A Proverb for a Ruined Life

Erasmus, Adagia 83

Διονύσιος ἐν Κορίνθῳ, that is, “Dionysius in Corinth”. This is a proverbial saying, by which we mean that someone has been driven down from the highest dignity and power to a private and lowly fortune, as Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse, expelled from power, taught the boys of Corinth letters and music for a fee. Cicero writes in the ninth book of his letters to Atticus: “To be sure, let it be with the nobles as you wish. But you know that famous Dionysius in Corinth.”

Quintilian writes in book 8 of his Institutio Oratoria: “There is an allegory among these examples, if they are not set down with the prescribed reason. For as Dionysius in Corinth, which all the Greeks use, so many similar expressions may be used.” When Cicero says, “You know that…” and Quintilian says, “All the Greeks…” each clearly means that it had been bandied about in common parlance.

Where the adage comes from is made clear by Plutarch in his book Περὶ τῆς ἀδολεσχίας, that is, On Futile Loquacity. As he is praising things said briefly and gravely, he relates that which was said by the Spartans to king Philip threatening war and raging about: Dionysius in Corinth. When the king wrote back to them, that he would overthrow the Spartans if he ever came to Laconia, they responded with just one word: Αἴκα, that is, If. Plato sailed three times to Sicily not without being spattered by an unpleasant rumor. From which Molon, who was unfavorably disposed to Plato, said that it was not wonderful that Dionysius should be in Corinth, but rather, that Plato should be in Sicily, because necessity compelled the king, while ambition was driving Plato.

Διονύσιος ἐν Κορίνθῳ, id est Dionysius Corinthi. Proverbialis allegoria, qua significamus aliquem e summa dignitate atque imperio ad privatam humilemque redactum fortunam, quemadmodum Dionysius Syracusarum tyrannus expulsus imperio Corinthi pueros litteras ac musicam mercede docuit. Cicero epistolarum ad Atticum libro IX: De optimatibus sit sane ita ut vis. Sed nosti illud Διονύσιος ἐν Κορίνθῳ Quintilianus Institutionum oratoriarum libro VIII: Est in exemplis allegoria, si non praedicta ratione ponantur. Nam, ut Dionysium Corinthi esse, quo Graeci omnes utuntur, ita plura similia dici possunt. Hic Cicero, cum ait: Nosti illud et Quintilianus: Quo Graeci omnes utuntur, nimirum uterque vulgo iactatum fuisse significat. Caeterum unde natum sit adagium, Plutarchus aperuit in libello, cui titulus Περὶ τῆς ἀδολεσχίας, id est De futili loquacitate. Laudans enim breviter et graviter dicta commemorat et illud a Lacedaemonibus responsum regi Philippo bellum minanti ferocientique: Διονύσιος ἐν Κορίνθῳ. Quibus ubi rex rescripsisset, siquando in Laconiam duxisset exercitum, eversurum se Lacedaemonios, verbo duntaxat responderunt: Αἴκα, id est Si. Plato ter navigavit in Siciliam non sine sinistri rumoris aspergine. Unde Molon, qui inimicum in Platonem gerebat animum, dicebat non esse mirum, si Dionysius esset Corinthi, sed si Plato in Sicilia. Regem enim urgebat necessitas, Platonem solicitabat ambitio.

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