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From The Greek Orators by J. F. Dobson, M. A., London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1919; pp. 1-18.


By J. F. Dobson




§ 1

ORATORY is one of the earliest necessities of society; as soon as men were organised on terms of equality for corporate action, there must have been occasions when opinions might differ as to the best course to be pursued, and, if there were no inspired king whose unquestioned authority could impose his will, the majority must decide where to flee or to fight, to kill or to keep alive. Thus different plans must be discussed, and, in cases where opinion was evenly balanced, that side would prevail which could state its views most convincingly; and so the need for deliberative oratory arose.

With the Greeks oratory was instinctive; in the earliest semi-historical records that we possess, eloquence is found to be a gift prized not less highly than valour in battle; the kings and princes are not only ‘renowned for their power,’ but are ‘leaders of the people by their counsels, . . . wise and eloquent in their instructions’; strength and courage are the property of all, but the real leaders must be the counsellors, βουληφόροι  ἄνδρες. Nestor, who is almost past the age for fighting, is honoured among the first for his 2 eloquence, and whereas Achilles shares with many other warriors the glories of the Iliad, Odysseus, fertile in counsels, is the chief subject of an entire poem. The speech of Phœnix in the ninth book of the Iliad shows us the ideals which were aimed at in the education of a prince. He tells how he trained the young Achilles to be a ‘speaker of words and a doer of deeds’;1 and Achilles, as we know him, well justified this training. The leading characters in the Homeric poems are already fluent orators, able and ready to debate intelligently on any concrete subject, and, moreover, to seek guidance from general principles. Nestor makes frequent appeals to historical precedent; Phœnix introduces allegorical illustration;2 many speakers refer to the sanctity of the law and custom; though the particular case is foremost in the mind, generalisations of various kinds are by no means infrequent. The Homeric counsellor can urge his own arguments and rebut those of his opponent with a natural facility of speech and readiness of invective which even a polished wielder of personalities like Demosthenes might envy.

From the spontaneous outpourings of Achilles and his peers to the studied artifice of Lysias and Demosthenes is a long journey through unknown country, and it is obvious that no definite course of development can be traced; but a reference to Homer is of twofold importance. In the first place, it may indicate that Greek oratory was obviously of native growth, since the germs of it are to be found in the earliest annals; secondly, Homer was studied with such devout reference not only by the Athenian orators 3 themselves but by their immediate literary predecessors, the cosmopolitan Sophists and the rhetoricians of Sicily, that his influence may have been greater than would at first sight seem probable.

§ 2

The records of eloquence may be studied from various points of view, which may be roughly classified under the headings ‘literary’ and ‘practical,’ though it is not always easy to keep the elements distinct. A stylistic study of the writings of the Athenian orators must find a place in any systematic work on the development of Attic prose, but in a work like the present, which professes to deal with orators only, such a study cannot be carried out with any attempt at completeness; thus, while it may be possible to discuss the influence of Thucydides or Plato on Demosthenes, there will be no room to consider how far the historian himself may have been influenced directly by Antiphon, or the philosopher by Gorgias, though a cursory indication may be given that such influences were at work. When, however, we regard rhetoric not for its literary value but as a practical art, our task becomes more feasible; in literature there are many eddies and cross-currents, but in oratory, especially of the forensic type, there is more uniformity of flow. Antiphon and Demosthenes had, to a great extent, similar ground to traverse, similar obstacles to overcome or circumvent; and a study of their different methods of approaching like problems may give some reasonable and interesting results which will be a contribution to the history of the ‘Art of Persuasion.’ Even here we shall find difficulties, for one who is reckoned among 4 the greatest orators, Isocrates, is known not to have been practical at all in the sense in which Demosthenes was; his so-called speeches were never meant to be delivered, and depended for their efficacy far more on their literary style than on their practical characteristics. There is, perhaps, only one great factor which is common to all orators alike; they all give us, both directly and indirectly, invaluable materials for the study of Athenian history, information with regard both to public and private life and national character. While the speeches before the assembly and in public causes increase our historical knowledge in the wider sense, the private speeches, often dealing with matters of the utmost triviality, provide a miscellaneous store of information on domestic matters only comparable to that more recently recovered from the papyri of Egypt.

