BMCR 2012.02.05

Speeches from Athenian Law

, Speeches from Athenian Law. The Oratory of Classical Greece 16. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. x, 396 pages. ISBN 9780292726383.

The last few decades have witnessed a good deal of scholarly work on the complex fabric of Greek social history, along with a revitalized interest in Greek, particularly Athenian, law. In both enterprises the speeches of the Attic orators have been an essential resource, as somewhat more than a hundred forensic addresses have survived from the last century of the democracy (i.e., from roughly the 420s until the 320s BCE). Michael Gagarin designates his primary audience as “teachers of Athenian law and students and scholars wishing to learn about Athenian law” (vii). The principal audience for Andrew Wolpert and Konstantinos Kapparis is more explicitly the traditional undergraduate or graduate student interested in Athenian history (vi-vii). But with certain caveats, both volumes, as their editors/translators note, could be of use to students and teachers whether of law or history, not least as six of the fourteen speeches translated by Wolpert and Kapparis also appear in Gagarin’s volume of twenty-two.

In Speeches from Athenian Law, Gagarin has made selection from orations previously translated for the Oratory of Classical Greece series, for which he served as Series Editor, and has arranged these along with the original introductions and notes under four headings: I. Homicide and Assault (eight speeches), II. Status and Citizenship (four speeches), III. Family and Property (five speeches), and IV. Commerce and the Economy (five speeches).1 The selection presents a fair cross section of the broad range of legal issues with which many individuals of means, whether living or doing business in Athens, might be concerned at one time or another in their lives, though students of Athenian law and society should also recognize that the poor who comprised nearly half the city’s citizen population are virtually absent from the extant corpus, so that any selection can provide us only with a fractional view of the workings of the law within Athenian society.2

As his selection is meant primarily for those interested in Athenian law, Gagarin has done some editing of the original introductions and notes in order “to provide a sharper focus on law by reducing or eliminating material that is purely historical or otherwise non-legal” (vii). The introductions are informative and to the point, and the notes are helpful particularly in elucidating ambiguities in the Greek or providing brief explanation of an Athenian institution or practice noted in the text. In almost all instances, the translations themselves are the same as they were originally; the handful of changes are quite minor, corrections in matters of detail or to achieve consistency in style. At the same time, there are, as Gagarin observes, some inconsistencies among the translations, with different translators preferring one or another legitimate phrasing alternative for the original Greek. So, to use Gagarin’s example (vii), dikastai is by some translated as ‘judges’, by others ‘jurors’, and still others ‘dicasts’. For most readers—especially in light of Gagarin’s caveat —these inconsistencies will not impede understanding of any of the texts, though in the example chosen a fuller elaboration in the Introduction (on Trials) might have enriched understanding for the non-specialist of such distinctively Athenian issues as the manner in which juries were selected or the limited boundaries on juror demeanor during trial.

As for the overall organization of the volume, the Introduction follows generally the format for the volumes in the Oratory of Classical Greece series, though here the issues of Government and Athenian Law are treated separately, and the section on Law is more sharply articulated. The analysis remains a model of succinctness and clarity. Thus, the thirteen pages are divided into six sections: I. Oratory, II. The Speeches (focusing on the preservation of the corpus), III. The Orators (with comment limited to the eight who appear in the volume), IV. Government (including sub-sections on Officials, The People, and The Liturgy System), V. Athenian Law (with sections on History, Judicial Organization, The Trial, Witnesses, Types of Procedure, and Laws), and the Conclusion (VI). Each of the four categories under which the twenty-two speeches are grouped has a brief introduction, a page or a bit more, summarizing the distinctive features of the Athenian norms and practices in question and how the speeches selected serve to illustrate these. Consistent generally with the volumes in the series, the Bibliography is quite select, and virtually all titles are in English. There is a general Index, but no Glossary (though Greek words and technical terms are glossed throughout the text).

One measure of the appropriateness of Gagarin’s selection is that roughly three-quarters of the speeches in the volume have appeared in other collections of Athenian forensic oratory in recent years. Thus, beyond the overlap with Wolpert and Kapparis noted above, ten of the fifteen speeches in Kathleen Freeman’s The Murder of Herodes and Other Trials from the Athenian Law Courts (first published in 1946, but reissued by Hackett in 1994) are repeated in Gagarin, as are a dozen of the seventeen speeches in Christopher Carey’s Trials from Classical Athens (London and New York 1997).

