Thursday, September 18, 2014


Brenda Griffith-Williams, A Commentary on Selected Speeches of Isaios. Mnemosyne, supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 364. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. Pp. xx, 272. ISBN 9789004258570. $141.00.

Reviewed by Rosalia Hatzilambrou, University of Athens (

Version at BMCR home site


The fourth century orator Isaios had the privilege of being the first among the Attic orators on whose work a detailed (amounting to 735 pages) and highly scholarly commentary was written: that by William Wyse, published in 1904.1 However, this commentary has become an impediment for scholarship on Isaios. It was generally considered that Wyse's book left little or no scope for further scholarship, while its negative assessment of Isaios based on anachronistic ethical standards, and of the Athenian legal system as a result of Wyse's attempt to impose on it principles derived from Roman law, proved vastly influential for later scholarship on Isaios and Attic orators in general, even though it was soon recognized as biased. Thus, later scholars have either taken Wyse's views for granted in their work and deliberately avoided commenting further on the factual and legal aspects of Isaios' speeches,2 or they have chosen to challenge Wyse's unjust skepticism and sometimes appeared over-inclined to take what Isaios says at face value.3 This is mainly why Brenda Griffith-Williams' new commentary on four speeches of Isaios is particularly welcome; it is the first commentary to appear after Wyse's book that offers such an independent, fresh and unbiased assessment of Isaios' work.

The volume starts with a brief, informative Preface, where the need for a new commentary is explained and the content, structure, approach, methodology and conventions of the commentary are illustrated. I hasten to note, with regard to the methodology, that I consider particularly original the systematic reference to modern parallels, wherever relevant, which "illustrate the resemblances as well as the differences between ancient and modern legal procedures and advocacy techniques" (p.xiii). Griffith-Williams provides her own translation into English of all Greek lemmata and citations from other classical Greek sources; her translation is accurate, useful not only to the reader who does not know Greek, but also to the classicist who often needs help in understanding argumentation which involves Attic law. She also provides English translations of all the quotations from French, German and Italian scholars. I have noted only one peculiar editorial decision, namely the choice of Griffith-Williams to abbreviate Greek lemmata of more than one line in length: this is not very convenient, and undermines the commentary's suitability to be read as an independent scholarly work, especially since the Greek text is not included in the volume. Additionally, Griffith-Williams fails to cite the critical edition of Thalheim among the editions which potentially could have been used as the basis for her commentary (p. xiv).4 Given that the OCT edition of Isaios is in progress, Thalheim's edition is still considered the standard critical edition of Isaios. Finally, although her policy on transliteration is clearly outlined on p. xiv, it sometimes results in slight inconsistency, especially with Greek names cited in juxtaposition, e.g. Aeschylus Khoephoroi (see pp. xix and 54).

After the Acknowledgements and the list of Abbreviations there follows a General Introduction (31 pages). It provides a concise discussion of Isaios and his work and an overview of aspects of the Athenian inheritance system in the fourth century relevant to the four speeches covered by the commentary. The chapter on the Athenian inheritance system is subdivided into seven sections (Substantive Law, Procedure, The Prevalence of Inheritance Disputes in Classical Athens, Kinship Patterns in Athenian Inheritance Disputes, Wills, Evidence and Argumentation, Persuasion: The Rôle of the Logographer); it presents legal, rhetorical (i.e. logographic) and social aspects in combination and successfully marks Griffith-Williams' 'holistic' approach, which is not confined to the interpretation of the speeches. The General Introduction ends with an account of Isaios' reception from antiquity to the twenty-first century, where she clearly indicates the different scholarly traditions. My only objection to this account is Griffith-Williams' criticism of Edwards' recent (2007) translation of the speeches of Isaios into English,5 on the grounds that "he does not attempt a detailed (italics are mine) legal analysis of the speeches" (p. 31). This does not fall within the scope of a translation.

Griffith-Williams has chosen to write a commentary on four out of the twelve speeches of Isaios preserved entirely (or almost entirely). These are the speeches 7-10, all delivered in court by a claimant in a diadikasia, that is, a judicial procedure aimed at establishing the legal position without plaintiffs and defendants, used to determine contested inheritance claims. Given that selection, Griffith-Williams has fully succeeded in exploring and illustrating similarities and differences between the logographic strategy in diadikasia and formally adversarial procedures (dikai, graphai etc), which largely depend on whether the speech was delivered first or second in the diadikasia-procedure (see, e.g., pp. 91, 223). As is to be expected the commentary is divided into four chapters, one for each speech. Each speech has its own very clear introduction, in which Griffith-Williams generally maps out information on background and chronology, the legal issue and the legal procedure, specific relevant legal provisions, the structure of the speech, and an assessment of the strength of the speaker's case. Whenever needed, more sections are adduced in the individual introductions to clarify specific issues, e.g. in the Introduction to the tenth speech the sections 'The Adoption of Kyronides', 'The Status of the Speaker's Mother', 'The Succession of Aristarkhos Senior'. Each introduction includes a diagram which depicts the family of the de cuius (deceased) in each inheritance case. On them Griffith-Williams has also very thoughtfully marked the relation of each person to the de cuius. I have spotted an error only in the diagram on p. 195, namely that Apollodoros is the son of Aristomenes and not the brother of Kyronides and Demokhares, and an omission in the diagrams on pp. 195 and 197, namely that of the daughter of Aristomenes, who was given in marriage to Kyronides. Extremely helpful are the sections in the introductions on the speaker's story, in which Griffith-Williams applies to Isaios' speeches the approach of 'storytelling in law'.6 In general, the introductions are so thorough that each speech can be read in isolation, although there are some cross-references to other speeches and other introductions.

