BMCR 2005.04.30

Menander: A Rhetor in Context

, Menander : a rhetor in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xvii, 374 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199259208. $125.00.

[The author of this review wishes to acknowledge that Malcolm Heath is currently serving as the volume editor for his translation of Libanius Progymnasmata, under contract with E.J. Brill and the Society of Biblical Literature.]

For the past twelve years, Malcolm Heath has been working to explain and interpret the complex story of imperial-era Greek rhetorical instruction and technography. Those who have used his excellent translation and commentary on Hermogenes On Issues 1 or who have followed his numerous articles on rhetoric, rhetoricians, and literary criticism over the years will be aware that H. is a scholar who painstakingly builds his case from all the available evidence (most of it from highly technical and/or fragmentary sources), explicitly signals his degree of certainty about his conclusions, and clearly explains the finer points of issue-theory and its evolution and transmission in a way that should make it possible even for novices to understand.

The present book is no different. It consists of an introduction and three main sections, a total of nine chapters. Every scholar who works on the so-called “Second Sophistic” (a term which even fewer will be inclined to use uncritically after reading this book) should read Chapters 1 (introduction) and 7-9 (“Part III: Classroom and Career”). Parts I-II (Chapters 2-6) will, I think, have a somewhat more limited audience. Part I (“Continuity and Innovation”) traces the evolution of rhetorical theory and instruction from Hermagoras to the end of the third century, while Part II (“Menander of Laodicea”) assembles and comments on the testimonia and fragments explicitly attributed to Menander, and then mines the Demosthenic scholia for further information on his teaching and writing activities.

In Chapter 1, H. announces his intention to argue that far from being emblematic of the alleged triumph of epideictic in the imperial period, Menander Rhetor “was above all an expert on judicial and deliberative oratory, and precisely as such exemplary for an age in which rhetoric retained, for good practical reasons, a primary interest in techniques of judicial and deliberative persuasion” (page xi). Late antique rhetoric, as H. explains, continued its tradition of teaching students to argue persuasively, and the students so trained continued to find this skill useful in their careers. In order to see this broad social phenomenon more clearly, H. argues, we must look beyond Philostratus’ selective discussion of the activities of a select group of superstar performers. We may then return to Philostratus with a far better understanding of the educational system that made such superstars possible.

In Chapters 2 and 3, H. explores the development of issue-theory from its murky Hellenistic beginnings to the end of the third century and beyond. Advances in issue-theory in the second and third centuries led to an explosion of rhetorical exegesis, much of it apparently in the form of commentaries on Demosthenes, but these advances also tended to make most earlier work in the field obsolete. So scholars must rely on a combination of biographical, bibliographical, and other surviving textual evidence to reconstruct the history of issue-theory’s development. After a brief introduction to issue-theory, H. traces what little can be known of its history from Hermagoras to Hermogenes, and then considers in detail the contributions of Zeno (the first known exponent of the canonical thirteen-issue system), Minucianus, Hermogenes and the eventually authoritative canon of works attributed to him, Apsines, Aspasius, Nicagoras, another Minucianus, Maior, Longinus, Porphyry, and a host of rhetorical commentators from among the philosophers and sophists. Many of these names appear in Philostratus as well, but their technical writings on issue-theory seem to have flown below his radar. Though some will no doubt question individual details, H.’s account here fills an important gap in the scholarship as the only up-to-date diachronic history of issue-theory. H. concludes this part of the book by asking scholars to view the third century not as “a period of decline and crisis” but as “a period of crisis and recovery” (page 84), and he suggests that this view holds true in many areas of political, military, cultural, religious, and intellectual life, not least in the field of rhetoric.

In Chapter 4, H. collects, translates, and discusses all testimonia and fragments in which Menander is explicitly named as an author, in order to complement and extend the picture provided by the two extant treatises on epideictic attributed to him.2 Menander’s biography comes from the Suda, and a partial bibliography is given in the Suda and a fifth-century letter preserved on papyrus. The majority of fragments that name Menander come from his commentary on Demosthenes; the number and contents of the fragments show clearly that Menander was an authoritative commentator on Demosthenes who was known for analyzing the arguments of the orator’s speeches using issue-theory. H. also presents and discusses the more limited evidence for Menander’s technical commentaries, his commentaries on Aeschines and Aelius Aristides, and his epideictic treatises, and he ends with a necessarily inconclusive discussion of the authorship of the two epideictic treatises attributed to Menander.

