BMCR 2020.05.28

Lycurgus: against Leocrates

Joseph Roisman, Michael Edwards, Lycurgus: against Leocrates. Clarendon ancient history series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xii, 274 p.. ISBN 9780198830177 $105.00.

Against Leocrates, the only speech by Lycurgus that survives in full, has not had a published commentary in English since Petrie’s 1922 student edition, though Sullivan’s unpublished 2002 doctoral thesis, which offers a full commentary, is available online.[1] So this volume is welcome, offering a new translation by Edwards (based on Conomis’ Teubner edition), supported by an introduction and commentary by Roisman. But it is especially welcome because ‘Lycurgan Athens’ (i.e. in the period from the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC to Lycurgus’ death in 324, and arguably beyond that) is now the subject of intense scholarly attention from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Those interested in approaching these debates now have a reliable and comprehensive new resource to help them interpret a text which, despite its focus on a single case, offers the most direct access to understanding how Lycurgus wished his civic priorities to be perceived at a point halfway through his period as a major influence on Athenian cultural and political life. The volume should be received warmly: Roisman offers a helpful introduction (pp. 1-47) and valuable detailed commentary (pp. 81-226), while Edwards’s translation (pp. 49-80) sustains a high degree of accuracy, stays literal without becoming inelegant (except where Lycurgus himself is, too), and captures the blunt and relentless style of the original.[2] I will focus here on the introduction and commentary.

Lycurgus delivered Against Leocrates (or something like it) probably in 331, in an eisangelia prosecution of a private citizen, Leocrates, for betraying Athens by sailing to Rhodes (and then living in Megara for about six years) in the immediate aftermath of Chaeronea. To make his case, Lycurgus adopts a notably capacious definition of treason, supports it via a constellation of value-orientated metaphors and industrial quantities of exaggeration to the point of self-contradiction (see e.g. p. 213), and spends over a third of the whole on a sequence of historical, mythical, and wider cultural illustrations and quotations from poetry, notably Euripides and Tyrtaeus, all packaged so as to reflect negatively on Leocrates’ behaviour; meanwhile, a somewhat depersonalized prosecutorial voice apparently suppresses (cf. pp. 33-4)—but in the trial context itself could not have succeeded in hiding—Lycurgus’ singular political and cultural authority. In both introduction and commentary, Roisman scrutinizes Lycurgus’ communication of his agenda with notable and refreshing realism. It is not a special aim of his to reconstruct the reasons for the jurors’ verdict (probably a tied vote leading to acquittal), an issue on which he is suitably cautious (pp. 43-4).  But his shrewd and detailed analysis of the ideological and rhetorical building-blocks of Lycurgus’ case, especially in the commentary, allow the reader to develop a nuanced picture both of the possible (and likely) reasons why the prosecution nearly succeeded and of the possible (and likely) reasons why it apparently failed (just).

The Introduction opens by offering accessible and succinct coverage of the fourth-century Athenian lawcourts and of eisangelia itself (pp. 2-10)—useful not least because this procedure differs importantly from more familiar actions like the graphe paranomon (and Roisman explains why Lycurgus used it on pp. 28-9). Lycurgus’ life and career is discussed next (pp. 10-24), followed by a brief and salutary section on the utility of ‘Lycurgan Athens’ as a concept (pp. 24-7). In these sections (and especially in a useful list at pp. 22-3), Roisman performs the valuable service of identifying which aspects of Athenian civic renewal the sources actually permit us to attribute confidently to Lycurgus himself, and this remains a priority in the commentary. The sections that follow (pp. 27-47) focus on the speech itself, its strategies, those strategies’ articulation of Lycurgus’ priorities for contemporary Athens, possible defences Leocrates and his synegoroi might have used, the result, and the history of the text. Included here are a suggestive few pages (pp. 39-41) on the resemblances between Lycurgus’ ideal value-system, as expressed in this speech, and early twentieth-century fascist ideology. Roisman is appropriately cautious here, emphasizing tone rather than practical outcomes: as he points out, it even risks straining the evidence to conceive of the civic developments underway in ‘Lycurgan Athens’ as a unified programme (and his list of Lycurgus’ own measures ‘suggests no evolving focus or direction over time’: p. 23). Roisman offers valuable comment on the speech’s handling of clear public unease about the role and function of the Areopagus, even in 331 (pp. 138-9), and at least in 338/7 Lycurgus had been a powerful and dangerous opponent in court, enough for a link between the Law of Eucrates (of 337/6; Rhodes/Osborne 79) and Lycurgus’ sponsorship of the Areopagus to seem plausible (p. 139). It is worth noting that Section 5 (pp. 30-6) (‘Rhetorical Strategies in Against Leocrates’) is slightly misleadingly titled, as it consists of a concise outline of Lycurgus’ argument and a (useful) brief assessment of interpretations of the speech by Allen and Ober. But even readers interested in the speech purely as historical evidence might wish to get more of an overview here of the variety of core rhetorical techniques deployed in it, which the commentary will substantiate.

