THE PROBLEMS OF HELLENISM

Apollonius soon decides on a ‘Pythagorean life’ (I. 7). Occupation of the moral high ground leads to a reform of falling Hellenic standards in religion and other matters at Antioch (21. 16). The link between being Pythagorean and being Hellenic is of the utmost importance in the work from here on. In the Sophists Philostratus presents the culture and society of his own time as taking shape in the mid-first century. A reforming first-century Apollonius, who is welcomed, admired, and needed, is in keeping with this viewpoint.

To anyone mounting a defence of Hellenic values, as Philostratus certainly is, the problem of the exclusivity of Hellenism in class and ‘race’ (that is, in regard to the imaginary biology of Greek descent) could not be ignored. Philostratus’ younger contemporary Origen attacks his Platonist opponent Celsus on precisely these grounds. ‘We say that it is the task of those who teach the true doctrines to help as many people as they can . . . not only the intelligent, but also the stupid, and again not just the Greeks without including the barbarians as well’ (Against Celsus, 6. i, trans. Chadwick). Again, ‘the divine nature, which cares not only for those supposed to have been educated in Greek learning but also for the rest of mankind, came down to the level of the ignorant multitude of hearers, that by using a style familiar to them it might encourage the mass of the common people to listen’ (7. 60).

Origen follows St Paul in rejecting the old divisions. No one who saw himself as part of the Greek elite could be interested in choosing ‘the foolish things of the world to confound the wise’ (as Paul advises the Corinthians). That said, the claim that Hellenism was universal in its appeal was part of the Hellenist agenda. All elites must recruit. For Hellenism, this meant extension horizontally, never descent to ‘the level of the ignorant multitude’. The task of recruitment was especially important—and especially risky—in the extended ‘Greek East’. As has been noted, the advent of the Severan dynasty brought its own problems in this regard. Septimius Severus was quick to ally himself in name and aim with the legitimate Antonine emperors; but his origin from the Punic city of Lepcis Magna (which had remained free of Italian immigration) and his marriage to a member of a (probably)

Arabic dynastic family from Emesa marks the end of Italian preeminence in the Empire. Under Elagabal (son of Julia Domna’s niece, Julia Soaemias) and Severus Alexander (son of her other niece, Julia Mamaea) the imperial household had a Greek feel, but one which shows arguably local or regional aspects. The cult of the sun-god, Elagabal, at Emesa, of which Elagabal was priest, and after whom he is known to later writers and moderns, may originally have had nothing to do with Helios—it has been argued that it had in fact undergone a remarkable process of interpretatio graeca. Whatever the truth of this, the rite and its ministers were hardly orthodox Graeco-Roman, but were consciously following a local tradition. Severus Alexander has none of his cousin’s eccentricities. But his mother’s attested interest in the Christianity of Origen and Hippolytus should again be seen as an example of un-Hellenic conduct. This interest must have been a public fact, if Eusebius is right in saying that she brought Origen to Antioch by military escort. We do not have to turn Apollonius into a pagan response to Julia’s flirtations: but there is also no reason to fail to connect Philostratus’ stress on traditional Hellenic values with a religious and political climate that had begun to change, and where Hellenic values could not necessarily be taken for granted despite (or because of?) a Hellenized court.

Competition between Greek and Eastern wisdom has been mentioned above, and allows a line of enquiry. It had long been part of the Jews’ response to Greek slurs to argue that the Greeks themselves were an upstart race who had appropriated others’ ideas, especially Jewish ones. Josephus’ Against Apion turns largely on this question. Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Plato, the Stoics, and the rest took their conception of God (amongst other things) from Moses and the Jews (I. 162—3; 2. 168, 237), whose civilization was far older. These ideas passed happily into Christian apologetic (see, for example, Theophilus, To Autolycus, 3. 16 ff.; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, I. 71. 3—73. 6) as a way of combating the suggestion that Christianity had no past and no tradition worth listening to. It is no surprise that Celsus was prepared to admit the antiquity of every race except the Jews. He adopted this position, says Origen, ‘out of mere perversity, with a view to impugning the origin of Christianity which depended on the Jews’ (Against Celsus, I. 16, trans. Chadwick). We should compare Diogenes Laertius. When he is busy rejecting the idea that philosophy began among the barbarians, Jews are conspicuously absent from his list of competitors to the Greeks (Lives, I. I—II; above, p. 162). They are mentioned only in passing as possible descendants of the Magi, along with the Gymnosophists (ibid. 9). At Lives, 8. 10, Diogenes quotes innocently from the second book of Hermippus’ On Pythagoras. This author, says Josephus, was ‘careful about every historical fact’, and in the first book of the same work had stated that Pythagoras’ ‘doings and sayings were imitation and appropriation of the beliefs of the Jews and the Thracians’ (Against Apion, I. 164—5). Information of this sort hardly suited Diogenes’ Hellenocentrism. But was his silent denial of Jewish claims to ancient wisdom simply anti-Semitic? Or should we recall Origen on the purpose of

Celsus’ attitude to Jewish antiquity? Consciously or not, in damning Jews by ignoring them, Diogenes was also denying Christians ancient learning at a time when their claim on this through Judaism was growing ever stronger. The fact is that the more Hellenic philosophy became the motor of Greek religion, the more urgent was the need to deal with those who had better claims to precedence. To do this through silence was the response of those who feared to raise the matter. Likewise, the more Christianity fancied itself a philosophy, the more Greek philosophy had to respond. Cutting Christianity off from its past seemed a promising tactic.

In the Apollonius, contacts with ancient wisdom are extremely important. Philostratus sends Apollonius to the Magi (briefly), the Brahmins, and the Egyptians. Jews are not on the list. There is a good literary-structural reason for this: the Jewish revolt and Apollonius’ advice to Vespasian on the role of the good king allow Jews to be counted out of bounds. They are characterized once at 3. 33, where Euphrates comments on their revolt from the ‘whole of mankind’, not just Rome, and stigmatizes their ‘unsociable life’ and inability to share a common table or to join in ‘libations, prayers, and sacrifices’. These traditional views were extended to Christians. The rebuttal of a thoroughgoing ‘godlessness’—a social and political charge as much as a religious one—is the stuff of Christian apologies such as the Embassy of Athenagoras. Could the link between Jews and Christians have been in Philostratus’ mind? ‘The House of Alexander [Severus]’, says Eusebius, ‘consisted mostly of believers’, and against it Maximinus Thrax ‘raised a persecution as a grudge’ (Ecclesiastical History, 6. 28. I). Eusebius presumably based this assessment on his own report of Origen’s demonstration at court of ‘the excellence of the divine teaching’ (ibid. 6. 21. 4). For a scholar so devoted to exegesis of the Old Testament, ‘teaching’ can hardly have excluded the ancient wisdom of the Jews. A fragment of a letter to Julia Mamaea from Hippolytus glosses Exodus 23: 10. For what it is worth, Alexander Severus’ sympathetic interest in both Jews and Christians is a theme of his biography in the Augustan History. It suits Philostratus to emphasize that the Jews were anti-empire and anti-society in a context where Apollonius is presented as giving Hellenic advice to the Roman king. If we believe Eusebius and the Augustan History, we will say that it was of benefit to him to repeat the charge of Jewish hostility to men and empire, and to pass by their ancient wisdom, because he could thereby undermine Christian influence among the royals, who were certainly a part of his intended audience. If we do not, and suppose that there was no real Christian influence at court, we must at least allow that Philostratus’ highly self-conscious Hellenism involves antipathy towards rival groups of all sorts, and that in the 220s and 230s Christians, however minor a threat they might still seem, were one of these.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!