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Bill Thayer

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Discourse 60

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1951

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Discourse 62

(Vol. V) Dio Chrysostom

 p1  The Sixty-first Discourse: Chryseïs

In this little dialogue it would seem that Dio had chosen for discussion the most unpromising of topics. Little as is known about Briseïs, Homer at least tells us that when Agamemnon's messengers came to fetch her she followed them unwillingly, but Chryseïs, the involuntary cause of the quarrel out of which grew the Iliad, is restored to the arms of her father without giving the slightest clue to her emotions or desires. Apart from the epithet "fair-cheeked" which she shares with Briseïs, our only testimony regarding her personality is the tribute paid her by Agamemnon when he compares her with Clytemnestra to the disadvantage of the latter, a tribute, it may be, inspired as much by arrogant pride as by passion.

So far as is known, none of the Greek playwrights found in her story material suitable for dramatic treatment; yet Dio here undertakes the task of endowing this lay figure with life. His partner in the discussion is not a colourless individual, as is often the case, merely providing the cues for further argumentation and meekly assenting to the conclusions reached, but a woman with a mind of her own, repeatedly raising logical objections and asking pertinent questions. Her final utterance shows that, despite the dexterity of Dio, she has some lingering doubts about the true character of Chryseïs. It is of course peculiarly fitting that in treating such a topic as Chryseïs the interlocutor should be a woman, but that Dio should have cast a woman for such a rôle is of itself noteworthy, and there is such an atmosphere of verisimilitude surrounding the dialogue as to suggest that it may actually have taken place.

 p3  The Sixty-first Discourse:

Dio. Since, as it happens, you praise Homer in no ordinary manner and you do not, like most persons, merely pretend to admire him, trusting to his reputation, but instead have discerned that quality in the poet in which he is most effective, his acquaintance with the passions of mankind, let us, if you please, pass by all else for the moment, the fortunes of kings and generals, and turn our attention to discover how the poet has depicted the daughter of the priest whom he has mentioned at the very beginning of his poem. For Agamemnon seems to praise not only the beauty but also the character of the young woman, for he says that she is in no wise inferior in mind to his own wife​1 — clearly believing that Clytemnestra has intelligence.

2 Interlocutor. What of it? Has he not said this thoughtlessly, beguiled by his infatuation?

Dio. That is worth looking into; and yet it is very difficult to convince men who are in love, for most of them are suspicious and easily angered, and they never admit that they are loved as they deserve by  p5 their beloved, especially when they are so superior in station to the objects of their passion and associate with them by virtue of authority.

Int. That kind of thing, in my opinion, happens with lovers of the low sort.

Dio. Well then, if Agamemnon was of the superior kind, he was right in his appraisal of the girl; but if he was no better than most men, it is not easy for a woman of low degree to please a man like him to the point of taking her to be noble. Well now, let us examine also the other points.

3 Int. Why, what additional proof have you in Homer of the character of the woman? At any rate he has not depicted her as doing or saying anything, but rather as being silently handed over to her father.

Dio. What! Could one not deduce her faculties of mind from what took place in connexion with her, provided one were to consider the matter in a manner not wholly superficial and foolish?

Int. Perhaps.

Dio. Are we, then, to suppose that against the wishes of his daughter Chryses came into the camp, bearing the fillets of the god along with the ransom, and besought the assembly and the kings to release her,​2 or, on the contrary, was it because she kept begging her father to aid her if he could? 4 For if Chryseïs was content with her situation and wished to live with Agamemnon, Chryses would never have chosen at one and the same time to grieve his daughter and to incur the malice of the king, not being unaware of the king's feelings toward her. For it was no less to the interest of Chryses that Chryseïs should live with the king, so long as he was fond of her, since the priest's country, his sanctuary, and he himself had  p7 come under the sway of the Achaeans, and Agamemnon was their sovereign. 5 And, besides, how is it that immediately after her capture, at a time when she might be expected to be in greater distress, Chryses neither came nor made any mention of ransom, but rather some time later, at a time when her grief had diminished and her intimacy with Agamemnon had increased? For the poet says these things took place in the tenth year of the siege — I mean the coming of the priest and the bringing of the ransom — while it is reasonable to suppose that the cities in the neighbourhood of Troy, and especially the smaller ones, would have been taken in the very beginning of the war, and it is to this group that Chrysa and its sanctuary belonged.3

Int. Then this reasoning of yours attributes to Chryseïs very singular conduct, in that formerly she endured her lot as a captive, though newly robbed of her father and her country, but after ten years had passed she took it hard.

