During the first century A.D. the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea comprised the known Western world, where the Roman empire stretched its tentacles over all inhabited areas. It was a crucial time in our own history, for it set the stage for the ensuing dark ages, which were to draw a curtain of obfuscation over the human spirit. In this downward cycle only the strongest maintained an integrity of soul that would perpetuate enduring values, and there were born and lived a few outstanding figures whose light would inspire and hearten many future generations.
One such individual was Apollonius of Tyana, whose life became a vital inspiration to the people of many lands. He is believed to have been born in the year 4 or 3 B.C. and to have lived for a century, though the year and place of his death are uncertain; like Gautama the Buddha he is said to have continued to teach after his passing. It is curious that the numerous historians who make mention of Apollonius's remarkable career totally ignore his fabled contemporary, Jesus. The latter appears only later in writings by Christian partisans, many of whom took pains to denigrate the Tyanean, as though by discrediting one spiritual teacher the other would gain in stature. There are, moreover, strong indications that both Apollonius and Jesus (whoever may have served as a type-figure for the story of this Messiah) belong to the hierarchy of light-bringers who appear at periodic intervals to instruct mankind by precept and example.
Certain recognized symbols common to both, as well as to other great teachers, constitute a sort of code, which signals that the account refers to an initiate in wisdom. It is stated, for instance, that Apollonius's mother received the annunciation by a god, Proteus, that he was to be born from her. The story goes that when the time arrived, she fell asleep in a meadow where she had been picking flowers. A flock of swans formed a circle about her and "cried out aloud all at once, . . . " whereupon she awoke and gave birth. Simultaneously, a thunderbolt descended from heaven and rose once more into the sky. These prodigies said to surround the birth of Apollonius, son of god and mortal, as well as his subsequent life and teaching, announce him as one in the line of mankind's spiritual guides. Under many names, Proteus constitutes the noblest ideal cherished by human hearts, and takes many forms. It is a force that abides, a silent sentinel, within earth's sanctuaries, embodying through worthy envoys who, by teaching and example, ignite minds able and ready to receive illumination. Of this benign power are born the saviors who seek, time and again, to rouse the spirit of man from its recurring torpor.
We are indebted to Flavius Philostratus for a detailed biography of Apollonius. Philostratus was a noted scholar, a connoisseur of the arts, and one of the literati who surrounded the studious and intelligent Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 193 until 211 A.D. This couple and their son Caracalla were devoted students of philosophy (as emperor, Caracalla belied this early training), and it was Julia who commissioned Philostratus to rewrite and edit the reputedly somewhat "awkward" account of Apollonius's life which had been recorded by Damis of Nineveh, his faithful disciple and constant companion. Julia's father, Bassianus, had been Priest of the Sun at Emesa, Syria, and his daughter had gathered an impressive collection of books and manuscripts relating to philosophy and to famous exponents of occult teachings. She was able to furnish reference material for the project, including letters written by Apollonius which had been preserved at Antioch by Hadrian (emperor, 117-I38 A.D.). Philostratus also visited many of the places traversed by the Tyanean in order to confirm his facts and, if possible, discover where the sage had died. Many later writings on the life of Apollonius stem from Philostratus's account, of which numerous translations exist.
In view of the allegoric content one is tempted to wonder whether Damis's writing really was so inept, or whether his use of the classic Mystery-language was in fact too revealing, in which case Julia, who undoubtedly was familiar with the technique of concealing more profound facts beneath other, secular information, may have taken the precaution to have it re-recorded by an intelligent lay scholar, in order to safeguard from desecration matters which were better left unexplained. This point remains moot.
