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Philostratros’ Life of Apollonios of Tyana and its Literary Context

Nikoletta Kanavou


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1This book has surveyed a range of intersections between the fictitious biography of the sage Apollonios and selected prose narratives of the imperial period. Discussion has focused on two main types of literature: the romantic novels on the one hand, and fictionalised stories about wise men on the other. It has emerged that although the VA is by default associated with the latter, it also has deep-running connections with the former. The hero’s wisdom and its manifestations, his travels, his brushes with the subject of eros and his relationship with writing and the written word, all bear the mark of the pleasurable narrative genre, which is conventionally termed as ‘novel’. These thematic features, which embellish and enhance the VA as a work of literature, were further commented on for their place in the conflict between historicity and fictionality that affects every interpretation of Philostratos’ narrative of Apollonios’ life. The survey also brought forward parallels to the VA’s philosophical ideology, considering both fictitious literature and philosophical writings: while the latter parallels throw into relief the work’s ideological eclecticism, the former parallels show that the work’s connection with the tradition of fictitious narrative balances up and to some extent informs its philosophical and religious concerns – to which the love novel (especially Heliodoros and Achilles Tatios) is no stranger.

  • 1 Cf. Aristotle’s observation: ‘A plot is not unified, as some think, if built around an individual.. (...)

2The book’s various themes and topics are held together by a common thread, namely the hero’s virtue, in particular his sōphrosynē, which encapsulates both his wise-man status and his novelistic traits, and which may be seen as a contributing factor to the VA’s unity.1 Indeed all aspects of Philostratos’ story discussed in this book (his portrayal of a chaste central hero; his handling of the theme of travel; his approach to the written word) are rewardingly read through the lens of Apollonios’ sōphrosynē, a virtue that influences the whole sphere of Apollonios’ life and deeds; this reading further contributes to our perception of the work’s genre. Significantly, novelistic and biographical narratives are permeated by the Greek ideal of sōphrosynē, a marker not only of the character of Philostratos’ Apollonios, but also of the relationship of Philostratos’ work with a number of different genres and literary traditions. The treatment of sōphrosynē in these traditions undercuts applications of this virtue in the VA.

3In sum, the study of the use of sōphrosynē as a theme and a common denominator of the VA’s thematic interests has contributed to the interpretation of both Apollonios as hero and of the VA’s generic affinities. This purpose is equally well served by the discussion of manifestations of sōphrosynē’s counterpart, erōs, as echoes of a popular, indeed irresistible theme to the author; of travel as an intergeneric metaphor for spiritual progression; and of allusions to the written word as a literary technique. In particular, the survey of inscribed texts mentioned in the VA highlights the issue of fictionality and functions as an indicator of the narrative’s self-validating interests and precarious realism. Discussion of every chapter’s theme or topic thus confirms the VA’s similarities and its debts to a broad range of novelistic and biographical narratives.

  • 2 On this point, see Morales (2009, with bibliography). Cf. also Bowie’s reflections on the VA’s genr (...)

4While referring to the VA as a piece of work with ‘biographical’ focus, the present study discourages strict preferential attribution to any particular genre or sub-genre. The nature of the VA’s narrative, a composite of various literary forms and motifs, defies exclusive generic categorisation and is best described as eclectic. Notably the narratives that formed part of our group of comparison are also hard to place in generic canons: we have seen that the categories of ‘novel’ and ‘biography’ are extremely fluid, and works such as philosophical lives and early Christian stories combine elements from different potential genres. Generic hybridisation is a widespread feature of imperial literature.2

  • 3 See e.g. Swain (1997) on biographical literature.
  • 4 If his usual, 4 c. (or late 3 c.) dating is accepted.
  • 5 Cf. Jones (2006) on the gradual integration of Apollonios into Christian thought.

5The nature of the VA’s literary context, which includes a variety of narratives with diverse points of emphasis, both pagan and Christian, has admittedly suggested a very broad field of enquiry, which the present study does not purport to exhaust. Clearly some texts suggest themselves as closer ‘relatives’ to the VA than others, and this book’s chapters have concentrated on the later Greek novels and on fictitious biographies of wise men (among which biographies of Pythagoras, Apollonios’ openly declared model, stand out), also taking into account Jewish and early Christian narratives. Despite the varied implications of each of these traditions for the history of religion and philosophy, their profound and complex interaction has long been recognised in scholarship;3 the present book has aimed to flesh out the role of the VA in this interaction. The VA further appears to be in dialogue not just with biographical narratives, but also with the earlier Greek novels and their paradigmatically chaste heroes, as well as with novelistic stories about Alexander the Great; and there is a good chance that the VA influenced Heliodoros.4 What is more, the overlap in the literary and philosophical features of the pagan Apollonios and the Christian Jesus is unmistakable; despite the traditional juxtaposition between the two (and between Apollonios and Christian sages more generally), their similarities – which are also reflected in their relevance to the overarching concept of ‘holy man’ or theios anēr – are more striking than their differences.5 Philostratos was very likely aware of early writings about the figure of Christ and his Apostles. While there is no compelling reason to read the Apollonios of the VA as a response to the increasingly powerful figure of Christ, the present contextual study enhances the possibility that the shaping of the pagan sage was influenced by early Christian writings, and in its turn helped to shape later stories about pagan and Christian holy men and saints.

6A literary study of the apparently fictitious life of a historical sage may place a legitimate emphasis on the ‘literary’ and the ‘fictitious’, but cannot be permitted to ignore the ‘historical’. The previous chapters have touched on the historical elements of Philostratos’ Apollonios and his life’s narrative (including its philosophical and religious relevance), which are often hard to disentangle from less ‘real’ aspects that are imposed by the work’s hagiographical purpose and second sophistic aesthetics. By elaborating on the building blocks of Apollonios’ literary milieu, this study further concretises the image of an Apollonios who is both rooted in a historical context, incorporating – even if somewhat anachronistically – Severan ideals of paideia, religion and culture, and expresses a literary diachrony and intergenericity: an Apollonios who travels the world like a novelistic sage, drawing his inspiration from the same virtue that empowers romantic protagonists, Jewish heroes and Christian martyrs; an Apollonios whose sōphrosynē is novelistic, with Platonic and Plutarchan features; whose encounters with erōs throw into relief both his aforesaid novelistic affinities and the extraordinariness of his chastity; and whose handling of writing in its various forms, as presented by the narrator, not only provides further expression of his virtue but also suggests a strong metaliterary consciousness. In the light of this new survey, the comparison of Apollonios as a literary character to such diverse figures as Heliodoros’ Kalasiris, Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great is shown to be legitimate and fruitful. Even features of romantic heroes such as the reluctantly amorous Habrokomes and the ambiguous Kleitophon find parallels in the characterisation of the sage, who seems in his turn to have influenced the more philosophical and chaste characters of the Aithiopika. The contextual readings advanced in this book suggest that the VA merits consideration as an indisputable link in a highly complex and influential literary chain.


1 Cf. Aristotle’s observation: ‘A plot is not unified, as some think, if built around an individual... an individual performs many actions which yield no unitary action’ (Po. 1451al6-19). Apollonios’ ethical motivation keeps the different events of his life’s narrative together.

2 On this point, see Morales (2009, with bibliography). Cf. also Bowie’s reflections on the VA’s genre and Philostratos’ ‘literary objectives’ (1994, 194-195).

3 See e.g. Swain (1997) on biographical literature.

4 If his usual, 4 c. (or late 3 c.) dating is accepted.

5 Cf. Jones (2006) on the gradual integration of Apollonios into Christian thought.

© C.H.Beck, 2018

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