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Lysias (c. 445-c. 380 BC) was an Athenian metic- a formal resident of Athens but not a full Athenian citizen. His family's prosperity came from a shield factory, which they operated until, during the oligarchic revolution of 404-403, the Thirty Tyrants killed Lysias’ brother Polemarchus and confiscated their property. When the democrats regained power, Lysias accused one of the Thirty, Eratosthenes, of his brother's murder. As a metic, Lysias could not appear in court himself, but the success of Against Eratosthenes (12), his longest and best known speech, led to a profitable career as a logographer, writing speeches for others. More than 30 of these, covering a wide range of cases, survive in whole or in part, though the authenticity of some is doubted. As an orator Lysias is particularly known for his ethopoiia, or “creation of character” and his prose style, which was celebrated for its simple clarity and vividness, especially in the narrative parts of his speeches. Later rhetoricians down through Roman times cited Lysias as the outstanding representative of a pure Attic prose style.


Ancient scholars give the traditional date of Lysias’ birth as 459 BC, but most recent scholars accept a later date on the basis of information in Plato's Phaedrus and [Dem.] 59.21-22 (Dover 1968: 28-46, Edwards and Usher 1985: 125-26, Carey 1989: 1-3). Lysias tells us (Lys. 12.4) that his father moved to Athens at the urging of Pericles and lived there for thirty years. As a youth Lysias lived for a while in Thurii, a new panhellenic colony established by Pericles in 443 BC. Lysias’ family was always strongly allied with the democratic forces in the city, and in a vivid narrative (Lys. 12.5-20) he recounts the confiscation of their property, the execution of his brother, and his own narrow escape from the Thirty. Lysias then joined with the democratic opposition and helped them regain control of the government. We know almost nothing of his life after this time, but his latest datable speech was probably delivered in 382 BC. Lysias must have been a well-known figure in Athens, and in his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato quotes (and criticizes) an entire speech of Lysias as paradigmatic of Athenian rhetoric: seductively attractive on the surface but not true.


Several hundred speeches attributed to Lysias were known to ancient scholars from the third century BC to the second century AD (Dover 1968). Of these thirty one have been preserved in medieval manuscripts and large sections of three others are quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st cent. BC) in his essay on Lysias. Modern scholars have disputed the authenticity of almost every speech of Lysias. Dover's fundamental study concludes that only Against Eratosthenes (12) was written entirely by Lysias, and that many of the rest may have been written jointly by Lysias and the client for whom the speech was composed (Dover 1968). Usher has advanced strong arguments against Dover's theory (Usher 1976) and it has not generally been accepted, but many questions remain about the composition of Lysias’ speeches (how did the logographer and his client work together to prepare a case?), their “publication” (in a time before printing, who had copies of a speech made and distributed, and for what purpose?) and their collection and preservation during the logographer's lifetime and after his death.


The cases for which Lysias composed speeches cover a wide range of issues, public and private. They include, in addition to political cases (6, 12-16, 25-26, 31), the killing of an adulterer caught in the act (1), a lovers’ quarrel (3), the alleged removal of a sacred olive stump (7), slander (10), property claims (17-19), misuse of public funds (21, 27-29), trade (22), citizenship (23), a state pension (24), and guardianship (32). In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the art of political oratory was more highly valued, Demosthenes was considered the outstanding example of Attic oratory and the less elaborate speeches of Lysias were not highly regarded. In the last half century, however, Lysias has become more widely read and better appreciated. One reason undoubtedly is that his Greek is easier, and thus more appealing to students who generally do not begin Greek at such early ages as they formerly did. Other reasons include a greater appreciation of Lysias’ simple, more direct style (and a corresponding distrust of grand political rhetoric like Demosthenes’), a declining interest in military history (and the struggle between Athens and Philip that so consumed Demosthenes), and a correspondingly greater interest in such aspects of Greek private life as the condition of women.

Only the speech Against Eratosthenes (12) is now read for historical interest, for in it Lysias includes a fairly detailed (and openly pro-democratic) account of the brief rule of the Thirty. His account is particularly valuable, since the two other main accounts, Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians and Xenophon's Hellenica show a clear aristocratic bias and thus present the Thirty in a more favorable light. Thus Lysias’ account is crucial to establishing the middle ground favored by most modern historians (the most recent assessment of the Thirty is Krentz 1982). Even in this important political speech, however, we find a characteristically vivid narrative account, describing Lysias’ brother's arrest and his own escape.

Perhaps the most widely read speech of Lysias today is On the Murder of Eratosthenes (1), which was scarcely read at all a century ago, and is not included in Shuckburgh's selection of 16 speeches or Adams’ selection of 8. The speech conveys a vivid picture of the speaker, Euphiletus, a rather simple-minded but decent and honorable farmer, who is stunned to find his wife having an affair with Eratosthenes (perhaps the same man as is attacked in 12) and kills the lover when he finds him in his wife's bed. Many details about the life and living quarters of an ordinary Greek family emerge, and the issues are immediately comprehensible even to those with little or no background knowledge. Other memorable characters include the wealthy Athenian in Against Simon (3), who reluctantly recounts his own passion (unbecoming a man of his age) for a young boy for whose favors he has been fighting, the impoverished invalid in On the Refusal of a Pension (24), who sarcastically mocks his challenger in defending his right to his small state allowance, and the tearful widow described in Against Diogeiton (32), who pleads against the cruel treatment of her children by their appointed guardian. The portrayal of these and other characters, the inclusion of so much information about people's ordinary lives, and the relative ease of the Greek all make Lysias the most widely read orator today.

    Adams, Charles Darwin, Lysias, Selected Speeches. New York 1905. Bateman, John J. “Lysias and the Law,” TAPA 89 (1958) 276-85. Blass, Friedrich, Die attische Beredsamkeit, 2nd ed. vol. 1. Leipzig 1887. Bonner, Robert J. Lawyers and Litigants in Ancient Athens. Chicago 1927. Carey, C. Lysias, Selected Speeches. Cambridge 1989. Dover, K. Lysias and the Corpus Lysiacum. Berkeley 1968. Jebb, R. C. The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeus, vol. 1. 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. Krentz, Peter, The Thirty at Athens. Ithaca 1982. Morgan, Gareth, “Euphiletos’ House: Lysias 1,” TAPA 112 (1982) 115-23. Shuckburgh, Evelyn S. Lysiae, Orationes XVI. London 1882. Usher, S. “Individual Characterization in Lysias,” Eranos 63 (1955) 99-119. Usher, S. “Some Aspects of Lysias’ Argumentation,” Phoenix 16 (1962) 157-77. Usher, S. “Lysias and his clients,”GRBS 17 (1976) 31-40. Usher, S. & D. Najock, “A Statistical Study of Authorship in the Corpus Lysiacum,” Computers and the Humanities 16 (1982) 85-105. Usher, S. & M. Edwards, Greek Orators I: Antiphon and Lysias. Warminster 1985 (pp. 125-277 on Lysias are by Usher). Winter, Thomas N. “On the Corpus of Lysias,” CJ 69 (1973-74) 34-40.
Michael Gagarin
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