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The Olympian Oration of Dio

Chrysostom
by
B. F. HARRIS

I. INTRODUCTION

THE religious ideas and practices of Greeks and Romans during the
first two centuries A.D. are a subject of perennial interest. The classical
scholar wants to know the extent to which the traditional Graeco-Roman
religion persisted in the Empire, not only in the public rites but in the
family circle and in the minds of the more educated classes; how great
were the inroads of foreign cults, particularly those from the East whose
influence had already been felt for some centuries; how much practical
agnosticism followed from the critical attitude of the leading philo-
sophical schools-and many other questions. The student of Christian
origins is anxious to discover as accurately as possible the philosophical
and religious milieu in which the new faith was born and grew to
maturity; what the ‘man in the street’ of the great cities of the Empire
thought about the official cults, about the religion of the Jewish com-
munities of the Dispersion, about the new sect grafted on to the
Jewish stem; what impact Hebrew monotheism could be expected to
make on serious minds already affected by the syncretism of Graeco-
Roman religious thought; to what extent the concept of Messiah and
Saviour was likely to strike a responsive chord in the minds of Gentile
adherents of the synagogues throughout the Empire.
These are all important questions, to which it is difficult to give
tidy answers. There is a wealth of evidence from Roman and Greek and
early Christian literature, and from papyri and inscriptions, but there
are tantalising gaps as well. The fortulation of any general picture is
thus to be undertaken only with great care.l Such is not the object of
this essay; all that will be attempted is the discussion of a single oration,
as a piece of relevant evidence.
The Olympian Oration deserves to be better known than it is. It is
one of eighty surviving speeches of Dio Cocceianus of Prusa in Bithynia,
a Greek rhetorician and moralist who lived from about A.D. 40 until
the end of the reign of Trajan.2 He was also called Chrysostomus
(golden-mouthed) because of his eloquence, which was renowned in
the Eastern provinces of the Empire. Dio’s colourful career is itself
testimony to the extraordinary diversity of life in the provinces in this
era. He belonged to an aristocratic family in Bithynia which had
possessed the Roman citizenship for two generations as the gift of the
Emperor. Dio was destined for high municipal office in Prusa, a privi-

85
86 B. F. HARRIS

leged social position in the province, and the opportunity to prove his
quality as a rhetorician. In his early training he was greatly influenced
by the literary school which later became known as the Second Sophistic;
it was as a sophist that Dio came to Italy in A.D. 74 and attached
himself to teachers in Rome, among whom was the Stoic Musonius
Rufus. There is also evidence, however, of his growing hostility towards
philosophers during this period.
Dio’s rising fortunes were abruptly terminated in A.D. 82 by his
implication in the downfall and execution of his friend Titus Flavius
Sabinus, son-in-law of the Emperor Titus, whom Domitian executed on
a charge of treason. Dio was banished both from Italy and his own
province Bithynia, and for the next fifteen years lived the life of a
wanderer, keeping out of sight of Domitian and undergoing severe
physical hardships, but also maintaining his scholarly interests. This was
the period of his conversion from sophist to serious philosopher; he
embraced the calling of a Cynic preacher, and also became deeply
imbued with Stoicism, which by the first century was a composite system
and included large elements of Platonism. Dio travelled widely during
these years-across the Euxine Sea, for example, to the northern colony
of Borysthenes, and to the province of Dacia beyond the D a n ~ b e . ~
In 96 the accession of Nerva, who was already his friend, brought an
amnesty for Dio as for many other victims of Domitian. The next five or
six years he spent in Prusa as a leading figure in its municipal affairs,
and was also an adviser in Nicomedia, Nicaea and Apameia. He became
the respected friend of the Emperor Trajan on his accession in 98 and
addressed to him the four speeches On Kingship. Dio last appears in
the Bithynian Letters of the Younger Pliny who was sent there with
special proconsular powers about 112. Besides the Olympicus and the
speeches On Kingship, the best known speeches of Dio are the Bithynian
group which concern his political career, those delivered to the Rhodians,
Alexandrians and Tarsians, and the Euboicus which contains a remark-
able picture of the rural life of humble folk on the island of Euboea.

