The Center for Hellenic Studies

Flavius Philostratus, On Heroes


Translated by Ellen Bradshaw Aitken and Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean


Table of Contents

Preliminaries to Philostratus's On Heroes by Casey Dué and Gregory Nagy
Philostratus, On Heroes
Select Bibliography

In Memoriam

Adrienne Mamelian Berenson


Janice Hunter Aitken

“Strength and dignity are her clothing… she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
(Proverbs 31:25–26)


A multitude of heroes, gods, and mortals populate On Heroes and its world; likewise our work with this text over the course of several years has been assisted by many friends and scholars. Our acquaintance with On Heroes began at Harvard Divinity School, when from 1991 to 1993 a group of doctoral students from the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Studies gathered weekly, under the direction of Professor Helmut Koester, to read On Heroes together in Greek. This group included, in addition to us, Marianne Bonz, Denise Buell, Liza Burr, Cynthia Kittredge, Iain Maclean, Shelly Matthews, Barbara Rossing, James Skedros, and Christine Thomas. We are grateful to these colleagues for the hours spent together in congenial and dedicated work. Fascinated by the text and its vivid depiction of Greek heroes, we decided at that time that On Heroes needed to be made accessible in English translation so as to be useful to students and scholars alike.

Interdisciplinary conversation has proved invaluable in understanding this text. Our special thanks go to Helmut Koester for his conviction about the importance of this text for Early Christian studies and for his continual encouragement. We are also grateful for the ways he nurtured the climate of inquiry in which this volume took shape. Gregory Nagy, whose work on Homer and Greek heroes undergirds our work, has been our constant mentor, critic, and fan during the preparation of this volume. His undying enthusiasm for Philostratus's On Heroes strengthened us when our spirits flagged.

We are delighted that Casey Dué and Gregory Nagy have graced this volume with their “Preliminaries.” This essay grows out of their use of On Heroes in the course “The Concept of the Hero in Hellenic Civilization” in Harvard's Core Curriculum. Their sensitivity to the educational potential of this text thoroughly informs their essay and initiates the reader into the world of heroes.

We deeply appreciate the assistance of Jackson P. Hershbell, professor emeritus of Classics at the University of Minnesota, who read earlier drafts of our translation with care. Jack's keen eyes have caught many errors and infelicities, his thorough knowledge of the literature of the Second Sophistic has greatly stimulated our thinking about Philostratus, and his questions have enriched the notes and Glossary. Jack also sent us early ideas for the Introduction, which have formed a core of some portions of it. We thank him for his unstinting help.

Our research assistants, Laura Nasrallah, Sarah Stewart, Douglas Young, Anna Miller, and Jenna Zamesnik have provided timely and accurate help along the way, often when they had only a partial view of the entire project. Christopher P. Jones, Kimberley Patton, Jeffrey Rusten, and Timothy Whitmarsh have generously advised us on particular points or shared drafts of their own work with us. Jennifer Phillips read an earlier version of the translation. We are grateful to Catherine Playoust, Christina Salowey, and Florinda Ruiz; their careful reading of our work has saved us from many errors. Thomas J. Wells of Invisible Productions expertly created the maps in this volume. Our thanks go to all of them, as well as to the staffs of Fintel Library at Roanoke College and of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Research funds from Roanoke College and Harvard Divinity School have helped in making our collaboration possible on a practical level. We also thank John Herrmann from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Jody Maxmin of the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University; Elizabeth Milleker from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Bernhard Weisser, conservator of the Münzkabinett in the Bodesmuseum, Berlin, for their assistance with the appearances of Protesilaos on coins, gems, reliefs, and statuary and for providing the plates included in this volume.

This Student Edition was preceded by the publication of our translation accompanied by the Greek text on facing pages as the first volume in the Society of Biblical Literature's new series Writings from the Greco-Roman World. We have taken this opportunity to make a few minor corrections to the Translation and Glossary. We offer our profound appreciation to the editor of this series, John Fitzgerald, for his continual support and encouragement through the process of preparing this volume and for his availability for counsel from the time we first approached him. We are also grateful to Rex Matthews, Editorial Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, for his enthusiasm for this project and his many contributions to the preparation of this volume. Yannis Haralambous, of Atelier Fluxus Virus, is responsible for the design, typesetting, and layout of the volume; we express our admiration for the care he has devoted to it.

