Ethnic diversity in Alexandria: Dio of Prusa on the cross-roads of the world (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethnic diversity in Alexandria: Dio of Prusa on the cross-roads of the world (late first century CE),' Last modified January 1, 2023,

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 32.35-45 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: In this epideictic speech (speech focussed on blame and, less so here, praise), Dio of Prusa addresses what he sees as a major problem among the Alexandrian Greeks: their focus on entertainments and lack of attention to serious matters such as those a true philosopher would address. In the process of blaming Alexandrians for their behaviours, Dio latches onto the issue of how immigrants or visitors from around the world would negatively perceive the customs of the Alexandrians. He characterizes Alexandria as a cross-roads for the world and makes reference to the variety of peoples who have settled there, including Syrians, Arabians, and even Scythians, Baktrians, and Indians. He also imagines the reaction of such immigrants – in this case Baktrians and Persians – to the behaviours of the Alexandrians. This also brings him to his analogy regarding how the Scythian Anacharsis perceived Athenian athletic customs as strange and misguided. So the theme of the wise barbarian who readily identifies the failings of Greeks also comes up in the process.

Source of the translation:  J.W. Cohoon and H.L. Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 5 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1939-51), public domain (for volumes 1-2, Cohoon passed away in 1946; for volumes 3-5, Crosby passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.


[Praising Egyptian setting but blaming Alexandrians for addiction to entertainments]

(35) But to take just that topic which I mentioned in the beginning, see how important it is. For how you Alexandrians dine in private, sleep, and manage your household are matters in which as individuals you are not at all conspicuous. On the other hand, how you behave as spectators and what you are like in the theatre are matters of common knowledge among Greeks and barbarians alike. For your city is vastly superior in point of size and situation, and it is admittedly ranked second among all cities beneath the sun. (36) For not only does the mighty people (ethnos), Egypt, constitute the framework of your city — or more accurately its appendage — but the peculiar nature of the river, when compared with all others, defies description with regard to both its marvellous habits and its usefulness.

Furthermore, not only do you have a monopoly on shipping for the entire Mediterranean by reason of the beauty of your harbours, the large size of your fleet, and the abundance and the marketing of the products of every land. But you also have in your grasp the outer waters that lie beyond, both the Red sea and the Indian ocean, whose name was rarely heard in former days.​ The result is that the trade, not merely of islands, ports, a few straits and isthmuses, but of practically the whole world is yours.

[Alexandria at the cross-roads of the world]

For Alexandria is situated, as it were, at the cross-roads of the whole world, at the cross-roads of even the most remote peoples (ethnē) within that world. It’s as if it were a market serving a single city, a market which brings together into one place all types of people, displaying them to one another and, as far as possible, making them people of the same tribe (homophyloi).

[Environment and people not necessarily correspondent]

(37) Perhaps these words of mine are pleasing to your ears and you fancy that you are being praised by me, as you are by all the rest who are always flattering you.  But I was praising water, soil, harbours, places and everything except you yourselves. For where have I said that you are sensible, temperate, and just? Was it not quite the opposite? For when we praise human beings, it should be for their good discipline, gentleness, unity, civic order, for listening to those who give good advice, and for not being always in search of pleasures. But arrivals and departures of vessels or superiority in size of population, in merchandise, and in ships are appropriate subjects for praise in the case of a fair, a harbour, or a market-place, but not of a city. (38) Not at all! If a man speaks in praise of water, he is not praising people but wells; if he talks of good climate, he does not mean that the people are good but the land is good; if he speaks of fish, he is not praising the city – how absurd! – but a sea, a lake, or a stream. Yet if someone gives a praising speech about the Nile, you Alexandrians are as delighted as if you yourselves were rivers flowing from Ethiopia. Indeed, it is safe to say that most other people also are delighted by such things and consider themselves happy if they dwell, as Homer puts it, “on a tree-clad isle” or one that is “deep-soiled” or on a mainland “of abundant pasture, rich in sheep” or hard by “shadowy mountains” or “fountains of translucent waters,” none of which is a personal attribute of those men themselves. However, regarding human virtue, they care not at all, not even in their dreams!

(39) But my purpose in mentioning such things was neither to delight you nor to place myself alongside those who habitually sing such musical phrases, whether orators or poets. For they are clever persons, mighty sophists, wonder-workers. But I am quite ordinary and prosaic in how I speak, though not ordinary in my theme. Even though the words that I speak are not great in themselves, they deal with topics of the greatest possible importance.

