BMCR 2009.10.40

Theios Sophistes: Essays on Flavius Philostratus’ Vita Apollonii. Mnemosyne Supplements 305

, , Theios Sophistes: Essays on Flavius Philostratus' Vita Apollonii. Mnemosyne Supplements 305. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. xvi, 405. ISBN 9789004171091. $200.00.

[Table of contents at end of review.]1

In spite of the increased quantity and quality of scholarship in recent decades on Philostratus and his eight-book work on Apollonius of Tyana, scholars are still mostly aware of the Vita Apollonii as a more or less typical example of some larger phenomenon, be it pagan hagiography, neo-Pythagoreanism, or second-sophistic literary and religious culture. This excellent volume of essays serves as a showcase for how much interesting scholarship can come from viewing the Vita Apollonii instead as a uniquely interesting text worthy of study in its own right, on a level with more canonical works. Specialists will want to read it thoroughly, and a great many others will find unexpectedly rich results from browsing.

Most of the fifteen essays come out of a conference that was held in Brussels in 2006 and was part of a larger grant-based project on the Vita Apollonii, centered at the University of Ghent. As noted in the introduction (ix), the editors tried to include as many as possible of the main contributors to Philostratean scholarship over the last thirty years, and they were in this effort remarkably successful: the authors in this volume together account for the bulk of Philostratean scholarship in the last thirty years, and there is also much material by younger researchers, some of them brought to Ghent by the project grant.

The essays are divided into two sets, the first (Boter through Van der Stockt in the contents) being more literary and philological in nature and the second (Anderson through Van Uytfanghe) being more oriented toward the cultural, philosophical and religious context. Most of the traditional topics of scholarship on the Vita Apollonii are touched on, but overall one is struck more by the new debates that are begun than by what is added to old ones. In reviewing individual articles, I will first consider a group (Gyselinck and Demoen; Miles; Schirren; Morgan; Praet; Van Uytfanghe) that, while taken from both the sets just mentioned, all address the question of how the work as a whole is to be interpreted, and then I will consider the others, in the order that they appear in the volume.

The one big question of the Vita Apollonii remains that of interpretive stance. For many decades there was a sharp division in scholarship between those on the one hand who viewed the Vita Apollonii as a more or less sincere work of religious advocacy believed by its author and its primary audience to be basically factual, and those on the other hand who saw it as a jeu d’esprit whose author and audience alike took the content as basically fictional material meant to entertain rather than inform. While in recent years there has been agreement that this dichotomy is too reductive, it has not been easy to replace it with a positive description of what kind of text the Vita Apollonii is, or how its intended audience was meant to read it. The six essays mentioned above all represent valuable additions to the options currently available, and they provide insights that are cogent in themselves, while pointing in directions that future research would do well to explore.

Gyselinck and Demoen address the already much discussed question of the Vita Apollonii as a fictional text. There are, it is widely agreed, several elements of the text, notably its frame narrative, that are reminiscent of pseudo-documentary works such as Dictys Cretensis and the Wonders beyond Thule. Starting from this insight, Gyselinck and Demoen demonstrate how much time the Vita Apollonii spends commenting on its own truth-value. In particular, they emphasize the contrast between the primary narrator of the text, who tends to adopt an earnest historiographical pose, and the implied author, whom sophisticated readers would have recognized as a playful literary artist. The authors provide readings of several episodes, from Book 3 especially, (108-14) that can fruitfully be viewed in terms of the distinction between these two roles.

Miles’ essay also looks to self-referentiality in the Vita Apollonii, although in his case at the broader issue of interpretation. He draws explicitly on Shadi Bartsch’s work on Greek novels, and tries to use the Vita Apollonii as a tool for its own explication, based on the interpretive acts of the characters.2 The vein of material is rich: the first half of the essay (129-47) is a survey of who interprets what, including numerous art objects, several portents, and the figure of Apollonius himself, and of several instances in which interpretation is markedly refused. The second half (147-60) deals with two long theoretical discourses by Apollonius on how one is supposed to understand art, the earlier of which (2.22) lays out a straightforwardly mimetic theory, while the second (6.19) emphasizes imagination. What Miles calls an “Apollonian” reading of the Vita Apollonii (130) does not produce any one key to the text, and indeed suggests that no such key exists, but it does provide important insights. The Vita Apollonii appears to favor interpreters who use their extensive Hellenic paideia to construct dynamic two-way relationships with texts, relationships that are marked as superior to the simpler interpretive models used by uneducated characters who ask only whether the object of interpretation portends a concrete bad outcome for themselves personally.

