BMCR 2022.05.26

Gorgias’ “Lobrede auf Helena”: literaturgeschichtliche Untersuchungen und Kommentar

, Gorgias' "Lobrede auf Helena": literaturgeschichtliche Untersuchungen und Kommentar. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Band 143. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. ix, 393. ISBN 9783110643909 $149.99.

This book, a revised recent PhD dissertation, aims at providing a comprehensive commentary to Gorgias’ Helen from various—philological, literary, philosophical and historical—perspectives. The author presents diligently collected evidence on and references to Gorgias’ life and work, and also on his students. The enormous volume of research on Gorgias of the last two hundred years has been studied meticulously and is presented for the reader in a consistent and illuminating manner.

Chapter 1 discusses all the existing evidence with respect to Gorgias’ life. Chapter 2 deals with Gorgias’ work, with the exception of his Helen. Here Gorgias’ writings are divided into two parts: well attested work (such as On not-being, Palamedes, Funeral, Olympic and Pythic orations as well as Encomium for the Eleans) and dubious and spurious work.

The central focus of the book is chapter 3 where the Helen is discussed. The dating of Helen is debated at length, and the author leans towards the year 412 BCE as the most plausible date due to the immediate influence of Euripides’ Helen, performed in the same year, where the question of Helen’s guilt was “radically reassessed” (p. 96). The discussion about the Encomium of Helen is convincing and enriching. This text seems to be an ideal space for different theories and argumentations. The argumentation around logos dominates, and the speech as a whole represents a kind of ideal logos. Helen holds a double meaning and represents both teaching and sample speech (Lehr- und Musterrede), as well as advertising and programme writing (Werbe- und Programmschrift, pp. 113-121)An essential feature of Gorgias’ writing is the clear argumentative structure. In the Helen,  Schollmeyer reveals both the logical-rational and the emotional-irrational sides of Gorgias’ rhetoric. All emotions evoked by poetry, says Gorgias, are ultimately due to a logos, because poetry is basically just “logos with a metre”. Style and Gorgian prose should be understood as a means of persuasion, and it is evident that the three officia oratoris (docere-delectare-movere), which in later rhetorical theory designate the tasks of the orator, are already present in the Helen.

At this point Schollmeyer discusses the stylistic arrangement of Helen, and emphasises three parameters: first, Gorgias wrote deliberately in Attic dialect which was stylistically dependent on tragedy, the most effective literary genre for addressing an Athenian audience; second, Gorgias provided a real innovation in paying attention to the consistent application of the figures (the so-called γοργίεια σχήματα), and third,following the later rhetorical tradition, Gorgias established rhythm in prose (cf. Cic. Or. 175: paria paribus adiuncta et similiter definita itemque contrariis relata contraria, quae sua sponte, etiamsi id non agas, cadunt plerumque numerose, Gorgias primus invenit, sed iis est usus intemperantius.)

Finally, the textual transmission, commentaries and translations of the Helen are thoroughly discussed. Schollmeyer prints his text on the basis of the two Francesco Donadi’s editions (Rome 1982 and Berlin/Boston 2016), explaining Donadi’s apparatus in detail when necessary.[1] The detailed analysis of the state of research included here is very helpful indeed: the history of all editions, commentaries and translations of Gorgias’ Helen are represented and discussed in chronological order. Schollmeyer claims to have written the first comprehensive individual commentary on the Helen since Otto Immisch (Berlin/Leipzig 1927, in Latin).[2] His own German translation of the text follows “the most important criterion of translation” which is “to reproduce the meaning and wording of the original as completely and accurately as possible” (p. 145). The arrangement of chapters and paragraphs in detail makes visible the macrostructure of Helen.

At this point the introductory part of the monograph (pp. 1-147) ends. There follows (pp. 149-317) the text of the Helen with apparatus, translation and detailed commentary, which is based on the author’s deep knowledge of the bibliography. Particularly interesting is Schollmeyer’s discussion of φρίκη περίφοβος καὶ ἔλεος πολύδακρυς in Helen 9, 3. Schollmeyerconnects the passage with Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy and Lessing’s explanation that Aristotle’s phobosmust indeed be interpreted as ‘compassionate fear’ (pp. 236-240). Gorgias’ concept of fear is inseparable from the concept of compassion. Modern cognitive research and the idea that cognition develops from the interaction of living beings with their environment, and that the living being physically interacts with the environment, tend to understand phobos andeleos not as ‘fear and pity’, but ‘terror and being seized’, as bodily elemental effects, as an immediate feeling of shuddering and lamentation. Theoretically, these views are based on the doctrine of the four basic qualities of warm, cold, dry and moist. In this way, the symptoms phobos and eleos are firmly connected in the Hippocratic writings as terror and feeling.[3]  One might perhaps add here that Lessing himself was no stranger to understanding ‘fear and pity’ in this vein and that Lessing’s own acting theory also discusses the physiological experience of shared emotions in theatrical performance.[4]

Both students and advanced classicists will find Schollmeyer’s commentary useful.  The commentary is followed by an appendix where the ‘kai-hiatus method’ is discussed as a means of quantifying hiatus-avoidance in Gorgias and in later Greek prose literature. Schollmeyer reverts to the method of hiatus-avoidance that was very popular in 19th-century classical philology (Benseler in 1841, Maass in 1887, and Blass in 1887).[5] He offers his own method of quantifying hiatus-avoidance in prose. kai is a very common word in Greek, and thus the easiest to quantify hiatus cases. All those who do not avoid the kai-hiatus will have a similarly high potential for kai-hiatus, because they leave it to chance. Those who tend to avoid the hiatus or avoid it completely must have significantly fewer cases of kai-hiatus. The author counted the first 300 occurrences and compared them with each other. The results are used for the dating of the two texts the Helen and the Palamedes. In the Helen kai-hiatus corresponds to 37%, in the Palamedes to 5%, i.e. of the cases in which a vowel follows kai. Schollmeyer sees a certain evolution of style which allows him to conclude that “it seems reasonable to assume that Gorgias wrote Palamedes after Helen” (p. 323). Gorgias’ Palamedes is also said to be “perhaps the earliest case of hiatus-avoidance in Greek prose” (p. 323).

The old method of quantifying hiatus-avoidance reconstructed by Schollmeyer is intended to be refined in the future “with the help of computer-aided procedures” (p. 348). In my opinion the method should only be used after the entire digital corpus of Greek prose is examined for hiatus with the tools of corpus linguistics. Fortunately, this is feasible nowadays. Only then can the results be published with a certain degree of certainty. However, even if the results are interesting for the development of prose style in Greek, they are not sufficient for hiatus in classical Greek, and definitely not sufficient for hiatus in Gorgias simply because the texts are sporadic and fragmentary. To claim that Gorgias or – even worse! – Thrasymachus discovered hiatus-avoidance and that Isocrates adopted the hiatus-avoidance from Gorgias rather than Thrasymachus (sic p. 327) seems to me rash and unnecessary.

Schollmeyer’s is a meticulous and accurate study. I would perhaps pose a few questions concerning elements of his methodology. At times Schollmeyer is somewhat biased by his material, and this can affect his interpretation.  The much smaller volume by Laks and Most (2016) incorporates most of the necessary information on testimonies to Gorgias’ life and work.[6] The testimonies are arranged chronologically allowing the reader to differentiate earlier and later testimonies and evaluate their reliability. In Schollmeyer the testimonies are not arranged chronologically and, as a result, later testimonies, such as that by Philostratus (pp. 9-11), can seem decisive. Although Schollmeyer emphasises from the outset that the material is neither concrete nor complete, he reconstructs a life of Gorgias prior to 427 B.C., provides a description of the legation in 427, and continues with Gorgias’ life and work following 427. Schollmeyer’s reconstruction is not impossible, but it remains hypothetical and is based on often questionable later testimonies.

Similarly, Schollmeyer emends much of chapter 12, which has various textual corruptions. He acknowledges that the first part is irrevocably corrupted, but instead of translating the well-transmitted words and conveying the actual status of the text to the reader, he translates his own reconstructed version (p. 157). This too is hypothetical and therefore unnecessarily misleading.

Purported allusions to Gorgias are not always convincing. This is particularly evident in the handling of the complicated subject of Gorgias’ relationship with the Old Comedy. The attempts to find the references to Gorgias in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (p. 25-27), Thesmophoriazusae (p. 38-40), and even in the Babylonians (p. 38) where “perhaps Gorgias’ political activity in Athens is problematised”, remain highly hypothetical. Such considerations leave the reader with a feeling of “perhaps”. In the discussion of the well-known passage on metre as a border between poetry and prose (Ps.)-Epicharmus fr. 280 PCG is quoted. Schollmeyer’s interpretation of the fragment is biased by the reflection of contemporary rhetorical discourse, but nothing in this fragment, pace Schollmeyer (p. 233), is particularly Gorgianic (see the discussion in Favi 2020, 273-279).[7] Quite the contrary, the same themes were incorporated at around the time in both drama and in rhetorical and medical writings, pointing to current parallel discourses at work rather than direct dependence of one author on another.

All in all, the monograph presents significant, in-depth research that sheds light on old questions related to Gorgias’ life and work. Despite the ambiguities and methodological quibbles highlighted above, this is a careful and sensibly written book, which deals with a complex subject and includes a rich bibliography. It is especially recommended for students of Greek and readers interested in early Greek rhetoric.


[1] Francesco Donadi, Gorgia, Encomio di Elena, testo crit., intr., trad. e nn. Roma 1982; Francesco Donadi (ed.): Gorgias: Helenae encomium. Petrus Bembus: Gorgiae Leontini in Helenam laudatio. De Gruyter, Berlin 2016.

[2] Otto Immisch, Gorgiae Helena, recogn. et interpr. est, Berlin/Leipzig, de Gruyter, 1927.

[3] On the physical connotations of Aristotle’s catharsis-emotions, see already W. Schadewaldt, Furcht oder Mitleid? Zur Deutung des Aristotelischen Tragödiensatzes, Hermes 1955 83(2):129-171, and H. Flashar, Die medizinischen Grundlagen der Lehre von der Wirkung der Dichtung in der griechischen Poetik, Hermes 1956 84(1):12-48.

[4] Natalya Baldyga, Corporeal eloquence and sensate cognition: G. E. Lessing, acting theory, and properly feeling bodies in eighteenth-century Germany. Theatre Survey 2017, 58, (2) (05): 162-185.

[5] Gustav Eduard Benseler, De hiatu in oratoribus Atticis et historicis Graecis libri duo, Fribergae Engelhardt, 1841; Ernst Maass, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Griechischen Prosa, Hermes 1887 22(4):566-595; Friedrich Blass, Die attische Beredsamkeit, Band 1. Abtheilung: Von Gorgias bis zu Lysias, Leipzig, Verlag von B.G. Teubner, 1887.

[6] André Laks and Glenn W. Most (eds.), Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 531, 2016.

[7] Federico Favi, Epicarmo e pseudo-Epicarmo (frr. 240–297), Introduzione, traduzione e commento, Studia Comica – Band 010, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2020.