Flavius Philostratus Essay - Critical Essays

Flavius Philostratus


Flavius Philostratus c. 179 (?)-c. 244-49

(Full name Lucius Flavius Philostratus) Greek philosopher and biographer.

Known as one of the leading sophists, or popular philosopher-orators, of his time, Philostratus was an important member of the Roman imperial court. He is best remembered as the author of two works, a collection of biographies titled Vitae Sophistarum (1921; The Lives of the Sophists) and Vita Apollonii (1809; Life of Apollonius of Tyana), the life of a charismatic miracle worker. Although neither work is well regarded among classicists, most scholars agree that Philostratus's texts offer important information about the history of ancient rhetoric, and that his biography of Apollonius is one of the best historical sources available about the first-century sage. Not much is known about Philostratus's other writings, mostly because his father, son-in-law, and grandson—all named Philostratus as well—were also well-known authors, making it difficult to say precisely which Philostratus was responsible for what work. While authorship of several works remains disputed, other texts most likely written by Philostratus include Gymnasticus, an essay on sport (written after 220), the Heroikos, a dialogue on the heroes of the Trojan War (date unknown), Imagines [1931; Imagines], a description of thirty-four paintings on mythological themes (date unknown), and several collections of letters.

Biographical Information

Not much is known about Philostratus's life—most of the information available has been culled from his own writings, but because the authorship of most of these texts continues to be disputed, the details of his life are difficult to confirm. Philostratus was probably born around the year 179 on the Greek island of Lemnos and spent at least part of his youth there. His father, also a sophist, sent him to Athens as a young man to study rhetoric under Proclus of Naucratis. His other teachers included Damianus of Ephesus and Antipater of Hierapolis. Philostratus began his career as a sophist after completing his education and when, between 203 and 208, he was introduced by Antipater into the court of the Emperor Septimius Severus. The Emperor's wife, Julia Domna, was Philostratus's patron until 217.

When Septimius Severus went to Britain to fight against the Picts, Philostratus accompanied the royal family and he remained at the court even after the Emperor died during the war. He continued to travel with the royal family, and at one point visited Tyana (in modern Turkey), where a temple was dedicated to the charismatic teacher Apollonius. Scholars speculate that it was during this trip that Julia Domna commissioned the Life of Apollonius. Philostratus also spent some time in Antioch, although it is unknown when, where he met the future Emperor Gordian. Lives of the Sophists is dedicated to him. Little information is available about Philostratus in the years immediately following Julia Domna's death in 217. He may have spent some time in the Phoenician city of Tyre and then returned to Athens, where he was associated with the leading cultural and political circles of Greece. He published his two major works at this time. A statue was erected in his honor in Olympia before his death, which probably occurred between 244 and 249.

Major Works

Although several works have been attributed to Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana and Lives of the Sophists are the only two texts that were unquestionably composed by him. Critical commentary in English has therefore concentrated on these two works, although there has been some discussion of the Heroikos by scholars who view the treatise as his. In addition to being a biography of the first-century teacher, Life of Apollonius is also a travel romance and novel that highlights the divine powers of the sage. In the work Philostratus quotes Apollonius's disciple Damis. While there is some discussion among scholars about the existence of the notebooks of Damis, most classicists agree that “Damis” is a fictional figure, a literary device used by Philostratus to lend authenticity to his account. Philostratus's other major work, Lives of the Sophists, is a collection of essays on famous sophists of the second and third centuries. In these biographies, Philostratus expostulates on the technical capacities of his subjects and includes personal anecdotes from their lives. Philostratus distinguishes two ages of the art of speaking, the “first sophistic,” founded in the fifth century by Gorgias, and the “second sophistic,” founded by Aeschines in the fourth century While classical scholars do not regard these sketches as works of high literary merit, they are considered an invaluable source of information about the state of rhetorical speaking at a time when it was a high art and when its practitioners, the sophists, were some of the most popular, wealthy, and influential men in Greece. The Heroikos, a text that is sometimes ascribed to Philostratus, is a dialogue about the cult of the mythical hero Protesilaos. In this work a Phoenician merchant and a vine-grower discuss the reality of heroes and giants before talking about Protesilaos himself, whom the vine-grower believes is real. The work has been discussed by several scholars in relation to ancient attitudes toward heroes.

