Greek oratory can be a forbidding subject for the uninitiated. On the one hand, students tend to come to Greek oratory with less background familiarity than they do to, say, Homeric poetry or Athenian tragedy. On the other, the subject matter itself is not easily unified in terms of author (the ten Attic orators, plus various and sundry sophists, philosophers, and historians), context (forensic, deliberative, epideictic), or even scholarly aim (the study of law, political theory, sociology, the “art” of rhetoric, etc.). While unfamiliarity with this disunified subject may make it difficult for students to find their footing, it is highly desirable that they should do so. For what it has to offer, Greek oratory ought to be a more popular subject than it is. More importantly, the field needs the diversity of new perspectives that greater popularity would bring it. This underlying situation is what makes introductory books like the one Matteo Pellegrino has written so welcome.
At just 134 pages, Pellegrino’s book is a concise introduction to Greek oratory. Since it is primarily meant for newcomers to the subject, Pellegrino focuses mostly on the basic, uncontroversial background information that one would need to know in order to read these speeches profitably for the first time. And since it is aimed at the general reader, the book is not burdened with citations, discussions of the scholarship, or argumentative self-positioning. Nevertheless, specialists will also find much of use in this slim volume, such as an extensive bibliography helpfully organized into various sections and subsections based on topic and author.
The book has five chapters, each of which covers the material from a different perspective. My impression is that the chapters are meant to be read in order, but there is enough overlap and recapitulation to allow for skipping around and selective reading. To take one example, the subject of logographers is treated in three different chapters (pg. 17, pg. 29, pp. 34-5). Read in order, these discussions get progressively more involved, but one could also skip to the final discussion without confusion.
The first chapter, “Oratoria e retorica,” provides a quick narrative of the historical roots of Greek oratory in Homer, its initial development by the sophists, its practical use by Athenian politicians, and its ongoing theorization by the rhetoricians. This chapter also introduces some basic terminology—e.g. “forensic,” “deliberative,” and “epideictic”—and sets the scene for later discussions.
The second chapter, “Il contesto dell’oratoria,” introduces the peculiar rhetorical situations presented by the institutions of Athenian democracy—namely, the boulē and the dikastērion. The chapter focuses a bit more on the institutions themselves than on exactly how the context provided by those institutions would have conditioned the speeches delivered there, but since the former are preliminary to the latter, this background is perhaps more useful to the reader anyway.
The third and fourth chapters, “Oratori attici di V-IV secolo a.C.” and “Oratori attici minori del IV secolo a.C.,” are the real heart of the book. The first of these covers Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, and Demosthenes; the second, Isaeus, Aeschines, Iperides, Lycurgus, Dinarchus, and Demades. Each orator is treated individually with separate subsections on their life, works, style, etc. The sections on the orators’ lives usefully outline the ancient sources on which these biographies are based. The sections on the orators’ works provide a nice overview of their corpora as well as more extensive discussions of select speeches, such as Isocrates’ Antidosis and Demosthenes’ Philippics. For reasons of space, not every speech can be covered, so naturally Pellegrino’s own interests shine through (he has convinced me that I have neglected the importance of Lysias 22: Against the Corn Dealers). The sections on style are concise and informative but would perhaps have benefited from some explanation of technical terms (e.g. “paronomasia,” pg. 53) as well as illustrative examples (more on this later). Overall, the information carefully collected and thoughtfully organized in this chapter will be of use not only to those learning about Greek oratory for the first time but also those looking to brush up on an author, topic, or individual speech.
The fifth and final chapter, “Passi antologi,” is a selection of translated passages drawn from ten speeches of the Attic orators (three each from Lysias, Isocrates, and Demosthenes; one from Aeschines). Everyone will naturally feel that their favorite speech has been left out (where is Against Meidias?), but the selection is perfectly suitable as an introduction to the corpus. One unfortunate oversight is the lack of cross-referencing between the discussions of these speeches in the third chapter and their excerpts in the fifth. A student sitting down to read the narratio of On the Murder of Eratosthenes on pp. 82-7 has no way of knowing that this speech is helpfully analyzed on pp. 37-8, nor is there an index in the back where they could look this up (another unfortunate oversight). This is a shame because the earlier discussions in Chapter Three are often more detailed than the blurbs set before each speech in Chapter Five. I note the correspondences here for any interested readers of the book: on Contro Eratostene 4-34 (pp. 77-82), see pg. 38; on Per l’uccisione di Eratostene 6-28 (pp. 82-7), see pp. 37-8; on Per l’invalido 4-20 (pp. 87-90), see pp. 38-9; on Panegirico 38-50 (pp. 91-94), see pp. 46-7; on Areopagitico 20-30 (pp. 94-6), see pp. 48-9; on Antidosi 180-92 (pp. 97-9), see pp. 51-2; on Seconda Olintiaca 22-30 (pp. 99-102), see pp. 59-60 (esp. pg. 59); on Terza Filippica 15-31, 36-40, 69-76 (pp. 102-7), see pp. 60-62 (esp. pg. 61); on Sulla corona 95-104, 192-210 (pp. 110-8), see pp. 62-3. Perhaps it would have been better still to interleave the selections from Chapter Five into Chapters Three and Four after the appropriate orator. Such an organizational structure would have allowed the subsections on style to be helpfully illustrated with concrete examples. Finally, a tiny quibble about the lack of any beginnings of speeches in these excerpts. In my view, the very beginnings of speeches are of particular rhetorical interest—as Demosthenes’ collection of Proemia attests—so their loss is felt, especially in cases where they would have been so easy to include (e.g. Lysias 12.4-34 and 24.4-20). Still, despite my quibbles about the organization of this chapter, the take-away has to be that it provides a fine introduction to the speeches of the Attic orators through well-chosen and thoughtfully presented selections.
To sum up, Pellegrino has done the field of Greek oratory a service by writing this accessible introduction to the subject. The book will no doubt be of great use to those just learning about the orators for the first time as well as those further along the journey who need a quick reminder about this or that. I know I will be returning to it often.