LifeDionysius could find, in the authorities whom he consulted, no definite information about the life of Isaeus. The dates of his birth and death are unknown; we cannot, as Dionysius observes, say what were his political opinions, or even whether he had any at all (Dion., de Isaeo, ch. 1). We are even in doubt as to his birthplace; some authorities called him an Athenian, others a Chalcidian. The suggestion that he may have been the descendant of an Athenian who settled in Chalcis as a cleruch is plausible, but without any authority.1 The inference, from the fact that he took no part in public life, that he was probably an alien, is not justifiable. The fact that, whether an Athenian or not, he never spoke at any of the great national assemblies, where rhetoricians from all Greek countries gave displays, seems to argue that he had no ambition for personal distinction as an orator, but was content to be a professional writer of speeches. There is a legend that the young Demosthenes, impressed by the effectiveness of Isaeus' oratory, induced the latter to live in his house and train him thoroughly in all the arts of the forensic speechwriter; it is even said that the earliest speech of Demosthenes, against Aphobus, was in reality composed by his master. The authority for these tales is quite insignificant, but the influence of Isaeus on Demosthenes was nevertheless considerable, whether or not they came much into personal contact. Dionysius records, on the authority of Hermippus, that Isaeus ‘was a pupil of Isocrates and a teacher of Demosthenes, and came into close contact with the best of the philosophers.’ (de Isaeo, ch. 1). There is no evidence that he was ever a companion of Socrates, since his name is not anywhere mentioned by Plato. His earliest speech (On the Estate of Dicaeogenes) is assigned with some probability to the year 390 B.C., and his latest (On the Estate of Apollodorus) to 353 B.C. If the date 390 B.C. is correct, the period of his study under Isocrates may reasonably be placed during the period 393-390 B.C., when that orator was starting his school, and on this assumption we might place the birth of Isaeus approximately at 420 B.C. But the chronology rests entirely on internal evidence which in this case is ambiguous; a later date for the speech is equally possible, and in that case the earliest speech is that On the Estate of Aristarchus, 377-371 B.C. Isaeus, then, need not have been born before 400 B.C. There is more certainty in the dating of the last extant speech about 353 B.C., but we have no means of knowing whether or not the orator lived long after its composition. He may have spent many years in retirement. Isocrates was writing up to the moment of his death, but he had great thoughts to express; Isaeus, with no interest in politics, may, when he retired from the monotonous task of writing speeches for others, have been glad to find no further necessity for composition. However, the approximate dates 420-350 B.C. will give a reasonable duration for such a life. Isaeus is perhaps the only one of the orators for whom we cannot feel any enthusiasm. If we had, from external sources, the slightest clue to his real feelings, we might be able to collect from his speeches some hints that would help us to form an image of his personality. He is known to us only from speeches which he wrote for others, all of them, with the exception of one fragment, dealing with testamentary cases, which are not the most interesting province of law. He was not personally interested in any of these trials, unless we can believe the more than doubtful assertion of the Greek argument to the fourth oration, that he himself spoke in support of Hagnon and Hagnotheus, being their kinsman. We may contrast his case with that of Antiphon, who similarly is known to us chiefly from speeches in one department of law—trials for homicide; but in Antiphon's case we are fortunate in having a short but illuminating notice of his life by Thucydides, which forms the outline of the picture; and in addition we have the tetralogies which to some extent help to fill in the details. Of Isaeus as a man we know less, almost, than we do of Homer. We gather only an impression of his wonderful efficiency in dealing with subjects of a particular class—his exhaustive knowledge of the intricacies of testamentary law, and his dexterity in applying that knowledge to the best purpose; a kind of efficiency which is admirable, but dull. Isaeus is our chief authority for the Attic Laws of inheritance.2 These laws were often arbitrary, and though they were to some extent simplified by the fact that a man who had sons could not legally will his property away from them, the intricacies of tables of consanguinity were so complex that only a specialist could be expected to have a complete mastery of them. There was no class of professional lawyers at Athens; the Attic Laws were very largely framed by amateurs, of which we have evidence in the number of recorded cases in which the proposers of laws were prosecuted for illegality, i.e. for enacting laws contrary to laws already established; and as the framing of them was a matter of haphazard improvisation, so their interpretation was often a question of the temper of the jury for the moment. No doubt some record of verdicts was kept, but the Athenians had no great respect for precedent, or at any rate could not make full use of it in the lack of professional