Friday, August 15, 2014


Dimitri Kasprzyk, Christophe Vendries (ed.), Spectacles et désordre à Alexandrie: Dion de Pruse, Discours aux Alexandrins. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012. Pp. 214. ISBN 9782753520509. €16.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jeff Jay, Wabash College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In his thirty-second discourse, To the Alexandrians, Dio Chrysostom reprimands the populace for their excessive passion for chariot races and the citharoedia and censures them for their disorderly and unseemly behavior as spectators during these shows. In this context Dio articulates his own version of Juvenal's famous phrase, panem et circenses, when he criticizes the Alexandrians for their myopic interest in πολὺς ἄρτος καὶ θέα ἵππων (Or. 32.31)—a particularly apt characterization for Egypt, exporter of grain to Rome (pp. 86-87). Dio likely delivers this grave message in the "Great Theater" of Alexandria itself, taking the stage at a time when this city's relations with Rome remain tense due to a recent riot which had provoked military intervention (32.70-74).

To the Alexandrians has been an intriguing text for scholars. It bears witness to the development and status of spectacles outside of Rome, for which literary sources are sparser than for the capital. It is a source for understanding the history of Alexandria, both its own inner turbulence and its (strained) relations with Rome. Like other writers of the Second Sophistic, Dio crafts a critique of popular entertainments and carefully constructs his posture as a Greek intellectual vis-à-vis imperial Rome. The speech is thus pivotal for scholars of Dio Chrysostom and the cultural milieu of this elite pepaideumenos. Although theirs is not the first monograph devoted exclusively to this speech, Kasprzyk and Vendries make an important contribution to all of these vital issues.1

Kasprzyk and Vendries offer a Greek text, which reproduces that of H. Lamar Crosby, with an original annotated French translation. 2 Kasprzyk is responsible for the translation and chapters two and three, while Vendries has written chapter one. In their annotations Kasprzyk and Vendries helpfully explain the meaning of musical and theatrical terms, cite parallels from other writers of the Second Sophistic as well as from Dio's own speeches, and connect his arguments with various philosophical traditions. They also signal several sensible departures from Crosby's text in their notes, including their emendation of the proper name of the general who led Rome's suppression of the riot from the unknown Κόνων, as attested in the manuscripts, to Κόλων, who is identified in other sources as L. Paducaeus Colonus, the prefect of Egypt from 69 to 70 C.E. (32.72).

This alteration, which they argue could have arisen from a copyist's being influenced by the well-known Athenian general Κόνων (76 n. 225, 81), is one indication that Dio delivered this speech during the reign of Vespasian rather than Trajan, to whose reign several scholars following von Arnim assign this text (including Crosby in the Loeb edition).3 Kasprzyk and Vendries thus accept the dating of C.P. Jones.4 Vespasian was indeed unfriendly to Cynics, from whom Dio sharply distinguishes himself, and the Acta Alexandrinorum evince the hostile climate in Alexandria toward Vespasian (81-82). Dio, moreover, echoes Vespasian's efforts to distance his reign from Nero's when he unfavorably compares the Alexandrians' passion for music to that of Nero, who himself performed the citharoedia on stage (96-98).

In this context Dio becomes an official or quasi-official delegate of Vespasian, urging the Alexandrians to control their passions for the spectacles because Rome is watching and, as Dio argues, ἐν τῷ θεάτρῳ δὲ βλέπεται τὸ δημόσιον ἦθος ("mais au théâtre, le caractère du peuple se voit") (32.32). The theater holds a mirror up to the Alexandrians, revealing their true character, so that unruly conduct there is expected to carry over into matters that are more serious in the eyes of their imperial masters, which could lead to literal (and not only moral) ruin (106-8, 126-28).

In chapter one, "Les spectacles et leur public à Alexandrie" (81-114), Vendries treats Dio's characterization of the Alexandrian spectacles, particularly music, the citharoedia, and "hippomania" with special attention to what is known about them from other sources. The question he raises is where do Dio's topoi and argumentative rhetoric stop and the reality of Alexandrian spectacles and viewership begin.

Music in Dio's work as a whole can have positive connotations, for he recognizes a type that is capable of taming the soul's passions through harmony. His negative portrayal of music in discourse thirty-two is due largely to what he views as the Alexandrians' fanatic attachment to it at a time when the citharoedia was growing in popularity throughout the empire. But his critical attitude toward the art form does not square with Alexandria's excellent reputation for music in other sources (89-96).

Similarly, the problem with chariot races arises from the populace's slavish love for this spectacle. Vendries details the location and development of the Alexandrian hippodrome and the noteworthy features of the races in Alexandria at this time as they emerge from Dio's text: Dio assumes familiarity with both mounted and chariot races; he indicates that drivers were slaves; and attests to the fact that the formal system of factions, well-known in Rome, has yet to develop in Alexandria.

It is difficult to know, Vendries argues, how far to take Dio's portrayal of Alexandrian audiences as connoisseurs of the citharoedia and the races in the hippodrome, for Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Lucian similarly depict spectators in Rome and Antioch respectively as expert viewers of various spectacles. Indeed, Dio's overall picture of Alexandrian spectators as contemptuous spectators who are difficult for authorities to manage has a long history, reaching to Philo and Suetonius and as far back as Polybius (104-6).

In chapter two, "Politique et philosophie" (115-41), Kasprzyk first analyzes the rhetorical structure of this lengthy discourse. He characterizes the speech as lax and hence complex, as is evident in the long exordium (32.1-24), followed by what Kasprzyk calls "une sorte de second exorde" (115). This betrays Dio's need to prepare an intimidating and impatient audience for his main subject —a moralizing critique of their conduct as spectators—which he does not announce until he is far into the discourse (32.33-47). Dio focuses first on their viewership of musical spectacles (32.47-64) and then turns to the chariot races (32.74-85), concluding the speech with a peroratio (32.86-100), which abruptly changes tone in the final paragraph (32.101), where Dio likens himself to a talented musician disdained by the tyrant Antiochus IV, thus almost predicting the failure of his own speech among the Alexandrian populace, whom he has earlier likened to a tyrant (32.25-30).

