Barbarian wisdom: Dio of Prusa on barbarians’ innate knowledge of god (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian wisdom: Dio of Prusa on barbarians’ innate knowledge of god (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified December 27, 2022,

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 12 (link).

Comments: In this speech, Dio of Prusa (in Bithynia) ostensibly addresses an audience in front of the statue of Zeus (created by Pheidias) at Olympia (probably written in 97 CE). He uses the opportunity to express some key Stoic philosophical views that emerge from the notion that logos or “reason” is the organizing principal of the universe that infiltrates the world we live in, (Dio’s views overlap with both Stoic and Cynic perspectives in his other writings). Particularly important for the notion of wise barbarians is his argument that all humans – both Greeks and barbarians – are born with an innate knowledge of god.

However, to complicate matters, he frames this point within another idea that we find in some other authors, such Marcus Terentius Varro in his Antiquities of Human and Divine Things as reported by Augustine, City of God 4.27 and 6.2-6. This is the so called “tripartite theology” (cf. Strabo, Geography 1.2.7-8). It seems that the initial three-fold idea referred to three systems for understanding the gods, with each corresponding to a role. There were the gods as explained (1) by poets in mythology; (2) by civic priests and lawgivers in ancestral custom or law; (3) and, by philosophers through allegorical interpretation, physics, logic, and ethics (see Varro in Augustine).

Dio seems to lose track of his numbering system at times, but he does two main things to adjust the framework. First of all, he prefaces the three options (of the traditional tripartite idea) with another, innate option for understanding the gods without instruction from anyone. However, there is a sense in which his first innate option really overlaps with the philosophers’ approach to the gods, particularly since Dio is expounding a key Stoic philosophical perspective when he outlines the first, innate access to the gods (so this is really the philosophical approach too). This may be why Dio is extremely brief with the philosophers’ approach to knowing god (number 5 below).

The second main thing Dio does is add to the tripartite framework still another means of knowing god: the understanding of god that artists like the ideal Pheidias offer to people (number 4 below). The passages below do not include Dio’s extensive trial of the artist Pheidias (who created the statue of Zeus), in which the artist himself explains the superiority of the artists’ means of knowing god in relation to the poets’ and the lawgivers’. The artists’ approach also comes closer to the philosophical one within Pheidias’ ostensible defence speech. So with Dio we end up with a five-fold (instead of three-fold) explanation of how one can know god, and yet the overall point is the essential position of the first, innate understanding that barbarians share and that Stoic philosophers like Dio understand most.

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.


[1. Inborn knowledge of god common to Greeks and barbarians]

(27) Now concerning the nature of the gods (theoi) in general, and especially that of the ruler of the universe,​ first and foremost there is an idea regarding him and a conception of him common to the whole human race, to the Greeks and to the barbarians alike. This conception is inevitable and innate in every creature endowed with reason,​ arising in the course of nature without the aid of human teacher and free from the deceit of any expounding priest. It has made its way and made clear god’s kinship with man and furnished many evidences of the truth, which did not cause the earliest and most ancient men to doze and grow indifferent to them. (28) To the degree that these earlier men were not living dispersed far away from the deity (theion) or beyond the deity’s borders apart by themselves, but had grown up in his company and had remained close to him in every way, they could not for any length of time continue to be unintelligent beings, especially since they had received from him intelligence and the capacity for reason.

They were illuminated on every side by the divine and magnificent glories of heaven and the stars of sun and moon, by night and day encountering varied and dissimilar experiences, seeing wondrous sights and hearing manifold voices of winds, forest, rivers and sea and of animals tame and wild. While they themselves uttered a most pleasing and clear sound, and taking delight in the proud and intelligent quality of the human voice, attached symbols to the objects that reached their senses, so as to be able to name and designate everything perceived, thus easily acquiring memories and concepts of innumerable things.

(29) How, then, could they have remained ignorant and conceived no inkling about the one who had sowed and planted and was now preserving and nourishing them, when on every side they were filled with the divine nature through both sight and hearing, and in fact through every sense? They lived on the earth, they saw the light of heaven, and they had nourishment in abundance, for god their ancestor had lavishly provided and prepared it for them. (30) As their first nourishment the first men, being the very children of the soil, had the earthy food – the moist earth of clay and sand at that time being soft and rich – which they licked up from the earth, their mother as it were, even as plants now draw the moisture from the soil. Then the later generation, who were now advancing, had a second nourishment consisting of wild fruits and tender herbs along with sweet dew and fresh nymph-haunted streams.​

Furthermore, being in contact with the surrounding air and nourished by the unceasing flow of their breath, they sucked in moist air​ as infants suck in their food, this milk never failing them because the teat was ever at their lips. (31) In fact, we should almost be justified in calling this the first nourishment for both the earlier and the succeeding generations without distinction. For when the newborn baby, still sluggish and feeble, comes out of the womb, the earth, its real mother, receives it. The air, after entering into the baby and enlivening it, at once awakens it by a nourishment more liquid than milk and enables it to emit a cry. This might reasonably be called the first teat that nature offered to human beings at the moment of birth.

(32) So experiencing all these things and afterwards taking note of them, men could not help admiring and loving the spirit (daimonion), also because they observed the seasons and saw that it is for our preservation that they come with perfect regularity and avoidance of excess in either direction. Furthermore, they admired and loved the spirit because they enjoyed this god-given superiority over the other animals of being able to reason and reflect about the gods. (33) So it is very much the same as if anyone were to place a man, a Greek or a barbarian, in some mystic place​ of extraordinary beauty and size to be initiated, where he would see many mystic sights and hear many mystic voices, where light and darkness would appear to him alternately, and a thousand other things would occur. Furthermore, if it should be just like the rite called enthronement, where the initiating priests have the custom of seating the novices and then dancing around them, is it likely that the man in this situation would be in no way moved in his mind and would not suspect that all which was taking place was the result of a more than wise intention and preparation, even if he belonged to the most remote and nameless barbarians and had no guide and interpreter at his side, provided, of course, that he had the mind of a human being? (34) Or rather, is this not impossible? It is also impossible that the entire descent group of humanity (genos) would fail to gain some understanding when experiencing the complete and truly perfect initiation, not in a little building erected by the Athenians for the reception of a small company but in this universe, a varied and cunningly constructed creation, in which countless amazing things appear at every moment, Furthermore, it is impossible for this to happen where the rites are being performed, not by human beings who are of no higher order than the initiates themselves, but by immortal gods who are initiating mortal men, and night and day both in sunlight and under the stars are — if we may dare to use the term — literally dancing around them forever​. Is it possible to suppose, I repeat, that of all these things his senses told him nothing, or that he gained no faintest inkling of them,​ and especially when the leader of the choir was in charge of the whole spectacle and directing the entire heaven and universe, even as a skilful pilot commands a ship that has been perfectly furnished and lacks nothing?

[Even animals and plants honour god]

(35) That human beings should be so affected would occasion no surprise, but much rather that, as we see, this influence reaches even the senseless and irrational brutes, so that even they recognize and honour the god and desire to live according to his ordinance. It is still stranger that the plants, which have no conception of anything, but, being soulless and voiceless, are controlled by a simple kind of nature — it is passing strange, I say, that even these voluntarily and willingly yield each its own proper fruit. So very clear and evident is the will and power of god.

(36) No, I wonder if we will be thought very absurd and hopelessly behind the times in view of this reasoning, if we maintain that this unexpected knowledge is indeed more natural for the beasts and the trees than dullness and ignorance are for us? Why, certain men have shown themselves wiser than all wisdom. Yes, they have poured into their ears, not wax, as I believe they say that the sailors from Ithaca did that they might not hear the song of the Sirens,​ but a substance like lead, both soft and impenetrable by the human voice. I think that they also have hung before their eyes a curtain of deep darkness and mist like that which, according to Homer, kept the god from being recognized when he was caught.

