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Chasing a Silenos: Deceptive Appearances in Theopompos’ Thaumasia

William Morison

Scholars have long understood the Thaumasia of the fourth-century historian Theopompos of Chios either as an entertaining amalgam of stories or as a mere rhetorical exercise. This paper argues that the Thaumasia or “Marvels” (BNJ F 64a—F 76) is not only a rhetorical masterpiece, but also makes a significant argument that illuminates the larger project of the fifty-eight book Philippika, of which the Thaumasia is a crucial part.

 While M. Flower (Theopompus 1997: 153—65) has largely dismissed the Thaumasia as entertainment, other scholars have recognized important rhetorical elements behind its marvelous tales. For example, G. Schepens (“Ancient Paradoxography” 1996: 380 n. 18) has argued that the stories may reflect the historian’s desire to emulate Herodotos, and G. Shrimpton (Theopompus 1991: 19) has stressed the connection that several of the stories have with prophecy. More recently, F. Pownall (Lessons 2004: 153) has suggested, “the purpose of the Thaumasia is likely to have been to provide examples of those who are truly pious in order to demonstrate how Philip was using piety as an excuse to further his own political ends”.

Building on these insights, I offer a new argument that in the Thaumasia Theopompos used examples from across the known world to illustrate a critical moral/philosophical argument that permeates the Philippika: Appearances deceive. For example, the stories told by the Zoroastrian Magi at first prophesy death and destruction, but end with a story of resurrection and peace (F 64a—65); the Persian double-agent Zopyros mutilated himself to appear a rebel to the Babylonians, but in reality he was loyal to Darius (F 66); when the pious, wonderworking prophet Epimenides’ long sleep ended, he woke up in a world completely changed (F 67a—F 69); and the Silenos first appeared as a drunk monster to the shepherds of King Minos, but turned out to be a wise demigod, who understood human history and nature as no other (F 74a—F 75e).

Throughout the Philippika this historical principle is repeated as a way of illuminating the truth behind appearances:  Philip appears to be a successful leader, but in reality was a corrupt drunk (F 27); Athens’ heroic history of the Persian Wars is built on false documents (F 153) and its “patriotic” leaders were uniformly corrupt (F 85—100); and Agesilaos II of Sparta, one of the few Theopompos praised without reservation as a virtuous ruler, is described as appearing shabby, short and poorly dressed (F 107). Moreover, Theopompos admonishes his audience that Philip really exemplifies a common sort of corruption and is less than he seems, and that real excellence and virtue is rare but may be found in leaders who are more than they appear. 

Thus, the Thaumasia represents not an entertainment for the moment, but an important delineation by Theopompos of historical process and human nature. This principle of deceptive appearances, I will argue, is one that the historian extended to such a degree that we might even see the Philippika itself as a universal history masquerading as a biography of Philip II of Macedon.

Session/Panel Title

Truth and Lies

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