Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.12.37

James D. Williams (ed.), An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: Essential Readings.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  Pp. xi, 544; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 978-1-4051-5861-9.  $54.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Brad L. Cook, San Diego State University (
Word count: 1852 words


This annotated reader contains 324 pages of ancient texts, from Enheduanna to Augustine. The remaining pages were written by Williams to serve as an introduction to Greek and Roman rhetoric and to the individual authors and texts included. The text, listed on the Wiley-Blackwell website under Communication and Media Studies, is directed at "advanced undergraduate and beginning graduate students in communications as well as those in rhetoric and composition programs" (1). The introduction finds fault with available anthologies because "the amount of background information in them, so crucial to contextualizing the readings, is commonly sparse. As a result, students just beginning the study of classical rhetoric find it difficult to understand the social and historical factors that influenced periods and orators" (1). These social and historical factors, the context for these ancient texts, are manifold and fascinating in their challenging complexity. William's attempts, however, to describe these factors and contextualize the ancient texts that he has selected are so marred by factual errors, poor presentation of the ancient sources, and mishandling of modern scholarship that I advise against using this book in any classroom.1

Forty-six numbered ancient texts are printed in grayed text-boxes along with the notes found in the editions used. The translations come from a variety of sources, as old as Jowett's venerable translation of Plato and as recent as May and Wisse's 2001 translation of Cicero's De oratore. The selections themselves begin with five pages of Akkadian poetry by Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon, and four pages of Sapphic fragments. Then appear ten pages of Sophistic selections among which are Gorgias' Palamedes and Helen, thirteen pages of selections from Isocrates' Against the Sophists and Antidosis, nine from the Demosthenic On the Treaty with Alexander and his On the Crown, the entire texts of Plato's Protagoras, Gorgias, and Phaedrus; thirty-seven pages of selections from Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics conclude the first half of the book. Cicero starts the second half of the text with fifty-six pages of selections from De inventione, De oratore, and Pro Milone, then appear three pages from Horace's Ars poetica, and over eleven pages from Quintilian's Institutio oratoria; twenty-one pages from various works of Libanios are followed by sixty-one pages by Augustine, thirty-one of which are from the Confessions.

In addition to William's general introduction (1-5), there is an "Introduction to Greek Rhetoric" (9-36) and an "Introduction to Roman Rhetoric and Oratory" (273-315). Each section, e.g., "Female Voices" (37-50), "The Sophists" (51-107), etc., includes a biographical and historical sketch of the authors and their age. This is an immense amount of material to cover, and Williams recognizes that fact. On the very first page of his introduction he laments that his book "must necessarily engage in a certain degree of reduction and oversimplification" (1) and, in case we forget, he repeats this at the end of the introduction (5). The motif is sounded frequently, e.g., "Any definitive understanding of the Sophists probably will always be beyond us, but some general observations are possible" (20); "People and ideas exist in a context. Sometimes when writing about history, we cannot determine what the context was, but in the case of Plato we have enough information to do so" (32); "Understanding Demosthenes ... entails at least a nodding familiarity with the complex, tumultuous events that characterized his life and the course of history that he tried to shape" (93); and, to jump to the end: "The events and social conditions of the fourth and fifth centuries were so complex and volatile that a brief chapter cannot possibly begin to provide significant insights. What follows, therefore, is a greatly simplified and abbreviated summary of a few key factors" (416). Burdened with this millennium of complex context, an introductory text of this sort must manifest constantly a mastery of the ancient data and provide an accurate and clear epitome of the history and essential issues. Williams fails to do either.

As Williams oversimplifies all this complexity, he makes troubling errors. Of Plato he says that Plato's brother Glaucon was an oligarch who supported the Thirty and died fighting for them against the democrats (32). This fact would surely have influenced Plato, if it were true. It is true that Plato's maternal uncle Charmides as well as his mother's far more famous cousin Critias were oligarchs and died as members of the Thirty. Of Demosthenes he says that On the Treaty with Alexander is "a prime example of deliberative rhetoric as practiced in the Athenian assembly" (97), but the attribution of this speech to Demosthenes has even since antiquity been universally recognized as false, and the text may have never been delivered in any assembly by anyone. Of one of those volatile complexities of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., Williams suggests, parenthetically, that Julian's "youthful naïveté" may explain his difficulty restoring paganism, but one may wonder what is so "complex" or "volatile" about the fact that Julian was at least twenty-nine years old when he entered Constantinople to assume the throne and had already six years of political and military experience in the field. One could view these errors as minor and easily corrected in a revised or second edition, if they were isolated and were not misused to make half-trueobservations that are for this reason difficult to correct.

