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Discourse 51

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 53

(Vol. IV) Dio Chrysostom

 p336  The Fifty-second Discourse:
On Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides
or The Bow of Philoctetes

This Discourse is not merely an interesting bit of ancient literary criticism but also our chief source of information as to two of the three plays with which it deals, the Philoctetes of Aeschylus and that of Euripides, both known to‑day only in scanty fragments. In Or. 59 Dio presents in prose paraphrase the prologue of a Philoctetes, which by means of the present Discourse is recognized as that of Euripides, together with a portion of the ensuing dialogue between Odysseus and Philoctetes. The Euripidean play clearly appealed to Dio's rhetorical instincts; yet we are reminded of the situation in the Frogs of Aristophanes, the god of the drama yielding the palm to Aeschylus, though unmistakably prejudiced in favour of Euripides.

There was little occasion for Homer to refer to Philoctetes, whom he names in only three passages. His most illuminating reference is Il. 2.716‑726, from which we learn that Homer at least knew the story. Fuller details were obtainable from three epics belonging to what is known as the Cycle — the Cypria, the Little Iliad, and the Iliupersis. The high points in the epic version are as follows. Heracles, out of gratitude for services rendered, had given Philoctetes his bow and arrows, once the property of Apollo. When the Greeks sailed for Troy, Philoctetes guided them to the island of Chrysê, where they were to offer sacrifice. There a venomous serpent bit Philoctetes on the foot. His cries of anguish and the stench of his wound caused the Greeks to abandon him on the shores of Lemnos. Ten years later, when the  p337 Greek fortunes were at a low ebb, upon the advice of the seer Calchas and by the stratagem of Odysseus the Trojan seer Helenus was taken captive. He revealed that Troy could be taken only with the aid of Philoctetes and his bow, and that Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, must come from Scyros. Accordingly Diomedes is sent for Philoctetes and Odysseus for Neoptolemus. Philoctetes is healed of his wound, slays Paris, and in company with Neoptolemus causes the downfall of Troy. For further details the reader is referred to the introduction to Jebb's edition of the Philoctetes of Sophocles.

The occasion on which our Discourse was delivered is unknown. Dio's reference to the chill of the morning might suggest his home in Prusa as the setting for his adventure in dramatic criticism. His allusion to ill health and his manifest sympathy for the lonely Philoctetes, victim of misfortune, suggest the period subsequent to Dio's exile as the time of composition.

 p339  The Fifty-second Discourse:
On Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides
or The Bow of Philoctetes

Having risen about the first hour of the day, both on account of the feeble state of my health and also on account of the air, which was rather chilly because of the early hour and very much like autumn, though it was mid-summer, I made my toilet and performed my devotions. I next got into my carriage and made the round of the race-course several times, my team moving along as gently and comfortably as possible. After that I took a stroll and then rested a bit. Next, after a rub-down and bath and a light breakfast,​a I fell to reading certain tragedies.

2 These tragedies were the work of topmost artists, I may say, Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all dealing with the same theme, which was the theft — or should I say the seizure? — of the bow of Philoctetes. However that may be, Philoctetes was portrayed as being deprived of his weapons by Odysseus and as being carried off to Troy along with them, for the most part willingly, though in some measure also yielding to the persuasion of necessity, since he had been deprived of the weapons which furnished him with not only a living on his island, but courage in his sore affliction, and at the same time fame.

 p341  3 So I was feasting my eyes on the spectacle portrayed by these dramas and figuring to myself that, even if I had been in Athens in those days, I could not have witnessed such a contest as this of those distinguished poets.​1 On the contrary, while there were some who did witness contests between the youthful Sophocles and the aged Aeschylus and some who saw the older Sophocles compete with Euripides, his junior, yet the career of Euripides fell quite outside the period of Aeschylus;​2 and besides, probably the tragic poets seldom or never competed against one another with plays on the same theme. And so I was evidently having a rare treat and a novel solace for my illness. 4 Accordingly, I played choregus​3 for myself in very brilliant style and tried to pay close attention, as if I were a judge passing judgement on the premier tragic choruses.4

Yet I could not on oath have produced a single reason why any one of those great poets could have been defeated. For both the nobility of character and the antique flavour of Aeschylus, as well as the ruggedness of his thought and diction, seemed suited to tragedy and to the old-time manners of the heroes,​5 nor was there aught of premeditation or prating or humility in their bearing. 5 For example, even his Odysseus he brought upon the scene as a shrewd and crafty person,​6 as men were in those days, yet far removed from the rascality of to‑day, in consequence  p343 of which he might seem truly ancient as compared with those who to‑day lay claim to simplicity and nobility of character. And again, Aeschylus had no need to add Athena for the purpose of transforming Odysseus so as not to be recognized by Philoctetes for the man he was, as Homer has handled the problem,​7 and also Euripides in imitation of Homer. So possibly one of those who do not like Aeschylus might complain that he was not at all concerned to make his Odysseus convincing in the scene where he is not recognized by Philoctetes. 6 But in my opinion the poet would have a defence against such a criticism; for while the lapse of time was perhaps not sufficient to explain his not recalling the lineaments of Odysseus since only ten years had passed, yet the affliction and distress of Philoctetes and the lonely life he had led in the interval made this lapse of memory not impossible. For many in the past, either from illness or from misfortune, have had that experience.

