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Early Athenian oratory

It would seem that constitutional liberty and a strong civic feeling are indispensable as a basis for the growth of oratory. Such a statement must be made with caution, as it leaves out of account a thousand influences which may have been operative; but we have no records of oratory at Athens before the establishment of the democracy, and after the limitation of Athenian influence due to the spread of Hellenism under Alexander, oratory very rapidly declined.

The imagination of Herodotus gives us, in the debates of the Persian court, some idea of what he conceived the oratory of an earlier age to be; but as he transferred the ideas of his own country to another, without any serious attempt at realism, such speeches are of little value to us. Thucydides again inserted speeches freely into his history, but these, he candidly admits, are not authentic records but imaginary reconstructions. Nevertheless, it is chiefly on Thucydides that we must draw for information about the eloquence of the early statesmen of the democracy.

Themistocles has left behind him some reputation as a speaker. Herodotus indicates how he harangued the Greeks before the battle of Salamis (Herod., viii. 83.); Thucydides commends him for ability in explaining his policy (Thuc. i. 138), and the author of the pseudo-Lysian Epitaphios names him as ‘equally capable in speech, decision, and action.’ (§ 42). Beyond these meagre notices, and a reference to his eloquence in Cicero (Brutus, § 28.), we have nothing earlier than Plutarch (Themistocles, ch. ii.), who tells us that from early youth he took an interest in the practice of speech-making, and that he studied under a Sophist, Mnesiphilus, who apparently taught him something of the science of statesmanship. Plutarch records his answer to Eurybiadas, who had taunted him in the council of allies with being a man without a city—since Athens was evacuated—and therefore not entitled to the right of speech:

‘We, villain, have left our houses and our walls, disdaining to be slaves for the sake of these lifeless things; but still we have a city—the greatest of Greek cities—in our fleet of 200 triremes, which now are ready to help you if you care to be saved by their aid; but if you go away and betray us a second time, the Greek world shall forthwith learn that the Athenians possess a free city and a country no worse than the one they have lost.’ (Ibid., ch. xi.

Another fragment is preserved by Plutarch, an address to Xerxes in quite a different vein, containing an elaborate metaphor which may have been thought suited to the Oriental mind:

‘The speech of man is like to a piece of cunning embroidery, for both when unrolled display their patterns, but when folded up conceal them.’ (Ch. xxix.

Many others of his sayings are chronicled; they are more or less apocryphal, as his retort to the man of Seriphos, who hinted that Themistocles owed his greatness to the fact that his city was great. ‘You, Themistocles, would never have been famous if you had been a Seriphian’—‘Nor would you, if you had been an Athenian.’ (Plato, Republic, i. 330 A). His interpretation of the oracle, explaining ‘wooden walls’ as ships, shows the man ready at need like Odysseus; and the impression that we form of him from the very slight indications which we possess, is of a man always clear and plausible in his statements, never at a loss for an explanation, and perhaps rather a good debater than an orator.

Of Pericles, who represents the following generation, we have a clearer picture. We know more about his private life and the associates who influenced his opinions. His earliest instructors were the musicians Damon and Pythoclides, of whom the former remained his intimate friend through life (Plato, Alcibiades, i., 118 c.), and, if we believe Plutarch, was capable of giving him advice even on questions of statesmanship.1 The friendship of Anaxagoras was doubtless a powerful influence, as Plato affirms in a well-known passage of the Phaedrus:

‘All the arts require discussion and high speculation about the truths of nature; hence come loftiness of thought and completeness of execution. And this, as I conceive, was the quality which, in addition to his natural gifts, Pericles acquired from his intercourse with Anaxagoras. . . . He was thus imbued with the higher philosophy . . . and applied what suited his purpose to the art of speaking.’

He is said also to have been acquainted with Zeno of Elea, an accomplished dialectician, and with the great Sophist Protagoras.

Plutarch represents him as amusing himself by discussing with Protagoras a question which is the theme of one of Antiphon's tetralogies—a man in a gymnasium accidentally kills another with a javelin: who is to blame? (Antiphon, Tetral. ii.) In Xenophon's Memorabilia (1. 2. 40.) we find him engaged in sophistical discussion with his young nephew Alcibiades, who, fresh from the rhetorical schools, was apparently his superior in hair-splitting argument.

Thucydides puts three speeches into the mouth of Pericles; though the language is that of the historian, some of the thoughts may be those of the statesman. We seem to recognise his high intelligence, developed by philosophical training, and the loftiness and effectiveness of which Plato speaks.2

The comic poet Eupolis gives us a picture from a different point of view:

A. ‘Whenever at Council he rose in his place That powerful speaker—so hot was the pace— Could give other runners three yards in the race.’

B. ‘His speed I admit; in addition to that A mysterious spell on his lips ever sate: He charmed; and alone of the orators he Left something behind, like the sting of a bee.’3

We know from Thucydides the extent of his influence over the people. He was no demagogue in the vulgar sense; they knew him to be sincere and incorruptible. He was never deterred by the unpopularity of his policy; he would lead the people rather than submit to be led by them; he could abase their spirits when they were unduly elated, or raise them to confidence when unseasonably disheartened (Thuc., ii. 65). At the height of his career his eloquence was the more effective because it was rarely displayed; minor matters in the assembly were transacted by his subordinates; when Pericles himself arose to speak it was a signal that a matter of national importance was to be debated, and his appearance roused a confident expectation that the treatment would be worthy of the subject (Plut., Pericles, ch. vii). The epithet ‘Olympian,’ applied to him originally in sarcasm, was felt to be more truly applicable than its originator, perhaps, intended. His eloquence was a noble exposition of the fine intelligence and high character which first claimed a hearing.

Though we have no verbal record of his speeches, a few of his phrases stuck in the memory of chroniclers. Aegina was to him ‘the eye-sore of the Piraeus’—it spoiled the view from the Athenian harbour (Arist., Rhet., iii. 10. 7 D). The Samians, who submitted very reluctantly to the blessings of Athenian civilization, are like ‘babies that cry when you give them their pap, but take it all the same’ (Thuc., i. 115-117; Arist., Rhet., iii. 4. 3); and Boeotia, disintegrated by civil war, is like an oak split by oaken wedges (Arist., ibid.). His finest simile —not, perhaps, original, since Herodotus attributes a similar phrase to Gelon, when Greece refused his invaluable assistance—occurred, according to Aristotle, in a funeral speech:

‘The city has lost its Youth; it is as though the year had lost its Spring.’ (Herod., vii. 162; Arist., Rhet., i. 7. 34). In a later age the orator Demades borrowed it. (Athenaeus, iii. 99 D.)

1 Plut., Pericles, ch. iv., who quotes Plato (comicus): σὺ γάρ, ὥς φασι, Χείρων ἐξέθρεψας Περικλέα.

2 Plato, l.c.

3 Bothe, Comic Frag., i. 162. See also Aristophanes, Acharn. 530. ‘Then Pericles the Olympian in his wrath Lightened and thundered and confounded Greece.’

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