11. THEZEUS OF PHEIDIAS

In fulfilment of a vow of long standing, Dio attended the games at


Olympia in Elis in the summer of 97, during the brief reign of Nerva.
This was at a time when his political standing seemed in jeopardy at
Prusa, but he came because he ‘always believed that divine affairs are
greater and more profitable than human, of whatever importance these
may be’.4 While he recognized that his audience would be preoccupied
with the splendours and excitements of the games and of the festival,
Dio was evidently confident of a good hearing when, as an orator and
moralist of acknowledged fame, he turned his hearers’ thoughts to more
profound subjects.
The literary merits of the Oration, which we can no more than
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 87

mention here, are considerable. Dio speaks with persuasive charm in a


style which is predominantly Attic, with a feeling for the picturesque
phrase and the telling metaphor, and with more than a little leavening
of Socratic diffidence and irony.
The setting for such an oration was ideal. Dio was addressing a truly
‘Hellenic’ audience drawn from many parts of the Roman world, who
were spectators not only of the contests but of the worship of Zeus,
whose magnificent statue was in the temple before them. His theme, the
nature of our belief in God and the place of art in religion, was directly
inspired by this work of art which for centuries had been recognized as
the greatest in the world. Pheidias the Athenian sculptor had come into
prominence between 460 and 450 B.C. with his bronze statue of Athena
Promachos, which occupied a central place on the Acropolis; the crest
of the goddess’ helmet and the point of her spear flashed far out to sea in
the sunlight. Thereafter Pheidias became the intimate friend of Pericles
himself and was chosen to design and superintend the marble sculptures
of the Parthenon between 447 and 432 B.C. Pheidias’ reputation as a
sculptor in gold and ivory was established by his statue of Athena
Parthenos within the sanctuary there. Of this Pausanias has left a
detailed description: and it is clear that on the shield and base there
was a wealth of mythological scenes such as were to appear in even
greater profusion with the Olympian Zeus.
The Zeus was the last work of Pheidias, and his commission from the
Eleans to execute it is connected with the problem of his downfall in
Athens prior to the Peloponnesian War. He had become involved in the
political decline of Pericles and was one of the three intimates who were
all indicted during these years-Aspasia, Anaxagoras and Pheidias.s We
cannot be sure of the precise order of events, but probably Pheidias
went to Elis in 438 and there toiled for five years in his workshop on
the Altis at the enormous figure of the god, together with Colotes and
his own nephew, the painter Panaenus. The temple at Olympia had
been dedicated in 456, and it has been conjectured that an earlier marble
cult statue was damaged in an earthquake of which we have evidence.7
Now that the Eleans wanted to commission a greater sculpture on a
pan-Hellenic scale to match the splendour of the games, Pheidias was
the obvious candidate.
The exact appearance of this masterpiece we shall never know. It
perished some time late in the Roman Empire, and the last authentic
information we have is that it was still admired in the time of Julian
the Apostate (A.D. 361-3), having survived the Christianizing purges
of Constantine. Unlike the Athena Parthenos, no good copies have
come down to us, and our nearest evidence is meagre, from coins of Elis
bearing the head of Zeus and his seated figure.s Pausanias’ description
is virtually confined to the sculptures accessory to the statue and throne
and pedestal; these were of astonishing c~mplexity.~ But we know that
the statue itself was about 35 feet high and on its huge pedestal rose
88 B. F. HARRIS

