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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Feb 21, 2018

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like you to think a little about the types of writing you’ve done in the past, oh, let us say, year. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably written breezy email, stern syllabi, obscure academic texts and pun-based posts on Reddit that didn’t get nearly the number of upvotes as they deserve. Now what if a random, oh, say 12% of what you wrote was preserved and no one who knew you was around to testify you wrote it all? What would people think about your writing style? About your history? Would they even know you who were you?


This is precisely the mystery behind today’s Other Eight Attic Orator, Antiphon of Rhamnus. Like many of us, Antiphon may have written a variety of texts. He was a logographer, one of those professional legal speechwriters, so he probably wrote dozens of defenses for the rich and powerful in his social circle. He also attracted followers and students, so he wrote examples for them, imaginary legal cases with evenly balanced sides and arguments in weighted antithesis. He may have even written a treatise On Rhetoric, but we don’t have it, because, remember? Most of your writings--gone. We only have rumor of Antiphon’s rhetoric text. He also maybe wrote some abstract sophistic texts, On Truth and On Concord, which sure don’t sound like the pragmatic legal texts we know were his. Antiphon also lived in the real world, which, during this stormy period of Athenian politics, included a lot a hairy situations where Antiphon would have to rhetoric for his life.


All of this makes it hard to sort out what Antiphon really wrote and what, if any, style you would attribute to him--is he a cut-and-dry type-A arranger like his sample cases sound or did he play fast and loose with the traditional four parts of a speech like his court cases? He looks like both. Take those traditional four parts of a speech--prologue, narrative, proof or argument and epilogue, or in other words, set the stage, tell the story, supply the evidence, and sum it all up.


In one speech Antiphon goes on and on in the narrative. Why? Because he’s writing a speech for the prosecution and so it’s his job to plaint what happened. In this case, it’s about a step-mother poisoning a father, so it’s a very lurid narrative, too. The step-mother tricks a family’s friend’s mistress into thinking a poison was a love potion. “When they had finished dinner, ...they naturally began pouring libations...But while Philoneus’ mistress was pouring the libations...she was pouring in the drug. And she thought she would be clever and put more into  Philoneus’ cup, on the theory that if she gave him more, he would love her more. She didn’t realize she had been deceived by my stepmother until the evil was already done.... When the men had poured out the libations, each took hold of his own murderer and drank it down--his last drink” (19-21). I mean--wow! That is shocking stuff. Of course the jury wants to hear more of it. The defense’s excuses of why she did it is almost irrelevant when there’s such a vivid narration. Even though Antiphon says he will “try to relate the rest of the story about giving the drug as briefly as possible,” (13) he knows that the story is the most convincing part and aside from this allegation...there’s not really a lot of evidence. In fact, not only is the evidence sparse, but the narrative is almost entirely fabricated. How could the plaintiff or Antiphon know what the cloistered women said to each other behind closed doors? How could he know what they were thinking when they poured the drinks? But with such a robust narration section, the argument looks compelling. This kind of playing with the order is seen in extreme cases where he even blends togethers evidence and narration.


But this is far from the case of his orderly Tetralogies. These school texts are so orderly that you might even call them...textbook cases. See what I did there? The 1st Tetralogy considers a man and his servent killed in the middle of the night in the street. Were they killed by a common criminal seeking valuable cloaks or by some violent drunk...or was it personal this time? The argument here iis very argumenty, and quite different from “Against the Step-mother”: “We know the whole city is polluted by the killer until he is prosecuted and that if we prosecute the wrong man, we will be guilty of impiety, and punishment for any mistake [the jury] makes will fall on us… no one who went so far as to risk his life would abandon the gain he had securely in hand”, and yet the victims were still in possession of their property when they were found (4)...and the whole thing goes on like that. Counter supposition and response. It’s chock full of evidence and the narration takes back seat, as is more typical.


These cases sound very different, even though the cases all involve murder--Antiphon in both the cases he took and the cases his taught seemed drawn to the bloody side of Athenian life. The extant works of Antiphon are littered with the corpses of poisoned, drowned and javelined Athenians. But just as each legal case is different, the arguments needed to defend or prosecute are also different.


So what do we make of On Truth and On Concord and, for cryin’ out loud, the Interpretation of Dreams? The lawyer-y logographer Antiphon was writing about summary arrest and probablitities, but what about the fragments of the so-called sophistic works? Were these written by “our” Antiphon or some other Antiphon, sometimes named Antiphon the Sophist? What about the Antiphon who squared the circle? It’s difficult to say who is who.


Because there were only like, a dozen names in the ancient Greek cities, there were other Antiphons about. It could be that these little fragments are Antiphon’s weekend work, when he wasn’t wading through gutters of blood. But, as Michael Gagarin points out, you write different ways in different circumstances for different audiences (“Introduction” 6). A real court case isn’t the same as a textbook example for students is not the same as a purely theoretical exploration. Yet with so much missing, it’s hard to say we know Antiphon’s full contributions.


The sad irony is that this great forensic logographer who has been enshrined as one of the Great Attic Orators wasn’t able to win the most important court case of his life--the course case for his life. Although he gave what was later called “the greatest [speech] ever made by a man on trial for his life” he was prosecuted for his role in the coup of the council of 400. Like with much of Antiphon’s work, we hear more about his trial’s speech than we are actually able to read. Aristotle’s Eudemanian Ethics includes expert praise for it as well as the allusion that many others commonly appreciated it. It didn’t seem to stem the rage of the Council, though. He was prnounced guilty and not only was treason a capital offense, but his descendants would even be stripped of their inheritance and their citizenship. Most people thus charged slipped out the back way or threw others under the bus, or did both--see our episdoe on Andocides. But instead of fleeing into exile, Antiphon stayed in Athens and was executed. It’s likely that after his execution his works weren’t exactly broadly disseminated. It wasn’t until 1907 that the fragments of Antiphon’s defense on the revolution were discovered...badly mutilated papyrus from the 2nd century AD.


Kind of a downer ending, so I’m going to end with a quote from someone who knew him, Thucydides , who was Antiphon’s student.


“Antiphon, one of the best men of his day in Athens; who, with a head to contrive measures and a tongue to recommend them, did not willingly come forward in the assembly or upon any public scene, being ill-looked upon by the multitude owing to his reputation for cleverness; and who yet was the one man best able to aid in the courts, or before the assembly, the suitors who required his opinion.”