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Remaining works

The general contents of the Panegyricus have already been discussed, but only a careful study of the speech will reveal the skill with which one topic is made to lead up to another, the nice proportion of the parts, and the adroitness displayed in gathering and binding together the various threads of the argument. Numerous paragraphs which seem at first to be almost digressions are found, when we take the speech as a whole, to be essential to its unity, and though in its course a large number of topics is handled, the main subject is never left out of view. The level of style is high throughout, and no extracts can properly represent it. A short analysis may, however, serve to indicate the coherence of the arguments:1

‘I am here to offer advice about the necessity of war with Persia and unity among the Greeks. Others have handled the same theme, but the fact of their failure renders any excuse for a fresh attempt superfluous, and the subject admits of being treated better than it has been’ (§§ 1-14).

‘My predecessors have missed an important point; that nothing can be done until the leaders—Athens and Sparta —are reconciled, and persuaded to share the leadership.

‘Sparta has accepted a false tradition, that leadership is hers by ancestral right. I shall try to prove that the leadership really belongs to Athens; Sparta then should consent to a joint command’ (§§ 15-20).

‘Athens first possessed maritime empire, and her civilization is the oldest in Greece (§§ 21-25). Her claims to hegemony are as follows:—

‘A. (a) Tradition, which has never been refuted, records that Athens first provided the necessities of life. Demeter taught in Attica the cultivation of corn and instituted the Mysteries.

‘(b) Athens undoubtedly led the way in colonization, thus enlarging the boundaries of Greek land, and driving back the barbarians (§§ 28-37).

‘(c) Athens had the earliest laws, and the earliest constitution. She established the Piraeus, the centre of Greek trade. She provides in herself a perpetual festival, at which the arts are encouraged. Practical philosophy and oratory are so highly honoured at Athens that the name “Greek” is applied properly not by claim of blood but by virtue of the possession of Athenian culture (§§ 38-50).

‘B. (a) From heroic times downwards Athens has shown herself the helper of the oppressed. Even Sparta grew great through her support (§§ 57-65).

‘(b) Athens in the earliest times and in the Persian Wars distinguished herself against the barbarians (§§ 66-74).

‘In old days the rivalries between opposite political parties and between Athens and Sparta were noble ones, and the honourable competition of the two cities shamed the other Greeks into taking arms against Xerxes. Athens, however, furnished more ships than all the rest put together. Her claim to leadership, up to the end of the Persian War, is therefore established’ (§§ 75-79).

‘It is true that Athens treated her revolted allies— Melos and Scione—severely: rebels must expect punishment. On the other hand, our loyal subjects enjoyed for seventy years freedom from tyranny, immunity from barbarian attacks, settled government, and peace with all the world’ (§§ 100-106).

‘Sparta and her partisans inflicted more harm in a few months than Athens in the whole duration of her empire’ (§§ 110-114).

‘Our rule was preferable to the so-called “peace and independence” which Sparta has given the cities. The seas are overrun by pirates, and more cities are raided now than before the peace was made. Tyrants and harmosts make life in the cities intolerable. The Great King, whom Athens confined within stated limits, has raided the Peloponnese (§§ 115-119); Sparta has abandoned the Ionians to slavery, and herself caused devastation in Greece, and burdened the islanders with taxation. It is monstrous that we Greeks, owing to our petty quarrels, should devastate our own country, when we might reap a golden harvest from Asia’ (§§ 120-132).

‘We have allowed the Great King to attain unheard of power—simply through our quarrels, for he is not really strong.

‘Numerous instances from history betray the inferiority of the Persian leaders and organization. They have often been defeated on the coast of Asia; when they invaded Greece we made an example of them; finally, they cut a ridiculous figure before the walls of their own palaces’2 (§§ 133-149).

‘This is what we might expect from their manner of life; the mass of the people are more fit to be slaves than soldiers; the nobles are by turns insolent and servile, and being permanently corrupted by luxury they are weak and treacherous. They deserve our hatred, and, in fact, our enmity can never be reconciled. One of the reasons even of Homer's popularity is that he tells of a great war against Asia’ (§§ 150-159).

‘The time is favourable for attack; Phoenicia and Syria are devastated; Tyre is captured; Cilicia is mostly in our favour; Egypt and Cyprus are in revolt. The Greeks are ready to rise; we must make haste, and not let the history of the Ionic revolt repeat itself. The present suffering in Greece passes all records, and for this the present generation deserves some recompense—another reason for haste. The leading men in the cities are callously indifferent, so we who stand outside politics must take the lead, as I am doing’ (§§ 160-174).

‘The treaty of Antalcidas need not stand in our way; it has been broken already in spirit. We only observe the provisions which are to our own shame, i.e. those by which our allies are given over to the Persians. It was never a fair covenant—we submitted to terms dictated by the king.

