BMCR 2021.11.24

Religious discourse in Attic oratory and politics

, Religious discourse in Attic oratory and politics. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 176. ISBN 9781138570863 $128.00.


Serafim has produced a scholarly volume of significant erudition. In exploring the use of religious discourse across the entire canon of the Attic orators, Serafim has emphasised the importance of understanding religion in oratory, adding considerably to the knowledge of this topic. This book is very timely, with many connections that can easily be drawn to modern political life. What makes this particularly relevant is the use of modern frameworks to understand sociological phenomena, such as religion, identity and the importance of contexts in society. The utilisation of neurological studies of the impact of religion on the brain has shed new light on the significance of this aspect of Attic oratory in an almost multi-disciplinary manner. Serafim regularly positions this book in relation to Martin (2009),[1] which only examined religious discourse in a sample of Demosthenes’ oratory, making this the most in-depth study available on the use of religion in Attic oratory.

An Introduction orients the reader, defining religious discourse as any reference to religion, the gods or their agents (and an outline of all types, with examples, is provided, pp. 4-9). Serafim points out that there are 931 sections of text in the canon of the ten Attic orators that contain such references, and the overall aims of the book are to explore the way religious discourse was used to create a community and exclude others, to understand the responses these references were intended to elicit, and to examine the differences in the three genres of oratory. The association between law and transgression of religious customs and regulations points to the paramount importance of religion in society, meaning that religion was always an important tool in the orator’s toolkit. The key point, that religion was the “glue that kept social groups together” is explored, but as a genuinely held belief, whereas no reference is made here to the fact that orators would have exploited this cynically for their own benefit.

Chapter 1 explores the full corpus of Attic oratory, noting the main themes that arise from each of the orators’ use of religious discourse, pointing out that religion could be exploited by speakers (pg. 33). He addresses each orator and their various genres of oratory separately, and in appropriate detail, though he seems not to differentiate genuine speeches from the spurious ones (e.g. Demosthenes 7 is generally attributed to Hegesippus), and there is no comment on how he has addressed this difficulty.

Chapter 2 explores the importance of context and individual choice in the use of religious discourse in the genres and sub-genres of oratory. It begins by exploring the concept of ‘new institutionalism’ (pp. 63-64). This theory is used to frame the notion that religious discourse was expected to be used differently in the various genres of Attic oratory. Serafim does not quite make the leap to explore how it was that these expectations were shaped by the society or context, be it from experience or expediency (p. 64), which would have fitted well within the parameters of the study. Serafim makes important points about the connection between the ethos of the speaker and oratory (p. 65), and the importance of oaths to create and emphasise the notion of community, using modern psychological studies to show how people who use oaths are found to both be more trustworthy and to act in a manner that is more moral (pp. 66-67). However, one wonders at the cynical use of oaths at times, particularly as he states later (pp. 69-70) that religious discourse was more often used to attack the opponent in prosecution speeches. Serafim accounts for such differences by claiming that context and individual preference determine the use of religious discourse (pp. 69-74). While he is likely correct that the use of religious discourse was a matter of personal preference (both in its frequency and form taken), his characterisation of the near-complete absence of it in Lysias is surely mistaken. Serafim argues that the lack of great issues in Lysias’ speeches, as they were largely about private suits of less importance, determined the lack of religious discourse (p. 74). Surely, as Seraphim himself notes, religious discourse had the power to characterise the opponent in a certain light and to create a powerful image of the ethos of the speaker; this was a powerful tool, and when compared to Demosthenes’ extreme use of it (in 460 sections of text), the limited use of it in Lysias’ oratory, similar to Andocides’ sparing use of it, probably reflects a change over time. While religious discourse could be used differently by various orators, it is more likely that its infrequent use in earlier oratory reflected the norms and expectations of the early fourth century – conventions change, as they likely did in this case.

The notion of the ‘airy nothing’, first referred to by Boyer (2001),[2] frames the discussion in chapter 3 (p. 82). Serafim investigates the reactions of the audience to what was said, and the reaction that was expected, by the speaker to his oratory, acknowledging the difficulty in doing this. He categorises reactions as physical/sensory reactions (broken down into verbal and non-verbal) and cognitive/emotional reactions triggered by the use of religion (pp. 82-83). He begins by examining the importance of hypocrisis, the performative aspects of the speech (pp. 83-90), linking this to a modern study which finds that such actions connect the speaker to the audience (p. 84), heightening the impact of religious discourse. Serafim then examines the thorubos of the audience (pp. 90-95), linking it to ‘active audience theory’, but emphasising that the way the audience reacted would vary from person to person, making it polysemic (p. 91). This plurality of understanding makes it impossible to examine a definitive ‘collective’ response to the speaker, but Serafim highlights the possibility of examining attested and invited reactions of the audience. To do this, he explores the linguistic and semantic provisions of the text in conjunction with ancient sources (pp. 92-95). Such linguistic features, Serafim argues, help us to understand the reaction that would have been expected, even required, of the audience, demonstrating the importance of the religious discourse.

