BMCR 2020.07.15

Forensic narratives in Athenian courts

, , Forensic narratives in Athenian courts. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. x, 267 p.. ISBN 9781138099647 $155.00.

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

Scholars in recent decades have devoted much attention to forensic oratory and narrative separately but have left understudied the narratives contained within forensic oratory. This edited volume seeks to fill this gap. The articles contained within represent a wide range of theoretical and scholarly perspectives, but they form a cohesive whole thanks in no small part to how well these pieces interact with each other. The resulting volume provides a great starting point for Athenian forensic narrative studies. While each of the contributions in this volume merits discussion, space constraints entail limiting the focus to those that I found especially interesting.

Dimos Spatharas observes in his introduction that, despite the recent rise in interest in narrative studies, the narratives in forensic oratory have been neglected. This book, arising from a panel at the Celtic Conference on the Classics in 2016, seeks to begin to remedy this. Spatharas explains that this book considers narrative writ large—not merely the discrete narrative section of a speech, but all acts of narration in forensic orations. This is important to note, since several of the contributions, such as that by Peter A. O’Connell, treat as narrative parts of a speech that would not previously have been considered as such. Spatharas also distinguishes approach found in this book from the popular methodological approach of narratology, on the grounds that narratology is an unhistorical way to approach ancient narratives (4). Several contributions (including Ruth Webb’s piece that is cited in numerous other chapters), however, make very productive use of narratology to efficiently discuss phenomena that have been identified by narratologists without the need for clumsy periphrases.

Brenda Griffith-Williams’ chapter, “Social norms and the legal framework of forensic narratives in disputed inheritance claims,” looks at how social norms shape the narratives in inheritance disputes. Since, as she points out, these disputes are often concerned with the facts themselves rather than the legal implications of the facts, it is of utmost importance that the story be credible (55). She thus examines five inheritance disputes to look at how social norms and the legal issues shaped the facts included in the narratives. Although she engages with work that assesses the “relevance” of the details included in forensic narratives (for an example of this type of work, see Christine Plastow’s chapter), her approach is new and refreshing. Rather than attempting to determine what constitutes relevance and then judging how well the speeches conform to this standard, she begins with the assumption that details are included for a reason and then attempts to derive the legal and social background for that reason.

Keeping with the volume’s goal of treating narrative broadly, Peter A. O’Connell’s chapter, “The story about the jury” concerns not the story that litigants relate about past events, but rather the one they present about what is happening at the time of their narration. This narrative, he argues, uses common techniques such as characterization and hypothetical situations to tell a story that seems to inevitably lead the jury to ruling in favor of the speaker. He shows, among other things, how speakers cast the jury as their allies in an attempt to make their support seem mandatory. O’Connell concludes that the jury narrative that he has identified and analyzed was just one tool in the orator’s persuasive tool kit. This fascinating analysis of how orators portray the jury in their narratives would benefit from further work, and an extended study examining the entire corpus of Attic oratory in this light would be welcome.

Ruth Webb, in “As if you were there: Enargeia and spatiality in Lysias 1,” a chapter cited by many other contributors, discusses the nature and function of enargeia in Lysias 1. After first demonstrating that enargeia is about producing an affective presence, not just a visual one, in the minds of the audience, she then argues that this was the method used in Lysias 1 to induce the jury to experience Euphiletus’ emotions on discovering his wife’s affair. This demonstrates a technique with which, as O’Connell discusses, the orator casts the jury in a supporting role in his narrative. I am skeptical of Webb’s analysis of the moment of Eratosthenes’ death in §§25–6 as a shift in perspective from that of Euphiletos to that of a non-participant observer (p. 162), but this has no impact on her larger argument.

Eleni Volonaki’s chapter, “Reconstructing the past: Forensic storytelling about the Athenian constitution in Lysias 12 and 13,” discusses Lysias’ technical violation of the Amnesty of 403 by narrating events of the oligarchic period in speeches 12 and 13. She compares how he relates time and space differently in each of these two speeches in pursuit of distinct rhetorical goals. This contribution builds nicely on Victoria Wohl’s discussion of narrating through the amnesty in Law’s Cosmos (Cambridge, 2010), but it would have greatly benefited in both economy and clarity if Volonaki had used the established narratological vocabulary when treating anachronies.

Victoria Wohl, much like O’Connell, is concerned with the time of the act of narration. In her chapter, “Temporal irony in Athenian forensic narrative: Lysias 1 On the Murder of Eratosthenes,” she identifies a “temporal irony” in forensic speeches that arises from a careful manipulation of the relationship of what she terms “narrative time”, i.e. the time that is being narrated, and “forensic time” the time at which the narrative is occurring. This irony, which has an effect similar to that of tragic irony, comes about because in the narrative time the juror can see hints that presage the crime that they already know about in forensic time. While Wohl’s analysis of Lysias 1 is compelling, it is less clear that temporal irony is a ‘strategy’ as she asserts. In defense speeches at least, by virtue of the fact that the prosecution has already given its narrative of the events in question, the jury will know, in forensic time, the outcome of the narrative; temporal irony is thus an inherent feature of defense narratives.