The detailed commentary achieves a good balance between clear exposition and generous provision of information and interpretation. Roisman’s engagement with previous commentators, especially Sullivan and Engels, is close and consistent, offering direction to readers working with the Greek text even though this is not part of this volume’s scope (in common with other items in the Clarendon series). The fact that Lycurgus mentions so many individual aspects of Athenian culture and history which come trailing their own (often long-running) sets of debates (e.g. the Peace of Callias) allows Roisman to offer handy nutshell summaries of those debates with up-to-date bibliographical support at the same time as plotting these aspects’ particular functions within Lycurgus’ argument (good examples are the notes on Lycurgus’ misleading presentation of the resettlement of Messene [pp. 146-8], on the ephebeia [pp. 161-3], and on Lycurgus’ carefully-crafted version of the murder of Phrynichus [pp. 194-6]). Roisman is especially strong, as in the introduction, both on showing how Lycurgus’ persuasive presentations of Athenian civic and moral values relate to the likely default understandings of those values that the jurors might have, and on plotting patterns and connections between arguments which depend on similar specific framings of those values in separate—but mutually responsive—parts of the speech. Showing how Lycurgus’ ideological constructions support one another is inevitably very high on the list of desiderata for a commentary on this speech, and Roisman executes this task deftly, as well as the wider task of plotting likely audience responses to Lycurgus’ and the defence’s arguments in general (there is plenty of comment on rhetorical techniques, including considerations related to performance: see p. 181). The speech’s religious aspects—and instances where rhetorical advantage dovetails with genuine personal devotion on Lycurgus’ part—are given plenty of attention. Roisman also makes judicious and succinct connections with Lycurgus’ fragmentary speeches, especially Against Autolycus and Against Lysicles, the most relevant ones (e.g. pp. 87-8, 135, 139-41, 221, 223).

There are perhaps some missed opportunities. Both the introduction and the commentary proper are relatively reticent on Lycurgus’ interactions with other politicians prominent in the 330s, especially Hyperides, Demades, Demosthenes, and Phocion (and more on Lycurgus’ very influential predecessor Eubulus would have been welcome, too). Of course, Roisman’s task is to comment on this speech—where four of the five individuals just named are not mentioned at all—but his assessment of Lycurgus’ strategies might have benefited from further exploration of the links between Against Leocrates and Demosthenes’ On the Crown of 330 (cf. his comments on likely connections between Against Leocratesand Demosthenes’ Funeral Oration of 338/7: pp. 132-6). Especially relevant to Lycurgus’ rhetorical and ideological aims in Against Leocrates is the speech’s participation, shared with On the Crown, in specific tendentious ways of fashioning Chaeronea and its aftermath which the surviving sections of Hyperides’ Against Diondas strongly suggest were common to the leading anti-Macedonian politicians in general (a ‘rhetoric of defeat’, as Roisman says on p. 135) and deployed by them in the court battles they faced in the 330s.[3] Reference to Aeschines’ casting of the trial of Timarchus in 346/5 as an exercise in boosting civic morality (see e.g. 1.192 and 2.180) might also have offered helpful context for Lycurgus’ efforts. A few questionable assumptions appear: for example, as Roisman and Worthington have discussed elsewhere,[4] the evidence for Demosthenes’ training with Isocrates (asserted on p. 120) is very flimsy; similar problems attend Lycurgus’ own reported association with Isocrates (pp. 120, 148). [Demosthenes] 25 and 26 are deployed as evidence (e.g. pp. 9, 225) without registering that both speeches, and [D.] 26 in particular, are very likely to be later forgeries.[5] There are also a number of small errors, none of them significant.[6]