[Ignorant people refuse to hear and see god]

These men [who cover their ears or their eyes], then, despise all things divine, and have set up the image of one female divinity, depraved and monstrous, representing a kind of wantonness or self-indulgent ease and unrestrained lewdness, to which they gave the name of Pleasure, a truly effeminate god. (37) They prefer her in honour and worship with softly tinkling cymbal-like instruments, or with pipes played under cover of darkness. This is a form of entertainment which nobody would resent, if their cleverness went only as far as singing and they did not attempt to take our gods from us and send them into banishment. They drive the gods out of their own city and kingdom, clean out of this ordered universe to alien regions in the same way that unfortunate human beings are banished to numerous uninhabited isles. All this universe above us they assert is without purpose or intelligence or master, has no ruler, or even steward or overseer, but wanders at random and is swept aimlessly along. They assert that there is no master there to take thought for it now, and no creator having made it in the first place. They are even acting like boys with their hoops, which they set in motion of their own accord, and then let them roll along of themselves.

[Reason for the digression, a summary, and getting on track towards the second main way of having a conception of god]

(38) Now to explain this digression — my argument is responsible, having turned aside of itself. For perhaps it is not easy to control the course of a philosopher’s thoughts and speech, no matter what direction they may take. For whatever suggests itself to the philosopher’s mind always seems profitable – no indispensable – for his audience, and my speech has not been prepared to “suit the water-clock and the constraint of court procedure,” to use somebody’s expression, but allows itself a great deal of license. Well, it is not difficult to run back again, just as on a voyage it is not difficult for competent steersmen who have got a little off their course to get back upon it.

(39) To resume, then: Regarding man’s belief in the deity and his assumption that there is a god we were maintaining that the fountain-head, as we may say, or source, was that idea which is innate in all humankind and comes into being as the result of the actual facts and the truth, an idea that was not framed confusedly nor yet at random. Instead, the idea has been exceedingly potent and persistent since the beginning of time, and has arisen among all peoples (ethnē) and still remains, being, one may almost say, a common and general endowment of rational beings.

[2-3. Myths written by poets and customs managed by lawgivers as a source of acquired knowledge of god]

As the second source we designate the idea which has been acquired and indeed implanted in men’s souls through no other means than narrative accounts, myths, and customs, in some cases ascribed to no author and also unwritten, but in others written and having as their authors men of very great fame.​ (40) Of this acquired notion of the divine being let us say that one part is voluntary and due to exhortation, another part compulsory and prescriptive. By the kind that depends upon voluntary acceptance and exhortation I mean that which is handed down by the poets, and by the kind that depends upon compulsion and prescription I mean that due to the lawgivers.

I call these secondary because neither of them could possibly have gained strength unless that primary notion had been present to begin with. Because that innate notion was present, there took root in humankind – by their own volition and because they already possessed a sort of foreknowledge – the prescriptions of the lawgivers and the exhortations of the poets. Some of them​ expounded things correctly and in consonance with the truth and their hearers’ notions, and others went astray in certain matters. (41) But which of the two influences mentioned – poetry or legislation – should be considered earlier among us Greeks at any rate, I am afraid I cannot discuss at length on the present occasion. But perhaps it is fitting that the kind which depended on persuasion rather than penalties should be more ancient than the kind which employed compulsion and prescription.

(42) Now up to this point, we may almost say, the feelings of humans 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 and human parents. For certainly the goodwill and desire to serve which the offspring feel toward their parents is, in the first type, present in them, untaught, as a gift of nature and as a result of acts of kindness received. (43) Since that which has been begotten immediately at birth loves and cherishes in return, so far as it may, that which begat and nourishes and loves it. Whereas the second and third types, which are derived from our poet and lawgivers, the former exhorting us not to withhold our gratitude from that which is older and of the same blood besides being the author of life and being, the latter using compulsion and the threat of punishment for those who refuse obedience, without, however, making anything clear and showing plainly just who parents are and what the acts of kindness are for which they enjoin upon us not to leave unpaid a debt which is due. But to an even greater extent do we see this to be true in both particulars in their stories and myths about the gods.

