Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Andreas Serafim, Attic Oratory and Performance. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, Pp. 144. ISBN 9781138828353. $149.95.

Reviewed by Victor Bers, Yale University (victor.bers@yale.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

In a book published in 1928, Gustave Glotz wrote, "Tant que duraient les débats, le rôle des juges était celui de jurés muets et passifs."1 Eighty-nine years later, most students of the Athenian courts imagine the jurymen as given to frequent shouts of anger and derision, and regard the arguments in Athenian drama, both tragedy and comedy, as significantly like the rhetoric of the city's forensic bodies. The title of Serafim's book suggests his affiliation with that point of view, which he justifies at length in his book's first and sixth numbered chapters, "The hermeneutic framework: An analytical approach" and "Conclusion." No surprise, then, that he lays great stress on Aeschines' professional work as an actor and the report in [Plutarch] Lives of the Ten Orators 845b1-5 that Demosthenes assigned primary importance to orators' mastery of ὑπόκρισις. But at many points Serafim flies a yellow flag. Adhering to Oliver Taplin's sensible caution, Serafim concedes that since many facets of theatrical performance are beyond our ken, scholars are faced with "the need for a fair amount of speculation" (p. 113). Throughout the book he allows for pervasive distinctions between court speech and the theatrical performance of tragedy and comedy, as well as small-scale variations, remarking for instance that "it seems highly unlikely" that orators "were using gestures with every deictic word" (p. 31).

The book sensibly concentrates on the two grand exchanges between Demosthenes and Aeschines, the former's On the Crown and On the Dishonest Embassy, and the two corresponding speeches by Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon and On the Embassy. In the book's introduction (pp. 6-9) Serafim calls these four speeches "case studies," but acknowledges their "generic atypicality." He also attributes to them a "shift in the register and tone from forensic to epideictic oratory." I am not sure I follow that statement; still, it does sometimes happen that works atypical of a genre because they are late or satiric serve as pedagogically useful guides to what has come before, even as they are seen as markers of an artistic genre that has come to an end, e.g., Don Quixote and Bach's B-minor Mass, which evidently took on its final shape shortly before Bach's death. And Serafim is right to remark (p. 7) that "performance in Aeschines' transmitted speeches is still terra incognita."

Particularly for the many students who will never read the stylistic analyses presented in the great warhorses of rhetorical scholarship, such as Goodwin's commentary on Demosthenes 18 or a single page of Blass's Attische Beredsamkeit, Serafim's book should prove very helpful. And even though he hedges many of his remarks, as in "the repetition of the particle οὔτε … may well [emphasis added] have required a change in the tone and volume of Demosthenes' voice" (p. 126), Serafim's enthusiasm for rhetorical combat that mimics, or even quotes, theatrical works should encourage many students to look carefully at his target speeches.2

A few remarks on some specific passages of Serafim's book.
p. 4: Though I cannot claim a good knowledge of the principal texts of performance studies, I see very little in the book that could not be formulated without that field's terminology. Speech act theory, as formulated by Austin, et al., seems far simpler and as useful for Hellenists.
p. 17: "In 2.5…Aeschines…claims that the majority of the civic body attended high-profile trials…" The passage cited is not a generalization, but a reference to the spectators at the specific trial for which the speech was written.
p. 20: Serafim makes a very important point: in the many references to the theater in the four speeches "acting itself is not denigrated."
p. 55: "Everyone likes to feel that they are part of history." This is surely an overly broad generalization.
p. 69f: I do not accept Serafim's comments on the verbal aspect of the "present" (I would say "imperfective") and aorist imperatives. Hector's aorist imperative at Iliad 6.476 Ζεῦ ἄλλοι τε θεοὶ δότε certainly does not risk offending the prickly Homeric gods by use of a "sharper, more authoritative command than the present imperative" would have done.
p. 120: I do not see why Serafim thinks it necessary "to rule out the possibility of a deadpan delivery" in Demosthenes' ridicule of Aeschines' mother. Has anyone ever suggested that possibility?


1.   G. Glotz, La cite grecque (Paris, 1928, p. 289). I have not seen any indication that Glotz recognized that ideal dicastic silence was in fact often broken.
2.   I do, however, object to the incautious assimilation of imaginative literature to the real world, as when Creon in the Antigone is seen as pointing to Pericles, or worse, when the historicity of the plague in Athens is doubted on the "evidence" of the νόσος afflicting Thebes in the OT. Even though audiences sometimes react to events on the stage or screen with emotions nearly as intense as if the depicted events are really happening before their eyes, they do know what is and what is not real. Socrates' son acknowledges as much at Xenophon, Mem. 2.1.9.

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