judges who should be experts in such matters. Thus there were great opportunities for a man like Isaeus, who combined a minute knowledge of law and procedure with skill in applying his knowledge; who could quote at will either the law or precedent for departing from its letter, and, where the wording of the law left any room for ambiguous interpretation, could twist the meaning to one side or the other to suit his case. The particular branch of law which Isaeus chose as his special province was important owing to the large number of cases dealing with inheritances which seem to have come before the Athenian Courts, and these cases were often in themselves important owing to the religious significance of the fact of inheritance. An Athenian desired to leave behind him a male heir not only that his property might remain in the family, but that the family might have a representative who should carry on the private worship of the household gods, and in particular should duly perform the funeral rites of the testator and offer all the proper sacrifices at his grave. Heirship, therefore, carried with it certain definite religious duties, and a man who had no child living usually ensured the continuity of the family worship by adopting a son either in his lifetime or by will. The skill of Isaeus in dealing with complicated cases is well shown by a consideration of the arguments of any of the remaining speeches; for instance, Oration v. (On the Estate of Dicaeogenes) is concerned with the claims of a certain man's nephew as against his cousin, who inherited a third portion under a will subsequently proved to be false, and eventually succeeded to the whole under a second will which the claimants proved false. Two wills and the results of two previous trials have to be kept in mind, as well as the rather complicated relationship of the parties; but Isaeus makes the case substantially clear. Again, in Oration xi. (On the Estate of Hagnias) twenty-three members of the family are referred to by name, and it is necessary to trace the family's ramifications through a large number of second cousins whose nearness of consanguinity is in some cases affected by the intermarriage of first cousins. The facts of the case are not easy to follow even on paper, and it appears that the judges on this occasion were puzzled into giving a wrong verdict. The orator's methods may, however, be studied more conveniently in a simpler speech, On the Estate of Ciron (Or. viii.). The essential facts of the case are as follows:—Ciron by his first marriage had one daughter, the mother of the two claimants. Ciron married a second wife, the sister of Diocles. The son of Ciron's brother, instigated by Diocles, made a counter-claim on the grounds that (1) Ciron's daughter was illegitimate and consequently her sons were illegitimate; (2) a brother's son in any case has a better claim than a daughter's son. The speaker, the elder of the claimants, first establishes his mother's legitimacy, proving that Ciron always treated her as his daughter and twice gave her a dowry, and regarded her sons as his natural heirs.
“Our grandfather Ciron died, not without issue, but leaving as issue my brother and myself, the sons of his legitimate daughter; but the plaintiffs claim the inheritance on the assumption that they are the next of kin, and insult us by the insinuation that we are not sons of Ciron's daughter, and that he never had a daughter at all. This is due to the claimants’ covetousness and the great amount of Ciron's estate, which they have seized, and now control. They have the impudence to say that he left nothing, and in the same breath to lay a claim to the inheritance.Now your judgment ought not, in my opinion, to have reference to the man who has urged the claim, but to Diocles of Phlya, known as Orestes, who has incited him to annoy us, endeavouring to withhold the property which Ciron left at his death, and to endanger our interests, so that he may not have to part with any of it, if you are misled by the assertions of the claimant. Since they are working for these ends it is right that you should be informed of all the facts, in order that no detail may escape you, and that you may have a full knowledge of all that has occurred, before you give your verdict. So I ask you to consult the interests of justice by giving to this case as serious consideration as you have given to any other case before. This is only just. Recall the numerous cases that have come before you, and you will find that no plaintiffs have ever made a more shameless or barefaced claim to property that does not belong to them than these two. Now it is a hard task, Gentlemen, for one entirely inexperienced in the procedure of the courts to hold his own in a trial for such an important issue against concerted speeches and witnesses who give false evidence; but I have a confident hope that I shall obtain justice from you, and that my own speech will be satisfactory to the point, at least, of stating a just cause, unless I am thwarted by some obstacle of the kind which I apprehend. I therefore urge you, Gentlemen, to give me a courteous hearing, and if you consider that I have been wronged, to support the justice of my claim. First, I shall convince you that my mother was the legitimate daughter of Ciron. For events long past I shall rely on reported statements and evidence, for those within our memory I shall adduce witnesses who