§ 3

It would seem that constitutional liberty and a strong civic feeling are indispensable as a basis for the growth of oratory. Such a statement must be made with caution, as it leaves out of account a thousand influences which may have been operative; but we have no records of oratory at Athens before the establishment of the democracy, and after the limitation of Athenian influence due to the spread of Hellenism under Alexander, oratory very rapidly declined.

The imagination of Herodotus gives us, in the debates of the Persian court, some idea of what he conceived the oratory of an earlier age to be; but as he transferred the ideas of his own country to another, without any serious attempt at realism, such speeches 5 are of little value to us. Thucydides again inserted speeches freely into his history, but these, he candidly admits, are not authentic records but imaginary reconstructions. Nevertheless, it is chiefly on Thucydides that we must draw for information about the eloquence of the early statesmen of the democracy.

Themistocles has left behind him some reputation as a speaker. Herodotus indicates how he harangued the Greeks before the battle of Salamis:3 Thucydides commends him for ability in explaining his policy,4 and the author of the pseudo-Lysian Epitaphios names him as ‘equally capable in speech, decision, and action.’5 Beyond these meagre notices, and a reference to his eloquence in Cicero,6 we have nothing earlier than Plutarch,7 who tells us that from early youth he took an interest in the practice of speech-making, and that he studied under a Sophist, Mnesiphilus, who apparently taught him something of the science of statesmanship. Plutarch records his answer to Eurybiadas, who had taunted him in the council of allies with being a man without a city — since Athens was evacuated — and therefore not entitled to the right of speech:

‘We, villain, have left our houses and our walls, disdaining to be slaves for the sake of these lifeless things; but still we have a city — the greatest of Greek cities — in our fleet of 200 triremes, which now are ready to help you if you care to be saved by their aid; but if you go away and betray us a second time, the Greek world shall forthwith learn that the Athenians possess a free city and a country no worse than the one they have lost.’8


Another fragment is preserved by Plutarch, an address to Xerxes in quite a different vein, containing an elaborate metaphor which may have been thought suited to the Oriental mind:

‘The speech of man is like to a piece of cunning embroidery, for both when unrolled display their patterns, but when folded up conceal them.’ 9

Many others of his sayings are chronicled: they are more or less apocryphal, as his retort to the man of Seriphos, who hinted that Themistocles owed his greatness to the fact that his city was great. ‘You, Themistocles, would never had been famous if you had been a Seriphian’ — ‘Nor would you, if you had been an Athenian.’10 His interpretation of the oracle, explaining ‘wooden walls’ as ships, shows the man ready at need like Odysseus; and the impression that we form of him from the very slight indications which we possess, is of a man always clear and plausible in his statements, never at a loss for an explanation, and perhaps rather a good debater than an orator.

Of Pericles, who represents the following generation, we have a clearer picture. We know more about his private life and the associates who influenced his opinions. His earliest instructors were the musicians Damon and Pythoclides, of whom the former remained his intimate friend through life,11 and, if we believe Plutarch, was capable of giving him advice even on questions of statesmanship.12 The friendship of Anaxagoras 7 was doubtless a powerful influence, as Plato affirms in a well-known passage of the Phaedrus:13

‘All the arts require discussion and high speculation about the truths of nature; hence come loftiness of thought and completeness of execution. And this, as I conceive, was the quality which, in addition to his natural gifts, Pericles acquired from his intercourse with Anaxagoras. . . . He was thus imbued with the higher philosophy . . . and applied what suited his purpose to the art of speaking.’

He is said also to have been acquainted with Zeno of Elea, an accomplished dialectician, and with the great Sophist Protagoras.

Plutarch represents him as amusing himself by discussing with Protagoras a question which is the theme of one of Antiphon’s tetralogies — a man in a gymnasium accidentally kills another with a javelin: who is to blame?14 In Xenophon’s Memorabilia15 we find him engaged in sophistical discussion with his young nephew Alcibiades, who, fresh from the rhetorical schools, was apparently his superior in hair-splitting argument.

