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Bill Thayer

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Discourse 20

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1939

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 22

(Vol. II) Dio Chrysostom

 p271  The Twenty-first Discourse: On Beauty

The date of this Discourse may be determined roughly from a consideration of § 10, where Dio says that everybody wishes that Nero were still alive. This statement was approximately true if made in the reign of the bloodthirsty tyrant Domitian. At that time even Dio, who was unjustly suffering exile by Domitian's orders, would have preferred Nero. In the good reigns of Vespasian and Titus, who preceded Domitian, and of Nerva and Trajan, who followed him, Dio could not have made that statement. Then too, at Domitian's death in A.D. 96 Nero would have been in his sixtieth year had he lived, so that in the following period, some twenty-eight years after Nero's death, it is unlikely that the great majority, as Dio says in the same section, still believed him to be alive. Finally, at the end of this section Dio's companion accuses him of "everlastingly" ridiculing his fellow-men. This was a characteristic of the Cynic philosophers, and we infer from the thirteenth Discourse that Dio did not appear in the rôle of a philosopher before his banishment, even if he was converted to a belief in philosophy prior to this.

At the opening of the Discourse Dio is led by the sight of the statue of a handsome youth to express regret that beauty among males is dying out because unappreciated, while that of females is increasing. If, then, there are no longer any really handsome men, we Greeks are coming round to the view of the Persians that women are superior to men in beauty. The mention of the Persians leads Dio to speak of certain unnatural sexual practices among them, and this in its turn recalls to his mind the wickedness of Nero. Finally Dio's companion gets a chance to ask about the parentage of the young men represented by the statue and is told that he had no father. However, he is distinctly Greek in type, for maintains that there is a distinctly Greek type of beauty.

This Discourse, then, is in the form of conversation between Dio and another man, younger probably and a Greek also, in which Dio informally gives some of his views on beauty. One cannot fail to notice the discursiveness and loquacity so characteristic of our author.

 p273  The Twenty-first Discourse:
On Beauty

1 Dio. How majestic the youth is and handsome; and, what is more, his appearance is ancient or classic​1 in type, such as I have not seen in our modern statues, but only in those set up at Olympia, the very old ones. The images of the subsequent periods even show a steady decline and clearly represent less noble features, to some extent owing to the sculptors, but chiefly because the persons portrayed are themselves like their statues.

Interlocutor. It is surely a sad state of affairs, according to what you say, if the beautiful have died out in the course of time just like some plant or animal — the fate which they do say has overtaken the lions in Europe; for the race of lions is now extinct there, though formerly they were to be found in Macedonia and in other places as well — it is unfortunate, I repeat, if beauty has really disappeared from mankind in this way.​a

2 Dio. Masculine beauty at least has, my good sir; feminine beauty, however, is perhaps increasing. But a handsome man is not only getting to be a rare sight nowadays; but when there is one, the majority fails to notice his beauty, much more than muleteers fail to observe beautiful horses. And if people  p275 do by any chance take an interest in handsome men, it is in a wanton way and for no good purpose. The result is, in my opinion, that even the handsome men that do appear speedily drop out and disappear. For it is not only virtue that is increased by commendation, but so is beauty likewise by those who honour and revere it. But when it is disregarded and esteemed by no one, or when wicked men esteem it, it fades away like reflections in a mirror.

Int. Should we, then, adopt the frequent practice of the Athenians and in a similar way record the present time as being an interregnum​2 3 because there is no beautiful man?

Dio. Yes indeed we ought, at least as the Persians regarded beauty; but no one of the Greeks so regarded it, except one of the Thirty. Or do you not know the story about that Critias,​3 who was a member of the Thirty? He said that the most beautiful figure among males was the effeminate, but among the females, on the other hand, the opposite. Therefore the Athenians were justified in choosing him as lawgiver that he might alter the old laws,​4 for in fact he left not one of them unchanged.

Int. Very well! But how did the Persians regard beauty?