Serafim here also explores audience emotional and cognitive responses (pp. 95-110). What is particularly interesting is the incorporation of modern neuroscientific research that demonstrates the impact of religious discourse on the audience (pp. 95-96). He points to functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of the brain, which found that areas of the brain used in deciphering people’s emotions and intentions were activated when phrases referencing a god were read. This has a significant impact on understanding the importance of religious discourse because references to the gods likely had a crucial impact, creating certain emotions in the audience and towards the speaker. Scrutiny of the actions of jurors by the gods, invocations of the Earth and Sun and prayers all played a role in developing a relationship with the audience, but what seems to be lacking is the way that this also develops the ethos of the speaker, particularly when these rhetorical features appear early in a speech. Serafim also points to linguistic features which help to address the audience more directly (pp. 100-01). This allows him to transition to an exploration of how the gods are solemnised to create an emotional disposition in the audience (p. 101-03). Serafim also explores references to medical terminology in religious discourse, primarily at times when infectious diseases were in the living memory of the audience (pp. 103-04), though I would question the level of its impact on the audience in the latter 4th century, particularly as there was no immediate contagion in Athens at the time. Serafim then utilises modern studies on the impact of fear in oratory as a tool of persuasion (p. 104), moving on to examine emotionally charged utterances that reference the gods, aimed at creating a negative view of the opponent (p. 106). The exploration of word choice in this context is appealing, again exploring the way orators use tense and mood to convey deeper meaning to the audience (p. 106-10).

Chapter 4 examines the importance of religious discourse in creating civic and political identities in oratory, primarily for the purpose of either showing inclusion in, or exclusion from, the group. Its aim is to demonstrate the connection between religion and civic ideology, and that heroes and statesmen were particularly used to develop this ideology. After a somewhat lengthy exploration of interdisciplinary approaches to identity and community in modern scholarship (pp. 121-26), Serafim takes the perspective that identity can be both individual and communal, and it can be used either to include or exclude, using ‘Social Identity’ theory to frame the discussion. This is a useful framework to use in Attic oratory, where identity is critical in all genres. Serafim emphasises the importance of religion in creating a strong identifier in Attic oratory, as it was a powerful unifier of the Athenian state, which attached a strong value to piety and proper religious observance (pp. 123-26). Serafim points out the strong connection between piety and justice that is drawn by the orators, with speakers often invoking the gods as witnesses to decisions in court (p. 126-27). He argues that this gives the formulaic address, “O, men of Athens” or “O, men of the jury” a particularly religious tone because of the constant association of the divine in oratory. This religious community, formed by Athenian citizens, is the ‘Identified’, the group who is addressed in religious discourse, while the opponent in court or politics is depicted as being outside of this identified group, which marginalises the opponent and evokes negative feelings as a result of the implied irreligiosity or impiety.  It is argued that the use of heroes or statesmen was particularly effective in framing the identity used to exclude others, with a particular focus on the religiosity of these exemplars, though, as Serafim points out, there are not enough uses of heroes and statesmen (only eighteen in the corpus of Attic orators) to draw larger conclusions.

Chapter 5 is a simple recapitulation of the key aims of the book and its findings. It does offer some useful insights into possible future directions for research and how the book has provided the framework for that.

Overall, the book bears out the key areas of argument well. The idea that religious discourse formed an important aspect of all genres of oratory, though in varying ways and with different purposes, is consistently demonstrated, using a variety of excerpts from the orators. When appropriate, the different genres of oratory are addressed explicitly, though there is at times a larger focus on Demosthenes and Aeschines (often for valid reasons). Importantly, while other works explore the way that religion was used to create a civic identity, this is the only scholarly work that attempts to address the issue of how this was made manifest in Attic oratory, and how people did, and were expected to, react to such references. I find the editorial choice to include footnotes and reference lists at the end of each chapter a little frustrating for locating references, and there several are minor inconsistencies, such as orators lowering their left hand for the chthonic gods in one place (p. 84) and raising their left for them in another (p. 89), and the reference to three areas of investigation when there were only two (p. 20). Otherwise, this is a fine volume on a topic that, given the current political climate and the importance of religion in politics, is timely and even cautionary to all citizens in democratic countries to be mindful of the way religion is used in political discourse.


[1] Martin, G. (2009). Divine Talk: Religious Argumentation in Demosthenes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.