almost to the very roof of the temple. As to the pattern according to


which his Zeus was fashioned, Pheidias is recorded‘O as quoting the
Homeric description: ‘So spake the son of Kronos and nodded his dark
brow, and the ambrosial locks waved from the king’s undying head; and
he made Olympus quake’.’‘ But according to Dio the predominant
aspect of the god was that of peace, a peace symbolic not only of
personal but of political accord. ‘Our god is peaceful and altogether
gentle, such as befits the guardian of a faction-free and concordant
Hellas.’12 This was to be a fitting symbol of pan-Hellenism, a sentiment
which in fact was only rarely evoked in Greek political life, but which
must have been present, if anywhere, in the precincts of Olympia.
Eloquent testimony to the statue’s perfection and magnificence is
borne by Roman writers. Livy records that Aemilius Paullus, conqueror
of Perseus of Macedon, visited Olympia in 167 B.C. and, moved as
though by the sight of Zeus himself, offered elaborate sacrifies.13 Both
Cicero and Quintilian, in describing the training of the perfect orator,
use the analogy of the plastic arts and the work of Pheidias. Just as his
gaze was fixed on a ‘splendid vision of beauty’, so the great orator
perceives the ideal of e10quence.l~ The beauty of Pheidias’ Zeus ‘seems
to have added something to the established sanctity, so near to the
grandeur of the god came the grandeur of his work‘.16
If there was a Roman counterpart of the temple of Zeus at Olympia it
was the temple on the Palatine dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
in 509 B.C. It is significant that, when this temple was rebuilt after being
destroyed by fire in 83 B.C., a new statue to replace the original terra
cotta one was commissioned from Apollonius the Athenian sculptor; it
was to be chryselephantine and modelled on the Zeus of Pheidias.la So
great was the dominance of the fifth-century work.

111. THE NATUREOF THEISTICBELIEF^'

It was thus natural that Dio should begin his discourse proper with
the general question: ‘Is there some sort of influence which actually
moulds and gives expression to man’s concept of the deity?’
While it cannot be claimed that in his answer Dio breaks any new
theological ground, he does give attractive expression to doctrines which
had long since become the common stock of moral philosophers of the
Stoic and Platonic tradition. First, he states that ‘there is an idea and
conception of the gods, and in particular of the universal Ruler, which
is the common possession of all men . . . inescapable and innate in
every rational creature’. This is the primary source of all theistic belief.
As secondary sources he lists four acquired notions of the divine; one
of a voluntary kind, received through the stories of the poets, another
of a compulsory kind, through the dictates of law; the third is derived
from the plastic arts-the works of sculptors and masons and painters;
the fourth is inculcated by the philosopher, ‘who by the use of reason is
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 89

interpreter and proclaimer of the divine nature in perhaps the truest and
most perfect manner of all’.
The doctrine of prolepsis or koine ennoiu, which we may translate as
‘primary conception’, was prominent in Stoic epistemology, and the
terms seem to have been adapted from the Epicureans. In Cicero’s
De Nuturu Deorurn we are told that Epicurus first used prolepsis in the
special sense of instinctive conceptions of the gods’ existence and of
their blessedness, conceptions whose universality made them necessarily
true.ls It must be remembered, however, that Epicurus thought of these
notions in materialist terms; all knowledge, including these primary
notions, arose from the memory of physical sensations which were con-
stantly repeated. The Stoics on the other hand believed that all
knowledge depended on the activity of the mind in association with
sensations. The standard by which the truth of an idea could be estab-
lished was its intrinsic power of arousing conviction, and this power
might be experienced both in sensations of external and internal objects
and also in primary conceptions.19
In Stoic expositions such as the second Book of Cicero’s N.D. it was
claimed that these primary theistic beliefs are strongly supported by
cosmological and teleological evidence, as well as by their universality
(the argument e consensu). Here, as often in Dio’s Oration, evidence
from Cicero is particularly valuable, because he reflects Hellenistic
writings to which we have no direct access, notably those of the Stoic
Posidonius and Antiochus of the ‘New’ Academy. This tradition, partly
Stoic and partly Platonic,20 is faithfully followed by Dio. He refers
several times to the argument from design, the observable order and
perfection of the universe, and dwells on the supremacy of man among
created beings. The Stoic could agree with the Psalmist: ‘Thou madest
him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou has put all
things under his feet.’ Man enjoyed the kinship of God, having been
born ‘in the centre of things’ and in the very company of God, and,
endowed by him with reason, could not fail to see the evidence of his
presence in the material world. This recognition existed in a rudimentary
form in the animal and even the plant life of the world; the plants
‘voluntarily bear their proper fruit’.
A feature of Dio’s exposition here is his skilful use of analogies. Most
striking is the comparison between initiation ceremonies in the Eleusinian
mysteries or the rites of Cybele and man’s initiation by his Creator into
the wonders of the universe. The novice is pictured in the rite of
enthronement, set in a beautiful shrine and beholding the many mystic
sights which the priests cause to pass before him; or in the rites of the
Phrygian goddess he may be surrounded by the Corybantes, her eunuch
priests, as they dance wildly about him-even so, says Dio, man learns
the secrets of the universe from its Ruler himself, as though from a
coryphaeus or chorus-leader. How can one fail to become a devout
believer after such an initiation? More conventional, but still effective, is
the analogy with parent and child.
90 B. F. HARRIS

The feelings of the human race towards their first and immortal parent, whom
we who have a share in the heritage of Greece call ancestral Zeus, develop step
by step along with those which men have toward their mortal parents.