4 Dio. Why, does it need any explanation, seeing that they made eunuchs of the beautiful males in order that they might have them as beautiful as possible? So greatly superior in beauty did they think the female to be. And practically all the  p277 barbarians treated them in the same way, just as they did the animals — because the only thing they thought of was the lust of the flesh. Then, just as Daedalus is said to have acted when he deceived the bull by stretching a cow's hide over a framework of wood,​5 so they try to put a feminine appearance on the males, being incapable of loving them in any other way. 5 But perhaps in the case of the Persians the way the boys are reared is the cause, I mean that for a long time they are brought up by women and the older eunuchs, and that young boys do not associate much with other young boys, nor the striplings with others of their own age, and that they do not go naked in the wrestling schools and gymnasia.​6 This is the reason why, in my opinion, cases have occurred where they had intercourse with their mothers; just as colts, when they still follow their dams although fairly well grown, try to cover them. 6 Moreover, the influence of their nurture is shown in the following case also. A horse is certainly far more beautiful than an ass, but yet the asses, because they are of a different breed, feel no passion for mares, except when they have been raised on mare's milk; and similarly, a horse that has been suckled by an ass is affected in the same way.7

In human beings unlimited power also is a lawless sort of thing.​8 Take Nero for instance: we all  p279 know how in our own time that he not only castrated the youth whom he loved, but also changed his name for a woman's, that of the girl whom he loved and his subsequent wife,​9 for whom he conceived a passion and wedded after openly incarcerating his former wife,​10 to whom he was already married when he became Emperor.

7 Int. And what was the woman's name which he gave to the eunuch?

Dio. What concern of yours is that? At any rate she was not called Rhodogunê.​11 But that youth of Nero's actually wore his hair parted, young women attended him whenever he went for a walk, he wore women's clothes, and was forced to do everything else a woman does in the same way. And, to cap the climax, great honours and boundless sums of money were actually offered to anyone who should make him his wife.

Int. Well, then, did they actually promise to do so?

8 Dio. Why should they not have promised that man who offered so much? Or do you not know how great the might of the giver is? For example, wherever and whenever it is necessary to appoint an Emperor, they choose the wealthiest man, any one from whom they hope to get the most money; but as to the other qualifications, they do not care what sort of man he is, even if he sooner or later is to geld them all after taking over the government —  p281 everybody including the men who have received the money, and, besides, intends to deprive them of every blessed thing they have. 9 This, indeed, was especially true of Nero, and no one contradicted him in anything, whatever he said, or affirmed that anything he commanded was impossible to perform, so that even if he ordered anyone to fly,​12 the man promised that too and for a considerable time he would be maintained in the imperial household in the belief that he would fly. For Nero was the only man who was utterly regardless of money both in giving and in taking. It was solely on account of this wantonness of his, however, that he lost his life — I mean the way he treated the eunuch. For the latter in anger disclosed the Emperor's designs to his retinue; and so they revolted from him and compelled him to make away with himself as best he could. Indeed the truth about this has not come out even yet; 10 for so far as the rest of his subjects were concerned, there was nothing to prevent his continuing to be Emperor for all time, seeing that even now everybody wishes he were still alive. And the great majority do believe that he is, although in a certain sense he has died not once but often along with those who had been firmly convinced that he was still alive.13

Int. You are everlastingly hunting up reasons for ridiculing what your fellow-men do and think, and now with scarcely a shadow of a pretext you  p283 have got round to this topic. Consequently you have given me no chance to ask a question I wanted to ask.14

11 Dio. Oh yes, I suppose you look down on me and think that I am drivelling because I am not talking about Cyrus and Alcibiades, as the wise-acres do, even at this late date, but about Nero and subjects of that kind, more recent and inglorious, which I can remember. The reason for this is that I do not much care for the writers of Tragedy nor try to emulate them; for I know that it is a disgrace to mention people of the present day in a tragedy, but that it is some ancient event which I should have touched upon and one not very credible either. Yet men of former times certainly were not ashamed to name people of their own day whether in speaking or in writing; but those of the present day strive to name the ancients on any pretext. 12 I shall tell you what wisdom they show in doing this — and don't you declare everything I say is nonsense; perhaps, however, it is anything but nonsense — for surely you have noticed what some of our booksellers do?

Int. Just what is your reason for asking me this?

Dio. Because they, knowing that old books are in demand since better written and on better paper, bury the worst specimens of our day in grain in order that they may take on the same colour as the old ones, and after ruining the books into the bargain they sell them as old. But what was it that you have been wanting all this while to ask me?

13 Int. It is about this young man here. Who is  p285 he and to whom does he belong? I declare that I have never been so struck with admiration for anyone. For while his appearance shows him to be a boy of sixteen perhaps, or seventeen years, he is as tall as any man; and then his modesty is such that he makes anyone approaching feel abashed at once. And it is impossible to gaze longer at his face unless he himself should chance to look away. For no one is so shameless or made of stone as to hold his ground and stand looking at him face to face, but one must at once turn away and drop one's eyes. And this effect surprises me very much — that beauty when combined with modesty makes even brazen-faced men turn away and forces them to feel abashed.

