BMCR 2020.07.48

Demosthenes. Selected political speeches

, Demosthenes. Selected political speeches. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xi, 297 p.. ISBN 9781107610842. $32.99 (pb).


Demosthenes has been subject to renewed interest in the last twenty years: commentaries on individual speeches, biographies and more general historical works testify to the persistent vitality of this orator as well as the wide variety of views on him.[1] However, most of Demosthenes’ political speeches still lack a modern and reliable commentary – some notable exceptions being Jan Radicke on On the Freedom of the Rhodians (Stuttgart–Leipzig 1995), István Hajdú on the Fourth Philippic (Berlin–New York 2002), and Cecil Wooten on the First Philippic (Oxford–New York 2008). Herrman’s commentary is thus particularly welcome.

This book appears in the well-known Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series. Originally designed to meet the needs of sixth-formers and undergraduates in the British educational system, this series has gradually evolved into fully fledged commentaries that are also aimed at more advanced students as well as scholars.[2] Herrman’s book is no exception to this trend, as he himself states in his Preface (p. ix: “The primary audience for this book are advanced students … Furthermore, since we lack recent commentaries intended for specialists, I have also endeavored to address some of the concerns of scholarly readers”). Herrman certainly manages to attain his goal.

The selection of speeches offered by this book reflects its twofold aim: the three Olynthiacs, the First Philippic, and the Third Philippic provide the reader with an excellent springboard to understand the sometimes intricate Demosthenic style (the Olynthiacs are shorter and relatively more accessible to beginners), and at the same time offer a comprehensive view of Demosthenes’ political activity given that the selected speeches span a period of about ten years, from 352/1 to 341.

The introduction starts by outlining Demosthenes’ career and his historical background, focusing on the conflict between Athens and Philip. This section integrates discussions of individual speeches into the historical narrative and highlights the development of Demosthenes’ role as a prominent voice in Athens. Perhaps some further remarks could have been included about Demosthenes’ allies and opponents, in addition to the various references in the commentary, in order for students to have a broader picture of the orator’s political context. For example, no mention is made of Eubulus, despite his importance in Demosthenes’ early political career.

The introduction clearly presents an overview of the form and context of assembly speeches in general, and analyses evidence not only from orators and rhetoricians but also from historians. A comprehensive description of linguistic and stylistic features of Demosthenic speeches follows, touching upon syntax, rhythm, rhetorical figures, imagery, and tone.

Herrman also manages the difficult task of explaining the long-disputed question of the publication of Demosthenes’ speeches. He re-examines the main evidence and concludes that the speeches had an early circulation in the fourth century and that at least some of them were strictly connected to one another (such as the Olynthiacs). Herrman argues that Demosthenes himself published his speeches and that such speeches were meant principally for an “analytical reader” (p. 25). However, as he himself concedes, the evidence is not always decisive, and the conclusions remain tentative.

The inclusion of a section devoted to the “afterlife of the speeches” helps students to put Demosthenes’ speeches in perspective, and to understand how his emergence as a political and rhetorical model was the result of a historical process. The last part of the introduction deals with textual tradition, especially with the “two versions” of the Third Philippic: Herrman goes along with the hypothesis that Demosthenes shortened his speech for a non-Athenian reading public, although he suggests the revision is unfinished.

The text printed by Herrman is based on Dilts’s OCT edition, but differs from it on a considerable number of points. Surprisingly, Herrman makes no mention of this in the introduction, nor does he offer a list of divergences from Dilts, perhaps for reasons of space. Herrman’s text shows a high level of independence from Dilts and improves on his text in several ways. Generally speaking, Herrman is more prone to reject conjectures or deletions that are not strictly necessary (for example, at 1.19, where στρατιωτικά is retained and explained on the basis of very precise historical arguments). Only occasionally does this lead him to print a text which does not seem completely acceptable, as he himself remarks, for example on p. 95 on 1.21 ὡς ἐπιών.

The commentary is very detailed: from pages 77 to 265 there are about five pages for every page of the Greek text. It offers ample linguistic guidance to students, sometimes complementing notes with visual outlines of periods (see for example pp. 104, 106, 119), or including translations for more difficult phrases. Such translations are not merely literal, which allows students to reconstruct the grammar by themselves. Herrman generally finds the right balance. Only occasionally does he give too much information (p. 134: “ἠνώχλει is imperf. of ἐνοχλέω”) or too little (e.g. p. 130 on 3.1, where the meaning of οὐχὶ τὴν οὖσαν and the rhetorical connotation of ὑπόθεσις probably merited a few more words).

