Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.12

J. V. Muir (ed.), Alcidamas. The Works & Fragments.   London:  Bristol Classical Press (Duckworth), 2001.  Pp. xxxiii, 94.  ISBN 1-85399-610-6.  £10.99.  

Reviewed by Brad L. Cook, Ohio Wesleyan University (
Word count: 1260 words

J. V. Muir has done Alkidamas a great service with this text, translation, and commentary of his surviving works. In a lengthy introduction Muir covers Alkidamas' life, professional context, works, style, and textual status. In the seven pages of notes, three pages of bibliography, and a list of abbreviations, he provides readers with nearly every pertinent article or book on Alkidamas, including background works as well as specialized studies in Latin and German, making this a valuable resource for students, both young and experienced.1 This is far more than the average BCP commentary and is, in fact, the closest thing to a modern version of Brzoska's 1894 RE article on Alkidamas. The Greek text of the two speeches attributed to Alkidamas, On those who write written speeches or On Sophists (OWS) and Odysseus, Against the treachery of Palamedes (Odysseus) and of the fragments faces a new translation by Muir. The commentary provides a summary of each text, section by section, and useful notes on the Greek text. The text concludes with a one-page index of words and names and a one-page index of significant Greek words. Though this work comes from a press that usually prints or reprints introductory commentaries, Muir presents a level of detail in the introduction and the commentary that will benefit the most seasoned reader of Alkidamas.

Introduction (v-xxxiii): Muir manages to stretch what little we are told about Alkidamas across a page and follows this with a page on his readership down to Tzetzes in the twelfth century (v-vi). This is quite thorough (Alkidamas is given only thirteen lines in the new OCD). On occasion, the inferences drawn from anecdotal sources may bother some, e.g., "Aeschines was said to have been his pupil" on page v becomes evidence on page vi that Alkidimas spent "considerable time in Athens." The background information on the nature and role of rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric in Alkidamas' time is well summarized in the compass of a few pages. In introducing OWS (xiii-xv) Muir leaves any summarizing for the commentary and here plunges the reader into some of the ancient and modern controversies surrounding this odd document. He expresses scepticism about the great effort of many scholars to uncover the interaction of Alkidamas' speech with Isokrates' speech Against the Sophists; his low opinion of such efforts surfaces in the commentary. With the Odysseus (xv-xviii) Muir provides a rather full summary of the speech, considers the function of the speech, and offers a balanced and sensible discussion of the modern debate over the authorship of this speech, concluding "I believe it is not unreasonable to suppose that OWS and the Odysseus were both written by Alcidamas" (xviii). His inclusion of this speech, I believe, is a prudent and reasonable alternative to the complete failure by many to even look at this ancient text.2 Muir's wry humor surfaces again in his overview of "Other works" (xviii-xx) when he notes of the Mouseion of Alkidamas that "it is curious that more has been written about this in modern times than about Alcidamas' surviving works, even though its nature and contents are unknown" (xix). His summary on Alkidamas' style is quite good and prepares the reader for his frequent and useful notes on style in the commentary.

Text and Translation (2-39): Muir prints for the most part the text of Avezzù (Rome 1982); where he disagrees, he provides comments that are helpful to the reader new to such problems and to the experienced reader. The translations are generally very literal, following the phrases of the Greek as closely as possible. I commend this approach, though with OWS the result can be both difficult and intriguing. For example consider Muir's translation of the opening clause:

Since some of those who are called sophists have neglected an enquiring approach and training and have no more experience of being able to make speeches than ordinary people, but, having practised the writing of speeches and demonstrating their cleverness through texts, give themselves airs and think much of themselves, and, having acquired a very small part of an orator's ability, lay claim to the art as a whole, this is the reason for my setting out to make a case against written speeches,...(1)

Compare this to the translation by Larue Van Hook:3

Since certain so-called Sophists are vainglorious and puffed up with pride because they have practised the writing of speeches and through books have revealed their own wisdom, although they have neglected learning and discipline and are as inexpert as laymen in the faculty of speaking, and since they claim to be masters of the whole of the art of rhetoric, although they possess only the smallest share of ability therein--since this is the case, I shall essay to bring formal accusation against written discourses. (1)

Where Van Hook's translation improves Alkidamas' concatenation of phrases, Muir's more literal translation maintains the "clumsiness and awkwardness in sentence construction" (xxi) that makes OWS all the more interesting: should the παιδιά καὶ πάρεργον of an extemporaneous speaker sound like this? Van Hook's translation should still be consulted; his translation is an implicit commentary, includes footnotes on the translation, and occasionally bests Muir in word choice. The translation of Odysseus is far more readable but that is because the Greek is far more readable "with its conventional court-room style" (xxi). The fragments are printed without context but this is described in the commentary; frag. 27 (Michigan Papyrus 2754) is even printed in two formats, as a "modern" text and again in the commentary in the format in which the papyrus preserves it.