Schirren argues for a thoroughly ironic reading of the Vita Apollonii, in which Philostratus envisions two target audiences, or perhaps two possible modes of reading. The Vita Apollonii works simultaneously to eulogize a superhuman philosopher, and, for those who choose to read it as such, to undermine the whole concept of such a figure. Schirren, whose 2005 monograph presents similar arguments as part of a larger and more theoretically complex analysis, has two main lines of argument from the text to support this view.3 The first (162-73) is a set of story elements from the Vita Apollonii that Schirren considers so paradoxical that they serve as markers that the whole text should be read ironically. The second (177-86) makes use of Eusebius’ Against Hierocles, which, in attempting to refute the idea that Apollonius is superior to Christ, points out a long list of inconsistencies in the Vita Apollonii. Schirren’s arguments need to be taken seriously, but, as presented in this article, many readers will find them unconvincing. The seven examples that Schirren himself posits are interesting in themselves, but are they enough evidence to justify a re-reading in its entirety of a text as long and complex as the Vita Apollonii ? Eusebius’ examples are more numerous, but less plausible as irony markers. The Vita Apollonii should be read with more sensitivity to irony than has been customary, but it is a big leap from there to seeing the whole text as an intentional deconstruction of its stated purpose. That said, Schirren makes enough of a case here that many readers will want to find the fuller version of his argument.

Morgan, by contrast, reads the Vita Apollonii in its Severan historical context as a work of religious advocacy. He sets the Vita Apollonii alongside Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, a possibly contemporary text that deals with many similar themes. The essay, which will be of interest to students of the novels as well as of the Vita Apollonii and of Severan history more broadly, begins (263-72) with a compelling list of similarities between the Vita Apollonii and the Aethiopica before focusing on the thesis that both works depict an “idealised solar state,” (273) the Indian Brahman community and Ethiopia respectively. If one takes the works to be products of Julia Domna’s court, then the “solar states” can be symbolically identified with Emesa, Julia’s home and that of the Semitic cult of the god Elagabal, who by the third century is identified as a sun-god. The ideals of both these states, however, are explicitly coded as at least partly Hellenic. Morgan (278-80) traces this to a desire on the part of Julia and her court to stress the compatibility of the Emesan cult with the Greco-Roman mainstream, as opposed to her great-nephew Elagabalus’ later insistence on radical difference.

Praet’s reading is the most daring of this group, in that he argues for an entire structural principle that has not been noticed before. The principle is astrological: the eight books of the Vita Apollonii correspond to the seven Ptolemaic planetary deities, plus Gaia-Earth. Praet first (285-309) argues book by book for the planetary identifications based on explicit statements and thematic groupings, then (313-20) lays out a reading of the whole narrative as moral allegory. The sequence of the books represents a journey through the various planetary spheres to a highest one, represented by Apollonius’ ascent to heaven in the last, “Jupiter,” book. The idea of such a journey has parallels in Neopythagorean, as well as Hermetic and Gnostic, thought, (312) and, if Praet is correct, Philostratus is more engaged than has generally been supposed with authentic Neopythagoreanism. Not everyone will be fully swayed by Praet’s arguments. His identification of books with planets is based on connections that range from solid to very tenuous. And even if such a structural principle exists, it is not self-evident that it deserves Praet’s characterization of “master-structure,” as opposed to being a secondary technical dimension of the Vita Apollonii that, while interesting in itself, does not critically influence how one should read other aspects of the text. However, Praet has enough evidence to show that something important is going on, and future scholars will want to consider whether an astrological reading of the Vita Apollonii brings further insights.

Van Uytfanghe is concerned to validate a more traditional interpretive stance for the Vita Apollonii, one that links it with other pagan works on “holy men” and ultimately with Christian hagiography and the gospels. Van Uytfanghe begins with an exhaustive and useful review of work to date that brings together debates in divergent areas of scholarship. While noting the drawbacks that have been pointed out elsewhere in the “holy man” conception (340-41), Van Uytfanghe argues for seeing the Vita Apollonii within a more flexible construct of a “discours hagiographique” that can be identified with a set of shared features that he goes on to enumerate.4 He acknowledges freely, as many hagiographic readings of the Vita Apollonii do not, that his approach is not the only valid one to the text (372-74), and his formulations are very useful for distinguishing the elements that the Vita Apollonii shares with (say) Iamblichus’ De Vita Pythagorica from those that are unique to Philostratus’ text, which distinction is very important to any evaluation of the text as a whole.

