Structure of speeches
The exceptional power of Isaeus does not, then, depend upon any charm of language or any oratorical gift; it lies in his exhaustive legal knowledge and his remarkable skill in argument. He has an almost unique gift for circumstantial statement and proof of the facts bearing on his case. This is the cleverness (δεινότης
) to which Dionysius so often refers with grudging admiration.
His speeches are not arranged according to a single plan, but, on the contrary, exhibit great variety of structure. Lysias keeps practically to one form— exordium, narrative, proof, epilogue. Isaeus, when the narrative is too long or complicated to be grasped all at once, does not set it out as a whole, but breaks it up into sections, each of which is accompanied by its evidence and argument.1
‘The orator is afraid,’ thinks Dionysius, ‘that the argument may be hard to follow, on account of the number of its sections, and that the proofs of the various points, if all collected together, being so numerous as they must be, dealing with matters so numerous, may be detrimental to clearness.’ The critic is referring particularly to the speech For Euphiletus
(Or. xii.), a large fragment of which his quotations have preserved for us; but an analysis of any of the extant speeches will show that they are constructed skilfully on varying plans, unhampered by technical rule, with an art that adapts its material according to the requirements of the case. This skill, which aims at success rather than literary finish, shows that Isaeus was above all a competent
tactician—such a master of argument that, ‘whereas we should be ready to believe Lysias even when he tells a lie, we can hardly regard Isaeus without suspicion even when he tells the truth.’ (de Isaeo,
Dionysius is no doubt led rather far away by his desire for a contrast; he has given Isaeus a bad name and is seeking means to justify his condemnation of the man who ‘takes a mean advantage of his adversary and outmanœuvres the judges.’ (Ibid., ch. 3).
This Greek of a late Hellenistic age thoroughly grasped the Athenian spirit, which demanded artistic composition and was yet suspicious of any man who was too obviously clever, a spirit against which we find Antiphon, the earliest of the orators, contending, when he makes his characters protest their own inexperience and insinuate that their opponents seem strong only because they have that same discreditable skill to make the worse cause appear the better (compare on p. 38
Isaeus sometimes reiterates his arguments; he will even quote the same document twice. This is inartistic, but it pays. A notable advance on his predecessors is found in the form of some of his epilogues. The earlier orators were generally content, after stating the case, to finish with a general appeal to justice or pity. Isaeus on occasion makes a more practical use of his closing periods; he recapitulates the case, pointing out that he has proved what he set out to prove;2
or gives a short summary of the narrative which he regards as now established, or of the claims urged by himself and his opponent. In one speech (Or. 8 (Ciron), § 46
), he has actually reached the end and
summarized his results, when the very last words surprise us by an unexpected attack on his adversary's character:
“I do not know that there is any need for me to say more, for I think there is no point on which you have not full knowledge; but I will ask the clerk to take the last remaining deposition, showing how the claimant was convicted of adultery, and read it to the court.
Some of the earlier speech-writers made an attempt at character-drawing, and tried to suit their speeches to the character (ἦθος
) of their clients. In Isaeus this illusion is not maintained; his style varies somewhat according to the subject, but every speech bears, as Dionysius observes, the stamp of the professional writer, which must have betrayed it to the acute perceptions of an Athenian jury (de Isaso,
ch. 16). Probably the accumulated experience of the orators had proved that such attempts at deception were on the whole useless; for a certain class of client it would be necessary either to write a bad speech or let it be evident that the speaker was only a mouthpiece for an advocate cleverer than himself, and as success in the case was of more importance than artistic illusion, the proper choice was obvious. The ethos in Isaeus consists not in making the characters speak as they naturally would have spoken, but in putting their arguments for them in the way most likely to appeal to the reason and the feelings of the judges. Experience had further shown that though, from the lips of a real orator, appeals to sentiment and passion may have a great effect, such appeals by themselves, unsupported by
argument, or made at an inauspicious moment, may do more harm than good. An appeal to the reason is always stronger, provided only that the speaker must avoid giving offence by a too presumptuous bearing.
When the court is already convinced by an argued demonstration of the justice of the case, an appeal to pity or indignation may be overpowering; without such preparation it is nothing but a last resort of weakness.
Isaeus, though he uses such appeals, as indeed he wields every weapon of the orator's armoury, uses them with moderation and discernment, showing in this, as in all his tactics, a sound knowledge of practical utility.