The fourteen speeches translated by Wolpert and Kapparis are arranged not by topic, but by ancient author in chronological order. Thus, there is a single speech by Antiphon, five from the Lysianic corpus, one by Isaeus, four by Demosthenes, two by Apollodoros, and a final one by Aeschines.3 Six of the fourteen are unavailable in other recent collections.

The somewhat lengthier Introduction in Wolpert and Kapparis (ix-xxix) is devoted mostly to the law, the courts and the orators (sections 1, 3, 4, and 5), with a summary overview of Athenian politics and society (section 2). There is a brief but balanced list of recommended readings at the end of the Introduction, standard book-length studies or edited volumes. Each of the fourteen translations has a detailed introduction, with notes and a useful checklist of Key Information (providing, as the evidence permits, the name of the speaker, his opponent, the type of action, the court, the penalty, the verdict and the date when the speech was delivered), along with citation of the appropriate ancient sources as well as more recent secondary scholarship. There are ample notes to each of the translations, both elucidating ambiguities in the Greek and providing detailed information on Athenian institutions and practices, again with citation of appropriate scholarly literature. There is a useful Glossary, a rather more substantial Bibliography, and an Index.

The thirty-six translations of the two volumes are the work of ten different hands, so that comment on their character and quality necessarily will be broad. With Gagarin’s selection, a stated objective was that the translations be “up-to-date… and readable,” and despite the eight different hands at work in the volume, the translations consistently are lucid and contemporary, comporting with English idiom and usage. As they intended, Wolpert and Kapparis have in their translations remained “true to the Greek while making the speeches accessible to an English-speaking reader” (viii), and in this they have provided translations that generally are more literally faithful to the Greek and thus more attuned to the culturally embedded nuances of the language, but that can consequently strike the ear at times with a certain awkwardness. Thus, as illustration: in addressing the jurors of certain courts, the speaker would use the Greek word andres literally meaning ‘men’. And it is this literal translation that Wolpert and Kapparis elect, as in Lysias 1.1: “I would greatly appreciate it, men, for you to judge me in this trial, etc.” Stephen Todd, in Gagarin’s volume, translates andres as ‘gentlemen’, rendering the same phrase: “I should be very glad, gentlemen, if in this case, etc.” To readers accustomed to the American English commonplace “(ladies and) gentlemen of jury” Todd’s rendering of andres may sound more natural. But in a note, Wolpert justifies his literal rendering not only because ‘gentlemen’ may still possess a latent suggestion of class which the Greek andres does not, but more critically because the word ‘men’…“does draw attention to the importance of masculinity in Athenian ideology,” and then cites appropriate secondary literature (21, note 8). For the student of Greek social history especially, this literalness with its explanatory note enriches cultural nuance in fair trade against any awkwardness to the ear. Apart from these intended differences, the translations in both volumes are accurate, with ambiguities in the Greek regularly observed in the notes of each.

While Wolpert and Kapparis do not organize the speeches they have translated into categories, their fourteen translations do cover the same broad four areas of law and society as Gagarin, though in both volumes the legal and social issues explored extend significantly beyond these categories. But for students of law, particularly comparative law, there is benefit in the greater exposure provided by Gagarin to the varied manner in which litigants looked to persuade juries in the law’s application, in courtrooms where there were neither lawyers to make objection nor judges to direct from the bench. And for those students concerned with day-to-day law, matters of family and property are central, and here Gagarin provides five speeches, while Wolpert and Kapparis offer us one. For the undergraduate or graduate student of Greek history, on the other hand, nuance in the art of persuasion may be less immediately important than the ways in which a particular trial was a reflection of distinctively Athenian social values or political circumstance. And here, Wolpert and Kapparis in the somewhat fuller introductions to their translations, but especially in the detail of the notes throughout provide richer background information, not only in setting the context, but in summarizing the salient arguments, and commenting in detail on the important legal and historical phenomena exposed by the speech.