Billault explores the technical aspects of how Philostratus works in traditions of ancient encomium and biography to produce a work of almost unique length and complexity. His essay first reviews the standard canons of those genres going back to Isocrates and Xenophon, and notes how much the Vita Apollonii departs from them, especially the latter. (9) In particular, there is a closer integration than is usual between the narrative events on the one hand and the “doctrinal” material on the other: Apollonius’ own words and arguments of others about him. Philostratus himself also comments an unusual amount on his own narrative choices.

Boter’s article addresses perhaps the single biggest gap in scholarship on the Vita Apollonii, namely the lack of a proper critical text. For years the standard remained Kayser’s editions from 1844 and 1870, which were the basis for Conybeare’s Loeb. The recent new Loeb of C.P. Jones represents an improvement, but there is still much need for the full-scale critical edition on which Boter is apparently at work, and to which this article represents a sort of prolegomena. Most of the article (23-50) is a discussion of the manuscripts, the first accessible discussion to incorporate modern text-critical principles.5 Boter provides the first properly constructed stemma for the Vita Apollonii (50) and presents some brief considerations (51-56) on the overall direction of his new edition, putting forth two sample conjectural emendations that suggest he will be considerably more receptive to that practice than has generally been the case with editors of the Vita Apollonii.

Bowie provides a very useful survey of where and how the Vita Apollonii quotes or alludes to earlier Greek literature. The article includes two very well laid-out tables (65-73) that list all quotations or allusions (defined quite broadly) in the Vita Apollonii, first in order of appearance, and then alphabetically by author quoted.6 The first part of the article is a discussion of the data contained in those tables, and some generalizations about quotation practices. Bowie looks mostly at what authors are quoted (59-62): the selection is quite conventional, with Homer far in the lead, but unexpected authors show up, (Sappho, Orthagoras, Juba of Mauretania) mostly explained by the Vita Apollonii‘s focus on exotic geography. There is also illuminating discussion (62-65) of how quotations are spaced throughout the Vita Apollonii, and what characters (chiefly Apollonius and the narrator) deliver them.

Grossardt is the author of a recent commentary on Philostratus’ Heroicus, and his contribution to this volume puts the Vita Apollonii in the context of high-imperial Homeric reception and revisionism. He deals with the episode ( Vita Apollonii 4.11-16) of Apollonius’ encounter with the ghost of Achilles, and begins (75-82) by drawing out some interesting literary parallels both to the biographic tradition on Homer and to Lucian’s Vera Historia. The second half of the article (82-93) considers individually the five questions that Apollonius asks Achilles, and situates them usefully within the larger world of ancient Homeric scholarship.

Van der Stockt’s piece makes a case for reading the Vita Apollonii alongside the works of Plutarch, in spite of the acknowledged fact that the latter author never mentions his contemporary Apollonius. Van der Stockt does this by making two more or less discrete arguments. The first (188-91) explains the absence in that, given Plutarch’s general ideological self-positioning, he would likely be among those who, according to Philostratus, considered Apollonius a charlatan. The second (193-206) is a comparison of the Vita Apollonii‘s complex prooemium with those of Plutarch’s lives. Van der Stockt does not seek to prove that Philostratus here knows or is responding to Plutarch. Instead, he uses Plutarch as a useful background for a very perceptive rhetorical analysis of the Vita Apollonii‘s under-studied opening, and particularly to the odd compositional choice of starting out by talking about Pythagoras rather than Apollonius himself.

Anderson’s interpretive stance toward the Vita Apollonii is rather different from most essays in this book, in that he is primarily concerned not with Philostratus’ text in itself, but with using it to reconstruct pre-Philostratean traditions about Apollonius. This comes perhaps from differences in intended audience: the essay’s conclusion is explicitly addressed to folklorists (223), for whom he sees the Vita Apollonii as a fertile resource. His objective is to separate instances in which Philostratus is drawing on genuine folk traditions surrounding his hero from those in which he is adding his own literary flourishes — the “fakelore” of the title. Readers familiar with Anderson’s earlier books both on Philostratus and on folklore in antiquity will recognize here his creativity in analysis and openness to a wide range of sources.7

Flinterman’s essay deals with two short episodes at the end of the Vita Apollonii, the two alternative stories (8.30.2-3) in which Apollonius ascends to heaven. He begins (228-37) by placing these stories in the context of similar narratives ranging from Heracles in Diodorus to Romulus in Dionysius and Plutarch. Flinterman then goes on to an enlightening discussion (237-48) of the significance of the two sites from which Apollonius is said to have ascended, namely the temple of Athena at Lindos, on Rhodes, and the temple of Dictynna on Crete. Flinterman gives a tentative explanation of the first in terms of Heracles mythology. The second is more difficult, although Flinterman makes good use of archeological data on the site and points up Dictynna’s connection to Zeus, noting that she herself experienced an apotheosis. I would also tentatively suggest that an allusion may be intended to another alternative narrative from Crete, namely the Ephemerides of Dictys.

