Philostratus, was the name of several, three (or four), Greek sophists of the Roman imperial period:

  1. Philostratus "the Athenian" (c. 170-245)
  2. his nephew (?) Philostratus "of Lemnos" (born c. 190)
  3. a grandson (?) of (2)

Of these the most famous is Philostratus "the Athenian," author of the Life of Apollonius Tyana, which he dedicated to Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla (see Apollonius of Tyana). He wrote also Lives of the Sophists, Gymnasticus and Epistolae (mainly of an erotic character).

Very little is known of his career. Even his name is doubtful. The Lives of the Sophists gives the praenomen Flavius, which, however, is found elsewhere only in Tzetzes. Eunapius and Synesius call him a Lemnian; Photius a Tyrian; his letters refer to him as an Athenian. It is probable that he was born in Lemnos, studied and taught at Athens, and then settled in Rome (where he would naturally be called atheniensis) as a member of the learned circle with which Julia Domna surrounded herself.

He was born probably in 172, and is said by the Suda to have been living in the reign of Philip (244 - 249). The fact that the author of Apollonius is also the author of the Lives of the Sophists is confirmed by internal evidence. The latter is dedicated to a consul Antonius Gordianus, perhaps one of the two Gordians who were killed in 238. The work is divided into two parts: the first dealing with the ancient Sophists, e.g. Gorgias, the second with the later school, e.g. Herodes Atticus.

The Lives are not in the true sense biographical, but rather picturesque impressions of leading representatives of an attitude of mind full of curiosity, alert and versatile, but lacking scientific method, preferring the external excellence of style and manner to the solid achievements of serious writing. The philosopher, as he says, investigates truth; the sophist embellishes it, and takes it for granted. The Gymnasticus contains interesting matter concerning the Olympic games and athletic contests generally. The Letters breathe the spirit of the New Comedy and the Alexandrine poets; portions of Letter 33 are almost literally translated in Ben Jonson's Song to Celia, "Drink to me only with thine eyes."

The Heroicus, formerly attributed to Philostratus the Athenian, is probably the work of Philostratus the Lemnian. It is a popular disquisition on the heroes of the Trojan War in the form of a conversation between a Thracian vine-dresser on the shore of the Hellespont and a Phoenician merchant who derives his knowledge from the hero Protesilaus, Palamedes is exalted at the expense of Odysseus, and Homer's unfairness to him is attacked. It has been suggested that Philostratus is here describing a series of heroic paintings in the palace of Julia Domna. His other work is the Imagines, ostensibly a description of 64 pictures in a Neapolitan gallery. Goethe, Welcker, Brunn, E. Bertrand and Helbig, among others, have held that the descriptions are of actually existing works of art, while Heyne and Friederichs deny this. In any case they are interesting as showing the way in which ancient artists treated mythological and other subjects, and are written with artistic knowledge and in attractive language This work is imitated by the third Philostratus (or by some later sophist) of whose descriptions of pictures 17 remain.

There is great difficulty, due to a confused statement of the Suda in disentangling the works and even the personalities of these Philostrati. Reference is there made to Philostratus as the son of Verus, a rhetorician in Nero's time, who wrote tragedies, comedies and treatises. The Suda thus appears to give to Philostratus the Athenian a life of 200 years! We must be content to assume two Lemnian Philostrati, both sophists, living in Rome.


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