The sources and transmission of the scholia to Demosthenes form the subject of Chapter 5. It is a difficult chapter to summarize or evaluate, and the reader would do well to begin with H.’s own summaries on pages 164-165, 179, and 182-183. H.’s main goal here is to supplement the named fragments of Menander by using their contents to help identify anonymous material in the scholia that may ultimately derive from Menander. He also discusses some problems in Dilts’ edition of the scholia3 that make source-criticism of the scholia more difficult. Given the uncertainties of his task, it was a wise decision for H. not to try to assemble a series of anonymous fragments of Menander.

Chapter 6 builds on this investigation to sketch a portrait of Menander’s rhetorical commentaries. Like Libanius, Menander taught boys who had been sent abroad for their rhetorical education, and did so with a sense of humor. His lectures on Demosthenes explicitly pointed out examples of good techniques and principles for his students to imitate. H.’s discussion here is supported with vivid illustrations from the scholia. H. rounds out the chapter and this part of the book with three examples from the scholia to Demosthenes 10, 19, and 21, in which we can see Menander interacting polemically with other commentators’ handbooks, expressing himself unclearly, and even making mistakes.

In Chapter 7, H. uses the technical literature on rhetoric to illuminate classroom practice in the period. A student’s work with the progymnasmata would be followed by instruction in issue-theory (which was more important for judicial and deliberative oratory than for epideictic), the overall structure of a speech, style, and performance. Students usually began this curriculum in their teens, although older students are not unknown, and the length of time spent in schooling was determined by students’ individual rates of progress and career goals. Teachers specialized in different aspects and stages of this curriculum. Theoretical instruction was rule-bound but was intended to produce good judgment on the part of the students and a critical stance toward the rules. To this end, students were to balance and supplement their technical instruction with guided and independent study of Classical models, further practice in the progymnasmata (which were to be commented upon and corrected by the teacher), observation of speeches given by their teachers and visiting sophists, and declamation (again, with commentary and correction from the teacher).

Chapter 8 explores the question of how, for whom, and why one might publish a technical treatise on rhetorical theory. Adducing parallels from Galen and Libanius, H. shows that an author might compose a technical treatise in writing and then have his secretary recopy it, or dictate it to a secretary (with both positive and negative consequences). A teacher’s lectures might also be recorded or recalled by his students, with varying levels of accuracy. (Some of these students may have been professionally trained in shorthand to supplement their rhetorical training, just as others supplemented their rhetorical training with study of the law.) Treatises were written for students at various stages of expertise, for graduates or teachers who needed a reference guide, and for fellow academics interested in reading new ideas in the field. H. argues that Menander’s commentaries in particular were aimed at advanced students who planned to teach issue-theory.

Chapter 9 explores the career options available to a graduate of the rhetorical schools. Against the assumed triumph of epideictic and the related assumption that training in judicial and deliberative rhetoric was out of step with the times, and against some common misperceptions of the purpose and nature of instruction in declamation, H. demonstrates quite convincingly that rhetorical training of the sort seen in Menander’s commentaries was indeed practical. A graduate might serve as an advocate in the lawcourts, participate in his local city council or assembly, represent his city on official embassies (which often required advocacy), enter the imperial service, teach, or (as was typical) pursue several of these options. The same graduated rhetorical training that produced at its pinnacle the epideictic superstars of Philostratus — who, in fact, as H. demonstrates, also worked as advocates, served on embassies, were active in local politics, and taught — also and more importantly produced a broad base of elites ready to use their rhetorical training to meet practical needs in all these areas. H. supports this claim with many examples of named individuals who had such careers, drawing on a wide variety of literary sources including Libanius, Plutarch, Quintilian, Pliny, John Chrysostom, Themistius, and Ausonius. H. then turns to consider careers in advocacy in more detail, drawing largely on transcripts of contemporary trials preserved on papyrus to demonstrate how formal training in issue-theory would have helped such advocates in their work. Direct links between such texts and the handbooks are difficult to trace, but this is perhaps to be expected. In addition (as H. usefully points out), the simple fact of an advocate’s appearing to be highly educated would probably confer some authority on him in a trial situation. H. also suggests that the practical needs of advocacy may have influenced certain developments in the organization and teaching of issue-theory.

In conclusion, this book is a very convincing and important contribution to our understanding of the social and cultural roles of Greek rhetoric in a period in which, as the conventional wisdom would have it, the oratory was mostly epideictic, its practitioners mostly high-profile sophists, and its social and political relevance mostly negligible.

The book has been very carefully proofread and well produced. Mervin Dilts is mistakenly called “Marvin” on page 132. I checked thirty references to ancient sources at random and detected no errors. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index.


1. M. Heath, Hermogenes on Issues: Strategies of Argument in Later Greek Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

2. D.A. Russell and N.G. Wilson, Menander Rhetor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

3. M.R. Dilts, Scholia Demosthenica, 2 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983-1986.