Chapter 21: The Pagan’s Tale
I check with Melchom to get the name of a good demon archaeologist and teleport to the University of California, Berkeley office of Assistant Professor of Classical Studies, Regis Snively.
Thirtyish, skinny and unprepossessing, Snively is initially indignant.
“I don’t give a shit about Apollonius. I think Philostratus just made him up.”
“What if I told you where to find the original Damis manuscript?”
Snively’s eyes widen. “You can do that? And it’s authentic.”
“Not only is it authentic but it is buried in a genuine monument to the memory of Apollonius (he had no grave, as you know) which you will uncover to the astonishment of your colleagues and the praises of the world. Not only will this guarantee you tenure here, it will undoubtedly garner you an endowed chair at Harvard.”
Never has greed looked so good on a man as it does on the rodent-like face of the good professor.
You know most of the rest. Snively took off immediately for the site in Turkey I told him about and within a week excavated the Apollonius shrine and uncovered the Damis manuscript, causing a worldwide sensation.
Unlike the gospels, written many years after the death of Jesus, and in many instances mutually contradictory, here was an account of a pagan equivalent to Christ written by one who was his intimate companion. At my direction, Snively instantly sent off a universally distributed email summary of his forthcoming book on Apollonius, which caused the immediate creation of seven hundred and seventy-one branches of the Reformed Pagan Church, seven hundred and three of them, naturally, in America.
The revolutionary email, written in Snivelyesque acadamese is as follows:
The early centuries of the Christian era can, without fear of exaggeration, be called an age of miracles. The sturdy, traditional religion of the Roman Republic gave way to the religious syncretism of the Roman Empire. Cults based upon esoteric religious mysteries flourished: the cult of the Great Mother, the worship of Isis, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, the worship of Baal, Atargatis, Azziz, and a hundred others.
The single common characteristic shared by all of these cults was a belief in the miraculous; priests, shamans, magicians, wonder-workers of all varieties plied their trades throughout the broad expanse of the Empire, sowing the seeds of magic in all but the most skeptical minds. The names of many of these magicians are lost to us; for the most part their fame barely survived their own lifetimes. There was one man, however, whose reputation remained undimmed until Christianity achieved religious hegemony in the Roman world, a man to whom the emperor Hadrian dedicated a temple, a man whose image was included in the pantheon of the eclectic emperor, Alexander Severus, a man who was regarded by such early Fathers of the Church as Lactantius as a pagan rival to Jesus himself, Apollonius of Tyana.
Apollonius was born at Tyana, a Greek city in Asia Minor, sometime in the early years of the first century. Many legends surround his birth, one of which relates that his mother, during her pregnancy, had a vision of Proteus, the god of metamorphoses, who told her that the forthcoming child would be his incarnation. As Philostratus remarks, this legend is particularly apt, for Proteus was endowed with the ability to read minds and to foresee the future, abilities with which, as we shall see, legend also endowed Apollonius.
Like his better-known contemporary, Jesus, Apollonius was a child prodigy. At the age of fourteen, he went to Tarsus to study under the rhetorician, Euthydemus. Disgusted by Tarsus’ sybaritic citizens, Apollonius journeyed to Alexandria where he lived at a temple dedicated to Aesculapius and discussed philosophy with representatives of all the philosophical schools. The philosophy which most attracted him was that of Pythagoras, even though the Pythagorean master at Alexandria, Euxenus, had little understanding of the doctrines which Pythagoras had taught and merely repeated teachings that he had memorized by rote. Nevertheless, Apollonius learned all he could from Euxenus, until, when he was sixteen, he bought his teacher a villa and bade goodbye to him, saying, “Live here after your own fashion, but I will live like Pythagoras.”
True to his word, Apollonius became a vegetarian, discarded animal clothing, wore only a simple linen robe, and allowed his hair to grow long, after the fashion of Pythagoras, the “long-haired Samian,” as Iamblichus calls him. Apollonius then set himself up in the temple and became known for his wisdom and his remarkable ability to cure illness. The activities of Apollonius in the temple of Aesculapius inspired the saying, still current some two hundred years after his death: “Where are you running? To see the lad?”
