BMCR 2020.05.36

Le epistole di Demostene. Introduzione, traduzione e commento retorico-filologico

, Le Epistole di Demostene : introduzione, traduzione e commento retorico-filologico. Hellenica, 78. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2019. vi, 535 p.. ISBN 9788862748728 €57.00.

A part of Demosthenes’ corpus that has been very much overlooked throughout the centuries is his letters. In the most recent OCT edition of Demosthenes, by Mervin Dilts (2002),[1] we find no trace of them. If the (unstated) criterion for the exclusion of these pieces is the suspicion that they’re not authentic, one may find it surprising that in the same edition other works attributed to Demosthenes are included which are likely spurious, e.g. Against Neaera (attributed to Apollodorus of Acharnae), On Halonnesus (most likely by Hegesippus), On the Treaty with Alexander, and even the Erotic Speech. It is, therefore, much appreciated that a new extensive, well-structured, and even-handed commentary on these letters is now available in Italian thanks to Irene Giaquinta.

Le epistole di Demostene: Introduzione, traduzione e commento retorico-filologico is an extremely rich piece of scholarship. It is structured as follows:

1. A bibliography at the beginning of the book.

2. A long introduction, containing methodological observations and general remarks on the collection of epistles. This includes a discussion of the status quaestionis on their authenticity, which, despite Dilts’s wariness, had been well demonstrated, at least for epistles I-IV, by Goldstein in 1968,[2] and already asserted for epistle VI by Foucart.[3] Giaquinta agrees with both scholars on the subject, and she is even open to the possibility of the authenticity of epistle V, only vaguely admitted by MacDowell before.[4] Extremely detailed individual introductions to single letters conclude the introductory section. They contain an efficient summary of the main arguments and a short analysis of the rhetorical structure of each letter. Parallels with loci found in rhetoricians are substantial and carefully outlined — they enrich considerably the framework provided by Goldstein.

3. The text is preceded by a critical note. The text is that of Rennie (OCT 1931),[5] which Giaquinta adopts even when she distances herself from his textual choices. The critical note is the place where the author discusses textual issues which she believes too complex to be dealt with efficiently in a simple critical apparatus. Finally, a review of direct and indirect traditions includes all codices, papyri, and quotations, and discusses them in a clear and critical way.

4. The Greek text and Italian translation are placed in parallel.

5. The second half of the book is occupied by a remarkably voluminous lemmatized commentary to the six letters.

6. The volume concludes with useful analytical indexes: notable topics, rhetorical and judicial terms, proper names and places, and cited passages.

Giaquinta’s work is extremely meticulous. The bibliography is rich and up-to-date, the only missing item that is specifically relevant to the letters being G. Westwood (2016).[6]

This volume advances the studies on Demosthenes’ letters and ancient epistolography from many points of view. First of all, Giaquinta expands the lexical research on these letters by considering epigraphical materials. Other great merits of this work are that it looks at the epistolary collection in its entirety, and that the commentary provides solid analysis of its loci vexati.

It is evident that Giaquinta is familiar with the wide and complex discourse on ancient rhetorical theory. For each letter, she discusses and applies the rules of rhetorical theory rigorously and successfully. She starts from the assumption that these letters are speeches pronounced in absentia, and therefore identifies the rhetorical genre (deliberative, judiciary, epideictic), whenever possible. In most of the cases she identifies a mixture of different genres.

Giaquinta’s excellent commentary will undoubtedly become a fundamental tool for scholars interested in oratory and epistolography, therefore the quibbles that follow are not meant in any way to detract from my overall appreciation for the fine quality of her work.

A few remarks on the translations are necessary. In general, the rendition of the Greek is good and the Italian is neat. However, periods are often too long and sometimes difficult to follow as they adhere too closely the original structure of the Greek. Occasionally, lexical choices seem weak or arbitrary, and some interpretations of less clear portions of text are not entirely convincing. An enlightening case is shown by the translation of πόρνος (Ep. 4.11) as “indegno” (“worthless”). Although, in the commentary, Giaquinta explicitly discusses accusations of male prostitution in this letter and other public speeches, showing that she has fully understood the true meaning of the passage, she does not justify her translation, which deprives the accusations made in the letter of their pungent tone. Furthermore, shortly after, the expression καὶ τοῦμὲν πατρός ἐστι κρείττων, τῶν δ’ αἰσχρῶν ἥττων is translated as “è migliore del padre in malvagità, ma peggiore nelle turpitudini” (“he is better than is father in wickedness, but worse than him in turpitude”). In her commentary, Giaquinta clarifies that she derives the supplement “in malvagità” from D’Angelo (1963),[7] whom she seems to follow wholeheartedly in more than one place in her translation. However, it seems to me that the actual meaning should be something on these lines: “he (acts like) he’s better than his father, but he is dominated by degenerate people” (or degenerate acts, if we think αἰσχρων neuter). At n.99, p. 457, Giaquinta acknowledges translations of this sort, such as Goldstein’s and Clavaud’s, but still prefers D’Angelo’s. The concept of “in wickedness”, however, in my opinion, cannot be deduced from the text, and rather makes the meaning more obscure.

The extensive commentary is definitely praiseworthy. The discussion is dense and structured in long paragraphs—sometimes perhaps too long, hindering easy consultation. As in the rest of the volume, the apparatus of footnotes is massive and, though very rich, is sometimes distracting. The commentary itself is ample, divided by partitiones oratoriae, at least when it is possible to identify them. Each partitio has a descriptive heading, followed by a lemmatic commentary. The levels of investigation are multiple: there are linguistic considerations, a detailed and deep analysis of the rhetorical structure, fine attention dedicated to the Athenian legal practices, and lists of conspicuous literary parallels from oratory, but not only from this genre. A good portion of the discussion is dedicated to the reconstruction of the performance of these letters.

