BMCR 2020.03.09

Poet and orator: a symbiotic relationship in democratic Athens

, , Poet and orator: a symbiotic relationship in democratic Athens. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 74. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. ix, 454 p.. ISBN 9783110626902. €119,95.

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book’s title, subtitle, and the name of the institution that organized the 2015 conference it now reports, the Centre for Ancient Rhetoric and Drama, assert a doctrine: there was an intimate connection between what happened in the fictional word of Attic drama and the real world of speechmaking in the city’s deliberative bodies, extending from the Cleisthenic reforms until the end of the democracy under Macedonian rule. The topic has received lavish attention in recent years.[1]Rather than offering an overview of all nineteen chapters, I will remark on those I found of particular interest.

In his contribution, “Greek Tragedy and Attic Oratory,” Andreas Markantonatos writes (pp. 124f.): “It has already become the communis opinio that in the fifth century BCE there was … a mutually beneficent cross-fertilization between the rhetorical energy of Greek tragedy and the declamatory dynamism of the Athenian democratic regime.” This is, to be sure, a respectable opinion: see especially David Sansone’s Greek Drama and the Invention of Rhetoric (2012), which is cited by A. Rodighiero in his contribution (pp. 153–179.[2] It is a mark of the editors’ academic integrity that several of the papers nevertheless question what the preface calls an “indissoluble bond between oratorical expertise and dramatic artistry” (p. vi). Still, by encompassing both components of the dramatic festivals, the word “drama” might presuppose, or at least suggest, more resemblance than we find. With very few exceptions indeed, for instance the Guard’s report at Sophocles, Antigone 222ff., tragic drama excludes comic material, and paratragedy in comedy is meant to elicit laughs, not to induce a somber mood. In her contribution, Edith Hall remarks that in the Knights the real world intrudes in the form of “a running joke about a particular verbal quirk of Cleon’s”, and that the Paphlagonian imitates “the asyndeton beloved of orators desirous of emotional emphasis” (pp. 73–75). Though foreigners were in attendance, at least at the Great Dionysia, the orators, tragedians, and comic poets lived in and wrote for Athens; thus Fountoulakis (pp. 43f.) can presume that Menander’s Samia and [Demosthenes] 59 Against Neaera are drawing on the same social mores. Philosophy gets into the game as well: he remarks on “patterns of thought occurring in post-Aristotelian discourses concerning marrying for love and the oikos in Menander as reflections of a wider cultural ambience—we might say a panhellenic ambience — marked by bold social and political developments” (p. 65). Nevertheless, I would have liked to see an acknowledgment that there are pervasive linguistic differences between theatrical texts and what was heard in the courts.

Of course there are also resemblances that arose from the logic of the real world. In a useful collection drawing on the Alexandros, “Fragments of Euripidean Rhetoric,” Ioanna Karamanou writes (p. 85) : “Euripidean trial-debates seem to reflect the practice of forensic oratory and law court procedure. According to this practice, Alexandros is likely to speak second, defending himself against his opponent’s accusations.” It seems to me that Euripides could reverse the order of speeches only at the risk of outdoing the comici by attempting an incongruity that would leave the audience utterly perplexed. By comparison, the conjunction of incongruous elements in the Knights noted by Marcel Lysgaard Lech (p. 116 n. 67), namely cavalry and rowers, united by the horse, is perfectly intelligible.

In his chapter, “Do you see this, natives of this land,” Andrea Rodighiero acknowledges (p. 153) that one must “bear in mind that the shape, syntax, and very often the vocabulary of poetic discourse are rather different from a λόγος uttered in plain prose.” I would say “persistently” and sometimes in details easily missed, for instance the placement of vocatives at the start of a speech (verse-initial ἄνδρες) in tragedy, as at Sophocles Antigone 162, but routinely postponed in the orators.