Thucydides puts three speeches into the mouth of Pericles; though the language is that of the historian, some of the thoughts may be those of the statesman. We seem to recognise his high intelligence, developed by philosophical training, and the loftiness and effectiveness of which Plato speaks.16

The comic poet Eupolis gives us a picture from a different point of view:

A.   ‘Whenever at council he rose in his place
               That powerful speaker — so hot was the pace —
               Could give other runners three yards in the race.’


B.   ‘His speed I admit; in addition to that
               A mysterious spell on his lips ever sate:
               He charmed; and alone of the orators he
               Left something behind, like the sting of a bee.’17

We know from Thucydides the extent of his influence over the people. He was no demagogue in the vulgar sense; they knew him to be sincere and incorruptible. He was never deterred by the unpopularity of his policy; he would lead the people rather than submit to be led by them; he could abase their spirits when they were unduly elated, or raise them to confidence when unseasonably disheartened.18 At the height of his career his eloquence was the more effective because it was rarely displayed; minor matters in the assembly were transacted by his subordinates; when Pericles himself arose to speak it was a signal that a matter of national importance was to be debated, and his appearance roused a confident expectation that the treatment would be worthy of the subject.19 The epithet ‘Olympian,’ applied to him originally in sarcasm, was felt to be more truly applicable than its originator, perhaps, intended. His eloquence was a noble exposition of the fine intelligence and high character which first claimed a hearing.

Though we have no verbal record of his speeches, a few of his phrases stuck in the memory of chroniclers. Aegina was to him ‘the eye-sore of Piraeus’ — it spoiled the view from the Athenian harbour.20 The Samians, who submitted very reluctantly to the blessings 9 of Athenian civilization, are like ‘babies that cry when you give them their pap, but take it all the same’;21 and Boeotia, disintegrated by civil war, is like an oak split by oaken wedges.22 His finest simile — not, perhaps, original, since Herodotus attributes a similar phrase to Gelon, when Greece refused his invaluable assistance — occurred, according to Aristotle, in a funeral speech:

‘The city has lost its youth; it is as though the year had lost its Spring.’23

§ 4

The eloquence of these earlier statesmen, though significant of the tendency of the Attic genius, is an isolated phenomenon. It has no bearing on the development of Athenian oratory. We have now to consider two direct influences, that of the Sophists and that of the early rhetoricians of Sicily.

In the middle of the fifth century B.C., — when in turn the unrestricted imagination of the Ionian philosophers had failed to explain the riddle of existence on physical grounds, the metaphysical Parmenides had denied the possibility of accurate knowledge, and Zeno, the dialectician of Elea, had reduced himself to dumbness by the conclusion that not only knowledge is impossible but even grammatical predication is unjustifiable, for you cannot say that one thing is another, or like things unlike, — Philosophy fell somewhat into disrepute. A spirit of scepticism spread 10 over the Greek world, and the greatest thinkers, foiled in their attempts to discover the higher truths, turned their attention to the practical side of education. In various cities of Greater Greece, there arose men of high intellectual attainment, conveniently classed together under the title of Sophists (educators), who, neglecting abstract questions, undertook to prepare men for the higher walks of civic life by instruction of various kinds. The greatest of these, Protagoras of Abdera, expressed his contempt for philosophy in the well-known dictum, ‘Man is the measure of all things — of what is, that it is; and of what is not, that it is not.’ He therefore devoted himself to the study of literature, and, in particular, of Homer. He attained great popularity; in the course of long travels throughout the Greek world, he made several visits to Athens, where he knew Pericles. Plato, in the dialogue named after him, gives us some idea of the fascination which his personality exercised over the young men of Athens, and, indeed, ‘Sophistry’ as a whole had a tremendous popularity. All young men of good family and position, who aspired to political life, flocked to hear the lectures of the Sophists. Alcibiades, Critias, and others undoubtedly owed to this movement much of their political ability.

