In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius, we have perhaps the clearest historical account of an ancient vegan in the character of Apollonius of Tyana. 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.
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 least 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.
Continue to Part II of this Article here:
Or, for more on Apollonius of Tyana, see here: