The author of the following Treatises was, as the title by which he is generally known imports, of Jewish extraction, and a descendant of the sacerdotal tribe of Levi. He is spoken of by Josephus as one of the most eminent of his contemporary countrymen, and as the principal of the embassy which was sent to Caligula to solicit him to recall the command which he had issued for the erection of his statue in the temple at Jerusalem. The embassy was unsuccessful, though the death of the emperor saved the sacred edifice from the meditated profanation; but we see that Philo suffered no diminution of his credit from its unsuccessful result, since, at a subsequent period, his nephew, Tiberius Alexander, married Berenice, the daughter of King Agrippa.
The date of his birth and that of his death are alike uncertain; he speaks of himself as an old man when the embassy to Rome took place; and the treatise in which he gives an account of it was apparently written in the reign of Claudius, who succeeded Caligula A.D. 41, and reigned nearly fourteen years. His chief residence was at Alexandria, which at that period was, next to Athens, the most celebrated seat of philosophy in the world, and which had long been a favourite abode of the learned Jews. On one occasion he mentions having visited Jerusalem; and this is all we know of his personal history.
In his religious opinions he appears to have been a Pharisee, to the principles of which sect some portion of his fondness for allegorical interpretation may perhaps be owing. It was, however, rather to his philosophical labours that his celebrity among his contemporaries and his notoriety at the present day are mainly owing. He was so devoted a follower of the great founder of the Academic school, that it appears to have been a saying among the ancients that, “either Plato Philonises, or Philo Platonises.” And there are many doctrines asserted in the following treatises which can be clearly traced to the principles and even to the extant works of the son of Ariston; and it is in consequence of this tendency that he is spoken of as the first of the Neo-Platonists, that is to say, of that school which attempted to reconcile the doctrines of the Greek, and more especially of the Academic, philosophy with the revelations contained in the sacred scriptures, while, at the same time, he transferred into the Platonic system many of the opinions which he borrowed from the East.