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Literary characteristics

Isaeus studied under Isocrates, and it is therefore reasonable to follow the chronological order and take the master first; but as the master survived the pupil by several years, and was actively engaged in literature down to the day of his death, ordinary considerations of seniority do not apply in this case. It is more satisfactory to study Isaeus in relation, not to Isocrates, but to the earlier speech-writers, Antiphon and Lysias. He is more closely connected with them in his subject-matter, since he is, like them, essentially a practical writer, and his businesslike style has more affinity to the terse condensation of Lysias than to the florid ‘epideictic’ diction of the author of the Panegyric.

In language there is not very much difference between Lysias and Isaeus; both use the current vocabulary, making a literary medium out of the popular speech of their day. A search through the latter's speeches re-discovers a certain number of words which, so far as our knowledge goes, have a poetical tinge; but practically all these may be found in other orators and prose-writers.1

Again, there are a few noteworthy metaphors, such as ἐκκόπτειν, to ‘knock out’ or ‘knock on the head’ —this is used again by Dinarchus—and καθιπποτροφεῖν, ‘to race away one's money,’ i.e. squander it on a stable. We know little of the idioms of the language spoken in the streets of Athens in the fourth century, but we do know that popular speech has always a tendency to the employment of rough metaphors, and where we come into contact with the spoken word we expect to find expressions of this kind.3 A study of the private letters contained among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri will give many examples to the point.4 Lastly, a few words recall the language of comedy.

We may readily believe that, in admitting these few blemishes to the purity of his Atticism, the orator was indulging in a realism of which we find very few traces, as a rule, in literary prose.5

His grammar, according to strict Attic rule, is occasionally at fault,6 and the MSS. exhibit a certain number of word-forms which are supposed to be un-Attic.7

Whether we should emend these passages to suit the supposed standard, or make the standard more liberal to admit such passages, is a matter for controversy. The MSS. of Thucydides exhibit a wealth of ingenious perversity in the way of grammar, and in that case, though many critics have spent their ingenuity on reducing the text to order and decency, an opposite school of criticism maintains that the historian may have chosen to write as he liked. The greatest artists are above the laws of their art, and Isaeus may have condescended to a level which he knew not to be the highest.

With regard, then, to the purity of language, Isaeus, though surpassed by Lysias and Isocrates, is not far behind them. He is on a level with Lysias also in clearness and accuracy of thought, and in what Dionysius calls ἐνάργεια, vividness of presentation. But in the structure of sentences some differences between these two must be noted. Lysias, as has already been stated, varied his structure considerably according to the subjects of his speeches, the succession of periods being broken by the introduction of a freer style; but at the same time he had a love of antithesis to which sacrifices had sometimes to be made.

Isaeus is free from this straining after antithesis, and is hardly bound at all by scholastic rules. We cannot truly say that his style is non-periodic, for formal periods are to be met with; but a marked characteristic of his style is his skill in the use of short sentences, often abrupt, nearly always vigorous. In argumentative passages especially, he uses the form of imaginary question and answer; in narrative he sometimes gives us a series of short sentences, connected in thought, but not formally bound together. He has the appearance of composing negligently, but from his effectiveness we conclude that the negligence was studied. The following passages illustrate these styles:

“Eupolis, Thrasyllus, and Mneson were brothers from the same two parents. Their father left them a considerable property, so that they were eligible for the performance of public services. This the three divided amongst them. Of these brothers, two died about the same time, etc.

The speech about Ciron's inheritance contains the best example of argument by question and answer:

“On what ground should a statement be believed? Should we not say, on the ground of the evidence? I fancy so. And on what ground should we believe witnesses? From the fact that they have been tortured? Naturally. And on what grounds should we disbelieve the statements of the plaintiffs? Because they shrink from this test? Most certainly.

A third quotation gives a good example of the purely ornamental use of the rhetorical question; it is precious as showing us that Isaeus was on occasion capable of applying a lighter touch. He is so coldly logical as a rule that we turn with relief to any exhibition of ordinary feeling:

“Who was there who omitted to cut his hair short when the two talents arrived? Who was there who failed to wear black, hoping that his mourning would give him a claim to the inheritance? Or how many relatives and sons laid claim, by deed of gift, to the estate of Nicostratus? Demosthenes said he was his nephew, but when the present claimants disproved his statement, he retired. Telephus said that Nicostratus had given him all his property. He too soon ceased to be a claimant. Ameiniades came before the archon and produced a son for Nicostratus—a child less than three years old, though Nicostratus had not been in Athens for eleven years past. Pyrrhus of Lamptra said that the money had been dedicated by Nicostratus to Athena, but given by Nicostratus to himself. Ctesias of Besaea and Cranaus first said that judgment had been given in their favour against Nicostratus for a talent, and when they could not prove it, asserted that he was their freedman. They, like the rest, failed to establish their statement.

These were the parties who in the first instance pounced at once upon the property of Nicostratus. Chariades made no claim at the time.

Dionysius, a very keen critic on the literary side, misses in Isaeus the grace and charm of Lysias, but allows him more cleverness (de Isaeo, ch. 3).

