Episode 65: Graeme Miles on Apollonius of Tyana
Apollonius of Tyana was a first-century philosopher and holy man. He looms large in the later esoteric traditions, being an important authority on magic, particularly talismanic magic, in the East Roman and Islamicate traditions of the Middle Ages and beyond; he was even conjured up from the dead by the French occultist Eliphas Levi. But he was an important figure in his own day and age. In this episode we try to home in on the life of Apollonius, as well as the Life of Apollonius, the great work by Philostratus which provides most of our knowledge of the sage. Dr Miles has worked extensively on this author, and provides a superb introduction to his life and work, which helps us understand the literary conceits of the so-called Second Sophistic period, which will have influenced his account of the Sage of Tyana.
Philostratus depicts Apollonius as a curious figure: a lone Pythagorean, a newly-imagined type of figure at home in the Roman world of so-called Neopythagoreanism (see Episode 48 of the podcast) but harking back to an imagined wisdom-tradition associated with the great Pythagoras himself, who by Apollonius’ time has become a legendary figure. Apollonius travels to visit all the usual wise barbarian sages (see Episode 8), with a particularly important episode in which he spends time with the Indian Brahmins, depicted by Philosotratus as Ur-Pythagoreans. Apollonius then returns to Greece and travels from city to city, casting out demons, healing the sick, and generally making himself useful as a wandering holy man. He encounters two Roman emperors, Nero and Domitian, and in both cases demonstrates the superiority of silent Pythagorean wisdom over state power (see Episode 18 for more on these incidents in Philostratus) as he defends himself against charges of illegal magical practice. Finally, he dies – or does he? Philostratus gives a number of possible ends to the Apollonian story, including one in which he sage ascends to he heavens.
The framework of Apollonius’ (fictionalised) life story provides a series of pegs upon which Dr Miles hangs all manner of interesting observations on Philostratus, later Platonism, the idea of magic in the Roman Empire, the relationship between Philostratus’ Apollonius and the Christ of the Gospels, and much more.
Graeme Miles is a lecturer in classics and researches Greek literature (especially of the Roman Era) and philosophy (especially the Platonic tradition). He completed his undergraduate study and PhD at the University of Western Australia. After finishing his doctorate he was an Asialink writer in residence based at the University of Madras, then a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Ghent, Belgium (2007), before returning to teach at UWA in early 2008. He moved to the University of Tasmania in 2008. Graeme has published widely on Philostraus, elucidating in particular his understanding of acts of interpretation (of visual art and literature) and the nature of his engagement with earlier literature and philosophy. His other major interest is in the Platonic tradition. He is currently, with Professor Dirk Baltzly (University of Tasmania) and Professor John Finamore (University of Iowa) translating Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Republic (forthcoming in three volumes with Cambridge University Press).
Works Discussed in this Episode:
- ‘Apollonius of Tyana’: Spell ascribed to Apollonius (‘Apollonius of Tyana’s Old Serving Woman’): PGM Xia.1-40
- Apuleius: Apuleius’ Apology is an interesting parallel to Philostraus’ Life, in that it is a rhetorically-crafted, literary defense-speech against charges of illegal magical practice much like Philosotratus has Apollonius make, although Apuleius’ speech is in the Latin of the Western Empire rather than Philostratus’ elegant Greek. His Metamorphoses, a.k.a. The Golden Ass, is the work referred to in the interview as ‘the greatest occult novel of all time’; the podcast will be returning to this great work in due course.
- Ashoka’s inscriptions: Hultzsch, E. 1925. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. I: Inscriptions of Ashoka. Oxford.
- Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists 454.
- Lucian, Alexander, or a False Prophet 5.
- Nonnus of Panopolis, Dionysiaca 1.11-33
- Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 570
- Plutarch’s cosmic-ascent myth based around the Oracle of Trophonius: de gen. Soc. 575b-598f.
- Porphyry: Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs is one of our most complete works of esoteric reading from antiquity, to be covered in a future episode.
- Balbina Bäbler and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath. Philostrats Apollonios und seine Welt. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2016.
- Maria Dzielska. Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History. Ploblemi e Ricerche di Storia Antica 10. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, 1986. Piotr Pieńkowski trans.
- Jaap-Jan Flinterman. ‘The Ubiquitous ’Divine Man’’. Numen, 43(1):82–98, Jan. 1996.
- Græme Miles. ‘Hippolytus, the Lamia, and the Eunuch: Celibacy and Narrative Strategy in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius’. Classical Philology 112 (2017), 200-218.