Critical Reception

The importance of Apollonius of Tyana and Lives of the Sophists as historical sources have preserved continuing interest in Philostratus since ancient times. Although much of the debate surrounding these texts is focused on issues of authorship, modern critics writing about Philostratus have tended to examine the authenticity of Apollonius of Tyana as a biography, examining the extent to which the work can be considered fictional or historical. Other areas of critical interest include study of the attitude toward magic and heroes as displayed in the work. Discussions of the Lives of the Sophists have concentrated on the differences between Philostratus's depictions of the sophists and those of other ancients; the accuracy of the biographies; the sources used by Philostratus; the author's attitudes toward politics and philosophy; and the idea of the “sophistic” used in the work. Although questions of accuracy are central to most discussions of Philostratus's work, it continues to be regarded as the best source of historical information available on his subjects.

Principal Works

Vita Apollonii [Life of Apollonius of Tyana] (biography) c. 217

Vitae Sophistarum [Lives of the Sophists] (biographies) c. 231–37

Erotic Epistles (fictional letters) date unknown

Gymnasticus (essay) date unknown

Heroikos [Heroicus, On the Heroes] (dialogue) date unknown

Imagines. 2 vols. (art criticism) date unknown

On Nature and Law (essay) date unknown

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (translated by Edward Berwick) 1809

Philostratus and Eunapinius; Lives of the Sophists (translated by Wilmer Cave Wright) 1921

Imagines (translated by Arthur Fairbanks) 1931


F. C. Conybeare (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: Conybeare, F. C. “Introduction.” In The Life of Apollonius of Tyana: The Epistles of Apollonius and the Treatise of Eusebius, by Philostratus, translated by F. C. Conybeare, pp. vii-xvii. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912.

[In the following essay, an introduction to his translation of Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Conybeare summarizes the work and evaluates the veracity of Philostratus's account.]

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana has only been once translated in its entirety into English, as long ago as the year 1811, by an Irish clergyman of the name of E. Berwick. It is to be hoped therefore that the present...

(The entire section is 2342 words.)

Wilmer Cave Wright (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: Wright, Wilmer Cave. “Introduction.” In The Lives of the Sophists, by Philostratus and Eunapius, translated by Wilmer Cave Wright, pp. ix-xli. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1921, Wright offers an overview of Philostratus's Lives of the Sophists, discussing the date of composition, its style and content, as well as including summaries on several sophists who were overlooked by Philostratus in his treatise.]

The island Lemnos was the ancestral home of the Philostrati, a family in which the profession of sophist was hereditary in the second and third Christian centuries. Of the works...

(The entire section is 9266 words.)

G. W. Bowersock (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Bowersock, G. W. “The Biographer of the Sophists.” In Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire, pp. 1-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Bowersock discusses Philostratus's notion of the “sophistic,” characterizing his writing as a “reliable evocation of a grand baroque age.”]

Literature, illuminating the society of an age through acquiescence or dissent, must always have its place in history as a reflection of attitudes and taste. The relation of literature to politics, however, has not been uniform throughout the ages; from time to time there have developed close alliances between literature and politics,—in England,...

(The entire section is 7643 words.)

C. P. Jones (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Jones, C. P. “The Reliability of Philostratus.” In Approaches to the Second Sophistic: Papers Presented at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association, edited by G. W. Bowersock, pp. 11-16. University Park, Pa.: The American Philological Association, 1974.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the reliability of Philostratus's account of the second sophistic, comparing it to other sources from the time, and contends that the value of Philostratus's text lies in the individual details preserved by the sophist, rather than the manner in which he presents them.]

Philostratus' Lives of the Sophists are the principal source for the...

(The entire section is 3125 words.)

Ewen Lyall Bowie (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Bowie, Ewen Lyall. “Apollonius of Tyana: Tradition and Reality.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt 2, no. 16, 2 (1978): 1652-71.

[In the following excerpt, Bowie asserts that although Philostratus's work is a primary source of information on Apollonius of Tyana, the writer altered and amplified the subject of his biography, and therefore, the information contained in this text must be studied with discrimination.]

Modern accounts of Apollonius of Tyana are necessarily dominated by the biographic work of Philostratus1. Earlier independent testimony is exiguous, and much of the later tradition in antiquity betrays the influence of his...

(The entire section is 12296 words.)

Simon Swain (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Swain, Simon. “The Reliability of Philostratus's The Lives of the Sophists.” Classical Antiquity 1, no. 2 (1991): 148-63.

[In the following essay, Swain provides a summary of the sources Philostratus used in compiling his Lives of the Sophists, and how he interpreted and presented the information available to him.]