This flows from our kinship with God and is fortified by the influence of
poets and lawgivers with their traditions and sanctions about filial piety
towards both men and gods. Parallel with this picture is that of the earth
as universal mother, nourishing primeval men with her moist loam and
suckling men of all generations with her life-giving foods.
Dio concludes this section of his discourse with a severe attack on the
Epicureans, who alone of human beings appeared to be unconvinced by
these divine demonstrations. They are guilty, he complains, of wilful
self-delusion; like the reprobate Gentiles of St. Paul, who ‘when they
knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became
vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened’,21 the
Epicureans have turned from him to the worship of a monstrous sub-
stitute, Pleasure; not content with this, they have banished the true gods
from their kingdom and deny that there is any divine order in the
universe. This attack again follows traditional lines. It can be paralleled,
for instance, by the abuse of the Epicurean system by the Stoic Balbus
and the Academic Cotta in the N.D. It was all too easy to paint a lurid
picture of the self-indulgent and the wanton and call them devotees of
the debased god of Epicurus, but this is a travesty of the master’s
teaching. On the other side there is ample evidence in both Greek and
Latin authors that the proper practice of his ethical principles was a
mellowing influence in ancient society; in spite of their inward-looking
and quietist tendencies, there was a genuine koinonia or fellowship to be
found in the Epicurean circles. Dio’s attack provides incidental evidence
of the persistence of Epicurean beliefs in the Roman Empire, as much
no doubt in the Greek provinces in the East as in the Grecised society
of the West.
Of the secondary sources of our theistic beliefs, Dio does not pursue
those which are derived from the rule of law in human society or from
the precepts of the philosophers. The other two acquired notions, from
poets and from artists, are the most prominent elements in the second
part of the discourse, namely the apologia of the sculptor Pheidias for
the place of the plastic arts in our religious ideas and practice. Dio has
clearly prepared the way by a summary in the first section of the sphere
of the craftsman. The divine nature may be suggested in the rough
sketches of scene-paintings or more detailed drawings, it may be more
persuasively portrayed by the carving of wood and stone, the casting of
bronze and other metals, and the moulding of wax figures. In the course
of the fifth century B.C. the great craftsmen he names, the sculptors
Pheidias and Polycleitus and the painters Alcamenes, Polygnotus,
Aglaophon and Zeuxis, helped to mould the thinking of whole com-
munities with the divine likenesses of their art. There was diversity of
concept but a basic conservatism; they realized, Dio says, that the poets
had from early times moulded the popular ideas of the gods. Only the
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 91

greatest craftsmen contributed something original and became in a sense


both antitechnoi and homotechnoi of the poets-their rivals and also
fellow-craftsmen. They interpreted the gods to a wider and less sophisti-
cated audience.

IV. THE PLACEOF ART IN RELIGION^^

Pheidias himself is now imagined as summoned before a court con-


sisting of the whole Greek world, to render an account of his artistic
stewardship, just as Athenian magistrates were subjected to the euthunai
at the end of their period in office. His Olympian Zeus has virtually
fixed the popular conception of the god; is his conception worthy of
the divine nature, especially since he has resorted to a human form? The
sculptor is addressed in a striking passage:
0 best and noblest of artists, how charming and pleasing a spectacle you have
wrought, and a vision of infinite delight for the benefit of all men, both Greeks
and barbarians, who have ever come here. . . . For verily even the irrational
brute creation would be so struck with awe if they could catch merely a glimpse
of yonder statue, not only the bulls which are being continually led to this altar,
so that they would willingly submit themselves to the priests who perform the
rites of sacrifice, if so they would be giving some pleasure to the god, but eagles
too and horses and lions, so that they would subdue their untamed and savage
spirits and preserve perfect quiet, delighted by the vision; and of men, whoever is
sore distressed in soul, having in the course of his life drained the cup of many
misfortunes and griefs, nor ever winning sweet sleep--even this man, methinks, if
he stood before this image, would forget all the terrors and hardships that fall to
our human lot. Such a wondrous vision you devise and fashion. . . .23

