FROM AMMONIUS TO PHILOSTRATUS

L. Flavius Philostratus was not immune to the cultural and religious changes of his time. A citizen of Athens, he and his family had a connection with Lemnos (which was probably Athenian territory), and owned property at Erythrae. At some point in the first decade of the third century he was introduced to the imperial court, and became familiar with the empress, Julia Domna. This is ‘Julia the philosopher’ (Sophists, 622). We may assume that Philostratus stayed close to her until the murder of her son, the emperor Caracalla, in April 217, and her own death through starvation shortly afterwards. At the beginning of Apollonius he asserts that Julia had asked him to write about Apollonius of Tyana (i. 3). It is plain from the way she is referred to that the work was finished (or at least published) after her death. Apollonius is cited in Lives of the Sophists, and is therefore before 237/8.

Apollonius is a work of high literary value. No one who reads it properly can fail to observe that Philostratus has taken great care over its composition. He was not the first to write on the subject, nor the last. He himself criticizes an account by one Moeragenes and an account of Apollonius’ early life in Aegeae by one Maximus. In addition, Philostratus used some of the extant collection of Letters attributed to Apollonius. There is also the problem of his main source, the ‘tablets’ (deltoi) of Damis of Nineveh, which were brought to the attention of Julia Domna by ‘a certain relative of Damis’. Philostratus alleges that his role was to recast these ‘memoirs’ (hypomnemata) in a suitably high style (Apollonius, I. 3). ‘Damis’ has been discussed many times. Since I am interested in the role that Apollonius played for Philostratus and his audience in the early third century, source criticism is in some ways irrelevant (though impossible to disregard completely). But I should say that I concur with Bowie (amongst others) in holding that Damis is an invention of Philostratus, that the story of the tablets is suggestive of certain topoi of ancient fictional writing (though this does not mean that Philostratus thought he was writing a fictional account, or that his audience was supposed to take it as such), and that the particular pseudonym ‘Damis’ was chosen to honour the great sophist and benefactor Flavius Damianus of Ephesus, whom Philostratus knew in Damianus’ final years (Sophists, 605—6). Although Damianus himself was long dead by the time Apollonius appeared, his three sons were senators in the Severan period, and the honour was easily transferable, as Philostratus indicates in Sophists.

Did Philostratus have philosophical interests? Although they were contemporaries, no link can be established with Ammonius Saccas. Philostratus does mention the other Ammonius (Ammonius the Peripatetic), saying that he has ‘never yet known a man who was more erudite’ (Sophists, 618). This Ammonius has recently been put forward by Edwards as the teacher of Origen. He is lavishly praised also by Longinus, in his preface to On the End (ap. Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 20. 49—57). And the difference between the two sources is revealing. Unlike Longinus, Philostratus praises Ammonius for scholarly expertise rather than philosophy. It has indeed been pointed out that Philostratus shows no great interest in philosophy, including Pythagoreanism, in his other works. Hence, if Apollonius is different, it is argued that he must have been drawing on a pseudo-Pythagorean work (which went under the name of ‘Damis’). However, to ask directly about Philostratus’ philosophic interests may be misleading, for the question places undue emphasis on adherence to a particular philosophy of a particular school, at the expense of a general interest in philosophy as an ethical system in society. We would do better to try to place Philostratus against the cultural-philosophical background of his time, taking account also of the likely interests of his audience and his patrons.

Taking patrons first, we must not pass by a piece of evidence for the Pythagorean and Platonist interests of Julia Domna. At Sophists, 622, Philostratus says that the sophist Philiscus of Thessaly won the patronage of Julia by attaching himself ‘to the geometers and philosophers who surrounded her’. Cassius Dio also attests Julia’s philosophic interests (73. 13. 7; 77. 18. 3). In this age geometria remains the name of one of the two theoretical branches of mathematics (the other beingarithmetike), as a glance at Theon’s or Nicomachus’ introductions will confirm. Thus ‘geometers’ means ‘mathematicians’ (in our sense of the word), and ‘Philostratus’ characterization of Julia’s coterie points to Platonic or Pythagorean philosophers’. We do not have to imagine Julia doing pure mathematics to see here a reference to a plausible interest in the dominant (pagan) intellectual trend of the time.

We can also point to the interest shown in Apollonius by other imperials and their courtiers, to see that Philostratus is not making a false claim when he says he was asked to write by Julia Domna. Caracalla honoured the sage by erecting a hereonto him at Tyana in 214/13 (Cassius Dio, 77. 18. 4). The author of the Augustan History alleges that Severus Alexander worshipped Apollonius in his private chapel alongside Christ, Abraham, Orpheus, and various others (Alexander, 29. 2). The devotion of the ‘kings’ to Apollonius at Tyana is attested by Philostratus himself in the last words of his work (8. 31). During the third and fourth centuries, and at least in one case as a direct result of Philostratus’ portrait, Apollonius became a focal point of pagan reaction to Christianity. Special prominence was given to him shortly before the Great Persecution of Diocletian and Galerius in 303. The vicarius Orientis Sossianus Hierocles used Apollonius as the basis of a work comparing the sage with Jesus, in order to demonstrate Apollonius’ superiority. This received a scornful, sarcastic rebuttal from Eusebius, to which I shall return. An Egyptian poet named Soterichus, who wrote an encomium of Diocletian, is known also to have written aLife of Apollonius of Tyana, presumably with similar anti-Christian aims. And the figure of Apollonius himself was surely involved in the anti-Christian activities of the shrine of Asclepius at Aegeae, which was destroyed by Christians with the approval of Constantine, for in Apollonius he is closely connected with that god (I. 7-13), and Sossianus made him a priest of the rites on this basis.

As to audience, what I have to say in the following sections should make it plain that Philostratus is addressing himself to those who shared his Hellenism and who could be expected to approve Pythagorean elements in intellectual definitions of it. The dedication to Julia focuses this on the court in particular. If it is reasonable to hold that the ‘historical’ Apollonius had been a man of Pythagorean persuasions, we have nevertheless been warned that ‘his dietary and sartorial practices and other ascetic features [may] stem from . . . the stock-in-trade of the Near Eastern holy man [rather than from Pythagoreanism]’. We should also remember that Pythagorean living is just as important as technical-philosophical aspects of Pythagoreanism, and that ‘Pythagoreanism’ covers both aspects. Moreover, leading a Pythagorean life in the first century (whatever the reality of Apollonius) is quite different from leading a Pythagorean life in the third. In the first century, Pythagoreanism was only beginning to exert a serious influence on a Platonism which was far from dominant itself. By the 220s/230s, in the age of Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus, it had become a major influence in what was now the major philosophy.

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