Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.32

Peter Roth, Der Panathenaikos des Isokrates. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Bd. 196.   München & Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2003.  Pp. 310.  ISBN 3-598-77808-2.  €86.00/sFr 148.00.  

Reviewed by Tony Natoli, The University of Sydney (
Word count: 2128 words

Of all Isocrates' (Is.) discourses the Panathenaicus (P) provides the greatest difficulty to the reader. Avowedly an encomium on Athens, it bears little resemblance to other known encomia. And then there is the lengthy dialogue scene, which not only seems to be awkwardly appended to the discourse proper but appears to contradict the main thrust of the argument by suggesting the need for a reassessment of the portrayal of Sparta. The discourse itself is long and repeats (verbatim on occasion) material from earlier discourses. For these reasons P has generally not been received with favour by scholars. Blass famously called it 'a chaotic pile of chaff in which the grains are rare indeed'. After a brief survey of approaches taken by scholars from Kyprianos in 1871 to the present, Roth (R.) rightly concludes that there is a real need for a new interpretation of P which makes sense of the discourse as a whole. The only commentary known to me is that of A. Nucciotti (1935), which, with Norlin's Loeb edition, is a surprising omission from R's bibliography.1 R.'s book is the most comprehensive study of P ever attempted and is an important addition to the literature. The serious reader of Is. and Plato will appreciate this book which, while it does not require a knowledge of Greek, fully enters into the scholarly debate.

This is not a conventional commentary based on a Greek text. R's commentary, which began life as his Habilitationsschrift (1997/8), is based on his own German translation. As the new Teubner text was not yet available, the translation is from the Budé edition of Brémond. R. indicates in the footnotes to his translation where he has diverged from the Budé text and refers the reader to Appendix I, where he provides his reasons. Preceding the commentary, R provides a schema in which he sets out the structure of the discourse. The usual three major sections are recognized (the third being the unusual dialogue scene), flanked on either side by a prologue and an epilogue. The argument within this structure is divided into subsections according to the section numbers of the text, and each subdivision is treated separately as part of the overall argument. Each major section is preceded by a brief discussion of the content and structure of that section, and each subsection begins with a summary of its argument. Footnotes to the commentary contain technical argument based on the Greek text and the secondary literature.

Because R. has chosen not to use his Introduction to discuss major aspects of P and to argue the case for his overall interpretation of the discourse, he leaves his reader to obtain this information from the commentary itself. Given the difficulty of interpreting P, the wisdom of this decision may be questioned. Discussion of who exactly were Is.' opponents, for example, is spread over a number of subsections of the commentary and could with advantage have been consolidated to give the reader a better idea of Is.' relations to contemporary philosophers, politicians and the general public. As R. believes that we are to seek the raison d'être of P in the philosophical debate between Is. and his Academic opponents, a summary of the evidence for the debate with particular reference to P would have been welcome. The same criticism may be made in regard to indications of the chronology of composition of P, which appear throughout the commentary. Because the introduction omits discussion of R's controversial interpretation of the discourse, the tendency is to polemicise the commentary, which should in theory be more detached and provide information to empower the reader.

On R.'s reading, the prologue [1-39] was extensively revised following an incident in the Lyceum in 342 (sects.18-19), which involved certain 'sophists' (in fact Academic philosophers) who were critical of Is.' educational methods. It was due to the hurtful attacks of these 'sophists' that Is. set out to justify his own educational theories against those of rival teachers. In consequence of the revision, only sects. 1-4 and 35-39 of the prologue remain from the original version. R.'s conclusions here should prove contentious, in view of what I would regard as a doubtful methodology driven (like so much else in the book) by his interpretation of the dialogue scene.

It is not clear what effect the revision of the prologue had on the rest of the discourse. However, if I understand the argument correctly, the major implications are for the dialogue scene, where the opposing views of Is. and his Academic opponents are treated. The first two major sections [39-198] comprising the praise of Athens and denunciation of Sparta remain largely unaffected. The chief interest of these two sections lie in the comparative methodology employed, the uniqueness of which Is. emphasises through the comment of his pro-Spartan former student at sects. 237-8. R. (107-8) explains the rhetorical mechanics of auxesis, which lies behind the comparative methodology, from the handbooks of Anaximenes and Aristotle. Is.' skill in concealing the underlying mechanics is seen by R. as a demonstration of his rhetorical skill and as a model intended for others to imitate and thus hearkens back to earlier theories which viewed the whole discourse as illustrative teaching material.

R. sees his major contribution to the exegesis of P in his account of the dialogue scene [sects.199-265]. There can be no doubt that Is. intentionally left his former student's vindication of Sparta unanswered, thereby giving rise to what some have called a palinode: an apparent retraction of the argument of the discourse proper. R resolves the difficulty in a novel manner. He postulates that Is. was concerned to oppose the theory of Plato, who in the Phaedrus held that written texts were inferior to the spoken word in that they are unable to defend themselves. The student (the voice of Is. in sects. 246-7) explains that through the calculated use of amphiboly and pseudologiai Is. renders his discourse ambiguous and able to be interpreted on various levels. The casual reader will not appreciate the subtlety that will reward the serious reader. It is in this way, according to R [256], that Is. defends the ability of the written word to convey real meaning and illuminate the truth. There is no authorized text and hence Is. makes no attempt to refute his former student.