The inclusion of Sappho, much less of Enehduanna, in an introduction to Greek and Roman rhetoric suggests more profound problems. The claim that "We may not be unjustified in concluding that poets like Enheduanna, Archilochus, and Sappho indirectly influenced rhetoric, politics, and even entire societies" (21), is no more persuasive than what Williams tells us about Sappho's name in the Aeolic dialect: "Psappha, which is decidedly non-Greek and gives credence to reports that she was not a Greek but a Hittite" (45). If you look for such females, real and/or fictional, as Aspasia and Diotima and their rhetorical significance, real or fictional, you will find them rejected by Williams with equally unhelpful (or outrageous) reasoning (37-38). Consider in addition what Williams says of Helen when he is contextualizing Gorgias' Encomium of Helen: "her cultural status was significantly lower than that of a prostitute. Given this context, we can more readily imagine how disturbing audiences might find Gorgias' Encomium ... we might consider the reaction today to an enthusiastic defense of Adolf Hitler or James Earl Ray" (64). To leap to the end of the book, Williams describes Augustine as "a truly tortured man" (45), "a mamma's boy" (451), whose mother "clung to him in an unnatural way" (453), and a person who called for "the rejection of reason" and "rational processes" (449-450). This sort of stuff is not conducive to a valid, much less meaningful, contextualization of anything ancient, though its rhetoric might have pleased a Cleon or Clodius.

As with primary sources, such a text should introduce students to scholarship in an accurate, meaningful, and manageable manner. Williams' handling of scholarship, however, is just as problematic as his handling of ancient texts and contexts. For an example, when Augustine is introduced, we are told: "Kennedy (1980) argued that De Doctrina Christiana should be classified as an example of 'technical rhetoric' (p. 159) because it lacks any philosophical components. When located in the context of Augustine's other works, however, this assessment is difficult to support" (494-495, italics mine). Kennedy's text, however, in the 1980 version of his Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, From Ancient to Modern Times actually states: "... Augustine's rhetoric belongs largely in what we have called the technical tradition, with some threads of the sophistic strand. Insofar as philosophical rhetoric is involved, it is represented by Christianity, not by the influence of Plato and Aristotle. ..." (159; cf. also the text of Kennedy's second edition, 1999, 182). This and other such misreadings, or mischaracterizations, of scholarship and Williams' gratuitous "corrections" could guide the neophyte reader into treating such eminent scholars as Kennedy, Gagarin (see 73), et al. cavalierly.

Williams' presentation of erroneous ancient information and poor use of modern sources occasionally produces absurdities. Of the Thirty at Athens, we read: "To suppress democracy further, the Thirty limited Athenian citizenship to 3,000, thereby disenfranchising most of the population, and ordered all non-citizens expelled from the city, conveniently confiscating their property in the process. At the time, the total population may have been about 120,000 (reduced by the war from about 180,000) (Domit<i>us, 2005). Anyone who refused to leave was immediately executed" (30, italics mine). Anyone stunned by this absurdly false image of 117,000 people being disenfranchised, instead of 27,000 (out of the 30,000 or so [male] citizens), and all but the chosen 3,000 fleeing for their lives will find some distracting solace in discovering that the ancient line of the Domitii is represented by a modern classical scholar. By following the entry in the bibliography for D. Domitius, one will be led to a website where the full name of this authority appears: Drakus Domitius. "Drakos," the modern Greek form of the ancient drakon, can be used as a last name, but since it is also used in modern Greek like "Killer" in English, its use as a first name would be very unusual. As it turns out, Drakus Domitius is not a real name but a web name for someone role-playing on But, whatever Drakus' real name, he has been used by Williams only for the number 120,000, thus the mishmash of preposterous inaccuracies and absurdly exaggerated implications in the above-quoted passage belongs solely to Williams.

Errors that could be termed typographical are pandemic, at least among ancient names, e.g., Pythogoras, Heroditus, Theremenes, Periclian, Archilocus, Athiphon, Peri Technê, On Chreutes, Rahmnus (and Rhamnus, spelled correctly, is also used as a person's name on another occasion and as if it were a last name on yet another occasion), vir bonum, Atrabazus (twice), De Civitae Dei (repeatedly thus, except on p. 526), De Trinitae, and Marcu Favius Quintilianus. Such errors could lead one to grow suspicious of everything in the book. A suggestion for students to read Lysias' Against Agathos (74) might look plausible, but will cause only frustration (I suppose that this is a strange mutation of Against Agoratos). Similarly, the recommendation in a suggested writing topic to read Lyias' Against Ctesiphon (93) will challenge the student to figure out that Williams meant Lysias but then confuse the student when it is discovered that Aeschines wrote Against Ctesiphon. Compare an unmarked reference to Symposium (457), when the text is Xenophon's rather than Plato's. Chaeroneia is redated to 336 B.C. (96), which is not a typographical error because the following paragraph says "when Philip was assassinated later that year ..." But the fall of Constantinople in "1456" could be a typographical error (273). Citations and bibliographical entries for older works are particularly misleading, e.g., Botsford 2005 or Symonds 2002, when the books in question were published in 1909 and 1893 respectively. How is a student to learn about the development of the scholarly discussion when reprinting dates are used rather than publication dates? When Greek is printed, it is error-ridden, e.g., 53, 54, 430, 533.


1.   I would recommend Patricia P. Matsen, Philip Rollinson, and Marion Sousa, Readings from Classical Rhetoric (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), currently priced at $29.50. If you want to supplement the succinct and useful introductions in this text, you could add George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) for $35 or the English version of Laurent Pernot's Rhetoric in Antiquity (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005) for $27.95.

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