6 Dio. Yes, at least if you listen to what else I have to say;​4 for it is not pleasant for free women to abandon even an ordinary man, once he has become their lover, to say nothing of the most illustrious and wealthy man, king of all the Greeks, a man who held the greatest power of all among the men of that day, who had authority over not merely Chryseïs but her father and her country too, and who expected in a short time to become lord of Asia as well — for Ilium had long been in a bad way and its people were having difficulty in defending the city itself and no one went out for battle. And observe also that the  p9 king had no casual regard for her, but even openly admitted that he preferred her to his own wife.​5 That she should spurn such numerous and exceptional advantages, and in particular a lover who was not only a great king and had few who vied with him in valour, but was also young and handsome, as Homer says in comparing him to Zeus,​6 and that she should then go to her native land, now a prize of war, and live as the wife of one of Agamemnon's slaves — that is, assuming that she would wed one of the men of the district — is not that singular? 7 For that she was a prisoner of war and for that reason did not care for the man who got her is not enough to explain her conduct. At any rate Briseïs apparently loved Achilles, and that although, as she declares, it was he who slew her husband and her brothers.​7 But as for Agamemnon, nothing like that had been done regarding Chryseïs.

Int. Very good. Then from this line of reasoning it follows that Chryseïs did not wish to be parted from Agamemnon, but that Chryses was conducting these negotiations independently; or else, if indeed she did wish it, she would be rather foolish and the case you have made out it contrary to what you promised.8

8 Dio. Well now, as the saying goes, do not judge a case before you hear both sides.​9 Of course you speak of Homer as being a man of wisdom?

Int. Possibly.

Dio. Then you should assume that he tells some things but leaves others to the perception of his readers. But this is not one of the very obscure instances. For Chryseïs at the outset apparently  p11 was content to remain with Agamemnon for the reasons I have named, and she was grateful to the gods that she had not been given to any of the less illustrious persons, but rather to the king of all, and also that he was not indifferent toward her; and so she made no move regarding ransom. 9 But when she heard what conditions were like in the house of Agamemnon, how disagreeable they were, and what she heard also about the cruelty of Clytemnestra and about her boldness, then she looked with dread to her arrival in Argos. Moreover, although she had hitherto remained with Agamemnon, possibly for love of him, still when the war was near its close and a report was current that the Trojans no longer would be able to hold out, she did not wait for the capture of Ilium. For she knew that in general men who are victorious grow arrogant, and that the time when religious scruples are more potent is when men are at war.

10 For these reasons at that juncture she summoned her father and bade him entreat the Achaeans; for she learned, it would appear, that the Atreidae were dominated by their wives and that the wives felt themselves superior to these men, not alone because of their beauty, but also because they believed that the right to rule belonged rather to themselves. For the Atreidae were descendants of Pelops and newcomers in Greece,​10 whereas they themselves were women of Achaia, daughters of Tyndareüs and Leda. Now Tyndareüs had been illustrious and king of Sparta, and so not only had Helen on this account been courted by the noblest among the Greeks, but  p13 they had sworn to render aid in case of need.​11 11 Besides, these women were sisters of Castor and Polydeuces, who had come to be regarded as sons of Zeus,​12 and who to this day are deemed gods by all men because of the power they acquired at that time. For not only were they pre-eminent among the dwellers in the Peloponnese, but among those outside the Peloponnese the greatest power was that of Athens, and Castor and Polydeuces had overwhelmed that city in a campaign which they made in the reign of Theseus.​13 Furthermore, Meleager, the noblest among the Greeks, had been a cousin of theirs.14

