The Burning Of Peregrinus / Proteus

Peregrinus of Parium, who evidently liked the nickname Proteus (and is therefore often known as Peregrinus Proteus), was a 2nd-century philosopher from the Cynic school of thought. Unfortunately for him, the fullest ancient account of his life was written by Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180), who was a satirist and not a biographer. Therefore, most of what is known about poor Peregrinus comes from a satirical work and not a sober, matter-of-fact historian or scholar. Nevertheless, Lucian often wrote about real people and historical events, and much of what he wrote can be considered true, albeit embellished and shaped for comedic effect.

According to Lucian’s dubious account, Pereginus lived quite an adventurous life. On the one hand, he reportedly donated a great deal of money and land to his home region, and went out of his way to work with persecuted peoples, such as early Christian communities in Roman Syria and Palestine. Yet, contrastingly, he was said to have been temporarily imprisoned for adultery in Syria, and he also earned himself the punishment of being exiled from the city of Rome after having insulted Emperor Antonius Pius (r. 138-161). To top off the negatives, there was apparently rampant gossip that the philosopher may have killed his own father. Pereginus’ most famous life decision, however, was his personal choice to end his life by burning himself in front of the masses that were gathering for the Olympic Games held around the year 165. Lucian of Samosata, the aforementioned satirist, summarized the incident, claiming, “Ill-starred Peregrinus, or as he liked to call himself, Proteus…this noble fellow waited for the most crowded of the Greek festivals, piled up a most enormous pyre, and jumped into it in front of all those witnesses. He even made a speech about it to the Greeks a few days before his escapade” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 1). Thankfully, the satirist had more to say on the odd incident.

Lucian claimed to have personally witnessed Peregrinus’ fiery end. According to his account, which drips with hostile sarcasm, there was much fanfare and pageantry surrounding Peregrinus’ final days. As told by Lucian, “At last Proteus himself arrived, with an innumerable escort, after the contest of heralds, and gave some account of himself, describing the sort of life he had led, the dangers he had endured, and the troubles he had borne for the sake of philosophy…[he] was delivering his own funeral oration before his departure” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 32). There was apparently a delay between the announcement of Peregrinus’ intentions and the later day when the plan was set to be carried out, for Peregrinus let the Olympic Games come to a close, leaving the philosopher’s display as a grisly grand finale of the festivities.

Lucian of Samosata claimed that the pyre venue was set up at a place called Harpina, just over two miles east of Olympia. The satirist wrote, “I got up around midnight and went straight to Harpina, where the pyre was. This is fully 21/4 miles from Olympia as you go eastwards past the Hippodrome. As soon as we arrived we found the pyre piled up in a pit about six feet deep. It was constructed mainly of pinewood, stuffed with dry kindling so as to catch fire quickly” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus, section 35). As the moonlight illuminated the area, Peregrinus arrived on the scene, reportedly accompanied by an entourage of fellow Cynic philosophers. Peregrinus, himself, was said to have carried one of the torches that crackled with the very fire that was soon to cause his demise. Peregrinus and the others tossed their torches on the pyre, quickly setting the wood alight. What came next, curiously, was said to have been a little underwhelming and anticlimactic. According to Lucian, “[Peregrinus] said, looking towards the south (for the south too was an element in the spectacle): ‘Spirits of my mother and father, receive me favorably.’ With these words he jumped into the fire; nor indeed could he be seen, but he was enveloped by the towering flames” (Death of Peregrinus, section 36). So ended the life of Peregrinus.  While other details of Peregrinus’ activities remain uncertain as to their accuracy, his self-inflicted death by fire at the Olympic Games in 165 is, indeed, considered a truthful historic fact.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The test of fire, the monk Peter, the disciple Saint John Gualbert, by Stefano della Bella (c. 1610–1664), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).


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