Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 28.
J.V. Muir (ed.), Alcidamas: The Works and Fragments. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2001. Pp. xxxiii + 94. ISBN 1-85399-610-6. UKú10.99.
Department of History, University of Missouri-Columbia
Alcidamas was an integral figure in the development of Greek rhetoric in the early fourth century, as is shown by Aristotle's citation of him in the Rhetoric (3.1406a-b) and Cicero's admiration for him. He came from Asia Minor and, like Isocrates, he was a pupil of Gorgias. He was both a theorist and a teacher, and his work influenced at least Demosthenes and Aeschines. The latter may even have studied under him. Yet Alcidamas often receives little attention in the study of Greek oratory because of his few extant works and the difficulty in accessing them. There are only two extant works, both relatively short, On Those Who Write Written Speeches (thirty-three sections) and Odysseus (twenty-nine sections), together with a number of fragments. The authorship of the Odysseus is disputed, but Muir believes Alcidamas did write it.
Both speeches are quite different in style and purpose, but they are ultimately concerned with the use of rhetoric in the political and legal life of a city. The first speech argues that an off-the-cuff speech geared to a particular occasion or audience mood is better than the written speech that was simply memorized and kept the speaker 'distant' from his audience. The latter practice was fast becoming the norm, and Alcidamas was critical of this current trend. The secondary title of the speech, On Sophists, might indicate a reaction to Isocrates' Against the Sophists. The second speech, set at Troy, is an imaginary prosecution speech of Palamedes by Odysseus for treachery. It inevitably calls to mind Gorgias' Palamades. While there are content and stylistic similarities between the two, Alcidamas' speech is more of a didactic exercise. It was perhaps written to help to train young orators about to embark on a career in the courts and who needed to know how to cope with all manner of situations, especially when the evidence was only circumstantial or hearsay.
Until now, Alcidamas' works have been available only in Radermacher and more recently Avezz¨.[] This last has an Italian translation of these two works, and there is an English translation of On Those Who Write Written Speeches in P. Matson et al..[ Now Muir gives us the Greek text and facing translation of these two valuable works, together with a brief commentary on them.
The introduction (pp. v-xxxiii) has succinct sections on Alcidamas' life, the context of his work (that is, the early history and rise of rhetoric), his works, his style, and a brief note on the text. There is also a short select bibliography.
The Greek text is Avezz¨'s, with disagreements noted and discussed in the commentary. The translation is literal and accurate. However, there is no staccato effect or awkwardness; it flows well, and is a pleasure to read. After the two speeches, Muir gives us the twenty-seven fragments, often only phrases, from Alcidamas' other works (quoted by later authorities, the vast majority by Aristotle).
The commentaries on both works are divided into a series of sections, corresponding to a particular part of the speech. Each section briefly recaps the speech at that point, and expands on it, thus preparing readers for the more detailed discussion that follows. The commentary on the On Those Who Write Written Speeches (pp. 40-67) is essentially a stylistic one, as we might expect. That on the Odysseus (pp. 67-85) has more notes on the persons, background, and mythology -- again, as we should expect given the nature of this work. Muir's comments are sensible and explain points and themes in the text well. They will be very valuable for students, although Greekless readers will need to get to grips with the lemmata in Greek. There are plentiful cross-references to ancient sources, but references to modern scholars' works are more limited. Some are also a little dated; for example, Harrison's Law of Athens and MacDowell's Law in Classical Athens, but Todd's Shape of Athenian Law is surprisingly overlooked.[]
Alcidamas has often been condemned, from Aristotle onwards, for his style (for example, over-use of abstract nouns, pleonasm, artificiality in his language, foreign words, muddled sentence construction). Aristotle quotes the phrases that are Muir's Fragments 7-25 in Rhetoric 3.1406a-b as examples of what he considered poor style. Muir seeks to redress some of the criticisms, especially about the misuse of metaphor, and I think he does so with some success. He is right to say that Alcidamas will never be on the same stylistic level as a Lysias or a Demosthenes. However, given the background against which Alcidamas was writing and the 'usual' dominance of Gorgias and Isocrates, he deserves to be read and considered a little more seriously.
One minor criticism is the book's formatting. New paragraphs in the introduction and commentary do not begin on an indented line and so having a new paragraph follow on from the previous line with no extra space or indentation looks odd and takes a bit of getting used to. It was also annoying not to have the specific page numbers on the contents page for the two texts/translations and commentaries. Thus, on the contents page we see 'Text' on p. 1. and 'Commentary' on p. 40. However, to get to (for example) the text and translation of the Odysseus the reader has to thumb through from p. 3 to p. 21.
The two works that Muir translates for us are fascinating for their content and purpose, and will make Alcidamas accessible to a wider, especially student, audience. For that, Muir needs to be thanked.
[] L. Radermacher, Artium Scriptores (Vienna 1851); G. Avezz¨, Alcidamante: orazioni e frammenti (Rome 1982).
[] P. Matson, R. Rollinson, and M. Sousa, Readings from Classical Rhetoric (Carbondale, Illinois 1990).
[] A. R. W. Harrison, The Law of Athens. 2 Vols. (Oxford 1968-1971); D. M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (London 1978); S. Todd, The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford 1993).