Geographical descriptions (Babylon, i. 25; Caucasus, 2. 2 ff.; Hyphasis, 3. i—2; Spain, 5. I—2; Ethiopia, 6. I; Upper Nile, 6. 23—4), disquisitions on art (2. 22), excursuses on animals (2. II—16), the wonders of India (3. 45—57), an interview with Achilles (4. II—16), the merits of the aulos (5. 21), a debate on the best form of constitution (5. 33—55), the customs and laws of the Spartans (6. 20), and the purposes of long hair (8. 7. 6): all of these are good examples of the sophistic decor for whichApollonius is well known. For many modern readers the taste for such descriptions, often of trivial or strange items (adoxa, paradoxa), and the use of so many hackneyed themes in this type of material represent the unacceptable face of a society in intellectual decline with nothing better to do than play with words. This reaction is both understandable and unquestioning. We must always go beyond particular texts to ask why these elements are so important. Two general points may be made. First, we must not forget that writing of this sort uses the stylistic register of atticizing Greek. Anyone enquiring into the function of such tastes must bear in mind the function of language purism in second-sophistic society as a means of distinguishing elite and mass. Second, the recycling of trivia is not simply enjoyment of what is familiar and comfortable, but also reveals the intense pleasure the elite derived from displaying a detailed knowledge of Greek culture and the moral/ political thought wrapped up in it.
As to Apollonius, the fantasy of the whole may make us think that ‘sophistic fillers’ are commoner than they in fact are. The question of evidence looms large here. If we find topoi of contemporary fictional writing (the ‘Greek novel’) in the work, we are in danger of making assumptions about the truth-value of the text. There is certainly no need to suppose that everything in Apollonius was believed by Philostratus or intended to be believed. On occasion he excuses himself in Herodotean style by claiming that he has been obliged to set out such and such a story. The clearest expression of this is at 3. 26, where he introduces fabulous Indian material by saying: ‘This account has been written up by Damis, ... I must not leave it out, for there is advantage in neither believing everything nor disbelieving’ (3. 45). This contrived sense of balance is part of a general self-consciousness of the narrative’s progress and status as a reliable, well-paced, directed, and interesting account. It would be unhelpful to dismiss such statements simply as affectations of historiographical or novelistic stock-in-trade. Notice how relaxed Philostratus is: he is purveying a larger truth, and not every detail matters so long as the integrity of Apollonius himself cannot be called into question. In Apollonius the terrain of the true had been mapped out by God. Philostratus may express incomprehension (especially at 4. 45), but there is no lack of faith. What was (?should be) good enough for the royal family, as he reminds his audience at the beginning and end of the work, was good enough for him.
How does Apollonius work? Ignoring the book-by-book structure, there are two major parts to the story. Apollonius’ defence before Domitian and his speech of defence occupy books 7 and 8. This section is marked off from everything that goes before it by the final words of the last chapter of book 6: ‘These were the deeds of the man on behalf of temples and cities, these were his words to peoples and on behalf of peoples, these were his actions on behalf of the dead and the sick, these his words to the wise and the unwise and to kings, who made him their adviser in virtue’ (6. 43). The end of this passage may be compared with the very last words of book 6: ‘his shrines at Tyana are fitted out with royal offerings—for the kings would not deny him what they claimed for themselves’. In the first part of the work Philostratus states at 3. 39 that his purpose is ‘to record the life (bios) of Apollonius for those who do not yet know it’. Similarly, at 6. 33 he describes his narrative as a logos ‘which we are taking the trouble to record for those ignorant of the man’. Philostratus has, then, a biographical aim. In the Roman imperial period, biographical records came to function as vehicles of belief systems, pagan and Christian. The ‘life’ of Apollonius is not the life of an individual called Apollonius: it is the way of life of that individual. In the case of Apollonius the way of life was ‘the Pythagorean life’ (ho Puthagoreios bios). The first part of Apollonius relates what Apollonius was able to do for things or people by leading such a life (6. 43). In the second part, the key speech of defence (apologia) sums up this life, and defends its philosophy at the imperial court. This defence is a logos for ‘those who will pay careful attention both to me and the man’ (8. 6). The author’s demand to be heard reflects the importance of his message and its relevance to himself.