Antiphon Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Antiphon c. 480b. c.-c. 411b. c.

Greek orator and logographer.

Known in his lifetime primarily as an orator and believed to be the first logographer—a person who is paid to write speeches for others to memorize and deliver as their own—Antiphon is remembered for his series of oratorical exercises called The Tetralogies (c. 440–30 b.c.). These model speeches were intended to teach litigants how to make effective legal arguments as well as to acquaint them with proper Athenian courtroom etiquette. Since little is known about Antiphon's life, there is a great deal of critical debate about whether he is the same author who wrote On Truth, On Concord, and Politicus, texts that are often attributed to an author referred to as Antiphon the Sophist, believed to have lived in roughly the same time period.

Biographical Information

Most information about Antiphon's life comes from the writings of Thucydides and from a biography titled Life of Antiphon, believed to have been written by Plutarch. Yet, for the most part, even the facts contained in these sources are conjecture. Antiphon was born in Rhamnus, a precinct in Attica to the northeast of Athens, in 480 b. c. into an old aristocratic family. Scholars have gleaned little about his life thereafter except that he may have run a school in Athens where Thucydides was one of his pupils. He may or may not have been the same person as Antiphon the Sophist. Some critics point to major philosophical differences in the writings of the two authors which would argue for a two-person theory; others theorize that differences in philosophical and political viewpoints between the two Antiphons might be accounted for by the fact that, as a logographer, Antiphon was commissioned to write from differing perspectives for various occasions, purposes, and parties–and so the diverse writings could still be the work of one man. Known for his argumentative skill and subtlety and considered a clever and able advocate, Antiphon was a vocal opponent of corruption in government. His role in a coup to overthrow his rulers, as well as his participation in the oligarchic rule of the Council of 400 afterward, cost him his life. After his execution in 411b. c. his family was not even allowed to bury his body, his house was razed, and his descendents lived in public disgrace.

Major Works

Antiphon's most famous work, the Tetralogies, consists of three four-part legal orations designed to demonstrate varying types of legal arguments to be used in solving differing sorts of legal problems. In the First Tetralogy, concerned with the nighttime street murder of a man and his servant, for example, the facts of the case are in dispute. In the Second Tetralogy concerning the accidental death of a young man in a javelin throwing exercise, the facts are agreed upon, but the legal responsibility is a matter of contention. The speech Antiphon composed for a young Mytilenean man accused of homicide, On the Murder of Herodes, is considered one of his finest works. Against the Stepmother, a speech Antiphon wrote for a young man who was prosecuting his stepmother for murdering his father, is also highly regarded by critics. However, Antiphon's greatest speech, On the Revolution, only survives in fragments; this was also his last speech, part of an unsuccessful self-defense during his trial by the Athenian government in 411 b. c.

Critical Reception

Antiphon's rhetorical skill and the fact that he charged money for his speeches earned him an avaricious reputation during his lifetime. Current scholarship focuses on his legal skill and on the significance of his ideas. Such critics as R. Sealey, Steven Lattimore, Edwin Carawn, and I. M. Plant have analyzed the style and methodology of Antiphon's speeches and have traced his influence on later legal thinkers. His writing style is often praised for its directness and effective argumentative strategy. Critics also value Antiphon's speeches for the insight they provide into Athenian politics and law at a time when the legal profession was in its infancy. The biggest area of debate regarding Antiphon remains his relationship to Antiphon the Sophist, with many critics, including Gerard Pendrick and Michael Gagarin, offering analysis of the evidence and suggesting new theories regarding Antiphon's identity.