Sunday, June 9, 2013


David Sansone, Greek Drama and the Invention of Rhetoric. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. xi, 258. ISBN 9781118357088. $99.95.

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


This book develops two basic theses: first, that drama, because it presents characters visibly present to the audience, was an experience profoundly new for Athenian audiences and profoundly different from performed narrative. Audience members were inevitably attentive to the actors who were present but not speaking, so that there was a sort of "counterpoint," in contrast to Homer or lyric, where only one character could speak at a time. Second, Sansone argues that the familiar understanding of the relationship between tragedy and the development of rhetoric underestimates the tragedians, especially Euripides. Both argument from probability and the figure of anticipation, prokatalepsis (speculating about the arguments an opponent will use and refuting them in advance) are more richly developed in tragedy than anywhere else. Why then, Sansone asks, does the standard narrative attribute so much to the shadowy Sicilians, Tisias and Corax (already cast into the outer darkness by Edward Schiappa)?1 Why not rather believe that Euripides worked with the literary tradition and that the orators learned from him?

There is much to be learned from the book. It is, indeed, one of those books that every reader is happy to have read even though she doubts that it will fully convince anyone. The first thesis is, in my opinion, overstated, but it is a very valuable reminder that drama is not exactly like narrative, even performed narrative. Sansone points out that the reception of narrative is described as hearing, while Greeks see dramatic performance. It is surely true, as he argues, that the actor's presence on stage is a reminder of the interlocutor's participation in speech that narrative forms lack. Still, vocatives can be inserted into speeches so that an audience does not forget that a speaker is speaking to someone; I think of Il. 21.106, ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τίη ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως; Sansone argues against Taplin's famous distinction between "Aeschylean silences" and "silences in Aeschylus," arguing that all silences are significant, since the spectator cannot know which will be broken and which not—all silences arouse the spectator's curiosity, whether the play explicitly draws attention to them or not.2 There is some intuitive appeal in this claim, but I would like to see some careful study of this question by someone trained in the psychology of attention, a lively branch of experimental psychology.3 Similarly, I am doubtful that Aeschylus invented the second actor, but, even if he did, I would like hard evidence that audiences would still be impressed by innovations after more than twenty years, since my amateurish familiarity with the psychological literature suggests that people often adapt very quickly.

The second thesis is tricky, because it has two sides. There is a largely credible critique of the traditional (but perhaps no longer really standard) view that the Sicilians Tisias and Corax founded rhetoric, or that at any rate professional teachers, with the politically ambitious as their students, led the way towards rhetoric, and that tragedy simply imitates contemporary practice. The book presents an alternative, but also not really credible, story of origins that makes tragedy the source of forms of argument that eventually were incorporated into rhetoric. Tragedy certainly uses the rhetorical figures that Sansone discusses both earlier than other sources and more elaborately, and the book would be much more convincing if it argued not that rhetoric develops from tragedy, but that the elaborate development of certain figures in (mostly) Euripides is not a simple imitation of contemporary practice but an independent development and exaggeration of it. So Sansone suggests (p. 219) that in Antiphon's third Tetralogy and Gorgias' Palamedes the technique of apostrophizing an opponent while accusing him (or, in a praeteritio, declining to accuse him) is an imitation of tragic convention. It is certainly easier for tragedy to present such direct counter-accusations, since the characters typically address each other directly, and not a jury. Even in Eumenides , where a jury is present, the litigants speak more to each other and to Athena than to the jury. So it is not surprising that the tragic examples are the most elaborate. It is also quite possible that Euripides developed his style independently. Still, I find it hard to believe that tragedy was the only or the primary source for techniques available to litigants.

The book would make a stronger case if it did not frame its argument as being about origins. Although Sansone is scornful about those who call prokatalepsis "natural," I find it hard to imagine that in a litigious society like ancient Athens speakers would not have tried to refute the arguments they expected opponents to make. The book never really discusses any teacher of the arts of speech and success other than Gorgias. So Sansone demonstrates in detail that Gorgias was strongly influenced by Aeschylus, but that does not mean that influences between tragedy and the teachers went only one way, and it says nothing about other teachers, or about everyday practice. That is, I think it very likely that any early technai, if they existed, were simply models, not systematic treatises. I certainly believe that the tragedians were entirely capable of thinking through arguments for themselves. On the other hand, I do not believe that they were interested in having their characters speak and argue in a way that would not have recognizable to their audiences except from other tragedies.

