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Brahmans and Gymnoi: Autochthony and Cultural Memory in the Life of Apollonius

Edward Kelting

Scholars of imperial Greek literature have long appreciated the fundamental importance of the classical Greek past for the Second Sophistic movement.  For Philostratus, the author of the Vitae Sophistarum (VS), a core question is who, in the ethnically interconnected Mediterranean, can inherit and claim access to the legacy of this Greek past: is Hellenism inborn or can it be taught?  Scholars have recently begun to connect this question of access to Hellenic identity to another major text of Philostratus, the Vita Apollonii (VA) (Coté 2011).  Those who have discussed Philostratus’ corpus (Billaut 2000, Bowie and Elsner 2009) are now asking to what extent the VA and VS contribute toward a single Philostratean Weltanschauung.  Scholars have generally noted how Philostratus’ narration of Apollonius’ periegesis projects Hellenism outward onto the geographic fringes (Morgan, in Demoen and Praet 2009).  But it is particularly in Apollonius’ visits to the Brahmans of India and the Naked Sages (Gymnoi) of Ethiopia, two sections of the VA to which less scholarly attention has been paid, that this outward projection of Hellenism results in two clear, opposing pictures of engagement with Greek culture.  These two episodes, far from ethnographic set-pieces geographically and thematically liminal to the central orbit of the VA, become central spaces in which a Philostratean and Second Sophistic concern about Hellenism and its dissemination are addressed.

I will argue that Philostratus utilizes time and space in his comparison of Brahmans (3.12-50) and Gymnoi (6.6-22) to validate autochthony as the key criterion for legitimate cultural memory.  Temporally, the Indian landscape is filled with Greek touchstones which connect the Brahmans to the entirety of Greek history and legitimate their knowledge of the Greek past; the Gymnoi’s landscape lacks these diachronic Greek touchstones and is depicted as generally younger, insofar as the Gymnoi are directly descended from the Brahmans and are by and large comprised of men younger than Apollonius himself.  Spatially, autochthony and the relationship with their land mark the key difference between the Brahmans and the Gymnoi.  In India, the land bends itself to the Brahmans’ will, growing grass into mattresses and providing self-moving tables for the Brahmans’ banquets, sign-posts of the Brahmans’ privileged access to the inner workings of nature.  The Gymnoi relish a harshly inimical relationship with the Ethiopian landscape, a mark not, as they argue, of hardihood but instead of their status as exiles expelled from India by the land itself.

The Brahmans and Gymnoi become two antipodal models onto which Philostratus projects alternate cultural portraits of those engaging with the Greek past.  The Brahmans, though living on a mountain at the limits of the known world, follow guest-friendship rules to the letter; their deft handling of the pompous Median king provides a model which Apollonius will later follow with Domitian (Flinterman 1995); a god-like, Hellenic symposium legitimates the philosophical conversation which occurs therein.  The Gymnoi, though much more closely involved in the Greek orbit, immediately fail in guest-friendship; they harshly probe Apollonius on a series of Greek customs whose purpose they continually misunderstand; most importantly, their worship of the Egyptian gods and their own Nilotic landscape depends on an underlying inauthenticity which will later be revealed through their ignorance of their own past.  Thus, Philostratus connects the Brahmans’ accurate and the Gymnoi’s inaccurate memory of their own pasts to their respective ability and inability to engage with Greek culture.  Autochthony and exile are the means by which Philostratus effects this connection.

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Identity and Ethnicity

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