The introductions are followed by a commentary on each speech. This focuses on the legal and factual issues in dispute, and on logographic strategy and tactics. Griffith-Williams offers an exhaustive analysis of these aspects, objectively plays the advocatus diaboli against both Isaios and Wyse, and thus succeeds in offering a balanced view of Isaios' logographic art. Griffith-Williams makes original observations on devices employed by Isaios to enhance the credibility of his story and focus the attention of the dikastai on the particular points he wanted them to remember. Such techniques are the vague chronology and distortion of the sequence of events,7 the change of focalization,8 the counter-narrative and counter-attack instead of defense,9 the direct address to the dikastai,10 the 'sowing of seeds',11 the inclusion or omission of detail,12 the deployment of testimony.13 Through the detailed analysis of the legal and factual issues of each contest and the identification of logographic tactics, Griffith-Williams has managed to come to reasonable conclusions regarding the strength of each case; a particularly good example is her assertion in the tenth speech (passim) that Kyronides was probably adopted after his father's death, which would justify the orator's difficult task and many of his tactics. Something I particularly appreciated in the book was the reconstruction of the sequence of events that constitutes the background of the speech, and its presentation in almost tabular form (e.g. pp. 70, 90-91).

What I sometimes felt was missing was any discussion of the stylistic features of Isaios' diction (tropes, figures of speech, figures of thought), which the orator deliberately employed to support his argumentation. Additionally, Griffith-Williams might have done well to clarify, e.g. by adducing evidence, points of the commentary taken for granted, e.g. the non-eligibility to citizenship of illegitimate children born to Athenian citizens, which is still a controversial issue (p. 120); the Athenians' fear of the perceived irrationality of women (p. 128); the grounds on which the reading sēmatos and not mnēmatos is adopted at 8.27 (p. 131); the meaning of polītis for an Athenian woman; the possible change of name for males after an adoption (p. 219); the way the opponent could have tricked the speaker at 10.2 (p. 213).

Two useful sections are included in Griffith-Williams' work: an Appendix, which consists of a catalogue of contested court hearings in Athenian inheritance disputes, the first to the best of my knowledge, and a Glossary of technical terminology. The book ends with a Bibliography where all the essential literature is included, and two Indexes (General Index and Index of Ancient Sources).

The text on the whole is well edited, although I noted several typographical errors, the majority of them in Greek lemmata.

However, the typographical errors and the few reservations recorded here are minor quibbles. This is an illuminating and comprehensive commentary on four speeches of Isaios, the first to offer a modern and balanced assessment of the orator's work. Through this work Griffith-Williams sets high standards for commentaries on oratory. The book is essential reading for everyone interested in Attic oratory, rhetoric and Athenian law.


1.   W. Wyse, The speeches of Isaeus, with critical and explanatory notes, Cambridge, 1904.
2.   For instance, R. F. Wevers, Isaeus: chronology, prosopography and social history, The Hague, 1969.
3.   W. E. Thompson, De Hagniae hereditate: an Athenian inheritance case, Leiden, 1976; S. Avramovic, Iseo e il diritto attico, Napoli, 1997; P. Cobetto Ghiggia, Iseo: contra Leocare (sulla successione di Diceogene), Pisa, 2002; S. Ferrucci, Iseo: La Successione di Kiron, Pisa, 2005.
4.   T. Thalheim, Isaei orationes cum deperditarum fragmentis (Biblioteca Teubneriana), Leipzig, 1903.
5.   M. Edwards, Isaeus, translated with introduction and notes, Austin Tex., 2007.
6.   Cf. M. Gagarin, "Telling stories in Athenian law", TAPhA 113 (2003) 197-207.
7.   See, for instance, pp. 124, 137, 173, 183, 199-200, 218, 219, 240.
8.   See, e.g., pp. 75, 140, 156, 163, 233.
9.   See pp. 139, 142-143.
10.   See, e.g., pp. 41-42, 104-105, 156, 158, 171, 187, 212, 225, 243.
11.   See, e.g., pp. 107, 163, 222, 226.
12.   See, for instance, pp. 113, 132, 178, 211, 215-216, 238.
13.   See her comments, e.g., on pp. 53-54, 154-156, 164, 184-185.

1 comment:

  1. Faith in the reviewer's scholarship is impugned by a pair of embarrassing howlers. Wyse's commentary does not amount to 735 pages, but to 554 (p. 175-723 of his volume), while no mention is made of the shared disregard of the Teubner edition by Wyse and Griffith-Williams (an odd fact, given that her text and translation come from the undistinguished Loeb; a plausible guess would be that she mainly worked with Wyse's critical apparatus).

    In deference to the truth, Griffith-Williams's commentary must be rated lower than those of Todd on Lysias or Kapparis on the pseudo-Demosthenic Against Neaera. Her bland, somewhat verbose exegesis is by no means bibliographically oriented; furthermore, historical, social, and stylistic matters are broached so little (in accordance with the aims stated on p. xiii " the commentary focuses mainly on the legal and factual issues in dispute, and on logographic strategy") that the volume is misleadingly titled and does not attend to our needs. Obviously, Griffith-Williams' legally focussed dissertation ripened little before being published in its present form. The work is unlikely to make Isaeus more firmly present on our agendas (as I. Worthington did with his dissertation on Dinarchus).