For those interested in investigating the Greek society and culture of the first three centuries a.d. Philostratus's record of sophistic activity in the Lives of the Sophists (VS) is unavoidable. There have been a number of important treatments of the Lives, including most recently a useful commentary on those...

(The entire section is 8123 words.)

Jaap-Jan Flinterman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Flinterman, Jaap-Jan. “The Writer.” In Power, Paideia & Pythagoreanism: Greek Identity, Conceptions of the Relationship between Philosophers and Monarchs and Political Ideas in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius, pp. 29-51. Amsterdam, Netherlands: J. C. Gieben, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Flinterman summarizes the preface and introduction to Philostratus's The Lives of the Sophists, discussing the author's attitude toward the sophists and various Greek literary and political issues, and finally, challenges scholarly analyses that claim Philostratus did not identify with his fellow sophists.]

The Suda (Φ 421) calls the author of...

(The entire section is 14863 words.)

Jaap-Jan Flinterman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Flinterman, Jaap-Jan. “The Main Character.” In Power, Paideia & Pythagoreanism: Greek Identity, Conceptions of the Relationship between Philosophers and Monarchs and Political Ideas in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius, pp. 60-66. Amsterdam, Netherlands: J. C. Gieben, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Flinterman discusses Apollonius of Tyana, examining the ontological status of the main character, and expounding on Philostratus's attitude toward magic and his hero.]

At numerous points in his work Philostratus explicitly states his intention of offering his readers a view of Apollonius which deviates from current opinion; in fact, it is at...

(The entire section is 5568 words.)

James A. Francis (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Francis, James A. “Truthful Fiction: New Questions to Old Answers on Philostratus's Life of Apollonius.” American Journal of Philology 19, no. 3 (1998): 419-41.

[In the following essay, Francis critiques the assumptions and methods of scholarship often applied to Apollonius of Tyana, theorizing that new ideas about the nature of history and ancient fiction have opened up unexplored avenues for research into the text.]

Within the past twenty years four extensive works have appeared treating Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana (VA) from various literary, historical, and cultural perspectives. These include E. L. Bowie's...

(The entire section is 9083 words.)

Christopher Jones (essay date October 2000)

SOURCE: Jones, Christopher. “The Emperor and the Giant.” Classical Philology 95, no. 4 (October 2000): 476-81.

[In the following essay, Jones argues that a passage from Philostratus's Heroikos can help identify an emperor mentioned in a treatise by Pausanias; the critic claims that the man described is in fact Lucius Verus.]

A passage of the periegete Pausanias mentions an “emperor (βασιλεύs) of the Romans” who discovered, or caused to be discovered, the bones of a giant in the bed of the river Orontes. Though the identification of the emperor has been discussed inconclusively for well over a century, it involves the history and topography of...

(The entire section is 2781 words.)

D. Thomas Benediktson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Benediktson, D. Thomas. “Phantasia: Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Other Romans, Dio Chrsysostom, and Philostratus.” In Power, Literature and Visual Arts in Ancient Greece and Rome, pp. 185-88. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Benediktson explores Philostratus's ideas on the relationship between literature and the visual arts as they are expressed in Apollonius of Tyana.]

The traditions of Plato, Cicero and Dio come together in Philostratus, the author of the Life of Apollonius of Tyana. … Along with his relative of the same name, who wrote the Imagines, Philostratus has received a great...

(The entire section is 1404 words.)

Christopher P. Jones (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Jones, Christopher P. “Philostratus' Heroikos and Its Setting in Reality.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 21 (2001): 141-49.

[In the following essay, Jones examines the social and historical background of the events described in the Heroikos, first summarizing the work and then focusing on the date of composition, geographical setting, and the views expressed in it regarding heroes.]

As recently as 1987, the dialogue Heroikos (On the Heroes), usually attributed to Philostratus ‘the Athenian’ or ‘the Younger’, was ‘more often dismissed than discussed’. Since then the situation has changed. An Italian translation with...

(The entire section is 5792 words.)

Further Reading


Francis, James A. Apollonius of Tyana: The Rehabilitated Ascetic. In Power, Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World, pp. 83-189. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995.

Claims that with his biography of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus rehabilitates the ascetic Pythagorian philosopher into a model of classical ideals and social order, thereby admitting him into the literature and society of the cultured classes.

Raynor, D. H. “Moeragenes and Philostratus: Two Views of Apollonius of Tyana.” The Classical Quarterly 34, 1 (1984): 222-26.

Considers why...

(The entire section is 105 words.)