Dionysiuses: A Spotter's Guide

Ancient history, philosophy and religion are full of people called Dionysius. This situation is further confused by the fact that in some cases it is uncertain which Dionysius did what, and a large number of works traditionally linked to one Dionysius have more recently been attributed to an unknown individual sometimes called Pseudo-Dionysius. Therefore, my intention here is simply to run through the various Dionysiuses (and those who might be confused with them), and provide the briefest list of identifying features while hopefully pointing you to other more detailed sources of information. In reading this, it should be noted that Dionysius can be spelt (in stricter accordance with the Greek) Dionysios, and the name Denis (which is derived from Dionysius) is sometimes used for many of these people particularly in religious contexts.

Dionysus. Easily distinguished by not being called Dionysius, Dionysus was a Greek god who in some ways resembles the Roman Bacchus. However, confusion arises here too, because there may possibly be two gods called Dionysus, one the traditional fun-loving god of wine, women and song, and the other a slightly later figure linked with near-Eastern mystery religions. You can find more information in the write-up on him here.

Dionysius the Elder (c. 430 BC - c. 367 BC). Tyrant of Syracuse (now in Sicily), he fought various wars mostly against the Carthaginians and assorted places in mainland Italy. He was something of a playwright as well as a joker who entered folklore by hanging a sword over the head of his slave Damocles.

Dionysius the Younger (fl. 368 - 344 BC). Son of Dionysius the Elder, he succeeded his father as Tyrant of Syracuse, making peace with Carthage, but squabbling his with former regent Dion of Syracuse, being discourteous to the visiting Plato, and eventually being deposed by Timoleon in 344 BC. He moved to Corinth (where he was not to be confused with the later Saint Dionysius of Corinth), where he wrote poetry and philosophy and may have taught rhetoric.

Dionysius Periegetes (fl. 300 BC). Greek poet, author of Description of the Inhabited Earth.

Dionysius Thrax (c. 170 BC - c. 90 BC). "Thrax" means "The Thracian", because his father was from Thrace. Lived in Alexandria. Author of the first Greek grammar; whether he actually wrote it has occasionally been disputed but he is still usually supposed to have done so. He also wrote on Homer and other literary topics.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (late first century BC). Or Dionysius Halicarnassensis, which means Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Greek rhetorician and historian, who taught in Rome. Works include On the Arrangement of Words, On Imitation, On the Early Orators, On Thucydides, On the Eloquence of Demosthenes, and Antiquities of Rome. He did not write The Art of Rhetoric, which is sometimes attributed to him but was probably of later origin.

Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (first century AD). A judge of the Areopagus in Athens; converted to Christianity by Saint Paul (Acts 17:34, which contains minimal information). Often confused with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. The Areopagus (Hill of Ares) is a hill in Athens where the city council met in ancient times for both legislative and judicial purposes. He may have become Bishop of Athens, and is traditionally reckoned to have met his death as a martyr.

Saint Dionysius of Corinth (late second century AD). Bishop of Corinth around AD 170. Our only knowledge of him is from the historian Eusebius, who describes a number of letters sent by him; extracts from one of these letters, to the Romans, are the only document by Dionysius of Corinth that we have.

Saint Denis, Denys or Dionysius (third century AD). The first bishop of Paris, martyred by the Romans c. AD 258 at Montmartre, and now a patron saint of France and Paris.

Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (late 5th century AD). Or Pseudo-Dionysius. Almost nothing is known about him, save for the various writings now attributed to him, which were in the 6th century wrongly attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. Confusingly, the author of these Pseudo-Dionysian works claims to have been present at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which is generally regarded as untrue, and says he was formerly pagan, which may be more likely. His doctrine is obscure from what we have of his writings; his works consist of four treatises and ten letters (plus some works falsely attributed to him and presumably penned by Pseudo-Pseudo-Dionysius). Whoever he was, he has had a considerable influence on mystical thought for 1500 years. The principal works are De divinus nominibus (On the Divine Names), Caelestis hierarchia (The Celestial Hierarchy), Ecclesiastica hierarchia (The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy), and Theologia mystica (Mystical Theology).

Dionysius Exiguus (early 6th century AD). Name means Dionysius "The Little", though this may have been out of modesty comparing himself to his past namesakes, rather than due to short stature. Fixed the date of Jesus's birth at AD 1 (in the Roman calendar, 754 AUC), and was also involved in specifying the date of Easter. Born in Scythia and spent most of his life in Rome. Main works the Collectio Dionysiana (Dionysian Collection), including Codex canonum Ecclesiae Universae (Codex of Canons of the Universal Church) and Codex canonum ecclesiasticarum (Codex of Ecclesiastical Canons).

Diniz (1261 - 1325). Sometimes called Dionysius, "o Lavrador" (The Farmer) or Denis. King of Portugal (1279-1325), succeeding his father Alfonso III.

Dionysius (c. 1440 - c. 1505). Russian icon painter, who produced work for sites including the Parnytievo-Borovsky monastery, the Moscow Kremlin, Joseph-Volokolamsky Cathedral and Paul-Obnorsky Cathedral. He was favoured by Ivan III and the enforcer of religious orthodoxy Iosif Volotsky. Dionysius's son Pheodosius was also an artist.

Main sources:

  • Catholic Encyclopedia. 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen
  • Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th Edition. 2001. http://www.bartleby.com/65/

I have been queried about the plural of Dionysius, which according to classical models is obviously not "Dionysiuses". Dionysius is the Latin spelling of a Greek name which might be more accurately transliterated as "Dionusios" or "Dionysios", with the plural "Dionusioi" or "Dionysioi". The Latin plural of Dionysius would (one assumes) be "Dionysii".

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