Severus (emperor 193–211) and teacher of rhetoric to the two princes, Caracalla and Geta. At some stage Philostratus himself entered the literary circle of the princes’ mother, Julia Domna, and from this position was very close to the center of power, especially in the reign of Caracalla (211–217), when Domna traveled with her son on campaign and had general oversight of his correspondence. Then in 217 Caracalla was murdered and Domna took her own life, and the ascendancy of the Severan house seemed at an end. However, it quickly reasserted itself, first under the eccentric Heliogabalus (218–222) and even more under his cousin Alexander Severus (222–235). Almost nothing is known of Philostratus’s career in this period, but he had probably moved back to Athens to pursue (or to resume) a career as an author and a professor of rhetoric. These final decades may have seen much, perhaps all, of his literary activity, and according to the Byzantine lexicon called the Suda he lived into the reign of Philip the Arab (244–249).
Philostratus is not the only sophist of the period whose writings have survived, but he is one of the best represented both in bulk and variety. It is not certain how many of the works surviving under his name are actually his, but several almost certainly are. The two shortest, On Athletics (Gymnastikos) and On Heroes (Heroikos), were probably written in the 220’s at the earliest, since they mention a famous athlete of the previous decade, the Phoenician Helix (Gymnastikos 46, Heroes 15.8). The work in which he celebrates the major figures of his own calling, The Lives of the Sophists, must be late, and is usually placed in the 230’s, though a case can be made for dating it in the reign of the emperor Gordian (238–244). But his longest work,
and also the one that had the greatest resonance, is the Life of Apollonius of Tyana in eight books. This is certainly later than the death of Julia Domna in 217, and is earlier than the Sophists, though how much earlier cannot be known; a date in the 220’s or 230’s is likely.Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius
Philostratus may have entitled the work On Apollonius of Tyana,1 but in general form and structure it is a biography, and far the longest that survives from antiquity. It is divided into eight books, with the first and last four forming subunits. The first tetrad is largely taken up with Apollonius’s visit to the Wise Men of India, and ends with his visit to Rome and his confrontation with the tyranny of Nero. The second tetrad is more varied. It includes a visit to Ethiopia, where the local sages (whom Philostratus does not call “philosophers” or “sophists” but only “the Naked Ones”) prove to be petty and pretentious, the counterpart to the Wise Men of India. The longest episode, however, occupying all of Book VII and most of VIII, is Apollonius’s trial before the emperor Domitian, from which he emerges unscathed. This part, too, therefore forms a foil to Apollonius’s dealings with the ministers of Nero in Book IV.
It is natural to wonder what materials Philostratus had for so extensive a biography, especially one that took its hero into regions far from the observation of the Roman