Pheidias is aware of the great importance of the issue which is at


stake. He immediately points out the lengthy poetic tradition of the
gods inherited by artists, to which his predecessors had in the main
adhered; they had made visual and material the word-pictures of Homer.
The human form of Greek gods is claimed as symbolic only, of intelli-
gence and reason and comeliness. Man has never been able to dispense
with symbols of the divine; just as children torn from their parents are
filled with yearning for them, so all men yearn to worship a god who is
near at hand and to win his favour by sacrifkes and garlands of honour.
Pheidias admits that the barbarian world has resorted partly to animal
symbols of an absurd kind, and partly to animism, with their worship of
mountain and tree and unhewn stone; but some near object is needed, as
well as the divine constellations in the heavens, and it was Homer, not
the artists, who firmly established the anthropomorphic tradition. Beside
Homer, Pheidias is a much ‘more temperate artist’ (sophronesteros
poietes) .
Poetic art has far wider bounds than plastic art; this point Pheidias
develops at length, and we see incidentally Dio’s own literary and
linguistic appreciation of Homer. It is possible only faintly to recapture
the affection and the reverence with which the Greeks regarded the very
words of the Iliad and the Odyssey. By contrast, the sculptor works in
a narrow compass-he needs a suitable material, he must delegate work
92 B. F. HARRIS

to assistants, and can portray only one posture for the god in his statute.
Execution of the work is slow, and he must retain his chosen image in
his mind over a period often of years; the number of attributes he can
suggest is strictly limited. What kind of Zeus had Pheidias in mind? ‘A
mild and majestic god in pleasing guise, the giver of our material and
physical life and of all our blessings, the common Father and Saviour
and Guardian of mankind.’ This necessarily excluded the Zeus who is
the terrible lord of the elements, the inspirer of men with martial desire,
the inexorable dispenser of men’s destinies. In the last analysis, Pheidias
admits, only Zeus himself is the perfect craftsman; as Pindar has
addressed him, ‘Lord of Dodona, Father almighty, artist He
has worked on the raw materials of the universe to produce its
unrivalled perfections.
Dio in the speech of Pheidias has set forth an eloquent and mature
discussion of a subject which is as much debated in the modern world as
it was in the ancient. It has often been pointed out that he adumbrates
the principles of Lessing’s Laokoon in the Olympian Oration. We may be
sure that he could not have achieved this apart from a lively personal
interest in art, such as he could well have pursued during his travels,
particularly at the school of sculpture at P e r g a m ~ m . Stoic
~ ~ teaching
about art and religion had by the time of Dio’s exposition undergone a
lengthy transformation. At first Cynic influence was strong, and much
popular religious belief and practice was repudiated. Zen0 who founded
the system had not accepted either temples or images as worthy of the
gods.2s The antiquarian Varro claimed that the ancient Romans had
worshipped the gods without images for more than 170 years, and
commented ‘quod si adhuc mansisset, castius di 0bservarentur’-if this
practice had lasted till his own time, there would be a purer worship of
the gods.27 Seneca in his epistles and moral essays was strongly critical
of popular religion; the only true piety was purity of life-‘vis deos
propitiare? bonus esto. Satis illos coluit, quisquis imitatus est’. The
universe itself was the only true temple of God; the real sanctum of the
individual was his own heart. We find this emphasis on personal religion
developed remarkably in Epictetus’ Discourses and Manual and in the
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
But it is not surprising to find other strands in Stoic religious
thought.28 On the one hand there was a syncretistic movement in their
theology, an accommodation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, headed
by Zeus, to their theory of the universe (having laid such emphasis on
the argument e consensu, the Stoics were obliged to provide some
rationale of popular beliefs about the gods). The more material concept
of God as ‘a rational and fiery breath’ was linked with that of a God
endowed with personal qualities-‘God is a living being, imperishable,
the benefactor of mankind’.29 It was only a short step to equate this
Supreme Being with the name of Zeus, who might equally well be
referred to as Nature, World-Soul, Reason, Destiny, Providence and
Universal Law. By the time of Dio’s Oration this syncretism was well
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 93

