1902 Encyclopedia > Philostratus

Greek sophist of the Ancient Roman imperial period
(c. 170 - 247)

PHILOSTRATUS, the eminent Greek sophist, was prob-ably born in Lemnos between 170 and 180 A.D. From his incidental statements respecting himself we learn that he studied at Athens, and was afterwards attached to the court of the empress Julia Domna, consort of Severus. Since he does not speak of her as living, while mentioning her as his patroness in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, this work was probably written after her death. From some passages in it and his Lives of the Sophists, he would seem to have been in Gaul with Caracalla, and he may probably have accompanied that emperor on his progress through his dominions. The only other fixed date we possess for his life is afforded by his dedication of the Lives of the Sophists to Antonius Gordianus as proconsul. Gordianus was consul in 230, and his proconsulship must have been between that year and 234. It seems to be implied that Philostratus resided in Rome, and, according to Suidas, he lived until the reign of Philip (244-249). His works now extant are a biography of Apollonius of Tyana, Lives of the Sophists, Heroicon, Imagines, and Epistles.

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana has been partly discussed under APOLLONIUS. It may be compared to the Cyropxdia of Xenophon as a romance founded on fact, treating of a distinguished historical person, not in an historical spirit, but as an ideal model for imitation. While, however, the incidents of Xenophon's romance were mostly his own invention, Philostratus was indebted for his to the narrative attributed to Damis, Apollonius's travelling companion; and many of the sayings ascribed to Apollonius, such as his bon-mots against Domitian and his protest against gladiatorial combats, are probably authentic. The rest of the work testifies to the increasing fondness of the age for the marvellous, which Lucian had vainly endeavoured to stem in the preceding generation, and to the tendency to set up semi-mythical sages like Pythagoras as prophets, at the expense of sober reasoners like Zeno and Epicurus. Philostratus, however, is careful to disclaim all connexion of his hero with mere vulgar thaumaturgy. The sorcerer, he expressly says, is a miserable person. Apollonius is the sage who foreknows the future not by incantations but by wisdom and conformity to the will of the gods,—a new Pythagoras, the prototype, we can now see, of Apuleius, Plotinus, and the other later Platonists, who, without wholly discarding philosophical method, coquetted with ecstasy and revelation. Philosophy, in truth, had become bank-rupt, physical science did not yet exist, and the best minds of the time were necessarily thrown back on the super-natural. Philostratus gives this tendency of the age a concrete expression, and there is no reason to conceive that his work was composed in any spirit of antagonism to Christianity, whose Founder, equally with Apollonius himself, was venerated by his patron Alexander Severus. Though a mass of fiction, it is still very valuable as de-lineating the ideal of the philosophic character as recog-nized in the 3d century. lie is full of errors in geography and chronology, but possesses great literary merit, being varied, entertaining, animated, and lively and accurate in its pictures of character. Sophisticm eerie artis egregium dedit in hoc libro specimen, says Kayser. The distinction between a philosopher and a sophist is clearly laid down by Philostratus himself in his next important work, the Lives of the Sophists. The philosopher investigates truth independently; the sophist embellishes the truth, which he takes for granted. The distinction is much the same as that between the theologian and the preacher, or the jurist and the advocate. Philostratus, though by no means attempting detailed biography after the fashion of Diogenes Laertius, has given us interesting sketches of a number of distinguished ornaments of the sophistical profession, mostly his immediate predecessors or contemporaries. He thus affords a lively picture of the intellectual standard of an age full of curiosity and intelligence, but unable to make progress in knowledge for want of a scientific method or a scientific spirit, living on old literary models which it was unable to emulate or vary, and hence compelled to prefer show to substance, and manner to matter. The Heroicon is a good specimen of the popular literature of the day. It may have arisen out of Caracalla's visit to Ilion, and the games celebrated by him in honour of Achilles. The subject is the injustice of Homer to Palamedes, which is expounded to a Phoenician merchant by a Thracian vine-dresser on the authority of the latter's tutelary daemon, the hero Protesilaus. It was probably a common theme of declamation in the schools, to which Philostratus has contributed an elegant and graceful setting. The Imagines, after the life of Apollonius the most entertaining of Philo-stratus's writings, is perhaps the most valuable of any from the light it throws on ancient art. The writer is introduced as living in a villa near Naples, which contains a collection of choice paintings. To please the son of his host and his young companions he undertakes to describe and explain the pictures, which are sixty-four in all, includ-ing mythological, historical, allegorical, and landscape sub-jects. The descriptions are exceedingly good, and reveal the skilful word-painter no less than the accomplished
connoisseur of art. As pointed out by M. Bougot, they either actually are or are intended to be taken for impro visations, which explains some irregularities in the style. It has been much disputed whether they are genuine de-scriptions of actually existing works of art. The affirmative has been maintained by Goethe and Welcker, the negative by Heyne. In our days the controversy has been revived by two eminent German archaeologists, Friederichs and Brunn, the former impugning, the latter maintaining the actual existence of the pictures. Their arguments are reviewed in a recent and valuable work by E. Bertrand, who sides with Brunn, as also does Helbig. Perhaps the point is not of such extreme moment, for, if Philostratus had not actual pictures in his mind, he must nevertheless have described such as his hearers or readers were in the habit of seeing. The traces of improvisation, however, pointed out by M. Bougot afford a strong argument that he was lecturing upon a visible collection, and in any case his work is a most valuable guide to the manner in which heroic figures were delineated in ancient paintings, to the general grouping and arrangement of such works, and to the qualities which they were expected to possess. Philo-stratus's Epistles are entirely artificial, and mostly amatory. The style is good, and the originals of some pretty conceits appropriated by modern poets may be found in them.

The first complete edition of the works of Philostratus was pub- lished by F. Morel, Paris, 1608. It is not much esteemed. That by Olearius (Leipsic, 1709) is much better ; but the chief restorer of the text is C. F. Kayser, who, after having edited most of the writings of Philostratus, separately published a collective edition at Zurich in 1814, reissued in 1853, and again at Leipsic in 1870-71. There is a very good edition, with a Latin translation, by Wester- mann (Paris, 1849) ; this also contains Eunapius's Lives of the Sophists and the declamations of Himerius. The first two books of the Life of Apollonius were translated into English by the cele- brated and unfortunate Charles Blount in 1680 ; but the unortho- dox nature of the commentary, attributed in part to Lord Herbert of Cherbury, occasioned the work to be prohibited, and it was not continued. A complete translation by E. Berwick, an Irish clergyman, was published in 1809. A French translation by Chassang (Le Merveilleux dans l'Antiquité, Paris, 1862) contains some valuable notes. The most important works on the Imagines are : Friederichs, Die Philostratisehen Bilder, 1860 ; Brunn, Die Philostratisehen Gemdlde, 1861 ; A. Bougot, Une galerie antique, 1881 ; and E. Bertrand, Un critique d'art dans l'antiquité : Philo- strate et son école, 1882. (R. G.)


797-1 A younger Philostratus, also called the Lemnian, is several times mentioned by the elder as a contemporary sophist. He speaks of him as a friend, but does not say that he was a kinsman. Another and much inferior collection of Imagines is extant under the name of this writer, who claims relationship with the elder Philostratus. It is probably a supposititious work.

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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