Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.37

Dino Piovan, Memoria e oblio della guerra civile: strategie giudiziarie e racconto del passato in Lisia. Studi e testi di storia antica, 19.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2011.  Pp. 356.  ISBN 9788846728258.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Thomas Blank, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (


Adapting to the audience belongs to the most crucial prerequisites of successful rhetoric. For the authors of logographic speeches this prerequisite expands towards adapting to the specific speaker as well. Logographic writing, therefore, is confronted with the need to mediate between the speaker’s and the audience’s diverging individual and collective identities. In this study of Lysias’ representation of the Athenian ‘civil war’ (405-403 BCE), Dino Piovan carefully examines the adaptation of Lysian argumentation to the sensitivities of specific audiences and speakers. How can a litigant assail the outrages and crimes of the ‘Thirty’, if a considerable part of the judges belong to the profiteers of their regime? How show respect for their position or even argue in their favor if, on the other hand, the majority possibly belongs to the former democratic 'Piraeus party'? Questions like these stand behind Piovan’s study, whose most important goal consists in integrating Lysias’ rhetorical measures into a context of Athenian civic reconciliation and the generation of a new civic identity in the aftermath of civil war. Working with and constructing ‘collective memories’, therefore, belongs to the central paradigms of Piovan’s approach (pp. 12-13). The answers Piovan formulates in the course of his study and the rhetorical strategies he uncovers in Lysias’ speeches are, to be upfront with it, mostly convincing, generally thought-provoking, and of interest not only for the scholar of Lysian rhetoric, but for everyone investigating in the public construction of historical identities.

The book is introduced by a foreword (p. 3), list of abbreviations (pp. 5-8) and introductory remarks on the state of Lysian scholarship and the outline of the study (pp. 9-14). Lysias’ orations are analyzed in the four main chapters of the book (pp. 15-304). Single orations are given diverging attention depending on the importance of civil war in their argumentation (cf. pp. 12-14). The first three chapters comprise a single oration each. In Chapters One (Lys. or. XII: Against Eratosthenes, pp. 15-94) and Two (Lys. or. XIII: Against Agoratus, pp. 95-179) Piovan examines speeches written for clients belonging to the former democratic ‘Piraeus party’, whereas the oration discussed in Chapter Three (Lys. or. XXV: Defence Against a Charge of Subverting Democracy, pp. 181-230) argues in favour of a former supporter of oligarchy. Chapter Four (pp. 231-304) focuses on several speeches that were either written for lawsuits dealing with aspects of the civil war (Lys. or. XXXI: Against Philo, pp. 233-246; Lys. or. XVI: For Mantitheos, pp. 246-252; Lys. or. XXVI: On the Scrutiny of Evandrus, pp. 252-260) or involve arguments referring to these events (Lys. or. XXX: Against Nicomachus, pp. 261-279; Lys. or. XVIII: On the Confiscation of the Property of the Brother of Nicias, pp. 279-286; Lys. or. II: Funeral Oration, pp. 286-304). The most important conclusions of these chapters are recapitulated in the final chapter (pp. 305-312). The book closes with bibliographical references (pp. 313-343), indices (pp. 343-354) and table of content (pp. 355-356). The single studies all follow the same order. In prefatory chapters Piovan addresses scholarly debates about the general character of the respective oration insofar as they are relevant to the analysis. Among these discussions are questions of authenticity, status and legal procedure (e.g. pp. 95-106, where Piovan negates the distinction of ἀπαγωγή κακουργίας and ἀ. φόνου as two different legal cases in Lysias’ time), social rank and political position of the persons involved etc. The actual study of civil-war argumentation is placed in the second part of each chapter.