Now though Chryseïs did not know these things, she did hear of the proud spirit of the women, and she learned how far above her husband Helen stood — so far that, when Helen heard of the great advantages of Asia, due alike to excellence of soil and size of population and abundance of riches, she came to scorn, not only Menelaüs, but Agamemnon too and Greece as a whole and she chose the one in preference to the other. 12 Now Menelaüs had been accustomed to yield to Helen in everything before her elopement, and also, when later he took her captive, he was kind to her in spite of all;​15 but Agamemnon, puffed up because of his position as commander, had disparaged Clytemnestra, and so it was clear that they were not going to get along well together, but that instead there would be just about such actions as  p15 came to pass.​16 Nor was Chryseïs pleased when Agamemnon said what he did, moreover publicly in the assembly of the Achaeans, namely, that he prized her more than his own wife and thought her not inferior to her, for Chryseïs knew that such talk breeds envy and jealousy. 13 Then too, she observed Agamemnon's character and saw that he was not stable but arrogant and overbearing, and she calculated what he would do to her, a captive, when he ceased to desire her, seeing that he referred to his wife, queen though she was and the mother of his children, in such disparaging terms. For though foolish women delight in their lovers when they are seen to disparage all other women, those who are sensible discern the true nature of the man who acts or talks that way.

14 And at the same time Chryseïs was aware that he was insolent too in his treatment of herself, and that too at a time when he was most in love with her. For example, that he should so roughly have driven off the father of his beloved, instead of sparing him on her account, to say nothing of his not having soothed the old man by saying that his daughter had nothing to fear from him, but, on the contrary, not only threatening him but also speaking slightingly of Chryseïs by saying,

But I'll not free her ere old age o'ertakes

Her far from home, at Argos, in our house,

Plying the loom and visiting my couch.​17

What overweening insolence! Why, what would he have done later on, seeing that while still in love he talks of her in such a fashion? Therefore, to  p17 guard again these things and to forecast them is the mark of a woman by no means ordinary. 15 However, to my way of thinking, what happened in Argos both to Cassandra and to Agamemnon himself​18 revealed that Chryseïs was a sensible woman to have saved herself from these disasters. Accordingly, that neither passion nor kingly station nor those things which are deemed glorious and good turned her head, young though she was, and that she did not plunge into perilous ventures and a disordered house and envy and jealousy — these are the marks of a prudent woman, one truly worthy of being daughter of a priest, nurtured in the house of a god.

Int. How so? Do you mean that these are the reasons why Agamemnon thought her wise?

16 Dio. By no means, for it is not likely that she said any such thing to him; rather that he formed his judgement on the basis of her conduct in general.

Int. Why, then, does not the poet say that she departed in gladness, just as he says that Briseïs departed in sorrow?19

Dio. Because in this too she was showing her prudence, her aim being not to exasperate Agamemnon or drive him to contentiousness. However, the poet makes the situation plain in the passage in which he says she was restored by Odysseus to her father beside the altar:

Thus having said, he placed her in his arms,

And he rejoicing took his darling child.​20

For, methinks, if she were sorrowing, her father would not be receiving her "rejoicing"; nor, perchance,  p19 would the poet have called her "darling" unless she loved her father dearly for what had taken place.

17 Int. Very well; yet why did Chryseïs reason thus rather than Chryses on his own account?

Dio. Because it was to be expected that what concerned Clytemnestra would hold greater interest for Chryseïs; but even if it was her father who reasoned thus and she agreed with him and followed his advice, that was no trifling feat either. At any rate most women in their folly are more devoted to their lovers than to their parents.

Int. Why, then, if she really was sensible, did she not try to prevent Chryses from appealing to Agamemnon publicly, in order that he might be less angry?

