Tuesday, September 05, 2023

The life and death of a divine preacher in Roman times

Before he was born, his mother was told that he would be divine, and his birth was accompanied by strange portents in the heavens. When he grew up, he left home to be an itinerant preacher, gathering followers around him who were convinced that he was the Son of God. He healed the sick, cast out demons, even raised the dead. He made enemies of the Roman rulers, and was tried and ultimately sentenced to death, although he subsequently appeared to at least one of his doubting followers. A cult grew up around him after his death, temples were built, and some of his followers wrote books about him.

Sound familiar? Correct, this is a brief biography of Appolonius of Tyana, a Greek philosopher from the Roman province of Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey), who lived during the reign of the Roman Emperors Nero and Domitian in the first century CE. 

He fearlessly travelled the Roman Empire, inciting revolts against the Roman overlords, and establishing egalitarian communities among his followers, the Essenes. He even went to Rome to preach his beliefs, when he was indeed tried and sentenced to death, but somehow managed to talk his way out of it (although some maintain that he disappeared from his cell and was taken up into heaven). 

In ancient times, he had at least 16 temples devoted to his honour throughout the Mediterranean world. His beliefs were not particularly Christian, though, or at least not traditionally so. For example, he taught that the only way to converse with God was through the intellect, and that prayers and sacrifices were useless. 

Most of what we know about Appolonius of Tyana comes from the writings of the Athenian sophist Philostratus, but these were written around 220-230CE, many years after Appolonius' death, probably just based on oral tradition. Some believe that Philostratus' account may have been written on the instructions of Empress Julia Domna, wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, in order to counteract the rising popularity of Christianity in the Roman world, to provide a kind of pagan alternative to Jesus Christ. 

So, it's anyone's guess whether Appolonius of Tyana actually lived, and if so, how much of what we know is actually true. But then, you could say the same of Jesus Christ.

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