Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.24

Evangelos Alexiou (ed.), Der Euagoras des Isokrates: ein Kommentar. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 101.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. ix, 238.  ISBN 9783110229882.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Tomas Hägg, University of Bergen, Norway (


The Evagoras is one of Isocrates’ minor works in format (some 20 standard pages), but not in importance. It is, as he himself proudly announces, the first prose encomium on a contemporary individual. In addition to the self-referential literary discussion of the prologue and epilogue, it exhibits in exemplary fashion the symmetric rhetorical structure of an encomium, from genos to makarismos, that later theorists codified; and together with Xenophon’s Agesilaus it decisively influenced the nascent literary form, biography. Conscious of acting as a Pindar in prose, Isocrates also formulates here “the earliest explicit contrast between poetic and prosaic language”.1 With Evangelos Alexiou’s rigorous edition, offering a substantial introduction (1-49), a newly constituted text (51-64), and a detailed commentary (65-187), it finally receives the close interpretive attention it deserves.

The book under review is a revised and augmented version of the author’s Greek edition of 2005.2 He has brought it up to date bibliographically and also, according to the preface, used the opportunity to check, expand and improve his comments. The main difference in scope is that he does not supply a parallel translation of the Greek text into German to replace the one into Modern Greek of the earlier edition. This is a pity since a translation often conveys in the most economic way how an editor or commentator interprets his text. Since the Greek edition was fully reviewed in BMCR 2007.02.30, my description and characterization of the book will be less detailed than under different circumstances.

The introduction is evenly divided between topics of relevance to Isocrates generally and topics specific to the Evagoras. It all belongs together, however, for Alexiou’s main principle is “to explain Isocrates from Isocrates”, as he travesties the Aristarchan dictum on the interpretation of Homer. We are offered overviews of the encomiastic tradition and the relationship between poetry and rhetoric before Isocrates, of Isocrates’ Nachleben including the current revival of Isocratean studies, and of the rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric, between Plato and Isocrates.

The sections relating specifically to the Evagoras discuss Isocrates’ earlier encomia on Helena and Busiris, his educational and rhetorical ambitions in choosing for this third attempt a contemporary historical figure, the literary background in funeral speeches and choral poetry, and finally date, structure and manuscript tradition. What one misses is a corresponding mise à jour on the historical circumstances of the speech: What was the actual relationship between Isocrates and the Cypriot king that he eulogizes, and what do we know about King Evagoras as an historical figure, to use as a foil to the political and moral ideal constructed in the encomium? To judge from the commentary, Alexiou is well informed about the relevant historical research, but he obviously does not count prior knowledge of such matters necessary for the reader of the speech.

The edition of the Greek text is not based on any new collation of manuscripts, but (reasonably enough) just on the existing critical editions. It departs from the readings chosen in the recent Teubner edition of Mandilaras (2003) on fewer than thirty occasions (listed pp. 48f.), hardly any of which make any tangible difference in meaning.3 The critical apparatus at the bottom of the pages is selective and easy to use; it provides all the basic data needed when textual matters are discussed in the commentary.

As evident from the subtitle, Alexiou regards the commentary itself as the book’s most important part; and rightly so. It is a line-by-line commentary of traditional design. Isocrates’ speech is divided into larger structural units following Sykutris’ seminal study of 1927 (even the break before §66, rather than the more natural §65, is retained), and each unit is introduced by a succinct account of its main topics. A typical entry begins with discussion of textual matters, where Alexiou uses his intimate knowledge of Isocrates’ language, style and thought to argue for the readings adopted in his text. The evidence of the scholia is sometimes brought in, for both the constitution and the explication of the text. If needed, the entry continues with grammatical and phraseological comments, with generous quotation of parallels, mostly from the Isocratean corpus, and references to standard grammatical handbooks. The commentator does not, however, provide any rendering of whole clauses to help inexperienced readers; at the most, he translates separate words or expressions.

The typical entry passes on to what is the main focus of the commentary: literary-rhetorical, educational, ideological and sometimes religious issues. Isocrates’ creative use of the topoi of two distinct earlier traditions, the funeral oration (in particular, the Thucydidean epitaphios) and the poetic encomium, is carefully mapped. With regard to the rhetorical elucidation, there is special emphasis on Isocrates’ technique of auxēsis, “amplification”, attempting to distill his true position in literary or political matters from the verbal magnification. Examples are Isocrates’ deliberate exaggeration of the difference between prosaic and poetic encomium (§10, pp. 82-87) and (possibly) his claim, alone among our sources, that Cyrus the Great killed his maternal uncle Astyages (§38, pp. 122f.). All along, Alexiou uses to good effect his command of the Isocratean corpus as well as his extensive reading of modern scholarly literature, both manifested in copious references at every step of the explication.

As one would expect from the author of Ruhm und Ehre: Studien zu Begriffen, Werten und Motivierungen bei Isokrates,4 the discussion of abstract concepts such as philanthrōpia, philotimia and phthonos is one of the particular strengths of the commentary. One may mention the distinction between kleos, doxa and timē (pp. 71, 114), the definition of the Isocratean concepts of philosophia (pp. 80f.) and phronēsis (p. 130), the low status of andreia among Isocratean virtues (pp. 104f.), the various meanings of the term kairos (pp. 115f.), and philoponia,well paraphrased as “Schaffensfreude und systematischer Fleisch” (p. 175). The principle of explaining Isocrates from Isocrates generates the subtlest and most original semantic distinctions; but in many cases the history of the concept from Homer to the fourth century is also examined.

External historical evidence is adduced when it sheds light on the text, but less often and in a less detailed manner than this reviewer would have wished. Ancient historians are quoted more often than their modern counterparts. Sometimes there is just a bare reference to an archaeological report or historical investigation, where at least a short summary would have saved the user of the commentary much labour in finding the book or article in question. One cannot very well believe that Alexiou agrees with G.L. Cawkwell in whose opinion the Evagoras and the two other Cypriot orations “can hardly be much more than rhetorical excercises”,5 and thus only expects rhetorically interested users. At any rate, he shows admirably how much of interest and value there may be in such an “exercise”, if properly read.

The book ends with a list of literary works quoted in abbreviated form and excellent indexes of passages, names and subjects, and Greek words. The production is faultless. This is a commentary for scholars rather than beginners; but the aspiring serious student of Isocrates, with a fair knowledge of Greek and German, could do worse than start by reading the Evagoras with Alexiou as a guide, to find the whole corpus reflected in one of its smallest parts.


1.   Kenneth Dover.The Evolution of Greek Prose Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 96.
2.   Evangelos B. Alexiou. Ισοκράτης, Ευαγόρας. Ερμηνευτική έκδοση. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, 2005.
3.   In §3 he prefers εὐκλεῶς to εὐκόλως, §29 πρᾶξιν to πόλιν, §49 [τὴν νῆσον], §72 δαίμων θνητός.
4.   Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften 93; Heidelberg: Winter, 1995.
5.   The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), s.v. Isocrates.

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