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Discourse 52

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1946

The text is in the public domain.

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Discourse 54

(Vol. IV) Dio Chrysostom

 p355  The Fifty-third Discourse:
On Homer

This Discourse, like the one preceding, lies mainly in the field of literary criticism. However, it contains less suggestion of independent judgement, being in the main a cursory survey of what various philosophers have thought and said about Homer. The fundamental importance of Homer in the scheme of Greek education is too well known to require documentation. If we may trust the words of the Greeks of the classic period, they gave little thought to the beauty of his language, prizing him rather than as a teacher par excellence. Dio, on the other hand, shows a consciousness of the beauty of his work. That he should have stressed in his appraisal of the poet the views of the philosophers, and above all Plato, was only to be expected. His familiarity with those views points to a relatively late period in his career as the time of composition of our Discourse.

The occasion to which we owe the speech is unknown. In style and theme it would be appropriate as an introduction to some public recitation from Homer. Though we hardly need additional testimony to the enduring fame of Homer, Dio's tribute affords striking testimony to the surprising range of the influence exerted by the poet (§§ 6‑8). Somewhat similar testimony is afforded by Or. 36.9‑14.

 p357  The Fifty-third Discourse:
On Homer

Democritus​1 expresses his opinion of Homer in these words: "Homer, having been blessed with a divinely inspired genius, fashioned an 'ornament of verses'​2 of every kind," thus indicating his belief that without a divine and superhuman nature it is impossible to produce verses of such beauty and wisdom. Many others too have written on this subject, some expressly lauding the poet and at the same time pointing out some of his wise sayings, while others have busied themselves with interpreting the thought itself, this group including not merely Aristarchus​3 and Crates​4 and several others of those who later were called grammarians but formerly critics. In fact Aristotle himself, with whom they say that literary interpretation and criticism began, treats of the poet in many dialogues, admiring him in general and paying him honour, as does also Heracleides of Pontus.5

2 Prior to these, however, Plato mentions Homer at every opportunity, marvelling at the charm and grace of his poesy,​6 though often censuring him in respect of his myths and tales about the gods, holding that he  p359 has told what was not at all beneficial to mankind when he narrates in detail about the gods instances of greed, of scheming against one another, and of adultery and wrangling and contentiousness.​7 And finally he reaches the point of refusing to admit Homer to partner­ship in his own state and constitution,​8 which, as he himself believed, was to be founded upon wisdom, his purpose being, not only that those whom he appoints as guardians and leaders of the state should not as boys hear such tales about gods, but also that no melancholy account of conditions in the lower world should cause them to be more faint-hearted in the face of battle and death​9 or, like colts which have been badly broken in, suspicious from the start about things which are not really terrifying.10

3 Regarding these matters there is indeed another theory, which is fuller, longer, and not easy to expound, dealing with the question whether Homer erred in these particulars, or whether he was merely transmitting to mankind certain doctrines about natural phenomena embodied in the myths after the fashion then in vogue.​11 Indeed it is not easy to arbitrate a question like that, just as, in my opinion, it is not easy to decide against one of two men who are your friends, both being worthy of respect, when each makes charges against the other.

4 But to continue, Zeno​12 the philosopher also has written on both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, in fact, on the Margites13 too; he believes that this poem also was composed by Homer at the time when  p361 he was rather young and was testing his poetic genius. 5 However, Zeno finds fault with none of the work of Homer, undertaking to interpret it and at the same time to show that the poet has written some things in accord with fancy and some things in accord with reality, Zeno's purpose being to save Homer from appearing to be at war with himself in certain matters which are held to be inconsistent with each other as narrated by Homer.​14 But Antisthenes​15 anticipated Zeno in this theory, namely, that some things have been spoken by the poet in accord with fancy and some in accord with reality; however, Antisthenes did not elaborate the theory, whereas Zeno made it plain in each of its details. Moreover, Persaeus, the pupil of Zeno, also has followed the same plan in his writings, as have several others as well.

