Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.04.06

Simon Swain (ed.), Dio Chrysostom: politics, letters, and philosophy.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. x, 308.  ISBN 0-19-924359-X.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, University of Exeter
Word count: 2230 words

The young Franciscus Philelphus was an enterprising man. After travelling to Constantinople as secretary to the Venetian consul, he returned in 1427 laden with Greek texts, among them the Trojan oration of the then little-known rhetorical philosopher, Dio Chrysostom. On the sea-journey home, Philelphus began the Latin translation of this text which was later credited with renewing 'the almost extinct memory of Dio of Prusa'.

What a wonderful story with which to open (see Simon Swain's introduction, pp. 13-14) a book on Dio Chrysostom, himself a master anecdotalist. Every reader of Dio will know that narrations that masquerade as natural, artless, or self-evident are particularly likely to conceal a cunning rhetorical twist. Philelphus constructed his self-appointed role as literary revisionist by translating Dio's classic of literary revisionism: the story became the vehicle for his (whose?) rhetorical autobiography. And that is the reason why this is such a provocative story with which to begin a new volume on a fascinating figure, a central figure in Greek culture and Greco-Roman politics at the dawn of the second century CE. Are we standing on the threshold of a renaissance of Dio studies? What claims can this volume press to rebuilding the Dionic man?

Not, it should be stressed, that Dio has been particularly neglected by scholarship (as have his approximate contemporaries Musonius, Favorinus and Polemo, and to a lesser extent Aristides and Herodes). Christopher Jones, Giovanni Salmeri, Aldo Brancacci, Paolo Desideri, John Moles, Harry Sidebottom and Swain himself (all of whom, bar Jones and Sidebottom, are represented in this volume) have all published major works on him within the last 25 years.1 But in a way, critical orthodoxy has been as much of an encumbrance as fifteenth-century obscurity. The primary attraction of the Dio of the seventies and early eighties lay in his status as exemplary of provincial Greco-Roman Realpolitik. If he was also an ingenious and slippery writer, that was more an embarassment than an opportunity. John Moles' article on his 'career and conversion'2 delivered one of the most decisive blows, showing what an adept autobiographical faker Dio was. Recent years have seen much more sensitivity both to Dio as a literary stylist and to the 'political' role of literature in constructing and modifying received paradigms of Greek identity, particularly embattled in early imperial times.3 A seasonable time, then, to harvest our greatly increased awareness of Dio's sophistication and subtlety, and our renewed sense of the conflicts of his age. In the light of the work of Maud Gleason and Thomas Schmitz on the anthropology of sophistic performance,4 Dio might now be seen as a masterful showman on the stage of Greco-Roman politics, his orations brimming with the outrageous self-stylisations and do-or-die agonistics of contemporary political and epideictic rhetoric.

Though it is packed full of solid scholarship, this collection only partially delivers on its renaissance hints: there may be a new Dio here, but he can be glimpsed only intermittently through the trees. After his swashbuckling anecdotal beginning, Swain proceeds to a chronological survey of the scholarly and literary reception of Dio since Philelphus. As an introduction, this method carries a certain rhetorical force: encyclopaedic, editorial authority is impressed upon the volume (and the field), under the omniscient, synoptic gaze of the master scholar. But the exclusively retrospective focus does preclude any programmatics, any polemics, any vision for the volume. Indeed, when he confronts new methodologies, a certain hostility is occasionally palpable. No Gleason and Schmitz in this survey (this is Dio tout court); but poor old Harry Sidebottom is scolded for 'draw[ing] too heavily on cultural anthropology to enliven the topic' (45 n. 107). This criticism can only obtain if cultural anthropology is seen as an inherently mortifying discipline -- a premise not every reader will wish to accept.

Besides the introduction, there are three sections -- 'Politics', 'Letters' and 'Philosophy' -- but the best contributions to the volume work across all three categories, alive simultaneously to Dio's engagement with his sociocultural context and to his interpretative richness. Following this example (and indeeed that of the wandering Dio), I shall range freely over these sections. The strongest example of such intellectual multi-tasking comes in the section on 'Letters': John Moles' chapter is a brilliant exposition of the Charidemus, a wonderfully subtle text, a dialogue modelled loosely on Plato's Phaedo and equally suffused with mourning, languorous erotics, and cerebral abstraction. In this reading, the text emerges as a personal text, dedicated to the memory of his son, and simultaneously a universalising text, a philosophical -- and, to an extent, political (p. 209) -- challenge to a broader readership. Moles' passion for Dio -- 'a fundamentally good man (for so I increasingly believe)' (p. 205) -- bespeaks a long-lived and intense, indeed intensely empathetic, engagement with the author (for eye-opening details of his and Ewen Bowie's beach holiday in 1976, for example, do consult p. 204 n. 51). This chapter, smoothly integrating detailed reading into an effortless synopsis of wider issues in contemporary Dionian scholarship, should serve as a paradigm for scholars of Dio and his contemporaries. Although it may be hard to match Moles' faith in transcultural humanist values, few will deny the vigour, nuance and penetrating intelligence of this contribution.