Kasprzyk underlines what he terms Dio's "approche globalisante" (118), by which he enlarges the question of Alexandrian comportment at the spectacles into a far-reaching exposition of the need for virtue. If the populace is unable to control itself in the affairs of everyday life, still less will it be able to do so in matters that are not as trivial as the spectacles. Generalizing still further, Dio argues that the Alexandrians' particular problem is no different from that of humanity as a whole, namely they are beset by ignorance and hence vice (which go hand-in-hand in the Socratic tradition) and thus are resistant to paideia and logos (121-22).

Even as Dio generalizes from Alexandrian spectators to Alexandrian public life and from there to the human condition, Dio also particularizes, likening the Alexandrians to individuals, such as Ajax and Xerxes, as well as to known types, such as the tyrant. Kasprzyk argues that in so doing Dio draws on the strategy of Aristophanes, who personifies the Athenian public as the character Demos in his Knights (which Dio quotes in 32.6). Plato also likens political constitutions to individuals in the Republic (123-26).

Perceptively, Kasprzyk posits that in framing the recent riot in terms of moral failing—as the result, that is, of overindulgence in amusements and a carryover from their theater-going habits—Dio lessens its potential significance in the eyes of the Roman powers. He portrays the riot as due to Alexandrian frivolity rather than anti-Roman feelings. A healthy dose of paideia and logos can fix the problem (128-31).

In chapter three, "La fabrique du discours" (143-81), Kasprzyk examines the rhetorical strategies employed in this discourse, focusing first on the different personae Dio assumes throughout his speech: he is a poet, who compiles and revises passages from the Iliad to parody the Alexandrian passion for chariots; he is a myth-maker, who fabricates a story about the Alexandrians' descent from the birds, sheep, and dogs who followed Orpheus; he is a messenger of the gods, who comes to Alexandria to deliver this harsh message not of his own will; and he is a "philosophe-médecin" (158), who seeks to cure the illness of the Alexandrian public.

As Kasprzyk highlights, Dio repeatedly treats encomiastic motifs in an ironic mode, transforming topics normally addressed in praise of a city into topics of blame. For example, Dio admires the splendors of Alexandria, its beautiful buildings, pleasant climate, and Nilotic wonders. These are common motifs in praise of a city, yet Dio turns them into a critique of the Alexandrians who are wrong to expect that praise of their city is the equivalent of praise of its inhabitants, who instead deserve censure.

Dio thus seeks to give a speech in which he both criticizes the Alexandrians for their habits as spectators and offers them useful advice. In doing so he draws on rhetorical strategies commonly associated with the diatribe, which include frankness of speech, a rough and rude style, frequent use of images and metaphors tailored to insult the Alexandrians, and the introduction of anonymous interlocutors, many of whom give voice to the harshest criticisms of the Alexandrians, a tactic by which Dio at once deflects responsibility for the critique from himself and broadens its appeal by showing that he is not alone in thinking the Alexandrians blameworthy. Dio claims to speak simply, and yet there is the paradox of his elegant style and sophisticated use of rhetorical figures, all of which Kasprzyk documents in detail.

In their conclusion (183-85) Kasprzyk and Vendries once again pose the question of the relation between "réalités et topoi" in Dio's discourse. They underline that Dio is an elite moralist, somewhat intolerant of the masses, and thus an "aristocrate dont les propos, empreints de préjugés, n'étaient certainement pas le reflet d'une opinion largement partagée" (183). He thus overlooks and even obfuscates the "vitalité culturelle" (184) generated by love for the shows in Alexandria. Yet at the same time Dio opens up a view into "sa nature et son propre monde" (183), which conforms to the moralist tradition. After all, Dio retains the severe judgment on public entertainments that commonly appears within the writings of many other aristocrats of the period (e.g., Tacitus).

Overall, this is a must-read for anyone interested in one of the many areas of research for which this remarkable speech is relevant. However, those who use this work should keep in view one minor correction. Vendries notes that Dio never shows awareness of the religious conflict between Greeks and Jews that erupted under the Julio-Claudians (see, e.g., Philo's In Flaccum). They argue that this is not the result of Dio's imperfect knowledge of Alexandria, but rather due to the fact that "la population juive, exclue des jeux, n'avait pas pour habitude de se mélanger aux Alexandrins à cette occasion" (109). But the assumption that Jews customarily avoided the theater is mistaken. None other than Philo attests to his own presence in the theater on several occasions.5

To be sure, this does not detract from what is otherwise and on the whole a very successful book.


1.   A. Fillon-Farizon, Le discours aux Alexandrins de Dion Chrysostome. Introduction, édition, traduction et commentaire (Thèse de doctorat dactylographiée, Université Paris IV, 1992); E. Wilmes, Beiträge zur Alexandrinerrede (or. 32) des Dion Chrysostomos (Bonn, 1970).
2.   H. Lamar Crosby, Dio Chrysostom: Discourses 31-36, vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA, 1940).
3.   H. von Arnim, Leben und Werke des Dio von Prusa (Berlin, 1898).
4.   C.P. Jones, The Roman World of Dio Chrysostom (Cambridge, MA, 1978).
5.   See Philo, De ebrietate, 177; Quod omnis probus liber sit, 141; and Jeff Jay, "The Problem of the Theater in Early Judaism," JSJ 44 (2013), 218-53.

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