CUP (2020) p/b 193pp £26.99 (ISBN 9781108730563)

The Menexenus is an odd item among the Socratic dialogues of Plato. Topped and tailed by brief conversations, the substance of the text is a funeral oration supposedly composed by Aspasia for Pericles and here recited verbatim by Socrates. Perhaps there is a hint or two that she may not have been the author as when Menexenus (249d3-5) asks in amazement whether, being a woman, she could compose such a speech. S. judiciously comments that this does not necessarily imply any doubt about Aspasia’s authorship on Menexenus’ part. Doubts about authorship of the dialogue have been countered by the seemingly decisive fact that Aristotle mentions the work. But puzzles remain. The reference in the speech to events that postdate the death of Socrates ‘stands out as by far the most blatant’ of anachronisms in Plato, as S. states.

Although not a major contribution to Plato’s oeuvre, the speech is an interesting example of a funeral oration, especially because of its fulsome praise of Athens. S. sets the work in its rhetorical context and compares it with other surviving examples of the genre. But why Plato wrote it remains a puzzle. Is it, S. asks, an example of the sort of rhetoric Plato would approve of? Is it a parody of current rhetoric? But while S. explores the relation of the text to the contemporary practice of rhetoric, he is also aware that ‘the solemn occasion of a state funeral is no place for bravura displays but rather an occasion for consolation with conventional sentiments suitably expressed’.  The chauvinistic content of the speech and especially the claims of Athenian racial purity—indeed autochthony—‘contributed to its popularity in certain circles in the twentieth century’ (p.39). This somewhat coy reference to National Socialism perhaps suggests a slight embarrassment at having to acknowledge the topic, although in the notes the statement of Menexenus’s popularity ‘in National Socialist circles in the 1930s’ (with 2 bibliographic references) is explicit without disturbing a hornet’s nest.

The major contribution of this edition is the commentary that provides a long-needed substantial treatment in English. Aimed, in accord with the principles of this ‘Green and Yellow’ series, at experienced students and academics, it clarifies issues of language, style, content and context. For example on τῆς δὲ εὐγενείας πρῶτον at 237b3 (and 241a2): S. first translates, then observes ‘the genitive of respect or reference announcing the topic’. Other linguistic and rhetorical features attract attention, such as ethic dative, anacolouthon, rhetorical repetition, to name but a few. Some are pursued beyond the immediate context: on ὡς ἀσμένως (243e5) S. observes that there is no adequate explanation of the force of ὡς with an adverb (LSJ Ab. III.a) but ‘sometimes, as here, an exclamatory/explanatory sense can be envisioned, but that is not always the case.’

Textual matters are given some consideration in the introduction where 3 (out of around 50) manuscripts are selected as the primary sources for the text. Only a ‘severely curtailed apparatus’ is provided, and for more detailed textual matters readers are recommended to use Tsitsiridis’ edition (Stuttgart 1998).

This ‘celebrated dialogue’ (1835 school edition) has perhaps not been celebrated enough in more recent times, and this edition will assuredly make it a more attractive text to explore.

Alan Beale