The Twelfth or Olympic Discourse

Dio Chrysostom

The Twelfth or Olympic Discourse: or, on Man’s First Conception of God

The Olympic Discourse was delivered by Dio at Olympia in the year a.d. 97 before a large audience of Greeks which had come to the city to witness the games, and in sight of the famous statue of Zeus which had been made by Pheidias, the greatest of Greek sculptors, more than five centuries before.

After his introductory remarks, in which he tells us that he has just returned from the Danube, where the Roman army under Trajan was about to begin the Second Dacian War, he raises the question as to whether he shall tell his hearers about the land of the Dacians and the impending war, or take a subject suggested by the god in whose presence they stood. He chooses the latter and, after explaining that a conception of the nature of the gods, and especially of the highest one, is innate in all mankind, and that this innate conception and belief is strengthened by men’s experiences and observations in the world about them, Dio gives a classification of the way in which a conception of and a belief in their existence are implanted in the minds of men. In section 39 he makes a classification into notions innate and notions acquired. Then in section 44 and following he subdivides the acquired notions into (1) the voluntary and hortatory, given by the poets, (2) the compulsory and prescriptive, given by the lawgivers, (3) those given by the painters and sculptors, and (4) the notions and concepts as set forth and expounded by the philosophers. He is careful, however, to point out that the poets, lawgivers, and sculptors and others would have


The Twelfth or Olympic Discourse

no influence whatever if it were not for that primary and innate notion.

After this the speaker proceeds to what is the most important part of his address, in which he offers a great wealth of apparently original ideas as to what is the field and function of the plastic arts and what are their limitations. He puts his thoughts on this subject into the mouth of Pheidias, who takes the specific case of his own great statue of Zeus and attempts to show that he has used all the resources of the sculptor’s art in producing a worthy statue of the greatest of the gods. Pheidias in the course of his exposition says among other things that he took his conception of Zeus from Homer, and he makes a detailed comparison between the respective capacities of poetry and sculpture to portray and represent, to the decided advantage of poetry.

No ancient writer up to Dio’s time, whose works are extant, has given us such a full treatment of the subject. The others, such as Plutarch, make just a passing reference to the plastic arts. Certainly no one of them has made such a detailed comparison between them and poetry. Not until we come to Flavius Josephus do we find such a treatment of the subject, and Dio by many centuries anticipated the most important principles upon which the theory of Lessing’s Laokoön is based.

Paul Hagen, however, in his Quaestiones Dioneae (Kiliae 1887) attempts with some success to show by a comparison with certain passages in Cicero, Pliny, and Quintilian that Dio was not original in these theories of art, but got them from Pergamum, where there was a famous school of sculpture flourishing at this time. The best known example of its work is the ‘Dying Gaul,’ now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Dio certainly was within easy reach of Pergamum at any rate. If he was not original in his ideas on art, he was at all events greatly interested in it, as is shown by his Thirty-First Discourse.

Some maintain that Dio gave this address on more than one occasion and that traces of different recensions to make the address suit different places and audiences are to be found in the versions that have come down to us.

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.dio_chrysostom-discourses_12_mans_first_conception_god.1939