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Ancient Vegans: Appolonius

An interesting account of a remarkable vegan from the past.

In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, we have perhaps the clearest historical account of an ancient vegan in the character of Apollonius of Tyana. This article will explore Apollonius's views on veganism and animal rights, their relation to the philosophical life of the ancients and will chronicle some of the experiences Apollonius faced in regards to his veganism.


Apollonius of Tyana

Part I

Apollonius, it was said, had decided early in life to undertake what he referred to as the "life of Pythagoras", a life devoted to philosophy - chiefly to the attainment and practice of true wisdom. His decision to undertake this lifestyle is set out in a discussion with Euxenus, one of his childhood teachers. It is related that Apollonius:

"... was like the young eagles who, as long as they are not fully fledged, fly alongside of their parents and are trained by them in flight, but who, as soon as they are able to rise in the air, outsoar the parent birds ... like them Apollonius attended Euxenus as long as he was a child and was guided by him in the path of argument, but when he reached his sixteenth year he indulged his impulse towards the life of Pythagoras ..."

In addressing his teacher on his intention to pursue a greater path, Apollonius says:

"Now you live there your own life, but I will live that of Pythagoras."

Upon which Euxenus,

"realized that he [Apollonius] was attached to a lofty ideal, and asked him at what point he would begin it. Apollonius answered: "At the point at which physicians begin, for they, by purging the bowels of their patients prevent some from being ill at all, and heal others." And having said this he declined to live upon a flesh diet, on the ground that it was unclean, and also that it made the mind gross; so he partook only of dried fruits and vegetables, for he said that all the fruits of the earth are clean."

So Apollonius, explaining how he would set about beginning the "life of Pythagoras", the path towards true wisdom, points firstly and directly to diet. He would begin, he clearly says, by becoming vegan! Not only would Apollonius cease all consumption of animal products, he also:

"... took to walking without shoes by way of adornment and clad himself in linen raiment, declining to wear any animal product; and he let his hair grow long and lived in the Temple."

Clearly, in Apollonius' estimation, the lifestyle he associated with the great philosopher Pythagoras not only included no animal consumption, it also included abstinence from wearing animal products as well. Not only did Apollonius vow to become a dietary vegan for his own benefit; he extended his concern also to the animal's benefit.

"And they say that he declined to wear apparel made from dead animal products and, to guard his purity, abstained from all flesh diet, and from the offering of animals in sacrifice. For that he would not stain the altars with blood..."

A true ancient Vegan!

The story of Apollonius continues, as he progresses in his life as a philosopher - a word that had much deeper meaning in his day than in ours, being much closer to the original meaning of "a lover of wisdom" than to our modern meaning which equates to nothing more than sophistry, devoid from the living wisdom of a Pythagoras or an Apollonius, who sought to live also the highest ethics they could conceive.

As the story moves forward Apollonius embarks on his famous journey to India, accompanied by his faithful companion Damis. His journey is an example in single-minded focus, of dedication and profound interest in truth - his sole intention being to find the wise-men rumored to live in the east, and to learn from them.

As he entered the kingdoms of western India, Apollonius was blessed to encounter a most wonderful King. Upon meeting the King, Apollonius engaged in discussion with him, asking him several questions. Among these, the philosopher could not resist, it seems, to ask about that which was so close to his heart and so fundamental to his own lifestyle.

Apollonius also asked him [the King] about his diet, and he replied: "I drink just as much wine as I pour out in libation to the Sun; and whatever I take in the chase I give to others to eat, for I am satisfied with the exercise I get. But my own meal consists of vegetables and of the pith and fruit of date palms, and of all that a well-watered garden yields in the way of fruit. And a great deal of fruit is yielded to me by the trees which I cultivate with these hands." When Apollonius heard this, he was more than gratified, and kept glancing at Damis.

A vegan of today can, I'm sure, smile at the thought of Apollonius glancing at his companion Damis, imagining the great philosopher to be silently saying; "you see my good friend, you see, I'm not the only one!"

It is clear from the above that the King had not taken upon himself the same degree of veganism as our dear Apollonius, however. The above demonstrates that the King had not yet taken upon himself the wisdom Apollonius had in regards to the animal's rights. In the chase (i.e. the hunt), the King would still kill animals, though he would refrain from consuming the animal products. He shows himself to be both ahead of his time and yet still a man of them, having taken, unlike Apollonius, but one step in the direction of true veganism.

However, while the King lacked, it would seem, the full open-heart of Apollonius, his lifestyle did include elements our modern Vegan health gurus would surely admire. Completing their discussion, the King

"... led him [Apollonius] and his companions to where he was accustomed to bathe. And the bathing-place was a garden, a stade in length, in the middle of which was dug out a pool, which was fed by fountains of water, cold and drinkable; and on each side there were exercising places, in which he was accustomed to practice himself after the manner of the Greeks with javelin and quoit-throwing; for physically he was very robust, both because he was still young, for he was only seven-and-twenty years old, and because he trained himself in this way. And when he had had enough exercise, he would jump into the water and exercised himself in swimming. ..."