The morality of sophistry has been much discussed. The comic poets represent it as the chief instrument for the destruction of the ancient ideals of conduct. Plato, though he recognized its humanistic value and spoke with appreciation of several individual teachers, blamed their teaching as a whole. Certainly the claim of Protagoras, that he could make the worse cause appear the better, laid him particularly open to attack. 11 Protagoras made some elementary studies in grammar, presumably as a basis for logic. His method of teaching was apparently by example. In the dialogue of Plato he gives a demonstration of how a given subject should be discussed: his discourse consists first of a ‘myth,’ then a continuous speech, finally a criticism on a poetical quotation. We may suppose that this is a reasonable imitation of his methods. His pupils committed to memory such speeches, or summaries of them, on various subjects, and were thus moderately well equipped for purposes of general debate.

Prodicus of Ceos, who seems to have been many years younger than Protagoras,24 was more concerned with moral philosophy than with dialectical exercises. He paid the greatest attention in all his teaching to ὀρθοέπεια, the correct use of words, i.e. the distinction of meaning between words which in the popular language have come to be treated as synonymous.25 This precision may have been carried to the point of pedantry, but as the correct use of terms is an important element in prose style, his studies deserve consideration.

Hippias of Elis is of less importance. He was ready to discourse on any subject under the sun, and could teach his pupils a similar glibness; abundance of words was made to conceal a lack of ideas.

§ 5

Cicero has preserved, from Aristotle, a statement that forensic rhetoric came to its birth at Syracuse, when, after the expulsion of the tyrants in 465 B.C., 12 many families, whose property had been confiscated by them, tried to re-establish their claims.26 Certainly Corax, the founder of rhetoric, was teaching about the year 466 B.C., and composed a τέχνη, or handbook of rhetorical principles.27 He was followed by his pupil Tisias, who also wrote a treatise which Aristotle pronounced to be better than his master’s, and was in turn soon superseded by a better one.28 Both Corax and Tisias attached great importance to εἰκός (probability) as a means of convincing a jury. A sample of the use of this argument from the work of Corax is the case of the man charged with assault, who denies the charge and says, ‘It is obvious to you that I am weak in body, while he is strong; it is therefore inherently improbable that I should have dared to attack him.’ The argument can of course be turned the other way by the prosecutor — ‘the defendant is weak in body, and thought that on that account no one would suspect him of violence.’ We shall find that this argument from εἰκότα is very characteristic of the orator Antiphon; it occurs in his court speeches as well as in his tetralogies, which are model exercises. It seems, indeed, that he almost preferred this kind of argument to actual proof, even when evidence was available.29 Tisias improved on the theme of Corax; supposing that a feeble but brave man has attacked a strong one who is a coward, he suggests that both should tell lies in court. The coward will not like to admit his cowardice, and will say that he was attacked by more than one man. The culprit will prove this to be a lie, and will then fall back on the argument of 13 Corax, ‘I am weak and he is strong; I could not have assaulted or robbed him,’ — and so on.30

An anecdote of these two rhetoricians further indicates the slipperiness of the ground on which they walked.31 Tisias took lessons from Corax on condition that he should pay the fee only if he won his first case in court. After some lapse of time Corax grew impatient for his money, and finally brought an action — the first case, as it happened, on which Tisias was ever engaged. Corax asserted, ‘If I win the case, I get my money by the verdict; if I lose it, I claim payment by our contract.’ ^#8216;No,’ said Tisias, ‘If I win, I don’t pay, and if I lose I don’t pay.’ The court dismissed the case with the remark, ‘A bad crow lays bad eggs’;32 and this was obviously to the advantage of the younger man, who had nine points of the law on his side.

Though no writings of either are preserved, we can form an idea of their methods. They were wholly immoral or non-moral, and perversely sophistical. The plausible was preferred to the true, and the one object was to win the case. Their method of teaching was, according to Aristotle, ‘quick but unscientific,’33 and consisted of making the pupil learn by heart a large number of ‘commonplace’ topics and standard arguments suitable to all kinds of legal processes. They do not appear to have paid any attention to style on the literary side.

§ 6

Gorgias of Leontini, a contemporary of Protagoras, started out, like the Sophist, from the position that 14 nothing can be known, and the pursuit of philosophy is a ploughing of the sand. He is said to have been a pupil of Tisias, and occupies a place between the early rhetoricians and the Sophists usually so-called. Like the former, he studied and taught oratory, but whereas they were only concerned with the struggle for mastery in debate, he entertained, like Protagoras, a broad view of education, and, while continuing to regard rhetoric as the art of persuasion,34 attached more attention to the artistic side than any other educator had done. He became the first conscious artist in prose style.

