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From The Greek Orators by J. F. Dobson, M. A., London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1919; pp. 126-159.


By J. F. Dobson




§ 1

ISOCRATES was born in 436 B.C., and lived to the remarkable age of ninety-seven in full possession of his faculties. His childhood and youth were passed amid the horrors of the Peloponnesian War; he was already of age when the failure of the Sicilian expedition turned the scale against Athens. In mature manhood he saw the ruin of his city by the capitulation of Lysander. He lived through the Spartan supremacy, saw the foundation of the new Athenian League in 378 B.C., and the rise and fall of the power of Thebes. At the time when Philip obtained the throne of Macedon he was already, by ordinary reckoning, an old man, but the laws of mortality were suspended in the case of this Athenian Nestor. Some of his most important works were composed after his eightieth year; the Philippus, which he wrote at the age of ninety, shows no diminution of his powers; he produced one of his longest works the Panathenaicus, in his ninety-seventh year, and lived to congratulate Philip on his victory at Chaeronea in 338 B.C.

In a life of such extent and such remarkable variety of experience we should expect to find many changes of outlook and modifications, from time to time, of earlier views. But Isocrates was a man of singularly 127 fixed ideas. With regard to education, he formulated in the discourse against the Sophists (391 B.C.) views which are practically identical with what he expressed nearly forty years later in the Antidosis, views which he maintains in his last work of all, the Panathenaicus (339 B.C.). With regard to Greek politics, he held till the close of his life the opinions propounded in the Panegyricus of 380 B.C. His aims were unchanged, though of necessity he modified the means by which he hoped to carry them out.

We have little information about the orator’s early life. He tells us himself that his patrimony was dissipated by the Peloponnesian War,1 so that he was forced to adopt a profession to make a living.

The story contained in the ‘Life,’ that he endeavoured to save Theramenes when condemned by the Thirty, has no other authority but the Pseudo-Plutarch. It appears from Plato’s Phaedrus2 that he was intimate with Socrates, that Socrates had a high opinion of him, and considered that the young man might distinguish himself either in oratory or in philosophy. Tradition names the Sophists Prodicus, Protagoras, and Gorgias among his early teachers. He is believed to have visited Gorgias in Thessaly.

Plutarch asserts that Isocrates at one time opened a school of rhetoric, with nine pupils, in Chios; and that while there he interfered in politics and helped to institute a democracy.3 The story may be accepted with reservations. Isocrates himself never refers to 128 it, and in Ep. vi. § 2 (to the children of Jason) excuses himself from visiting Thessaly on the ground that people would comment unfavourably on a man who had ‘kept quiet’ all his life if he began travelling in his old age.4 Jebb assumes a short stay in Chios in 404-403 B.C.

Between 403 and 393 B.C. Isocrates composed a certain number of speeches for the law-courts, in which, however, he never appeared as a pleader, for natural disabilities — lack of voice and nervousness, to which he refers with regret — made him unfitted for such work.

About 392 B.C. he opened a school at Athens, and in 391 B.C. published, in the discourse Against the Sophists, his views on education. His pupils were mostly Athenians, many of them afterwards being men of distinction.5

It was probably between 378 and 376 B.C. that Isocrates went on several voyages with Conon’s son, Timotheus, who was engaged in organizing the new maritime league. From this time down to 351 B.C. he had many distinguished pupils from far countries — Sicily and Pontus as well as all parts of Greece — and amassed, as he tells us, a reasonable competence, though not a large fortune.

In the year 351 B.C., when a great contest of eloquence was held by Artemisia, widow of Mausolus of Caria, in honour of her husband, it is reported that all the competitors were pupils of Isocrates.

In the last period of his life, 351-338 B.C., Isocrates 129 still continued to teach, and was also busily occupied in writing. He published the Philippus, which is one of his most important works, and one of the greatest in historical interest, in 346 B.C. ; in 342 B.C. he began the lengthy Panathenaicus, which he had half finished when he was attacked by an illness, which made the work drag on for three years. It was finished in 339 B.C. In the following year, a few days after the battle of Chaeronea, he died. A report was current in antiquity that he committed suicide, by starving himself, in consequence of the news of this downfall of Greek liberty; the story is quite incredible when we consider that the result of the battle gave a possibility of the fulfilment of the hopes which Isocrates had been cherishing for half his life, the end to which he had been labouring for over forty years — the concentration of all power into the hands of one man, who might redeem Greece by giving her union and leading her to conquest in the East.

His last letter, in fact, written after the battle of Chaeronea, congratulates Philip on his victory; and even if this letter is spurious, the probability, to judge from the tone of his earlier works, is that he would have hailed the Macedonian success as a victory for his imperial ideas.

§ 2.   Style

Though Isocrates composed, in his youth, a few forensic speeches, it is not by such compositions that he must be judged; indeed he himself, far from claiming credit for his activity in that direction, in later life adopted an apologetic tone when speaking of his earlier work. As a teacher of rhetoric he won great 130 renown, numbering, as he boasts, even kings among his pupils; and he had a complete mastery of all the technique of the rhetorical art.

He was also a master of style, having theories of composition which he exemplified in practice with such skill that he must occupy a prominent place in any treatise on the development of Greek prose.

But his highest claim to consideration is as a political thinker. His bold and startling theories of Greek politics were expressed indeed in finished prose, and in rhetorical shape; but the artistic form is only an added ornament; if Isocrates had written in the baldest style he must have made a name by his treatises on political science, and by the fact that he took a broader and more liberal view of Hellenism than any Athenian before or after. Thus he, who perhaps never delivered a public speech, is of more importance than any of the other orators; and though no politician in the narrow sense, he exerted a wider influence than any, not excepting Demosthenes, who devoted their lives to political activity, for he originated and promulgated ideas which completely changed the course of Greek civilization. It was probably he who was the first to instigate Philip to attempt the conquest of Asia, as he had before urged Dionysius and others to make the attempt — all for the sake of the union of Greek States and the spread of Hellenism; certainly he encouraged the Macedonian in his project, and perhaps it may be said to be due to him that on Philip’s death Alexander found the way prepared.

