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Philostratus, prognōsis, and the alternatives to divination

Roshan Abraham

Interest in Flavius Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (VA) has sharply increased in the last two decades, particularly for those studying the Second Sophistic, travel literature, and the magic/religion dichotomy. The role of divination in the text, however, has received scant attention (notable exceptions are Du Toit; Flinterman; and Fromentin). This is major gap in the scholarship, since Philostratus specifically identifies Apollonius’ foreknowledge as one (of only two) underlying reasons people believe him to be a magician (magos or goēs). In this paper, I will demonstrate how Philostratus reformulates Apollonius’ foreknowledge from being a cause of his negative reputation to a proof of his god-like nature, thereby demonstrating the importance of divination within the text and the importance of the text itself for the history of divination in the later Roman Empire.

Roman society had an ambiguous view of divination. Though it was frequently employed by the state, when done by individuals, it was seen as a suspect, if not antisocial or anti-state, activity. (Graf, MacMullen, Rives) Philostratus demonstrates that the negative opinion of Apollonius derives from misperceiving Apollonius’ foreknowledge (prognōsis / progignōskein) as a form of divination (manteia / manteuomai). He clearly differentiates prognōsis and manteia throughout the text. Furthermore, Apollonius specifically denies any ability to divine (VA 4.44) and later states to Domitian that “the gods reveal their intentions to holy and wise men even when they are not divining (τὰς αὑτῶν βουλὰς οἱ θεοὶ τοῖς ὁσίοις τε καὶ σοφοῖς ἀνδράσι καὶ μὴ μαντευομένοις φαίνουσι , 8.7.30).

Philostratus’ differentiation of the two terms is more than a clever rhetorical ploy. Instead, one can find the philosophical and religious foundation of prognōsis developed during Apollonius’ studies with Iarchas, the leader of the Indian Brahmans. Philostratus specifically notes “a discussion concerning foreknowledge” (περὶ δὲ προγνώσεως λόγου, VA 3.42) which arose between Apollonius and Iarchas. A close reading of this discussion, paired with material from other discussions between the two, reveals a fully developed theory of prognōsis, rooted in Middle Platonic physics and ethics, which Iarchas specifically contrasts with traditional oracular divination. This analysis will demonstrate the uniqueness of prognōsis from both artificial and natural forms of divination and will also reveal how Apollonius’ foreknowledge helps define him as a holy man.

It is not, however, the case that prognōsis is limited to Philostratus’ text. Instead, one can find an understanding of prognōsis similar to that of the VA in both the Papyri Graecae Magicae, specifically PGM III, and in Iamblichus’ discussion of theurgic divination in De Mysteriis. The appearance and understanding of this term in these other texts support the importance of Philostratus’ text for the history of divination in later antiquity and suggest possibilities for future research.

Session/Panel Title

Religion, Ritual, and Identity

Session/Paper Number

20.5

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