Apollonius became a student of the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher, Philo. There he met the young Jewish Rabbi, Jesus. The two soon became fast friends and, upon completion of their studies, vowed to preach their shared views of theurgical philosophy before the multitudes, Jesus adopting the ascetic life of the Cynic philosophers and going out among the Jews, Apollonius following the practices of the Pyhagoreans and preaching to the Gentiles.
Apollonius was remarkable not only for his wisdom, but for his beauty. Even as a youth he possessed a noble and lofty appearance, tall and straight with the features of a bust modeled by some divine Praxitiles, the features of a god. The prefect of Cilicia, attracted by the youth’s reputation for beauty, made a special pilgrimage to the shrine of Aesculapius hoping to seduce Apollonius. The attempted seduction proved a failure and it was not long after this incident that Apollonius renounced sexual activity of any kind, thereby exceeding the demands of Pythagoras who required only that men be faithful to their wives.
Philostratus writes that Apollonius was accused of unchastity by several of his enemies but that these charges were all untrue. The legend is consonant with the age for it was at about this time that a peculiar spirit of religious asceticism began to make itself felt, probably as a reaction against centuries of sybaritic self-indulgence. A similar denial of the flesh is found during this period, not only among the Christians but in the various Gnostic sects as well.
Shortly after taking his vow of chastity, Apollonius was asked by Euxenus why he hadn’t written anything, since he expressed himself so clearly and wisely in ordinary speech. Apollonius replied: “Because so far I have not practiced silence.” From that time forward, he resolved to keep silent for a period of five years in order to observe everything that was going on about him. Although Philostratus fails to provide a reason for this particular act of asceticism, it may very well have been that Apollonius felt he was in danger of pretending to be wiser than he really was and hoped to find humility by undergoing a period of self-enforced silence.
Whatever the reason, Apollonius apparently held to his vow, even though there were times when breaking it would have made his spiritual tasks much simpler. Once, for example, as he was passing through the city of Aspendus, he encountered a mob preparing to burn the prefect of the province alive. The terrified prefect, who was clutching at a statue of the emperor Tiberius for protection, hastily explained the situation to Apollonius. It seems that a number of wealthy citizens, in an attempt to corner the market on grain, had hoarded all of the grain in the city so that there was nothing left to eat but miserable vetches. The people of the city, driven to desperation by hunger, knew nothing of this and blamed the prefect for the emptiness in their bellies. Facing the hostile mob, Apollonius silenced them with an imperious wave of his hand and indicated by gesture that they should listen to what the prefect had to say.
Immediately the prefect explained what had happened, naming the men who were responsible for the famine. Before the crowd had a chance to fall upon these men and tear them limb from limb, Apollonius once again intervened and had the men brought before him. Still maintaining his vow of silence, he wrote his wishes on a clay tablet and gave it to the prefect to read. In a voice loud enough for all assembled to hear, the prefect read the following words: “Apollonius to the food-peddlers of Aspendus: the earth is mother of us all, for she is impartial, but you by your injustice have made her the mother of none but yourselves; and if you do not stop it, I shall not permit you to stand on her any longer.” The hoarders, grateful for having been delivered from the mob and terrified by Apollonius who seemed to them a god, hastened to their secret hiding places and gave up all their ill-gotten grain to the starving mob. In this way, Apollonius prevented bloodshed on all sides without ever having to utter a word.
After his period of silence ended, he resolved to make a pilgrimage to the East. Hoping to surpass even Pythagoras, Apollonius planned to journey to Persia and beyond to the furthest reaches of the civilized world. He had heard many tales of the wisdom of the Indian Brahmins and, possessing an insatiable curiosity, he wished to learn anything they had to teach. Arriving at Nineveh on the first leg of his journey, he paused before the statue of Io and fell into conversation with a Ninevite named Damis. Upon learning that Apollonius was planning to travel to the East, Damis offered his services as a guide and interpreter, saying that he spoke many languages and was well acquainted with most of the cities Apollonius would be traveling through on his way to Babylon. Apollonius replied that he, too, was familiar with all of these languages even though he had never studied them. When Damis expressed amazement, Apollonius said, “Do not wonder at my understanding the languages which men speak, for I even know the things which they do not speak.”
