Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.40

Peter A. O’Connell, The Rhetoric of Seeing in Attic Forensic Oratory. Ashley and Peter Larkin Series in Greek and Roman Culture.   Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 282.  ISBN 9781477311684.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Guy Westwood, Merton College, Oxford (


Peter O’Connell’s book is part of a flurry of recent scholarship on the performance aspects of classical Athenian oratory (previously an understudied area). Its concerns (and its treatment of them) both echo and complement those of other recent publications.1 Focused on a single theme (the persuasive potential of visualization techniques) and on a single genre (Athenian lawcourt oratory), it is a clearly argued, concise, and accessible work that makes a worthwhile contribution to the study of the specific phenomena it discusses and to our understanding of the persuasive strategies deployed in Classical Athenian trials in general.

O’Connell approaches the task of recapturing the elusive performance dimension of lawcourt oratory by studying the language of real and imagined sight in selected speeches from the large surviving corpus: that is, how litigants manipulate jurors’ (and audience members’) interpretations of the people and things that they actually see in court, and encourage them to visualize other people and things not physically present. His overall aim is to explore the persuasive possibilities of visual discourse, and his contention is essentially that it plays an important and dynamic role in this genre, something he demonstrates successfully. This demonstration comes from three main angles, reflected in the division of the bulk of the book into three parts. In each part, the argument proceeds mainly via the examination of a handful of related case-studies. Seven of the canonical ten orators feature in these (Lysias and Demosthenes predictably looming large); the endnotes frequently offer parallels for a given phenomenon in other speeches beyond those directly discussed.2 In Part 1 (chs. 1–2, pp. 25–79), O’Connell treats examples of how litigants capitalize on Athenian cultural assumptions about personal appearance and gesture in order to discredit their opponents or bolster their own credibility. Gesture (chapter 2) is particularly well handled—O’Connell concludes that speakers who conducted themselves in restrained, natural ways were most likely to succeed (pp. 60–1), but he makes the important allowance that more adventurous deportment was a choice that skilled orators could and did make to mark themselves out for a mass popular audience (pp. 67, 70, 78–9), a high- stakes manoeuvre because it offered rivals an attack route (pp. 68–74, 78). This is all reinforced by one of the most telling examples available, Aeschines 1.26 (supported by Demosthenes’ response in Dem. 19) (pp. 74–9). Part 2 (chs. 3–4, pp. 83–118) deepens the analysis. Chapter 3 carefully and accurately establishes ‘the Athenian preference for visual evidence’ that had been advertised in the Introduction (p. 7), and explores the range and application of the vocabulary of showing and seeing by which speakers typically encourage jurors to become quasi-witnesses to the events being described. Chapter 4 then shows how this all works out in practice. In Part 3 (chs. 5–6, pp. 121–68), perhaps the most interesting section of the book, O’Connell continues to apply the insights developed in Part 2 but now focuses on imaginary sight. Chapter 5 begins with a handy introduction to enargeia (pp. 124–7) and then deals with three main case-studies (from Aeschines 3, Demosthenes 19, and Lycurgus 1), all set pieces focusing on civic suffering where the plight of the Theban, Phocian, or Athenian citizens concerned becomes a means of engaging the emotions of the jurors and conferring quasi-witness status on them. All three case-study passages are treated with sensitivity, and there are some sharp individual observations (for example on the effect of word order, p. 133). This chapter also sees deft and illuminating use of scholia (e.g. pp. 134–5, cf. 142–3). Chapter 6 moves to explore examples both of speakers’ persuasive use of internal audiences as guides for the jurors’ own reactions and also, interestingly (and in the book’s most substantial case-study), of what orators (can) do when the conjuring up of an internal audience is ruled out by circumstantial factors: both Lysias’s client in Against Andocides and Andocides in On the Mysteries appeal to other aspects of civic experience (initiation at Eleusis; Andocides’ own noble ancestors) to guide jurors to the formation of mental images that will reflect badly or well on the defendant, as appropriate. By the Conclusion, we have a strong and varied sense of the potential of visualization techniques for effective rhetorical manipulation in Athenian trials.

Throughout the book, O’Connell pursues his arguments clearly, readably, logically, and with appropriate selection from the numerous examples available. The main questions that arise for this reviewer are about emphasis and balance. They are probably inevitable when the project is the surveying of a major theme in a large and diverse corpus, and the following points should not be read as detracting in any kind of fundamental way from the positive assessment offered so far.

