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Bill Thayer

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Discourse 59

This webpage reproduces one of the

Dio Chrysostom

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1946

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Discourse 61

(Vol. IV) Dio Chrysostom

 p451  The Sixtieth Discourse:
Nessus or Deïaneira

Dio's purpose in this little dialogue is apparently to display his dexterity in reconstructing Greek myth rather than to impart ethical instruction. A somewhat similar tour de force presents itself in the Trojan Discourse (Or. 11). Such exercises constituted a well-known feature of sophistic training and are not to be confused with the effort to rid ancient mythology of its grosser elements, an effort at least as old as Pindar.

In the present instance the myth in question seems not to have been popular. Though it may have figured in the cyclic epic, The Taking of Oechalia, there is no proof that it did. The only ancient Greek writers known to have dealt with the tale of Nessus and Deïaneira are the two named in the opening paragraph of our dialogue — Archilochus and Sophocles. All that is known of the version of Archilochus is contained in this brief reference and in two meagre scholia on Apollonius Rhodius and the Iliad respectively. The Sophoclean version is contained in his Trachiniae. There the murdered Nessus wreaks a posthumous vengeance upon his murderer in the manner here outlined by Dio. The dramatist puts into the mouth of Deïaneira herself the account of the attempt upon her honour (Trachiniae 555‑577).

The anonymous interlocutor in Dio's dialogue is a colourless individual, whose function seems to be, first of all, to afford Dio an opportunity to display his dexterity, and finally to pay "certain philosophers" the doubtful compliment of comparison with coroplasts. The natural inference from that comparison is that Dio himself has attained the standing of a philosopher; but the interlocutor does not say so in plain terms and there is little in the Discourse that smacks of philosophy. In general it seems more suited to Dio's sophistic period.

 p453  The Sixtieth Discourse:
Nessus or Deïaneira

Interlocutor. Can you solve me this problem — whether or not people are warranted in finding fault now with Archilochus and now with Sophocles in their treatment of the story of Nessus and Deïaneira? For some say Archilochus makes nonsense when he represents Deïaneira as chanting a long story to Heracles while an attack upon her honour is being made by the Centaur, thereby reminding him of the love-making of Acheloüs — and of the events which took place on that occasion​1 — in consequence of which Nessus would have ample time to accomplish his purpose; others charge that Sophocles has introduced the shooting of the arrow too soon, while they were still crossing the river;​2 for in those circumstances, they claim, Deïaneira too would have perished, since the dying Centaur would have dropped her in the river. However, do not, as you usually do, speak quite counter to the general belief and give any version rather than what a man would naturally believe.

2 Dio. Then do you bid me tell you those things which a man would believe who believes correctly, or what a man would believe even though not correctly?

 p455  Int. I prefer what one would believe who believes correctly.

Dio. Then what about beliefs which the masses hold? Must he who desires to interpret correctly speak counter to the belief of the masses?

Int. He must.

Dio. Then do not be irritated as you follow the argument, if what is said is of that nature,​3 but rather consider whether it is not suitably expressed.

Int. Very well, speak and proceed with your exposition as seems good to you.

Dio. Very good; I tell you that the whole misconception connected with the myth is the matter of the Centaur's attempt to violate Deïaneira.

Int. What, did he not attempt it?

3 Dio. No. Or does it seem to you plausible that in full view of Heracles, who was carrying his bow, and after having previously had experience of Heracles' valour — the time when he alone of the Centaurs escaped from the cave of Pholus, though they had done no such injury as that to Heracles​4 — Nessus should attempt to violate the hero's wife?

Int. Yes, there is a certain difficulty in a matter of that sort; however, if we raise this question, perhaps we may destroy the myth altogether.

Dio. By no means, provided we consider first how the affair occurred, and how it was likely to have occurred.

Int. Very good; I wish you would tell me.

4 Dio. Nessus attempted to corrupt Deïaneira the  p457 moment he began to carry her across the stream, as well as in the crossing, as I shall explain — not through violence, as men say, but by speaking to her words suited to his purpose and showing how she might obtain mastery over Heracles, saying: "Now he is fierce and stern and will stay with you only a short while, and that too in fretful temper, because of his labours and his expeditions abroad and the life he has chosen. But if," said he, "you win him over, partly by solicitude for his welfare and partly by argument, urging him to give up this life of hardship and his labours and to live a life of ease and pleasure, he will not only be far kinder toward you, but will also live a better life and remain at home and keep you company from then on."