14 Dio. Yes, for perhaps you have not noticed what occurs in the water.

Int. What is that?

Dio. That when the sun is shining straight down, the reflection is strongest. And perhaps you have seen on walls a moving and dancing light, not a real light, but the reflection of the sun's light in the water — in contrast to the most direct reflection. Now there is a somewhat similar reflection from true modesty, which makes the beholders appear to be abashed. Then as soon as they go away, they are once more unashamed.15

Int. Just as I thought that even the gymnastic trainer, hardened as he is, seemed in the youth's presence to be, as it were, dumbfounded as well as entranced.

 p287  15 Dio. Therefore you will be all the more surprised to learn that this handsome youth belongs to no one.

Int. What do you mean by his belonging to no one?

Dio. Just what you meant by asking to whom he belongs. For I suppose you were asking whose son he is.

Int. Well, is he one of the Sown Men?16

Dio. That would be in keeping with his stature and manliness, if they had been gentle and kindly in disposition, just as this youth is, and not altogether rough and wild, real children of the earth; for as to his physique, you are not far wrong in likening him to a Boeotian rather than to a Spartan or an Athenian. For that he is utterly Greek, I presume is quite patent.

16 Int. Why, I should like to know? Can there be any racial distinction as regards beauty? Or do you think that no handsome man is to be found among foreigners?

Dio. Well, do you not think that there is a foreign type of beauty, as there is of general appearance, and an Hellenic type, just as their language and dress differ, or do you think that Achilles and Hector were handsome in just the same way?

Int. Why, does not the poet discourse about Hector as a brave man only?

Dio. Yes, where he is setting fire to the ships. For it would not, I think, have been fitting to mention beauty at that point. But after he had  p289 been slain and stripped, the Achaeans were simply amazed on beholding his beauty, so the poet says in about the following words:

"Then gazed they upon the wonder­ful form and beauty of Hector."​17

17 For I imagine that before this they had been too busily occupied to gaze upon him critically. And the poet goes on to describe him more vividly, one may almost say, and in great detail than he describes any other of the most handsome men. For he says that his head was graceful, his hair quite black,​18 and his body not hard.​19 But about Achilles' appearance he gives no detail except to say that his hair was auburn; and he mentions the hair of Euphorbus and of Patroclus as of men who had died in the very prime of life;​20 and about each of the other men and most beautiful women he has very little to say; however, nobody would assert that these men could have been handsome in the same way, or that Alexander, or Euphorbus,​21 or Troïlus​22 bore any resemblance to Menelaus and Patroclus and Nireus,​23 any more than among the barbarians Sesostris​24 the Egyptian did or Memnon​25 the Ethiopian, or Ninyas,​26 Eurypylus, or Pelops.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 For this meaning of ἀρχαῖον see Plutarch, Life of Pericles 13.3, where he is speaking of the public buildings which Pericles had erected: "Each of them, in its beauty, was even then and at once antique; but in the freshness of its vigour, it is, even to the present day, recent and newly wrought" (Perrin in L. C. L.) — κάλλει μὲν γὰρ ἕκαστον εὐθὺς ἧν τότε ἀρχαῖον, ἀκμῇ δὲ μέχρι νῦν πρόσφατον ἐστι καὶ νεουργόν.

2 The Athenians elected annually nine magistrates called archons. If in any year they did not have archons, that year was called ἀναρχία, i.e., a period without an archon. Such was the year of the Thirty Tyrants. Here the word is used to mean a period without a handsome man, as the context shows. For the meaning of ἀναρχία see Xenophon, Hellenica 2.3.1 and Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 13.1.

3 Critias, who had followed Socrates, was the most prominent of the Thirty Tyrants who, put in power through the influence of the Spartans, ruled Athens in 404 B.C.

4 The Thirty were appointed to draw up a new code of laws on the bases of "the constitution of the fathers."

5 Daedalus, a mythical personage, whose name means 'cunning craftsman' — according to one version of the old Cretan myth about King Minos and his wife Pasiphaê that can be traced back as far as a lost play of Euripides called The Cretan Women — made a wooden cow to enable her to satisfy her passion for the bull sent by Poseidon. By doing this he angered Minos, who shut him up in a prison, from which he escaped by the use of wings. For a reference to this cow see Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Nero 12.2.º

6 Young boys at Athens did all of these things.

7 Cf. Aristotle Hist. Anim. p577 B15: οὐ προσδέχεται δ’ οὔτε ἡ ἵππος τὸν ὄνον ἡ ὄνος τὸν ἵππον, ἐάν μὴ τύχῃ τεθηλακὼς ὁ ὄνος ἵππον· ὑποβάλλουσι γὰρ ἐπίτηδες οὓς καλοῦσιν ἱππόθήλας. οὗτοι δ’ ὀχεύουσιν ἐν τῇ νομῇ βίᾳ κρατοῦντες, ὥσπερ οἱ ἵπποι.

