the politics of writing: literary form and philosophical engagement in dio chrysostom and the early empire


Department of Classics, New York University

27-28 April 2018


Writing is inexhaustible: it has become humanity’s ultimate tool of knowledge, a means both of democratic expression and the spread of information and of totalitarian repression, and an art form in itself. Writing reveals the way we see the world. Two genres seem to have been particularly influential in our engagement with politics – the philosophical essay and the oration/speech.

There is a very long tradition of philosophical engagement with politics at a theoretical level, where close attention is also paid to the form of writing in which arguments are presented. However, Dio Chrysostom and other writers of early imperial Rome go beyond theoretical engagement and seem to have a foot in both the theoretical and the practical. Does this actually mean anything in relation to their work? Can we (or should we) approach their essays and orations differently because of the authors’ overt political ambitions and engagement? How is the ‘political’ manifested in their works? And how do the authors conceive of the form of writing (essay and speech)? As political circumstances have changed under the empire, can we detect through Dio, and through his approach to essay or speech writing in particular, changes in the practices of writing political philosophy?

This conference seeks to explore the form of political writing through a closer look at the way in which ancient authors of imperial Rome made use of the genres of the political essay and the rhetorical speech. In the case of Dio, this will mean looking also beyond the most often discussed works (Euboicus, Kingship Orations etc.) and examining the whole corpus of his literary output, including essays and dialogues that are thematically very diverse. Why did Dio (and his other contemporaries, e.g. Plutarch) decide to write orations and essays? What (if anything) did they contribute to the form of these genres? How does politics work in their essays? Is there a sense of continuity with the past in the form(at) of their writings? We are also interested in the relevance of this investigation for modern audiences: to what extent are we heirs to these particular types of writing? Are the essay or the speech still valid forms of civic participation today? What is the future of political essay writing?