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Dio Chrysostom


Dio Cocceianus of Prusa (c. 40 - after 112; also known as Chrysostom, "goldvoice"): Greek politician and philosopher, and -by some definitions- one of the first representatives of the Second Sophistic.

Dio was born in Prusa in Bithynia (modern Bursa in Turkey). His father appears to have been, at least in part, a moneylender, because on his death bed, he left an estate to his children to which 400,000 denarii was owed. Dio's maternal grandfather had once been a wealty man too, but had spent too much money on public buildings. An emperor had restored his fortune. Dio's family was one of the overspenders that were to ruin Bithynia during the reign of the emperor Trajan.


Like every rich Greek or Roman, young Dio was trained as a rhetorician: it was imperative for everyone embarking upon a public career to be able to speak in public. There were three types of oratory:

  1. juridical speeches (is the act we are talking about lawful?);
  2. political addresses (is this policy useful?);
  3. the occasional speech (e.g., at a funeral or wedding, praising or condemning what is good or bad or beautiful or ugly).

The last-mentioned type could also cover speeches on fictional themes, like Dio's In Praise of Hair. The rhetorical virtuosos who delivered these discourses were called sophists, an expression that may be translated as "show speaker". Dio really liked this type of oratory; he delivered a speech in which he attempted to prove that the Greeks never captured Troy (Oration 11). His Praise of a Gnat, Eulogy of a Parrot, and Description of the Tempe Canyon are now lost. On the other hand, Philostratus, our main source for sophistry in the Early Empire, regards him as one of the "philosophers who have the reputation of sophists" (Lives of the Sophists, 484-492).

His attacks on philosophy may also belong to this type of oratory, because it is known that Dio was also taught by the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, and composed several philosophical treatises. The lost essay Is the Cosmos Perishable? was probably a serious Stoic text, and there is no need to deny the seriousness of his Oration 74 (on trust and distrust). Other texts deal with the nature of public opinion (Oration 67) and fortune (Oration 63). Several texts are of a moralistic nature, like Oration 7 ("the Euboean"), which (after a novel-like description of a shipwreck on Euboea and Dio's encounter with a poor hunter) concludes that the poor can live a good life.

As a philosopher, Dio was an eclectic. He combined ideas from Platonism, the Stoa, and Cynicism. In Oration 36 ("the Borysthenean"), he even employed an eschatological myth that he claimed to be Persian, and indeed has certain traits in common with what we know about ancient Zoroastrianism.

Dio has always been admired for these speeches, and was called Chrysostom, "goldvoice". However, in the second century, people increasingly felt that philosophy (i.e., searching for what is true) and sophistry (i.e., searching for what is convincing) were incompatible, and they felt uneasy with Dio. Some of his speeches belong to both categories (e.g., Oration 52, in which he compares how Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides treat the story of Philoctetes). It is interesting to notice that no such doubts were felt as to Plutarch, whose oeuvre also contains a combination of serious philosophy (How to Know whether One Makes Progress in Virtue) and lighthearted sophistry (On Praising Oneself Inoffensively; Whether Fire or Water is More Useful). On the other hand, in Plutarch's oeuvre, we can clearly separate philosophy from sophistry; Dio is often harder to pin down.

As we already noticed, the literary critic Philostratus argued that Dio belonged to a special category of "philosophers who have the reputation of sophists" (Lives of the Sophists, 484-492). A century and a half later, Synesius of Cyrene argued in a speech devoted to Chrysostom that he had at some point in his life converted to philosophy (Dio, 2-3). This interpretation was popular until the twentieth century, when it was superseded by the idea that Dio, like any good sophist, adapted his persona to the occasion.


According to Synesius, Dio's conversion to philosophy was caused by his exile. During the reign of the emperors Vespasian (69-79) and Titus (79-81), Dio stayed in Rome and appears to have been some sort of society figure. When Domitian ascended the throne, Dio was expelled from Rome and ordered to never return to Italy or Bithynia. Perhaps he had been too critical of the new ruler, perhaps he had been too close to the empress Domitia Longina, who temporarily fell from grace in 83. However that may be, he left Rome, having in his bags nothing but Demosthenes' On the False Embassy and Plato's Phaedo.

Adopting the persona best suited to the occasion, he presented himself as a wandering philosopher of the Cynic school. These philosophers believed that people ought to live like animals, because civilization created unhappiness. It was a highly impractical school of thought, and Cynics were often seen as jesters, who could speak the truth, because the alternatives they proposed were usually quite unpractical. To the exile Dio, it offered a way to continue to speak in public.