Isocrates could not fully foresee the results of Alexander’s conquests; Alexander himself modified and expanded his ambitions as he advanced; but 131 undoubtedly Isocrates urged the general desirability of the undertaking and saw clearly, up to a certain point, the lines on which it ought to be carried out. The petty law-suits which occupied Lysias and Andocides seem trivial and unimportant, even the patriotic utterances of Demosthenes seem of secondary weight, compared with these literary harangues of Isocrates, in cases where civilization and barbarism, unity and discord, are the litigants, and the court is the world.

Isocrates is named by Dionysius as an example of the smooth (or florid) style of composition, which resembles closely woven stuffs, or pictures in which the lights melt insensibly into the shadows.6

It is clear that to aim consciously at producing such effects as these is to exalt mere expression to supreme heights, and to risk the loss of clearness and emphasis. We may gather the opinions of Isocrates on the structure of prose partly from his own statements, partly from the criticisms of Dionysius, and partly from a study of his compositions. The subject has been very fully and carefully dealt with by Blass, and in the present work only a summary of the chief results can be attempted.

The most noticeable feature of the style is the care taken to avoid hiatus. This is particularly remarked by Dionysius, who, after quoting from the Areopagiticus a long passage which he particularly admires, notes, ‘You cannot find any dissonance of vowels, at any rate in the passage which I have quoted, nor any, I think, in the whole speech, unless some instance has escaped my observation.’7


We should expect to find that, to produce this effect, it was necessary to depart frequently from natural forms of expression, either by changing the usual order, or by inserting unnecessary words. It is probable that Isocrates resorted to both these devices; but such is the skill with which he handles his materials that careful reading is necessary to detect the distortions.8

Dionysius further notes that dissonance or clashing of consonants is rare, and herein Isocrates seems to have been at pains to follow the rules of euphony laid down in his own Τέχνη. In a fragment preserved by Hermogenes he tells his readers to avoid the repetition of the same syllable in consecutive words — as ἡλικὰ  καλά, ἔνθα  Θαλῆς.9 The ingenuity of Blass has discovered passages in which the natural form of a phrase has been altered to avoid such juxtaposition of similar syllables.10 Certain combinations of consonants, too, are hard to pronounce, and must therefore be avoided. There is, in truth, much justice in the remark of Dionysius that in reading Isocrates it is not the separate words but the sentence as a whole that we must take into account.

The third characteristic of Isocrates’ style is his attention to rhythm.

The extravagance of Gorgias had hindered the development of the language by introducing into prose the rhythms and language of poetry; Thrasymachus, 133 as we know from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, had studied the effect of the foot ‘paeonius’ (image of scansion macron breve breve breve. or image of scansion breve breve breve macron.) at the beginning and end of periods.11 Isocrates, while deprecating the use of poetical metres in any strict sense, asserted that oratorical prose should have rhythms of its own, and favoured combinations of the trochee and the iambus. In this he differed from Aristotle, who disapproved of the iambic rhythm as being too similar to the natural course of ordinary speech, and of the trochaic, as being to light and tripping — in contrast to the hexameter, which he classes as too solemn for spoken language.12

The periods of Isocrates are remarkable for their elaboration. The analyses of Blass show us a complication of structure in some of the longer sentences which may almost be compared to that of a Pindaric ode. Never, perhaps, has there been a writer who attained such luxuriant complexity in his composition of sentences. But Isocrates is too much the slave of his own virtues; his periods are so long, so complete, so uniformly artistic, that their everlasting procession is monotonous. Lysias, less perfect in form, has in consequence more variety; Demosthenes, who could compose long periods, did not confine himself to them, but enlivened his style by contrast.

The structure of the period lends itself naturally to antithetical forms of expression. We observed in Antiphon the frequency of verbal antitheses of various kinds — the λογῳ and ἔργῳ, the μὲν and δέ, and others. Isocrates, having before him the examples of his predecessors and the precepts of rhetoricians, and having theories of his own on sentence-construction, 134 developed very fully a scheme of parallelism in word, sense, and sound.

Thus a period will consist, as we have seen, of a succession of κῶλα or limbs, each one corresponding to another in size, and pairs of corresponding κῶλα will contain pairs of words parallel in sense, form or sound. So the whole period is bound closely together.

Vocabulary.   Style

His vocabulary avoids excess; he is, in the judgment of Dionysius, the purest of Atticists, with the exception of Lysias. But if we compare the two we find much more tendency to fine writing in Isocrates. Using ordinary words he can produce notable effects, and he is always consciously striving after a certain pomposity of diction. This is most noticeable in the exhibition-writings, such as the Helen and Busiris, where grandiloquent compound words are not infrequent, and metaphors are commoner and more striking than in the speeches on real subjects.

One of his affectations, copied by nearly all subsequent orators, is the unnecessary piling up of words almost synonymous to express one idea.13 On the other hand we sometimes find synonyms apparently contrasted in different parts of the sentence; such contrast is only verbal, and is made for the purpose of rounding the period; in either case we must note that the writer departs from simplicity in order to improve the sound of his words, but does not add much to the sense.14


Another characteristic is the use of the plural of abstract nouns, in much the same sense as the singular.15 All these details — the partiality for compounds, for the accumulation of synonyms and of the use of the plural instead of the singular, may be classed together under the head of exaggerations of expression, and recorded as characteristics of the epideictic style.

In general, the tone is heightened, and Isocrates tends to appear florid when compared with Lysias; if, on the other hand, we take Gorgias as a standard, we see how far Isocrates, who undoubtedly imitated the Sicilian style, has surpassed his model in the direction of refinement.

§ 3.   On Education

Prevented by natural disabilities from exercising his talents in public, but urged on by the necessity of earning a living, since the Peloponnesian War had dissipated his fortune, Isocrates turned to a profession for which he was well fitted, that of an educator. During many years he was, like Gorgias, a teacher of rhetoric, and like Gorgias he may be classed as a Sophist. This title is misleading. In itself it means nothing more than an educator, or teacher of wisdom, and early writers use it in a laudatory sense; Herodotus applies it to the Seven Sages. In the fourth century it was debased, partly by the comic poets, as representing the 136 popular habit of sneering at anything which the mob cannot understand, but more honestly and systematically by Plato, who, though he admitted that some of the Sophists, such as Protagoras, were men worthy of the highest respect, took many opportunities of disparaging Sophists as a class, and Sophistry as a profession.

There can be no doubt that he was quite sincere, for he takes great pains to bring out the distinction between the educators and his own master, Socrates, whom Aristophanes had already marked as one of the crowd.16

To us it seems that the marked distinction cannot be maintained; apart from Socrates’ peculiarity of refusing to take fees from his pupils, he is distinguished only by possessing a higher moral tone than the rest of the Sophists. Like them he was a sceptic as far as philosophy was concerned, and like them he was an educator.

We have, however, accepted the word at the value which Plato chose to put upon it; but we must not suppose that this was the value at which it was usually current. This is clear from the fact that Isocrates can use the word without any idea of disparagement.

Though he wrote a speech Against the Sophists, it is directed not against the profession as a whole, but against certain classes, whom he calls the ἀγέλαιοι  σοφισταί — ‘Sophists of the baser sort.’

Isocrates’ earliest work on education, the speech or tract Against the Sophists (Or. xiii.), dates from the beginning of his professional career, perhaps about the year 390 B.C. We possess only part, perhaps less than half, of the speech. What remains is purely destructive 137 criticism which, as is clear from the concluding words, was meant to lead up to an exposition of the writer’s own principles and theory. The loss is to be regretted, but is not irreparable, since the speech On the Antidosis, composed thirty-five years later, supplements it by a full constructive statement.

The introduction on the Sophists is sweeping in its severity.17

‘If all our professional educators would be content to tell the truth and not promise more than they ever intend to perform, they would not have a bad reputation among laymen. As it is, their reckless effrontery has encouraged the opinion that a life of incurious idleness is better than one devoted to philosophy.’

He proceeds to criticize various classes:

‘We cannot help hating and despising the professors of contentious argument (eristic), who, while claiming to seek for Truth, introduce falsehood at the very beginning of their pretensions. They profess in a way to read the future, a power which Homer denied even to the gods; for they prophesy for their pupils a full knowledge of right conduct, and promise them happiness in consequence. This invaluable commodity they offer for sale at the ridiculous price of three or four minae. They affect, indeed, to despise money — mere dross of silver or gold as they call it — yet, for the sake of this small profit they will raise their pupils almost to a level with the immortals. They profess to teach all virtue; but it is notable that pupils, before they are admitted to the course, have to give security for the payment of their fees.’

The general tone of this censure recalls the attacks of the Platonic Socrates on the ‘eristic’ Sophists; but 138 it is certain that the ‘eristics,’ whom Isocrates here attacks, are some of the lesser Socratics. This is made obvious by the reference in § 3 to the knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) which, according to these teachers, will lead to right conduct or virtue, and so to happiness. The Socratic view that knowledge is the basis of virtue, and virtue of happiness, is well known. Socrates himself did not profess to teach virtue for a fee; but the Megarians, the followers of his pupil Euclides, did, and at them the sarcasm of Isocrates seems to be directed. Elsewhere, indeed, Isocrates refers definitely to the Platonic school as belonging to the eristic class.18

The teachers of ‘Political Discourse’ fall next under ban, that is, the teachers of practical rhetoric, whether forensic or deliberative.19 ‘They care nothing for truth’ — whereas the eristics, at any rate, professed to seek it — ‘they consider that their profession is to attract as many pupils as possible by the smallness of their fees and the greatness of their promises. They are so dull, and think others so dull, that though the speeches which they write are worse than many nonprofessionals can improvise, they undertake to make of their pupils orators equal to any emergency. They say that they can teach oratory as easily as the alphabet, which is a subject fixed by unchangeable rules, whereas the conditions for a speaker are never quite the same on two occasions. A speech, to be successful, must be appropriate to the subject, to the occasion, and to the speaker; and in some degree original. Instruction can give us technical skill; but cannot call 139 into existence the oratorical faculty, which a good speaker must have innate in him.’

No doubt Isocrates himself professed to give a practical training for public life; but he states here what he repeats with more emphasis in a later writing:20 ‘For distinction either in speech or in action, or in any other work, there are three requisites: natural aptitude, theoretical training, and practical experience. . . . Of these the first is indispensable, and by far the most important.’ The Sophists claimed to dispense with the first, and this is the ground of the philosopher’s quarrel with them.

The third section of the speech, following naturally on the second, deals with writers of technical guides to rhetoric (τέχναι).

‘They profess to teach litigation, choosing for themselves this offensive title which would be more appropriate in the mouths of their detractors. They are worse than those who wallow in the mire of “eristic,” for they at least pretend to be concerned with virtue and moderation, while those whom we are considering now undertake only to teach men to be busy-bodies from motives of base covetousness.’21

Here again Isocrates, who himself composed an ‘Art’ of rhetoric, does not condemn all who may try to teach the subject; his complaint is that the majority of such teachers have confined themselves to the ignoble branch of the profession. This criticism is obviously a valid one, and is echoed by Aristotle, who declares that speaking before a public assembly is less knavish (κακοῦργον) than speaking in a law-court.22

The speech entitled On the Antidosis is really Isocrates’ defence of his life and profession. In 140 355 B.C. he was challenged by one Megacleides to undertake the trierarchy, or else to accept an antidosis, or exchange of properties. The matter was the subject of a trial, in consequence of which Isocrates performed the trierarchy. Some time — perhaps two years — later, he wrote this speech, which is of no historical importance, since even the name of the plaintiff, Lysimachus, is fictitious. The introduction (§§ 1-13) makes it clear that the law-suit is only introduced for the sake of local colour. The speech itself begins with a semblance of forensic form in § 14, but the pretence is very soon dropped. The cloak is resumed in the Epilogue (§ 320-323); but the greatest part of the speech has nothing to do with any trial, real or imaginary.

The treatise, as we may call it, falls into two parts: in §§ 14-166 the writer defends his own character; in §§ 167-319 he defends his system of education.

The indictment against which he pleads is that he is in the habit of corrupting the younger generation by teaching them habits of litigation. He has little difficulty in showing that his chief work has lain in a far nobler field than that of forensic rhetoric. While others have been engaged in the paltry contentions of the law-courts he has composed speeches bearing upon the politics of all Greece. This he proves by reciting long extracts from his most famous works; the Panegyric (§ 59); On the Peace (§ 66); Nicocles (§ 72).

The second half of the speech contains, as has been noted, a statement and defence of Isocrates’ theory.

‘Philosophy,’ he says, ‘is for the soul what Gymnastic is for the body.’

This analogy he elaborates.


‘The gymnastic trainer teaches his pupils first to perform the separate movements, then to combine them. The educator follows the same order, and both insist on long and diligent practice; but the trainer of the body cannot always make a man an athlete, nor can the trainer of the mind make everybody an orator. There are three essentials requisite for success — natural aptitude, proper teaching, and long practice; and moreover there must be a will on the part of both teacher and pupil to persevere. The natural ability is by far the most important element. Training, however complete, may break down utterly if the speaker lacks nerve.23

‘Some people expect a marked improvement after a few days of study with a Sophist, and demand a complete training in a year. This is ridiculous; no class of education could produce such results; and there is no need to disparage us as a class because we cannot do more than we profess. We cannot make all men orators, but we can give them culture.

‘Others assert that our philosophy has an immoral tendency. I shall not defend all who claim to be educators, but only those who have a right to the name. We have nothing to gain by making men immoral; on the contrary the greatest satisfaction for a Sophist is that his pupils should become wise and honourable men, respected by their fellows. Our pupils come from Sicily, from Pontus, and from other distant regions; do they come so far to be instructed in wickedness? Surely not; they could find plenty of teaching at home. They incur the trouble and expense because they think that Athens can give them the best education in the world.

‘Again, power in debate is not in itself a demoralizing thing. The greatest statesmen of this and earlier generations studied and practised oratory — Solon, who was called one of the Seven Sophists, Themistocles, Pericles. You blame the Thebans for lacking culture; why blame us who 142 try to impart it? Athens honours with a yearly sacrifice the Goddess Persuasion; our enemies attack us for seeking the faculty which this goddess personifies.

‘We are even attacked by the “Eristics”:24 far from retorting, I am ready to admit that there is good to be got even from eristic disputation, from astronomy,25 and from geometry: they are useful as a preliminary to higher studies.

‘My own view of philosophy is a simple one. It is impossible to attain absolute knowledge of what we ought or ought not to do; but the wise man is he who can make a successful guess as a general rule, and philosophers are those who study to attain this practical wisdom. There is not, and never has been, a science which could impart justice and virtue to those who are not by nature inclined towards these qualities; but a man who is desirous of speaking or writing well, and of persuading others, will incidentally become more just and virtuous, for it is character that tells more than anything.

‘Thoughtful speaking leads to careful action. Your superior culture raises you above the rest of Greece, just as mankind is superior to the lower animals and Greeks to barbarians: do not, then, punish those who would give you this culture.’26

These two treatises taken together, and supplemented by a few passages from other speeches, give us a fair idea of Isocrates’ system. His ‘Philosophy’ is to be distinguished from all merely theoretical speculation, such as the physical theories of the Ionians, or the logic of Parmenides; from ‘eristic’ — the art of arguing for argument’s sake — from geometry and astronomy; from literary work which has no practical use; from the rhetoric of the law-courts. Boys at school may 143 profitably study grammar and poetry; at a later age the applied mathematics, and even ‘eristic,’ are good mental training; but it must be recognized that they are only a preparation for the Isocratean ‘philosophy,’ which is for the soul what gymnastic is for the body.

As the gymnastic-master teaches first the various thrusts and parries, so to speak,, the teacher of philosophy makes his pupils learn first all the styles of prose composition.27 He then makes them combine (συνείρειν) the things which they have learnt. The subjects for such exercises must be properly chosen — they must be practical and must deal with wide interests.

Practice on these lines will prepare a man, as far as his nature allows, for speaking and acting in a public capacity; so that what Isocrates calls his ‘philosophy’ is really a science of practical politics.

Isocrates seems to have been thorough in all things; himself a hard worker who took extraordinary care over his compositions, he expected his pupils to work hard. He was not content, like some Sophists, with making them learn his own ‘fair copies’ by heart; they must do the work for themselves. He scoffs at those teachers who claim to ‘finish’ their pupils in a year; his pretensions are more modest, but even so he requires a course of three or four years. He believed in individual attention rather than class-teaching, if we may regard an anecdote of the Pseudo-Plutarch144 the trials of the law-courts, beyond the interests of party or even of individual state, and lift his eyes to a conception of national unity; and something of that loftiness of spirit which, in an age of selfish and scurrilous orators, enabled him to pursue his course towards the truth, unbiased by personal considerations, and never descending to invective or abuse.

§ 4.   Patriotism

Isocrates was no less a patriot than Demosthenes, though he differed very widely in his political views from the later orator. What these views were may be gathered from a series of speeches on national subjects extending over a period of more than forty years.

The Panegyricus, the first of these, was probably composed for publication at one of the great national assemblies, perhaps the Olympic festival, about 380 B.C. This was certainly a time when the long-continued dissensions of the city-states had brought the affairs of Greece to a crisis. There seemed to Isocrates to be no solution of the difficulties, no chance of established peace or contentment, unless some enterprise could be found which should unite the sympathies of the rival cities, induce them to put their own quarrels aside, and throw them whole-heartedly into a cause which concerned Hellas as a nation.

The only motive which had ever been able to unite the Greeks, even temporarily, was hatred of the barbarians, and Isocrates works upon this feeling. He draws a vivid picture of the miserable state to which the Greek world has been reduced by civil war, and shows how the influence of Persia, besides keeping this war alive, has in other ways worked towards the ruin 145 of Greece. Having discussed with outspoken candour the claims of Sparta and Athens to leadership, he suggests that they should agree by a compromise, and urges that they and all other States should unite in a racial war against the Persians.

This speech had no practical effect. The rise of Thebes shortly after this date changed the balance of power, and on the whole did not improve conditions. Despairing of originating any joint action within Greece itself, Isocrates looked farther for a leader, and in or about 368 B.C. we find him writing to Dionysius of Syracuse, who at the time held an empire far more powerful than that of any State of Greece proper, and suggesting that he should come forward as the champion of the Greek national spirit.28

In 356 B.C. Isocrates turned again towards Sparta, this time writing to Archidamus, who had recently succeeded his father Agesilaus in the kingship, and urging him to take steps which will ‘put an end to civil war in Greece, curb the insolence of the barbarians, and deprive them of part of their ill-gotten gains.’ Archidamus, if he could be as vigorous as his father and more unselfish, might well seem to be a suitable leader for the crusade on which Isocrates had set his heart.

At this time Philip of Macedon, though he was beginning to attain notoriety, was probably regarded by the majority of Greeks as a proper prince, sitting insecurely on a throne which he had usurped, and from which he might at any time be removed by rebellion or assassination. But in this year he obtained possession of the gold mines of Pangaeum, and it was soon 146 realized that Macedon was to play a leading part in Greek politics.

In 346 B.C. Isocrates addressed Philip as one capable of taking the lead, first in combining the Greek States into a union, and secondly, in leading them to conquer the barbarian.29 The ten years of desultory hostilities between Philip and Athens had now been ended by the peace of Philocrates, and Isocrates, thinking that Amphipolis, for which they had been fighting, was an undesirable possession for either party, imagined and hoped that the peace might be made permanent.

Though the Panegyric and the addresses to Dionysius and Archidamus had failed, Isocrates hoped that an appeal to Philip might be more successful.

‘I decided,’ he writes, ‘to broach the subject to you, not as a special compliment, though I should be glad if my words could find favour with you, but from the following motive. I saw that all other men of distinction have to obey their cities and their laws, and may do nothing beyond what they are told; and moreover none of them are capable of dealing with the matter I now intend to discuss.

‘You alone have had given you by fortune a full authority to send embassies to whom you will, and receive them from where you choose, and to say whatever you think expedient. Besides, you possess wealth and power beyond any other Greek — the two things which are the most potent either to persuade or to compel: and you will find persuasion useful for the Greeks and compulsion for the barbarians.’30

A summary of a few extracts will indicate the tenor of the speech.

‘It is your duty to try to reconcile the four great cities — 147 Argos, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens; bring these four to their right mind, and you will have no difficulty with the rest, which all depend on them (§§ 30-31). Your ancestors are Argive by descent, and these cities should never have been at enmity with you or each other. All must make allowances, as all have been at fault (§§ 33-38). If Athens or Sparta were now, as once, predominant, nothing could be done; but all the great cities are now practically on a level. No enmities are so deep-seated that they cannot be overcome: Athens has at different times been allied with both Thebes and Sparta. Sparta, Argos, and Thebes all desire peace; Athens has come to her senses before the others, and already made peace. She will be ready to give you her active sympathy’ (§§ 39-56).

‘History provides many instances of men who, with few advantages, even with disabilities, have achieved great tasks: you, with all your resources, should find the present task easy’ (§§ 57-67).

‘Succhess in such a cause would be magnificent; even failure would be noble: your slanderers impute to you the design of subjugating Greece; you will convince them of their error’ (§§ 68-80).

‘So much for your duty to Greece; now turn to the conquest of Asia. Agesilaus failed because he stirred up political animosities.

The Greeks under Cyrus defeated the Persian army, and though left leaderless they made good their retreat. All conditions are favourable for you. The Greeks of Asia were hostile to Cyrus, but will welcome you. The present King of Persia is less of a man than his predecessor, against whom Cyrus fought; and Persia is divided against itself. Cyprus, Cilicia, and Phoenicia, which provided the king with ships, will do so no longer’ (§§ 83-104).

‘You may aim at conquering the whole Persian Empire; failing of that you might win all that is west of a line drawn from Cilicia to Sinope. Even this would be an enormous 148 advantage. You could found cities for the hordes of mercenaries who are driven by destitution to wander and prey upon the settled inhabitants — a growing menace to Greeks and Persians alike. You would thus render these nomads a great service, and at the same time establish them as a permanent guard of your own frontiers. If this proved too much for you, at the very least you could free the Greek cities of Asia. However great or little is your success, you will at least win great renown for having led a united expedition from all Greece’ (§§ 119-126).

‘No other state or individual will undertake the task; you are free from restrictions, as all Hellas is your native land. You will fight, I know, not for power or wealth, but for glory. Your mission, then, is this: — To be the benefactor of Greece, the king of Macedon, the governor of Asia’ (§§ 127-155).

It may be said that Isocrates overrated the purity of Philip’s motives. On the other hand, it may be conceived that Philip would have greatly preferred to march to Asia as the general of a Greek force willingly united. He, whom Isocrates reckons as a Greek of royal or semi-divine descent, whom Demosthenes stigmatized as a barbarian of the lowest type, had much more of the Greek than the barbarian in his nature. To Athens at least he always showed extraordinary clemency, treating her with a respect far beyond her merits, and honouring her for her ancient greatness. He did all that was possible to conciliate her, and this policy he handed on to his son. But he could not start for the East, leaving so many irreconcilable enemies behind him; and the refusal of the states to accept his hegemony made Chaeronea inevitable.

Those who read, not this short summary, but the essay as a whole, must be struck by the firm grasp which 149 the writer has on contemporary history, and by his insight into the forces at work. He under-estimated the conservatism of the city-states, wrongly imagining that the majority could be as broad-minded as himself.

The chapters on Asia show considerable knowledge both of the conditions and the requirements. His advice about the founding of cities was followed literally by Alexander, who, immediately after his first victory, initiated this policy for securing his conquests.

In 342 B.C. Isocrates wrote again to Philip, reproaching him for his recklessness in exposing his won life in battle. He repeated some of the arguments of the first essay, and summarized his advice as follows: ‘It is far nobler to capture a city’s good-will than its walls.’ After Chaeronea, in the year 338 B.C., he wrote once more, recalling his former advice and reflecting with satisfaction that the dreams of his youth were some of them already fulfilled, and others on the point of fulfilment.

§ 5.   Remaining Works

The general contents of the Panegyricus have already been discussed, but only a careful study of the speech will reveal the skill with which one topic is made to lead up to another, the nice proportion of the parts, and the adroitness displayed in gathering and binding together the various threads of the argument. Numerous paragraphs which seem at first to be almost digressions are found, when we take the speech as a whole, to be essential to its unity, and though in its course a large number of topics is handled, the main subject is never left out of view. The level of style is high throughout, and no extracts can properly represent it. 150 A short analysis may, however, serve to indicate the coherence of the arguments:31

‘I am here to offer advice about the necessity of war with Persia and unity among the Greeks. Others have handled the same theme, but the fact of their failure renders any excuse for a fresh attempt superfluous, and the subject admits of being treated better than it has been’ (§§ 1-114).

‘My predecessors have missed an important point; that nothing can be done until the leaders — Athens and Sparta — are reconciled, and persuaded to share the leadership.

‘Sparta has accepted a false tradition, that leadership is hers by ancestral right. I shall try to prove that the leadership really belongs to Athens; Sparta then should consent to a joint command’ (§§ 15-20).

‘Athens first possessed maritime empire, and her civilization is the oldest in Greece (§§ 21-25). Her claims to hegemony are as follows: —

‘ A.  (a)  Tradition, which has never been refuted, records that Athens first provided the necessities of life. Demeter taught in Attica the cultivation of corn and instituted the Mysteries.

‘ (b)  Athens undoubtedly led the way in colonization, thus enlarging the boundaries of Greek land, and driving back the barbarians (§§ 28-37).

‘ (c)  Athens had the earliest laws, and the earliest constitution. She established the Piraeus, the centre of Greek trade. She provides in herself a perpetual festival, at which the arts are encouraged. Practical philosophy and oratory are so highly honoured at Athens that the name “Greek” is applied properly not by claim of blood but by virtue of the possession of Athenian culture (§§ 38-50).

‘ B.  (a)  From heroic times downwards Athens has shown herself the helper of the oppressed. Even Sparta grew great through her support (§§ 57-65).


‘ (b)  Athens in the earliest times and in the Persian Wars distinguished herself against the barbarians (§§ 66-74).

‘In old days the rivalries between opposite political parties and between Athens and Sparta were noble ones, and the honourable competition between the two cities shamed the other Greeks into taking arms against Xerxes. Athens, however, furnished more ships than all the rest put together. Her claim to leadership, up to the end of the Persian War, is therefore established’ (§§ 75-79).

‘It is true that Athens treated her revolted allies — Melos and Scione — severely: rebels must expect punishment. On the other hand, our loyal subjects enjoyed for seventy years freedom from tyranny, immunity from barbarian attacks, settled government, and peace with all the world’ (§§ 100-106).

‘Sparta and her partisans inflicted more harm in a few months than Athens in the whole duration of her empire’ (§§ 110-114).

‘Our rule was preferable to the so-called “peace and independence” which Sparta has given the cities. The seas are overrun by pirates, and more cities are raided now than before the peace was made. Tyrants and harmosts make life in the cities intolerable. The Great King, whom Athens confined within stated limits, has raided the Peloponnese (§§ 115-119); Sparta has abandoned the Ionians to slavery, and herself caused devastation to Greece, and burdened the islanders with taxation. It is monstrous that we Greeks, owing to our petty quarrels, should devastate our own country, when we might reap a golden harvest from Asia’ (§§ 120-132).

‘We have allowed the Great King to attain unheard of power — simply through our quarrels, for he is not really strong.

‘Numerous instances from history betray the inferiority of the Persian leaders and organization. They have often been defeated on the coast of Asia; when they invaded Greece we made an example of them; finally, they cut a 152 ridiculous figure before the walls of their own palaces’32(§§ 133-149).

‘This is what we might expect from their manner of life; the mass of the people are more fit to be slaves than soldiers; the nobles are by turns insolent and servile, and being permanently corrupted by luxury they are weak and treacherous. They deserve our hatred, and, in fact, our enmity can never be reconciled. One of the reasons even of Homer’s popularity is that he tells of a great war against Asia’ (§§ 150-159).

‘The time is favourable for attack; Phoenicia and Syria are devastated; Tyre is captured; Cilicia is mostly in our favour; Egypt and Cyprus are in revolt. The Greeks are ready to rise; we must make haste, and not let the history of the Ionic revolt repeat itself. The present suffering in Greece passes all records, and for this the present generation deserves some recompense — another reason for haste. The leading men in the cities are callously indifferent, so we who stand outside politics must take the lead, as I am doing’ (§§ 160-174).

‘The treaty of Antalcidas need not stand in our way; it has been broken already in spirit. We only observe the provisions which are to our own shame, i.e. those by which our allies are given over to the Persians. It was never a fair covenant — we submitted to terms dictated by the king.

‘Honour and expediency alike demand that we should combine to undertake this war, whose fame will be greater than that of the Trojan war’ (§§ 175-189).

We may now consider the group of speeches which deals with the internal affairs of Greece.

Plataicus (Or. xiv.) Plataea, destroyed in 427 B.C., was restored by Sparta in 386 B.C. as a menace to Thebes, but was forced into the Boeotian Confederacy in 376 B.C. In 373 B.C. it was surprised by a Theban army and again destroyed. The inhabitants escaped 153 to Athens, and their case was discussed in the ecclesia, and also at the congress of allies. The present speech is professedly delivered by a Plataean before the Athenian ecclesia. It consists chiefly of an appeal to sentiment through history; the speaker recalls the ancient relations of Plataea and Athens, and thence infers the present duty of Athens. The speech is in a form suitable for delivery before the assembly, and may have been so delivered.

On the Peace (Or. viii.), on the other hand, is a political treatise. It dates from 355 B.C., when the Social War was near its end. The main theme of the speech is the necessity of peace between Athens and all the world, but the urging of this policy naturally brings in a criticism of the war-party, and a severe indictment not only of present politics but of the conditions of the old empire of Athens. The speech is remarkable from the fact that for once Isocrates abandons his even and temperate language and allows indignation and even bitterness to give colour to his criticisms.

‘The acquisition of empire,’ he says, ‘over unwilling subjects, is both unjust and impolitic. Ambition is like the bait which entices a wild beast into a trap. Our administration is rotten; our citizens have lost faith in personal effort, and we employ mercenaries to fight our battles. Our politicians are our worst citizens, and we appoint as generals incompetent men who are not fitted for any position of trust. We hold our own, but only because our rivals are as weak as we are. The follies of our assembly win allies for Thebes; their follies in turn are our salvation. It would pay either State to bribe the assembly or the other to meet more often.

‘Our hope lies in abandoning our empire; it is unjust, and moreover, we could not maintain it when we were rich, 154 and now we are poor. The statesmen of imperial Athens did all that they could to make their city’s policy unpopular. They displayed the tribute extorted from the allies, thus reminding all the world of their tyranny; and paraded the children of those who had fallen in wars in various parts of the world — the victims of national covetousness. Far different was the position of Athens under Themistocles and Aristides. National life is demoralized by Empire. The history of Sparta’s supremacy is another case to the point. Pericles was a demagogue, and led the city on a disastrous career, but he at least enriched the treasury, not himself. Our modern demagogues are merely self-seeking, and their covetousness reduces not only the state but the citizens to penury.

‘Peace, at the price I have indicated, is the only remedy. We must deliver Greece, not despoil her. Athens should hold among Greek States the position that the kings occupy in Sparta; they are not tyrants; they have a higher standard of conduct than any private person, and are held in such respect that any man who would not throw away his life for them in the field is reckoned meaner than a deserter.’

There is much truth in the invectives aimed at the old empire; Isocrates could see behind the glowing colours in which the glories of the Periclean age are sometimes painted, and equally with Demosthenes he realized, and did not shrink from noticing, the weakness of Athens in his own days. But his advice, though noble, is unpractical. He failed, in spite of his knowledge of history, to fathom the depth of Greek selfishness. No State that relied solely or chiefly on moral worth could have a voice in the council of Greece, far less dominate its policy.

The Areopagiticus (Or. vii.), perhaps composed in the same year, in many points supplements the de Pace. 155 It is chiefly devoted to a contrast between the old days of dignified government under the constitutions of Solon and Cleisthenes, and the unsatisfactory conditions of life in the orator’s time. The description of the old constitution is, perhaps, a fancy picture, but the contrast serves to bring out the evils at which Isocrates is aiming in the modern State. The speech deals with the inner life of Athens rather than with her foreign policy, and the chief credit for good government and good life in the old days is given to the Council of Areopagus, that majestic body which even now ‘has so strong an influence that the worst men of modern times, if promoted to membership of it, are pervaded by its spirit, and, losing the meanness of their own hearts, think and act in accordance with the Council’s high traditions.’

The Archidamus (Or. vi.) is put into the mouth of the Spartan king of that name, for whom, as we know from a letter, Isocrates had a deep respect. It professes to be part of a debate in 366 B.C., on the proposal of the Thebans to grant peace on condition that Sparta recognized the independence of Messenia. It probably contains a fair representation of the feelings of the Spartans at the time when it was proposed to make an independent and permanently hostile state of the Messenians, whom for generations they had regarded as their slaves.

There still remain works of three classes — the ‘hortatory letters,’ the ‘displays,’ and forensic speeches.

Hortatory Letters

To Demonicus (Or. i.), 372 B.C. (?). This letter, addressed to a young monarch, of whom nothing else is known, is destined to be a ‘storehouse’ (ταμιεῖον) 156 of moral maxims, comprising duty to the gods, duty to men, and duty to oneself. It contains a vast number of maxims, mostly of a practical or semi-practical nature — ‘We test gold by fire, friends by misfortune,’ ‘Never swear by the gods where money is concerned; some will think you a perjurer, others a covetous man.’ Occasionally the moral tone is higher — ‘If you do wrong, never hope to be undiscovered; if others discover you not, your own conscience will discover you to yourself.’

To Nicocles (Or. ii.), 374 B.C., addressed to Nicocles, who became king of Salamis in Cyprus in 374 B.C., deals with the duties and responsibilities of a king. ‘Remember, your high position, and be careful that you never to anything unworthy of it.’

Nicocles, or the Cyprians (Or. iii.), 372 B.C., is a complement to Or. ii. In it the king himself is represented as discoursing on the duties of subjects towards their king. ‘Do to your king as you would wish your own subjects to do to you.’

Epideictic Speeches

Many of the Sophists wrote imaginary speeches on legendary themes, and Isocrates, though this art was outside his province, strayed into it as a critic. The Busiris (Or. xi.), 391 B.C., addressed to a Sophist Polycrates, contains first a criticism of a speech composed by Polycrates on that subject, and secondly an exposition of how Isocrates himself would treat such a theme. Incidentally, Isocrates accepts the early legends as true on the whole, while rejecting certain parts of them as unbecoming.

The Encomium of Helen (Or. x.), 370 B.C., begins with criticism of a certain encomium which is generally 157 believed to be the extant one attributed to Gorgias. The previous writer has written not an encomium but an apology; Isocrates himself will write a real encomium, omitting all the topics which had been used by others.

The Evagoras (Or. ix.), 365 B.C. (?), was composed for a festival celebrated by Nicocles in memory of his father, Evagoras of Salamis, who died 374 B.C. It contains a laudatory account of the king’s career, and an encouragement to the son to emulate his father’s virtues.