Apollonius allowed Damis to accompany him on his journey, fortunately for us, for the Assyrian kept a copious account of everything that happened to them. This document has now been rediscovered and served as the chief source from which Philostratus drew his portrait of Apollonius. According to Philostratus, Damis was a poor writer but a keen observer and an exhaustive note-taker. My view is that Philostratus was an unabashed plagiarist. Damis was a far better writer than he.
As the two travelers entered the territory controlled by Babylon, they were stopped by a eunuch who asked Apollonius how he dared to travel to the sacred city without an invitation from the king. Appollonius replied: “All the earth is mine, and I may journey in it where I please.” Some miles past where they had left the bemused eunuch, Apollonius and Damis encountered a small town where lived a number of Eretrian Greeks. They complained bitterly of their lot to the travelers, saying that the king of Babylon had refused to give them any aid even though they lived on such poor land that they could scarcely feed their children let alone themselves. Moved by their plight, Apollonius promised that he would see to it that the king helped them.
As they entered the city of Babylon, Apollonius and Damis passed by a huge statue of the king which, according to law, they were required to bow down before. Apollonius refused, saying that since he had not yet met the king and ascertained whether or not he was a worthy man, he could hardly be expected to worship him. Despite this breach of the law, no one arrested Apollonius or stood in his way as he went on to the palace.
The king was performing a sacrifice before the Magi when Apollonius was summoned to see him. In honor of the sun, the king was about to slaughter two fine white horses caparisoned in gold. Apollonius said to him, “Sacrifice in your way, 0 King, but let me sacrifice in mine,” whereupon he threw some incense into the fire and delivered a prayer to the sun. Then, not wishing to witness the slaughter of the animals, Apollonius left the presence of the king until the sacrifice was completed.
Despite these breaches of protocol, Apollonius got on very well with the king whom he found to be a wise and just man. Much of his time, however, was spent consulting with the Magi. Unfortunately, Damis was left behind on these occasions, so we know nothing about what actually was said. When Damis asked Apollonius what he thought of the Magi, he replied: “They certainly are wise, but they are not wise on every subject.”
The king asked Apollonius and Damis to stay at the palace but Apollonius refused, saying that it was not wise for philosophers to be exposed to so much luxury lest it cause their minds to wander from the pursuit of truth. Therefore, the travelers stayed with a humble family of ordinary means who lived close to the palace. The king grew daily more impressed with Apollonius and once, in order to express his gratitude to the sage, he offered him any ten gifts that he should care to select.
Delighted at their good fortune, Damis exhorted his master to take advantage of this offer. Apollonius replied that simply because they were in a foreign land far from Greece did not mean that they had ceased to be philosophers and could relax their standards. When the day arrived on which Apollonius was required to name the gifts which he wanted, however, he did not refuse the king’s generosity altogether. Saying that there was one gift that would please him more than a hundred others, Apollonius told the king of the plight of the Eretrian Greeks and requested that he give them his aid and protection. The king swore to do everything in his power to help the Eretrians, “but Apollonius,” he said, “why do you not accept the other nine gifts?” “Because, 0 king,” Apollonius replied, “I have made no other friends here.”
After spending two years among the Persians, Apollonius grew impatient to continue his journey to India. Accepting camels and supplies from the Babylonian king, the pair began their long trek through the Caucasus to the Ganges.
Having encountered a variety of wonders on their journey, most of which were doubtless the creations of Damis’ fertile imagination, the two Greeks arrived at the palace of the Indian King, Phraotes. The King welcomed Apollonius heartily, telling him that he had been expecting him. Apollonius was surprised, understandably enough, that the King spoke fluent Greek, but Phraotes cleared this up by explaining that he had learned his Greek from the Brahmins who, like Apollonius, understood all languages. Apollonius and Damis remained at the palace of Phraotes for three days during which time the philosopher engaged the King in debate, occasionally coming out a poor second. Apollonius was so impressed by this monarch that, some years later, he chastised his enemy Euphrates for not having any of the philosophic virtues of Phraotes.