At the age of fourteen Apollonius entered the temple of Aesculapius at Aegae, where he became knowledgeable in the art of healing, the temple being what we would call a hospital. He received the teachings of Pythagoras from Euxenus, whose personal life style was, however, Epicurean rather than Pythagorean. Nonetheless, the youth respected his teacher whose tutelage he soon outgrew and, characteristically, persuaded his father to provide Euxenus with a comfortable villa for his retirement before taking leave of him, for Apollonius came of a wealthy and respected family. Enthusiastically embracing the discipline of the Pythagorean school, Apollonius distributed his patrimony among his family and the poor, retaining only a pittance for his own modest needs, and embarked on a five- (some say four-) year period of silence. He donned the linen garb of a philosopher and traveled through Pamphylia and Cilicia attempting, wherever he went, to ameliorate local conditions. He was often sorely tempted to break his vow of silence and succumb to the overwhelming desire to speak. Jibes and quips concerning his dress and habits disturbed him very little, but he was hampered in his humanitarian efforts to remedy difficulties for communities and individuals, and had sometimes to resort to writing his recommendations.
In Nineveh he became acquainted with Damis, who attached himself to the master with the words, "Let us depart, Apollonius, you following God, and I you." The travelers visited Vardan, king of Babylon, and succeeded in converting him from a life of profligacy to that of a philosopher. Thereafter Apollonius spent several years among the Arabs and was evidently received into mystic brotherhoods in the area south of Palestine, for in their travels among nomadic tribes Apollonius is credited by Damis with learning from them to understand the language of birds, which faculty Damis imputes to their having partaken of the heart or liver of snakes and dragons. He also speaks of marvels encountered in their travels, such as the legendary unicorn. All this is clearly symbolic, indicating that Apollonius (who never in his life tasted meat) had received esoteric instruction among the "serpents" -- initiates -- inhabiting the region; the identical expression is used for the same concept from India to Iceland: partaking of the dragon's heart enables one to understand birdsong, i.e., to know the secrets of nature.
They traversed the Hindu Kush Mountains to reach India. Little is known of what really took place among the Brahmans and Buddhists whom Apollonius sought as his teachers and of whom he later said: "I saw Indian Brahmans living upon the earth and yet not on it, and fortified without fortifications, and possessing nothing, yet having the riches of all men." That he received instruction from them is certain. He left his traveling companions at some little distance from the sacred precincts and entered alone. It seems probable that he spent several years under their guidance and training, whether in India or Tibet; he was later to say, "I ever remember my masters, and journey through the world teaching what I have learned from them." While no hint appears that Damis partook of any such privilege but remained ever faithfully in the background, it is apparent that he was a trusted and devoted disciple and the recipient of many a crumb from the master's table. Jesus had a favorite disciple in John, Buddha had his Ananda; Damis remained the loyal servant of Apollonius until the end.
The Tyanean and eight disciples spent some time in Rome during the reign of Nero, who is believed to have persecuted all philosophers, yet the little group appears to have been not only unharmed, but Apollonius was given a free hand by Nero's consul Telesimus to reform the temple practices, whether with or without the emperor's knowledge. As a result of his ministry, there was a marked revival of religious devotion; people flocked to hear him speak of sacred matters. His friend Demetrius, however, for inveighing against the hot baths by which people "enfeebled and polluted themselves," was banished from Rome. His comment, which was probably hygienically accurate, stirred up suspicion against philosophers in general, so that Apollonius was thereafter kept under constant surveillance. Upon the fulfillment of a rather ambiguous prophecy he had made, he was brought to trial, accused by the powerful Tigellinus who appeared as prosecutor bearing a voluminous scroll of charges. This he brandished triumphantly and, opening it with a flourish, discovered the scroll to be entirely blank. Apollonius was free. He forthwith embarked for Spain and the Pillars of Hercules where, at Gadir (Cadiz) he deciphered an inscription which until then had defied interpretation. He also became acquainted with the ocean tides, which he attributed in part to the breathing of the spirit of the earth, in part to the phases and motions of the moon.
Three emperors followed Nero within the space of one year, whereafter Vespasian, encouraged by Apollonius whom he consulted in Egypt, assumed the power in 70 A.D. Vespasian proved a reasonable ruler, but he rescinded the freedom Nero had bestowed upon Greece and was for this severely taken to task by Apollonius in a series of bluntly worded letters. He was succeeded in 79 A.D. by his son Titus, who proved an exemplary monarch for two years whereafter he was poisoned by his brother Domitian who coveted the throne.
