BMCR 2000.12.01

Greek Oratory: Tradition and Originality

, Greek oratory : tradition and originality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xi, 388 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198150741. $95.00.

Stephen Usher (U.) has been making valuable contributions to the study of Greek oratory for more than 30 years. Some highlights include his response to Dover’s Lysias and the Corpus Lysiacum,1 where he makes a strong argument against Dover for independent authorship of speeches by logographers, and his excellent Loeb edition of the rhetorical works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.2 The present book doesn’t always live up to the high standards of these earlier works.

This book surveys almost all of the existing works of the Attic orators. It begins with a chapter on early rhetorical theory and then considers each orator individually, moving chronologically from Antiphon to Hyperides. Within his discussions of each author, U. surveys the existing speeches one-by-one in chronological sequence.3 The works of Isocrates are divided into two groups: the earlier logographic material is considered between Lysias and Isaeus, while the later epideictic pieces are discussed after Aeschines. There is a separate chapter on “Ceremonial Oratory” which discusses the Funeral Orations and two appendices on (1) the date and authenticity of the Antiphontean Tetralogies and (2) Gorgias’ Palamedes. U. provides a helpful glossary of Greek terms, mostly rhetorical, and a bibliography with sections for each orator. For reference there is an index of speeches discussed in addition to a general index.

U.’s approach is different from that of George Kennedy in his survey of Greek oratory.4 Kennedy provides more information about the careers of the orators and has a fuller discussion of rhetorical theory. U. focuses on the development of rhetorical technique. He examines speeches individually, highlighting rhetorical topoi and methods of argument.

The introductory chapter considers the rhetorical models available to the writers of the earliest extant Attic orations, including the Tetralogies and Athenian drama written prior to 421. The following chapters devoted to the various orators consist of analyses of individual speeches. For each speech, U. identifies the rhetorical figures and techniques employed with an eye toward what is innovative. He concludes his treatment of each orator with a summary that assesses their most significant contributions to the genre. For Antiphon he highlights the appearance of narrative as a distinct speech-section. Andocides had a lively narrative style and made new use of direct speech. Lysias’ speeches featured vivid characterizations and added more variety and pathos to narratives. Isaeus broke away from traditional speech structure by interspersing multiple narratives and arguments. Demosthenes skillfully combined standard prooemia topics and introduced a distinctive prose style. Aeschines wrote colorful personal narratives. Isocrates created his own genre and was a master of prose style. Lycurgus was the first to give great authority to poets in his speeches. Hyperides abandoned traditional speech structure.

U. has given attention to many speeches that are often overlooked. In fact, many of these shorter speeches get more space proportionally and closer attention to detail than the better-known longer orations.5 Since his survey covers nearly all of the works of the orators that have been preserved, it is a bit surprising that U. excludes a handful of speeches. U. doesn’t explicitly state why he has chosen to omit these works. Most of these omissions are either of speeches that are probably not authentic, such as And. 4, or of fragmentary speeches. Thus, for example, he doesn’t discuss Dem. 7, which is almost certainly a product of the fourth century even if it’s not by Demosthenes,6 nor does he even mention the important fragment of the speech spoken by Antiphon in his defense after the overthrow of the Four Hundred or the two-page fragment of Lysias’ Olympic speech.7 But on the other hand he does discuss Lys. 7, although he had earlier deemed the speech suspect8 and he also includes other speeches that he admits are of questionable authenticity (113).

Students interested in the rhetorical aspects of a particular lesser-known speech will appreciate these specific and up-to-date discussions of so many orations. But taken as a whole the chapters don’t seem very cohesive. Aside from brief (usually one or two pages) introductions and concluding summaries, they consist entirely of analysis of particular speeches. A significant amount of that discussion is spent paraphrasing their content. U. doesn’t attempt to situate these discussions into any kind of broader argument. He. does highlight noteworthy innovations as they come up, but these aren’t discussed at much length. In the chapter on Aeschines, for example, U. observes that in Aesch. 1.148-152 there is a new twist in the use of biographical proof and that a different sort of pathos emerges as a result (286). In Aesch. 3.152-157 U. notices an unusual juxtaposition of the two epideictic elements of eulogy and invective (291-2). Apart from occasional observations such as these, most of the discussion considers the speeches on their own terms without incorporating much other material in the discussion. If readers want to trace the development of the use of biographical proof, for example, to see what makes the usage at Aesch. 1.148-152 innovative, they will need to use the index to connect U.’s discussions of the topos throughout the book.

Admittedly, Aeschines is one of the later orators included in the book, and, as one might expect, U. is able to find more examples of innovative techniques in earlier material. But there too U. often points out these items9 very quickly, and he doesn’t acknowledge the fact that much of the material relevant to his inquiry may not have survived. Still, the chapters on the earlier orators are more likely to consider broader issues. For example, at his observation of the first occurrence of a historical example, U. has a good note on paradeigmata and how they are used in various types of speeches (38 n. 42).