The rightful rehabilitation of the Charidemus is further underlined (pp. 223-5) in the course of Mike Trapp's contribution (in the 'Philosophy' section), a thoroughly researched and elegantly composed analysis of the author's manipulation of Platonic precedent. Trapp's knowledge of the texts is enviable, and his conclusions -- that Dio used Plato extensively, as a stylistic model and as a source for Socrates (a central ethical paradigm), but not for his philosophical content - are sensible and surefooted. Some readers, though, will no doubt crave answers to a more ambitious range of questions. What are the risks involved in using Plato as a model? How, for example, does Plato the pederast square with Dio's general heterosexism (see Hawley, pp. 136-7)? How does Dio's pose of unaffected ἁπλότης resonate in the context of allusions to the dangerously 'poetical' stylist?5 For second-century writers, there were many Platos: a stronger sense of the active choices, and the politics of those choices, might have made the chapter more powerful.

Trapp's chapter on Platonic influence complements, but to an extent stands in tension with, Brancacci's chapter on Dio's use of the Cynic (and specifically) the Antisthenic) tradition on Socrates. Brancacci's is a more extreme, but less persuasive, thesis than Trapp's: where the latter argues that Dio engaged in widespread and varied manipulation of the Platonic repertoire, this chapter claims that 'philosophically Dio's Socrates has a doctrinal solidity and his own coherent and precise physiognomy because it is modelled on Antisthenes' Socrates' (p. 245). The argument is based upon a movement from the specific -- the presence of Cynic allusions in various orations -- to the general claim that Dio was, in essence, a consistently Antisthenic philosopher, and not an eclectic (p. 259). It is this leap that is particularly problematic, privileging as it does one aspect of Dio's complex literary make-up to the detriment of others. For example, when Diogenes is presented at the outset of the eighth oration as 'looking like a complete beggar' and 'looking askance' (ὑποβλέψας), this may be an allusion to Socrates (p.257), although Brancacci's references are misleading: of the three passages he alludes to (Ar. Nub. 362, Pl. Symp. 221b; Phd. 117b), only the Phaedo passage uses the verb ὑποβλέπειν (the other two use the phrase τὠφθαλμὼ παραβάλλειν: whatever this means, it is not straightforwardly synonymous with ὑποβλέπειν). But it is also, and more obviously, an allusion to the avenging Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, 'looking askance' at the suitors (ὑπόδρα ἰδών, Od. 22.34, a role that Dio himself adopts in Philostratus' famous story at VS 488).

Moreover, as Trapp notes (pp. 232-4), some of Brancacci's identifications of Antisthenic allusion are shaky. Perhaps this is one of the necessary risks of this kind of reconstructive venture, but the case is not helped by some opaque argumentation. For example, his discussion of 55.23 (pp. 247-8): ' was not without purpose that he represented Gorgias or Polus or Thrasymachus or Prodicus or Meno or Euthyphro or Anytus or Alcibiades or Laches as speaking...'. Is Dio referring here to Platonic authorship alone, or also to Antisthenic? Brancacci's argument in favour of the latter proposition exploits the observation that the subject of this sentence is not 'Plato' (an 'error' he attributes to Trapp's discussion at p.234 n.63, though in fact Trapp is there dealing with a different passage) but 'Socrates'. This may be syntactically true, but the statement does not make sense unless we acknowledge that Dio is conflating author and subject. In any case, it is hard to see why '[t]his means that Dio refers cumulatively, in this passage, to the interlocutors in all the Socratic literature of which he is aware' (p.248).

Even if ultimately unconvincing, the ambitiousness of Brancacci's chapter is commendable. Several other contributions have more conservative ambitions. Salmeri's chapter on 'Dio, Rome, and the civic life of Asia Minor' adds only detail (rich though that is) to the argument of his book (which is frequently 'cf-ed')6: Dio is primarily concerned with promoting civic harmony; his self-arrogated role in Greco-Roman relations was to mediate and accommodate. Not only is this all familiar material, but also it ignores the tensions, identified by (among others) Swain himself,7 in Dio's presentation of the role of Rome (the invective in oration 13 is, we read, no 'real polemic', p. 88). Likewise, Brenk's study of the concept of self-sufficiency or autarkeia (I stress concept, because there is no lexical analysis) and Desideri's discussion of the role of the city cover well-trodden ground, particularly in their heavy focus upon the Euboicus (if any Dionic oration can be called 'famous', it is this). Both these pieces are authoritatively and attractively written, and contain much of interest; but both also suffer from biographical fallacies (particularly Brenk: 'Dio among the Euboeans ... discovered the surprising generosity of the poor', p. 276), mapping a narrative of Dio's intellectual progression onto a hypothetical dating of chronologically problematic texts. (Desideri's argument is in fact perfectly circular: the correct methodology for dating, he argues is to link the texts to Dio's biography... (p. 96 n. 5).) Both, moreover, are too quick to take Dio's pronouncements as his views without considering the literary and rhetorical context. This is particularly problematic in discussions of the Euboicus, where the idealisation of the countryside (surely) needs balancing against an awareness of the rich vein of irony serving to distance the implied audience of urban sophisticates from the ἀγροικία of the rustics.

