"I stood for a moment on the scent, smelling this shrill and blood-raw music, signifying the atmosphere of the hall angrily, and hankering after it a little too. One half of this music, the melody, was all pomade and sugar and sentimentality. The other half was savage, temperamental and vigorous. Yet the two went artlessly well together and made whole. It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors." – Hermann Hess, Steppenwolf
Apollonius of Tyana is a mysterious marginal figure in the history of the classical world, and is only known to us in any detail because of the chance survival of a lengthy and highly anecdotal book written by the Greek Sophist Philostratus the Elder (c. 170 – 247AD).
Despite this obscurity, there is something fascinating about Apollonius. Like the last late pagan emperor Julian (361-3), whose unlucky death closed so many doors, he represents an alternative dynamic of the Roman Empire, one that could have avoided the political dead end that Christianity proved to be. His legend casts a wan light over the ruins of that great empire, and points to some of the clues of its demise.
Apollonius represents a half-despairing hope of overhauling the religious institutions of an Empire that was slowly unravelling, and of halting the spiritual crisis of classical paganism. With his disciples and popularity in places such as Sparta and Alexandria, as well as his posthumous legacy – of which Philostratus’s book is the main evidence – it seems possible to talk about such a thing as an Apollonian tendency, a cult of Apollonius, or even “Apollonianism” – a spiritual ideology or revivalist tendency, if not quite a religion.
| Julian, the last pagan |
Further proof comes from the polemic by Eusebius, an important Christian bishop in the early fourth century, who criticized Sossianus Hierocles, an anti-Christian governor, who saw the cult of Apollonius as a possible alternative to the fast-growing Christian religion, during the reign of Diocletian (284-305).
The last flicker of paganism in the Roman Empire before the lights went out for good, the short reign of the Emperor Julian (361-3), had much of the same grim revivalist spirit so typical of Apollonius, although Julian is usually described as a Neo-Platonist, rather than a Neo-Pythagorean, like Apollonius.
If we take Philostratus’s book as the flawed but representative text of this “Apollonian creed,” we see that the emphasis is, firstly, on critiquing the general decadence of the times, and, secondly, on reforming the rites of individual temples on a one-by-one basis.
For Apollonius, there is no sweeping dogma, but instead a careful rebalancing of specific cultic centres within their regional and historical contexts. From the Sage’s itinerant life, we get a clear sense of how much regional diversity continued to underlie Roman imperial unity and political centralization. This centralizing tendency actually increased in the late Empire, despite the tactical divisions of the Tetrarchy introduced by the Emperor Diocletian to improve defensive flexibility.
The Apollonian emphasis on critiquing and reforming can sometimes read like ill-tempered “nag notes,” the spiritual and religious equivalent of “please put the milk back in the fridge” and “don’t forget to lift up the toilet seat.” Two examples:
"It is no use decorating your city with statues and elaborate pictures and promenades and theatres, unless there is good sense there as well and law. For although good sense and law may accompany these, they are not the same thing." Epistle XXXII – To the Scribes of the Ephesians.
"I have seen your men without any beards, with their thighs and legs smooth and white, clad in soft tunics and light, their fingers covered with rings, and their necks bedizened with necklaces, and shod with shoes of Ionic style. I did not therefore recognize your so-called envoys, though your epistle spoke of them as Lacedaemonians." Epistle LXIII – To the Ephors and the LacedaemoniansBut, just how did Apollonius intend to reform the rituals of the pagan empire? As a Pythagorean, a salient feature was his vegetarianism and abhorrence of blood sacrifice, something he sought to promote by gentle persuasion rather than dictate. Another concern was purification, understood in a general sense. Many temples had blurred the line between the secular and the religious. Just as Jesus had turned the money lenders out of the Temple, re-establishing this division was important, as shown by his letter to the “Ephesians who frequented the temple of Diana” (Epistle LXV), where he calls the temple a “den of robbers.”
What Apollonius stood for was simplicity and purity, and a process of rarefaction of religious rites; in short an ascetic, puritan paganism. The implied belief is that the spiritual experience comes from a deprivation of the senses rather than an indulgence of them.
Read the full essay in Aristokratia III: Hellas available at Amazon.com