Jones’ article focuses primarily on a work he has recently edited, the Letters of Apollonius, as preserved both through the Vita Apollonii and the independent manuscript tradition. Jones is mainly concerned with whether certain letters can be traced to the historical Apollonius. He begins (250-55) by looking at three letters to cities, and argues for their authenticity on the grounds that external evidence shows that the author of the letters had a detailed knowledge of cult practices at those sites at the time of Apollonius. Jones’ second claim is more startling, namely that Apollonius of Tyana is the same person as the L. Pompeius Apollonius mentioned in a lost inscription from Ephesus, copied by Cyriac of Ancona.8

Koskenniemi comes from a background in New Testament studies, and his essay is directed as much to scholars in that field as to classicists. It surveys Apollonius’ teaching activities in the Vita Apollonii and places them in the context of a range of other texts. The article represents a thorough collection of evidence and traces numerous internal patterns and external parallels for Apollonius’ practices.

The book overall is very well done. The introduction is concise and places the volume well in its scholarly context, and the two-part arrangement of essays works well. Ample room has been allowed for notes and tables, and the very extensive bibliography is an invaluable resource. The text is well edited, and typos are few and inconsequential.9 Some editing problems do cluster around the bibliography: in particular, there are several discrepancies between the author-year citations found in the notes and those found in the bibliography.10 This is perhaps to be expected when one combines numerous individual authors’ contributions, and it is also a by-product of the bibliography’s exceptional thoroughness.

This volume represents a watershed in studies on the Vita Apollonii. It brings together most of the established scholars on the text, along with several promising new faces, and it demonstrates just how many interesting directions this chronically underrated text can lead us in. If the book, especially coming as it does at the same time as Ewen Bowie and Jas Elsner’s new edited volume on Philostratus, does not lead to increased general interest in the Vita Apollonii and much illuminating interpretive work, that will be the fault of scholarly inertia.11

Chapters and Authors:

Billault, Alain. “Les choix narratifs de Philostrate dans la Vie d’Apollonios de Tyane“. 3-20.

Boter, Gerard. “Towards a New Critical Edition of Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius : The Affiliation of the Manuscripts”. 21-56.

Bowie, Ewen. “Quotation of Earlier Texts in the τὰ ἐς τὸν τυανέα Ἀπολλώνιον“. 57-74.

Grossardt, Peter. “How to Become a Poet? Homer and Apollonius Visit the Mound of Achilles”. 75-94.

Gyselinck, Wannes & Kristoffel Demoen. “Author and Narrator: Fiction and Metafiction in Philostratus’ Vita Apollonii“. 95-128.

Miles, Graeme. “Reforming the Eyes: Interpreters and Interpretation in the Vita Apollonii“. 129-60.

Schirren, Thomas. “Irony Versus Eulogy. The Vita Apollonii as Metabiographical Fiction”. 161-86.

Van der Stockt, Luc. “‘Never the Twain Shall Meet’? Plutarch and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius : Some Themes and Techniques”. 187-210.

Anderson, Graham. “Folklore Versus Fakelore: Some Problems in the Life of Apollonius“. 211-24.

Flinterman, Jaap-Jan. “Apollonius’ Ascension”. 225-48.

Jones, Christopher. “Some Letters of Apollonius of Tyana”. 249-62.

Morgan, John R. “The Emesan Connection: Philostratus and Heliodorus”. 263-82.

Praet, Danny. “Pythagoreanism and the Planetary Deities: The Philosophical and Literary Master-structure of the Vita Apollonii“. 283-320.

Koskenniemi, Erkki. “The Philostratean Apollonius as a Teacher”. 321-34.

Van Uytfanghe, Marc. “La Vie d’Apollonius de Tyane et le discours hagiographique”. 335-74.


1. I would like to thank Chad Schroeder for kindly answering some inquiries of mine connected with this review.

2. See Bartsch’s Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius (Princeton, 1989).

3. The monograph is Philosophos Bios: die antike Philosophenbiographie als symbolische Form: Studien zur Vita Apollonii des Philostrat (Heidelberg, 2005).

