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Apollonius the Pantomime: Silence and Dance in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Mali Skotheim

Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean philosopher who lived in the first c. CE, is the subject of Philostratus' VA, composed in the early 3rd c. CE. Following the Pythagorean tradition, Apollonius takes a five-year vow of silence (VA 1.14). The differences between Pythagorean and Apollonian silence, however, have escaped notice, even in treatments of Apollonius' relationship to Pythagoreanism (Flinterman 2009). Pythagoras' disciples took a five-year vow of silence in order to listen to Pythagorean doctrine, which Pythagoras delivered from behind a veil so that his disciples could only hear but not see him (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 17, Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras 8, cf. Montiglio 2000: 27-8). Apollonius behaves completely differently during his period of silence: he listens to no doctrines, but rather travels, communicating silently with many people. When people speak to him, he responds “with his eyes, his hands, or by the motions of his head” (VA 1.14). He quells a pantomime riot with a silent glance, and asks about a lawsuit with a gesture of his hand (VA 1.15). By learning to communicate with gestures and other body language, Apollonius learns to control his own movements as well as to interpret physical signs in the bodies of others (e.g. VA 7.42). He shares this physiognomic knowledge with the Indian wise men, who select their students by observation of their physical characteristics (VA 2.30).

I argue that Philostratus invites his readers to see Apollonius' silence as similar to the silence of pantomimes, who danced out the stories of classical myth and tragedy in silence. The immense popularity of pantomime in the Greek world in the late 2nd and early 3rd c. CE has been well studied (Hall 2013, Webb 2008, Hall and Wyles 2008, Lada-Richards 2007, Garelli 2007). Pantomime was a narrative dance, and the dancers communicated with their audiences by specific movements of their hands and feet. An epitaph for the pantomime Crispus from Herakleia from the 2nd/ 3rd c. CE describes “the whole world marveling at him gesturing with his hands” (SEG 31.1072). The resemblance of Apollonius to a pantomime has been observed fleetingly (Montiglio 2005: 220), but the implications of this have not yet been explored. Philostratus was neither the first nor the last to make this connection: Lucian's Lycinus says that he has heard someone say that the silence of the dancers “was symbolic of a Pythagorean tenet” (Lucian, On Pantomime 70), and in a discussion of various philosopher-dancers (including the dancing Socrates) Athenaeus mentions a pantomime, Memphis, who “explains the nature of the Pythagorean system, expounding in silent mimicry all its doctrines to us more clearly than they who profess to teach eloquence” (Athenaeus, Sophists at Dinner, I.20d). These passages suggest that Philostratus may have been responding not only to an element of popular culture in his use of pantomime in the VA, but also to a specific association between Pythagorean silence and the silence of pantomimes.

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