This ‘charm,’ by which Dionysius could distinguish a genuine speech of Lysias, is incapable of definition and too elusive for our blunter wits to apprehend; but we can form a general impression that the diction of Lysias has something in it more pleasing than that of Isaeus. Perhaps there is something in the illustration which the ancient critic applies, when he compares the speeches of the former to a clearly drawn picture of simple colour and design; those of the latter to a more elaborate and ingenious composition, where there is more play of light and shade and the depth and brilliance of the colouring in some cases obscures the lines—with a suggestion that the drawing may be faulty (de Isaeo, ch. 4). This simile, however, applies more truly to the structure of the speeches than to the diction. Dionysius recurs to the style,8 and quotes parallel extracts from the introductions to speeches by the two writers to demonstrate the simplicity of Lysias and the artificiality of Isaeus. The demonstration is not overpowering. The first specimen from Lysias is indeed simple and clear, but the extract from Isaeus, though the language is a little more elaborate, seems equally suitable for its purpose.

Lysias wrote as follows:

“I feel, Gentlemen, that I must tell you about my friendship with Pherenicus, so that none of you may be surprised that I, who have never before pleaded for any one else, am now pleading for him. I had a friend in his father Cephisodotus, and when our party was exiled to Thebes I stayed with him, as did any other Athenian who wished to.

He did us many kind services, both officially and privately, before we were restored to our homes. So when his family met with the same misfortune, and came in exile to Athens, I felt that I owed them the greatest possible gratitude, and received them in such intimate fashion that nobody who came to the house, and did not know could tell which of us was the owner of it. Now Pherenicus knows that there are many who are cleverer speakers than I, and have more experience of such business; but he thinks that he can rely absolutely on my friendship. So I should think it disgraceful, when he asks me and urges me to support his claims, to allow him to lose Androclides' gift, if I can do anything to prevent it.

Lysias, fr. 46.

The following is the parallel extract from Isaeus:

“Before now I have been of service to Eumathes, as indeed he has deserved; and now, so far as in me lies, I shall try to help you to save him. Now listen to me for a short time, lest any of you suppose that I through recklessness or any other unjust motive have approached the case of Eumathes.

When I was a trierarch in the archonship of Cephisodorus, and a report was carried to my relatives that I had been killed in the sea-fight, whereas I had some moneys deposited with Eumathes, Eumathes sent for my relative and friends, and declared the amount of the money which was in his hands, and justly and honestly made payment in full.

In consequence of this I, when I got home in safety, treated him as a still closer friend, and when he was starting business as a banker I provided him with money. After this, when Dionysius claimed him as a slave, I vindicated his liberty, knowing that he had been manumitted by Epigenes before the court. But I shall say no more on this subject.

Isaeus, fr. 15.

Dionysius thus criticizes them: “What is the difference between these proëmia? In Lysias the introduction of the subject is pleasing for this one reason, that it is stated naturally and simply.

"I feel, Gentlemen, that I must begin by telling you about my friendship with Pherenicus."

What follows has no appearance of premeditation, but is put just as an amateur might express it: ““so that none of you may be surprised that I, who have never before pleaded for any one else, am now pleading for him.” But in Isaeus what seems so simple is really premeditated, and we see at once that it is rhetorical: “Before now I have been of service to Eumathes, as indeed he has deserved; and now, so far as in me lies, I shall try to help you in saving him.” This is more exalted and less simple than the other; still more is this true of the next sentence: “Now listen to me for a short time, lest any of you suppose that I through recklessness or any other unjust motive have approached the case of Eumathes.”

Dionysius finds that the expressions here used, προρέτεια, ἀδικία, πρὸς τὰ Εὐμαθοῦς πράγματα προσῆλθον, sound to him artificial rather than spontaneous. In this he may be right; but we feel him to be hypercritical when he blames the next sentence for lack of simplicity, and tries, by a few verbal alterations, to show how it might have been improved. He would re-write the sentence thus:— ‘When I was trierarch, and it was reported at home that I had been killed, Eumathes, having some money of mine on deposit,’ etc. Here he has certainly succeeded in omitting once the name Eumathes, which occurs twice in Isaeus; but the other changes consist purely in the substitution of two temporal clauses introduced by ὅτε (when) for two participial clauses in the genitive absolute—a construction which is, surely, common enough in all Greek writers to escape the censure of being ‘rhetorical.’

1 Jebb, Attic Orators, vol. ii. p. 2771.

2 Cleisthenes (Herod., vi. 129), in a moment of extreme excitement, remarked to Hippoclides ἀπωρχήσαο τὸν γάμον—‘You have danced away your chances of marriage.’

3 Cf., too, the use of ὑπωπιάζω in the New Testament.

4 E.g. γρῦξαι.

5 It has been already remarked that the speech-writers are, as a rule, ridiculously unsuccessful in their attempt to make their clients speak in the way that is natural to them (above, p. 37).

6 E.g. Or. v. 23,ἡγούμενοι οὐκ ἂν αὐτὸν βεβαιώσειν, κ.τ.λ.Or. v. 31.ὡμολογήσαμεν ἐμμενεῖν οἶς ἂν γνοῖεν”. Or. v. 43,δαπανηθείς” (in middle sense).

7 E.g. καθιστάνειν, ψηφίσεσθε, ἄξαντες.

8 Ibid., ch. 5.

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