Christos Kremmydas’s chapter, “Truth and deception in Athenian forensic narratives: An assessment of Demosthenes 54 and Lysias 3”, provides a fascinating introduction to a useful theory for forensic narrative studies. He applies a tool from forensic psychology – Criteria-Based Content Analysis, a stage of Statement Validity Assessment – to determine whether the speakers in Demosthenes 54 and Lysias 3 are likely to be telling the truth. CBCA works by evaluating whether an account meets any of 19 different criteria, which include such things as unstructured production, reproduction of conversations, attributions of the perpetrator’s mental state, and spontaneous corrections. The presence of a criterion is ranked on a scale from zero to two, and if a narrative receives a higher score after totaling these rankings, under CBCA it has a higher probability of veracity. While he is careful to point out the difficulties of drawing confident conclusions from this methodology, the fact that CBCA returns an analysis that corresponds with existing scholarly views on these speeches suggests that this will turn out to be a useful tool for analyzing forensic narratives.

As evidence that Kremmydas’ work on identifying deceptive narratives is fruitful, Mike Edwards’ contribution, “Deceptive narratives in the speeches of Isaeus,” is an application of the theory from an earlier piece by Kremmydas, namely “The Discourse of Deception and Characterization in Attic Oratory” (2013, GRBS 53: 51–89). Edwards looks at how an analysis of the ways that deceptive topoi are applied in Isaeus can round out some of Kremmydas’ earlier work. The articles by Edwards and Kremmydas here complement one another in that each represents a refinement of Kremmydas’ previous work on deception in forensic narratives: Edwards by applying Kremmydas’ earlier approach to a new author, and Kremmydas himself by introducing a new approach.

Finally, Rosalia Hartzilambrou compiles discussions of forensic narrative by four ancient rhetoricians in her chapter, “Greek teachings about forensic narrative.” This helps us understand the likely intentions of the orators in their narratives, and it also provides the earliest examples of the sort of secondary scholarship being undertaken in this book. Hartzilambrou compares their recommendations for what the characteristics of a narrative should be, and she looks at what they thought its value was. The apparent view of the rhetoricians that a narrative was not a significant persuasive tool is of note, given that the majority of work on forensic narrative both prior to this book and within it assumes that the narrative had a persuasive purpose. It is unfortunate, given how frequently the other pieces in this book cite each other, that the other authors did not attempt to address this fact when analyzing the persuasive powers of various narrative strategies.

One minor complaint is that the order in which the chapters appear is perhaps not optimal. In this review I discussed Edward’s chapter out of order because of its clear link with Kremmydas’ work. Webb’s work on enargeia is cited in five of the thirteen other articles but is placed toward the end, in the last third of the book. Hartzilambrou’s excellent article on discussions of forensic narrative by Greek rhetoricians provides a great deal of context for the other pieces but is rather perplexingly the final article in the book. For a book that does such a good job in presenting disparate pieces that interact with and build on one another, it is unfortunate that the chapter sequence does not follow a more logical principle.

The book nonetheless contributes substantially to Athenian forensic narrative studies and offers a wide range of exciting approaches that should inspire more scholars to explore this topic.

Authors and Titles

Dimos Spatharas, “Introduction”
Michael Gagarin, “Storytelling in Athenian Law”
Catherine Psilakis, “Storytelling about laws and money: Solon on stage (Demosthenes 24.212–214)”
Christine Plastow, “The devil’s in the detail: Including ‘irrelevant’ details in homicide narratives”
Brenda Griffith-Williams, “Social norms and the legal framework of forensic narratives in disputed inheritance claims”
Mike Edwards, “Deceptive narratives in the speeches of Isaeus”
Peter A. O’Connell, “The story about the jury”
Noboru Sato, “Inciting thorubos and narrative strategies in attic forensic speeches”
Kostas Apostolakis, “Political ideology and character portrayal in Apollodorus’ forensic narratives: [DEM.] 50 Against Polycles
Eleni Volonaki, “Reconstructing the past: Forensic storytelling about the Athenian constitution in Lysias 12 and 13”
Ruth Webb, “As if you were there: Enargeia and spatiality in Lysias 1”
Victoria Wohl, “Temporal irony in Athenian forensic narrative: Lysias 1 On The Murder of Eratosthenes
Nick Fisher, “Narrative and emotions in Pseudo-Demosthenes 47, Against Euergus and Mnesiboulus
Christos Kremmydas, “Truth and deception in Athenian forensic narratives: An assessment of Demosthenes 54 and Lysias 3”
Rosalia Hatzilambrou, “Greek teachings about forensic narrative”