Apollonius traveled with Damis and several other disciples throughout the empire. They visited Babylon, then Ninus, Antioch, Seleucia, Cyprus, Ephesus and Smyrna, Pergamon and Troy, Lesbos and Athens; everywhere Apollonius instructed the temple priests and sought to purify the rituals and restore meaning and inspiration to the religious practices which had sorely decayed with the vulgarization of the Mysteries, and even descended to animal sacrifices. At Eleusis, people attached themselves to Apollonius, neglecting the rites for which they had gathered, whereupon he "urged them to attend at once to the rites of religion, for that he himself would be initiated." By way of example, he then sought initiation for himself but was refused on the grounds that he was reputed to be "a wizard and a charlatan." Apollonius rejoined:
"You have not yet mentioned the chief of my offence, which is that knowing, as I do, more about the initiatory rite than you do yourself, I have nevertheless come for initiation to you, as if you were wiser than I am." The bystanders applauded these words, . . . thereupon the hierophants since he saw that his exclusion of Apollonius was not by any means popular with the crowd, changed his tone and said: "Be thou initiated, for thou seemest to be some wise man that has come here." But Apollonius replied: I will be initiated at another time, and it is so and so," mentioning a name, "who will initiate me."
His prophecy was fulfilled after four years. The episode reveals how inadequately the hierophant filled his sacred office, while the rite had become so degraded that what formerly had been a profoundly transforming experience was now for many a candidate no more than a perfunctory sacrament; however, to one of Apollonius's stature it was an ordeal not to be undertaken lightly.
Apollonius had his Judas in the form of one Euphrates, a counselor of Vespasian whom the sage had originally recommended to the emperor. The subtlety of this relationship causes it to be easily overlooked, yet it is a vital element of the Mystery-tale, a necessary ingredient in nature's balance of forces. Euphrates was a venal sycophant who, fearing for his standing with the emperor and its emoluments, went to great lengths to try to destroy the one man who could readily see through his machinations. Had he but known it, his precautions were needless. Apollonius knew too well the part he must needs play.
When Euphrates learned of Apollonius's intention to visit the Gymnosophists who dwelt by the upper reaches of the Nile, he sent a messenger who "filled these naked sages here with suspicion of Apollonius, to the end that whenever he came here they might flout him," according to the account given to Damis by one of them. The matter was soon cleared up and the Tyanean made welcome. However, they spoke slightingly of the wisdom of Pythagoras and the wise men of India, extolling their own method of philosophy above all others, whereupon Apollonius demonstrated that their wisdom was in fact sprung from the sources they belittled, and he added: "In defence of myself I do not mean to say anything, for I am content to be what the Indians think me; but I will not allow them to be attacked."
With Domitian began a reign of terror for philosophers, but Apollonius "took his stand against the tyrant in behalf of the welfare of the subjects, with the same spirit and purpose as he had taken his stand against Nero." He could foresee the dawning of a better age in the coming century, for during a public lecture at Smyrna, he addressed a statue of the emperor: "Thou fool, how much art thou mistaken in thy views of Destiny and Fate. For even if thou shouldst slay the man who is fated to be despot after thyself, he shall come to life again." Euphrates saw to it that Domitian was apprised of these words, and the order was issued to arrest Apollonius and bring him to Rome for trial. Anticipating the summons, the latter was already on his way toward Rome to confront the emperor. In view of later events, one wonders whether the prisoner brought before Domitian was indeed Apollonius in the flesh or whether an "appearance" of him -- a projection of his illusory form by an Adept -- suffered imprisonment and trial, while the Tyanean pursued his work elsewhere. Be that as it may, the sage, while awaiting trial, devoted himself to consoling and encouraging other prisoners. On one of his visits, the faithful Damis bemoaned the fact that his beloved master was shackled like a common criminal, whereupon Apollonius calmly withdrew his foot from the leg-iron to show his pupil the futility of the bonds.