A dietary vegan in "robust" health, two-thousand years ago and with an exercise routine fit for our finest modern vegan athletes! Even in the previous quote, wherein the King is shown to participate in the chase, it is clear that his focus in the event is on the benefit of the exercise he gains. We have, then, a glimpse perhaps into an early 80/10/10er, two-thousand years ahead of the times.

The story relates next of the banquet thrown in the Kingdom, which, it is made clear, included much consumption of animal products. One can imagine the King, sitting with his new friend, whom he instantly came to admire, eating their fruit and their vegetables, surrounded by meat eaters. How many modern vegans can relate to this scenario? How many "banquets" have we attended wherein we stick to our fruits and veggies while others indulge themselves in meals of death?

Apollonius was on a journey, after all, and the time came to leave the kingdom. From there he moved in into the mighty Himalayas, where he did indeed find his way to the "wise men of the east", and where he was instructed in the truths he sought.

As the story goes, Apollonius remained with the wise men for some time before returning home to Greece, where he quickly found fame for the demonstrations of his wisdom, and, it is said, of the powers that came with it.

The story proceeds through Apollonius's life in Greece, and a time comes when the "people of Smyrna" called upon him to come to their aid.

"... when the plague began to rage in Ephesus, and no remedy sufficed to check it, they sent a deputation to Apollonius, asking him to become physician of their infirmity; and he thought that he ought not to postpone his journey, but said: "Let us go." And forthwith he was in Ephesus ... He therefore called together the Ephesians, and said: "Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.""

A story is then related wherein Apollonius instructs the townspeople to stone to death a demon, afterwhich the plague comes to its end. It is, after all, an old story; we must expect a little embellishment or perhaps a good dose of allegory, symbolism and metaphor. Could it be though, that the newly appointed physician simply understood the cure to their ills (as well as the cause) in a way that the townspeople did not, such that they (or future historians recalling the event) could not accurately account for what he had done?

The tales of Apollonius proceed, until a time comes where he is drawn before the courts of an Emperor. Within the trial Apollonius is asked a set of questions, one of which relates to this very plague. It's worth noting how Apollonius answers that question.

Amidst the trial, we read:

"Whereupon the accuser began to bellow and spoke somewhat as follows: "'tis time, my sovereign, to apportion the water, for if you allow him to talk as long as he chooses, he will choke us. Moreover I have a roll here which contains the heads of the charges against him, and to these he must answer, so let him defend himself against them one by one."

"The Emperor approved of this plan of procedure and ordered Apollonius to make his defense according to the informer's advice; however, he dropped out other accusations, as not worth discussion, and confined himself to four questions which he thought were embarrassing and difficult to answer."

Here proceed the questions:

"What induces you," he said, "Apollonius, to dress yourself differently from everybody else, and to wear this peculiar and singular garb?"

"Because," said Apollonius, "the earth which feeds me also clothes me, and I do not like to bother the poor animals."

While modern vegans are accosted with such questioning of their motives on a regular basis, our dear Apollonius was dragged before the court of the Emperor to answer them! And yet he stood strong, answering directly that his choice is on behalf of the animals, that he gets his clothing and his food from the earth (i.e. from plants) and not from the poor animals.

The questions continued:

"Why is it that men call you a god?"

"Because," answered Apollonius, "every man that is thought to be good, is honored by the title of god."

Earlier, the Emperor had asked Apollonius:

"How comes it then ... that you have come to regard as gods persons who are most hostile to myself?"

"And what hostility," said Apollonius, "is there between yourself and Iarchas or Phraotes, both of them Indians and the only human beings that I regard as gods and meriting such a title?"

Phraotes was the name of the Vegan King, and Iarchas the name of the highest wise-man of the Himalayas - the great teacher Apollonius had sought. These men, it seems, were the only ones Apollonius was willing to endow with the title of 'gods', meaning the only two men, through all his long life and travels that he had considered to be good.


King Gondophares I (Phraotes)

Note: Purii says that the dates given by Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana for Apollonius' visit to Taxila, 43–44 AD, are within the period of the reign of Gondophares I, who also went by the Parthian name, Phraotes. See Puri, "The Sakas and Indo-Parthians".

The third question in the court, and the one I wish to highlight, is this:

"The third question related to the plague in Ephesus: "What motived," he said, "or suggested your prediction to the Ephesians that they would suffer from a plague?""

And here we have Apollonius's simple answer:

"I used," he said, "O my sovereign, a lighter diet than others, and so I was the first to be sensible of the danger; and if you like, I will enumerate the causes of pestilences."