The argument treats rhetoric as distinct from the rest of the intellectual development of the fifth century. Yet it seems entirely clear that it was not: when Strespiades wants to learn the Inferior Argument, Socrates expects him to master a variety of other disciplines first. Euripides presents some baroque displays of argument, but he also offers an array of contemporary scientific, theological, and ethical speculations. Nobody would argue that he invented this material. However, there is no reason to see him as a mindless magpie, either; the tragedians were active participants in contemporary intellectual life.

Sansone argues that tragic arguments from probability belong in the context of marriage and appropriate choices for marriage, or at least sex (as in Euripides' Cretans, fr. 472 Kannicht), a topic central to tragedy but not debated in the courts. There is some special pleading here. Euripides' Hippolytus certainly argues that Phaedra was not the most beautiful of women, but his argument that he would not have wished to marry her in order to take his father's place (1010-20) is not really about marriage, but about the desire for tyranny, which is also the theme of Creon's self-defense at OR 584-602—a passage that the book mentions at 162-3 but then drops. Thucydides' repeated references to probability are unlikely to derive from tragedy. Yet Sansone has brought out something important: the extended arguments from probability in tragedy, mainly in Euripides, are peculiarly tragic. Tragedy invited them. If tragedy did not invent the argument from probability, it surely served to render it familiar to many Athenians and to the wider Greek world, by presenting extended examples whose sensational nature ("is it likely that I would, without divine intervention, be erotically attracted to a bull?") made them peculiarly salient. Anybody who saw the plays of Euripides over several years would receive some elements of a rhetorical education and would be far more self-conscious about both persuading and being persuaded. Indeed, it begins to look as if the proto-rhetoric of the fifth century consists on one side of some figures of speech and of argument, not yet organized into any real system, and on the other of a newly intense self-consciousness. Sansone, in arguing for tragedy as the source of rhetoric, points to the advice that Danaus gives his daughters in Aeschylus' Suppliants. I am not convinced, however, that a passage like this shows that rhetorical self-consciousness is likely to have developed entirely within tragedy itself. A basic awareness that persuasion is not entirely easy is (I dread to say) "natural." Even in Homer, Nestor gives instructions to the ambassadors about persuading Achilles (Il. 9.179-81). So it is not surprising that Danaus instructs his daughters in how to act and what to say. Danaus is very general, however, except on the ritual point of how they should carry their suppliant boughs; for the content of their speech, he warns them only to explain that they are not fleeing their home as murderers. He does not show any concern that they lack practice or expertise. In Euripides, in contrast, as in the Attic orators, we see characters who are worried that they will not be able to argue as well as the case demands, and we hear warnings of how easy it is to be misled by verbal and argumentative cunning. It seems clear that if we could plot the level of anxiety about rhetorical performance in Athens, 470 would be low compared to 408. Sansone is surely right to see the tragedians, especially Euripides, not just as passive registers of a change engineered by sophists and their students and admirers.

The book is lively and readable, and should be read by everyone interested either in tragedy or in the origins of rhetoric.


1.   E. Schiappa The Beginnings of Rhetorical Theory in Classical Greece (New Haven 1999). See also T. Cole, The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (Baltimore 1991).
2.   O. Taplin "Aeschylean Silences and Silences in Aeschylus," HSCP76 (1972): 57-97.
3.   e.g. H. E. Pashler, The Psychology of Attention (Cambridge, Mass 1998).

1 comment:

  1. In favour of Professor Scodel's remarks one could add that a very specialized topic of Fifth Century Greek rhetoric, namely the so called logos amarturos, has a very little space in tragedy (with the exception of Eur. Hipp.), while plays a key role in Antiphon (esp. first Tetralogy and Self-defence), Gorgias (Palamedes), Andocides (I 112 ff., 137 ff.). Another topic, "my opponent has fallen in contradiction", could have played a key role in the Oresteia, but didn't.
    (Livio Rossetti, Perugia)


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