Within the wide discussion, some points stand out as particularly insightful, among which I would like to mention Giaquinta’s interesting intuition that some ideas and concepts of Ep. II can be found in Dem. 11 (generally attributed to Anaximenes of Lampsacus in the light of Didymus’ commentary): this would be a further argument in favour of the authenticity, if Anaximenes was able to read the letter.

What is striking — and sometimes puzzling — is Giaquinta’s optimism that the corpusculum of letters is entirelyauthentic.

I would like to focus briefly on two main points: the opening paragraph of Ep. I, and Ep. V.

The former is a short prayer to the gods at the beginning of Ep. I, which has looked misplaced to scholars, since it opens only letter I, the last to have been sent by Demosthenes. Giaquinta does not even consider the possibility of an interpolation meant to introduce the corpusculum. She reads it in relation to the prayers at the beginning of the speech On the Crown, and in particular to what rhetorical manuals say about exordia. Her discussion of prayers and exordia in rhetorical theory is undoubtedly solid; however, it is worth remembering that ancient treatises on epistolary theory do not contain examples of prayers as opening of a letter. Although the ‘borderline’ nature of Demosthenes’ epistles, written in the form of letters, but greatly similar to public speeches, certainly makes this discourse less straightforward, it is crucial to bear in mind that none of the rhetoricians dealing with epistolary theory ever discusses or even incidentally mentions proemia to letters or prayers included in them. Moreover, it is extremely odd that a paragraph of the sort is set at the beginning of only one letter, especially if we consider that the order of these six letters in the corpus does not correspond to the chronological order in which they were supposedly written (i.e. for the four from the exile most likely III, II, IV, I).[8] Giaquinta does not sufficiently explain why such a proemium only appears in this letter, which does not appear particularly deserving of an initial prayer, or at least it does not seem to require one more than the others would do.

The latter case is even more complex. Before Giaquinta, nobody apart from MacDowell (who was, however, very cautious) thought Ep. V could be genuine, in part because it contains the typical rhetorical school motifs of linking important personalities of the past, e.g. Plato and Demosthenes. Giaquinta starts her re-evaluation from a new stylistic analysis. It was commonly thought that the excess of short syllables in this letter makes it un-Demosthenic. Giaquinta’s point, however, is that the tribrachs in the letter are mostly found in proper names (taken as exceptions), and for other cases she provides parallels from other Demosthenic production. Her new approach involves linking prosody to the genre of the speech (private v. public) and to Demosthenes’ young age. She provides figures and percentages showing a higher number of short syllables in private speeches pronounced between 362-1. BC. Ep. V is private and belongs to those years, and here we have 26% of short syllables, which is about 15% lower than in early private speeches. The other epistles, on the contrary, are later and have a very low percentage of short syllables.

I definitely agree with Giaquinta that the widespread scepticism about Ep. V’s authenticity should not overshadow its interesting elements, and I wish she had discussed the idea of Ep. V being a product of the school environment, showing where and when a letter like this could be have been composed and for what purposes. We know that themes related to Demosthenes appeared in very early rhetorical declamations,[9] as shown by P.Berol. 9781, a reply to the speech against Leptines, from the 3rd century BC. Moreover, spuria penetrated the Demosthenic corpus quite early, if we think of Anaximenes’ paternity of Dem. 11-12. The fact that an intellectual friendship between Plato and Demosthenes is not implausible is not enough to prove the letter is genuine, especially given that we have no further evidence for it, and this would have still been a popular topic of discussion in (Hellenistic?) rhetorical schools. Moreover, the Platonic elements in Ep. 5 are not, as Giaquinta argues, an argument in favour of the authenticity, but just seem to confirm that Plato was widely read in schools

These individual problems, are, however, very small compared to the majestic work that Giaquinta has produced. On the whole this edition and commentary is a solid and refined piece of scholarship, and certainly contributes substantially to advance Demosthenic studies. It complements and expands Goldstein’s groundbreaking re-examination of Demosthenes’ letters, texts that, like the epistles of other orators, surely deserve more scholarly attention.


[1] Dilts M. (2002–2009) Demosthenes, Orationes, I–IV, (Scriptorum classicorum bibliotheca Oxoniensis), Oxford.

[2] Goldstein J. A. (1968) The Letters of Demosthenes, New York – London.

[3] Foucart P. (1912) ‘La sexième lettre attribuée à Démosthène’ Journal des Savants 10, 49-54.

[4] MacDowell D. M. (2009) Demosthenes the Orator, Oxford, 408–26.

[5] Butcher S.H. and Rennie W. (1850-1931) Demosthenes, Orationes, IV, Oxford.

[6] ‘Nostalgia, Politics, and Persuasion in Demosthenes’ Letters’, in E. Sanders and M. Johncock (eds.), Emotion and Persuasion in Classical Antiquity, Stuttgart, 75-90.

[7] D’Angelo G. (1963), Le epistole di Demostene 1, 2 3, 4. Saggio critico e traduzione, Catania.

[8] Letter V is, as said, to be attributed to Demosthenes’ youth, while letter VI is set in the period of the Lamian war.

[9] Canevaro M. (2018), ‘Demosthenic Influences in Early Rhetorical Education’ in Canevaro M. and Gray B. (2018), The Hellenistic Reception of Classical Athenian Democracy and Political Thought, Oxford, 73-93.