Furthermore, the chorus of Aeschylus had no need for special pleading, as did that of Euripides. 7 For both poets made their choruses to consist of Lemnians; yet, while Euripides has represented them as immediately apologizing for their former neglect, admitting that during so many years they had neither come near Philoctetes nor rendered him any aid, Aeschylus simply brought his chorus on the scene, a course which is altogether more in keeping with a tragedy and more natural, whereas the other course is more courteous and more strictly correct. Of course, if poets, were able to avoid all violations of logic in their tragedies, perhaps there might be reason for  p345 refusing to gloss over even this instance; but as the truth is, the poets often cause their heralds to complete in a single day a journey which calls for several days.​8 8 Again, it was quite impossible to conceive that not a single Lemnian had come near Philoctetes or given him any attention at all, for in my opinion he could not even have survived those ten years without receiving some aid; no, it is reasonable to suppose that he did get some aid, though but rarely and of no great importance, and, furthermore, that no one chose to take him into his house and give him medical attention because of the disgusting nature of his ailment.​9 At any rate Euripides himself does bring upon the scene one Lemnian, Actor, who approaches Philoctetes as being already known to him and as having often met him.

9 Furthermore, I do not feel that one could justly find fault with Aeschylus for this either — that his hero narrates to the chorus, as if they were in ignorance, the details concerning his desertion by the Achaeans and his experiences in general. The reason is that the victims of misfortune are wont to recall their trials repeatedly, and by their constant rehearsing of details they bore those who know every detail already and have no need to be told. Then again, the deception which Odysseus practised upon Philoctetes and the arguments by which he won him over are not merely more becoming and suited to a hero — though not the words of a Eurybates or a Pataecion​10 — but in my opinion they are even more plausible. 10 For what need was there for subtle craft and scheming in dealing with a sick man and, what is more, an  p347 archer, whose means of defence had lost its power the moment you merely got close to him? Besides, the device of having Odysseus report that the Achaeans had met with disaster, that Agamemnon had died, that Odysseus had been charged with an act that was utterly disgraceful,​11 and that in general the expedition had gone to rack and ruin, was not merely serviceable toward cheering Philoctetes and making the discourse of Odysseus more acceptable; no, in a way it was not without plausibility even, because of the length of the campaign and because of what had happened not so long before in consequence of the wrath of Achilles, at the time when Hector barely missed burning the naval station.12

11 Again, the sagacity of Euripides and his careful attention to every detail, as a result of which not only does he not tolerate anything which lacks plausibility or is marred by carelessness, but also he handles the action, not in artless style, but with entire mastery in the telling — all this forms, as it were, an antithesis to the nature of Aeschylus, being to a high degree characteristic of the citizen and the orator and capable of proving most useful to those who read him. At the very outset of Euripides' play, for instance, Odysseus is introduced as speaker of the prologue and as not only inwardly debating questions of civic nature in general, but first and foremost expressing embarrassment on his own account, lest, while generally reputed to be wise and distinguished for sagacity, he may really be the opposite. 12 For, though he might live free from care and trouble, he is ever being  p349 involved in troubles and perils of his own volition. But the cause of this, he claims, is the ambition which actuates gifted men of noble birth. For, in aiming at a fine reputation and general acclaim, they voluntarily undertake very great and difficult labours.

For nothing quite so proud as man exists.​13

Odysseus then reveals clearly and precisely the plot of the drama and why he has come to Lemnos. 13 And he says he has been disguised by Athena, so that when he meets Philoctetes he may not be recognized by him, Euripides having imitated Homer in this detail.​14 For Homer has represented Odysseus, in his sundry encounters with Eumaeus and Penelopê and the others, as having been disguised by Athena. Odysseus goes on to say that an embassy from the Trojans will soon visit Philoctetes for the purpose of entreating him to place at their disposal both himself and their weapons, offering the throne of Troy as his reward; thus he complicates the plot and invents occasions for debate, in the course of which he shows himself most resource­ful and most proficient in combating the opposing arguments, no matter with whom he is compared.​15 14 Again, Euripides causes Odysseus to arrive not unattended but in company with Diomedes, another Homeric touch.​16 Thus all in all, as I was saying, throughout the whole play he displays the greatest dexterity and plausibility in the action; an irresistible, yes, amazing, power of language; a  p351 dialogue that is clear and natural and urbane; and lyrics that not only are delight­ful but also contain a strong incentive toward virtue.

