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Periodic style

Aristotle and subsequent critics distinguish, in prose, the running style (εἰρομένη λέξις) and the periodic (περιοδική). The characteristic of the former is that a sentence consists of a succession of clauses loosely strung together (εἴρω), like a row of beads; generally by τε, δέ and other copulae; the sentence begins and ends with no definite plan, and may be of any length. In the word period (circuit) the metaphor is rather that of a hoop; the sentence does not stretch out indefinitely in a straight line, but after a certain time bends back on itself so that the end is joined to the beginning. It must, according to Aristotle (Rhet., iii. 9. 1-2), be of limited length, not longer than can be taken in at a glance or uttered in one breath, and have a definitely marked beginning and end.1

Aristotle finds the loose, running style tedious, because it has no artistic limit of length, and never gets to an end until it has finished what it has to say. To us it seems to have this slight advantage, that it can always stop when it has said what it means, and has no temptation to plunge itself into antithesis or lose its way at the cross-roads of chiasmus before it arrives at its destination; for though, in the periodic style, the end of the sense should ideally coincide with the end of the period, there are in practice many instances where the sense is fully expressed and the sentence might end before the ‘circuit’ is artistically complete.

The baldest examples of the ‘strung together’ style must be sought in the fragments of the early historians; but Herodotus is sufficiently near to them to provide us with an object-lesson.

Take, for instance, the following:

‘When Ardys had reigned forty-nine years, Sadyattes his son succeeded him, and he reigned twelve years, and Alyattes succeeded Sadyattes. And he made war on Cyaxares, the descendant of Deioces, and the Medes, and drove the Cimmerians out of Asia and took Smyrna, a colony of Colophon, and attacked Clazomenae. Here he had not the success he desired, but met with grave disaster. And during his reign he did other noteworthy deeds, as follows. He fought with the Milesians . . .’ etc., etc (Herod., i. 16-17).

Yet even Herodotus, the most obvious exponent of the loose style, shows a tendency towards the greater compression of periodic writing; this tendency is at times strongly marked, e.g. in the speeches of the Persian nobles in debate (Id., iii. 80-81). Here there is a continual movement towards the balance of clauses; it is very far from the harmonious structure of Isocrates, and is perhaps unconscious, but the elements of the periodic style are there.

The particular faculty of this latter style is that it can be more emphatic and precise than the other. It must be concentrated (“κατεστραμμένη, Arist., Rhet., iii. 9. 3) if the sentence is to be of moderate length; it tries, as Dionysius says, ‘to pack the thoughts close together, and bring them out compactly.’2

These qualities, concentration of thought and preciseness of expression, are essential for a pleader in the courts, and so it was not unnatural that the development of the periodic style should coincide at Athens with the rise of forensic oratory. Antiphon, the first practical pleader on scientific lines, is also the earliest of extant writers known to have been a careful student of periodic expression.

It must not be supposed that all his work consisted of periods carefully balanced: on the one hand, perfection could not be attained at the first onset; many of the sentences are crude; in some cases there is a weakness of emphasis due to imperfect mastery of the form; on the other hand, there are cases where the style is freer and more analogous to the simple fluency of the εἰρομένη λέξις. The plain fact is that the method of Herodotus is the most appropriate for telling a straightforward narrative from one point of view only; while the periodic style comes spontaneously into being for purposes of criticism, or where we contrast what is with what might have been; or of debate, where we put up alternatives side by side with the object of choosing between them.

The first object of history, to the mind of Herodotus, is to tell a story; and Herodotus mostly keeps this end in view. Thucydides in some parts of his narrative does the same, but whereas he has a greater tendency to consider each event not by itself but in relation to other circumstances, such as the motives for the action, its effects and influences, he is often periodic even in narrative. He is still more so in speeches. The object of a deliberative speech is not usually to tell a plain story but to produce a highly-coloured one; it mentions facts chiefly with the object of criticizing them and drawing an inference or a moral.

If this is true of the speeches in Thucydides, it must be still more applicable to those of a forensic orator. In Antiphon we find short passages in the simple narrative style—for instance, in the statement of facts in the Herodes case; but a short section of this nature is followed by criticism and argument expressed in the more artificial period. This is inevitable; there is no time to spend on long narratives.

Closely connected with the desire for a periodic style is the tendency to frequent use of verbal antithesis, an artistic figure which provides a happy means of completing the period and the sense. It is useful because the second part of the antithesis supplies the reader or hearer with something which he is already expecting. It is the application in practice of a familiar psychological law of association by contrary ideas. Such contrast is emphasized in Greek by the common use of the particles μέν and δέ, and is of unnecessarily frequent occurrence in Athenian writers. All readers of Thucydides will remember that author's craving for the contrast between ‘word and deed.’ In judicial rhetoric this kind of opposition must inevitably occur very often. From the nature of things each speaker will want to insist on his own honesty and the dishonesty of his opponents; the truth which he is telling as opposed to their lies, and to contrast the appearances, which seem so black against him, with the transparent whiteness of his character as revealed by a true account of the case. But Antiphon, like the speakers in Thucydides, carries this use of antithesis too far, for a sentence which contains too many contrasted ideas is difficult to follow, and so loses force.

A fair example may be taken from the third speech of the second tetralogy:

‘I, who have done nothing wrong, but have suffered grievously and cruelly already, and now suffer still more cruelly not from the words but the acts of my adversary, throw myself upon your mercy, Gentlemen—you who are avengers of impiety but discriminators of piety—and implore you, in view of plain facts, not to be over-persuaded by a malicious precision of speech, and so consider the true explanation of the deed to be false; for his statement has been made with more plausibility than truth; mine will be made without guile, though at the same time without force.’

This outburst is part of a sentence in which the prosecutor expresses his indignation that the opponent whom he has accused of murder has had the audacity to defend himself at some length.

One more example—from the speech on the charge of poisoning—is almost ridiculous.

‘Those whose duty it was to play the part of avengers of the dead and my helpers, have played the part of murderers of the dead, and established themselves as my adversaries.’

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