In that note U. refers to the “artificiality of his [Aristotle’s] deliberative/forensic/epideictic trichotomy.” This description highlights another aspect of U.’s approach. Although he arranges his study according to whether speeches are logographic, symbouleutic, or ceremonial (epideictic), he doesn’t adhere to strict definitions of these boundaries. The chapter on “Demosthenes Symboulos” includes speeches from the dikasteria “concerning legislation, public behavior and public finance” (191 n. 78), and Hyperides’ Funeral Oration is not discussed with the other epitaphioi in the “Ceremonial Oratory” chapter “because it is starkly different from them” (335). U.’s decision to step over these boundaries raises important questions, and one would like to hear more about the differences and similarities found in speeches according to whether they were delivered in the Assembly, the courts, or on ceremonial occasions. Did Demosthenes employ different techniques in the law-courts as opposed to the Assembly? How do those sorts of speeches compare with his epitaphios?10 U. sometimes points to the use of rhetorical devices to bolster cases that probably had weak legal grounding,11 but his main focus is always literary. He doesn’t give much attention to the historical or political contexts of these speeches.

U.’s work will perhaps be most useful to those who are interested in the history of particular rhetorical figures in Attic oratory. One could use U.’s index to locate easily, for example, more than a dozen instances of “hypothetical inversion” in fifth and fourth-century speeches. The general index is a very important tool in a book of this sort, and random checks of the references that are listed there find very few errors. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect an index to meet all the needs of every reader, but there are some surprising inconsistencies in this work. A number of important rhetorical topoi are discussed but don’t have entries in the index.12 Many of the items that are indexed do not list all of the references.13 A careful eye on the index while reading the last third of the book found dozens of similar omissions, including many proper names.14 Along similar lines, there are a few places where cross-references would be very helpful for those who are only dipping into the book. For example, there are two separate notes on apragmosyne, providing overlapping, but not identical, bibliographic references, separated by 80 pages, with no references to each other (11 n. 33 and 91 n. 134). Two notes on sycophants also cover much of the same ground and should be cross-referenced (265 n. 73 and 317 n. 81). At one point an abbreviated reference is given to an article that was last mentioned 40 pages before and does not appear in the bibliography or list of abbreviations (101 n. 163).

These sorts of minor problems detract from the value of this otherwise useful survey. Because this book is essentially a rhetorical commentary on individual orations, many readers will probably focus in detail on small portions of the work, and they will also notice other problems in points of detail.

In his close readings of individual speeches U. frequently quotes Greek to illustrate rhetorical usages. The reader should be warned that many of these quotations are not accurate. This reviewer noticed dozens of cases where material, ranging from a single word to entire clauses, was left out of a quotation, usually without any indication (e.g., 5 n. 14, 32 n. 20, 310 n. 158). Fortunately, many of these omissions don’t bear on U.’s discussion of the passages in question.15 But too often the omitted words are needed to make sense of the passage.16 The number of other mistakes in the Greek is disturbing, especially in a book published by Oxford.17 Some of these mistakes are immaterial to U.’s points, but others will cause confusion for the reader, who must constantly double-check all of U.’s Greek quotations.

Readers will also occasionally have difficulty locating the material to which U. refers, since many of his references to primary sources are inexact. These aren’t usually confusing, since the references are usually not too far off (e.g., 5 n. 14: Pl. Crat. 391b should be 391c; 219 n. 175: 35, not 36). The only such mistake that is likely to cause confusion, no doubt due to a simple typo, is the reference to a sentence from Isoc. 4.107-9 as being from “177-9” (300 n. 20). It can also be frustrating for a reader when a passage is quoted or translated without a specific citation (e.g., 46 n. 15, where a short passage from Andoc. 1.19-20 is quoted without a reference as part of a discussion of sections 19-24).

U.’s references to secondary material throughout the text are very thorough, and the end-bibliographies provide a useful summary of the most important work on each orator. Perhaps the most significant omission occurs when (244 n. 1) U. explains that issues such as “technical competence” and “literary worth” are all the more important when considering the authenticity of Demosthenic works because of the absence of a “scientific examination of objective criteria,” presumably along the lines of the study U. himself and D. Najock have conducted into the Lysianic corpus.18 U. seems to be unaware of the work of Donald McCabe, who has compiled careful statistics for each speech in the Demosthenic corpus individually.19 In his treatment of individual speeches there are also some omissions. Students may be interested in Pearson’s Demosthenes commentary,20 since it is the only available English commentary for a number of the speeches that U. discusses. U. does refer to S. C. Todd’s The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford, 1993), on specific points, but he should mention that the case studies that introduce chapters 10 to 15 provide useful general discussions of the legal issues of several Lysianic speeches. In his discussions of particular points some additions might also be made. U. notes the discussion of Dem. 37 in Finley’s Studies in Land and Credit in Ancient Athens, 500-200BC, but instead of sending readers to a 1973 reprint of the original edition (249 n. 19) he should refer to the revised 1985 edition with a new introduction by P. Millett. U.’s consideration of the strength of Demosthenes’ case in the De Corona (273) should note E. M. Harris’ lucid analysis of the legal issues.21 U. points out that Isocrates’ Evagoras “heads most surveys of ancient biography,” beginning with Brun’s 1896 survey in German. Readers may find Momigliano’s survey more accessible.22 Finally, when U. refers to G. Bartolini’s Iperide (Padua, 1977) in a note about editions of the fragments of Hyperides (338 n. 40), the reader may get the impression that this work is an edition of the text, when in fact it is an annotated bibliography. There are a number of mistakes in bibliographic details, and readers should be very cautious about repeating U.’s citations without double-checking them.23