advanced. In Pheidias’ description of Zeus we find a comprehensive list


of attributes, answering in many instances to those of the Hebrew and
Christian account. Plutarch, who was a slightly younger contemporary
of Dio and possessed a more profound theological mind, shows this
syncretism almost complete. To him, God is the Absolute of the
Pythagoreans, the Demiurgus of Plato, the prime Mover of Aristotle, the
Supreme Being of the Stoics. Sir Samuel Dill wrote about this unifying
process :
It had been brought home to the world by the teaching of Stoicism. But there
is a new note in the monotheism of the first and second centuries of the Empire.
God is no longer a mere intellectual postulate, the necessary crown and lord of a
great cosmic system. He has become a moral necessity. His existence is demanded
by the heart as well as the intellect.30
This conviction was clearly shared by Dio in his preaching as a Cynic
missionary in the Eastern provinces.
Zeus was thus widely recognized as the Supreme God, eternal and
incorruptible. Other gods were allowed a derivative and transitory
divinity; they were explained by Stoic writers as facets of the supreme
One, and the myths of Greece and Rome were accordingly allegorized, in
a somewhat arbitrary way, to restore some unity to the mass of popular
deities. This treatment was extended to the gods of the foreign cults as
well, so that it was perfectly proper for an educated Greek or Roman of
this period to be a convinced monotheist intellectually, to maintain a deep
respect for the official religion of the State, and to show more than a
passing interest in the strange cults from Phrygia and Asia and Syria and
Egypt. All the above factors must be borne in mind as forming the
religious context of the Olympian Oration.

V. THE VALUEOF THE ORATION

Dio therefore has not merely made a competent and dispassionate


enquiry into the philosophy of religion. Beyond this, his oration is
further evidence of that search after an intellectually and emotionally
satisfying religious experience which occupied so many cultured men of
the period. There is an earnestness behind the eloquent exterior (of
which the elaborate introduction, written in the sophistic tradition, is the
most striking example). Dio is anxious to point the way to religious
attitudes which will correspond to that feeling of calm and assurance
experienced by all who contemplate the Zeus of Pheidias,
This combination of detachment and moral earnestness can also be
seen in Cicero’s theological writing, to which reference has been made
above. On the one hand Cicero adhered to the religious scepticism of
Carneades and later Academics, but morally and to some extent
emotionally he was not able to maintain the epoche or suspension of
judgment which that school enjoined. He had to commit himself,
although hesitantly, to a theistic attitude; he was greatly impressed by
the arguments from design as developed by the Stoics, but beyond this
94 B. F. HARRIS

was convinced that the sanctions of morality lay in religion and that the
maintenance of the state cult was a vital element in Rome’s moral and
political health.
What of the educated Greeks in the Empire, who in so many places
listened readily to the discourses of the sophists? No doubt a large
number still felt the wisdom of a non-committal attitude in religion,
when the mass of men and women devoted their zeal to unworthy and
superstitious practices (the followers of Alexander of Abonuteichos, for
example, as seen in the satire of Lucian). There was not the same urge
as with the ruling Roman class of more critical days to support official
religion for political purposes. There was more room for individualism,
and of this there are many instances in Dio’s lifetime, perhaps the most
spectacular being Apollonius of Tyana in Cappadocia, the neo-
Pythagorean mystic and missionary who was another victim of the
Emperor Domitian’s dislike.31 But a spiritual vacuum must still have
existed in many educated minds, and this is one factor in the obvious
ease with which the deification of the Roman Emperor was accepted in
the Greek provinces of the East.
These provinces, however, were not filled with serious-minded intellec-
tuals. It is perhaps perilous to attempt a generalization about more
ordinary citizens, when the evidence from the great cities and trading
centres of this area is so diverse in character. But we may be sure that
many were immersed in the business of daily living and did not seriously
practise a religion at all; the ambitious man would be more likely to, if
only from commercial and political motives. Many more followed the
prescribed rites in public and private out of a sense of duty or fearful-
ness, without pausing to ask too many questions; it was only a minority
who philosophized about religion. Nor must we forget the considerable
company of Gentile ‘god-fearers’ who out of admiration for the austere
and noble Hebrew faith were drawn to the synagogues of the Empire
and often to the communities of Christians themselves.
Dio’s career cannot be understood apart from the great resurgence of
Hellenism which took place in the second century A.D., and on the
threshold of which he stood. The movement became partly stultified on
its formal side by the rhetorical superficialities of the Second Sophistic,
and against this Dio had early revolted, although in the broad sense he
remained a ‘sophist’ all his life. But Hellenism also meant a genuine
re-awakening to the heritage of Greek literature, and this indirectly
intensified the need for more satisfying answers to the religious problems
of the time. The traditional Greek gods and heroes came into something
of their ancient prominence, and, as Dill has put it, ‘the glory of Greek
literature was inseparable from the glory and the shame of Greek
myth~logy’.~~ Hence the need for a rationale to satisfy the religious
mind, which is what Dio attempted in his Oration.
It was the task of the philosophical theologian, rather than a moralist
and rhetorician like Dio, to propound this rationale of religion and art
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 95