To those who introduced us to the Greeks and instilled in us a love of things Greek—in particular the faculties of the Classics Departments at Stanford University and Harvard University—we are greatly indebted. Now we in turn take great pleasure in introducing students to this world through Philostratus's On Heroes. It is to our students, whose enthusiasm for this text has matched our own, that this volume is dedicated. And to our “friend” Protesilaos, who loves things Greek even more vigorously, a libation is no doubt in order as we participate in his literary resurrection

Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean, Salem, Virginia,
Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Anchor Bible Dictionary
Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt
Before the Common Era
Common Era
Classical Philology
Classical Quarterly
Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies
On Heroes
Harvard Theological Review
Inscriptiones Graecae
Journal of Hellenic Studies
Journal of Roman Archaeology
Journal of Roman Studies
Loeb Classical Library
Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae
Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, H. S. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon
Masoretic Text
Denys Lionel Page, ed., Poetae Melici Graeci. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.
Pauly, A. F. Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft
Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Greco-Roman World
Transactions of the American Philological Association

Note on Numbering System

The numbering system used for references to On Heroes in the present volume reflects the chapter and paragraph divisions assigned by Ludo de Lannoy in his critical edition of the Greek text (Flavii Philostrati Heroicus [Leipzig: Teubner, 1977]). Advanced students should note that citations of On Heroes in LSJ refer to the chapter and paragraph numbers of Carl Ludwig Kayser's 1870 edition of the Greek text (Flavii Philostrati opera auctiora edidit C. L. Kayser; accedunt Apollonii Epistolae, Eusebius Adversus Hieroclem, Philostrati junioris Imagines, Callistrati Descriptiones [2 vols.; Leipzig: Teubner, 1870–1871; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1964]). Kayser's numbering system, along with de Lannoy's, appears in the margins of the Greek text reproduced in our full version of Philostratus's Heroikos (SBLWGRW 1; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001).

Preliminaries to Philostratus's On Heroes
Casey Dué and Gregory Nagy


The Heroes of Philostratus's On Heroes: Fiction, Epic, and Hero-Cult

In the literature of the so-called Second Sophistic era (around 60 to 230 C.E.), as best exemplified by Philostratus's On Heroes (written toward the end of this era), ancient readers were treated to claims of a truer and more accurate account of the Trojan War—truer even than the version they were used to reading in the epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.[2] In the polished prose of On Heroes, such a claim was made not by the author himself, Philostratus, but by a creation of the author. This creation is a fictional character known simply as the ampelourgos, “vinedresser,” who is telling another character—a mysterious Phoenician—all about an ancient hero who fought and died at Troy. This hero, Protesilaos by name, now communicates mysteriously from beyond the grave his eyewitness accounts about what really happened in the Trojan War and beyond. Similar claims were made by shady “authors” like Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian, offering what were described as eyewitness accounts.

What was the cause for such intense interest in trying to validate the stories of the Trojan War? For an answer, it is essential to understand the agenda underlying the stories themselves. The Trojan War was viewed by the ancients as the primary testing ground for the ancient concept of the hero. The heroes who populated the stories about the Trojan War were the primary focus of interest. These heroes were the real agenda.

In ancient Greek myth, heroes were humans, male or female, of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves. The prime example is Akhilleus, more commonly known as Achilles in the English tradition. This, the greatest hero of the Homeric Iliad, was the son of Thetis, a sea-goddess known for her far-reaching cosmic powers.

There was a major problem, however, with the actual stories that told about such heroes. The classical versions of these stories had been crystallized in the epic poetry of Homer and, later on, in the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As literature, the media of epic and drama could be seen as perfect expressions of classical ideals. By the time of the Second Sophistic, however, these same media were far less than perfect in expressing the essence of the ancient heroes. What seemed to be missing in the classical media? It was the older concept of the cult hero, which continued to be a vital part of the overall concept of the hero in the era of the Second Sophistic. In this era, even new fiction seemed superior to classical epic and drama in giving full expression to that older concept.

The cult hero, the object of hero cult, was a basic historical fact of Greek civilization. Hero cult was the traditional practice of worshipping heroes, and the evidence for it goes back at least as far as the “Geometric” period of the first millennium B.C.E.[3] There is broad cultural evidence indicating that hero cult in ancient Greece was not created out of epic stories like those of the Iliad and Odyssey but was in fact independent of them. The epic stories, on the other hand, were actually based on the religious practices, though not always directly.

