Greek Sophist

Philostratus, was the name of four Greek sophists of the Roman imperial period:

  1. (c. 150-200) "Philostratus I": Very minor author, known only for a dialogue Nero, possibly written by Philostratus II.
  2. (c. 170-247) "Philostratus II": son of Philostratus I. Also called "Philostratus the Athenian" or "Lucius Flavius Philostratus"
  3. (born c. 190) "Philostratus III": the probable nephew of Philostratus II. Also called "Philostratus of Lemnos" or "Philostratus the Elder"
  4. (born c. 220) "Philostratus IV": the probable grandson of Philostratus III. Also called "Philostratus of Lemnos", or "Philostratus the Younger".

Philostratus II

Of these the most famous is Philostratus "the Athenian". 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.

There is a near consensus that Philostratus II was the author of the following four works:

(c. 215) Life of Apollonius Tyana, which he dedicated to Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and mother of Caracalla (see Apollonius of Tyana).

(231-237) Lives of the Sophists. The Lives 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.

(after 220) Gymnasticus. The Gymnasticus contains interesting matter concerning the Olympic games and athletic contests generally.

(?) Epistolae or Love Letters. 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 letters are mainly of an erotic character.

Philostratus III (Philostratus the elder)

The works Heroicus and Imagines were traditionally attributed to Philostratus II, but are now more commonly attributed to Philostratus III.

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.

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.

Philostratus IV (Philostratus the younger)

Another volume of Imagines was composed by Philostratus IV (or by some later sophist), assumed to be the grandsom of Philostratus III . Of this work, the descriptions of pictures 17 remain.


Michel Costantini, Françoise Graziani, Stéphane Rolet, Le défi de l'art. Philostrate, Callistrate et l'image sophistique. La Licorne 75. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006. Pp. 288. ISBN 2-7535-0257-9. (Review)

Ambiguities in attribution

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.

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.


Philostratus Updates the preceding article with some ninety year of more recent research.

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