But to return to Plato, while finding fault with Homer, as I have said, he at the same time declares his poetic power to be something amazing, his idea being that Homer is capable of everything and reproduces literally every voice, even of rivers, winds, and waves; moreover, he very jestingly gives instructions to bind the poet's brows with a fillet of wool, pour perfume on him, and — send him somewhere else.16

 p363  6 Furthermore, Plato himself in praising Homer's poesy for its charm admires the man exceedingly.​17 Indeed, without divine favour, without inspiration of the Muses and Apollo, it is simply impossible for poetry to be created which is so lofty and magnificent, and withal so sweet,​18 as to enthral for so many years, not merely men who have the same tongue and language as the poet, but even many of alien race, yes, so that not only men who speak two languages and are of mixed stock, though unacquainted with much else that is Greek, are very familiar with Homer's verses, but even some who live very far away. For example, it is said that Homer's poetry is sung even in India, where they have translated it into their own speech and tongue. 7 The result is that, while the people of India have no chance to behold many of the stars in our part of the world — for example, it is said that the Bears are not visible in their country — still they are not unacquainted with the sufferings of Priam, the laments and wailings of Andromachê and Hecuba, and the valour of both Achilles and Hector: so remarkable has been the spell of one man's poetry! It even seems to me that by this power of his he has surpassed both the Sirens and Orpheus. 8 For in  p365 what respect is it a greater feat to cast a spell upon stones and trees and wild beasts and to make them follow than to have mastered so completely men of alien race who do not understand the Hellenic speech, men who have acquaintance with neither the poet's tongue nor the deeds of which his poem tells, but are, as I believe, simply enchanted by a lyre? Moreover, I believe that many barbarians who are still more ignorant than those men of India have heard of the name of Homer, if nothing more, though they have no clear notion what it signifies, whether animal or vegetable or something else still.

9 However that may be, Homer's life deserves praise much more than his verse. For example, his having lived in poverty, a wanderer, and making from his poems only enough to sustain life is evidence of remarkable fortitude and nobility of soul;​19 and besides, his never having written his name anywhere, yes, never having even referred to himself anywhere in his poetry, though all other writers with any reputation for skill in composing either verse or prose write their names both at the beginning and at the end, and many even in the body of their works,​20 both prose and verse. Take, for example, Hecataeus​21 and Herodotus and Thucydides, 10 Thucydides, in fact, solemnly affirming, not merely once at the beginning  p367 of his history, but many times, in connexion with each winter and summer,​22 "Thucydides composed this." Homer, on the contrary, was so liberal and magnanimous that nowhere in his poetry will he be found to refer to himself, but in fact, like the prophets of the gods, he speaks, as it were, from the invisible, from somewhere in the inmost sanctuary.23

11 Again, since everything Homer wrote is both beneficial and practically serviceable, if one were to review all he has said on the subject of virtue and vice, it would be a vast undertaking; however, on the subject of kings a brief statement must be made as to what he says they should be like. Whenever, for instance, he praises any king, he calls him "the peer of Zeus in wisdom"; and all the good kings are "Zeus-nurtured"; and Minos, who has the highest reputation among the Greeks for justice, he says is both the associate and pupil of Zeus,​24 his idea being that Minos was the first and greatest king of all, and the only one who himself understood and handed down the art of kingship, and also that good kings should shape their course with an eye to Minos, patterning their own conduct after a god, so far as humanly possible. 12 Moreover, the poet makes manifest the character of Zeus and the nature of his kingship in a multitude of ways, but, to put it briefly and succinctly, he frequently indicates his power and disposition by the constant epithet, "father of gods and of men," the notion being that the care exercised  p369 by kings should be that of a solicitous father, accompanied by kindness and affection, and that he should never lead and govern men in any other way than with love and protective care, since Zeus does not disdain being called men's father.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Famous philosopher of the Ionian school. Cf. Diels, Frag. d. Vorsokr. I.394.