Commentary (40-94): The commentary addresses a variety of concerns: content summary, diction, general and specialized secondary resources, and occasionally textual matters and syntax. Muir is especially good on Alkidamas' diction and the semi-technical language of the two main texts. For example at the first appearance of φιλοσοφία (OWS 2) Muir gives, in seven-lines, a precise summary, with three ancient references, of what this word could mean and probably meant for Alkidamas. Muir continues the note by providing further help for those who want more, especially on Isokrates' use of the term, by referring the reader to Wersdörfer's 160-page published dissertation, Die philosophia des Isokrates im Spiegel ihrer Terminologie. Untersuchungen zur frühattischen Rhetorik und Stillehre (Leipzig 1940). Notes that combine important, basic explanations of terms and more detailed resources are common. Diction and grammar are clarified with references to ancient texts and to modern resources, though a reference to Kühner-Gerth may frighten the fledgling student. At times this breadth of coverage leaves gaps, e.g., we find a good, introductory note on the term 'sophist' in OWS 1 but no similarly useful note on ἱστορία and παιδεία which immediately follow--terms that embody the daily business of Alkidamas and his colleagues and opponents.

Muir has made Alkidamas and his texts far more accessible. He has given an up-to-date introduction to Alkidamas that should be the starting point of anyone interested in him, and his commentary is full of insightful observations and advice for further study. Anyone interested in rhetoric, oratory, orality, and literacy should acquire and read this new work.

Typographical errors: p. xiv, note 47 should read 48; heading title on xv "Against the treachery of Odysseus" should read "Against the treachery of Palamedes." Though this is not a typographical error, I beseech all who read this to cease to use op.cit.--no greater waste of time exists for those reading footnotes. The Greek text looks like it was produced on a dot-matrix printer, a crime unpardonable in the 21st century.


1.   A few studies could be added to the thorough notes and bibliography, e.g., K. Hubik, "Alkidamas oder Isokrates? Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der griechischen Rhetorik," WS (1901), 234-251; H. Raeder, "Alkidamas und Platon als Gegner des Isokrates," RhM 63 (1908), 495-511; S. Gastaldi, "La retorica del IV secola tra oralità e scrittura. Sugli scrittori di discorsì di Alcidamante," Quaderni di Storia 7 (1981), 189-225; M. Vallozza, "Καιρός nella retorica di Alcidamante e di Isocrate, ovvero nell' oratoria orale e scritta," QUCC 50/NS21 (1985), 119-123; M. Vallozza, "Alcidamante e i gradi della memoria," QUCC 56/NS 27 (1987) 93-96; S. Freeman, "Überlegungen zu Alkidamas' Rede über die Sophisten," in Der Übergang von der Mündlichkeit zur Literatur bei den Griechen, W. Kullmann and M. Reichel, eds. (Tübingen 1990) 301-315; Z. Ritoók, "Alkidamas über die Sophisten," Philologus 135 (1991) 157-163; Y. Z. Liebersohn, "Alcidamas' On the Sophists: a Reappraisal," Eranos 97 (1999) 108-124.
2.   Neil O'Sullivan, Alcidamas, Aristophanes and the Beginnings of Greek Stylistic Theory. Hermes Einzelschriften 60. Stuttgart 1992, makes only a passing reference (p. 90, n. 161), as Muir notes, p. xxvii, n. 53. If one looked at the OCD entry on Alkidamas, at least in the third edition, she or he would not even know that such a text is preserved under Alkidamas' name.
3.   Larue Van Hook, "Alcidamas Versus Isocrates: The Spoken Versus the Written Word," Classical Weekly 12 (1919) 89-94. There is another translation by Patricia P. Matsen in P. P. Matsen, R. Rollinson, and M. Sousa, eds., Readings from Classical Rhetoric (Carbondale, IL 1990) 38-42 which should be used with caution. See, in addition, the excellent translations by Michael Gagarin of both speeches in Michael Gagarin and Paul Woodruff, eds., Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists (Cambridge 1995), 276-289.

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:34, Friday, 03 April 2009