BMCR 2021.03.41

The rhetoric of the past in Demosthenes and Aeschines: oratory, history, and politics in classical Athens

, The rhetoric of the past in Demosthenes and Aeschines: oratory, history, and politics in classical Athens. Oxford classical monographs series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 432. ISBN 9780198857037 $115.00.


Westwood’s monograph (based on a 2013 D.Phil Thesis) is a welcome and important addition to the increasingly rich bibliography on the theme of the use of history and exemplarity in the Attic Orators.[1] An up-to-date study that supersedes the seminal work by M. Nouhaud[2] has long been a desideratum, and Westwood’s monograph, for its scope and thoroughness, delivers it. One may still wish to consult Nouhaud every now and then, since its generally thematic arrangement comes handier as a reference book. Nonetheless, this monograph is arguably set to take its place as the standard work on the subject.

As the title suggests, the book is almost totally devoted to Aeschines and Demosthenes – for the latter, more precisely, to his political speeches (i.e. those speeches delivered either in the Assembly, or in a lawcourt but characterised by an apparently political agenda). The book, however, comprises sparse yet sharp discussions on passages drawn from the whole of Athenian (non-judicial) oratory: to mention only a few, Andocides (chiefly On the Mysteries), the crucial section in Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates which extensively deploys historical paradigms (pp. 47-9), Hyperides (especially Against Diondas used as a comparison for Demosthenes’ On the Crown, p. 280), and Dinarchus (most notably Against Demosthenes). Throughout the book, the reader can find discussions of passages drawn from all of Demosthenes’ political speeches (1-24 – as well as 25-26 which the author deems not authentic).

When approaching this book, the issues the reader expects to be tackled are, first and foremost, two. The first is the role played by historical examples within the frameworks and structure of any given speech. In other words, the expedients and the strategies by which the orator/speaker embeds and exploits those paradigms for his purposes, whether to argue for a political proposition or to attack a litigant. The second issue is how those paradigms are interpreted, assimilated, and finally shaped by the orator and subsequently by his audience. The book engages thoroughly with both questions, but the discussion of the first is, in my view, the most satisfactory. Westwood’s analysis is constantly informed by ancient rhetorical theory, and his descriptions of rhetorical strategies are truly impressive in scope and depth. The author does, of course, examine broader and more theoretical problems, such as the role the past played in fourth-century politics in general. But the value of the book lies, most evidently, in its accurate study of how the past was used as a rhetorical device.

Chapter 1 ‘The Orators and the Athenian Past’, is the longest and arguably the most thought-provoking. Here, Westwood outlines his methodological and theoretical framework. Chap. 1.1 is devoted to physical memory carriers (monuments, statues, honorific monuments)[3] to which the Attic Orators appeal in their reference to the past. This section also anticipates some key themes, which are recurrent throughout the book: the degree of acquaintance with the past the speaker expects of the audience and, therefore, the extent to which he could shape and manipulate historical paradigms for his purposes. Chap. 1.3 looks at the historical development of the use of paradeigmata. It encompasses different genres: in this regard, I am not sure that historical examples in Aristotle’s Politics and Aeneas Tacticus can be fruitfully juxtaposed to those of the Attic Orators. Chap. 1.4 looks at the role of rhetorical handbooks. This is an underexplored and interesting problem—some points, though, are left open: is Westwood assuming that the orators consulted them for specific historical paradeigmata (as the famous excerpt on slave torture – p. 41), or were those manuals employed as a guide on how to handle those examples? Westwood holds that the Attic Orators made extensive use of textbooks, but such a conclusion is far from certain.

Particularly welcome, albeit brief, is chapter 1.7 on ‘Revision and Dissemination’ and ‘Authenticity and Authorship’. Anyone dealing with the corpus Demosthenicum (and, in fact, with nearly all corpora of the Attic orators) faces serious issues of composition, authorship, and chronology. In general, Westwood includes comprehensive notes and bibliography on these matters as soon as he introduces a speech in his discussion. This subchapter allows him to offer an overview of his position on these issues. As for dissemination of the speeches, Westwood follows MacDowell, Trevett, and Canevaro in postulating that Demosthenes did not circulate his speeches during his lifetime (pp. 74-6). On authorship, Westwood’s general approach is (rightly, I think) cautious: he rejects, for instance, the authenticity of D. 25,[4] and he is uneasy about accepting D. 13 (which he had considered genuine in previous articles). On the other hand, he accepts D. 10, cursorily dismissing some arguments against its genuineness. He is also content to deem D. 17 a non-Demosthenic piece dating to the 330’s, while some hints in the speech may, in fact, lead to a slightly later dating. Despite its conciseness, this section is a refreshing and up-to-date overview of the long-standing debate on the nature of the corpus.[5]

Chapter 2 reviews Demosthenes’ early speeches (D. 21-24). Most of the chapter is dedicated to Demosthenes’ Against Leptines, which makes use of a plethora of historical examples. Westwood shows, however, that the appeal to the past ‘is not an extra’, here or in the other judicial speeches. Emphasis is put on how, in Demosthenes’ characterisation, Leptines does not understand the past (p. 100); Demosthenes, conversely, is able to embed historical examples (in the form of excursus, or even of decrees) which, at first sight, appear unrelated (as the oath of Demophantus and Dracon’s homicide law). Westwood devotes ample space to the strategies D. deploys in connecting Chabrias to Conon, and to the presence of Solon (pp. 119-21), so as to reassert the continuum of Athenian glory.

Chapter 3 deals with Demosthenes’ Assembly Speeches (1-17). Orations delivered in the Assembly are idiosyncratic, in that they show how the orators used historical material for presenting themselves as civic figures (symbouloi) in front of the demos, rather than for competitive purposes. Westwood remarks that, to this end, the past Demosthenes refers to in his public speeches is, at the same time, both that of the city and his own (a theme one finds more extensively in the Crown speech). Due attention is paid to the theme of foresight as both a civic and rhetorical topos. The analysis of the Third Philippic is remarkably detailed and informed (pp. 146-53). Westwood’s argument becomes very convincing when he illustrates how Demosthenes was led to use fifth-century paradigms, since Philip’s threat could only be assimilated to Persia rather than any other intra-Greek conflict. The analysis of On the Chersonese chapters 73-5, a passage where a direct speech by Timotheus is embedded within the historical exemplum (pp. 172-6), is also thought-provoking. I am less convinced by the discussion of Pericles’ paradeigma. Periclean tradition was so illustrious that it could be appropriated by politicians of any leaning. Westwood goes as far as to tackle issues of hypokrisis and argues that memory of Pericles could also be ‘extra-textual’ (gestural/visual); but, as the author himself allows, the public would have hardly grasped this.

Demosthenes’ Against Midias and Aeschines’ Against Timarchus are the object of Chapter 4. The two speeches are juxtaposed as both prosecutions involve public morality. For Demosthenes’ speech, most of Westwood’s argument dwells on the most significant historical parallel there employed, the section about Alcibiades (21.143-50). In a subtle argument, Westwood critically unveils layers of interpretation in this excursus (given the ambiguity of the memory of Alcibiades in all of Attic oratory) – as the exemplum provides a term of comparison for Midias’ hybristic behaviour. In the same fashion, Aeschines’ use of the past in Against Timarchus is explicitly intended to sketch an ethos which is incompatible with that of Timarchus. To this end, Aeschines exploits an extraordinarily wide range of historical paradeigmata, all of which are analysed in detail in this chapter (ancient laws and legislators, particularly Solon; the Areopagus; poetic extracts; the moral integrity of the Spartan gerousia).

Chapter 5 and 6 consider the opposing speeches delivered for the Embassy Trial of 343 BCE on the one hand, and for the Crown Trial in 330 BCE on the other. These orations offer an invaluable case-study not only for their historical significance, but also because: i) they show how the two speechwriters shaped their strategies differently in the same circumstance, also in how they used the past; ii) they feature several anticipations/predictions of the opponent’s argument, with reference to the use of paradeigmata too (Westwood tends to see those as actual predictions, rather than ex-postadditions of the written versions circulated after the trial). As for D. 19, Westwood offers, among other points, a detailed survey of the Timagoras parallel, the epitome of the ‘corrupt envoy’ (Timagoras, member of an Athenian embassy sent to Persia in 367, had secret communications with Artaxerxes). The Crown’s Trial speeches stand out in how they handled the past: Demosthenes’ own past is juxtaposed to, and then identified with, the city’s recent past itself (pp. 278-9). Given the importance of the two pieces, much has been written on the subject. However, this chapter offers a well-thought-out survey of many paradeigmata employed and, most importantly, it contextualises their use comparing it to earlier speeches.

The summary above gives an idea of the thoroughness of the book. The reader, moreover, often runs into short yet tremendously helpful digressions: e.g., on the composition and meetings of the Assembly (pp. 131-3); the length of the Athenian trial (pp. 225-30). All in all, this is a learned and insightful book, accompanied by an up-to-date bibliography. My only general criticism has to do with its prose-style: sentences tend to be rather wordy, and sometimes convoluted – a feature which somehow hinders the efficacity of the book as a reference work, which the reader may wish to consult to check a specific passage (helped by the very detailed index).

The specialist tone of the book means that, perhaps, it will represent a precious tool for the experienced scholar rather than for the student approaching the subject for the first time. Nonetheless, it deserves to become a frequent point of reference. Slips are minor and of little importance.[6] The aim of the work, as is made explicit by the author, is to explore the orators’ treatment of the past to serve their own rhetorical purposes (that is, in order to persuade their audience); but the reader is left with a far more comprehensive portrait of how fourth-century Athenians looked at their past more generally. Westwood’s monograph will represent a fundamental tool for anyone approaching the theory and practice of paradeigmata in Athenian political oratory.


[1] Cf. the key work by B. Steinbock, Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse: Uses and Meanings of the Past, Ann Arbor 2013, where considerable space is given to Attic oratory. See also M. Canevaro, ‘Memory, the Orators, and the Public in Fourth Century BC Athens’, in P. Ceccarelli and L. Castagnoli (eds.), Ancient Memories. Theories and Practice. Cambridge 2019: 136-57; G. Westwood, ‘Views on the Past’, in G. Martin, The Oxford Handbook of Demosthenes, Oxford 2019: 179-90.

[2] M. Nouhaud, L’utilisation de l’histoire par les orateurs attiques, Paris 1982.

[3] Cf. J. Ma, ‘The City as Memory’, in B. Graziosi, P. Vasuniak, and G. Boys-Stones (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies, Oxford 2009: 248-59. The attention paid to physical memory carriers is constant – cf. pp. 110-1; 206-7.

[4] See the informed discussion by E. Harris, Demosthenes. Public Speeches 23-26. Translated with Introduction and Notes, Austin TX 2018.

[5] See also the recent overview by J. Trevett, ‘Authenticity, Composition, Publication’, in Martin 2019 (n. 1), 419-30.

[6] E.g. p. 1 n. 2, the number of a fragment of the comic poet Anaxandrides is given without the relevant edition (K. A.). A student would hardly grasp where to find the reference.