2 Perhaps a reminiscence of Solon. Cf. Edmonds, Elegy and Iambus (L. C. L.) I.114.

3 Distinguished Alexandrine scholar and editor of the works of Homer.

4 Head of the Pergamene school and rival of Aristarchus.

5 Pupil of both Plato and Aristotle.

6 Cf. Republic 595B‑C and 607A.

7 Republic 378B‑E.

8 Cf. Republic 398A. Plato's quarrel was with all poetry except hymns and encomia of great men (e.g.Republic 607A).

9 Republic 386‑387C.

10 Republic 413D.

11 Allegorical interpretation of Homer was fairly common.

12 Founder of the Stoic school.

13 A satiric poem no longer extant. Even Aristotle believed it to be the work of Homer (Poetics 4.101).

14 The "inconsistencies" in Homer have figured largely in Homeric criticism until recent years.

15 Cynic philosopher and founder of that school.

16 In this paragraph Dio has combined two closely connected passages in the Republic: (1) 396B, ἵππους χρεμετίζοντας καὶ ταύρους μυκωμένους καὶ ποταμοὺς ψοφοῦντας καὶ θάλατταν κτυποῦσαν καὶ βροντὰς καὶ πάντα αὓ τὰ τοιαῦτα ἧ μιμήσονται; "Well, then, neighing horses and lowing bulls, and the noise of rivers and the roar of the sea and everything of that kind — will they (the future citizens of the ideal state) imitate these?" (Shorey, L. C. L.); and (2) 398A, Ἄνδρα δή, ὡς ἔοικε, δυνάμενον ὑπὸ σοφίας παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, εἰ ἡμῖν ἀφίκοιτο εἰς τῆν πόλιν . . ., προσκυνοῖμεν ἂν αὐτὸν ὡς ἰερὸν καὶ θαυμαστὸν κὰι ἡδύν, εἴποιμεν δ’ ἂν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστι τοιοῦτος ἀνὴρ ἐν τῇ πόλει παρ’ ἡμῖν οὐδὲ θέμις ἐγγενέσθαι, ἀποπέμποιμέν τε εἰς ἄλλην πόλιν μύρον κατὰ τῆς κεφαλῆς καταχέαντες καὶ ἐρίῳ στέψαντες . . ., "If a man, then, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things should arrive in our city . . . we should fall down and worship him as a holy and wondrous and delight­ful creature, but should say to him that there is no man of that kind among us in our city, nor is it lawful for such a man to arise among us, and we should send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head and crowning him with fillets of wool . . ." (Shorey). Though Plato does not name Homer in either passage, Dio is presumably correct in his identification, for Plato (op. cit. 607A) calls Homer "the first of tragedians."

17 Plato's admiration for Homer is attested by many passages, but nowhere more strikingly than in Republic 595B, Ῥητέον, ἧν δ’ ἐγώ, καίτοιτ φιλία γέ τίς με καὶ αἰδῶς ἐκ παιδὸς ἔχουσα περὶ Ὁμήρου ἀποκωλύει λέγειν, "I must speak out," I said, "though a certain love and reverence for Homer that has possessed me from a boy would stay me from speaking" (Shorey).

18 Dio here reverts to the doctrine of Democritus (§ 1).

19 Dio may well have in mind his own experiences as a wanderer during his long exile. Cf. also Or. 47.5, where he says Homer was glad to get twenty-five drachmas by begging.

20 Dio might have pointed to the fact that Hesiod, who used the same metre as Homer and was regarded by some of the ancients as Homer's contemporary, recorded his own name (Theogony 22) and supplied information as to his home and family. See also p381, n4.

21 Hecataeus of Miletus, who flourished about the end of the sixth century B.C., was a pioneer in the field of history. Only fragments of his work remain. The truth of Dio's statement, however, is borne out by frag. 332 (Müller, F. H. G.): "Hecataeus of Miletus thus speaks."

22 The work of Thucydides was organized by winters and summers, the summer being the season for active warfare.

23 Cf. Or. 36.34.

24 Odyssey 19.178‑179: ἔνθα τε Μίνως ἐννέωρος βασίλευε Διὸς μεγάλου ὀαριστής. Cf. Or. 4.39‑40.

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