According to Piovan, Lysias constructs a narrative of the civil-war years that is not only simplifying (as would be any rhetorical account of such a complex period), but generally tends to downplay the entanglement of the ‘Three Thousand’, who had maintained their status as citizens in 404 BCE, while at the same time demonizing the Thirty themselves. This goes hand in hand with a suppression of the role of aristocracy’s paragon, Sparta, in ending the civil war (pp. 63-65). This simplistic narrative can be understood as a political effort to reconcile the civil-war factions with each other without disremembering civil war itself (p. 94). At the same time, it can be understood in a more immediate way: as rhetorical concession to the fact that juries in Athenian lawsuits after 403 BCE consisted of members of both these factions. In downplaying the responsibility of the Three Thousand, Lysias offers a narrative that allows them to dissociate from the Thirty and not feel addressed by Lysias’ attacks against the oligarchic regime (e.g. pp. 37-42).

Even though this general approach can be seen in any of the orations discussed by Piovan (p. 310), the specific course of argumentation is shown to be very different depending on both the nature of the judicial case and the speaker’s personal involvement in one of the factions. In speeches in which Lysias (or his client) accuses his opponent of having taken part in the persecutions under the oligarchy, he insinuates an all-embracing conspiracy driven by the heads of the Thirty. The conspirators are assigned the role of ‘scapegoats’ (pp. 168-174, 305-307), which implicitly exculpates all other parts of the Athenian civic society and notably the Three Thousand. This ‘conspiracy theory’ becomes especially obvious in the orations Against Eratosthenes and Against Agoratus. In Against Eratosthenes (Chapter One: pp. 37-94) the leaders of the oligarchy, Theramenes in particular, are blamed not only for their role during their regime, but also for causing the catastrophic defeat of **Aegospotami** (pp. 42- 48), for deliberately prolonging peace negotiations with Sparta, for thus forcing the Athenians to submit to even the harshest peace terms, and for the condemnation of democratic leaders such as Cleophon who opposed these terms (pp. 75-90) – all in order to secure the overthrow of the democracy. Lysias tries to prove the culprit’s involvement in this conspiracy by juxtaposing him and the oligarchs (Critias: pp. 48-59, Pheidon: pp. 59-65, Theramenes: pp. 75-90). Compared with the conspirators, even the Three Thousand are depicted as rather democratic in their views (pp. 61-62). Lysias’ strategy in Against Agoratus (Chapter Two: pp. 95-179) consists in arguing that the culprit willingly betrayed the names of the members of a democratic counter-conspiracy (pp. 151-163) to the oligarchs. Piovan succeeds in showing how this charge, weak as it is given the forcible detention of Agoratus and his later presence at Phyle, is integrated within a narrative of conspiracy very similar to the story told in Against Eratosthenes (pp. 123-145). Piovan unravels Lysias’ reframing of the trial against Cleophon and his supporters as part of the conspiracy by picturing their refusal to accept the Spartan peace terms as an attempt to save democracy (123-134, 154). The culprit’s alleged support of this persecution is thus presented as anti-democratic. In Defence Against a Charge of Subverting Democracy (pp. 195-230) Lysias supports a former partisan of the Thirty. Chapter Three (pp. 179-230) explains the way in which the measures Lysias takes to argue the case of his client differ from the speeches mentioned before. The whole period of civil war is treated less as a conflict of combating ideologies, less as struggle for the political regime, but as a period in which the citizen’s pursuit of their private interest led to violent hostilities (pp. 195-204, 228). The trials of 405/404 BCE, formerly depicted as part of the oligarchic ‘conspiracy’, are here said to have been reasonable measures to confront the troubles effected by the litigious activities of ‘sycophants’ – the ‘scapegoats’ of this oration (pp. 218-219). The Three Thousand, among whom the defendant is to be counted, are said to have supported the Thirty in these trials, but not in the later outrages (pp. 209-219). By claiming there had been a shift of allegiance among the Three-Thousand during the year 404, Piovan argues, the speaker tries to prove that oligarchy had never been the Three-Thousand’s goal in supporting the Thirty (pp. 205-208, 215-217). Less persuasive seem the interpretations conducted in Chapter Four (pp. 230-304). Here Piovan examines several orations, in which civil war plays a considerable but not dominant role. The coincidences he tries to establish between these orations and those of Chapters One to Three (‘conspiracy theory’: Lys. or XXX and or. XVIII, pp. 269-286, 305, inculpation of sycophants: Lys. or. XVI, pp. 246-252, 308) seem rather sporadic. Altogether, comparison of the orations examined in this chapter seems first and foremost helpful in substantiating the notion that the specific circumstances of a given oration have major influence on its argumentation.