Proceeding on their way with a guide provided by Phraotes, Apollonius and Damis at last reached the goal of their journey, the dwelling-place of the Brahmins. Rising as high above the plains as the Acropolis, according to Damis, the temple of the Brahmins was as well protected as any fortress even though the Brahmins, due to their marvelous powers, needed no protection. Leaving Damis behind in the village, Apollonius, who had been summoned to the temple by name, ascended the steep path to his destination passing, on his way, several statues of some of the older Greek gods. Upon reaching the temple, he was greeted by several of the Brahmins and led into the presence of Iarchas, the Master of the temple. When Apollonius expressed his desire to learn the wisdom of the Brahmins if, indeed, they had anything to teach him, Iarchus responded by describing in detail several events in the philosopher’s life. Convinced of the sages’ powers, Apollonius swore to remain at the temple until he had drunk his fill of their wisdom.
Damis, who was summoned from the village to join his master, was continually amazed at everything about the Brahmins. At night, he said, they cast herbs on the ground where they were planning to sleep and, tiring of the earth on occasion, slept suspended a few feet above the ground. By day they prayed to the sun and by night they prayed to the fire of the sun, which, according to Damis, they had captured in some unknown way. Not surprisingly, they dressed after the fashion of the Pythagoreans and observed the same dietetic restraints. Apollonius had a habit of discovering Greece wherever he traveled.
One day, Apollonius asked Iarchus what the Brahmins thought themselves to be. With a characteristic lack of humility,which probably only Apollonius could appreciate, Iarchus replied, “Gods!” When Apollonius asked why, Iarchus said: “Because we are good men!”
In addition to maintaining moral perfection, the Brahmins claimed to know everything, including the full details of their previous incarnations. Iarchus, for example, had once been the hero Achilles as well as the Indian demi-god Ganges, a huge giant who freed his native land from the Scythians and founded sixty cities. Apollonius, on hearing this, told Iarchas about one of his own prior lives as a humble steersman on an Egyptian ship. It is to his credit that he didn’t try to outdo the Brahmin by providing a more colorful pedigree.
Once, while Apollonius was visiting the Brahmins, a king came to consult Iarchas. This king, unlike Phraotes, was an arrogant, bad tempered character, just the sort of person to arouse ire in Apollonius who had little respect for crowned heads if they also happened to be empty. The King began his conversation with Apollonius by making a few insulting remarks about the Greeks. Apollonius replied with such an eloquent speech on the virtues of the Greeks that the King was moved to tears and admitted that he had been misinformed on the subject by some Egyptians.
Eventually, both Damis and Apollonius were admitted into the Mysteries of the Brahmins, learning that their doctrines were based chiefly on a conception of the universe as a living thing, both male and female. Despite its size, some control can be exercised over this divine animal for, as Iarchus said, “It is tractable and easily guided.” the wisdom of the Brahmins consisted in knowing the techniques by which this kind of control could be exercised. Unfortunately, no description is given of how the Brahmins learned these techniques other than through leading a pious life of meditation and prayer. Apollonius held lengthy colloquies with Iarchus during which they apparently discussed this subject but, as usual, Damis was left behind.
Whatever Apollonius learned from the Brahmins he learned rapidly for, after a stay of only four months, he bade them goodbye. His farewell was made without sadness, however, no doubt because, as Apollonius said, “Even among the Greeks I shall be mindful of your teachings, so that I will converse with you as if face to face. . .” And so, Apollonius and Damis departed, traveling back by the same route they had come, passing a few pleasant days with Phraotes and the king of Babylon. Upon their arrival in Greece, they were greeted by a curious and awestruck populace for during the philosopher’s lengthy absence, the oracles of Colophon and Branchidae had uttered prophecies about him, saying that he was as wise as Apollo and a great healer.