[Alexandria as a city with immigrants who witness and judge Alexandrian customs]

And what I said just now about the city was meant to show you that whatever impropriety you commit is committed, not in secrecy or in the presence of just a few, but in the presence of all humankind. (40) For I see among you not only Greeks, Italians and people from neighbouring Syria, Libya, and Cilicia, nor merely Ethiopians and Arabs from more distant regions. But I even see Baktrians, Scythians, Persians and a few Indians. All of these peoples help to make up the audience in your theatre and sit beside you on each occasion.

Therefore, while you are perhaps listening to a single harpist and even then to someone with whom you are well acquainted, you are being listened to by countless peoples (ethnē) who do not know you. While you are watching three or four charioteers, you yourselves are being watched by countless Greeks and barbarians as well.

[Imagined Persian or Baktrian reaction to Alexandrians’ behaviour]

(41) So what do you suppose those people say when they have returned to their homes at the ends of the earth? Do they not say: “We have seen a city that in most respects is admirable and a spectacle that surpasses all human spectacles, with regard both to beauty and sanctuaries and multitude of inhabitants and abundance of all that humans require.” Do they not go on to describe to their fellow citizens as accurately as possible all the things that I myself named a short while ago, namely all about the Nile, the land, and the sea, and in particular the epiphany of the god [Sarapis]?   “And yet,” they will add, “it is a city that is crazy about music and horse-races and in these matters behaves in a manner entirely unworthy of itself. For the Alexandrians are moderate enough when they offer sacrifice or stroll by themselves or engage in their other pursuits. But when they enter the theatre or the stadium – just as if drugs that make a person crazy lay buried there – they lose all consciousness of their former state and are not ashamed to say or do anything that occurs to them. (42) What is most distressing of all is that, despite their interest in the show, they do not really see. Even though they wish to hear, they do not hear, being evidently out of their senses and deranged, not only the men, but even the women and children. And when the dreadful exhibition is over and they are dismissed, although the more violent aspect of their disorder has been extinguished, still at street-corners and in alley-ways the sickness continues throughout the entire city for several days. It is like when a major fire has died down, you continue to see smoke and portions of buildings still on fire for a long time.” (43) Moreover, some Persian or Baktrian is likely to say: “We ourselves know how to ride horses and are held to be just about the best in horseman­ship”​ – for they cultivate that art for the defence of their empire and independence [e.g. Herodotos, Inquiries 1.136 – link] – “but for all that we have never behaved that way or anything like it.”  On the other hand, you Alexandrians, who have never handled a horse or mounted one yourselves, are unable to restrain yourselves. Instead, you are like lame men squabbling over a foot-race. That may explain why, cowards and slackers though you are, you have won so many cavalry battles in the past!

[Anacharsis as an example of an immigrant’s reaction]

(44) Listen carefully in case these people prove to have spoken more truthfully about you than Anacharsis the Scythian [link to other posts on Anacharsis] is said to have spoken about the Greeks. Anacharsis was held to be one of the sages, and he came to Greece, I suppose, to observe the customs and the people.​ Anacharsis said that in each city of the Greeks there is a place set apart in which they act insanely day after day, meaning the gymnasium. For when they go there and strip off their clothes, they smear themselves with a drug.​ “And this,” he said, “arouses the madness in them because immediately some of them run, others throw each other down, others put up their hands and fight an imaginary foe, and others submit to blows. And when they have behaved in that fashion,” he said, “they scrape off the drug and immediately are sane again and, now on friendly terms with one another, they walk with downcast glance, being ashamed at what has occurred.”

(45) Anacharsis was joking and poking fun at a significant subject, it seems to me, when he said these things. But what might a visitor say about yourselves? For as soon as you get together, you set to work to box, shout, hurl and dance, but smeared with what drug? Evidently with the drug of foolishness, as if you could not watch the spectacle sensibly! For I do not want you to think that I’m saying such performances should not take place in cities.  For perhaps they should, and it may be necessary, because of the weakness of the populace and their lazy habits. Possibly even among better people too there are those who need some diversion and amusement in life. However, they should do such things with manners and in a way appropriate to a free men. (46) For it will not cause any of the horses to run more slowly or any of the singers to sing less pleasingly if you preserve appropriate manners. But as things are now, if one of the charioteers falls from his chariot, you think it’s terrible and the greatest of all disasters, whereas when you yourselves fall from fitting manners and from the esteem you should enjoy, you are unconcerned. And if you hear the harpist sing out of tune or off pitch, you are well aware of it, whereas when you yourselves utterly abandon the harmony prescribed by nature and are most discordant, you are quite indifferent.

(47) And yet how many here have met destruction because of these allurements?​ . . . [remainder of the speech omitted].

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