The following sections will place the Apollonius in the context of cultural and philosophical developments in the intellectual circles of the first three centuries, and will consider how its interests and arguments reflect pagan Greek society at the time it was written. Before proceeding, it is as well to say a little about the meaning of Hellenism and the attractions of classicism. To describe the cultural-political orientation of the Greek elite during the first three centuries, modern scholars often borrow the phrase ‘Second Sophistic’ from Philostratus’ Sophists (481). Since in-depth studies of various aspects of the second sophistic are readily available, I can be brief.
Hellenism (effectively the consciousness of being Greek and not barbarian) is not reducible simply to classicism. It is more correct to observe that the Greeks of this time were obsessed with all periods of Greek history before the coming of Rome and the end of Greek freedom. In the arts, the models of the classical age dominate for obvious reasons of quality. But in the cities of the Greek cultural commonwealth, the foundational legends, myths, and local histories of the Hellenistic and archaic ages may be as, or more, important, depending on individual circumstances. One particular aspect of mainstream classicism merits comment. This is the phenomenon of ‘atticism’, the imperative to use—or to try to use—the Greek of the classical Athenian authors in such written or spoken contexts as carried prestige or required a display of linguistic expertise over and above the ordinary educated, but not consciously classicizing, Greek used for other purposes. One of the interesting things about atticism is the difficulty that authors had in identifying the right models for their language. As we shall be seeing shortly, a major reason for the rise of Platonism, and for the particular quasi-religious direction it took during the second sophistic period and after, is this same quest for the right kind of model.
Classicizing or archaizing tastes can be found in many times and ages. It may be the case that some aspects of Greek classicism in the second sophistic had already been developed by Romans in the first century bce. But Greek use of the Greek past has a significance of its own, and must be explained from within Greek culture. The reasons behind it are best accounted for by considering its sphere of operation. This must certainly be called ‘political’, which refers in this context to the workings of Greek society in the Greek city (the polis) and in its relations with Roman society and culture above and beyond the city. It has been argued that Hellenist ideology acted primarily as a form of escapism for Greek elites who had been deprived of real power by Rome. But we must also take into account the confidence of these elites in themselves, as Greeks who were part of a living Greek heritage, and who were still largely in control of their political organizations and budgets at local level. The connections made by contemporary leaders of the Greek world with the leaders of ‘free’ Greece served to empower those who were able to sustain such a grand idea; and in making this connection, they were making claims primarily about their social position, access to wealth, and educational/cultural attainments. In other words, obsession with the past goes far beyond the cultural sphere, where its productions encourage us to leave it, and is the foundation of Greek elite identity in this age. As regards Rome, I have argued elsewhere that Hellenism involves a negative reaction to Roman rule. This did not prevent members of the elite from becoming Roman citizens or participating in imperial government, since for the most part (as has been mentioned) Roman philhellenism allowed a way round potential conflict. In cases where there was conflict—and Philostratus’ Apollonius dwells on the problems created by Nero and Domitian—a Greek’s loyalties were not in doubt.
Once established, Greek classicism and the Greek identity it supported became self-perpetuating, at least in the first and second centuries. One of the secrets of its success was the high material and emotional investment required of those who wished to refer to themselves as Greeks. I have already alluded to the tensions embedded in Hellenism between insiders and outsiders, including Greeks versus barbarians. One aspect of this that is important here is the question of whose wisdom was more ancient, that of Greeks or non-Greeks, a matter which was fiercely contended also by Greeks and Christians. At the start of his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, who is generally held to have been writing at more or less the same date as Philostratus, notes that there are some who say that the work of philosophy began among the barbarians. They point to the existence of the Mages among the Persians, the Chaldaeans among the Babylonians and Assyrians, the Naked Sages among the Indians, and the Druids and Revered of God among the Celts and Gauls. . . . They point out that Mochus was Phoenician, Zamolxis a Thracian, and Atlas a Libyan. . . . [But] in ascribing to barbarians the achievements of the Greeks they forget that not only philosophy but also the human race began with the Greeks. (I. I. 3)
He caps his argument by observing that the word philosophia ‘refuses to be translated by any barbarian term’, and notes that the first person to give the discipline its name was Pythagoras (i. 4. 12). The debate about the priority of wisdom was more than a quest for the best model. If Hellenism was to be the most attractive system, it must have the most secure authority, and that meant having the oldest authority. It is to Pythagoras’ pioneering role in the development of Greek culture, and the function given to him in the Hellenism of the Second Sophistic and after, that I now turn.