‘Honour and expediency alike demand that we should combine to undertake this war, whose fame will be greater than that of the Trojan war’ (§§ 175-189).

We may now consider the group of speeches which deals with the internal affairs of Greece.

Plataicus (Or. xiv.). Plataea, destroyed in 427 B.C., was restored by Sparta in 386 B.C. as a menace to Thebes, but was forced into the Boeotian Confederacy in 376 B.C. In 373 B.C. it was surprised by a Theban army and again destroyed. The inhabitants escaped to Athens, and their case was discussed in the ecclesia, and also at the congress of allies. The present speech is professedly delivered by a Plataean before the Athenian ecclesia. It consists chiefly of an appeal to sentiment through history; the speaker recalls the ancient relations of Plataea and Athens, and thence infers the present duty of Athens. The speech is in a form suitable for delivery before the assembly, and may have been so delivered.

On the Peace (Or. viii.), on the other hand, is a political treatise. It dates from 355 B.C., when the Social War was near its end. The main theme of the speech is the necessity of peace between Athens and all the world, but the urging of this policy naturally brings in a criticism of the war-party, and a severe indictment not only of present politics but of the conditions of the old empire of Athens. The speech is remarkable from the fact that for once Isocrates abandons his even and temperate language, and allows indignation and even bitterness to give colour to his criticisms.

‘The acquisition of empire,’ he says, ‘over unwilling subjects, is both unjust and impolitic. Ambition is like the bait which entices a wild beast into a trap. Our administration is rotten; our citizens have lost faith in personal effort, and we employ mercenaries to fight our battles. Our politicians are our worst citizens, and we appoint as generals incompetent men who are not fitted for any position of trust. We hold our own, but only because our rivals are as weak as we are. The follies of our assembly win allies for Thebes; their follies in turn are our salvation. It would pay either State to bribe the assembly of the other to meet more often.

‘Our hope lies in abandoning our empire; it is unjust, and moreover, we could not maintain it when we were rich, and now we are poor. The statesmen of imperial Athens did all that they could to make their city's policy unpopular. They displayed the tribute extorted from the allies, thus reminding all the world of their tyranny; and paraded the children of those who had fallen in wars in various parts of the world—the victims of national covetousness. Far different was the position of Athens under Themistocles and Aristides. National life is demoralized by Empire. The history of Sparta's supremacy is another case to the point. Pericles was a demagogue, and led the city on a disastrous career, but he at least enriched the treasury, not himself. Our modern demagogues are merely self-seeking, and their covetousness reduces not only the state but the citizens to penury.

‘Peace, at the price I have indicated, is the only remedy. We must deliver Greece, not despoil her. Athens should hold among Greek States the position that the kings occupy in Sparta; they are not tyrants; they have a higher standard of conduct than any private person, and are held in such respect that any man who would not throw away his life for them in the field is reckoned meaner than a deserter.’

There is much truth in the invectives aimed at the old empire; Isocrates could see behind the glowing colours in which the glories of the Periclean age are sometimes painted, and equally with Demosthenes he realized, and did not shrink from noticing, the weakness of Athens in his own days. But his advice, though noble, is unpractical. He failed, in spite of his knowledge of history, to fathom the depth of Greek selfishness. No State that relied solely or chiefly on moral worth could have a voice in the council of Greece, far less dominiate its policy.

The Areopagiticus (Or. vii.), perhaps composed in the same year, in many points supplements the de Pace. It is chiefly devoted to a contrast between the old days of dignified government under the constitutions of Solon and Cleisthenes, and the unsatisfactory conditions of life in the orator's time. The description of the old constitution is, perhaps, a fancy picture, but the contrast serves to bring out the evils at which Isocrates is aiming in the modern State. The speech deals with the inner life of Athens rather than with her foreign policy, and the chief credit for good government and good life in the old days is given to the Council of the Areopagus, that majestic body which even now ‘has so strong an influence that the worst men of modern times, if promoted to membership of it, are pervaded by its spirit, and, losing the meanness of their own hearts, think and act in accordance with the Council's high traditions.’

The Archidamus (Or. vi.) is put into the mouth of the Spartan king of that name, for whom, as we know from a letter, Isocrates had a deep respect. It professes to be part of a debate in 366 B.C., on the proposal of the Thebans to grant peace on condition that Sparta recognized the independence of Messenia. It probably contains a fair representation of the feelings of the Spartans at the time when it was proposed to make an independent and permanently hostile state of the Messenians, whom for generations they had regarded as their slaves.

There still remain works of three classes—the ‘hortatory letters,’ the ‘displays,’ and forensic speeches.

