Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.06.25

Gunther Martin, Divine Talk: Religious Argumentation in Demosthenes. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. ix, 345.  ISBN 9780199560226.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Jeremy Trevett, York University, Toronto (


In this book, a revised version of his Oxford DPhil thesis, Gunther Martin explores the use of religious arguments in the speeches of Demosthenes and some of his contemporaries. His aim is to examine how and why such arguments were deployed, rather than use the speeches as evidence for what the Athenians "really believed". This is the first extensive discussion of religion in the speeches of the Attic orators, and breaks interesting new ground.

The book is organized into two parts, each with its own introduction and conclusion. The first, and longer, part (chapters 1-5) deals with speeches for public trials (graphai), the second part (chapters 6-9) with deliberative speeches and speeches for private suits (dikai).

Within Part I, Martin discusses first (chapters 1-3) the three long speeches that Demosthenes delivered in person (Dem. 18, 19, 20); then (chapter 4) three speeches that he wrote for others (Dem. 22-24); and finally (chapter 5) a number of speeches by other orators (the unknown author of ps. Lysias 6 Against Andocides, Aeschines and Lycurgus). In Part II he deals with Demosthenes' deliberative speeches (chapter 6) and his quasi-deliberative speech Against Leptines (Dem. 20) (chapter 7). The last two chapters cover speeches in private suits: oaths and other ritual acts in chapter 8 and "non-probative arguments" in chapter 9.

Martin offers a series of careful and well-researched analyses of the use of religious arguments in the speeches that he discusses. But beyond this he argues for significant distinctions in practice according to genre and author, as follows. First, religious argumentation is more prominent in forensic than in deliberative speeches (epideictic oratory is barely considered). Second, within forensic oratory it is more prevalent in speeches for public trials than in those for private suits. Third, among Demosthenes' speeches for public trials, those that he delivered himself stand out for their lack of religious argumentation, whereas those that he wrote for others make substantial use of such arguments, as do speeches for public trials written by other orators.

Martin's discussion of public forensic speeches is generally convincing. He is correct to observe that Demosthenes as speaker makes little use of religious arguments, even when he addresses religious issues and where the scope for religious argumentation is clearly present. Conduct that could have been evaluated in religious terms is interpreted instead in socio-political ones. Thus in Dem. 21 Demosthenes characterizes his opponent Midias' attack on him at the City Dionysia as an antisocial rather than an impious action. Similarly in Dem. 18 his opponent Aeschines' youthful involvement in an arguably disreputable cult (of Sabazius?) is treated as a mark of his low social standing, rather than as a matter of religious offence. Insofar as Demosthenes as speaker engages in religious argumentation, he does so in self-defence, in response to such arguments on the part of his opponent. By contrast, the speeches for public trials that he wrote for others make extensive use of religious arguments. Thus, for example, the speech Against Aristocrates (Dem. 23) deals at length with the religious aspects of Athens' homicide law. The same is also true of the speeches that other orators wrote for public trials.

Martin's conclusion, that religious arguments were routinely used in public trials, but that Demosthenes as litigant chose to avoid them, is certainly consistent with the evidence, but it should be noted that the sample sizes are very small. In chapters 1-4 he bases his argument on six speeches that Demosthenes wrote for public trials -- three that he delivered in person and three that he wrote for others. Even one counter-example would substantially weaken his conclusion. For this reason the extended discussion in chapter 5 (pp. 182-202) of the authorship of a seventh speech, Against Aristogiton I (Dem. 25), takes on considerable importance. This speech contains substantial, and somewhat idiosyncratic, religious argumentation, but cannot be shown on either stylistic or other grounds not to be by Demosthenes. Martin concludes that Demosthenes indeed wrote the speech, but for someone else to deliver. It therefore belongs to the category of speeches in which extensive religious argumentation is to be expected. This may be correct, but in arguing that the speech's vehement religious argumentation is un-Demosthenic Martin is in danger of assuming what he is trying to prove.1

Turning to deliberative oratory, Martin observes that in Demosthenes' speeches to the Athenian assembly there is very little religious argumentation. The same is also true of his speech Against Leptines (Dem. 20), which, Martin argues, is quasi-deliberative in its focus on the merits of the law that Leptines had proposed rather than on the person of its proposer. Since we lack deliberative speeches by any of Demosthenes' contemporaries, it is hard to say whether or not his avoidance of religious arguments was typical of the genre. To answer this question, Martin turns to representations of Athenian political speeches in literary texts, primarily Thucydides and Aristophanes, but these prove predictably hard to evaluate. He concludes nevertheless that the lack of religious argumentation was typical of the genre: "it seems that in a large part of the debate the gods did not really matter" (p. 292).