While at Smyrna he predicted that Ephesus would soon be ravaged by a plague. When this occurred, Apollonius was summoned to aid the Ephesians and, to the amazement of the people of Smyrna, he vanished and appeared at Ephesus on the same day. Immediately, he ordered the entire population of the city to assemble in the amphitheatre. When this had been accomplished, Apollonius, standing before a statue of Hercules, the Averter of Evil, cast his gaze over the crowd. Spying an ancient and miserable beggar curled up in his rags against the far wall of the amphitheatre, Apollonius commanded the people of Ephesus to surround the creature and stone him until he died. Appalled at this savage request, the Ephesians refused to move, saying that the old man had done no one any harm. Summoning all the authority and majesty at his command, Apollonius prevailed upon the crowd to follow his order, which they did reluctantly until, finally, the old man’s corpse was buried beneath a mound of stones. Apollonius ordered the stones removed, whereupon the Ephesians found, not the body of a beggar, but rather that of a giant mastiff, lips dripping with foam. Then they realized that the beggar had really been a demon in disguise and had been responsible for bringing the plague down upon the city.
Probably because of incidents such as this, Apollonius gained a reputation among his contemporaries as a sorcerer and he was refused admission into the Eleusinian Mysteries because the high priest claimed that he was unorthodox in his theology. Unperturbed, Apollonius replied that the real reason the high priest refused to initiate him was because the priest was jealous of his wisdom and wished to humble him before the crowd. When the assembled people applauded Apollonius’ bold reply, the high priest swiftly reconsidered and said that the philosopher could be admitted into the Mysteries. To the consternation of the high priest, however, Apollonius refused to be initiated, saying that another priest, whom he named and described as a man of wisdom, would become high priest in four years and that he would initiate Apollonius into the Mysteries.
Apollonius gathered many disciples around him and, together, they visited most of the temples of Greece and Asia Minor. Many of these disciples were mere dilettantes while others, like Damis, were thoughtful and serious students of the doctrines that Apollonius preached. One of the most promising of these disciples was a young man named Menippus whom Apollonius often singled out for praise on account of his remarkable intelligence and unassuming manner. One day, on the road to Cenchreae, Menippus encountered a beautiful young woman who, after engaging the shy youth in a few moments’ conversation, looked searchingly into his eyes and proclaimed that she had long been in love with him for he had appeared in her dreams since she was a child. Seduced by her charms, Menippus understandably enough forgot all about philosophy and went to live with her in the beautiful villa that she owned in Corinth. After several months of drinking the best wine and feasting on the finest foods as well as enjoying the charms of so beautiful a woman, Menippus proclaimed to Apollonius that he was planning to be married and invited the philosopher to the wedding feast. When Apollonius arrived at the celebration, he saw that all of the guests were thoroughly enjoying themselves, drinking excellent wine and playing games in a setting of unparalleled magnificence and luxury. Ignoring all of the revelry, Apollonius approached Menippus and his bride and, gesturing at the luxury that surrounded them, he asked Menippus if all of this belonged to him or to his bride. “Why it all belongs to her,” replied Menippus. Apollonius turned to the revelers. “You have all heard of the gardens of Tantalus which appear to travelers in Hades to be real but are, in fact, merely illusions. That is also true of everything which surrounds you here.” “What are you saying, Apollonius?” cried Menippus. “That you have been seduced by an illusion as all men are,” said Apollonius. “However, in your case it is a much more serious matter for the woman who has captured your soul is no woman at all; she is a vampire!” Aghast, Menippus clutched to his wife who, sobbing hysterically, commanded Apollonius to leave. The philosopher refused to move and with a wave of his hand caused the golden goblets, the silver plate and all the other luxurious appurtenances of the household to disappear. The vampire, realizing that she was in the presence of one far more powerful than she broke down completely and admitted that she had been plying Menippus with luxuries so that she could drink his blood on their wedding night for the blood of the young and innocent was especially beneficent because of its purity. No doubt Menippus was forever discouraged by this experience from neglecting his philosophic duties; as far as is known, he remained a disciple of Apollonius for the rest of his life.
