Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, In Honour of Apollonius


In the period of the High Roman Empire apologetic literature was largely confined to Christian authors. But the justification of religion and culture is not of itself ‘Christian’, as (for example) Goodman’s study of Josephus’ Against Apion well shows (see Ch. 3). The present chapter offers another text from this period, In Honour of Apollonius of Tyana (hereafter Apollonius), which can be read as apology without straining the bounds of a necessarily loose category.

Behind Christian apologetic stand the hostility and suspicion of non-Christian society and, to some extent, the internal disagreements and polemics of Christians themselves. Comparable factors cannot be found in Greek pagan society, at least in the first and second centuries. Here there is no sign of serious debate about the fundamental cultural and religious principles of Greek life. Polemic between philosophers exists, as it always has (see, for example, Plutarch’s anti-Stoic and anti-Epicurean tracts or Galen’s denunciations of rival logics). But this functions at an entirely abstract level, and is not in any way analogous to the bitter disputes and antagonisms of Christian schism and heresy. Externally, no vindication or justification of the Greek way of life was required, for there was no serious challenge to the dominance of Greek culture. Celsus’ attack on Christianity in the 180s, as reported by Origen, is the only text that might be taken as a defence. Yet its tone is very much that of an establishment figure picking holes in the views of an idiot minority. The precise motivation is unknown. During the third century, however, there were a number of decisive changes in the cultural-political makeup of the Greek world. By its end, significant numbers of the educated were Christian, and the distinctive features of pagan culture in the Greek East were under serious threat. The heavyweight anti-Christian tracts of Plotinus and Porphyry show clearly that Christianity could not be ignored. There is no way of telling when it became clear that the new religion constituted a major problem. But if we look at the third century as a whole, Apollonius, which was written in the 220s or 230s, begins to look extremely important. For here we have for the first time a celebration and justification for society at large of a Hellenism which is defined primarily through a combination of religion and philosophy, rather than through the general cultural and political inheritance. This looks like a response to change at some level. Moreover, the work contains a lengthy technical apologia for philosophy as a spiritual system of personal living, and this amounts to a serious defence of fundamentals. That is enough to merit the work’s inclusion in a volume on the phenomenon of apologetic discourse.

Apollonius is a historical biography of the first-century holy man and religious reformer Apollonius of Tyana. It was composed by the third-century belletrist Flavius Philostratus of Athens. Philostratus is a perfect example of the high culture of his time. He was educated by the best teachers (whose lives he included in his famous Lives of the Sophists, henceforth Sophists), held prominent office in Athens, and was a courtier in attendance on the cultured empress Julia Domna (died 217). Two factors determined his outlook. First, it was widely believed that the intellectual life of the Greeks had declined drastically during the Hellenistic period, and that this decline had been halted and reversed in the late first century bce. Philostratus was a strong adherent of this view, and it forms the structural basis of both his major works. Second, belief in decline entails belief in a high point before decline set in. For Philostratus and his contemporaries this high point was the classical age of Greece. Once again, Philostratus is a very strong proponent of this model. Thus the emphasis he places on a revitalized traditional religion in Apollonius is certainly part of the Hellenist ideology of the day. But the work is much more than a historical re-creation of a pivotal figure in the Hellenic revival.

For its religious and philosophical aspects seem closely to reflect conditions at the time of writing.

Philostratus’ study vindicates a life lived by the mystical and spiritual principles of Pythagorean philosophy, and explores the semi-divine nature of one who has given himself up to this way of living. From the lifetime of Philostratus onwards, Pythagoreanism was a central constituent of mainstream Platonism, and played a crucial part in ensuring the dominance of Platonic philosophy in later antiquity. Apollonius is not justifying a new trend in Greek intellectual life, for Pythagoreanism first came back into fashion among Platonists in the late first century bce; but the novelty of making Pythagoreanism the core element of Hellenism certainly means that we must read the work with an eye to the status of this system in the third century and to the reasons which could make it a vehicle of Hellenic ideals. The apologetic credentials of the work can further be understood by taking cognizance of deep problems in the Hellenist ideology. The level of individual and civic investment in classical Greece was regulated by racial/ethnic origin, domicile, religion, language, and so on. For those who were close to the edge of what could pass as Greek, the adoption of Greek culture was beset by tensions. These are present throughout the period covered by this collection of essays. A particular new problem in Philostratus’ time was the possession of the imperial throne by a dynasty which had close connections with the Hellenized Greek East. The Julio-Claudian, Flavian, and Antonine emperors (27 bce-192 ce) had all been of Roman or Italian origin. As outsiders who admired classical Greece, there was no general problem for Hellenism, despite the fact that Romans claimed the legacy of the Greek classics for themselves (with the imputation that their Greek subjects had fallen into an irrevocable decline). The key thing was that both Romans and Greeks were in broad agreement about the paradigmatic value of classical Greek civilization. The Eastern-looking Severan dynasty (193—235) presented new difficulties. For it was in the wider Greek East that Hellenism had stored up trouble of its own making. In that region the benefits of Hellenism had always to be weighed against the complications it brought with it, as an ideology that threatened to taint adherents and recruits with the charge of barbarian origin. Philostratus reminds readers at the start of Apollonius that the work has been commissioned by the late Julia Domna, who was the wife of the new dynasty’s founder, Septimius Severus. Here and elsewhere she is presented as a paragon of Hellenist virtue. But her nieces, the dominating mothers of the emperors Elagabal and Severus Alexander, were by no means fully committed to orthodox Hellenism, precisely in the sensitive matter of religion. Thus for the first time since the Hellenic revival in the time of Augustus, not everything could be taken for granted. An apology for the Greek way of life and a telling affirmation of its value were not at all beside the point.

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