The old adage “actions speak louder than words” was especially true in ancient times. While the speeches of great orators were held as greatly significant, they too contained a public element and were performed in front of a crowd. Still, deeds and actions recorded by historians shape our understanding of ancient individuals. For the most part, there are very few first-person accounts of people’s lives, so we must rely on the recounts of others. One example is the narrative the “Life of Diogenes,” assembled by Diogenes Laertus. This biography describes the very public life of the Roman philosopher Diogenes of Sinope who literally lives his philosophy, teaching through performance and example. Another example of public life defining one’s legacy is the myth of Claudia the Vestal Virgin. While the myth of Claudia has been reconstructed by modern scholars based on multiple sources, it is still evident how important it was to ancient biographers that there be public actions from which to construct the story of a life.

Background and Important Public EventsEdit

Diogenes of Sinope, also known as Diogenes the Cynic, lived from 404 B.C. – 323 B.C., was a philosopher who used his public actions to bring attention to the problems with some cultural conventions. He was exiled from his hometown after defacing currency, and subsequently moved to Athens where he lived an abstemious lifestyle, taking up residence in a tub in the heart of Athens (Diogenes Laertus, “Diogenes” 23-25). He was so committed to living simply that when Alexander, who was quite impressed with Diogenes, approached him while he was sunning himself in a public square and said, “Ask of me any boon you like,” Diogenes merely replied, “Stand out of my light” (Diogenes Laertus, “Diogenes” 41). Diogenes became well known in Athens for his myriad public stunts. For example, when attempting to speak seriously in a public square, no one stopped to listen to him. Noticing this, Diogenes began to whistle, after which he was summarily surrounded by a crowd who he then ridiculed for “coming in all seriousness to hear nonsense, but [coming] slowly and contemptuously when the theme was serious” (Diogenes Laertus, “Diogenes” 29). There are numerous examples given in Diogenes Laertus’s “Life of Diogenes” that illustrate how important it was to ancient biographers to have well remembered public actions in order to reassemble one’s life into a narrative. With literacy relatively low, having oral accounts of actions was especially important. The more public the action, the greater the number of accounts and the more confident the historian can be in its veracity. Diogenes Laertus focused almost entirely on the public life of Diogenes, making only cursory reference to his private and family life. Many other biographies attempt to examine the private life of a noteworthy individual with the hopes of gaining some insight into his public actions. The biography of Diogenes is decidedly outwardly focused. A wholly different type of biography is that of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, a modern version of which has been written by John Scheid. Claudia is also known for her public actions; legend has it that she alone righted a ship that had run aground as a service to the god Cybele whose effigy was being carried on board. She had been accused of adultery by those offended “by her way of dressing or quick tongue” and sought to prove her innocence. After single handedly pulling the ship up river, Cybele came down to profess Claudia’s innocence (Fraschetti, “Claudia the Vestal Virgin” 24). Another very public event that helped to define Claudia the Vestal Virgin in her biography came after her father had won a chariot race and was celebrating his victory. He was attacked by a crowd of jealous plebeians who attempted to pull him from his chariot. Claudia shielded her father with her body, knowing that the plebeians would not dare to harm a vestal virgin. She protected her father all the way to safety in the capitol (Fraschetti, “Claudia the Vestal Virgin” 28).

