POET AND ORATOR: a Symbiotic Relationship in Democratic Athens

Ed. by Andreas Markantonatos and Eleni Volonaki

De Gruyter (2019) h/b 454pp £109 (ISBN 9783110626902)

This collection of nineteen papers is the fruit of a conference held in 2015. The overlap between oratory and poetry in Athens is clear and the comparison fruitful. Both genres had to please and/or persuade an audience of their peers sitting in judgement, both dealt with the personal and also the political, both allowed men to bare their soul in public and both sought to elicit fear and pity—and comic laughter—in no small measure.

The orators’ use of direct citations from poetry in their speeches is small, which is hardly surprising. Nobody likes a clever-dick, and orators—both forensic and political—could not afford to alienate the men judging their efforts, as Mike Edwards shows in his fine essay on ‘The Orators and Greek Drama’. Lysias, it was said, could write a speech for a client which sounded as if it came straight from the client’s heart—a form of empathetic composition close to the creation of a dramatic character. Eleni Volonaki (discussing Lycurgus’ In Leocratem) analyses the ways in which rhetoric seeks to persuade through performance and tone, and how the defendant has to look and sound honest even when—especially when—he is lying through his teeth. ars est celare artem, and filling their speeches with pretentious quotes from Pindar or tragedy would hardly look natural. Aeschines, on the other hand, had been an actor, and so when speaking in propria persona could lard his case with ample quotations: Philocleon in the Wasps (579-80) even mentions this sort of Thespian performance as one of the perks of jury-service, as Edwards recalls (p. 333).

There is an excellent chapter (by Penelope Frangakis) on ‘The Reception of Rhetoric in Greek Drama’ which shows how drama (especially Euripides) influenced the development of rhetoric as well as vice versa. The orator, the poet and the philosophers were all looking at (and using) the power of logos: orators, like sophists, had to be able to make the weaker argument appear the stronger (372) and an agon scene (mentioned p. 85 in a piece on ‘Fragments of Euripidean Rhetoric’ by Ioanna Karamanou) such as that where the hapless Menelaus is judging between the opposing arguments of Helen and Hecuba (Trojan Women 860-1059) is a showcase of logos in full flow, especially since we know from Homer that Helen will get her way (again). Tragedy and comedy made use of rhetorical devices, and it is obvious that the audience enjoyed the intellectual and verbal music of a good scrap. Epideictic oratory in the hands of a Gorgias or an Isocrates flies closer to poetry, and it is perhaps surprising that this book does not make more mention of it, especially as some of the finest parts of it concerned the poetic figure of Helen.

Meanwhile the ‘ancient quarrel’ between philosophy and poetry has not gone away and is explored here in a thought-provoking piece by Ioannis N. Perysinakis on the Frogs. He makes the excellent point that Aristophanes’ choice of Aeschylus (for being the useful didactic poet) is in fact the ‘reverse equivalent to Plato’s banishment of the poets from his city’. His statement (p. 264) that ‘tragic poetry died with Euripides … because Socrates’ student made it intellectual and problematic and thereby secularised it’ is another riff on Wilamowitz’ celebrated dictum that ‘Euripides, with the weapons of Xenophanes, smashed the whole beautiful world to pieces’ and will not really do as an explanation of the death of tragedy—but Perysinakis does make a good argument and forces the reader to think afresh about the links between the poet, the orator, the philosophers and the demise of the polis.

Some other highlights of the book for me were: Andreas Markantonatos’ lucid analysis of the agon scenes in the Alcestis, Chris Carey’s judicious and wise account of how far drama in Athens was democratic—an argument which never runs out of steam—and above all Edith Hall’s superb essay on ‘Competitive Vocal Performance in Aristophanes’ Knights’. Comic dramatists thrive on agon scenes and Cleon’s sparring with the sausage-seller is (Hall plausibly suggests) an enactment of the real agon between the ‘two boys from Cydathenaeum’—namely Cleon and Aristophanes himself. The publicity did neither man any harm—Cleon was elected strategos soon afterwards and Aristophanes never looked back as a successful comic poet. Comic ridicule need not, then, harm one’s reputation—as Brenda Griffith-Williams also argues in a piece on the orator Isaeus—and Hall (p. 82) suggests that Cleon acquitted himself well in his ‘trial by comedy’ and ‘passed his comedic euthuna with flying colours’. George Forrest once described Cleon as marking the switch from the ‘Rolls-Royce’ to the ‘Jaguar’ style of management, and Hall does an excellent job of unpicking the use of tone and register by which Aristophanes’ portrayal of Cleon became that of a ‘middle-class man who had adopted street-language … to cosy up to the Piraeus thetes’ (p. 79).

The only weakness of the book is the copy-editing. Most contributors write well, but insufficient effort has been made by the publishers to ensure that some non-Anglophone scholars have produced clear (or even correct) English. A sentence such as the following (p.101) should not appear in a major book of this kind: ‘Nonetheless the Athenians were, of course, not always loathing their cavalry; in fact the polis spend (sic) a vast amount of recourses (sic) on the corps which did play a minor part in the defence of Attica and retaliation raids on the Peloponnese during the first decade of the hippic force’s reformation.’ (Me neither.) Typos occur too often in this book, in English and (less often) in Greek: usually one can easily tell what the text should be but one word (‘gvyes’ on page 414) defeated me. There is a general index, an index locorum and an index of Greek words.

John Godwin

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