Stylistic features, especially repetitions and correspondences between different points of the text, are amply analyzed. Particularly interesting are references to elements signaling the closure of speeches: e.g. p. 100 on ring composition in 1.28 or p. 265 on the repetition of ταῦτα in 9.76. In some cases, a close connection is established between style and content, with syntactical peculiarities “visualizing” ideas expressed in the text, e.g. pp. 227-228 on 9.28-29. Although these kinds of notes are based on assumptions that might not be shared by everyone, they nonetheless result in very interesting observations. Due reference is made to standard works, such as Denniston’s Greek Particles and Greek Prose Style. Almost every syntactical explanation is accompanied by a reference to Smyth’s Greek Grammar, making it extremely easy for students to learn or revise grammatical peculiarities, although scholars might miss references to other works, such as Kühner-Gerth.

While Herrman provides enough linguistic guidance to aid the beginner, he is careful not to maintain the same level of explanation throughout the commentary. As the reader advances, linguistic explanations become sparser and more attention is given to rhetorical, historical, and political matters. This structure is supported by a system of cross-references, which allows the author to distribute the material across different speeches. One issue is that this system is at times a little cryptic, since references usually only include the first word of a lemma, even if this is just an article or a conjunction: see p. 205, where the reference to 3.21 τόν is ambiguous.

More advanced students or scholars will certainly appreciate the references to other rhetorical genres. In fact, Herrman traces possible intersections between some passages and the funeral orations, highlighting differences in the rhetorical function of certain motifs, as on p. 149 on 3.24. Herrman investigates the political value of individual words, especially with regard to the representation of Philip as a tyrant, e.g. 1.23 ὑβριστής on p. 96, and uses a sophisticated method to analyze metaphorical usages (words and phrases are defined as “metaphorical” only when such a usage was not widely employed and standardized in fourth-century Greek: particularly insightful is the note on 3.31 ἐκνενευρισμένοι).

In general, Herrman’s commentary finds a middle way between Sandys’s merely grammatical approach[3] and Wooten’s more rhetorical focus. In so doing, it succeeds in walking the reader through the refined argumentative structure of the Demosthenic speeches and in analyzing the textual details that build up such a structure.

There are only a few areas where the accessibility of this commentary could have been improved. Perhaps it would have helped to have a short historical introduction at the beginning of each speech: although a wealth of information is given in the general introduction and under the single lemmata, such a summary would have helped the reader to grasp the not always clear background of the speeches under consideration. Moreover, certain rhetorical features could have been analyzed in more detail, for example the use of encomiastic elements as a form of exhortation, particularly given that Demosthenes often uses this device, which Herrman himself acknowledges, e.g. on pages 149 and 163. However, the commentary provides enough food for thought that students or scholars will feel encouraged to explore certain topics further on their own.

The bibliography is very well selected and, despite the aim of this commentary, the works cited are not limited to Anglophone scholarship. The book is very well edited: errors in the Greek or the English are very rare (p. 87: ὑπαρξόντων for ὑπαρξάντων, p. 90: “principle” for “principal”); two references are missing in the bibliography (Mader 2007b and Trevett 1996b); MacDowell 2004 is listed as MacDowell 2008. Interestingly, the author typeset the whole book by himself, using a TeX editor.

To sum up, this commentary is an excellent piece of scholarship. It will serve both students and scholars, and I believe it will represent the standard commentary for these Demosthenic speeches for many years to come. In addition, scholars interested in Greek oratory will surely benefit from the wealth of observations on historical and rhetorical details that successfully highlight the connections and differences between other orators and Demosthenes.


[1] An entire Oxford Handbook, edited by Gunther Martin, is devoted to Demosthenes (Oxford–New York, 2018); see the article by Thomas Paulsen in that handbook (Demosthenic Scholarship) for an overview of research trends from the eighteenth century to today.

[2] This has led to some memorable definitions such as that by Salvador Bartera: “learned commentaries disguised as school commentaries” (“Commentary Writing on the Annals of Tacitus,” in Classical Commentaries. Explorations in a Scholarly Genre, edited by Christina S. Kraus and Christopher Stray, Oxford; New York 2016, p. 130).

[3] See in particular John Edwin Sandys, The First Philippic and the Olynthiacs of Demosthenes, London 1897; Demosthenes – On the Peace, Second Philippic, On the Chersonese and Third Philippic, London 1900.