5 Now the Centaur went into these details with designs on Heracles, in the hope that he might somehow turn him in the direction of indulgence and indolence, for he knew that as soon as he changed his mode of living and his occupation he would be easy to manage and weak. But Deïaneira, as she heard him, paid no casual attention to his words, but rather considered that the Centaur was correct in what he said, as indeed might have been expected, since she wished to have her husband under her control. Heracles, on the other hand, suspecting that the Centaur was saying nothing honourable, judging from the earnestness with which he was talking to Deïaneira, and because she gave him her attention, therefore shot him with his bow. 6 But, though dying, nevertheless the Centaur bade Deïaneira to remember what he had said and to act as he had advised.5

 p459  Later on, when Deïaneira recalled the words of the Centaur, and when also Heracles did not relax at all but made an even lengthier journey away from home — his final journey, during which he captured Oechalia — and when in fact he was reported to have become enamoured of Iolê,​6 thinking it better that what the Centaur had advised should be accomplished, she set to work upon Heracles and — 7 such is the nature of female wile and cunning — she did not desist until, partly by coaxing and saying that she was anxious about him, lest he come to grief by persisting winter and summer alike in going unclothed, wearing only his lion's skin, she at last persuaded him to doff the skin and put on dress like that of other men. And this, of course, was what is called the shirt of Deïaneira, which Heracles put on.7

8 But along with his dress, she made him change his mode of living in general, now sleeping on bedding and not camping in the open for the most part, as was his former custom, nor labouring with his own hands, nor using the same food as formerly, but rather eating grain most carefully prepared and fish and sweet wine and in fact whatever goes with these things. But as an outcome of this change, as was inevitable methinks, falling into weakness and flabbiness of body, and thinking that, having once adopted self-indulgence, it was no longer easy to lay it aside, he therefore set himself on fire, not only because he believed it better to be freed from such a life as that,  p461 but also because he was distressed that he had allowed himself to take up a life of luxury.8

So there you have my reasoning, such as I have been able to express it, regarding the myth.

9 Int. And, by Heaven, it seems to me not at all a bad one or unconvincing either. And somehow or other I have the feeling that the method of some philosophers in dealing with their arguments resembles in a way that of the makers of figurines. For those craftsmen produce a mould, and whatever clay they put into this they render like to the mould in form; and some of the philosophers ere now have proved like that, with the result that, whatever myth or story they take in hand, by tearing it to pieces and moulding it to suit their fancy they render it beneficial and suited to philosophy, the sort of philosopher in fact that Socrates in particular proved to be, as we are told. 10 For Socrates indeed entered the lists in all kinds of arguments and all sorts of lectures — against orators, sophists, geometricians, musicians, athletic trainers, and all the other craftsmen — and, whether in palaestra or symposium or market-place, he was not prevented in any way at all from plying his calling as philosopher or from impelling toward virtue those who were with him, not by introducing any topic of his own or any preconceived problem, but rather by consistently employing the topic at hand and applying it to philosophy.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Pindar, in a poem no longer extant, told how Heracles, to whom in Hades Meleager had commended his sister Deïaneira, finding that she was being wooed by the river-god Acheloüs, fought and overcame him, and received from him the horn of Amalthaea, by means of which he gained his bride.

2 Nessus was accustomed to ferry passengers across the Euenus for hire. Cf. Trachiniae 562‑568.

3 I.e., contrary to the belief of the masses.

4 He is referring to the Fourth Labour, the hunting of the Erymanthian Boar. Heracles was being entertained by the Centaur Pholus when other Centaurs made a raid upon the cavern, only to be routed by Heracles. Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.5.4, informs us that Nessus was not the only Centaur to escape.

5 Like other details in Dio's exposition, this does not square with Sophocles' account (Trachiniae 568‑577).

6 Daughter of the king of Oechalia.

7 Here Dio has allowed himself the utmost licence. In the Trachiniae — as doubtless also in the tale of Archilochus — Heracles is not subjected to this long course of moral suasion. The shirt of Deïaneira also was conveyed to him by messenger while he was still on his way home from his long stay in Euboea.

8 Contrast with this Trachiniae 756‑771.

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Page updated: 21 Mar 12