A key strength of the book is its accessibility for readers unfamiliar with Attic forensic oratory as a genre—O’Connell explains numerous technical terms (e.g. bema and klepsydra at p. 14, diatyposis at p. 134), and the outline in the Introduction of what an Athenian court may have felt like (pp. 13–17) is not only helpful for such readers but also sets the scene for the argument in an effective way (the same goes for the occasional stimulating parallels with American trials: e.g. pp. 20–2, 25–6). Some valuable links with other Greek prose genres and authors (some of them non-oratorical) are also made and pursued, as for example with Thucydides 7 in chapter 6 (pp. 144–6). By setting aside space for these, O’Connell undoubtedly increases the book’s value as a contribution to the (so far largely piecemeal) scholarly exploration of the orators as figures alive to the rhetorical potential of exploiting a wide range of literary texts. But the book would have profited from more of this. Its compactness (which I realize may be partly a series requirement) is at once an asset (O’Connell is able to set things up, make his case cleanly, and conclude in 166 pages of main text) and a difficulty. Epideictic oratory makes two brief guest appearances (pp. 117 and 146–8), and there is even less about deliberative oratory (beyond pp. 59–60). It would have been valuable to know more about whether O’Connell thinks the dynamics he identifies in forensic oratory apply in these cognate genres to the same extent, and if not, why not. In a similar vein, further discussion would have been welcome on the issue of whether visual strategies are more appropriate to some types of legal action rather than others, and why (this is raised briefly a few times, e.g. p. 51). Some of the individual case-studies are also too cursory, and sometimes O’Connell gives a sense of how the themes of sight and visualization contribute to a particular speech’s overall rhetorical strategy without giving himself the space to elaborate. Another casualty in this area is the chance to give the reader more than a very brief sense of whether there are detectable differences between different orators’ practice in deploying visualization techniques (though see e.g. pp. 51 and 127), and why those might exist. One implication of O’Connell’s argument is that the rhetorical manipulation of sight and visualization gave orators particular scope to indulge their individual creativity to produce striking and memorable images for their audiences, but the opportunity to develop this aspect properly is not taken; and while O’Connell rightly points out that speakers clearly differ in their handling of these techniques (‘while manipulation of the jurors’ imaginations is a frequent tactic, all litigants and speechwriters approach it in a slightly different way’, p. 167), there is still a risk that the reader will take away an impression that the similarities between speakers’ treatments are much more important than the differences (‘the individual strategies I have discussed are all variations on the same theme, however’, p. 167 again). The aims of the techniques he describes would of course be broadly similar from litigant to litigant (i.e. seeking a condemnation or an acquittal), but it would be essential for the task of successful persuasion that the means of delivery were distinctive enough to engage the jurors, who would know the usual techniques, would be on the look-out for them, and would be able to see through them if they were not packaged compellingly. The speech synopses in O’Connell’s useful Appendix (pp. 175–89) would have profited from a little more detail on questions of authenticity and genuineness, as the catalogue includes some speeches whose authenticity has been questioned (Lys. 6, 9, 20, 23; Dem. 42, 43, 47, 48) and one, pseudo-Demosthenes 25 (p. 179, featured in the main text at pp. 46–7), which is still widely regarded as unlikely to be a genuine product of the fourth century.3 The discussion of the status of the extant speech texts, in the Introduction (pp. 7–8), could also have been both fuller and more precise (e.g. our texts are ‘records of…actual court performances’ (p. 7, cf. p. 3) only in the rather loose sense that most represent speeches made at real trials). Finally, and on a more minor issue, O’Connell misses the opportunity for further comment on the intriguing verb peri(h)oran, which he features briefly in one of his chapter 5 case-studies (drawing it from Dem. 19.64, mentioned at p. 133). It often appears in rhetorical contexts where there is (or was) an identifiable or implied internal audience of people who could suffer, did suffer, or could have suffered as a result of the external audience’s decision now or in the past,4 and some further discussion of the phenomenon would have helped to reinforce O’Connell’s case in Part 3.

These points aside, though, this book should be welcomed as an articulate, thought-provoking exploration of a fascinating and rich topic not hitherto treated in the synoptic compass that O’Connell offers us here. It will be of interest to a wide readership.

Production quality is high and the book is easy to use. Typographical and other minor errors are quite rare. I detected one each on pp. xi, 1, 15, 44, 75, 77, 111, 113, 163, 197, 221, 228, and 250, and two on p. 239.


1.   Most recently A. Serafim, Attic Oratory and Performance (London; New York, 2017) and S. Papaioannou et al. (eds.), The Theatre of Justice: Aspects of Performance in Greco-Roman Oratory and Rhetoric (Leiden/Boston, 2017). J. Hall, Cicero’s Use of Judicial Theater (Ann Arbor, 2014) offers interesting cross-cultural comparison.
2.   O’Connell has himself offered a further, complementary, case-study in a recent freestanding article: ‘The Rhetoric of Visibility and Invisibility in Antiphon 5, On the Murder of Herodes’, Classical Quarterly 66 (2016): 46–58.
3.   O’Connell endorses [Dem.] 25’s authenticity in two brief footnotes (p. 201, n. 82; p. 214, n. 5). Both of the scholars he cites (D. M. MacDowell and G. Martin) are inclined to accept the speech at least as a genuine fourth-century product, but the long history (and present reality) of scholarly disquiet probably needed some acknowledgement. E. M. Harris will argue against a fourth-century genesis for either of the Against Aristogeiton speeches in his forthcoming volume Demosthenes 23–26 (Austin, 2018); see also R. Sealey in Appendix 2 of Demosthenes and His Time (New York; Oxford, 1993), pp. 237–9.
4.   See e.g. Dem. 9.29, 16.25 (twice), 18.99, 19.84. A good vivid example of an allied visual technique—the conjuring of an internal audience who will criticize or blame the external audience later if they make a bad decision in this case, like the angry dead mentioned by O’Connell (p. 166)—is the quotation from an Assembly speech by Cydias given by Aristotle in Rhetoric Book 2 (1384b32–5).

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