Paradoxically, references to the practice of worshipping heroes are not obvious—at first sight—in the prime media of archaic and classical Greek literature that deal most directly with heroes. Current research on the traditions underlying the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as well as the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides has demonstrated the pervasive influence of hero cults in shaping the media of epic and drama, but the fact remains that most references to the actual cults of heroes are only implicit in these forms of archaic and classical Greek literature.[4] It is the historians of the classical period who give us the earliest explicit references to hero cults, and the most prominent example is the narrative of Herodotus about the cult of Protesilaos at Elaious (Hist. 7.33; 9.116–120).[5] Yet, even in the medium of classical Greek historiography, the actual meaning of such a hero cult remains something of a mystery. That mystery, as we shall see later, is intentional.

As Ellen Bradshaw Aitken and Jennifer Berenson Maclean show clearly in their detailed Introduction to Philostratus's On Heroes, the numerous references in this work to the hero cults of Protesilaos, Achilles, Ajax, and other heroes of the epic tradition reflect accurately the historical realities of hero cults as they persisted into the third century C.E. They show further that the traditionalism of Philostratus's On Heroes in its treatment of hero cults is not necessarily at odds with the literary and philosophical modernities that pervade this masterpiece of the Second Sophistic era of Hellenic civilization.

A key aspect of these modernities is the use of fiction.[6] The framing devices used by authors of the Second Sophistic to claim authenticity are patently fictional. Yet, at the same time, the authors of works like On Heroes of Philostratus and the Journal of the Trojan War attributed to Dictys of Crete strive to emphasize the truth and credibility of their accounts. As Stefan Merkle points out, Dictys of Crete presents himself as a reliable historian. Dictys is represented as referring to his own credibility as an eyewitness and claims to have questioned other eyewitnesses. He uses the rhetoric and methods of historiography to distinguish between versions and provide the most reliable account.[7] Merkle also notes that, unlike the literary game of Lucian's The Dream, or The Cock, there are no parodic features in Dictys. The unadorned style of the military diary is adopted in order to give the account the greatest weight.[8]

Philostratus's On Heroes is similar in that there are no parodic features that undermine the authority of the framing narrative. The vinedresser who tends the sacred grove of the cult hero Protesilaos engages in a dialogue with a Phoenician who seems to know nothing about Greek hero cult.[9] The vinedresser communes frequently with the hero and has heard from him a more accurate account of the Trojan War.[10] This account (as mediated through the vinedresser) not only directly contradicts Homer in many places, but it also includes narratives that are not featured in the Homeric tradition:

Phoenician: And, vinedresser, what would be the contest over the shield?[11] No poet has mentioned it, nor does it appear in any story of the Trojan War.
Vinedresser: That, my guest, you will say about many matters, because the hero tells many things about warriors as well as deeds of battles that are not yet known to most people. This is the reason. He says that, in their passion for the poems of Homer, most people, looking only at Achilles and Odysseus, neglect good and brave men, so that some are not remembered at all, and for others Homer dedicates a trireme of four verses. (Her. 14.1–2)

Philostratus, through the experiences of a worshipper of Protesilaos, claims to bring to light narratives about heroes that are not featured prominently in the panhellenic Iliad and Odyssey.

Philostratus uses the authority of a warrior hero who was reportedly present at Troy, seeking thus to authenticate narratives about the various other heroes who fought there. According to epic, Protesilaos was the first warrior to die at Troy (Il. 2.701–702). He was thus an eyewitness—as a warrior—only to the beginning of the war. Nevertheless, according to the vinedresser, once freed from the body after death, Protesilaos<--! ref type="subject" ref="Protesilaos"/--> could “observe the affairs of mortals” (Her. 7.3). Thus both the Dictys narrative and On Heroes make use of an authoritative heroic source who, in communication with the participants in the Trojan War, corrects and supplements the Homer-centric understanding that most people of the day would have had about the Trojan War, particularly with respect to the heroes who fought there.

The vinedresser particularly calls attention to heroes who are not mentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey or who have only a few verses devoted to them in these epics. Protesilaos himself belongs to the latter group. The cult of this particular hero in the Chersonesus is featured prominently at the end of Herodotus's