4. The concept of the “discours hagiographique” is developed in greater detail and with broader application by Van Uytfanghe in “L’hagiographie: Un genre chrétien ou antique tardif?” in Analecta Bollandiana 111 (1993): 135-88.

5. Boter has consulted, and duly credits, the unpublished thesis of Edoardo Crisci, entitled Ricerche sulla tradizione manoscritta della Vita di Apollonio di Tiana di Filostrato (La Sapienza, Rome, 1983).

6. Although Bowie’s criteria for inclusion are not fixed, and there will naturally be room for differences as to what constitutes an allusion, the following passages might be added to those in the tables: 2.9.3 (anonymous companions of Alexander); 3.53 (Orthagoras and perhaps Nearchus); 4.8.2 (Hesiod WD 24; 8.7.15 (Hesiod WD 40-41). There are several references in Table 1 (in order of appearance in the Vita Apollonii) that are not included in Table 2 (by author): they are mostly vague references to whole books of Homer, but include possible references to Arrian’s Periplus ( Vita Apollonii 2.3), Plato’s Seventh Letter ( Vita Apollonii 7.2.1) and a certain one to Hesiod WD 151 ( Vita Apollonii 6.2.2). The quotation at 8.7.49 from Sophocles OC 607-09 is in Table 2 but not Table 1.

7. The books are, respectively, Philostratus: Biography and Belles Lettres in the Third Century (London, 1986) and Greek and Roman Folklore: A Handbook (Westport, Conn., 2006).

8. The inscription is IGSK Ephesus 213 = SIG 820. In Jones’ new Loeb edition of the Letters of Apollonius (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), he inserts it as 67a (p. 62). See my review of that volume (BMCR 2007.07.16) for more on the identification; my comment that Jones has not given reasons evidently no longer applies as of the publication of this volume.

9. On p. 57, the “thought” after n. 1 should be “though”; p. 102, “Cissian plane” should be “Cissian plain”; p. 164 “couldron” should be “cauldron”; p. 385 “E. Ceresa-Gastado” should be “A. Ceresa-Gastaldo.” Robin Osborne’s name is spelled “Osbourne” on pp. 379 and 381.

10. Discrepancies between notes and bibliography: p. 153, “Schweitzer 2000” of the notes should apparently be Schweitzer 1925 of the bibliography; p. 191, the “Billault 1992” mentioned in the text should apparently be Billault 1993a; p. 193, Lausberg 1990 in notes corresponds to “Lausberg 1999” of bibliography, correct year is 1990; p. 255, “Herrmann 1996” of notes should be Herrmann 1998 of biblio and text, and “SEG LVIII” in the same note should read SEG XLVIII; p. 303, the Riedweg 2005 of the notes corresponds to Riedweg 2002 of bibliography, the earlier year is the German original, the later the English translation; p. 322, the “Koskenniemi 2005” of the notes should be the Koskenniemi 2006 of p. 331 and the bibliography; p. 322, Kalinka 1968 corresponds to SchÖnberg 1968 of earlier in same note and bibliography, due to complex editing situation; p. 343, “Swain 1999b” of notes should be Swain 1999a. Works mentioned in notes but not in bibliography (identifications are tentative): p. 129n., “Schor 1980” is Naomi Schor, “Fiction as Interpretation/Interpretation in Fiction” in The Reader and the Text, Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman eds. (Princeton, N.J.) 165-82; p. 148n. “Halliwell 2002” is Stephen Halliwell The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Princeton, N.J.); p. 247n., “Carcopino 1956” is Jérome Carcopino, De Pythagore aux Apôtres (Paris), “Hubaux 1928” is J. Hubaux, “L’herbe aux cent têtes” from Musées Belges 32: 167-76, “Hubaux 1930” is J. Hubaux, “Une Epode d’Ovide” in Serta Leodiensa (Liège) 187-245, “André 1958” is J. André, “Pythagorisme et botanique” from RPh 84: 218-43, “Sauron 1994” is Gilles Sauron, Quis Deum (Paris and Rome); p. 327n., “Jackson 1984” is Steven Jackson, “Apollonius and the Emperors” from Hermathena 137: 25-32; p. 340, “Blackburn 1991” is Barry Blackburn, Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions (Tübingen); p. 373n., “Francis 1995” is James A. Francis, Subversive Virtue (University Park, Pa.).

11. Bowie and Elsner, eds., Philostratus, Cambridge, 2009.