Polemon is considered one of the greatest orators of the imperial period. He came from Laodicea in Caria (Asia Minor), from a famous senatorial family. He spent most of his life in Smyrna, which is why he is sometimes called Polemon of Smyrna. He was very involved in the life of this city, he often sent envoys to the emperor and caused Hadrian to start subsidizing Smyrna.
Polemon became famous for his improvised speeches, which he delivered in a very theatrical way, carefully crafting phrases, and at the most important moment, jumping up from his seat, probably to emphasize the importance of the words he was saying. He was very confident and was ready to speak on any given topic at any time. He was also appreciated by the emperors, Trajan granted him the privilege of free travel on land and sea, Hadrian instead, enrolled Polemon in the Museion in Alexandria and gave him a huge sum of money (more than the 250,000 drachmas demanded by the sophist).
He had a very high opinion of himself, he spoke to rulers as equals, he had no respect even for the gods. When he was being treated at the temple of Asclepius in Pergamum, the god advised him to avoid cold drinks, to which Polemon replied: My dear, do you treat oxen? The Sophist was also not very modest: when he travelled, he took many packs of packs with his animals, horses, slaves and packs of dogs to hunt, and he himself was carried in a harness with a silver harness.
Polemon was a controversial figure, not always liked, but extremely colourful. One day, the future Emperor Antoninus Pius, while still proconsul of Asia, came to Smyrna and stayed in the house of one of the city’s most important citizens, Polemon. When the rhetorician returned in the middle of the night, he made a great fuss that a stranger dared to spend the night under his roof and ordered Antoninus to move elsewhere immediately. Fortunately, the future emperor was not offended, and years later, being in power, he was able to make fun of it: when Polemon came to Rome, Antoninus said: Assign him an inn and let no one throw him out of it. Another time, when Polemon threw an actor off the stage and he complained about it to the emperor, the emperor asked what time of day this happened. The actor replied noon, to which Antoninus replied, And he kicked me out of the house in the middle of the night, and I didn’t make a claim.
Polemon himself also had a sense of humour, which he proved many times. When a proconsul, watching the torture of a highwayman caught in the act, pondered what punishment to give him, Polemon said: Make him memorize the history of the past. Evidently, he found it an extremely tedious job. On another occasion, when he met a gladiator who was afraid of a fight to the death, he said: You are as frightened as someone about to give a declamation.
For a large part of his life, the sophist was forced to visit doctors frequently, as he suffered from gout. He wrote about it to Herodes Atticus in this way: It’s time to eat, and I have no hands. I’d like to walk, but I don’t have legs. But when pain comes, I have arms and legs.
He died at the age of 57, apparently in a rather peculiar way: he ordered his family to prepare a grave and lay down in it himself, and then ordered it to be closed. And to his mourning relatives, he said: Give me a body and I will recite.