in the most cogent terms. Plutarch’s contribution has already been


mentioned; in the latter part of the second century it was Maximus
of Tyre who became the best spokesman of this spiritual movement.
There is an astonishing intensity of personal religion in some of his
extant Dissertations, and his defence of the place of art in religion,
while based on the same grounds as Dio’s, shows a deeper theological
understanding. Maximus emphasized the vast gulf between God and
man because of man’s fleshly nature but, at the same time, an essential
kinship through man’s endowment of reason. How could the material,
temple and image and sacrifice, in any sense be acceptable to him who
had attained to some apprehension of Zeus, the Father of all? Maximus
realized that this ‘beatific vision’ could be the experience of only the
few; it was to aid the gropings of devout but ordinary souls that the
visual and material and mythological were still needed. ‘Since humanity
is very weak and separate from the divine as the earth from the sky,
God devised these symbols.’33 Although much symbolism of both Greek
and barbarian was unworthy, yet in the teaching of the great poets there
was a profundity which the theologian could now lay bare.
It was assumed that the early mph-makers and lawgivers possessed a sacred
lore of immense value and undoubted truth, which they dimly shadowed forth in
symbolism of fanciful tale or allegory.34
To this tradition the plastic arts were closely allied, and a noble image,
even if it became an object of superstitious reverence for worshippers,
was at least a ‘shadowing forth’ of the divine.
To this apologia of Maximus it will be clear that Dio’s Oration in
a sense led the way.
In conclusion, we may briefly refer to the antagonism which inevitably
arose in this period between Greek and Christian attitudes to the place
of the visual and material in religion. It is interesting to reflect that at
about the time Dio’s Oration was delivered, so soon after the tyrant
Domitian’s reign, the last documents of the New Testament were
probably being written. Within the span of Dio’s lifetime the Christian
church in his native Bithynia had grown from nothing to such propor-
tions that Pliny in A.D. 112, obviously ignorant up to this stage of the
Christian religion and its strength through the Empire, expresses his
alarm at its influence. The Christians had brought about a serious
decline in the practice of the official
It is not surprising that we find no sympathy in the New Testament
writers with the religious symbolism of the Greeks and Romans. They
stood firmly in the Hebrew tradition of a monotheism which allowed no
truce with the gods of the heathen, and which insisted on the
transcendence and holiness and judgment and love of God, attributes
largely missing from the Stoic conception of the Supreme Being. The
Second Commandment is as deeply embedded in the New Testament as
in the Old; idolatry was an affront to the divine Being, and no matter
how subtle the justification for an image of Zeus, this was a denial of the
96 B. F. HARRIS

spiritual nature of true religion. To both Isaiah and St. Paul the gods
of the heathen were no gods. ‘We know that an idol is nothing in the
world, and that there is none other God but Two other passages
in particular bear forceful testimony to the apostle’s attitude, the
Areopagus address and the introduction to his Epistle to the Romans.
When St. Paul entered Athens, he was not impressed so much by her
artistic glories as appalled at a ‘city wholly given to idolatry’. In his
address he accepted the universality of theistic belief, but repudiated the
whole practice of image worship: ‘Forasmuch then as we are the
offspring of God (an echo of Stoic teaching such as we noted in the
Olympian Oration) we ought not to think that the godhead is like unto
gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s devi~e.’~’Such
symbolism was for him inseparable from idolatry. In writing to the
Roman church St. Paul delivered his solemn indictment of the Gentiles
of his time; again there is the recognition of a universal knowledge of
God, from which there had been a general declension into idolatry.
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of
the incorruptible God into an image like to corruptible man, and to birds, and
four-footed beasts, and creeping things3