In addition to problems noted above, there are other indications of poor proof-reading: inconsistent formatting of citations (e.g., 62 n. 30, 103 n. 169), extra spaces added to the middle of words (19: “hypostas is”) or left out between references (91: “3,9”), several instances of mismatched parentheses (e.g., 2 n. 4, 155 n. 92, 277 n. 113), incorrect capitalization (338 n. 40) or failure to capitalize abbreviations (322 n. 94), and finally the running-together of two footnotes with an indeterminable amount of material lost from both (187 nn. 60-61).

I would recommend the book, or at least sections of it, to students who are interested in rhetoric in Attic oratory, especially undergraduates who are new to the genre. They will find U.’s glossary of terms very helpful with unfamiliar terminology. Those who are interested in particular rhetorical techniques and those who are reading speeches that haven’t received much recent attention will be most benefitted by this book. Such an audience might hope for the preparation of a corrected edition with an expanded index.


1. “Lysias and his Clients,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 17 (1976) 31-40.

2. Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Critical Essays (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1974-1985), in two volumes.

3. In the case of Lysias, at least, the order of treatment is not strictly chronological: U. dates Lys. 32 “with reasonable certainty to the end of the fifth century” (80) but discussion of 30, from 399, comes earlier; Lys. 7 is from 397 or 396, according to U. (88), but discussed after Lys. 14, which was composed “perhaps not long after the campaign season of 395” (85).

4. George Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton, 1963). This work has been revised and abridged to form part of A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton, 1994). An unabridged revision of the original work would still be very useful.

5. For example, the analysis of Dem. 55 is actually a little longer than that of Dem. 19, although the latter speech is more than 10 times as long as the former.

6. Libanius assigned it to Hegesippus.

7. Lys. 33, preserved by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and referred to by Diodorus Siculus.

8. S. Usher and D. Najock, “A Statistical Study of Authorship in the Corpus Lysiacum,” Computers and Humanities 16 (1982) 85-105, at 103-4.

9. E.g., the first usage of the theme of “difficulty with abundance” (60) or the first example of vituperative oratory (62).

10. U. seems to accept Dem. 60 as genuine, without acknowledging that the authorship has ever been subject to debate.

11. E.g., his discussion of Lys. 31 (77-80).

12. E.g., “reluctant prosecution” and “plea for goodwill” (157 n. 98), litotes (200 n. 107) and sarcasm (337, 346).

13. E.g., the entry for “apostrophe” should also refer to pages 250, 268, 332 and 335; for “asyndeton” add 224 n. 188 and 267 n. 81; and for “proof-biographical” add 286 and 332.

14. E.g., Autocles and Diopeithes on 329 n. 17, Thrasymachus on 308 n. 50 and Thucydides on 299 n. 13.

15. Common omissions include particles (e.g., 61 n. 24), vocatives (e.g., 103), or prepositional phrases (e.g., 77 n. 85, repeated n. 89).

16. Important verbs (e.g., 10 n. 30), nouns (e.g., 54 n. 1) or pronouns (e.g., 135 n. 24) are left out.

17. These errors include a glaringly obvious case of an article in the wrong gender (159 n. 102: τὴν οἶκον), transposition of words (148 n. 71), nouns and participles in the wrong case (39 n. 47, 63, 264 n. 71), a verb in the wrong voice (195 n. 91), incorrect word substitutions (188 n. 66: δὲ in place of καὶ), and an extra word appearing in the text ( ἂν in 228 n. 199). Misspellings (e.g., 84 n. 110, 196 n. 98) and incorrect accents (e.g., 13 n. 39, 189 n. 71) are also common.

18. Above, note 8.

19. D. F. McCabe, The Prose-Rhythm of Demosthenes (New York, 1981). McCabe presents figures for (1) the chi-square ratio for total rhythm, based upon the lengths of syllables; (2) the frequency of the clausula long-long-long-short; and (3) the frequency of unelidable hiatus.

20. L. Pearson, Demosthenes: Six Private Speeches (Atlanta, 1987).

21. “Law and Oratory,” pp. 130-50 in I. Worthington, ed., Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric in Action (London, 1994).

22. A. Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (expanded ed., Cambridge, Mass., 1993).

23. E.g., inaccurate years of publication (e.g., 11 n. 31, 59 n. 17, 249 n. 19) or volume numbers for journals (280 n. 5). Titles are also sometimes incorrect (e.g., Nestle in 11 n. 33 and 91 n. 134, Tuplin in 95 n. 142, Cartledge et al. in 265 n. 73).