Like the other Sophists he travelled from town to town giving displays of his art, and gained riches which he spent freely.35 In 427 B.C. he came to Athens as an ambassador from his native city,36 and produced a remarkable impression on his hearers, not only the multitude before whom he spoke, but the highly educated class who could appreciate his technique. Thucydides owed something to him, and the poet Antiphon showed traces of his influence.37 We hear of his sojourn at Larissa, where the Thessalians, in admiration, coined from his name the word which Philostratus uses to express his exuberant style.38

His first work is said to have been a sceptical treatise on Nature, or the Non-existent.39 This was followed by a 15 certain number of speeches, the most famous of which was the Olympiac, in which, like Isocrates at a later date, he urged on the Greeks the necessity of union. The Funeral Oration, to which we shall recur, is supposed to have been delivered at Athens, but this can hardly have been the case, as such speeches were regularly delivered by prominent Athenian statesmen, and there would be no occasion for calling in a foreigner. A Pythian speech and various Encomia are recorded; some on mythical characters, which may be regarded as mere exercises, some on real people, as the Eleans.40 He seems not to have written speeches for the law-courts; his tendency, as in his personal habits, so in his speech, was towards display, and so he originated the style of oratory known as epideictic, which Isocrates in a subsequent age was destined to bring to perfection. Though an Ionian by birth, he instinctively recognized the great possibilities of the Attic dialect, and chose it as his medium of expression; it was not, however, the Attic of everyday life, but a language enriched by the exuberance of a poetical imagination. We possess of his actual work only one noteworthy extract from the Funeral Speech; but from this, joined to a few isolated criticisms and phrases preserved by commentators, as well as from the language ascribed by Plato to his imitator Agathon,41 we can form some idea of his pompous exaggerations.

He was much addicted to the substitution of rare expressions — γλῶτται, as the Greek critics called them — for the ordinary forms of speech. His language 16 abounded in archaic and poetical words, striking metaphors and unusual compounds. He frequently employed neuter adjectives and participles in preference to the corresponding abstract nouns; he liked to use a verbal noun accompanied by an auxiliary in places where a simple verb would be naturally employed. Finally, though he could not aspire to composition in elaborate periods like Isocrates or Demosthenes, he developed the use of antithesis, word answering to word and clause to clause, pointing his antithetical style not only by the frequent use of μὲν and δέ, but by the use of assonance at the ends of clauses, corresponding forms of verbs in similar positions, and by some attention to rhythm and equality of syllabic value in contrasted clauses.

His chief fault was excess; he was a pioneer in expression, and did very valuable work; but he lacked a sense of proportion. The result is that the page of his genuine work which we possess reads like a parody of style, as every characteristic is carried to extreme. But the teacher must indulge in exaggeration, or the pupil will not grasp his points, and the work of Gorgias has a considerable value. It was the first attempt to form a style, and his followers learned partly by imitation, partly by avoiding the faults which were too prominent. The very fact that the fragment preserved is possibly not in his best style makes it the easier to observe his influence on his successors — Antiphon, Thucydides, and many subsequent writers of artistic prose.

In addition to the speeches already mentioned we possess two encomia on Helen and Palamedes, which are attributed to him. Their authenticity is very 17 doubtful, but Blass, who discussed the question very thoroughly in his Attic Orators without coming to a conviction, has since decided in favour of their genuineness.42 This is entirely a matter of personal opinion; but, even if not genuine, they are probably able imitations of the Gorgian style and method.

The fragment from the Epitaphios can hardly be translated in a way that will give a proper idea of its affectations, but as some notion of its most striking faults may be formed from an English version, some extracts are added. In the Greek in some places there seems to be very little sense, and what there is has been entirely subordinated to the sound:

‘What quality was there absent in these men which ought in men to be present? And what was there present that should not be present? May I have the power to speak as I would, and the will to speak as I should, avoiding the jealousy of gods and escaping the envy of men. For these were divine in their valour, though human in their mortality; often preferring mild equity to stern justice, and often the uprightness of reasoning to the strictness of the laws, considering that the most divine and universal law is this — to speak, to omit, and to do the proper thing at the proper time. Two duties above all they practised, strength of mind and strength of body; the one in deliberation, the other in execution; tenders of those who by injustice were unfortunate; punishers of those who by injustice were fortunate. . . . And accordingly, though they have died, our yearning died not with them, but immortal over these bodies not immortal it lives when they live no more.’