8 See vol. I, p40, for about the same thought; and cf. critical note, p276.

The Greek text reads Ἐν δὲ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ ἡ ἐξουσία παράνομόν τί ἐστι. and the critical note at ἐξουσία:

van Herwerden suggested that Dio wrote ἡ ἀρρένων συνουσία, "intercourse with males," which was toned down under Christian influence to ἡ ἐξουσία.º

9 This youth, whose name was Sporus, possessed a striking resemblance to Nero's second wife, Poppaea Sabina. After her death Nero had him mutilated, gave him the name Sabina, and in A.D. 67 publicly went through the ceremony of marriage with him in Greece. This Sporus was present at Nero's suicide. Afterwards he was intimate with Otho, whose wife Poppaea Sabina was before she married Nero. Sporus committed suicide under Vitellius to avoid appearing on the stage under degrading circumstances. See Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars 6.28.

10 She was Octavia, daughter of the emperor Claudius and Messalina.

11 Rhodogunê was the daughter of Arsaces VI, also called Mithradates I, who greatly extended the Parthian empire. After defeating and capturing Demetrius Nicator in 138b he gave Demetrius this daughter in marriage.

12 Cf.  Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Nero 12.2.º

13 The allusion is to the false Neros. The first of these appeared in A.D. 69. He was a slave from Pontus or else a freedman from Italy. See Tacitus, Histories 2.8 and 9; Then Zonaras (Chronicles 11.18) mentions a pretender, Terentius Maximus of Asia, who appeared in the reign of Titus (A.D. 79‑81) and was supported by the Parthians. Probably there is a reference to the same pretender in Tacitus, op. cit. 1.2. Suetonius at the end of his Life of Nero speaks of a man who came forth twenty years after Nero's death, that is, in A.D. 88, claiming to be Nero and supported by the Parthians. Whether he is the same man as the preceding is not clear. However, from Tacitus, op. cit. 5 we conclude that there were several false Neros.

14 He asks it in § 13.

15 Xenophon (Symposium 1.8‑10) also compares beauty to light, praises it when combined with modesty, and speaks of its ennobling effect on the beholder. Cf. also what Dio says in Discourse 12.51.

16 The Σπαρτοί, or 'Sown Men,' sprang from the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus, the builder of the citadel of Thebes. The five who survived became, according to tradition, the ancestors of the Thebans, that is, Boeotians.

17 Homer, Iliad 22.370 f.

18 κυάνεαι Iliad 22.402.

19 Iliad 22.373: μαλακώτερος . . . ἢ ὅτε νῆας ἐνέπρησεν.

20 Iliad 17.51: "that was like the hair of the Graces."

21 Brave Trojan slain by Menelaus, who dedicated his shield in the temple of Hera near Mycenae. Pythagoras said he had been Euphorbus in a previous incarnation and to prove it identified this shield at sight and took it down.

22 Troïlus, son of Priam, or Apollo, and Hecuba, slain by Achilles.

23 Handsomest man among the Greeks after Achilles, but unwarlike. Slain by Eurypylus or Aeneas.

24 Mythical king of Egypt to whom the Greeks attributed all great Egyptian exploits.

25 Beautiful son of Tithonus and Eos. Was king of the Ethiopians who came to the aid of Priam. Identified with the Egyptian king Amenhotep III, a colossal statue of whom is still standing. Concerning his beauty and that of Eurypylus see Homer, Odyssey 11.520‑522.

26 Son of Ninus and Semiramis, the founders of the Assyrian empire and builders of Nineveh. Semiramis was famed for her beauty, but concerning her son no other ancient author testifies.

Thayer's Note:

a The period at which the European lion went extinct is not certain; Dio Chrysostom's statement marks the first time an ancient author categorically asserts that they were no more. For further details — and a photograph of a handsome Thracian carving of one — see my transcription of Herodotus, VII.125‑126; that author still reports them as routinely present in Macedonia, attacking any stray camels they might find, although they were already starting to be boxed in.

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