Peregrinus Proteus

Peregrinus Proteus

Peregrinus Proteus (c. 95-165 AD) was a Cynic philosopher, from Parium in Mysia. Leaving home at a young age, he first lived with the Christians in Palestine, before adopting the life of a Cynic philosopher and eventually settling in Greece. He is most remembered for committing suicide by cremating himself on a funeral pyre at the Olympic Games in 165. Most of the details of his life come from the satire written by Lucian of Samosata called "The Death of Peregrinus".


The only detailed account of the life of Peregrinus was recorded by Lucian in his satire, "The Death of Peregrinus" ( _la. De Morte Peregrini). Although this account is hostile to Peregrinus, the bare facts of his life can be extracted.

Peregrinus was born in Parium, c. 95 AD. At a young age he was suspected of parricide, and was obliged to leave his native home. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 10.] During his wanderings he reached Palestine, he came into close contact with the Christian community, and quickly rose to a position of authority. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 11.] He suffered a term of imprisonment at the hands of the Roman authorities, during which the Christians gave him much aid. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 12, 13.] He may have expected to be martyred, but the Governor of Syria released him. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 14.] He seems to have become a Cynic at this point, because he returned home and renounced his inheritance, giving away all his money to the people of his home city. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 15.] He resumed his wandering life, maintaining close relations with the Christians at first, but eventually he offended them in some way, and was expelled from the Christian community. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 16.] He went to Egypt to study with the famous Cynic Agathobulus, where he learned the harsh asceticism of the sect. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 17.] He made his way to Rome, where he began a campaign of abuse against the Roman authorities, and especially the emperor Antoninus Pius. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 18.] He gained a following among the masses, and it may be at this point that Theagenes became his chief disciple. Although tolerated at first, he was eventually expelled by the City Prefect. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 18.] He next went to Elis in Greece, where he continued his anti-Roman preaching. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 19.] At the Olympic games (either 153 or 157), Peregrinus abused the wealthy philanthropist Herodes Atticus, whereby the infuriated crowd attacked Peregrinus, and he was forced to take refuge at the altar of Zeus. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 19, 20.] In Athens, Peregrinus devoted himself to the study and teaching of philosophy, and obtained a considerable number of pupils, amongst them Aulus Gellius.Aulus Gellius, "Noctes Atticae", xii. 11.] At the Olympic Games of 161, he announced that he would publicly burn himself to death at the following Olympics: [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 20.]

He said that he wanted to put a tip of gold on a golden life; for one who had lived as Heracles should die like Heracles and be commingled with the aether. And I wish, said he, to benefit mankind by showing them the way in which one should disregard death; wherefore all men ought to play Philoctetes to my Heracles. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 33.]
He carried out his promise: on the final night of the Olympic games in 165, he immolated himself on a funeral pyre located 20 stadia (3.7 km) east of Olympia. [Lucian, "De Morte Peregrini", 35-36.] Lucian, who was present, witnessed the event, having heard Theagenes, Peregrinus' most ardent disciple, praise his master's intentions.

It is hard to reconstruct Peregrinus' own motivations for the events of his life, because Lucian, for general and personal reasons, presents a hostile view of Peregrinus. According to Lucian, Peregrinus strangled his father to death; became a Christian so that he could gain wealth; was imprisoned so that he could gain notoriety; gave his inheritance away so that he might gain favour among the people of his home town; studied under Agathobulus so that he could become more obscene; attacked the Romans to become famous; and killed himself to become infamous.

Aulus Gellius provides a brief, but different, view of Peregrinus. He describes Peregrinus as "a man of dignity and fortitude," and Aulus would regularly visit him in his hut outside Athens where he would listen to things which were "helpful and noble":

He used to say that a wise man would not commit a sin, even if he knew that neither gods nor men would know it; for he thought that one ought to refrain from sin, not through fear of punishment or disgrace, but from love of justice and honesty and from a sense of duty.

Some time before 180, a statue of Peregrinus was erected in his home city of Parium, which was reputed to have oracular powers. [Athenagoras, "Presbeia peri Christianon", 26.]



*Aulus Gellius, [*.html#11 "Attic Nights", xii, 11] .
*Lucian, [ "The Death of Peregrinus"] .

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