First Domitian tried, with the aid of agents provocateurs, to entrap Apollonius into some compromising statement concerning the philosophers Nerva, Orphitus, and Rufus, any one of whom might have been intended by the remark addressed to the statue in Smyrna. Nerva was confined to Tarentum; the other two were exiled on separate islands. Failing to incriminate them or Apollonius, Domitian accused him of wizardry but, finding it more and more difficult to justify his predetermined verdict, he reluctantly acquitted the sage of all charges, demanding, however, a private interview. To this Apollonius retorted, "Accord me also, if you will, opportunity to speak; but if not, then send some one to take my body, for my soul you cannot take. Nay you cannot take even my body, 'For thou shalt not slay me, since I tell thee I am not mortal' (Iliad, 22, 13]. And with these words he vanished from the court, which was the best thing he could do under the circumstances, . . ." in the words of Philostratus.
Philostratus credits Apollonius with foreseeing that Nerva, as the next emperor, would inaugurate a minor golden age of philosophy in the Roman empire, as indeed he did. On numerous occasions Apollonius had in fact made startling disclosures of events taking place at a distance or forewarned of coming dangers, such as a plague at Ephesus. At his trial he gave a partial explanation of this in terms the emperor could understand, saving: "I used, O my sovereign, a lighter diet than others, and so I was the first to be sensible of the danger; and, if you like, I will enumerate the causes of pestilences." Domitian rapididly cut him short, possibly fearing a revelation of some matter weighing on his conscience.
Upon his release, Apollonius journeyed to Lebadea, to the Oracle of Trophomus, one of the most sacred and closely guarded of the Mystery-centers. Protected from public curiosity by a blend of awe and superstition, it was held to be guarded by serpents that must be appeased with honeycakes -- both familiar expressions in the language of symbology. Pausanias gives a detailed account of the building of a fourth (stone) temple in a series of five by Trophonius and his brother Agamedes, in terms that leave no doubt of the esoteric import of every detail; implicit in the narrative are such recondite teachings as the characteristics distinguishing each successive wave of humanity, recognized symbolism pertaining to the healing arts, instruction in the Mysteries and the transforming processes involving memory and forgetfulness. Here too Apollonius was at first denied admission, until Trophonius "appeared to the priests and not only rebuked them for the reception they had given Apollonius, but enjoined them all to follow him to Aulis, for he said it was there that he would come to the surface in such a marvellous fashion as no man before." When Apollonius did in fact emerge seven days later at the predicted place, enriched with his experience within the sacred caves, he bore with him also the oracle's tangible response to his quest for truth -- a volume containing the teachings of Pythagoras. According to Philostratus, this book was preserved with the sage's letters in Hadrian's palace.
It must strike one as curious that two spiritual preceptors traditionally placed in the first century of our reckoning have been so differently regarded: one, the Christian avatara, of whom nothing is personally known, to whom there are no direct contemporary references whatsoever, and for whose physical incarnation there is no evidence, has exerted an influence lasting to our own time; the other, Apollonius, a personage well known and revered for his purity and wisdom, whose life has been documented from birth to death, and who in his own age taught and influenced for the better emperors and kings, priests, philosophers, and common people in all countries surrounding the Mediterranean, remains a shadowy figure known mainly to scholars and historians. Yet both share the distinction of serving as channels for the source of inspiration and universal wisdom that is ever ready to pervade the thought-life of mankind, relaying from the fount of truth such noble impulsion as might help further the evolutionary progress of the human race. There is no doubt that but for these elevating influences their own age and succeeding centuries would have been even more rigorous than they were during the plunging cycle that was inevitably due. The inspiration of their lives and of all such spiritual light-bringers who seek to rouse mankind from the lethargy of materialism, stems from that same Protean source which permeates the deeper reaches of man's noblest thought.
(From Sunrise magazine, January 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu