Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.09


Victor Bers, Speech in Speech: Studies in Incorporated Oratio Recta in Attic Drama and Oratory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. Pp. xv, 249. ISBN 0-8476-8449-0 (hb), 0-8476-8450-4 (pb).


Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Ottawa.

When Demosthenes quotes his adversary Meidias urging the Athenian Boule to put Aristarchus to death (Against Meidias 116), how close are his words to those actually spoken by Meidias? Why does Demosthenes choose to use direct quotation just here, and if the wording is his own, why does he use the syntax he does? Most readers have asked themselves these questions about one ancient text or another; those who have not would probably profit from doing so, and anyone interested in ancient literature will be intrigued by Bers's examination of these and other problems in the use of direct speech in Greek.

Scholars have of course been discussing these issues for over a century, but always in the context of works on specific pieces of literature or on other aspects of Greek style. Bers's work is the first systematic examination of the use of direct speech in and of itself, and when one reads it one wonders repeatedly why no one thought of writing this book decades ago. It now seems obvious that we cannot understand the use of direct speech by examining one or two examples, or even all those in a single author; only a consideration of the usage in whole genres can tell us what was normal and what was meant to sound unusual or striking. Even if it had no text, this book would be invaluable simply as a collection of passages employing or discussing the use of oratio recta. As it is, the reader is offered Bers's interpretation, but the texts are still quoted to allow other scholars to make up their own minds on the issues involved.

Not that Bers draws many controversial conclusions; indeed a reader (particularly a reviewer looking for something that can be shown to be right or wrong) might wish him to be a bit more definite and to provide a few more answers. But at least he has provided us with the questions, and we should in fact be grateful that Bers has refused to take the path used by many lesser scholars and go out on a limb for the sake of saying something provocative. His caution means that we can have a good deal of faith in what he does say.

The need to consider individual cases in detail has resulted in this book having a relatively narrow scope; it examines only tragedy and oratory from the classical period. Old comedy makes its appearance only in a brief mention and a series of tables, and history, philosophy, new comedy, and epic are omitted altogether except for tangential references. The amount of evidence amassed is impressive even with these restrictions, but I wonder whether the best choice of genres has been made; it would perhaps have been more useful to examine only poetic genres or only prose ones rather than to pick two areas as distinct as tragedy and oratory. Oratory in particular, it seems to me, is difficult to understand without a proper consideration of use of direct speech in history and philosophy as well, and I wonder whether the author might have been able to draw more definite conclusions had he examined these genres instead of tragedy.

There was of course no space for the consideration of post-classical texts either, and hence no opportunity to examine an evolution in the use of direct speech in Greek. A diachronic study picking up where Bers left off would be fascinating, and it is to be hoped that someone will undertake it in the near future.

The benefit of these restrictions in coverage is that the areas which are examined are treated in great detail, with many passages quoted in full. Translations are usually provided in addition to the Greek; Bers states that he has omitted them in places where non-classicists would not be interested in the argument in any case, but to my eye the pattern of omission looks very erratic, especially towards the end of the book. Translations are normally taken from published work and are scrupulously identified as to source. I have seen far too much negligence in acknowledgement of translations recently and hope that other scholars will follow Bers' example here. Having said which, I must point out that the identifications are not always accurate; in particular, on p. 94, the passage identified as Lattimore's translation of Heraclidae 838-9 is in fact Gladstone's translation (The Complete Greek Tragedies vol. 3, ed. D. Grene and R. Lattimore, Chicago 1955) of lines 826-7.

The Greek given for this passage is in fact lines 838-9; that the translation obviously does not match it is but one example of the serious copyediting and proofreading errors which mar this book. Lines of text are repeated (pp. 219-20), transliteration of Greek is inconsistent ('koruphaios' p. 24, but 'koryphaios' p. 73), cross-references are wrong (p. 208 n. 147), and there is the usual run of simple typographical errors in both English and Greek (the latter sometimes fairly serious, e.g. p. 197 n. 123 'ô andres hoi parontes epi tôide tôi taphôi' should in fact be simply 'ô parontes epi tôide tôi taphôi', and thus the phrase is not actually an example of the 'vocative + participle' construction to which the author assigns it). The most serious technical problem is the large number of works which are cited by author and date (or just by author's name alone) and then do not appear in the bibliography, leaving the reader with no idea of the title of the work or where to find it. A random check of selected pages found 21 such works, most cited at least twice; this figure represents about a third of the entries I checked. The book obviously needed a copyeditor, but it did not get one, and this flaw can only be attributed to the publisher; at the same time, authors who in this day and age are more and more often forced to produce their own camera-ready copy are going to have to learn to do their own editing at some point. If they do not, the result can be a book like this one, in which a sloppy format detracts from excellent scholarship.

The scholarship, however, really is excellent. Although a summary of the ideas Bers presents cannot do justice to theories that are so closely tied to the evidence presented in the book, here are their major outlines. The first section of the book examines usage of quoted direct speech in tragedy; here there is of course no question of faithfulness to an actual original of the quoted statement, but one can still ask a number of questions, particularly about why the tragedians chose to have characters such as messengers quote directly the things they do quote and report other speeches in oratio obliqua. In addition, with reference to passages in which the chorus quotes an individual, Bers considers the possibility that the chorus may not always have spoken in unison but that single-voice delivery may have been used for certain passages (pp. 23-5 and frequently afterwards). Bers himself cheerfully admits that this idea is heresy, but his arguments in favour of it are worthy of serious consideration.

The second half of the book discusses the use of direct speech in oratory. Here the issue of accuracy can arise (though it does not necessarily do so, as many quoted statements represent thoughts or imaginary arguments rather than words actually spoken). Bers concludes that the ancients did not consider verbatim accuracy as important as we do, so that minor variations in wording were not seen as inaccuracies; at the same time, a speaker is unlikely to have been able to get away with serious misrepresentation of the content of speeches made to a large audience. Stylistically, oratio recta in both tragedy and oratory was not necessarily any more lively or vivid than the surrounding text; if anything, the language of quoted speech seems to be more formal and less colloquial than the narrative in which it is embedded.

My own main quibble with the content is Bers's treatment of vocatives, about which he not infrequently makes incorrect assumptions. Thus he would have it that 'ô neania' was a generally courteous form of address in Greek (p. 79) and that 'anthrôpe' was always disrespectful (p. 139); neither assumption is true. He also asserts (p. 199) that 'Herodotus never opens a speech with ô ...', a statement which is misleading: if one takes 'speech' to mean any utterance, there are 116 in Herodotus that begin this way. Presumably Bers was using a narrower definition of the term and referring to formal orations, but one must seek an unnaturally narrow definition of 'speech' if one is to exclude, for example, Darius' address to a meeting of Persian nobles (beginning 'Ô Persai', 3.127.2) or Leotychides' lengthy appeal to the Athenians (beginning 'Ô Athênaioi', 6.86a1). On p. 201 the discussion on the placement of vocatives within a sentence would have benefitted from mention of E. Fraenkel's work 'Noch einmal Kolon und Satz' (Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse: Sitzungsberichte, 2, Munich 1965).

Compared with my admiration of the work as a whole, however, these quibbles are minor. It is to be hoped that this book will receive the attention it deserves, and that this in turn will result in a better-proofread second edition.