15 As for Sophocles, he seems to stand midway between the two others, since he has neither the ruggedness and simplicity of Aeschylus nor the precision and shrewdness and urbanity of Euripides, yet he produces a poetry that is august and majestic, highly tragic and euphonious in its phrasing, so that there is the fullest pleasure coupled with sublimity and stateliness. In his management of the action he is most excellent and convincing; for instance, he causes Odysseus to arrive in company with Neoptolemus — since it was ordained that Troy should be taken by Neoptolemus and Philoctetes together, Philoctetes wielding the bow of Heracles — and he makes Odysseus conceal himself but send Neoptolemus to Philoctetes, suggesting to him what he must do. Furthermore, he has composed his chorus not of the natives of Lemnos, as Aeschylus and Euripides do, but of those who sailed in the ship along with Odysseus and Neoptolemus.

16 Again, as Sophocles portrays them, the characters in the drama are wonderfully dignified and noble, his Odysseus being much more gentle and frank than Euripides has depicted him, and his Neoptolemus surpassing all in artlessness and good breeding — at first he aims to get the better of Philoctetes, not by craft and deception, but by strength and without disguise; then, after he has been prevailed upon by Odysseus and has tricked Philoctetes and gained possession of the bow, when Philoctetes becomes aware of what had happened, is indignant at the deception which has been practised upon him, and  p353 demands the return of his weapons, Neoptolemus does not try to retain possession of them but is prepared to return them — though Odysseus appears on the scene and tries to prevent this — and he finally does return them; yet after he has handed them over he tries by argument to persuade Philoctetes to accompany him voluntarily to Troy. 17 But when Philoctetes will by no means yield or be persuaded, but entreats Neoptolemus to take him back to Greece, as he had promised to do, Neoptolemus once more gives his promise, and he is prepared to keep his word, until Heracles comes upon the scene and persuades Philoctetes to sail to Troy of his own free will.17

The lyrics of Sophocles do not contain the didactic element to any great extent, nor any incentive to virtue such as we find in the lyrics of Euripides, but a marvellous sweetness and magnificence, such that Aristophanes could say of him not without reason words like these:

But he in turn the lips of Sophocles,

With honey smeared, did lick as if as a jar.​18

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 At Athens plays were regularly produced in competition.

2 Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. and died soon after 458; Sophocles in 468 at the age of 28 defeated Aeschylus, but lived until 405; Euripides began his career in 455, after Aeschylus had died, and lived until 406.

3 The duty of the choregus was to provide the funds needed by the choruses of the particular poet to whom he had been assigned.

4 Ten citizens were appointed for each festival at which plays were produced to judge the contests and to award the prize.

5 I.e., the old Greek demigods, whose fortunes provided the material for the tragedies.

6 Homer constantly calls Odysseus πολύτροπος.

7 In the Odyssey (13.429‑438) Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar upon his arrival in Ithaca.

8 In the Agamemnon of Aeschylus not only the herald but even Agamemnon himself and his escort arrive in Argos the day following the fall of Troy.

9 Cf. Sophocles, Philoctetes 900.

10 Stock characters typifying rascality.

11 We do not know what particular charge was trumped up; of course the whole tale was a fiction intended to beguile Philoctetes.

12 Iliad 15.592‑746.

13 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, frag. 788.

14 Cf. § 5.

15 Up to this point there is close agreement between this summary and the synopsis of Or. 59. The latter, however, does not cover the entrance of Diomedes.

16 Dio must mean Homeric in spirit, Homer does not treat this episode. Cf. § 13.

17 An instance of the deus ex machina, so familiar in the plays of Euripides but not unknown in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles also. It is to be borne in mind that the dramatic contest was a religious festival. The audience must have enjoyed such theophanies.

18 Kock, Com. Att. Frag., Aristophanes, frag. 581. The subject of the verb περιέλειχε presumably was Euripides who is said to have owed to Sophocles his honeyed tongue.

Thayer's Note:

a The otherwise puzzling circuits of the race-course are explained as part of the morning's medical regimen called for by Dio's state of health. In order, we have rocking (Celsus, de Medicina II.15), walking (mentioned frequently by Celsus along with other light exercise, e.g.III.22), massage (II.14), and bathing (II.17).

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