He used a lighter diet than others, so he was the first to see the danger - i.e. the first to recognize that they were heading for a plague! And Apollonius, in answering this question offers to explain to the king, the true causes of pestiences.

"But the Emperor, fearful, I imagine, lest Apollonius should reckon among the causes of such epidemics his own wrong-doing, and his incestuous marriage, and his other misdemeanors, replied: "Oh, I do not want any such answers as that.""

Oh, I do not want any such answers as that, he says, without considering what those answers might be. Here we have a pure vegan, a philosopher, who immediately credits his ability to foresee the plague to his "lighter diet", who equates veganism with the very first step on the path to wisdom, willing to explain all the causes of pestilence, disease, plague - and we have the Emperor, simply not wanting to hear it.

How clearly this reflects the difficulties faced by vegans in today's world. How clearly vegans have come to see the causes of our modern disease, and how little others will listen, even if they be 'emperors'. How clearly we see the benefits of veganism, and yet, like Apollonius before us, we may wander for ages and hardly come across one or maybe two "good men" (or women!), whom we would happily call gods among humanity!

"Veganism is a new invention," our modern 'Emperors' tell us. "Veganism is just a new age phenomenon; a new craze that will pass like all others."

On the contrary, we can respond. Veganism has had its defenders and practitioners for centuries, back, at the very least over two-thousand years in our past, where a vegan was once brought before the court of the Emperor, who in the style of meat eaters world-wide refused to hear the truths he would speak.

Part II

It is seen through his biography that Apollonius was chiefly brought before the Emperor on trumped up charges, due most likely to his opposition to the tyranny in the land imposed in part by the Emperor and, perhaps in greater part, by those he refers to as “miscreants”, his accuser included. The questions on diet and lifestyle brought to him were due, it would seem, to the prosecutor's tactic of defamation, which did not have the results he'd intended.

Following the questions posed to Apollonius and his replies, the story continues straight to the Emperor's verdict ...

[the] Emperor ... deeming the audience to have borne witness in favor of the accused, and also not a little impressed himself by the answers he had received, for they were both firm and sensible, said: "I acquit you of the charges; but you must remain here until we have had a private interview."

Credit to the Emperor for siding with reason in this instance. Apollonius seems to have disliked this idea of a "private interview", though (being acquitted, but not allowed to leave seemed to have not suited him), and thus he opted to use his opportunity to speak before the court of the Emperor:

Thereat Apollonius was much encouraged and said: "I thank you indeed, my sovereign, but I would fain tell you that by reason of these miscreants your cities are in ruin, and the islands full of exiles, and the mainland of lamentations, and your armies of cowardice, and the Senate of suspicion. Accord me also, if you will, opportunity to speak;* but if not, then send someone to take my body, for my soul you cannot take. ...
[Note: the "opportunity to speak" refers to a speech Apollonius had prepared (presumably between his questioning and the Emperor's verdict), of which (according to his biographer) he was not given a chance to orate. However, the conclusion of his biographer seems unwarranted, as the speech itself, included fully in the biography, is written in such a way that Apollonius is made to have been interrupted in one moment by his accuser and to have responded to the Emperor in at least one instance. It reads more as a live-defense made orally, rather than as a prepared speech.]

We see another side of Apollonius here, and another measure of his greatness. Given the opportunity, he spoke out directly and firmly against tyranny, unapologetically and with truth and argument as his weapons.

Following these words, Apollonius concluded:

Nay, you cannot take even my body, ... And with these words he vanished from the court...

He is said to have literally disappeared from court. After all, as we know, modern day vegans have superpowers too ;)

It's worthwhile, for those interested in the history of non-violence and civil-disobedience to read fully the contents of this speech (contained in Book VIII, Chapter VII). The speech has a characteristically “Gandhian” flavor to it, with a noble tolerance and civility in the face of tyranny but a firmness in opposition to it. A few selections are made here, in direct relation to veganism and animal rights.

But without descending to such silly arguments, I would like to ask the accuser which of his counts I ought to take first. And yet why need I ask him? for at the beginning of his speech he dwelt upon my dress, and by Zeus, upon what I eat and what I do not eat. O divine Pythagoras, do thou defend me upon these counts; for we are put upon our trial for a rule of life of which thou wast the discoverer, and of which I am the humble partisan. For the earth, my prince, grows everything for mankind; and those who are pleased to live at peace with the brute creation want nothing, for some fruits they can cull from earth, others they win from her furrows, for she is the nurse of men, as suits the seasons; but these men, as it were, deaf to the cries of mother earth, whet their knife against her children in order to get themselves dress and food. Here then is something which the Brahmans of India themselves condemned, and which they taught the naked sages of Egypt also to condemn; and from them Pythagoras took his rule of life, and he was the first of Hellenes who had intercourse with the Egyptians. And it was his rule to give up and leave her animals to the earth; but all things which she grows, he declared, were pure and undefiled, and ate of them accordingly, because they were best adapted to nourish both body and soul.

