Aelius Aristides (AD 117 - 181) was a popular Greek orator who lived during the Roman Empire. He is considered to be a prime example of the Second Sophistic, a group of showpiece orators who flourished from the reign of Nero until ca. 230 AD. His surname was Theodorus. He showed extraordinary talents even in his early youth, and devoted himself with an almost unparalleled zeal to the study of rhetoric, which appeared to him the worthiest occupation of a man, and along with it he cultivated poetry as an amusement. Besides the rhetorician Herodes Atticus, whom he heard at Athens, he also received instructions from Aristocles at Pergamum, from Polemon at Smyrna, and from the grammarian Alexander of Cottyaeum.
The son of a wealthy land-owner, Aristides studied under Alexander of Cotiaeon, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. A career as an orator ended at the age of twenty-six when he was afflicted during a visit to Rome with the first of a long series of illnesses, possibly of a psychosomatic origin. His health problem drove him to the sanctuary of Pergamon (in present-day Turkey) where Asclepius, the god of healing, would often advise people certain remedies in their dreams. The cures he sent Aristides seem ridiculous today, but it has to be remembered that there was very little real knowledge about the workings of the human body, and how diseases could be solved, or what caused them.
After being sufficiently prepared for his profession, he travelled for some time, and visited various places in Asia and Africa, especially Egypt, Greece, and Italy. The fame of his talents and acquirements, which preceded him everywhere, was so great, that monuments were erected to his honor in several towns which he had honoured with his presence. Shortly before his return, and while yet in Italy, he was attacked by an illness which lasted for thirteen years.
He had from his childhood been of a very weak constitution, but neither this nor his protracted illness prevented his prosecuting his studies, for he was well at intervals; and in his "Sermones Sacri" (a sort of diary of his illness and his recovery), he relates that he was frequently encouraged by visions in his dreams to cultivate rhetoric to the exclusion of all other studies. During this period and afterwards, he resided at Smyrna, whither he had gone on account of its baths, but he made occasional excursions into the country, to Pergamus, Phocaea, and other towns. He had great influence with the emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose acquaintance he had formed in Ionia, and when in 178, Smyrna was to a great extent destroyed by an earthquake, Aristides represented the deplorable condition of the city and its inhabitants in such vivid colors to the emperor that he was moved to tears, and generously assisted the Smyrnaeans in rebuilding their town.
The Smyrnaeans showed their gratitude to Aristides by erecting to him a brazen statue in their agora, and by calling him the founder of their town. Various other honours and distinctions were offered to him at Smyrna, but he refused them, and accepted only the office of priest of Asclepius, which he held until his death, about 180, according to some, at the age of 60, and according to others of 70. The circumstance of his living for so many years at Smyrna, and enjoying such great honors there, is probably the reason that in an epigram still extant he is regarded as a native of Smyrna.
When he resumed his normal life he successfully resisted, as he thought with Asclepius' help, having to take public offices which was required from citizens. He met Marcus Aurelius when that emperor visited Asia Minor. He wrote him a letter begging for assistance, after Smyrna had been devastated by an earthquake. According to Philostratus Marcus Aurelius shed tears over the pages when he read the words: 'she is a desert through which the west winds blow'. A statue of Aristides stands in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
The memory of Aristides was honoured in several ancient towns by statues. One of these representing the rhetorician in a sitting attitude, was discovered in the 16th century, and is at present in the Vatican Museum. The museum of Verona contains an inscription to his honor.
The works of Aristides extant are, fifty-five orations and declamations (including those which were discovered by Morelli and Mai), and two treatises on rhetorical subjects. Some of his orations are eulogies on the power of certain divinities, others are panegyrics on towns, such as Smyrna, Cyzicus, Rome; one among them is a Panathenaicus, and an imitation of that of Isocrates. Others again treat on subjects connected with rhetoric and eloquence. The six orations mentioned above, have attracted considerable attention in the mid-19th century, on account of the various stories they contain respecting the cures of the sick in temples, and on account of the apparent resemblance between these cures and those said to be effected by Mesmerism. A list of the orations extant as well as of the lost works of Aristides, is given in Fabricius (Bibl. Gr. vi p. 15, &c.), and more completely by Westermann. (Gesch. der Griech. Beredtsamk, p. 321, &c.) Aristides as an orator is much superior to the majority of rhetoricians in his time, whose great and only ambition was to shine and make a momentary impression by extempore speeches, and a brilliant and dazzling style. Aristides, with whom thought was of far greater importance than the form in which it appeared, expressed that difference between himself and the other rhetoricians, at his first interview with the emperor, M. Aurelius.
He despised the silly puns, the shallow witticisms and insignificant ornaments of his contemporaries, and sought nourishment for his mind in the study of the ancients. In his panegyric orations, however, he often endeavoured to display as much brilliancy of style as he could. On the whole his style is brief and concise, but too frequently deficient in ease and clearness. His sentiments are often trivial and spun out to an intolerable length, which leaves the reader nothing to think upon for himself. His orations remind one of a man who is fond of hearing himself talk. Notwithstanding these defects, however, Aristides is still unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. His admirers compared him to Demosthenes, and even Aristeides did not think himself much inferior. This vanity and self-sufficiency made him enemies and opponents, among whom are mentioned Palladius, Sergius, and Porphyrius. But the number of his admirers was far greater, and several learned grammarians wrote commentaries on his orations. Besides Athanasius, Menander, and others, whose works are lost, we must mention especially Sopater of Apamea, who is probably the author of the Greek Prolegomena to the orations of Aristides, and also of some among the Scholia on Aristides, which contain a great many things of importance for mythology, history, and antiquities. They also contain numerous fragments of works now lost. The greater part of these Scholia are probably compilations from the commentaries of Arethas, Metrophanes, and other grammarians.
According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the remainder of his surviving writings, although praised by his contemporaries, is of primary interest for the incidental light they cast on the social history of Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD. His Sacred Tales may also be of interest for researchers of ancient medicine or ancient religion. A complete English translation was published by C.A. Behr in 1986.
This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology by William Smith (1867).
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