know the facts, as well as proofs which are stronger than depositions; and when I have laid this all before you I shall prove that I have a better right than the claimant to inherit the estate of Ciron. I shall start from the point at which my opponents began, and from thence onwards instruct you in the facts. My grandfather Ciron, Gentlemen, married my grandmother, who was his own first cousin, being the daughter of a sister of his own mother. After the marriage she in due course gave birth to my mother, and four years later she died. My grandfather, having only this one daughter, married his second wife, the sister of Diocles, who bore him two sons. He brought up my mother in the house with his wife and children, and during the lifetime of the latter, when his daughter was of marriageable age, he bestowed her on Nausimenes of Cholarge, giving her a dowry of clothing and gold ornaments, as well as twenty-five minae. Three or four years after this, Nausimenes fell ill and died, before my mother had borne him any children. My grandfather took her back to his house, but owing to the disorder of her husband's affairs he did not recover all the dowry he had given with her; he then married her a second time to my father, with a dowry of 1000 drachmae. In face of the charges now brought by the plaintiffs, how can my statements be proved? I sought and found the way. Ciron's domestic slaves, male and female, must know whether my mother was or was not his daughter; whether she lived in his house; whether he did or did not on two occasions give feasts in honour of her marriage; what dowry each of her husbands received. Wishing to examine them under torture by way of supporting the evidence already in my hands, in order that you might put more confidence in their evidence when they had submitted to the examination than you would if they were only apprehending it, I requested the plaintiffs to surrender their slaves of both sexes to be examined on the above points and all others of which they have knowledge. But this man, who will shortly request you to believe his own witnesses, shrank from submitting to such an examination. But if I can prove that he refused, how can we avoid the presumption that his witnesses are now giving false evidence since he has shrunk from a test so searching? To prove the truth of my assertion, take first this deposition and read it.”
The speaker continues that he and his brother were enrolled by Ciron in the phratria, and were allowed to conduct the funeral by Diocles, who thus tacitly admitted their claim. He next proves by legal argument that direct descendants have a better claim than collateral relations. By way of epilogue he gives an account of the property and the machinations of Diocles, whose personal character he attacks, and at the end produces evidence that Diocles has been proved guilty of adultery.
“Now you hold the opinion, both personally and officially, that torture is the surest test; and whenever slaves and freemen come forward as witnesses and you have to arrive at facts, you do not rely on the evidence of the freemen, but torture the slaves and seek thus to discover the truth. You are right in your preference; for you know that whereas some witnesses have been suspected of giving false evidence, no slaves have ever been proved to have made untrue statements in consequence of the torture to which they were submitted.3Who may be expected to know the early facts? Obviously those who were acquainted with my grandfather, and they have told us what they heard. Who must know about my mother's marriage? The parties to the marriage contracts, and their witnesses. On this point the relations of Nausimenes and of my father have given evidence. And who knew that my mother was brought up in Ciron's house, and was his legitimate daughter? The present claimants give clear evidence that this is true, by their action in refusing the torture. Surely, then, it would not be reasonable for you to discredit my witnesses, while you can hardly fail to disbelieve those of the other side. Besides these, we can bring other proofs by which you shall know that we are sons of Ciron's daughter. He treated us as he naturally would treat his daughter's sons; he never conducted a sacrifice without our presence, but whether the sacrifice were small or great, we were always there and joined in it. Not only were we summoned for such occasions, but he always used to take us to the rural Dionysia, and we used to see the show with him, sitting by his side; and we came to his house to keep every feastday. And when he sacrificed to Zeus Ktesios, a sacrifice to which he attached the utmost importance, never allowing slaves or even freemen, outside the family, to participate, but doing everything by himself, we used to share in the sacrifice; we helped him to handle the offerings, we helped him to place them on the altar, we helped him in everything, and, as our grandfather, he would pray the God to give us health and wealth. But if he had not considered us as his daughter's sons, and seen in us the only descendants left to him, he would never have done anything of the kind, but would have kept by his side this man who now claims to be his nephew. The truth of this is known best of all by my grandfather's servants, whom the plaintiff refused to surrender to torture; but it is known accurately enough by some of my grandfather's friends, whose evidence I shall produce”