Herein we have the ancient history of veganism from the mouth of one of its learned members. The lifestyle he lived, of pure veganism, non-violence and respect of animal rights, he says, began in India, with the Brahmans (the noble class of ancient India), from which it was taught to the ancient Egyptians, then to Pythagoras and down through history until Apollonius's own time (nearly 600 years after Pythagoras lived!). Veganism, according to Apollonius, has existed since time immemorial, and had been taught continuously for at minimum 7 centuries before his own era!

What we hear from Apollonius in his speech is exactly what we hear from modern vegans: fruit and vegetables are all we need – and not only all we need, but the best, the healthiest foods possible, provided for us directly from Mother Earth herself, with no harm necessary to sentient beings.

Continuing on the subject of veganism and the treatment of animals, Apollonius says:

But the garments which most men wear made of the hides of dead animals, he [Pythagoras] declared to be impure; and accordingly clad himself in linen, and on the same principles had his shoes woven of byblus. ... I have then told you who was the begetter of my own wisdom, and I have shown that it is no discovery of my own, but an inheritance come to me from another.
And as for myself though I do not condemn or judge those who make it part of their luxury to consume the red-plumaged bird, or the fowls from Phasis or the land of the Paeones, which are fattened up for their banquets by those who can deny nothing to their bellies, and though I have never yet brought an accusation against anyone, because they buy fish for their tables at greater prices than grand seigneurs ever gave for their Corinthian chargers, and though I have never grudged anyone his purple garment nor his soft raiment and Pamphylian tissues—yet I am accused and put upon my trial, O ye gods, because I indulge in asphodel and dessert of dried fruits and pure delicacies of that kind.

A peaceful, non-violent vegan, drawn to fight for his beliefs and to make his case against those who consume animals, not by his own desire, but because they brought the fight to him, because they insisted on drawing him into the argument. And with his sense of duty strong, Apollonius was certainly up to the task!

How many times do we see this throughout human history? Those great men and women, who would rather live a quite, peaceful, non-violent life, who find themselves dragged into the conflicts of the day, into noble fights they did not ask for but were perhaps meant to fight. Fit to the challenge he finds before him, Apollonius continues:

And yet apart from my contention about the use of living animals and lifeless things, according as he uses one or the other of which I regard a man as impure or pure, in what way is linen better than wool? Was not the latter taken from the back of the gentlest of animals, of a creature beloved of the gods? ... On the other hand linen is grown and sown anywhere, and there is no talk of gold in connection with it. Nevertheless, because it is not plucked from the back of a living animal, the Indians regard it as pure, and so do the Egyptians, and I myself and Pythagoras on this account have adopted it as our garb ...

Now the charges leveled against Apollonius are quite absurd by today's standards, among them being the charge that he was a god, or at least was imitating one (it is interesting to reflect on his own definition of that term, explained in part I). The chief accusation, however, was that he had performed a human sacrifice, as this, logically (reasoned his accuser), was the only way to gain foresight of the coming plague of which he then interceded on behalf of the people and their health.

Addressing this last charge, Apollonius explains:

In the act of the accusation, my prince, a regular dirge is chanted over an Arcadian boy, whom I am accused of having cut up by night, perhaps in a dream, for I am sure I do not know. ... They pretend that I massacred him in spite of his entreaties and lamentations, and that after thus imbruing my hands in the blood of this child I prayed the gods to reveal the truth to me. ... Need I say, O my prince, it is defiling even to listen to such stuff?

Apollonius's defense reveals his true colors:

... my defense ... shall set the truth before you. In all my actions I have at heart the salvation of mankind, yet I have never offered a sacrifice in their behalf, nor will I ever sacrifice anything, nor touch sacrifices in which there is blood, nor offer any prayer with my eyes fixed upon a knife or the kind of sacrifice that he [the accuser] means.

It is ironic that a vegan, so wholly and unabashedly opposed to committing any harm against any animal life should be accused of committing human sacrifice! Though he does provide more tangible evidence against his charges, Apollonius's first call to defense is his veganism. I have not, he says, I will not and could not do such a thing! Once again, this ancient sage demonstrates what it truly is to be vegan, holding true to his convictions. As another vegan recently said, in regards to this story, “we are in very good company with this way of life”!

The complete biography of Apollonius of Tyana is a wonderful tale, full of philosophical insight, mysticism and wonder. The above article culls out selections related directly to veganism and animal rights, but full context can only be found by reading the complete work.

It is available online here: Philostratus's Life of Apollonius.

There is also an interesting, if potentially controversial, book written by G.R.S. Mead called Apollonius of Tyana, that some may be interested in. If nothing else, it will provide greater context for the biographical story.

Irtcles by Jon Fergus

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