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Discourse 56

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 58

(Vol. IV) Dio Chrysostom

 p417  The Fifty-seventh Discourse: Nestor

This little Discourse has as its immediate aim a defence of Nestor's behaviour in the famous passage in the first book of the Iliad, in which he seems to boast of his former prowess and importance. Dio maintains with some skill, not only that Homer intended the old man to speak as he did, but also that he did not mean to depict him as a braggart — the self-praise of Nestor was to serve the useful purpose of checking the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.

Having made his point, Dio (§ 10) lets his audience into the secret that his sermon on Nestor was really designed to forestall possible criticism of himself when he should presently deliver an address which he had previously delivered before the Emperor. The emperor in question was doubtless Trajan, and the speech to which our Discourse was to serve as prelude may well have been one of Dio's four discourses On Kingship; see Vol. I of the Loeb Library edition and the Introductions. Such is the view of Arnim, who dates our Discourse in Dio's latest period and finds in it evidence of what he takes to have been the speaker's frequent practice, the repetition of speeches previously delivered somewhere else. If one may hazard a guess as to which of the four speeches just mentioned Dio was about to repeat, Or. 2 seems a natural choice, for it is full of Homeric quotations and illustrations selected for their edifying quality, attention is called to Homer's admiration for oratory, and Nestor himself is twice mentioned in that connexion (§§ 18‑24).

 p419  The Fifty-seventh Discourse:

Why in the world do you suppose Homer caused Nestor to speak the following verses to Agamemnon and Achilles when he was trying to pacify them and teach them not to quarrel with one another?

For once in bygone days I dealt with men

Still braver than ye are, yet they did ne'er

Make light of me. Such men I had not seen,

Nor ever shall, as were Peirithoüs

And Dryas, shepherd of the soldiery,

And Caeneus and Exadius, Polypheme

Divine and Theseus son of Aegeus, like

The deathless gods. Aye, they were reared most strong

Of earthly men; most strong were they and with

The strongest strove, wild creatures of the hills,

And slew them ruthlessly. They understood

My counsels and they hearkened to my word.

And so should ye, since hearkening is best.1

2 Can it be that Homer has made a braggart of Nestor when he says of Peirithoüs and Dryas and the others that, though they were not only marvellous by nature, but also far superior to Agamemnon and Achilles, still  p421 they wanted his opinion too, going on to say that he had come from Pylus to Thessaly by invitation, since they wanted to enjoy his company and to converse with him?2 For why, after having said that they were the strongest of men, does Nestor seem to offer as a weighty testimonial in their favour, that they understood his mind and hearkened to his words? Or do we say his purpose was virtually this — that no man of understanding ever disobeys those whose words are right; nay, disobedience is tantamount to lack of understanding?3

3 Come then, let us examine also the other aspects of the case, to see if Nestor has spoken rightly or as a braggart. Certainly foolish persons universally scorn men of no reputation and pay no heed to them, even though they may chance to be giving most excellent advice; but, on the other hand, when they see men being honoured by the multitude or by persons of greatest power, they do not disdain to be guided by them. This is one count, therefore, on which Nestor commends himself, namely, that in days gone by he has been able to persuade many men of influence, and that Agamemnon and Achilles will refuse to obey, if they do refuse, because of their own folly and lack of perception, and not because Nestor is incompetent to give advice about things of highest importance. 4 Accordingly, just as Nestor would not have hesitated to disparage himself, if by disparaging and saying that no one ever deigned to consult him about anything he were likely to move Agamemnon  p423 and Achilles to obey his words, so, if he thought his self-praise would move them to this, it was reasonable for him to resort to praise. 5 Or is it not the mark of a foolish person to be ashamed to praise himself when by praise he is likely to confer the greatest benefits; just as it is also, I fancy, to do the opposite — put on airs and talk about oneself a great deal, in case some risk or loss should be involved? Therefore, just as when a physician who wants a patient to submit to surgery or cautery or to the drinking of some unpleasant drug, knowing the patient to be cowardly and foolish, mentions others who have been saved by him because they willingly submitted to his treatment, no one says the man who makes these statements is bragging, 6 so it seems to me that Nestor could not justly be accused of bragging either.

This, then, was one benefit resulting from his words. And here is another — Nestor knew that both Agamemnon and Achilles were misbehaving for no other reason than because of insolence; and he believed that men are insolent most of all, one might say, when they despise the others and deem them far inferior to themselves, being puffed up through reputation or power, and he perceived that this was why Achilles and Agamemnon were puffed up and wrangling, each of them because of arrogance. For the one, as he saw, being a son of Peleus and Thetis and pre-eminent among the men of his day in fighting, believed that it befitted his dignity not to listen to anyone at all or to regard anyone as superior to himself; 7 but in Agamemnon's case the cause of his arrogance was the power attached to his kingship and his being sole ruler of all the Greeks. Seeing, therefore,  p425 that they had been spoiled by these things and could not live at peace with one another, but that they were swollen in spirit — as later Achilles declares,

My heart with wrath does swell4 —

Nestor wished to humble them and, if possible, reduce their pride, just as persons reduce swellings by pricking or squeezing. This explains why he mentioned men of fame and power, and besides, I fancy, men of former times, knowing as he did that fame attaches rather to such men. 8 Moreover, he did not leave to his hearers to determine what opinion they should hold about the men,5 but instead he himself expressly declares that they were far superior to Agamemnon and Achilles, in the hope that they might abate somewhat their folly and madness.6

