Orators (ῥήτορες) played a key role in classical Athens, delivering forensic speeches in the lawcourts, deliberative speeches in the Assembly, and epideictic (“display”) speeches in a number of other public contexts. Of the many public speakers who were active during this period, however, the speeches of only ten were collected by scholars in Alexandria in the third century BCE. These ten are the canonical “Attic orators” (i.e., public speakers active in Athens), the most prominent of whom was Demosthenes (384–322 BCE). Within the corpus of Demosthenes’ work have been preserved a number of spurious speeches (i.e., speeches thought not to be genuinely his, but written in his style and purporting to be by him), one of which is the speech Against Neaira. Like many of the other spurious Demosthenic speeches, it was written by a man named Apollodoros, the son of a wealthy freed slave and a contemporary of Demosthenes. Like Demosthenes, he too opposed the growing power of King Philip II of Macedon over Greece.
Some basics about the Athenian legal system are necessary to understand Against Neaira. Athenian court cases fall into two main categories: δίκαι and γραφαί. Whereas a δίκη was brought by the injured party himself against his offender (i.e., for a “private” offense), a γραφή could be brought by anyone who wished against someone who had committed a “public” offense—that is, an offense in which the community’s interests were somehow at stake. Before a case came to trial (regardless of whether it was a δίκη or a γραφή), the litigants appeared before a magistrate for a preliminary hearing (ἀνάκρισις) at which evidence was presented. If the matter could not be settled through arbitration, the case proceeded to a jury trial. Forensic speeches like Against Neaira were usually heard in one of the people’s courts (δικαστήρια) of Athens, to which mass juries were assigned through a random drawing. Generally, there were 201 jurors for δίκαι, and 501 (though sometimes 1001, 1501, or even larger) for γραφαί. Any male citizen, rich or poor, could serve on a jury, provided that he was over thirty and had not been stripped of any of his citizen rights (e.g., for being a state debtor).
In the Athenian legal system, there were no lawyers. The accuser and defendant each spoke on their own behalf, though they could hire a speech writer (λογογράφος) and/or rely on a co-pleader (συνήγορος) to help deliver the speech. Both parties were given a fixed amount of time, measured by a water-clock (κλέψυδρα), to deliver their respective speeches. The accuser spoke first, then the defendant. In δίκαι, each party gave two speeches (though the second was more like closing arguments); in γραφαί, each party gave one (long) speech. Immediately after the speeches, the jurors voted by secret ballot, and a simple majority won.
The background for Against Neaira is a bit complicated. In 348 BCE, Apollodoros had proposed a decree that the city’s administrative surplus be put to military use against Philip II (the other option was using it to fund public entertainment). The Assembly approved his decree, but a man named Stephanos then blocked the proposal through a γραφὴ παρανόμων, a lawsuit alleging that a proposed decree was illegal. In this suit (which does not survive), Stephanos alleged either that Apollodoros was a state debtor and so could not make proposals, or that the content of the proposal was illegal, or possibly both. Stephanos won this γραφή, with the result that Apollodoros’ decree was annulled and Apollodoros himself had to pay a fine. Next, in around 346 BCE, Stephanos struck again, prosecuting Apollodoros for a murder he did not commit; this time, however, Stephanos, did not win his case.
Against Neaira (dated sometime between 343–340 BCE) represents Apollodoros’ indirect retaliation against Stephanos through the prosecution of Stephanos’ girlfriend, a former slave-prostitute named Neaira. A man named Theomnestos, a relative of Apollodoros’, is actually the one who brought the suit, with Apollodoros serving as his συνήγορος. In this suit, a γραφὴ ξενίας (a public suit against foreigners posing as citizens), Apollodoros alleged that Neaira, a non-citizen, was not only posing as Stephanos’ citizen wife, but also passing off her (non-citizen) children as Athenian citizens. Whether these allegations were true is impossible to determine, nor, unfortunately, do we know the outcome of the case. Nonetheless, the speech remains valuable for us as a lively model of Greek oratorical prose, one that delivers tremendous insights into issues of gender, sexuality, and status in classical Athens.