Eusebius was no fool. He never attempts to deny Apollonius’ existence, or even that he was a philosopher (393, II = 25). A theme of his work is that Apollonius has been ‘falsely implicated’ by his author (cf. 397, 26 = 29), and that the myth and magic are Philostratean inventions. Eusebius professes, indeed, to be addressing a friend who is tempted to admire Sossianus’ comparison of Apollonius and ‘our saviour’ (369, i—4 = i). Even if the form of address (o philotes) is perhaps not as polite as it might be, he does allow that Apollonius could be taken seriously. What he will not allow is that the Philostratean Apollonius should be.
Between the ages of Philostratus and Eusebius the culture and society of the Greek world underwent major change. To take one example of disagreement between them, Philostratus is quite happy to present Apollonius putting various Homeric questions to Achilles (4. 16). Eusebius simply cannot understand the point of this: ‘For a man who allegedly associated with gods both seen and unseen to be so ignorant that he had to ask these questions is surely a matter of the utmost disgrace’ (392, 13 = 24). For Philostratus, Apollonius’ questions are part of the constant replaying of classical culture that feeds the identity of the Greek elite in his age. The answers were nothing without the workings-out. The failure of a Eusebius to understand what was going on only two or three generations before him shows the extent to which the elements that formed this identity had unravelled. Homeric questions were no longer the province of a man of God. This change should be seen in part, at least, as a phenomenon within Greek culture and its relations with its neighbours. In recent years, regional studies of the Roman Empire have been advancing apace in many areas of historical and cultural enquiry. Christianization, however, is still often investigated as if an empire-wide development allows an empire-wide solution. Yet the progress of religion in the Greek East is particular to that region and its subdivisions. Even general parameters of change, such as the role of miracles or the appeal of suffering and courage, are better understood against particular regional patterns and local religious histories. The Christianity of any man who was born into the Greek elite and rejected Hellenism must be explained against the burdens of Greek identity and the understandable reasons for renouncing it in the areas where it claimed jurisdiction. This is why Apollonius is a crucial document, not of sophistic trivia, but of the religious mood of a society not unaware of change, but totally unable to grasp the scale and the effects of what was to come.
It has been suggested recently that Philostratus made a major new contribution to religious life by legitimating the idea of ascetic living through the person of Apollonius. The idea that Philostratus rehabilitated Apollonius—the very opposite of Eusebius’ reading—goes back in its modern form to the great nineteenth-century Church historian Baur, who saw Philostratus as a ‘doubtful syncretistic mediator’ who used a sanitized Apollonius to seek an accommodation with Christianity. To find parallels (healings, exorcisms, doubting followers, ascension, the whole idea of mission) between Apollonius and Jesus and his disciples is not absurd. After all, it has long been recognized that the prototypical saint’s life, the Life of Antony, was written under the influence of a version of the story of Pythagoras, whose phraseology reappears both in Porphyry’s Pythagoras and in Apollonius. Why should Philostratus not have launched a new genre of pagan hagiography with an eye on the Gospels? Yet, as we have seen, the Pythagorean mysticism which his Apollonius embodies had become progressively influential in the Platonism of the preceding two centuries. Philostratus was right to look back on the first century as a period formative of the pagan vitalism of his own time. He saw a change between the second-sophistic period and what preceded. But his model did not allow for the perception of change within this period. It may be pointed out by us that the appeal of Apollonius to some of the Severan royals marks a departure in what intellectuals were expected to offer their masters. (Dio of Prusa’s models in his Orations on Kingship, written a century before, look austere and classical in comparison.) But Philostratus thinks of himself as working within the Hellenic tradition, and presents his hero as doing the same. This is not change in the self-conscious manner of Christians. There is no need to herald Apollonius as the birth of the ‘divine man’ of later antiquity.
What is new about Apollonius is the combination of religion and philosophy with a very intense Hellenism, which looks forward to pagan intellectual activity in late antiquity, but arises from a quite different cultural environment. Philostratus’ Apollonius can still speak like a ‘critic rather than a defendant’, because Hellenism is not really on trial. This Hellenism does not have much to learn even from the Brahmins, and Philostratus’ attitudes are those of someone whose claim on Hellenic values as a resident of old Greece did not encourage the independence accorded to Eastern wisdom by a Porphyry or an Iamblichus. What must have worried a Philostratus were the encroachments of barbarism. The reign of Elagabal was centred on a cult whose styles and practices were unknown ‘among Greeks and Romans’ (Herodian, 5. 3. 5). The difference from the philhellenism of Julia Domna showed up the instability of a lightly Hellenized East. Christian contacts with the court of Severus Alexander would have concerned him in the same way. The assertive Hellenism of Apollonius is not necessarily a response to particular problems such as these. It is a reaction to the moods of its time, and most of the details of these are lost to us. It is a shame that this reaction, this demonstration of Hellenism’s universal appeal from Spain to India, and of its revealed, divine wisdom, amounts to a traditional exclusivity and elitism, which non-members might partake of only if one worked hard (Damis) or happened to be an empress (Julia Domna).
The early third century was recognized as a time of change. The late fourth-century biographer Eunapius places the end of the ‘third crop’ of philosophers in the reign of Septimius Severus, and begins his own lives with ‘the appropriate starting point’ of Plotinus and Porphyry (Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, 455 = 2. 2. 6—8, G.). For modern scholars, Ammonius Saccas, teacher of Plotinus and Philostratus’ contemporary, is the last of the Middle Platonists. The change was the entry of religion into philosophy, the new role of the philosopher as the privileged associate of the divine, and his concomitant social and cultural visibility. If some allowed that the sources of knowledge were wider than heretofore, this did not make higher Greek culture any more accessible. Thus the emperor Julian, though influenced by Christian care and communalism, shows in the main expositions of his ideas for reforming polytheist religion (letters 84a, 89a—b, orations 5, To the Mother of the Gods, and 7, To the Cynic Heracleius) a familiar exclusiveness. Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius is an important stage on the road to the fourth-century Neoplatonism of Julian and his associates. But Philostratus still lived in a world where Greek culture was inextricably bound up with being and feeling Greek. He wrote (it has been argued) with an awareness of the limits of Hellenization in the East. His subject-matter involved acceptance of Eastern wisdom. Yet his message was traditional: if Greeks borrowed, they made the borrowing better. Apollonius had nothing to learn. The difference between this apology for Hellenism and the Christian texts that have been studied in this volume is that Philostratus was still apologizing for the old, not the new.