Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Victor Bers, Genos Dikanikon: Amateur and Professional Speech in the Courtrooms of Classical Athens. Hellenic Studies 33. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2008. Pp. ix, 159. ISBN 9780674032033. $15.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Yun Lee Too

The Center for Hellenic Studies publishes books on various topics within Greek studies and the thirty-third such publication is Victor Bers' Genos Dikanikon: Amateur and Professional Speech in the Courtrooms of Classical Athens. It is relatively brief , encompassing 159 pages, with 127 of text and the remaining devoted to bibliography and various indices, but it is a useful and valuable volume concentrating on the body of forensic speeches in the fourth century B.C.E. Bers is concerned above all with the crafting of judicial speech by the professionals, the individuals we know as the Greek orators, in distinction and as a reaction to the amateurs, who were otherwise unskilled and generally poor, and for this reason, have been of minimal interest to us.

Bers shows the reader what the experience of speaking and listening in the lawcourts might have been like. He accomplishes this in seven chapters. The first one, 'The Challenge of Court Speech', is very short but presents some crucial ideas. It begins with some observations that should be fundamental to the study of Greek oratory. The first of these is that many of speeches we have are fictional (p. 1). It also offers that dexterity at forensic rhetoric was necessary for anyone, whether a member of the Athenian upper class or ambitious barbaroi, who aspired to be a fully paid up member of Greek culture. Bers goes on to observe that dicanic speech had no stylistic requirements but that professional speechmakers worked to avoid what might cause failure for the amateur orator (p. 6).

The second chapter, 'Amateur Litigants, Amateur Speakers', considers the idiôtês or layman who may have been too poor to have a speech written for him by a logographos. While other scholars such as Ober do not think that the poor idiôtês would have been heard in court (p. 11), Bers argues for their inclusion in the court system: they too engaged in forensic discourse, perhaps attacked to settle a personal grievance (p. 13). He considers evidence from Aristophanes and Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians for the economic status of litigants and is forced to conclude that there is no firm evidence for the number of speakers who received help in the preparation of their speeches.

The following chapter offers a historical frame for dicanic speech. Bers looks at passages from epic and archaic poetry for evidence of courtroom argumentation and then surveys the fifth-century orators Antiphon and Andocides. What causes him consternation is the widely held view that oratory drew on tragedy. Bers rejects this view outright, although it seems that he is rather stubborn in his refusal to accept a tragic influence, which seems very plausible and has many supporters. He takes particular issue with David Whitehead to argue that words which the latter has identified as tragic may not be: they could be satiric, lyric or otherwise poetic (pp. 41-3). For Bers there is not a necessary link between poetry and tragedy. It is worth noting that in an apparent self-contradiction Bers observes Aristotle drawing on many examples from tragedy in his discussion of delivery (p. 57).

Chapter Four, 'Terrors of the Courtroom', considers the protocols of forensic oratory, good Attic Greek, delivery, the use of abusive language, volume and rhythm and hiatus. The next chapter, 'Performance as Evidence', looks at the fact that oratory was performed in a large community and considers that what the jury got was not the truth. Litigants in court presented their audience with what was supposed to pass for good and decent behaviour; a reference to Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life might have been helpful here.

'Appeals to Pity and Displays of Anger', Chapter Six, looks at the emotive aspects of courtroom rhetoric. Bers gathers passage from oratory and from Aristotle's Rhetoric to show the tears, the turmoil, and the anger that might run through the ancient Greek courtroom. The final chapter, 'Tactics, Amateur and Professional', draws attention to an aspect of Greek oratory that tends to escape notice and demonstrates Bers' close attention to the texts he is reading, the use of particles. It is inevitable that Bers would focus on this concern in light of his Greek Poetic Syntax in the Classical Age (New Haven and London, 1984) and Speech in Speech: Studies in Incorporated Oratio Recta in Attic Drama and Oratory (London, 1997). Particles nuance the discourse; they add emotional force and their careful use marks the difference between the amateur and the professional speechwriter. Particles, diminutives, and repetition are an aspect of the stylistic canvas and distinguish the well-written text from the less well-written speech, in other words the professional from the non-professional.

A short appendix entitled 'The Formality Hypothesis' serves to correct an imbalance in scholarship on Greek oratory, the almost exclusive attention to professional speechwriting. The need for this correction is quite understandable if we realize that all we have are professionally written speeches. Of course, Bers is right to argue that amateurs spoke in the Greek lawcourts and his recognition of this is valuable, but the fact is that none of the amateur attempts at oratory exists, probably because they were not thought worthy of preservation. He has no examples to present to the reader of lay dabbling in speechmaking for the courtroom. The study of Greek oratory is the study of a few professional authors.

Bers' book is brief and accomplishes what it sets out to do very ably. It is, however, rather idiosyncratic at various points. One moment is when he insists that theatre was not an influence on oratory, where I would argue rather that one would not be surprised to find speakers drawing on the familiar and popular social discourse of the theatre. Another moment is Bers' emphasis on the non-specialist aspect of courtroom speech, which helps to define what we do have of legal discourse by contradistinction, where no amateur speechmaking has come down to us. This is a skilled study of the language of the professional courtroom, as one would expect to come from Bers. It is for these reasons not an introduction to the ancient Greek lawcourts for the student who knows nothing about this institution but a specialized study for the scholar who has his or her own viewpoints; it is a work for the professional rather than the amateur.

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