Upon his return from the East, Apollonius was soon besieged by requests from cities all over the Roman Empire to discuss his philosophy and to minister to the sick. For the next several years he traveled from city to city lecturing on such diverse topics as efficient city government and the proper worship of the gods.
Nero was emperor of Rome at this time, a cruel and vain tyrant who believed himself to be a god; not only that, but a god skilled in music, poetry, and athletics. Not the least of his quirks was his hatred of philosophers whom he considered to be troublemakers. Philolaus of Cittium, a distinguished rhetorician and a very careful man, was alarmed by Nero’s persecutions of those who wore the philosopher’s cloak. Fleeing from Rome, he encountered Apollonius and his disciples travelling in the direction of the Eternal City. Philolaus paused just long enough to warn Apollonius of the dangers that awaited him in Rome if he should dare to flout the emperor’s will. Overhearing Philolaus’ warning, many of the disciples grew fearful and began making excuses for not continuing with the journey. One claimed to be out of money; another suddenly began to feel homesick; still others maintained that they had been forewarned in dreams not to enter Rome. This continued until of the thirty-four disciples who had begun the trek to Rome, only eight remained, including the ever-faithful Damis and Menippus. Apollonius was not dismayed by this desertion, however, for he wanted as disciples only men of courage and character. The chance encounter with Philolaus had provided him with an opportunity to rid himself of all the dilettantes who had clustered around him.
When they arrived in Rome the travelers stopped at an inn near the city gate. As they were eating their supper a strolling player entered the inn and began singing some of Nero’s songs. Seeing that Apollonius and his companions were ignoring him, the player began to accuse them of public contempt of the emperor. Apollonius merely laughed and threw the singer a few coins telling him to be on his way. The player, a blackmailer and informer, left the inn and went directly to Telesinus, one of the Roman consuls, whom he told of the strangely dressed group of men who seemed to lack respect for the emperor.
The next day Telesinus summoned Apollonius to the palace where he interrogated him about his philosophy. The replies Apollonius made impressed Telesinus so much that he gave the philosopher written permission to visit all of the temples in Rome and discuss philosophy with whomever he pleased.
Several days later Apollonius, in a public address, made the prophecy that great things would take place and yet would not take place. The meaning of this cryptic pronouncement was not appreciated until, three days later, a cup from which Nero was drinking was struck by lightning. The emperor, shaken but unhurt, began to entertain the suspicion that Apollonius was trying to murder him by magic. In a fit of terror, Nero commanded his prefect, Tigellinus, to question Apollonius and determine whether or not he was a magician. Tigellinus, who was noted for his skill as an interrogator, made the mistake of trying to intimidate Apollonius with threats and abusive treatment. The angrier and more threatening Tigellinus became, the calmer became Apollonius until at last, Tigellinus, thoroughly confused, cried out: “Why do you not fear Nero?” “Because, ” replied Apollonius, “the God who has made Nero a tyrant has made me unafraid of tyrants.” “Go then,” said Tigellinus resignedly, “for neither Nero nor I have any power over you.”
Apollonius remained in Rome until he had visited all the temples in the city. Then one day shortly before his departure as he was returning to his lodgings, he happened upon a funeral procession. A young girl had died the day before she was to be married. A long line of mourners followed the bier, some weeping pitifully, others cursing the gods under their breath. Moved by this scene, Apollonius halted the funeral procession and approached the bier. Bending over the dead girl, he whispered a few words into her ear. As he straightened up, the girl’s eyelids began to flutter and, in a few moments, she had totally regained consciousness. The girl’s grateful family offered Apollonius a large sum of money for performing this marvelous feat, which the philosopher duly accepted and gave to the girl to add to her dowry. Damis did not believe the girl was actually dead and that Apollonius had merely discerned signs of life in her which the physicians had missed. Apollonius did not take credit for having performed a miracle but the event made such an impression upon the citizens of Rome and the story was so often repeated that Apollonius was widely believed to have the power of bringing the dead back to life.