Andreas Markantonatos (pp. 123–152) offers a spacious analysis of agonesin Euripides’ Alcestis, which he sees as nourishing the democracy. Although I would not deny that attendance at plays would have sharpened the audience’s ears, and to a far smaller degree its eyes, it does not follow that tragedy “would have functioned as a powerful disseminator of democratic values and beliefs” (p. 124). The overwhelming presence of fate and, particularly in Euripides, gods acting in morally suspect, or at least perplexing ways, could not have been of much help to citizens casting their votes as jurors or ecclesiasts. In the Closing Remarks (p. 146), immediately after asserting that Heracles “establishes a new moral law, or more fittingly invites his fellow humans to reflect on the possibility that the self-sacrificial honesty of mortals could be, under certain circumstance, a path of long-term survival, renewal, and ultimately immortality,” he cautions: “it would be, however, unwise to believe that the miraculous resurrection of Alcestis fundamentally overthrows the canons and principles moderating the human conditions.”  And Andreas Seraphim provides a salutary remark at the conclusion of his article, “Thespians in the Law-Court”: “Aeschines and Demosthenes exploit the image of unreality and deception that is associated with the theatre as a means of undermining each other’s authority and credibility” (p. 360).

Chris Carey’s contribution, “Drama and Democracy,” offers a juxtaposition of the real world of the city and its dramatic entertainments (pp. 233–248), with the aim of providing “a synthesis between competing perspectives,” to clarify “the degree to which, and the way in which, the Athenian theatre responds to its political environment” (p. 233). As I read his analysis, Carey pokes, or rather points to, enough holes in the claims made for tight linkage that skeptics of the unifying interpretations will probably count him as an ally, and unifiers will at least be disgruntled. His rejection (p. 235) of the often heard notion that drama is “inherently democratic” is on target; likewise, his remark (n. 14) apropos some recent scholarship asserting an audience smaller than once thought: “Given the cyclic nature of scholarship we can expect the figure to rise again.”

Mike Edwards’ contribution, “The orators and Greek Drama,” though couched with politesse, first offers a caution (p. 329): “My conclusions…may make us pause a little before we mint drama and oratory on two sides of the same coin.” He then goes on to gently—but quite justifiably—scold me (p. 332) for implying that quotations of tragedy “are more frequent and from a greater range of authors than they actually are, ignoring the fact that the Demosthenic quotations all come in the context of his rivalry with Aeschines.” He concludes the paragraph in the same manner: “the parallels between the orchestra and the bema have perhaps been overstated” (p. 333). He continues with some sensible remarks on the paucity of quotations of poetry in epideictic oratory, the puzzle of Aristotle’s frequent citations of poetry in the Rhetoric, and the mention of orators in comedy—few and problematic.

Làzlò Horvàth, who has written on the rhetorical material in the Archimedes Palimpsest (Der neue Hyperides 2014) contributes an eight-page chapter on “Dramatic Elements as Rhetorical Means in Hyperides’ Timandrus”. His article is something of a balancing act: “Hyperides inserted into his speech comic elements that could be described as ordinary, as well as striking turns of speech, and thus he elevated ‘comedy-making’ to an almost exclusive, strategic level of his argumentation” (p. 339).

Andreas Seraphim’s chapter, “Thespians in the Law-Court,” seems the closest to the book’s announced theme. He offers this generalization: “Despite Aeschines’ and Demosthenes’ regular scornful reference to each other’s (real or alleged) association with acting and actors and the use of theatrical skills to deceive the audience, it is clear that there was a symbiotic relationship between oratory and theatre in classical Athens, and that actors were highly-esteemed in society in general, including in some political contexts” (p. 351). And going beyond the well-known passages in Aeschines and Demosthenes, he lists actors who had an important part in official delegations (p. 351, n. 12).

