Episode 72: Hypochondria and Epiphany: The Strange Case of Ælius Aristides

Publius Ælius Aristides Theodorus (117-181 CE) was a top-tier sophistic orator. He is more famous nowadays, however, as the best surviving witness to ancient incubation-cult as a lived practice. You see, Ælius had an interminable series of vague illnesses, and spent the best part of ten years moping around the Asklepeion at Pergamon in quest of incubatory dreams from Asklepios and other gods to cure what ailed him. In the process, Asklepios told him to keep a dream diary, and this forms the basis of six extraordinary books entitled the Hieroi Logoi or ‘Sacred Narrations’.

We learn an incredible amount from Ælius about personal religion in the second-century elite Roman thought-world, but we cannot take Ælius’ account at face-value. It is a sophistic production, with all that implies about the truth-value of narrative, representation of events, and so on (see Episode 65 on Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana for apposite comments). In this episode we introduce this extraordinary figure and his works, sample a few selections from the Hieroi Logoi, and deepen our understanding of developments within Hellenistic religions in the Roman second century.

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

[H.L. refers to Hieroi Logoi, or the Sacred Tales. English translations taken from Behr 1981. Divine epiphanies were the subject of many books in antiquity, mostly lost: Petsalis-Diomidis 2015 p. 1 gives a handy list.]

  • Ælius Aristides : The new name Theodorus given him in a dream: H.L. IV 53. A bronze statue erected in his honour in Smyrna, ‘For his goodness and his speeches’: see Behr 1968, 111 n. 64. Asklepios commands him to keep a dream-diary: H.L. II.2. Hieroi Logoi published as part of the Μαντευτοί: see Behr, ed. 1981, vol. II, 223 n. 1. ‘… A deeply neurotic, deeply superstitious, vainglorious man’: Behr 1981 p. 278 n. 1. The Zosimus incident: H.L. I 71 and 77. Other examples of ‘public secrecy’ in Aelius: H.L. II 33; III 48; IV 50. The light from Isis: H.L. III 46. Asklepios-Apollo appears to Ælius and counts how many years he has left to live: H.L. II 18. Aristides stops the earthquakes: H.L. III 38-40. Dream as initiation: H.L. III 48.
  • Antonine Plague: on death-toll, see Dio Cassius, LXXII 14.3–4.
  • Philostratus: Ælius Aristides is the best of the sophists: Vitæ sophistarum II. 9.

    Secondary:

  • A.-J. Festugière. Personal Religion Among the Greeks. University of California Press,
    Berkeley, CA, 1954.
  • Rudolf Otto. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford University Press, London/Oxford/New York,
    NY, 1958. John Harvey, trans.

Recommended Reading:

  • P. Ælius Aristides: The Complete Works, volume II: Orations XVII-LIII. Brill, Leiden,
    1981. Charles A. Behr, trans. [An accessible English translation of the Sacred Tales, which feature as Orations XLVII-LII]
  • Charles A. Behr. Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales. Hakkert, Amsterdam, 1968.
  • C. Habicht, editor. Altertümer von Pergamon VIII,3 Die Inschriften des Asklepeions.
    Berlin, 1969. [Here you will find the many inscriptions and votives dedicated to the haling god from the sanctuary at Pergamon].
  • Lorenzo Miletti. ‘‘I Also Have to Dialogue with Posterity’: Ælius Aristides’ Legacy to
    Late Antiquity’. In Rhetorical Strategies in Late Antique Literature: Images, Metatexts
    and Interpretation, pages 7–25. Brill, Leiden, 2017. [On Ælius’ enthusiastic reception in late antiquity and right through the East Roman Middle Ages].
  • Elpidius Pax. Epiphaneia: ein religionsgeschichtlicher Beitrag zur biblischen Theologie.
    K. Zink, München, 1955. [The old-school go-to work on epiphany].
  • L. Pernot. ‘Les Discours Sacrés de’Aelius Aristide entre médicine, religion et rhét-
    orique’. Atti Accademia Pontaniana, Napoli, pages 369–83, 2002.
  • A. Petsalis-Diomidis. ‘Landscape, Transformation and Divine Epiphany’. In S. Swain,
    S. Harrison, and J. Elsner, editors, Severan Culture, pages 250–89. Cambridge Uni-
    versity Press, Cambridge, 2007.
  • A. Petsalis-Diomidis. Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture. Oxford Uni-
    versity Press, Oxford, 2015.
  • Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis. ‘Truly Beyond Wonders’: Aelius Aristides and the Cult of
    Asklepios. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

Themes

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