These minor reservations aside, this volume offers an accessible guide to a fascinating and (as Roisman rightly indicates) unsettling speech from a period—and cultural environment—which is now attracting the attention it deserves. It will help to encourage nuanced readings of Lycurgus not only as a linchpin figure in Athenian civic renewal in the 330s and 320s but also as a political operator who had to fashion individual communication strategies to sustain his authority in the familiar democratic contexts of the lawcourts and Assembly, just like his peers and rivals. Like other items in the Clarendon series, the volume is well-produced and easy to navigate, and should serve a broad constituency of readers, from those working on Lycurgus and on fourth-century Athenian oratory to those approaching the speech and its context for the first time.


[1] A. Petrie (1922), Lycurgus: The Speech Against Leocrates (Cambridge); J. Sullivan (2002), An Historical Commentary on Lykourgos Against Leokrates (diss. Leeds). The most recent commentary on the speech is J. Engels (2008), Lykurg: Rede gegen Leokrates (Darmstadt) (less detailed than Roisman here).

[2] Errors are few and minor: e.g. ‘Athenians’ is omitted (at Leoc. § 1); διαπεπραγμένῳ (§ 90) should mean ‘he had committed’ rather than ‘he was committing’; πράξασιν (§ 110) must mean ‘those who did [the deeds]’ rather than just ‘the deeds’. There are some apparent deviations from Conomis’ text which are not noted: significant are the reading of μόνος (‘only one’) instead of μόλις (‘barely’) (§ 18); ἐνενήκοντα (‘ninety’) instead of ἑβδομήκοντα (‘seventy’) (§ 72); and ‘Timarchus’ instead of ‘Charmus’ (§ 117); cf. the commentary’s ‘synengkein’ (§ 45, p. 132) where Conomis gives συνεξενεγκεῖν (see his apparatus for the alternatives, which do include ξυνεγκεῖν).

[3] See e.g. S. C. Todd (2009), ‘Hypereides Against Diondas, Demosthenes On the Crown, and the Rhetoric of Political Failure’, BICS 52: 161-74.

[4] See J. Roisman and I. Worthington (eds.) (2015), Lives of the Attic Orators (Oxford), 155, 191, 214-15.

[5] See e.g. E. M. Harris (2018), Demosthenes, Speeches 23-26 (Austin), 193-236 (193-6 for summary).

[6] These include: ‘Cephisodorus’ given for ‘Cephisodotus’ (24); ‘Pythias’ for ‘Pytheas’ (26); Treves 1934 (a densely annotated edition of the Greek) listed under ‘Translations’, not ‘Commentaries’ (81); ‘astratia’ given for ‘astrateia’ (86); ‘proboulema’ for ‘probouleuma’ (91); ‘Soteiria’ for ‘Soteira’ (104); ‘Octus’ for ‘Ocytus’ (153); ‘Pamphilia’ for ‘Pamphylia’ and ‘Cynaean’ for ‘Cyanean’ (159); ‘enomotarche’ for ‘enomotarches’ (168); ‘Hippotheon’ for ‘Hippotho(o)n’ (173); ‘Phillippica’ for ‘Philippica’ (178); ‘Agis I’ for ‘Agis II’ (201); ‘21.159’ for ‘20.159’ (205); ‘Discourides’ for ‘Dioscurides’ (211); and ‘hippotropheia’ for ‘hippotrophia’ (218). There are also some misspellings of scholars’ names (e.g. of Sebillotte Cuchet [36]; Wycherley [138]; Zelnick-Abramovitz [139]; Priestley [152]; Hochschulz [176]; Sahlins [188]; Millett [222]; more in the bibliography).