Public Events in BiographiesEdit

In any biography, first person accounts are important. However, it is common that over time multiple accounts of the same story will emerge. This is evident more so in the modern account of the life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, but also apparent in the life of Diogenes. From the very beginning, Diogenes Laertus writes in “Diogenes,” “Diocles relates that he went into exile… But Eubulides in his book on Diogenes says that … Diogenes was forced to leave with his father” (Diogenes Laertus, “Diogenes” 23). The modern biography of Claudia the Vestal Virgin is comprised of a number of sources as well as analysis by the author. In order for the biography of Claudia the Vestal Virgin to more closely resemble Diogenes Laertus’s life of Diogenes the Cynic in style and substance, a near total reimagining would be necessary. The most substantial change would be to the focus of the biography itself. The life of Diogenes is more of a straightforward relation of events in Diogenes’s life; it’s a simple chronological narrative. The essay on Claudia the Vestal Virgin is more focused on Claudia’s status as a vestal virgin and the latter part of the biography is focused on that aspect of her life. Another way to make the essay on Claudia the Vestal Virgin more closely resemble the life of Diogenes would be to include direct quotations from the subject herself. For example, when explaining why Claudia was accused of adultery the author writes, “people [were] offended by her way of dressing or her quick tongue” (Fraschetti 24). In contrast, Diogenes Laertus includes every witty insult or poignant remark germane to his biographical account of the life of Diogenes. The essay on Claudia the Vestal Virgin is essentially a modern biography; it explores a specific aspect of the life of an individual with the hopes that further understanding of a single aspect of a life will help readers to understand the subject on a deeper level. Ancient biographies serve a more simple purpose: to teach us about an individual and their great deeds.

Inherent IncompatibilitiesEdit

If the essay on Claudia the Vestal Virgin was rewritten in the style of the life of Diogenes, replete with direct quotations and organized in a linear, chronological fashion, the result would be a much more personal account of Claudia’s life as a vestal virgin. As it stands, the biography of Claudia is more an analysis of life as a vestal virgin through Claudia’s eyes. However, we are told about what life would be like for Claudia rather than being actually shown through a narrative. The short account of the important events that Claudia took part in seem like a means to introduce the two subsequent sections, “The Vestals’ Status” and “The Vestals and the Matrons” which explain the history and details of the institution (Fraschetti, 28 and 30). The main difficulty in rewriting the life of Claudia in the style of the life of Diogenes is that the two are fundamentally different. Diogenes became famous for what he did and said, whereas Claudia was most known for who she was, namely a vestal virgin. Therefore, going about recording the life of Claudia in the style of the life of Diogenes, full of quotations and recollections of his actions, would be ineffective in capturing what made Claudia culturally significant.


Biographical styles differ widely based on time period, the goal of the author and the life of the individual whose life is being recorded. Analyzing the different styles utilized by biographers can be instructive in that the style of biography can elucidate facets of a life that might otherwise go unnoticed. However different the style might be, the goal of biography is still to teach us something about the life of an important of significant person and use the lessons of that person to improve our own lives.

Grace Mooney's Response: Diogenes Laertius' Interpretation of the public life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin Edit

Andrew’s argument that public lives and people’s actions speak louder than words is true for both Diogenes of Sinope and Claudia the Vestal Virgin. Andrew begins with a true statement saying, “For the most part, there are very few first-person accounts of people’s lives, so we must rely on the recounts of others.” Claudia and Diogenes of Sinope led public lives and although they did not actually write in the first person about themselves, we do know about them from other’s accounts of their lives. Diogenes Laertius writes a biography on Diogenes of Sinope and it is important how to see the connection between this biography and how he would've written one of Claudia.

Andrew recounts the life of Diogenes of Sinope and the events that take place in his life. He could have added more of the analysis of how the writing of these events could be linked to writing of the events in Claudia’s life. Also, he could have analyzed how the biographer Diogenes Laertius would have connected these stories with that of those having to do with Claudia the Vestal Virgin. Although Andrew gives specific examples of public actions to prove his thesis, I would say that he should have written more about how the biography of Claudia the Vestel Virgin would have looked like if written by Diogenes Laertius. Then, I would have used the example of the written work done by Diogenes Laertius concerning Diogenes of Sinope to go back and forth connecting Claudia the Vestal Virgin. For example, Andrew says that, “Diogenes Laertius focused almost entirely on the public life of Diogenes, making only cursory reference to his private and family life.” He could go on to say that if Diogenes were to have written a biography on the life of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, he would have done it in a similarly way, not including her family and private life.