The Panathenaicus was begun when Isocrates was 94 years old, i.e. in 342 B.C. Owing to an illness, he was not able to finish it for three years. It contains much of the material which has already been used in the Areopagiticus. Its main topic is the greatness of Athens, considered historically, and not with reference to contemporary politics. But it contains long digressions — a defence of his own system against the attacks of certain baser Sophists (§§ 5-34); a discourse on Agamemnon (§§ 62-73); a personal explanation (§§ 99 sqq), in which the author explains that the speech would naturally end at this point, and details the conversations and discussions which led him to continue it. He was blamed for being too harsh against Sparta, and though he silenced his critics, he had some misgivings. The result is to increase the length of the speech by one third, and completely to spoil the balance and destroy whatever unity it possessed.

Forensic Speeches

Six forensic speeches have come down to us; they belong to the early days of Isocrates, who in later years regretted that he had ever been concerned 158 with such an art; they may be dismissed in a few words:

Against Lochites (Or. xx.), 394 B.C., is an action for assault; Aegineticus (Or. xix.), 394 B.C., a claim to an inheritance; Against Euthynus (Or. xxi.), 403 B.C., an action to recover a deposit; Trapeziticus (Or. xvii.), 394 B.C., a similar action, against the famous banker Pasion; περὶ  τοῦ  ζεύγους (Or. xvi.), 397 B.C., spoken by the younger Alcibiades against a man Tisias, who asserts that the elder Alcibiades, father of the speaker, robbed him of a team of four horses. This is an action for damages amounting to five talents. Against Callimachus [Or. ii.], 399 B.C., a παραγραφή or special plea entered by the defendant, who contends that an action for damages brought against him cannot be maintained.


Reference has already been made to certain letters, to Dionysius, 368 B.C., Archidamus, 365 B.C., Philip and Alexander, 342 B.C. Others extant are addressed to the children of Jason (Ep. vi.), 359 B.C. — i.e. Thebe and her half-brothers, children of the tyrant of Pherae, who was murdered in 370 B.C.; to Timotheus (Ep. vii.), 345 B.C. — a king of Heraclea on the Euxine; to the Rulers of Mitylene (Ep. viii.), 350 B.C. — the oligarchs who had recently overthrown the democracy; to Antipater (Ep. iv.), 340 B.C., at the time, apparently, regent of Macedonia during Philip’s absence in Thrace. This list of the correspondents of Isocrates, with some of whom at least he is on terms of familiarity, may serve to indicate his importance in the Greek world.


Isorates is also credited with the composition of a τέχνη or treatise on the art of rhetoric, now lost, except for a single quotation; and the editions of the text contain a number of apophthegms attributed to him. None are important.


 1  Antid., § 161.

 2  Phaedr., pp. 278-9.

 3  καὶ  ἀρχὰς  δὲ  [καὶ]  (τὰς ? )  περὶ  τὴν  Χίον  κατέστησε  καὶ  τὴν  αὐτὴν  τῇ  πατρίδι  πολίτειαν. Ps.-Plut., 837 B.

 4  However, if we pressed this passage, we must regard the journey with Timotheus as unhistorical. All the evidence is to be found in Blass, Att. Ber., vol. ii. pp. 16-17.

 5  Antid., §§ 159 sqq.

 6  de Comp. Verb., ch. xxiii.

 7  de Comp. Verb., ch. xxiii. He quotes Areop., §§ 1-5.

 8  Isocrates allows elisions of certain short vowels, but he is more sparing than most poets in the use of it. In the epideictic speeches the commonest elision is of enclitics or semi-enclitics (τε, δέ, etc.) and of personal pronouns. Crasis, except of καὶ  ἄν, is rare. In the forensic speeches (his early work) elision is much less restricted.

 9  Maxim. Planud. ad Hermog., v. 469.

10  Vol. ii. p. 144.

11  Rhet., Book iii. 8. 4.

12  Ibid.

13  θαυμάζειν  καὶ  ζηλοῦν, ἐπαινεῖν  καὶ  τιμᾶν, etc.

14  E.g. Paneg., § 5, ὅταν  ἢ  τὰ  πράγματα  λαβῃ  τέλος   . . . ἢ  τὸν  λόγον  ἴδῃ  τις  ἔχοντα  πέρας, where τέλος and πέρας, two words for end or completion, are not really distinguishable, or, at any rate, the distinction is very slight. So in Evagoras, § 11, εὐλογεῖν and ἐγκωμιάζειν are used antithetically (to praise — to eulogise).

15  E.g. Evagoras, § 10, αὐταῖς  ταῖς  εὐρυθμίαις  καὶ  ταῖς  συμμετρίαις  ψυχαγωγοῦσι  τοὺς  ἀκούοντας. Elsewhere we find μετριότητες, λαμπρότητες, αὐθάδειαι, ἀργίαι, etc.

16  Aristoph., Clouds, passim.

17  Cf. Isocrates’ reference to this passage in Antid., § 193.

18  Hel. (Or. x.), § 1, οἱ  δὲ  διεξιόντες  ὡς  ἀνδρία  καὶ  σοφία  καὶ  δικαιοσύνη ταὐτόν  ἐστι.

19  §§ 9 sqq.

20  Antid., §§ 187-189.

21  §§ 19 sqq.

22  Rhet., i. 1. 10.

23  τὸ  τολμᾶν, § 192.

24  Vide supra, p. 137.

25  Or astrology?

26  Antid., Summary of §§ 181-303.

27  Antid., § 11, ἰδέαι.

28  Ep. 1 § 87. This letter is referred to in Philippus, § 81; the text of the letter remaining to us is incomplete.

29  Philippus, 346 B.C.

30  Ibid., (Or. v.), §§ 14-17.

31  Isocrates is said to have spent ten years over the composition of the Panegyricus; it was probably published in 380 B.C.

32  I.e. the victory of the 10,000 at Cunaxa.

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