Hortatory Letters

To Demonicus (Or. i.), 372 B.C. (?). This letter, addressed to a young monarch, of whom nothing else is known, is destined to be a ‘storehouse’ (ταμιεῖον) of moral maxims, comprising duty to the gods, duty to men, and duty to oneself. It contains a vast number of maxims, mostly of a practical or semi-practical nature—‘We test gold by fire, friends by misfortune.’ ‘Never swear by the gods where money is concerned; some will think you a perjurer, others a covetous man.’ Occasionally the moral tone is higher—‘If you do wrong, never hope to be undiscovered; if others discover you not, your own conscience will discover you to yourself.’

To Nicocles (Or. ii.), 374 B.C., addressed to Nicocles, who became king of Salamis in Cyprus in 374 B.C., deals with the duties and responsibilities of a king. ‘Remember your high position, and be careful that you never do anything unworthy of it.’

Nicocles, or the Cyprians (Or. iii.), 372 B.C., is a complement to Or. ii. In it the king himself is represented as discoursing on the duties of subjects towards their king. ‘Do to your king as you would wish your own subjects to do to you.’

Epideictic Speeches

Many of the Sophists wrote imaginary speeches on legendary themes, and Isocrates, though this art was outside his province, strayed into it as a critic. The Busiris (Or. xi.), 391 B.C., addressed to a Sophist Polycrates, contains first a criticism of a speech composed by Polycrates on that subject, and secondly an exposition of how Isocrates himself would treat such a theme. Incidentally, Isocrates accepts the early legends as true on the whole, while rejecting certain parts of them as unbecoming.

The Encomium of Helen (Or. x.), 370 B.C., begins with criticism of a certain encomium which is generally believed to be the extant one attributed to Gorgias. The previous writer has written not an encomium but an apology; Isocrates himself will write a real encomium, omitting all the topics which have been used by others.

The Evagoras (Or. ix.), 365 B.C. (?), was composed for a festival celebrated by Nicocles in memory of his father, Evagoras of Salamis, who died 374 B.C. It contains a laudatory account of the king's career, and an encouragement to the son to emulate his father's virtues.

The Panathenaicus was begun when Isocrates was 94 years old, i.e. in 342 B.C. Owing to an illness, he was not able to finish it for three years. It contains much of the material which had already been used in the Areopagiticus. Its main topic is the greatness of Athens, considered historically, and not with reference to contemporary politics. But it contains long digressions—a defence of his own system against the attacks of certain baser Sophists (§§ 5-34); a discourse on Agamemnon (§§ 62-73); a personal explanation (§§ 99 sqq.), in which the author explains that the speech would naturally end at this point, and details the conversations and discussions which led him to continue it. He was blamed for being too harsh against Sparta, and though he silenced his critics, he had some misgivings. The result is to increase the length of the speech by one third, and completely to spoil the balance and destroy whatever unity it possessed.

Forensic Speeches

Six forensic speeches have come down to us; they belong to the early days of Isocrates, who in later years regretted that he had ever been concerned with such an art; they may be dismissed in a few words:

Against Lochites (Or. xx.), 394 B.C., is an action for assault; Aegineticus (Or. xix.), 394 B.C., a claim to an inheritance; Against Euthynus (Or. xxi.), 403 B.C., an action to recover a deposit; Trapeziticus (Or. xvii.), 394 B.C., a similar action, against the famous banker Pasion; περὶ τοῦ ζεύγους (Or. xvi.), 397 B.C., spoken by the younger Alcibiades against a man Tisias, who asserts that the elder Alcibiades, father of the speaker, robbed him of a team of four horses. This is an action for damages amounting to five talents. Against Callimachus, 399 B.C., a παραγραφή or special plea entered by the defendant, who contends that an action for damages brought against him cannot be maintained.


Reference has already been made to certain letters, to Dionysius, 368 B.C., Archidamus, 365 B.C., Philip and Alexander, 342 B.C. Others extant are addressed to the children of Jason (Ep. vi.), 359 B.C.—i.e. Thebe and her half-brothers, children of the tyrant of Pherae, who was murdered in 370 B.C.; to Timotheus (Ep. vii.), 345 B.C.—a king of Heraclea on the Euxine; to the Rulers of Mitylene (Ep. viii.), 350 B.C.—the oligarchs who had recently overthrown the democracy; to Antipater (Ep. iv.), 340 B.C., at the time, apparently, regent of Macedonia during Philip's absence in Thrace. This list of the correspondents of Isocrates, with some of whom at least he is on terms of familiarity, may serve to indicate his importance in the Greek world.

Isocrates is also credited with the composition of a τέχνη or treatise on the art of rhetoric, now lost, except for a single quotation; and the editions of the text contain a number of apophthegms attributed to him. None are important.

1 Isocrates is said to have spent ten years over the composition of the Panegyricus; it was probably published in 380 B.C.

2 I.e. the victory of the 10,000 at Cunaxa.

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