With both volumes there are some points about which to cavil. In Gagarin’s volume, there are, beyond the occasional inconsistency in translation noted earlier, some differences among the translators on matters of interpretation of Athenian law. Gagarin, as editor, has elected not to attempt resolution of these, “preferring to let the reader see that some features of Athenian law (indeed of any legal system) can be understood in different, even opposed ways” (viii). This editorial decision and justification have a cogency, though for the novice student of Athenian law or for the non-specialist scholar uninitiated in the law’s ambiguities, an editor’s specific comment and direction where such differences exist could prove helpful. So, e.g., in his translation of Antiphon 2.1.4, Gagarin observes in a note elaborating on the word kakourgos —literally an evil doer or criminal—that “The most serious street crime in Athens was lõpodusia or the theft of a cloak, a cloak being normally the most valuable possession a man had with him in public ” (my italics). Victor Bers, on the other hand, in the note to his translation at Demosthenes 54.3, observes that the stealing of a cloak “…would have been understood as a crime committed not to acquire a valuable object but to humiliate the victim ” (again, my italics). To Bers’ note, Gagarin, as editor, adds a cross reference to his own note at Antiphon 2.1.4. Thus, for the reader following the cross reference, the differences between the two translators are observed, but for the student of Athenian law there is no explanation for these differences in interpretation. Citation here of, e.g., David Cohen, Theft in Athenian Law (Munich 1983) 79-84 would have sent the interested student or non-specialist scholar in a right direction. Throughout, Gagarin has elected to keep editorial direction and documentation quite lean, a decision that valorizes the primacy of the text, but also one that has the potential periodically to frustrate the inquisitive non-specialist.

With Wolpert and Kapparis, there are a couple of points of minor complaint, somewhat related. Because their volume is intended primarily for students interested in Athenian history, the overview of politics and society in the Introduction might well have been developed separately and in greater detail, locating the reader more securely in the narrative of political events from the first decade of the Peloponnesian War to the wrangling over the city’s posture vis à vis Philip of Macedon. The circumstances that spawn litigation, though not invariably an immediate reflection of the historical narrative, often can acquire richer nuance when seen against the backdrop of that narrative. Also, as the translations are not organized by topic, the Preface might provide a somewhat fuller summary of the salient issues raised by the individual speeches (see vi- vii), allowing the reader lacking specific direction to decide more easily which speeches to read and in what order.

Both of these volumes succeed in their stated primary objectives. Despite grumblings over detail, and despite the overlap, each possesses merits that distinguish it from the other. For this reviewer, the decision by Gagarin to edit the historical and non-legal materials that were in the original translations makes his volume somewhat less useful to students of history than is Wolpert and Kapparis’s volume to their secondary audience of students of law, though it is the case that for students of law there is less in Wolpert and Kapparis on matters of family and property. Nonetheless, for teachers and students of Athenian law and Athenian social history, there is virtue in having available in English translation different resources of quality from which to make selection.


1. For Homicide and Assault, the speeches are Antiphon 2: First Tetralogy; Antiphon 6: On the Chorus Boy; Antiphon 1: Against the Stepmother; Antiphon 5: On the Murder of Herodes; Lysias 1: On the Death of Eratosthenes; Demosthenes 54: Against Conon; Lysias 3: Against Simon; and Isocrates 20: Against Lochites. On Status and Citizenship they are Demosthenes 57: Appeal against Eubulides; Lysias 23: Against Pancleon; Demosthenes 59: Against Neaera; and Aeschines 1: Against Timarchus. On Family and Property include Isaeus 1: On the Estate of Cleonymus; Iseaus 7: On the Estate of Apollodoros; Isaeus 8: On the Estate of Ciron; Lysias 32: Against Diogeiton; and Demosthenes 27: Against Aphobos I. And on Commerce and the Economy the speeches are Demosthenes 55: Against Callicles; Hypereides 3: Against Athenogenes; Lysias 24: For the Disabled Man; Isocrates 17: Trapeziticus; and Demosthenes 35: Against Lacritus.

2. A noteworthy exception is Lysias 24, included in both Gagarin and Wolpert and Kapparis, where a poor man argues to preserve his disability pension, though how this man was able to secure the services of a professional speechwriter such as Lysias remains a puzzle.

3. These are Antiphon 6: On the Chorister; Lysias 1: On the Murder of Eratosthenes; 12: Against Eratosthenes; 16: For Mantitheus; 23: Against Pancleon; and 24: On the Suspension of the Benefit of the Disabled Man; Isaeus 12: On Behalf of Euphiletus; Demosthenes 21: Against Meidias; 32: Against Zenothemis; 41: Against Spudias; and 54: Against Conon; [Demosthenes] 53: Against Nicostratus; and [Demosthenes] 59: Against Neaera; and Aeschines 1: Against Timarchus.