He appears to have traveled widely - although not necessarily as an exile. One of the cities he visited was Borysthenes (near modern Odessa in Ukraine), which resulted in the already mentioned Oration 36, in which he describes the advantages of one-man rule. (It is a famous source for the history of the Greeks living north of the Black Sea, on the fringe of the classical world.) He also visited the Getae, a tribe living north of the Lower Danube, and wrote a history about them, which is now lost. His visit to Viminacium (Kostolac in eastern Serbia) in Moesia Superior must belong to the period of his exile.

It is possible that Dio's book on the Getae was written for the emperor who had exiled him and was meant to obtain permission to return. Domitian was fighting against the Dacians, the powerful neighbors of the Getae, and Viminacium was one of the most important bases during this war (its garrison, the Seventh legion Claudia, temporarily shared the fortress with IIII Flavia Felix).

Return to Prusa

In 96, Domitian was assassinated. Philostratus claims that Dio, who heard the news in a Roman fortress, persuaded angry Roman troops not to revolt against the Senate. The story is too absurd to be entirely invented: supposedly, Dio jumped on an altar naked -an interesting way to capture an audience's attention- and denounced Domitian, an odd thing to do in front of an angry group of soldiers, who loved the murdered emperor. However, the men were willing to listen to the Greek orator (who appears to have been able to express himself in the soldiers' Latin), and decided to be loyal to the new ruler, Marcus Cocceius Nerva.

Whether this story is true or not, in any case, Nerva recalled Dio from exile, and the sophist-philosopher may or may not have accepted the emperor's family name, now calling himself Dio Cocceianus. Next year, he showed the Greek world that he was back: in Olympia, he delivered Oration 12, "the Olympian", in which he evokes the sculptor Phidias explaining how he had made the statue of Zeus. Probably, Plutarch replied to Dio's words, but this refutation is now lost.

Like his maternal grandfather and his father, Dio was a benefactor to his fellow-citizens. He spent lavishly in his city, which also used him as an ambassador: Dio was sent to Nerva to express the city's gratitude (98), but when it arrived in Rome, the emperor was dead, and the embassy went to the north, perhaps even to the Rhineland, where it met Nerva's successor Trajan and congratulated him. The new ruler appears to have liked the man from Prusa, who accompanied him to the Danube when the war against the Dacians was renewed in 102. Dio was received by the emperor in Rome in 106, and dedicated four treatises On Kingship to Trajan (1, 2, 3, 4).

Dio and Pliny

After a visit to Alexandria, Dio settled in Prusa again. His fortune had been restored by the emperors, and he carried out several building projects (Oration 47). However, several fellow citizens were under the impression that Dio wanted too much and was aiming at some sort of personal rule. (Suspicions like these were not unusual. In Athens, Herodes Atticus encountered similar resistance.)

Therefore, another rich man from Prusa accused Dio, probably in 111. This Claudius Eumolpus, who represented others, could not say that he feared the power of the orator, who was, after all, a friend of Trajan. So he said that the orator was guilty of  lèse-majesté, because he had placed a statue of the emperor in a building he had also buried his relatives. Moreover, Dio was said to be unable to give an account of certain expenditures. The accusation marked the beginning of a complex trial, in which Dio was treated mercilessly by the Roman governor, Pliny the Younger.

Pliny believed that Dio was innocent. He wrote a letter about this trial to the emperor (Letter 10.81), which makes it clear that he did not take the accusations seriously. A brief walk to the statue and the tomb had shown that the accusation was unfounded, and Pliny sarcastically remarks that the lawyers had brought forward much argument, "some of it even referring to the actual case".

However, the lawsuit was important, because Pliny was not a normal governor. Over the years, the Bithynian elite had spent too much money on building projects, and after this potlatch, the province was bankrupt. Trajan had sent Pliny with a special mandate (more...). The lawsuit offered him an opportunity to show that he was the boss. He immediately organized a  hearing, which he theatrically broke off to inspect the statue and the tomb.

Of course the normal policy would have been to punish the accuser with a fine, because he had filed a frivolous charge. That would have been the end of the matter. However, after the first hearing, Pliny ordered the accuser and the accused to accompany him to Nicaea (where he was expected) and state their case again. It was a way of saying that the Bithynians had to respect their governor: not even Dio, the friend of Trajan, was above the law.

This is the last datable event from Dio's life. He was now about sixty years old, and must have died during the next decade. His wife and at least one of his sons had preceded him, and he was survived by at least one son, who may have been the father of the historian Cassius Dio.

Dio Chrysostom's speeches were greatly admired by later authors like Eunapius and Synesius, who not only wrote the already mentioned treatise on Dio, but also answered Dio's In Praise of Hair with an In Praise of Baldness that is more amusing than Dio's speech. Philostratus not only included a brief biography of Dio in his Lives of the Sophists, but also gave him a role in a vie romancée called the Life of Apollonius of Tyana.


Thanks to Jaap-Jan Flinterman.