This claim seems contestable, especially in view of Martin's earlier conclusion that Demosthenes differed from his contemporaries in avoiding religious arguments as a speaker in public trials. Can we be sure that he was not similarly exceptional -- for whatever reason -- in his deliberative speeches? On the contrary, it seems to me positively likely that he would have sought to present a consistent persona whenever he spoke as a political figure, i.e. both as a litigant in public trials and as a politician before the assembly. If we had even a single speech to the assembly by Aeschines or Lycurgus, we might well have a quite different picture of the parameters of deliberative oratory. Moreover, we do not have a random sample of deliberative speeches: all of Demosthenes' surviving speeches are concerned with foreign policy matters. Other topics for debate may have lent themselves to a greater use of religious argumentation. In addition, the absence of religious arguments in both Thucydides and Demosthenes may indicate not so much the operation of a convention of deliberative oratory -- that debate be conducted on a "rational" basis without consideration of the gods -- as the influence, direct or indirect, of Thucydides on Demosthenes, and a conscious attempt by the latter to make himself a "Thucydidean" speaker.2 In any case, Martin's use of the speeches in Thucydides as evidence for what was actually said in the Athenian assembly ("So Thucydides seems to represent Athenian practice accurately", p. 222) is insufficiently cautious: the issue needs a more thorough examination than is provided here, especially in view of its importance to the overall argument. The use of Aristophanes seems equally questionable, albeit for different reasons. In short, the evidence that Martin has collected could equally (and in my view more likely does) support a different conclusion: that the eschewal of religious arguments is a distinctive feature of Demosthenes' self-presentation as a rhetor, both in the speeches that he delivered in public trials and in his speeches to the assembly.

Leaving the deliberative speeches to one side, the question remains, why did Demosthenes avoid religious argumentation in the three long speeches that he delivered in public trials, when other orators did not? In the conclusion to Part I, entitled "The Importance of the Individual", Martin correctly insists that this is a deliberate choice on Demosthenes' part, but hesitates to ascribe a motive. Perhaps, he speculates (p. 215), he lacked the religious authority that other orators had through membership of a priestly family or the holding of priesthoods, or perhaps it was part of his persona of "pragmatic politician". Martin considers, but does not endorse, the possibility that Demosthenes simply had a distaste for religious arguments.3 It remains unclear, therefore, and is surely unknowable, whether we are dealing with personal preference or artful self-portrayal. Likewise, the greater prominence of religious argumentation in speeches for public trials than in those for private suits requires explanation (see the conclusion to Part II, "The Influence of the Genre"). Martin tentatively suggests that the use of such arguments served to raise the stakes, and that it formed part of the aggression commonly shown towards opponents in such speeches. In private suits, by contrast, it was harder for litigants to convince the jurors that they had a strong collective interest in the outcome. As he concedes (p. 300), it is easier for us to discern patterns than to explain them. Nevertheless, the apparent association of religious arguments with heightened emotion and personal attack must have some bearing on our view of the place of religion in Athenian society; it would be interesting to know what Martin makes of it.

The book's general aim is to categorize and draw distinctions, but at times there is a tendency towards reductive polarization. For instance on the very first page the reader is offered a view of scholars who work on Athenian religion being divided into two sides -- those who see the gods everywhere, and those who view the Athenians as making their decisions on "rational" grounds without significant reference to the gods. This is surely too schematic, even though Martin himself avoids either of these extreme positions. I wonder also what view of mid-fourth-century Athenian politics is presupposed by a division between "a conservative political group" and "the 'more democratic' faction" (p. 121), or indeed what it means to call Demosthenes a "committed democrat" (p. 122). On both these issues a more nuanced approach is called for.

Although the argument of the book is generally clear, I fear that its style is often clumsy and unidiomatic, and it is all too apparent that English is not the author's first language. Sentences such as "Instead, he speaks only about the impossibility of excluding that there may once be a tyrant again." (p. 248) or "So vilification of the political opponent, including abuse implying religious ideas, was inappropriate for the occasion." (p. 249) are far more common than they should be, especially in a book published by a leading university press. The cumulative effect of such infelicities is wearisome, and one wishes that both the publisher and the author's advisors had done more to help produce a more readable book.

In conclusion, Martin has produced a thoroughly researched and original study of the ways in which Athenian orators argued on the basis of religion. His conclusions are thought-provoking and, even though some may find them overly schematic, deserve careful consideration.


1.   Martin's discussion of the identity of the speaker of Against Aristocrates (pp. 118-127) is vulnerable to the same criticism of circularity. The speech was written, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, for a certain Euthycles, but the biographical information in it fits with what we know of Demosthenes' life. Martin argues that the speech was not delivered by Demosthenes, largely on the ground that it contains extensive religious argumentation.
2.   See H. Yunis, Taming Democracy: Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens (Ithaca and London 1996) 268-277; G. Mader, "Dramatizing didaxis: aspects of Demosthenes' 'Periclean' project", Classical Philology 102 (2007) 155-79.
3.   Martin rather assumes (e.g. p. 213) that the speeches that Demosthenes delivered reflect his own thoughts more than do those that he wrote for others. This may, but need not, be true.

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