Contrast and parallelism are rampant throughout this incredible piece of bombast, which in addition to 18 the curious jingles produced by such words as γνώμην καὶ ῤώμην; δυστυχούντων, εὐτυχούντων, shows a poetical vocabulary in such phrases as ἔμφυτος ρης, ‘The Mars that is born in them,’ ἐνόπλιος ἔρις, ‘embattled strife; and φιλόκαλος εἰρήνη, ‘peace that loves the arts.’ Antiphon and Thucydides suffered severely from the contagion of this style, and a conscious imitator, the author of the pseudo-Lysian Epitaphios, has reproduced its florid monotony.


 1  Iliad, ix. 443.

 2  Ibid., ix. 502 sqq.

 3  Herod., viii. 83.

 4  Thuc., i. 138.

 5  § 42.

 6  Brutus, § 28.

 7  Themistocles, ch. ii.

 8  Ibid., ch. xi.

 9  Ch. xxix.

10  Plato, Republic, i. 330 A.

11  Plato, Alcibiades I. 118 C.

12  Plut., Pericles, ch. iv., who quotes Plato (comicus): σὺ  γάρ, ὤς  φασιν   Χείρων  ἐξέθρεψας  Περικλέα.

13  p.  270 A, Jowett’s translation.

14  Antiphon, Tetral. ii.

15  I. 2. 40.

16  Plato, l.c.

17  Bothe, Comic Frag., i. 162. See also Aristophanes, Acharn. 530.

‘Then Pericles the Olympian in his wrath
 Lightened and thundered and confounded Greece.’

18  Thuc., ii. 65.

19  Plut., Pericles, ch. vii.

20  Arist., Rhet., iii. 10. 7 D.

21  Thuc., i. 115-117; Arist. Rhet., iii. 4. 3.

22  Arist., ibid.

23  Herod., vii. 162; Arist., Rhet., i. 7. 34. In a later age the orator Demades borrowed it. (Athenaeus, iii. 99 D.)

24  Plato, Protag., 317 C.

25  Plato, Protag., 337 A-C, where Plato parodies his style.

26  Cicero, Brutus, § 46.

27    Arist. Rhet.., ii. 24. 11.

28  Soph. Elench., 183 p. 28 sqq.

29  Vide infra, p. 36.

30  Quoted by Plato, Phaedrus, 273 B-C.

31  Schol. on Hermogenes; also Sext. Empir. adv. Mathem., ii. 96.

32  κακοῦ  Κόρακος  κακὰ  ὠά.

33  Soph. Elench., 184 a. 1.

34  Cf. Plato, Gorgias, 453 A; Phaedr., 259 E.

35  Isocr., Antid., § 155.

36  If it is true, as Philostratus, Ep. ix. says, that Aspasia ‘sharpened the tongue of Pericles’ in Gorgian style, he must have visited Athens in a private capacity at an earlier date, unless his Olympiac and other speeches were widely circulated and read.

37  Πολλαχοῦ  τῶν  ἰάμβων  γοργιάζει, Philost., Lives of the Sophists, ix. 493.

38  Plato, Meno, 70 B; Philost., Epist. ix. 364.

39  περὶ  φύσεως  ἢ  τοῦ  μὴ  ὄντος, Sext. Emp., vii. 65. Cicero (Brut., § 46) mentions also a collection of communes loci made for instructional purposes.

40  Arist. Rhet.., iii. 14. 12.

41  Symposium, 194 E. sqq., 197 D; the latter contains some excellent examples: πραύτητα  μὲν  ποριζων, ἀγριότητα δ’  ἐξορίζων·  φιλόδωρος  εὐμενείας, , ἄδωρος  δυσμενείας, etc.

42  Introduction to the Teubner edition of Antiphon (1908), p. xxviii.

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