While the modern Olympics are far from scandal-free, the controversies are usually caused by doping and cheating athletes or an occasional boycott of a superpower. This was not the case in ancient times. In 165 CE the Olympic Games witnessed a memorable suicide of a philosopher Peregrinus Proteus who, after delivering his own obituary, publicly burned himself. Who was Peregrinus and what led to his self-immolation that appalled the crowd at the most spectacular sporting event of antiquity?
The Life of a Philosopher
Our main source on the life of Peregrinus is Lucian of Samosata, the author of a short satirical biography „The Death of Peregrinus“ (a.k.a. The Passing of Peregrinus). Lucian’s attempt was not so much to report the objective truth, as to ridicule Peregrinus and convince his audience that the man was not a real philosopher, but a buffoon striving for attention who should not be taken seriously. Another author, Aulus Gellius, mentioned Peregrinus in a much more favourable light but didn’t provide much detail about his life. Despite his bias, Lucian has provided an abundance of details. The lower is the probability that they are true, the more interesting they get.
Peregrinus was born in Parium, a town in Asia Minor (close to Troy), around the year 95 CE. By that time, the region was firmly controlled by the Romans, despite keeping a strong Greek culture and language. Even at a young age, he stirred up controversy. Lucian reports him being accused of adultery and corrupting a young boy but avoiding the punishment.
His parents were rich, but their fortune obviously didn’t suffice to earn the respect and appreciation of young Peregrinus. He hated his father and quarrelled with him constantly. Only the death of the father brought an end to this conflict, but it didn’t bring him peace of mind. He wasn’t able to shake the suspicion of murdering his dad and was forced to leave his home town. Whether guilty of fratricide or not, one personal trait of Peregrinus became apparent – his quarrelsomeness that prevented him from staying somewhere for a long time without alienating his community.
Exiled from Parium, he traveled south and ended his journey in Palestine. Here he converted to Christianity and joined a local Christian sect. Christianity in Palestine in the early 2nd century CE wasn’t the same religion we know today. The connection to Judaism was still extremely strong. The communities were called „synagogues“ and the strict Jewish dietary laws were firmly in place. Here Peregrinus succeeded. He gradually elevated his status among the believers to the point when he was a leader of their „synagogue“. The respect was earned by his ability to explain the holy texts. His devotion to the Christian faith brought him into prison. There, while heavily supported by the Christian brethren, he awaited his trial and expected a death sentence. But the martyrdom didn’t come. The provincial governor freed Peregrinus and let him go.
Peregrinus now found himself in a surprisingly good financial situation. The nature of Christianity emphasized the moral obligation to help out the ones in need. And who was more in need than the poor wise man who almost died for the Christian cause? The donations one by one added up to a comfortable personal fortune. This fortune enabled Peregrinus to secure a reasonable standard of living and to resolve the ongoing problems in his home town, where the accusation of patricide still stood. He returned to Parium and solved the problem by throwing money at it. He donated the property inherited from his father to the city. The citizens of Parium undoubtfully liked such solutions and changed their opinion of him radically. Overnight, he turned from a despised murderer to the greatest philosopher and patriot.
At this point, Peregrinus was at the height of his career, getting much respect and reasonable money from his Christian brethren. However, he managed to screw this situation up by falling out of their favour. We do not know the details of the incident, but apparently, the man ate some forbidden meal resulting in his expulsion from the Christian community. Needless to say, the source of his income disappeared too, forcing the philosopher to worry about money once again. If only he hadn’t donated his inheritance the Parians! Peregrinus decided to do the most reasonable thing that came to his mind – he traveled to his home city once more and kindly asked the citizens to return his property. At that moment, he ceased to be a celebrated patriot there and the word „philosopher“ was swiftly replaced by much nastier words in the speeches of his countrymen. His plan failed.
Peregrinus, poorer than ever before, left Parium for the third tie and changed his lifestyle embracing strict asceticism. Obviously, he lacked other options in his situation, so at least he decided to take a philosophical stand on his poverty and considered it a virtue. He no longer practised Christianity and became a Cynic philosopher, aiming to live in harmony with nature and free of all possessions. (Of course, a more friendly biographer than Lucian would perhaps tell the story differently – the donation of personal property might have been an effect of the ascetic philosophy, not the cause of it; the story about the plan to reclaim property might be made up and so on.)
After spending some time in Egypt, he made another journey, this time to Rome. The capital of the empire wasn’t kind to him. Or, more precisely, he wasn’t kind to Rome. He spoke publicly against the Emperor. The Roman emperor at the time was Antoninus Pius, probably the mildest and kindest man to ever hold that office. Nevertheless, Peregranis managed to get himself banished for „immoderate indulgence“ pretty quickly. Taking exile in Greece, he didn’t abandon his anti-Roman agenda and tried to push the Greeks against the Romans. Peregrinus also stood in opposition to Herodes Atticus, the great benefactor of Athens and Greece, whose aqueduct brought water to Olympia. Such opinions didn’t fare well with the Greeks and our philosopher was forced to take a tactical retreat to the temple of Zeus for a sanctuary to save his life.
By this time he was known also as „Proteus“ a nickname given to him after the Greek sea-god, mentioned in Homer’s Oddysey. There, Proteus was captured by Menelaos and kept changing his form in an attempt to break free. The Philosopher also changed forms. As Lucian humorously remarks, his last change being from man to ashes.
Fire at the Olympics
After the 161 CE Olympics, Pereginus Proteus devised a plan for a spectacular suicide and stated proclaiming, that he would voluntarily forfeit his life to flames at the following Games. By this act, he planned to show the people his contempt for death and his exemplary bravery, although his biographer speculates, that all was done for the sake of gaining attention and notoriety.
At the end of the Olympics in 165 CE, Peregrinus captured some attention by publicly speaking of his suicide intentions in Olympia itself. He and his disciples amassed a significant crowd by their sensational speeches, in which Peregrinus was compared to the most famous Greek philosophers (from Diogenes to Socrates), to demigods Heracles and Dionysus and finally fo Zeus himself (the two most marvellous masterpieces of the world being the Statue of Zeus in Olympia and Peregrinus himself). Especially the comparison to Hercules seemed to be on point – the son of Zeus also died burning on a funeral pyre.
The speeches were so convincing that some of his supporters were stridently protesting against his plan and begging the philosopher to preserve his life. But not the whole crowd shared their opinion. Voices no less loud than the first group supported the plan. If we believe Lucian, Peregrinus was surprised by this development and it was not a pleasant surprise at all. Apparently, he counted with strong opposition to his suicidal plan, so he could dramatically abandon it and carry on living. However, with the crowd daring him to do what he promised, Peregrinus couldn’t escape without compromising his credibility.
Peregrinus hesitated to announce the details like time and place of his self-sacrifice, but eventually, he told everyone they could witness his death at Harpina, two miles from Olympia at night of the very next day – one day after the end of the Olympic games. When the time came, he was indeed present at Harpina where a pyre in a pit awaited him. His fellow Cynics assisted, setting the pyre on fire. Peregrinus stood there. He slowly got rid of his equipment (among other things he came with a club in a style of Heracles), threw some incense into the fire and recited his last words “Spirits of my mother and my father, receive me with favour.”. Then he leapt into the flames and disappeared in the smoke. He ended his life in front of many witnesses. Lucian sarcastically claims that Peregrinus had expected to change his form and come out of the fire s Pheonix. That obviously didn’t happen. Did his disciples follow his lead and started a wave of mass suicides? That didn’t happen either.
- Lucian of Samostata – The Death of Peregrinus
- Gilbert Bagnani – Peregrinus Proteus and the Christians; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte