Isaeus (c. 415-c. 340 BC) was an important Attic orator about whose life we know very little. All his surviving speeches were written for inheritance cases, and he is our primary source for Athenian inheritance law.
life and WorksThe only biographical information recorded about Isaeus in antiquity is that he was a pupil of Isocrates and the teacher of Demosthenes (Dion. Hal. Is. 1). Some ancient writers put his birth in Chalcis, which may be correct. We have no evidence that he ever spoke in court himself; rather he was a teacher and logographer, writing speeches for others. As far as we know, he took no part in public affairs, and virtually all his speeches were written for private cases; he never delivered a speech himself. The private nature of his work probably accounts for the absence of biographical information about him. The only evidence for dating his speeches is internal and seems to indicate a range from c. 390 to c. 344. Eleven complete speeches of Isaeus survive and Dionysius of Halicarnassus quotes several pages of a twelfth (For Euphiletus, Isaeus 12) as well as several shorter fragments. The complete speeches all concern inheritance cases, and these seem to have been a specialty of Isaeus; but we know from the fragments and titles of some forty other works that he composed speeches for many other kinds of cases. The survival of only inheritance speeches can probably be traced to the Alexandrian organization of the speeches by category; the inheritance speeches-Isaeus’ specialty-would have come first in the corpus and would have been the only ones preserved through the Middle Ages. The same process has yielded only homicide speeches for Antiphon.
SignificanceAmong his contemporaries, we are told (Dion. Hal. Is. 4), Isaeus had a reputation for trickery and deception and for skill in defending the worse case. Modern scholars used to have a higher opinion of his ability until Wyse's magisterial commentary relentlessly exposed the weaknesses in many of Isaeus’ arguments. More recent scholars are trying to move away from Wyse's severe judgment to a view of Isaeus as a skilled lawyer who uses his thorough knowledge of Attic law to build a persuasive case even when solid evidence for it is lacking. As a logographer, Isaeus would naturally be most sought by those whose cases were the most difficult, and his success would depend on his ability to win doubtful cases. Athenian inheritance law remained rather vague on certain crucial issues (such as the precise conditions for disregarding an otherwise valid will) and Isaeus clearly exploited these ambiguities. Stylistically, Isaeus has generally been treated as a foil for Lysias and Demosthenes. Compared to the former, he lacks subtlety, charm and humor; compared to the latter, he lacks eloquence, grandeur and originality. But Isaeus ranks with the best in his ability to construct an argument that moves steadily toward the single goal of winning his case. This may make him less interesting to us, but must have suited the needs of his clients extremely well.
Blass, Friedrich, Die attische Beredsamkeit.. 2nd ed. vol. 2 Leipzig 1892.
Jebb, R. C., The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeos, vol. 2. London 1893.
Kennedy, George, The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton 1963.
Kennedy, George, “Oratory” in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature. Ed. by P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge 1985), pp. 498-526.
Wyse, William, The Speeches of lsaeus. Cambridge 1904.