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”
Literary characteristicsIsaeus 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.4 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.6 A study of the private letters contained among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri will give many examples to the point.7 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.8 His grammar, according to strict Attic rule, is occasionally at fault,9 and the MSS. exhibit a certain number of word-forms which are supposed to be un-Attic.10 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:
The speech about Ciron's inheritance contains the best example of argument by question and answer:
“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.”
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:
“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.”
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,11 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:
“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.”
The following is the parallel extract from Isaeus:
“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.
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.’
“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.