[Further digression to address the audience in a humorous way]

Now I am very much aware that to most men strict exactness in any exposition is on every occasion annoying. That exactness in a speech is no less so for those whose sole interest is in quantity alone. These without any preface whatever or any statements defining their subject-matter – without even beginning their speeches with any beginning but starting out with “with unwashen feet” [i.e. unprepared], as the saying is – proceed to expound things most obvious and naked to the sight. Now as for “unwashen feet,” though they do no great harm when men must pass through mud and piles of refuse, yet an ignorant tongue causes no little injury to an audience. However, we may reasonably expect that the educated men of the audience, of whom one ought to take some account, will keep up with us and go through the task with us until we merge from bypath and rough ground, as it were, and get our argument back upon the straight road.

[4. Art of craftsmen as a source for the knowledge of god]

(44) Now that we have set before us three sources of man’s conception of the divine being, that is, the [1] innate, that derived from [2] the poets, and that derived from the [3] lawgivers, let us name as the fourth that derived from [4] the plastic art and the work of skilled craftsmen who make statues and likenesses of the gods​. I mean painters, sculptors, and masons who work in stone, in a word, everyone who has held himself worthy to come forward to represent the divine nature through the use of art, whether: (1) by means of a rough sketch, very indistinct or deceptive to the eye, or (2) by the blending of colours and by line-drawing, which produces a result which we can almost say is the most accurate of all, or (3) by the carving of stone, or (4) by the craft which makes images of wood, in which the artist little by little removes the excess of material until nothing remains but the shape which the observer sees,​ or (5) by the casting of bronze and the like precious metals, which are heated and then either beaten out or poured into moulds, or (6) by the moulding of wax, which most readily answers the artist’s touch and affords the greatest opportunity for change of intention. (45) To this class belong not only Pheidias but also Alkamenes​, Polykleitos, as well as Aglaophon​, Polygnotos, Zeuxis​ and, earlier than all these, Daidalos.

For these men were not satisfied to display their cleverness and skill on commonplace subjects, but by exhibiting all sorts of likenesses and representations of gods they secured for their patrons both private persons and the cities, whose people they filled with an ample and varied conception of the divine. Here they did not differ altogether from the poets and lawgivers: in the one case that they might not be considered violators of the laws and so make themselves liable to the penalties imposed upon such; and, in the other case because they saw that they had been anticipated by the poets and that the poets’ image-making was the earlier. (46) Consequently they preferred not to appear to the many as untrustworthy and to be disliked for making innovations. In most matters, accordingly, they adhered to the myths and maintained agreement with them in their representations, but in some few cases they contributed their own ideas, becoming in a sense the rivals as well as fellow-craftsmen of the poets, since the latter appealed to the ear alone, whereas it was simply through the eye​ that they, for their part, interpreted the divine attributes to their more numerous and less cultivated spectators. All these influences won strength from that primary impulse, as having originated with the honouring of the divine being and winning his favour.

[5. Philosophical inquiry as a source of knowledge of god, seemingly overlapping considerably with the innate knowledge of point one]

(47) Furthermore, quite apart from that simple and earliest notion of the gods which develops in the hearts of all men along with their reasoning power, in addition to those three interpreters and teachers, the poets, the lawgivers, and creative artists, we must take on a fourth one, who is by no means indifferent nor believes himself unacquainted with the gods, I mean the philosopher,​ the one who by means of reason interprets and proclaims the divine nature, most truly, perhaps, and most perfectly.

(48) As to the lawgiver, let us omit for the present to hale him here for an accounting. He is a stern man and himself accustomed to hold all others to an accounting. Indeed, we should have consideration for ourselves and for our own preoccupation.​ But as for the rest, let us select the foremost man of each class, and consider whether they will be found to have done by their actions or words any good or harm to piety, and how they stand as to agreement with each other or divergence from one another, and which one of them adheres to the truth most closely, being in harmony with that primary and guileless view. Now in fact all these men speak with one voice, just as if they had taken the one track and were keeping to it, some clearly and others less plainly. Would the true philosopher, perhaps, not stand in need of consolation if he should be brought into comparison with the makers of statues or of poetic measures, and that too, before the throng of an ancestral festive gathering where the judges are predisposed in their favour?

(49) Suppose, for instance, that someone were to take Pheidias first and question him before the tribunal of the Greeks. . . [Extensive discussion of the artist’s depiction of the gods by way of the figure of Pheidias on trial follows].

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