Unspeakable Sounds:
Dio Chrysostom on Nasal Noise at Tarsus

Lawrence Kim, University of Texas at Austin

In his First Tarsian Oration (33), Dio Chrysostom relentlessly criticizes the inhabitants of Tarsus for an apparently abominable practice of theirs that he calls rhengkein, which roughly translates “to snore” or “to snort”.  Although the work has not inspired much literary criticism in the past hundred years, the question of what this ‘snorting’ was, and what exactly Dio thought was so horrific about it, has exercised the imagination of a number of scholars.  To mention a few: T. Callander has called it a “nasal kind of singing”, Gilbert Highet, Simon Swain, and Samuel Houser connect it with the sounds of “men engaged in sexual intercourse”, Fergus Millar and Paolo Desideri with the Tarsians’ Asiatic Greek accent, and C. Bradford Welles even declared that it was simply an allegory for the Tarsians’ neglect of philosophy.  Of course, as Cécile Bost-Pouderon has pointed out recently, Dio’s speech authorizes all of these readings to some degree, because he does touch on all of these areas in his digressive and somewhat self-contradictory treatment of this elusive ‘snorting’; to fixate on only one ‘meaning’ is to ignore other equally significant portions of the text.

What interests me, however, and what I wish to analyze in this paper, is the cause of the peculiar effect that Dio’s text has had on modern scholarship – that is, the central lack in the speech that scholarship has felt the need to fill up, to complete.  The answers have been so varied because Dio himself never defines what he means by rhengkein, and only mentions the word once (despite the impression given by translators who feel compelled to supply it for clarity).  In the paper, I suggest that Dio seems to be thematizing the difficulty, or even impossibility, of adequately defining his subject matter, which, although capable of being heard, is rendered indescribable by speech.  Dio does not even reveal what he is criticizing the Tarsians for until the 31st paragraph (of 64) and then confesses that, although he has heard the sound, he cannot “describe it clearly (dêlôsai saphôs).”  The ensuing litany of comparisons and analogies to every imaginable kind of sound (funereal wailing, brothel sounds, drunken snoring, Timotheus’ ‘new music’, the Sirens’ song, swans’ cries, etc.) or licentious behavior manages to continuously circulate around, but never quite attain, a definition of what rhengkein actually is.  After discussing this absence that consitutes the heart of the speech, I conclude by analyzing the famous anecdote of the physiognomist and the detection of the kinaidos (see Gleason) as symptomatic of Dio’s refusal to name the sound in question, and set the speech in the context of Dio’s similar literary self-consciousness in other orations.

Works Cited

C. Bost-Pouderon (2000) REG 113, 636-51; T. Callander (1904) JHS 112, 1-15; P. Desideri (1978) Dione di Prusa; M. Gleason (1995) Making Men; G. Highet (1983) Classical Papers, 74-99; S. Houser (1998) CA 17, 235-58; F. Millar (1968) JRS 58, 126-34; S. Swain (1996) Hellenism and Empire; C. B. Welles (1962) Mel.Univ.St.Joseph 38, 43-75.

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