The book closes with Edward Harris’s chapter, “Aeschylus’ Eumenides: The Role of the Areopagus, the Rule of Law and Political Discourse in Attic Tragedy.” His general argument, that the Areopagus did not enjoy the wide powers often attributed to it by modern scholars, is well founded. Still, I find his contribution puzzling in three respects. The first is superficial: though classicists sometimes encounter chronological problems crucial to their research (Greek historians will think of the three-bar sigma on Athenian inscriptions), they will be startled to read in a book copyrighted in 2019, with references to eleven items of twenty-first century bibliography by Harris himself in the accompanying bibliography, that the publication of the Athenaion Politeia in 1893 occurred “exactly a hundred years ago in 1893” (p. 393, and earlier at p. 392). Far more significant: I do not think it unfair to ask whether his interpretation of some of the texts he adduces can bear the weight he puts on them in this essay. Three instances: (1) He asks (p. 395): “If the Areopagus played a central role before the battle of Salamis, why does Aeschylus, who has Athena praise the Areopagus in the Eumenides, not mention it in the Persians?” I suggest a simple answer: the dramatist saw far greater theatrical impact in bringing Darius back from the dead to condemn his son for lusting after more than what Zeus gave the Persians than in making specific reference to components of the Athenian government. (2) At pp. 405f. Harris writes: “Aristophanes Wasps 661–663 believed [sic] that there was so much judicial business in 422 BCE that cases kept six thousand judges busy for three hundred days a year.” Harris here fails to discriminate between the sober, but tendentious and error-filled text of the Athenaion Politeia and a comedy mocking the Athenian courts (see MacDowell’s 1969 commentary ad loc., and cf. Clouds 206–8, where the joke is that a proper map would show Athenian jurors at work). The word “believed” suggests that Harris here fails to distinguish jocular overstatement from historiography. (3) At pp. 414–5 Harris writes that in the Eumenides “like the [archon] basileus, Athena does not presume to make a decision in the dispute: ‘The matter is too big for any mortal man who thinks he can judge it. Even I have not the right to analyze cases of murder where wrath’s edge is sharp, and all the more since you have come, and clung a clean and innocent supplicant against my doors’. [470–4] Despite her belief in his innocence, she does not presume to decide the case … Just as the basileus handed over the case to a court to try, Athena entrusts the decision to judges.” Given the certainty with which Harris writes, he owes us his understanding of Athena’s announcement at 734f.: ἐμὸν τόδ’ ἔργον, λοισθίαν κρῖναι δίκην·| ψῆφον δ’ ᾿Ορέστηι τήνδ᾿ ἐγὼ προσθήσομαι.


Authors and titles

Guido Avezzù, “Hecuba’s Rhetoric”
Andreas Fountoulakis, “The Rhetoric of Eros in Menander’s Samia
Edith Hall, “Competitive Vocal Performance in Aristophanes’ Knights
Ioanna Karamanou, “Fragments of Euripidean Rhetoric: The Trial-Debate in Euripides’ Alexandros
Marcel Lysgaard Lech, “Praise, Past and Ponytails: The Funeral Oration and Democratic Ideology in the Parabasis of Aristophanes’ Knights
Andreas Markantonatos, “Greek Tragedy and Attic Oratory: Greek Tragedy and Attic Oratory: The Agon Scenes in Euripides’ Alcestis
Andrea Rodighiero, “Do you see this, natives of this land? Formalized Speech, Rhetoric, and Character in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus 728–1403”
Adele Scafuro, “Justifying Murder and Rejecting Revenge”
Chris Carey, “Drama and Democracy”
Ioannis N. Perysinaki, “From the Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry: Archaic Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Aristophanes’ Frogs
Margarita Sotiriou, “Aspects of Epinician Rhetoric and the Democratic polis”
Eleni Volonaki, Performing the Past in Lycurgus’ Speech Against Leocrates
Evangelos Alexious, “Rhetoric, Poetry, and the agelaioi sophistai
Mike Edwards, “The Orators and Greek Drama”
László Horváth, “Dramatic Elements as Rhetorical Means in Hyperides’ Timandrus
Andreas Seraphim, “Thespians in the Law-Court”
Penelope Frangakis, “The Reception of Rhetoric in Greek Drama of the Fifth Century BCE”
Brenda Griffith-Williams, “Families and Family Relationships in the Speeches of Isaios and in Middle and New Comedy”
Edward M. Harris, “Aeschylus’ Eumenides: The Role of the Areopagus, The Rule of Law and Political Discourse in Attic Tragedy”


[1] To cite just two collections with considerable overlap of editors and authors, Law and Drama in Ancient Greece, ed E. Harris, D. F. Leão (London, 2010) and The Theatre of Justice, ed. S. Papaioannou, A. Serafim, and B. Da Vela (Leiden and Boston, 2017).

[2] Pace Markantonatos (p. 126), Sansone is American, not British.