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Antiphon's treatment of subject-matter.

These seem to be the leading characteristics of Antiphon as regards form: it remains to consider his treatment of subject-matter. The arrangement of his speeches, so far as the extant specimens warrant a judgment, was usually simple. First a proem (προοίμιον) explanatory or appealing; next an introduction (technically προκατασκευή) dealing with the circumstances under which the case had been brought into court, and noticing any informalities of procedure: then a narrative of the facts (διήγησις): the arguments and proofs (πίστεις), the strongest first, finally an epilogue or peroration (ἐπίλογος). The Tetralogies, being merely sketches for practice, have only proem, arguments and epilogue, not the ‘introduction’ or the narrative. The speech On the Murder of Herodes and the speech On the Choreutes (in the latter of which the epilogue seems to have been lost) are the best examples of Antiphon's method. It is noticeable that in neither of these are the facts of the particular case dealt with closely or searchingly; and consequently in both instances the narrative of the facts falls into the background. Narrative was the forte of Andokides and Lysias; it appears to have been the weak side of Antiphon, who was strongest in general argument. General presumptions,—those afforded, for instance, by the refusal of the prosecutors to give up their slaves for examination, or by the respective characters of prosecutor and prisoner and by their former relations—are most insisted upon. The First Tetralogy is a good example of Antiphon's ingenuity in dealing with abstract probabilities (εἰκότα); and the same preference for proofs external to the immediate circumstances of the case is traceable in all his extant work. The adroitness of the sophistical rhetoric shows itself, not merely in the variety of forms given to the same argument, but sometimes in sophistry of a more glaring kind1.

The rhetorician of the school is further seen in the great number of commonplaces, evidently elaborated beforehand and without reference to any special occasion, which are brought in as opportunity offers. The same panegyric on the laws for homicide occurs, in the same words, both in the speech On the Choreutes and in that On the Murder of Herodes. In the last-named speech the reflections on the strength of a good conscience2, and the defendant's contention that he deserves pity, not punishment3, are palpably commonplaces prepared for general use. Such patches, unless introduced with consummate skill, are doubly a blemish; they break the coherence of the argument and they destroy everything like fresh and uniform colouring; the speech becomes, as an old critic says, uneven4. But the crudities inseparable from a new art do not affect Antiphon's claim to be considered, for his day, a great and powerful orator. In two things, says Thucydides, he was masterly,—in power of conception and in power of expression5. These were the two supreme qualifications for a speaker at a time when the mere faculty of lucid and continuous exposition was rare, and when the refinements of literary eloquence were as yet unknown. If the speaker could invent a sufficient number of telling points, and could put them clearly, this was everything. Antiphon, with his ingenuity in hypothesis and his stately rhetoric, fulfilled both requirements. Remembering the style of his oratory and his place in the history of the art, no one need be perplexed to reconcile the high praise of Thucydides with what is at first sight the startling judgment of Dionysios. That critic, speaking of the eloquence which aims at close reasoning and at victory in discussion, gives the foremost place in it to Lysias. He then mentions others who have practised it,—Antiphon among the rest. ‘Antiphon however,’ he says, ‘has nothing but his antique and stern dignity; a fighter of causes (ἀγωνιστής) he is not, either in debate or in lawsuits6.’ If, as Thucydides tells us, no one could help so well as Antiphon those who were fighting causes (ἀγωνιζομένους7 in the ekklesia or the lawcourts; if, on his own trial, he delivered a defence of unprecedented brilliancy; in what sense is Dionysios to be understood? The explanation lies probably in the notion which the critic attached to the word ‘agonist.’ He had before his mind the finished pleader or debater of a time when combative oratory considered as an art had reached its acme; when every discussion was a conflict in which the liveliest and supplest energy must be put forth in support of practised skill; when the successful speaker must grapple at close quarters with his adversary, and be in truth an ‘agonist,’ an athlete straining every nerve for victory. Already Kleon could describe the ‘agonistic’ eloquence which was becoming the fashion in the ekklesia as characterized by swift surprises, by rapid thrust and parry8; already Strepsiades conceives the ‘agonist’ of the lawcourts as ‘bold, glib, audacious, headlong9.’ This was not the character of Antiphon. He was a subtle reasoner, a master of expression, and furnished others with arguments and words; but he was not himself a man of the arena. He never descended into it when he could help; he had nothing of its spirit. He did not grapple with his adversary, but in the statelier manner of the old orators attacked him (as it were) from an opposite platform. Opposed in court to such a speaker as Isaeos, he would have had as little chance with the judges as Burke with one of those juries which Curran used to take by storm. Perhaps it was precisely because he was not in this sense an ‘agonist’ that he found his most congenial sphere in the calm and grave procedure of the Areiopagos.

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  • Cross-references to this page (1):
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Selections from the Attic Orators, 13.15
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