He goes on to describe the perversions of men ‘given over to a reprobate


mind‘. In the New Testament epistles there is a constant awareness of
the darker side of temple worship-the beggary and prostitution and
fraud associated with the heathen rites. Greek moralists like Dio no
doubt deplored these evils but did not regard them as inherent in the
system in the same way as Christian writers.
Dio’s apologia gives us an authentic picture of Greek artistic and
religious beliefs in the early Empire, and of these the Zeus of Pheidias
had long remained the loftiest symbol. It was all too likely that in the
spiritual struggles of the following centuries it should become a symbol
of a different kind, of a paganism to be overthrown, and when the
temple at Olympia was burned in the reign of Theodosius I1 the statue
may well have perished with it.39

FOOTNOTES
I . One of the most recent essays is Werner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek
Paideia, Harvard, 1961.
2. Our main sources of information are Dio’s Speeches and Philostratus’ Lives of the
Sophists.
3. There is a graphic account of this visit in the introduction to the Olympian Oration:
Or. xii.17-20.
4. Ibid., 20.
5 . Paus., 1.24.5.
6. Plut., Per. 31.2. Cf. scholiast on Arist., Pax 605.
7. Richter, G . M. A., The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, New Haven, 1930,
p. 224,.
8. OP. clt., pp. 544-6.
9. 5.11.lff. Cf. Gardner, E.,Greek Sculpture, London, 1915, pp. 292-3; Charbonneaux,
J., La sculpture grecque classique, Paris, 1943, pp. 59-61.
10. Or. xii.26; Plut., Aem. Paul. 28.2; Strabo viii.353.
11. Iliad i.528-30.
12. Or. xii.74 (trans. Cohoon). Cf. 51, 74.
13. 45.28.5.
14. Cic., Orator 8.
15. Quint. 6.109.
OLYMPIAN ORATION OF DIO CHRYSOSTUM 97

16. Cf. Tac., Hist. 3.72; Cic., In Cat. 3.9.


17. Or. xii.25-48.
18. I.xvi.43ff.
19. Cf. Zeller, E., Sioics, Epicureans and Sceptics, Eng. ed., London, 1892, p. 79ff.,
Amold, E. V., Roman Stoicism, London 1904, pp. 136-7.
20. Cf. Hunt, H. A. K., The Humanism o f Cicero, Melbourne, 1954, ch. 5 passim.
21. Romans i.21.
22. Or. xii.49-83.
23. Ibid., 51-2 (trans. Cohoon).
24. Fr. 57 (Bergk).
25. This is argued in Hagen, P., Quaesiiones Dioneae, Kiel, 1887.
26. Amim, J. von., Stoicorum Veierum Fragmenia, i.264. Arnold compares Lucan,
Phars. ix.578-9.
21. Aug;stine: De.Civ. D . 431.
28. These are well expounded, for instance, in Zeller, op. cit., p. 347ff.
29. &no, fr. 123 apud Lactantius: Inst. 6.25.3; Plut., Sio. Rep. 38.5.
30. Roman Socieiy from Nero to M . Aurelius, London, 1904, p. 389.
31. See Philostratus, Life of Apollonius.
32. Op. cit., p. 420.
33. Dissertations viii.2. Cf. Soury, G., Apercus de philosophie religieuse chez Maxime
de Tyr, Paris, 1942.
34. Dill, op. cit., p. 423.
35. Pliny, Epp. ad Traianum xcvi. ad fin.
36. I Corinthians viii.4. Cf. v.9ff, vi.9ff, Isaiah xl.18ff.
37. Acts xvii.29.
38. Romans i.22-3.
39. Scholiast on Lucian, Rhei. praecept. 10