The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rhetoric
Cambridge University Press, $49.95 pb, 355 pp
Towards the end of the fourth century BCE, the Athenian orator Hyperides found himself in a difficult predicament. His client, the notorious courtesan Phryne, was on trial for her life. Facing accusations of lewd impiety, should she be convicted, death almost certainly would follow. The case was going badly. The jurors were refusing to listen to his pleas. Their minds were made up. They couldn’t wait to convict. In one last desperate roll of the dice, Hyperides called up Phryne to the front of the courtroom and, with a sudden lunge, stripped her naked. The jury were shocked, stunned into silence. Seizing the moment, Hyperides renewed his pleas on her behalf. Overcome by her beauty, the jury acquitted her.
This story of courtroom antics was a popular one in antiquity. It is recounted with only minor variations in a number of our ancient texts. We no longer possess the speech that Hyperides gave on Phryne’s behalf, but we know that versions circulated in Greece and Rome for an eager readership. This story also enjoyed an active afterlife in the visual arts. From the Renaissance onwards, painters have been attracted by the subject matter. It promises both voyeuristic pleasure and, for an artist, a satisfying allegory. Here is a tale about how beauty triumphs over logic and argument. It is a story about the failure of words and the triumph of art. For these reasons, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s celebrated painting of the scene makes a slightly odd choice as the cover image of Erik Gunderson’s edited collection on ancient rhetoric. For if they show nothing else, this collection of essays demonstrates that, far from being a failure, rhetoric was absolutely crucial to the dynamism of life in the ancient metropolis. Demosthenes once described Athens as ‘a city composed of speeches’. One could extend the idea and claim that civic life for the entirety of the ancient world was constructed out of nothing but artfully crafted words. The book concludes by examining the impact of classical rhetoric on early Christianity and the Renaissance. Ancient rhetoric, it turns out, has a long reach.