The Euboicus is also the central focus of John Ma's stimulating chapter on public speech and community. Ma's aim is to show the continued importance of 'issues of community, citizenship and proper behaviour' in Dio's time (p. 123). His approach, primarily from the perspective of Athenian and Hellenistic politics (but also bringing to bear a thorough understanding of the epigraphic record), yields fresh insights into the civic tensions underlying this well-worked text. This is an invigorating chapter, even if it oversells its innovative qualities ('our attention has been excessively mesmerised by the elite of notables ... and civic pride and self-image ... and not focused enough on interaction between elite and community ...', p. 121). If Ma's emphasis upon continuity between periods is productive, however, Hawley's (dealing with Dio on marriage, gender and the family) is less so. Hawley covers much more ground than Ma, dealing with in effect the entire corpus; but this is, in part, the problem, in that cumulative detail tends to outweigh nuanced discussion. The conclusion, that Dio's position is broadly traditional, but integrates the new, contemporary emphasis upon the role of women, lacks bite ('tradition' is treated in too inert and cumbersome a manner), and is not helped by a fuzzy final page (p. 139).

Finally, two chapters in the middle section ('Letters'), Graham Anderson on storytelling, and Suzanne Saïd on mythology. Anderson's surveys Dio's approaches to narrative, providing a welcome focus upon his literary qualities as an innovative, energetic writer (although there is some otiose recapitulation, and a preoccupation with classification, sometimes anachronistically neglecting the dynamics of ancient genre: e.g. is the Euboicus a novella, p. 147?). Saïd's approach is broadly analogous: discussing a range of deployments of mythological exempla (subdivided into various typological categories), she shows the extent of Dio's creative manipulation of the material available to him. As in Anderson's chapter (again), the positive gain, an appreciation of the artful resourcefulness of the writer (with which I began this review), has a flipside, namely a rather romantic image of the author as a free creator unconstrained by external pressures and traditions. What, that is to say, are the problems and risks involved in using narrative and myth? What pitfalls is Dio negotiating?

In all, then, a solid and useful collection, with a couple of stand-out pieces (by Moles and Ma), some weaker contributions, and no duds. Those interested in Dio, Greek culture under the empire, and civic politics in the Greek East will want to buy or read it. What is clear, though, is that the volume as a whole is limited by its conservative aims, building upon (in some cases merely reinforcing) existing foundations, and only occasionally offering a presentiment of any new perspective upon this most fascinating figure.


1.   Full details in Swain's bibliography, but note especially Brancacci, A. Rhetorike philosophousa: Dione Crisostomo nella cultura antica e bizantina (Naples, 1986); Desideri, P. Dione di Prusa: un intelletuale greco nell' impero Romano (Messina, 1978); Jones, C.P. The Roman world of Dio Chrysostom (Cambridge MA, 1978); Moles, J.L. 'The career and conversion of Dio Chrysostom', JHS 98 (1978), 79-100; Salmeri, G. La politica e il potere: saggio su Dione di Prusa (Catania, 1982); Sidebottom, H. 'Studies in Dio Chrysostom On Kingship', DPhil thesis (Oxford, 1992); Swain, S. Hellenism and empire: language, classicism and power in the Greek world, A.D. 50-250 (Oxford, 1996), 187-241.
2.   Cited in previous note.
3.   Dio as stylist: e.g. Russell, D.A. ed. Dio Chrysostom, Orations 7, 12, 36 (Cambridge, 1992); Moles, J.L. 'The Kingship Orations of Dio Chrysostom', Papers of the Leeds Latin Seminar 6 (1990), 297-375. Cultural politics: e.g. Moles, J.L. 'Dio Chrysostom, Greece, and Rome', in Innes, D., Hine, H & Pelling, C. eds Ethics and rhetoric: classical essays for Donald Russell on his seventy-fifth birthday (Oxford, 1995), 177-92; Trapp, M.B. 'Sense of place in the orations of Dio Chrysostom', in Innes et al. eds (1995), 163-75; esp. Swain (n. 1); also my own '"Greece is the world": exile and identity in the second sophistic', in S. Goldhill ed. Being Greek under Rome: cultural identity, the second sophistic and the development of empire (Cambridge, 2001), 269-305; and my Greek literature and the Roman empire: the politics of imitation (Oxford, 2001), 156-167, 186-216.
4.   Gleason, M.W. Making men: sophists and self-presentation in ancient Rome (Princeton, 1995); Schmitz, T. Bildung und Macht: zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit (Munich, 1997); also Korenjak, M. Redner und Publikum: ihre Interaktion in der sophistischen Rhetorik der Kaiserzeit (Munich, 2000).
5.   E.g. Arist. fr. 73; Cic. Or.67; Caecilius fr. 152; Walsdorff, F. Die antiken Urteile über Platons Stil (Bonn, 1927), 33-41.
6.   Reference in n.1.
7.   Swain (n.1), 211-25; also Moles' 1995 article (n.1).

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