Flavius Philostratus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.