(ca. 480-411) Antiphon was a professional speechwriter who was active at Athens in the last quarter of the fifth century B.C. Six of his forensic speeches and numerous fragments of others survive. Three of the surviving speeches were probably delivered in actual homicide cases. The other three are really sets of speeches (two each for defense and prosecution, hence called Tetralogies) which appear to represent imaginary homicide trials and may never have been delivered. The ascription of the Tetralogies to Antiphon has been doubted by some modern scholars, as has his ancient identification with Antiphon the Sophist, fragments of whose philosophical writings are also preserved. Others are convinced of both the authenticity of the Tetralogies and the unity of sophist and orator. As a speechwriter (logographos), Antiphon was for the most part employed in writing speeches for others or offering legal advice while never appearing in court himself. After a life out of public view, however, he rose to sudden political prominence in 411. His active support of the oligarchic coup led to his trial and conviction for treason. The main contemporary source for these events is Thucydides, who notes with admiration the brilliant speech Antiphon made in his own defense. A short fragment of this speech also survives.
FamilyA member of a prominent Athenian family, Antiphon was the son of the aristocrat Sophilus from the Athenian deme of Rhamnus. The aristocratic or oligarchic leanings of his family are well established. In a fragment of a speech Antiphon himself mentions that his grandfather was a strong supporter of the Peisistratids.
BiographyThe date of Antiphon's birth is unknown. Ancient information that he was a little younger than the sophist Gorgias, if true, would suggest that he was born around 480 B.C. Sixty speeches were attributed to him in antiquity. Along with the six extant speeches, fragments of some twenty others are preserved. While some scholars regard the Tetralogies as an earlier rhetorical exercise, no speech can be shown to date from before 430, and the three forensic speeches probably were composed in the period from 420 to 411 B.C., when Antiphon was put to death. The subjects of fragmentary speeches are quite varied, but the extant works all deal with homicide cases, suggesting that Antiphon specialized in this area of law. The first speech is Prosecution of the Stepmother for Poisoning, in which the speaker asserts that his stepmother conspired with his father's mistress in the poisoning of his father. The three Tetralogies come next in the traditonal manuscript order of his works. Each of these takes the form of two speeches for the defense and two for the prosecution in three different kinds of homicide case. The first represents a case of murder, the second an accidental homicide, and the third a killing in self-defence. Antiphon's most admired speech, On the Murder of Herodes, is counted fifth in his corpus. In this speech Euxitheus, a young man from the Aegean island of Lesbos, defends himself on a charge of murdering a fellow passenger, Herodes, on a sea-trip to Thrace. In Antiphon's sixth speech, On the Choreutes, the sponsor of a tragic chorus defends himself against charges that he was responsible for the accidental poisoning of a boy in the chorus. Toward the end of his life Antiphon suddenly took a leading role in politics as a mastermind and active participant in the oligarchic revolution of the Four Hundred in 411. As a result, he was brought to trial on charges of treason that same year. After making a passionate speech in his own defense, he was nevertheless convicted and executed. Thucydides (8.68) says that this was the very best speech of its kind ever delivered. Unfortunately, only a brief fragment of the defense, On the Revolution, survives.
Except for the controversy about his identity and about the authenticity of the Tetralogies, scholarship on Antiphon concentrates mostly on his prose style and methods of argumentation as a chief representative both of early Attic prose and of the beginnings of forensic rhetoric.