Throughout the analysis, Piovan adduces parallel sources – most frequently from Xenophon, Aristotle, Antiphon and Isocrates – to compare them to Lysias’ narratives. Piovan, on the whole, succeeds in pointing out in which parts of the narrative Lysias’ interpretation of history can be regarded as either pure fiction, as deliberate reinterpretation of actual events, or as resulting from ideas circulating in the Athenian public. Here Piovan’s study can contribute many details to the understanding of the chain of events leading from Aegospotami to the regime of the Thirty and then to the democratic restoration in 403 BCE, as well as to understanding the ways in which these events were condensed to collective memory in the years after.

While the general outline of Piovan’s interpretations seems most convincing, there are some individual arguments that are difficult to follow. There is no reason, for example, to believe that in the Funeral Oration Lysias could have hinted at the whole theory of ‘conspiracy’ developed in other speeches by simply negating the alleged “κακία” of the generals at Aegospotami (pp. 295- 298). Several arguments are based on the assumption that ideas promulgated by Isocrates among his students were mediated into Diodorus’ Bibliotheca via Ephorus’ writings (pp. 67-68, 83-84, 125-126, 309-310) – yet the premise of this assumption (Ephorus a student of Isocrates) should be reassessed in the light of recent studies.1 The discussion of For Mantitheos includes an e-silentio speculation that the defendant’s absence from Athens in 405 BCE might have been motivated by dissent from democracy (pp. 249-250). Insufficient evidence is furnished also for the assumption that in On the Dokimasia of Evandrus the plaintiff had to resort to events from 411 BCE in the absence of charges against Evandrus in 405-403 BCE (pp. 254- 256). Somewhat startling is the tendency to employ comparisons between Lysias and examples from modern history. Notwithstanding Piovan’s cautious prefatory remarks in this regard (p. 14), these comparisons compromise what would otherwise be perfectly plausible arguments (e.g. pp. 47-48 n. 63: Lysias’ account as ‘stab-in-the-back legend’, 72: Theramenes vs. Vichy-France, 73 n. 103: Critias/Theramenes as Robespierre/Danton, 276: Athenian politicians vs. US governments during the Vietnam and Iraq wars). This becomes most obvious in a comparison of Theramenes’ political outlook in conjunction with Critias and the common perception of Franz von Papen’s cooperation with Hitler in 1933 as similar attempts to tame radicalism (p. 88 n. 116). In another example (p. 92), the term ‘conspiracy theory’, after being convincingly introduced as a hermeneutical tool, is flawed by a comparison with the notorious ‘conspiracy theories’ after 9/11, which obviously do not have too much in common with the ‘conspiracy’ Lysias insinuates.

These critical remarks, however, do not reduce the importance of Piovan’s general interpretations, especially as argued in Chapters One to Three. This insightful and, by the way, neatly produced book can be of great value for everyone interested in the rhetorical shaping of identities and in the history of Athens at the turn of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.


1.   Pessimistic towards the biographical sources: Michael A. Flower: Theopompus of Chios, Oxford 1994, 42- 62, Phillip Harding: Androtion and the Atthis, Oxford 1994, 17-18, Kai Trampedach: Platon, die Akademie und die zeitgenössische Politik, Stuttgart 1994, 125-131. In pp. 66-69 Piovan himself argues that the assumption of a Theramenian ‘party’ in Athens after 403 BC – Werner Jaeger’s premise in framing Isocrates as a ‘Theramenian’ (HSPh Suppl. I, 1940, 409-450) – could not be upheld.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2012
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 21:34:16, Monday, 23 January 2012