From Rome Apollonius traveled to Spain and from there to almost every part of the Roman Empire. The deeds which he performed and the philosophy he taught were in keeping with everything that we already know of him. For that reason we shall not follow him on his journeys to
Africa and Egypt or observe the philosophical disputes in which he so frequently engaged. Before we leave him, however, there is one last scene that should be recorded: his duel with the emperor Domitian.
After Nero had been murdered by a member of his own bodyguard, Rome underwent a year of anarchy during which it was ruled by four different emperors. This period of political instability was brought to an end by the accession of the able general, Vespasian, to the imperial throne in 70 A.D. Vespasian, who consulted Apollonius frequently, was a just and reasonable man as was his eldest son, Titus, who succeeded him after his death in 82 A.D. Titus, however, died after a reign of only one year and Vespasian’s third son, Domitian, became emperor. Unlike his father and elder brother, Domitian had little respect for Roman institutions. He declared himself to be the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, an absolute monarch whose commands must be carried out with unquestioning obedience. It was not long before it became evident that Domitian was as great a tyrant as Nero had been and intrigues were devised to have him removed from the imperial throne. In order to forestall these plots, Domitian banished the three men most likely to succeed him to the furthest reaches of the empire. Hearing of the emperor’s act, Apollonius exclaimed, “Thou fool! The man who is destined to succeed you will live on, even if you try to kill him.” These words were reported to Domitian by Euphrates, a philosopher jealous of Apollonius’ fame. Domitian decided to have all three of the men he had banished put to death but, in order to give the whole affair the semblance of legality, he arranged to have Apollonius tried for treason, thinking he could force the philosopher to confess to having conspired with all three of Domitian’s enemies to overthrow the emperor.
Apollonius was arrested and subjected to intensive interrogation. As he had done before Nero’s prefect, Apollonius once again refused to be led into any false confessions. Finally, the day of his trial arrived and he was brought before Domitian. The emperor informed Apollonius that he was convinced of his guilt and that he planned to have him executed. When Apollonius protested that he had not been allowed to present a defense, Domitian had him bound and ordered his hair to be cut off. Amused, Apollonius remarked, “I did not know I was risking my life on account of my hair.”
Proceeding with the trial, Domitian used every device he could think of to intimidate Apollonius. At one point the philosopher was commanded to look at the “god of all men,” meaning the emperor. Instead, Apollonius stared at the ceiling, paying homage to Zeus rather than to Domitian. As the trial progressed, the philosopher so impressed the spectators with his wit and courage that they began to applaud him. Sensing potential danger, Domitian thought to clear the hall of spectators and said, “I absolve you of your crimes but I wish to question you further.” “I thank you, Sire,” replied Apollonius, “but you could not have taken my soul-nay, not even my body, for you cannot slay me, since I am not mortal.”
With these words, Apollonius vanished from the court. That same night he was seen at Puteoli, several days travel from Rome, where Damis was waiting for him.
Never again did Domitian attempt to interfere with either Apollonius or his disciples. The philosopher continued to deliver lectures before large crowds in both Italy and Greece. Then one day, some two years after the trial, Apollonius was speaking to an assembly of freemen in the sacred groves of Ephesus when he suddenly began to clutch at his throat, shouting “strike the tyrant, strike him.” On that very day in distant Rome, Domitian was assassinated by a freedman named Stephanus.
Nerva, who succeeded Domitian to the throne, invited Apollonius to Rome but the philosopher was now a hundred years old and did not feel strong enough to make the trip. He replied to Nerva in the form of a letter the delivery of which he entrusted to Damis. It was one of the last kind acts in a life marked to an uncommon degree with kindliness, although not with sentimentality, for while Damis was in Rome Apollonius disappeared, never to be seen again. His disciples erected a shrine to his memory, now uncovered along with the Damis manuscript by me and my University of California colleagues at the George W. Bush Memorial Institute for the Pursuit of Truth.
Thus ended the life of a man who was more than just the simple philosopher he claimed to be, a man who was a rebel, a mystic and, at least so far as many of his contemporaries were concerned, the greatest magician of the age.