Following on from his discussion of Kyprianos' theory which held that Is.' discourses were intended for teaching in his school and were devised in such a way as to conceal their meaning from all but the adept, R. [282-283] argues that the reason the meaning of P was concealed was not for what we might call copyright reasons (as Kyprianos believed) but for pedagogical reasons. Is., we are asked to believe, created a new literary form in P, which required the reader to appreciate the subtleties of rhetorical argument through active learning rather than memorization. Plato's dialectical method served a similar purpose. In this context, R. adduces the final scene in Plato's Phaedrus, where Is. is mentioned by name. He argues [258] that Is. imitated in his own final sections 271-272 the conclusion of the Phaedrus, the wording of the respective passages 'proving' imitation. The praise of the pro-Spartan student for his master calls to mind the ironic praise bestowed on Is. by Plato's Socrates, thereby hinting to the reader that P is essentially concerned with the discussion of the philosophical basis of rhetoric initiated by Plato.

R.'s explanation of the dialogue scene ties in with his overall thesis that Is. was concerned to answer directly the criticisms of his Academic rivals and he misses no opportunity for uncovering direct references to various Platonic works, especially to the Republic, Phaedrus, Gorgias and Laws. However, while there is undoubtedly evidence in P of contemporary debate on philosophical subjects, I would caution against the tendency to postulate that Is. must be replying to specific passages in Plato. If we possessed more of the literature of the period we should probably find that most of the passages R. takes to be direct citations are in fact indicative of the more general debate both in terms of ideas and the vocabulary used to express those ideas. An example of the danger inherent in this tendency can be seen in R.'s [151-152] comments on sects. 117-118 where Is. argued that the Athenian fathers in exchanging their ancestral constitution for a radical democracy chose the lesser of two evils in order to avert subjection by Sparta. It is alleged that we have here a direct (even quasi verbatim) reference to the position of Socrates and Plato, as expressed particularly in the Gorgias, where we find the proposition that it is better to suffer rather than commit injustice. The comparison is an obvious one and the tendency has been to state with R. that Is. is directly challenging Plato's position. Such a statement, however, tends to obfuscate the fact that Is. condemned both the extreme democracy and the imperialism which sustained it as 'hardships to be endured' (sect. 117). Is.' statement is made in the immediate context of a comparative methodology and to take it as an absolute statement of Is.' belief in supposed contradiction of Plato's philosophical position is to treat it out of its immediate context: a fatal error in assessing any Isocratean discourse. Moreover, we know that Is. (although his rationale was different) actually endorsed the Socratic position on resisting injustice because he, like Plato, believed that a policy of injustice resulted in unhappiness, and was also ultimately unsuccessful in the majority of cases ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ (see Peace 31-35 -- not referred to by R. here but only later at 209, and Antidosis281-282). Is. himself at sects. 185-187 argued that justice was preferable to injustice and that, if the honourable man is sometimes disadvantaged, it is due to an oversight by the gods. The challenge for the commentator is to see whether P 117-118 and 185-187 can be reconciled within the overall interpretation of P or whether we must agree with Norlin (in his note to sect. 187) that Is. is guilty of self-contradiction, perhaps the most serious charge that can be imputed to him as philosopher and rhetorician.

Perhaps P is best known for the excursus on Agamemnon, which has been explained as a covert reference to Philip II of Macedon. Together with most scholars today R. rejects the identification, accepting [135] only the possibility of an indirect reference to Philip. R. himself offers no definite interpretation, concluding that the Agamemnon excursus performs various functions within the context of P.; it is a mistake to limit the author's intention to a single function. Indeed, R. suggests, in accord with his interpretation of the dialogue scene, that Is. intended the excursus to be ambiguous. R. discerns six possible concurrent roles for the excursus. That Is. had formulated some ideas or perhaps complete scenes and simply availed himself of the opportunity to publish them before he died is perhaps the least felicitous of these roles. A similar explanation (which in effect strikes at the unity and quality of the discourse and to my way of thinking does Is. no credit) is later suggested by R [233] in a different context. For a far different interpretation that makes a case for seeing Is. himself behind the portrait of Agamemnon see the 1996 paper by J. Signes Cordon~er in Emerita. This paper together with two subsequent papers published by the same author in Emerita for 1998 and 2001 are important and deserve to be better known.

In his Appendix II R. makes a case for the traditional date of 355 for the Aeopageticus, arguing against the position of W. Jaeger and more recently R.W. Wallace and O.S. Due, that the discourse was written in 357 after the Social War. Appendix III contains a summary of the difficult-to-obtain book by A. Kyprianos τὰ ἀπόρρητα τοῦ Ἰσοκράτους posthumously published in 1871. Four indexes are supplied, there being separate indexes for names and subjects. R. has included only authors down to the end of the fourth century BCE in his index locorum, thereby omitting important later sources such as Plutarch and Aelius Aristides.

In short, R. has written a much more polemical kind of commentary than is usual. It is a book which, while it assists the reader by explaining points of detail both historical and linguistic taking into account the relevant evidence both ancient and modern, does not, for the present reader at least, succeed in making sense of the discourse as a whole. However, while he may not have said the last word on this the most enigmatic of Is.' writings, R.'s book is a welcome addition to the literature on P and will undoubtedly provide much grist to the mill of Isocratean studies.2


1.   Whereas Norlin is taken into account, Nucciotti seems to have been studiously overlooked. In justifying where his text at P 34 differs from the Budé, R. (274) might at least have noted (as did Brémond in accepting it) Nucciotti's judgment that the wording of Bensler-Blass presented 'un pensiero contorto e non troppo aderente a quanto precede'. Mandilaras in the new Teubner edition of Isocrates has come down on the side of Nucciotti.
2.   The following corrections are noted. The word εἰκῇ is printed without the iota subscript on p. 170. The reference on p.43 to sect. '136' should read '236'; p.133 n.259 '157f' should read '155f'; and the word 'einmal' is repeated on p.255.

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:40, Friday, 03 April 2009