18 Dio. Because she knew that, though in private lovers desire in every matter to gratify their passion, they are sometimes embarrassed in the presence of the crowd, and she believed that the fillets of the god had a certain power with the people, as proved to be the case.21

Int. Still here is something that troubles me. How did it happen that Agamemnon not only fell in love with the priest's daughter at the time in question, but afterwards with Cassandra too, a divinely inspired and holy maid?22

Dio. Because this too is a sign of pride and wantonness — to desire the forbidden and rare rather than the easily obtainable.

 p21  Int. I do not gainsay that Chryseïs was prudent, if these things took place as you claim.

Dio. Would you rather hear how they assuredly did take place, or how it would be well for them to have taken place?​a

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. Iliad 1.113‑115, spoken in praise of Chryseïs.

2 Cf. Iliad 1.12‑16.

3 Strabo places Chrysa at the head of the Adramyttic Gulf, close to Cilla with which it is associated in Iliad 1.37‑38.

4 Dio accepts the term "singular" as a compliment to Chryseïs, but the interlocutor does not catch his meaning at once.

5 Iliad 1.113‑115.

6 Ibid. 2.477‑478.

7 Ibid. 19.282‑300.

8 He only promised to deduce her character from Homer's words. The speaker may be thinking of the appraisal of Chryseïs in § 1.

9 A familiar maxim supposed to obtain in Athenian law-courts.

10 Tradition made Pelops a native of Phrygia in Asia Minor.

11 Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.10.8‑9, lists thirty-two suitors, adding that, on the advice of Odysseus, Tyndareüs exacted an oath that they stand by whoever might be chosen to wed Helen, in case any one should wrong him in his marriage rights.

12 According to tradition Leda bore Castor and Clytemnestra to Tyndareüs, Polydeuces and Helen to Zeus.

13 Helen had been carried off by Theseus and Peirithoüs.

14 Meleager's mother was Leda's sister. The Calydonian boarhunt, of which he was the hero, was popular with both poet and artist.

15 Aristophanes, Lysistrata 155‑156, says that when Troy was taken Menelaüs was so moved by Helen's beauty that he let fall the sword with which he meant to slay her. He treats her with marked courtesy in the Odyssey.

16 A reference to Clytemnestra's slaughter of Agamemnon and Cassandra; cf. § 15 and Aeschylus' Agamemnon.

17 Iliad 1.29‑31.

18 Cf. § 12 and note.

19 Iliad 1.348.

20 Ibid. 1.446‑447.

21 Cf. Iliad 1.22‑23.

22 Loved by Apollo, Cassandra received from him the gift of prophecy.

Thayer's Note:

a The Editor's Introduction could hardly fail to point out the obvious: that this little dialogue is a tour de force, a masterly piece of explication de texte in which Dio analyses the slenderest of textual evidence to turn a barely existing figure, a plot device, really — into a compelling portrait of a living woman of intelligence and character.

The dialogue is also a tour de force on an altogether different plane. As the introduction also points out, Dio has taken a colourless figure in Homer and given her life by bouncing her off a real-life woman friend, not one of his often colourless interlocutors, who themselves are merely plot devices. Curiously Dio's friend is much the same kind of person as Chryseïs: intelligent, thinking for herself, and unwilling to truckle to the nearest man: we have Dio's word for it, and if she really existed, he has paid her a great compliment. Yet if she has her doubts about Chryseïs, and isn't quite ready to take Dio's word, why should we take his word about her? She herself invites us not to; why, after all, does she reason as she does rather than Dio on his own account? to which Dio might well answer, that even if he did and she just followed him, that too would be remarkable. And suddenly we find ourselves in something very like Turing's Problem and in an Escherian world in which the subject of the Discourse has in fact become the subject of the Discourse: how can we tell whether or not a person drawn by an author is real?

Or, to rephrase that more elegantly and more suitably to the subject of the Discourse: We cannot doubt that Dio's friend was very bright and self-aware, if this dialogue took place as he seems to claim. But then, would we rather hear how it assuredly did take place, or how it would be well for it to have taken place?

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