsuls. The motivation of this advice is a sign of a relatively far-reaching identification with the exercise of Roman rule: Apollonius refers to the case of a proconsul of Achaea who was insufficiently familiar with Greek customs and became a plaything of his provincial assessores. The advice itself, however, expresses an equally far-reaching desire that the emperor should take Greek identity into account in selecting governors for the eastern provinces. The fact is that the contrast of 'Greek-speaking' and 'Latin-speaking' candi­dates for governor­ships probably means that 'Greek-speaking' candidates are not just people with a working knowledge of Greek. After all, an over­whelming majority of senators from Italy and the west must have been reasonably fluent in that language. It is, I think, almost unavoidable to conclude that Philostratus' hero advises the emperor to select people from the eastern half of the empire, whose mother tongue was Greek, as governors of eastern provinces. In relation to the dramatic date of Apollonius' speech, the year 69, this piece of advice seems to be anachronistic: although there was to be a notable increase in the number of senators of eastern origin under the Flavian dynasty, and although several of them were promoted to governorships in the eastern provinces, I prefer to think that Apollonius' recommendation reflects the situation in the Antonine and Severan periods, when a significant part of the senatorial order was of eastern origin. According to Geza Alföldy, the evidence for the period 138 - 160 shows a clear trend for senators from the Greek east to be appointed as imperial legates in eastern rather than in western provinces, and the same tendency can be detected in the holding of praetorian and consular proconsulates. In his continuation of Alföldy's work for the period 180-235, Paul Leunissen claims that the available evidence suggests a break in this trend: in appointments of imperial legates, no tendency to take the geo­graphical provenance of the candidates into account can be detected. As far as proconsu­lates are concerned, substantial evidence is only available for the proconsulate of Asia, but this is rather striking: of the 21 proconsuls whose geographical provenance is known, twelve certainly came from the western half of the empire, and another six probably came from there as well. I have to admit that I always become slightly nervous when I see the prosopographical evidence on which such claims are based. If, however, Leunissen is right, it seems plausible that this development was to a certain extent perceived by the social elite in the Greek-speaking provinces, and this may have resulted in a measure of dissatis­fac­tion. I find it very attractive to suppose that the advice which Philostratus puts into the mouth of his hero and for which, of course, no precedent at all existed in speeches on kingship, is an expression of this dissatisfaction.

If this proposal is acceptable, this would mean that, although literary culture was essential to Philostratus' conception of Greek identity, his highly pronounced Greek self-awareness also found expression in an interest in the manning of the governor­ships of the eastern provinces. This is not really surprising: even though the import­ance of careers in the imperial administration in providing status is sometimes played down in the Lives of the sophists in favour of sophistic achievements, an interest in such careers is evident from almost every page of this work. Just like the story about the boy from Messene, Apollo­nius' advice on the manning of proconsular posts alludes to the kind of issues that did concern Philostratus: the cultural identity and prestige of the social elite in the eastern half of the empire.

Concluding remarks

In sum, I think that interpretations of the Life of Apollonius as a politically tendentious piece of writing mistake the author's repertoire for his convictions and values and often amount to neglect of the more direct evidence for Philostratus' outlook contained in the Lives of the sophists. On the other hand, I hope to have succeeded in demonstrating that a plausible case can be made for the existence of incidental allusions to early third-century events and situations in the Life of Apollonius. The number of such cases could probably be increased. We should not presume, however, that such allusions testify to Philostratus' concerns and opinions on current affairs unless additional evidence from his other writings can be adduced. Such evidence suggests that special significance should be attributed to the allusions to the appeal that the study of Roman law held for Greeks, and to the appointment of governors in the Greek provinces of the empire. They bear witness to Philostratus' preoccupations and interests, while other allusions are evidence of a rather unsystematic perception of some aspects of contemporary reality. With due respect for Alföldy and De Blois, I think that signs of a consciousness of an impending or actual crisis are hard to find in Philostratus' writings. The Lives of the sophists lack any of Cassius Dio's nostalgia for the Antonine period. Perhaps the value of Philostratus' writings as a source for the attitudes to be found among the social elite in the eastern half of the empire in the Severan period should be looked for as much in the limitations to his perception as in what he did perceive.

Titles mentioned

Alföldy, G. (1974), 'The crisis of the third century as seen by contemporaries', GRBS 15: 89-111 [reprinted in: Die Krise des römischen Reiches. Geschichte, Ge­schichts­schreibung, und Geschichtsbetrachtung. Ausgewählte Beiträge (Stuttgart 1989), 319-341].
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Alföldy, G. (1977), Konsulat und Senatorenstand unter den Antoninen. Prosopographi­sche Untersuchungen zur senatorischen Führungsschicht (Bonn).
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Anderson, G. (1986), Philostratus. Biography and belles lettres in the third century AD (London).
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Anderson, G. (1989), 'The pepaideumenos in action: sophists and their outlook in the Early Empire', in: ANRW 2.33.1: 79-208.
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Blois, L. de (1984), 'The third century crisis and the Greek elite in the Roman empire', Historia 33: 258-277.
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Bowie, E.L. (1978), 'Apollonius of Tyana: tradition and reality', in: ANRW 2.16.2: 1652-1699.
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Calderini, A. (1940/1), 'Teoria e pratica politica nella "Vita di Apollonio di Tiana"', RIL 74: 213-241.
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Gabba, E. (1955), 'Sulla Storia Romana di Cassio Dione', RSI 67: 289-233.
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Göttsching, J. (1889), Apollonius von Tyana (Leipzig) [dissertation].
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Grassl, H. (1982), Sozialökonomische Vorstellungen in der kaiserzeitlichen griechischen Literatur (1.-3 Jh. n.Chr.) (Wiesbaden).
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Hahn, J. (1989), Der Philosoph und die Gesellschaft. Selbstverständnis, öffentliches Auftreten und populäre Erwartungen in der hohen Kaiserzeit (Stuttgart).
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Lenz, F.W. (1964), 'Die Selbstverteidigung eines politischen angeklagten. Unter­suchungen zu der Rede des Apollonios von Tyana bei Philostratos', Das Altertum 10: 95-110.
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Leunissen, P.M.M. (1989), Konsuln und Konsulare in der Zeit von Commodus bis Severus Alexander (180-235 n.Chr.). Prosopographische Untersuchungen zur senatorischen Elite im römischen Kaiserreich (Amsterdam).
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Miller, J. (1890), review of Göttsching (1889), Berliner Philologische Wochenschrift 10: 1422-1426.
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Palm, J. (1976), Om Philostratos och hans Apollonios-biografi (Uppsala).
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Schtajerman, E.M. (1964), Die Krise der Sklavenhalterordnung im Westen des römi­schen Reiches (Berlin).
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Solmsen, F. (1941), 'Philostratos (9)-(12)', in: RE 20.1: 124-177 [= Kleine Schriften 2 (1968), 92-118].
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