The examples given of the actions both Claudia and Diogenes of Sinope do in public are extremely significant to the paper in which Andrew has written. However, I believe that the paper would have been stronger if he had tied the two together in how the themes of their lives were important if recorded by the Diogenes Laertius style.

In the paragraph discussing the possibility of Diogenes being the biographer of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, Andrew points out that had Diogenes written about Claudia’s life, he may have made some more specific details of her crass insults. This is contrary to her biography that describes, and glosses over the description of her insults, making her appear to be less wretched. I would add to this that Diogenes Laertius uses a lot of quotations in his works. For instance, he describes Diogenes’ reaction to entering a school in a straight forward manner, “He found there many statues of the Muses, but few pupils, ‘By the help of the gods,’ he said, ‘schoolmaster, you have plenty of pupils.’ It was his habit to everything in public” (Diogenes, 71). Nevertheless, Laertius illustrates that he writes more direct describing, therefore, I would try to find a quote in which Melania is directly insulting someone.

Throughout Andrews paper, he makes it clear that Claudia and Diogenes are extremely different, however he needs to find a way in which their biographies would have been similar so that he can write how Diogenes would have portrayed her. This means to give examples of what she would have done. Diogenes wrote about philosophers, the way they lived their lives and their actions creating their reputations. Diogenes would have exerted his energy on writing about Claudia’s philosophy of life, how she lived as a vestal virgin, and the actions she made to prove herself worthy to God. For instance, Diogenes claims that Diogenes of Sinope’s philosophy was that he believed in reason over faith. An example of this is when he describes Diogenes of Sinope saying, “He deemed man the most intelligent of all animals; but when again he saw interpreters of dreams and diviners and those who attended to them, or those who were puffed up with conceit of wealth, he thought no animal more silly. He would continually say that for the conduct of life, we need right reason” (Diogenes, 27). This quote illustrates the biographical style in which Laertius writes of Diogenes’.

Griffin Phelan's Response: If Diogenes Laertius had studied Claudia the Vestal VirginEdit

The original argument made above that there are many different intended meanings to be derived from biographies is quite legitimate and although biographies vastly differ in the manner in which they are written congruent themes can often be found. This is the case with the two biographies examined, “Life of Diogenes” and the biography of Claudia the Vestal Virgin, in that the key focus of both is to inspect the public actions of both subjects in order to gain greater insight. As stated above “Diogenes Laertius focused almost entirely on the public life of Diogenes, making only cursory reference to his private and family life” and additionally “Claudia is also known for her public actions” the drive of these narratives is to use the many recounted acts of these ancient individuals in order to display their lives.

In order to make the biography of Claudia the Vestal Virgin look more like the biography of Diogenes of Sinope there are a number of ways in which the biography must be changed. Contrary to the aforementioned analysis the focus of her biography is already along the same lines as the biography of Diogenes; the focus is already to gain insight the character through their actions, more so what is need of change is the style in which the biography is written. First, the biography of Diogenes is in chronological order and thus the biography of Claudia should follow suit. Next, and more importantly, the biography written by Diogenes Laertius shows the public events concerning Diogenes through a series of quotes said by Diogenes himself and their responses in kind. For example, it was said of Claudia that she had a quick tongue which is similar to Diogenes as shown here, “Seeing a bad archer, he sat down beside the target with the words ‘in order to not get hit’” (Diogenes Laertius, “Diogenes” 69). Similarly, the new biography of Claudia might show her saying something along the lines of ‘You dare not to harm me due to my piety, but you seek to harm my father from whom I have inherited much of that same piety’ in response to the attacking plebeians from the chariot race example used above. This both show her quick wit and also still display “The Vestals’ Status” which was a partial focus of her modern biography.

Although the hypothetical new biography of Claudia would be largely different from that of her modern day biography by Fraschetti, that doesn’t mean that it would be ‘ineffective in capturing what made Claudia culturally significant.’ There may be new and additional messages to be gained from such a biography in the different insight gained from her public conversations and actions that is still quite important in the understanding of the individual covered.