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Elius Aristides

(26 November 117 - c. 180 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Elius Aristides was born on November 26, 117 in Hadrianutherai, Mysia (Asia Minor). His father Eudamon was a wealthy landowner and temple priest of Olympian Zeus, as well as a citizen of Smyrna. In 123, Aristides and his father were granted Roman citizenship by Emperor Hadrian. Aristides received a careful rhetorical education and began his career as an itinerant sophist. He was a leading representative of the second sophistry, an intellectual current developing during the early empire.

In the years 141-142 he visited Egypt and on the way the Greek islands, where he showed off with declamations. In 143 he decided to set off on a long journey to the most important place for every sophist at the time, i.e. to Rome. It was not a wise decision, as Aristides fell ill just before the trip, but he did not give up on the trip. After a hundred days of travel, he finally reached the capital of the world, but he was so weak that there was no question of any rhetorical displays. After many unsuccessful attempts to treat him by local medics, he decided to return to Smyrna. It was then that Asclepius appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to travel to Pergamum, where the then most famous Asclepion was located, including hot springs and the entire system of care for the sick.

Treatment continued intermittently for as long as 17 years. During this time, Aristides was subjected to many strange treatments, such as running barefoot in the snow, bathing in a river, cleansing the body by vomiting, enemas, and bleeding. A kind of treatment was also writing speeches and declamations, which, due to his health condition, Aristides had to deliver while lying in bed. At the request of Asclepius, he also wrote Holy Speeches, that is, five declamations (of the sixth only the beginning has survived to our times), which are a kind of diary of an illness. In them, Aristides described 130 dreams sent to him by a god, as well as the diseases he suffered from and the treatments he underwent. It is difficult to say what he really suffered from, he had stomach and throat problems, he suffered from infections, and perhaps also from epilepsy. It is also suspected that he was simply a hypochondriac.

Despite his poor health, Aristides’ career progressed, he began to travel again, he reached Rome again, where, this time with success, he spoke. He received tax privileges and successfully avoided various clerical functions for which he was elected against his will. He also conducted teaching activities, and his most famous student was Damian of Ephesus.

In 165, during the great smallpox epidemic, Aristides also had this disease. He survived, as he claims, thanks to Asclepius, although he struggled with health problems resulting from this disease until the end of his life.

In 176, he spoke in Smyrna to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and perhaps this was his last public appearance. Interestingly, Aristides, despite the fact that he was an outstanding sophist, could not, like others, improvise, therefore, at the emperor’s request to deliver a declamation, he replied that he would do it, but not until the next day, because he had to prepare himself.

Soon after, he went to his native Mysia, avoiding a great tragedy, because in 178 Smyrna was struck by an earthquake that completely destroyed the city. Aristides sought financial aid from Marcus Aurelius for Smyrna, which was successful and a few years later the city was rebuilt. The rhetorician also wrote several declamations about this tragedy, but due to illness and advanced age, he was unable to deliver them personally. He died in Mysia probably in 180 (or a little later) at the age of 63.

The most famous speeches of Aristides, apart from the aforementioned Holy sayings: In Praise of Rome, In Praise of Athens (Panathenaikos), Against Plato, and numerous declarations about the gods, including: On Zeus, On Poseidon, On Asclepius.

Author: Aneta Liwerska (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • C.A. Behr, Aelius Aristides and The Sacred Tales, Amsterdam 1968
  • C.A. Behr, P. Aelius Aristides. The complete works, vol. I, Leiden 1986
  • M. Szarmach, Druga sofistyka, w: Literatura Grecji starożytnej, t. II, red. H. Podbielski, Lublin 2005

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