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Theopompus of Chios



Theopompus of Chios (378-ca.320): Greek historian, one of the representatives of the "rhetorical history".

According to a brief Byzantine biography, Theopompus, the son of Damasistratus, was born in the year that corresponds with our 378/377. This was the age in which the Greek city Sparta and the Achaemenid Empire dominated the Aegaean world, and an island like Chios inevitably had a pro-Spartan faction, to which Damasistratus belonged. Inevitably, this party's popularity suffered after Sparta's terrible defeat at Leuctra in 371, and Theopompus' family was exiled.

As a student of Isocrates of Athens, the son of Damasistratus studied rhetoric, and he seems to have been active as orator for some time. We know that he once delivered a Panathenaic speech and an Olympian speech: probably orations for festivals. His Laconic speech may have dealt with Sparta. We do not know what To Euagoras was about, although we know that a man with this name was king of Salamis on Cyprus. Other works include Letters from Chios, a song in honor of king Philip II of Macedonia, Invectives against Plato, and Advice to Alexander. Very remarkable is an excerpt from the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the first known epitome of an ancient historian. All these works are now lost.

Theopompus' main works are the Hellenika ("Greek history") and the Philippika ("History of king Philip"). The first publication told the story of Greece from the year 411, where the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides breaks off, to the year 394. (There is a similar book by Xenophon, with the same title and the same subject matter.) Only nineteen fragments survive, which is not enough to tell more about the structure and scope of the twelve books of Hellenika.

There is some debate about the question whether the two papyrus fragments known as Hellenika Oxyrhynchia belong to the Hellenika of Theopompus. The Hellenika Oxyrhynchia is first-rate material, and its style resembles that of Theopompus. Yet, the author seems to have lived earlier.

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Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig (Germany). Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier.

We know more about the Philippika, which was a very monumental work of no less than fifty-eight books. More than 370 fragments have been identified. As the title indicates, Theopompus placed king Philip of Macedonia (360-338) in the center of his story, but he deals also with events in other parts of the world. It is a universal history of the historian's own age, and includes geographical, cultural, religious, and ethnographic information. Excurses seem to have dealt with (a.o.) Athenian rhetoricians, the tyrants of Sicily (Dionysius I and Dionysius II), and the religion of Persia.

Just like Herodotus and Thucydides, Theopompus is a moralist and his historical publications are meant as arguments for his aristocratic outlook. He believes in monarchy and sees Philip as the ideal king, although he criticizes his alcoholism. This positive image is not so strange, because Theopompus composed a large part of his Philippika during a long stay at Philip's court.




As an exile, Theopompus certainly traveled a lot. He knew many of his actors personally, and had seen many places. That he attempted to be impartial is beyond doubt. Later Greek historians were inspired by this, and also appreciated his style, which is full of rhetorical effects and focuses on drama. This combination is called "rhetorical history".

The Philippika were finished in 324. At that moment, Theopompus was on his native island Chios, to which he had been able to return in 333, after Alexander the Great had ordered the recall of the Chian exiles (text). After Alexander's death, however, pro-Macedonian Greeks were suspect and Theopompus was again forced to flee. He settled in Egypt, at the court of Ptolemy I Soter. The historian seems to have died shortly after 320.





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