Do you think, I ask you, that Homer put these words into Nestor's mouth at random, the Nestor whom he declares to be most eloquent of men and whose power of eloquence he likens to the sweetness of honey,7 which is most pleasant and sweetest of all to those who are well, though to those who are ill and suffering from fever, so I hear, it is most unpleasant and has the natural power of cleansing and causing to smart parts which are festered and diseased? 9 For instance, the speech of Nestor, though it appeared sweet to the others, seemed bitter to Achilles and Agamemnon, diseased as they were and corrupted by their rage, and as a result they did not obey him  p427 because of their folly. Therefore Homer did not say this at random either or, as some imagine, by chance.

10 Well then, let us say no more on these topics. However, there is one matter which calls for consideration in the light of what has been said. Suppose that some one in addressing ordinary men tells them that on a previous occasion, having addressed others who were far superior — popular assemblies or kings or tyrants — he did not fail of his purpose with them but secured their attention and compliance, is it just that such a man should be thought a braggart, on the assumption that he had mentioned those words of his for the purpose of being admired and deemed a genius, or was it rather for the purpose of having the compliance of his hearers, imitating the teaching of Nestor? 11 For indeed it is odd if, while Socrates was accustomed to walk but a short distance and then report to those in the Academy the words he had spoken in the Lyceum and, vice versa, had no reluctance to go to the Lyceum and use the words he had spoken in the Academy,8 and while it has now been so long a time since they9 began to bring out the same tragedies and comedies year after year,  p429 we, on the other hand, shall be thought to be acting strangely in case, when you wish to listen to speeches, we now report the words we have spoken in the presence of the Emperor,10 as if it were a matter of no consequence to know whether those words are beneficial and serviceable, both for you and for the rest of mankind as well, or trivial and useless. 12 For rest assured that, while words addressed to private persons pertain to those men themselves and to few others, words addressed to kings are like public prayers or imprecations. For that reason I believe the Persian king was especially unwise in being accustomed to dispatch in all directions ordinary persons, King's Ears11 as they were called, and to entrust them with the responsibility of listening to everything, it being necessary to protect the real ears of the king much more carefully than the golden plane-tree,12 to prevent their hearing anything disagreeable and harmful.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Iliad 1.260‑268 and 273‑274. The reference is to the famous fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs at the marriage of the Lapith Peirithoüs, an adventure familiar in Greek art, having been used for the western pediment of the Zeus temple at Olympia, on the shield of the Athena Promachus, and in the decoration of the Hephaesteum at Athens.

2 Dio here gives a rough paraphrase of lines 269‑270 of the passage from which he has just quoted. Either he or the copyist omitted lines 271 and 272 because of homoeoarchon.

3 Familiar Stoic doctrine, that virtue is dependent upon reason. In this the Stoics were anticipated by Socrates, who made of it a fundamental tenet. Cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9.4‑5, Plato, Meno 78A, and Protagoras 358C.

4 Iliad 9.646.

5 I.e., the heroes Nestor had named.

6 Although all the MSS. read ἐκείνων, Post's emendation (see critical note) is justified both by the immediate context and by the passages from the Iliad cited by Dio. The very point of Iliad 1.260‑274 is that, since better men than Agamemnon and Achilles had hearkened to Nestor's words, they should do so too, and the superiority of the earlier heroes is made most explicit by lines 260‑262, as well as by 271‑272, which Dio failed to cite.

7 Iliad 1.247‑249.

8 The Academy and the Lyceum, both famous public parks and associated with the schools of Plato and Aristotle respectively, were situated on opposite sides of the city, the distance between them being not less than two miles. Socrates was especially fond of the Lyceum, but the beginning of the Lysis finds him on the way there from the Academy. Plato's dialogues seem to afford no support for Dio's statement that Socrates was used to going from the one place to the other and repeating his remarks, and the intervening distance could hardly be termed "short" — unless compared with that travelled by Dio on his return from Trajan's court. See Introduction.

9 Dio seems to refer to the Athenians. With the notable exception of Aeschylus, whose plays were permitted to be revived after his death, in the fifth century the great dramatic festivals of Athens regularly provided new plays. However, old tragedies formed a feature of the programme beginning in 386 B.C. and old comedies beginning in 339 B.C. Cf. IG II2, 2318, lines 202 ff. and 317 ff., and Flickinger, Greek Theater and its Drama, pp203‑204.

10 See Introduction.

11 The functionary called the King's Eye is mentioned as early as the Persians of Aeschylus (line 979), with which cf. also Herodotus 1.114 and Aristophanes, Acharnians 91‑97. The King's Ears are referred to first by Xenophon, Cyropaedeia 7.2.10‑12, who says that there were several of them.

12 According to Herodotus (7.27) the golden plane-tree was presented to Darius the Great by Pythius of Lydia. Xenophon, Hellenica 7.1.38, relates that Antiochus of Arcadia scornfully declared that the tree could not afford shade for a grasshopper. However that may be, it was cherished in the royal treasury at Susa and regarded as one of the marvels of the world. It was melted down by Antigonus in 316 B.C.

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