Sometime in the months or years immediately following the restoration of democracy in 403/2 BCE, an Athenian citizen (his name now lost to history) appeared before the Council (boule) to undergo his annual review of eligibility for a state disability benefit. This state benefit was granted to citizens who lived with a physical disability that prevented them from earning an income. In prior years, we are told, the citizen had successfully demonstrated that his physical condition and economic state qualified him for support. This year, the citizen anticipated a similar outcome and he had little reason to expect otherwise. Indeed, such reviews were an essential and often perfunctory part of the bureaucratic system of the radical Athenian democracy. Citizens regularly served and were served by the state and as such were subject to citizen review. Annual reviews of citizen eligibility (dokimasia) and conduct in office (euthunai) likely numbered in the hundreds and possibly up to a thousand (for more on the institution of dokimasia see the interpretive essay on Chapters 1-3). This quantity makes it quite likely that most reviews were essentially rubber-stamp performances taking mere minutes or less (Bers 2009: 31).
This year, however, not everything went according to plan. Another Athenian, characterized by our speaker as an envious elite, challenged our citizen’s eligibility before the Council; procedure demanded that each party deliver a speech in support of their claim. The speech that our citizen delivered in his defense was composed for him by Lysias. How our citizen, who claimed to be destitute, could afford the services of a speech writer of the likes of Lysias remains unclear. Given what we know of the defendant and his situation from his own defense speech, it is possible that the challenger had a strong case against the continued granting of disability benefits to the defendant, whose financial footing was much stronger than he claimed. On this traditional reading of the case, the legal weakness facing the defense—namely the defendant’s personal wealth—may explain the unique and argumentative approach of this brief but entertaining speech. Lysias, in short, makes a mockery of the legal process to distract from the core issues of the case (Carey 1990). Quite recently, Major (2021) has challenged this reconstruction of the case, arguing that the speech captures, instead, an instance of class warfare in which (252) “an elite litigant obsessively manoeuver[s] the levers of state authority against a vulnerable member of the working-class in Athens.” As you read the speech, you may want to consider which approach makes the most sense of the argumentation and cultural context. The interpretive essays lay out argumentation and evidence for these two divergent viewpoints.
In his combination of humor (Harding 1994), bluster, and diversionary argumentation (Carey 1990), Lysias appears to have set himself the goal of persuading the Council to “laugh the case out of court” (Todd 2000: 253), whether in defense of a fraudulent claim or as a strike against elite misconduct. The courtroom shared much in common with the stage in Athenian society (Serafim 2017), and Lysias cast his defendant in the role of an Aristophanic comic protagonist (Harding 1994; Major 2021: 259-61). In doing so, Lysias composed for our defendant one of the most original surviving examples of Attic courtroom oratory. The originality and rhetorical skills necessary to defend such a difficult position might well explain why Lysias took the case to begin with: the speech could effectively advertise Lysias’ speech-writing skills to potential clients. (Anti-oligarchic sympathies may have played a role in Lysias’ decision as well.) Given its unique qualities, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the speech (Darkow 1917: 73-77; Roussel 1966) and even argued that it was never delivered before the Council; rather, it was a showpiece of rhetorical parody (Usher 1999: 106-107), which would also burnish Lysias’ reputation. This argument cannot be disproven but it is also not entirely plausible, and so in this commentary I treat the speech as a genuine example of courtroom oratory. Still, this skeptical approach to the speech has value; it reveals how earlier generations of scholars were uncomfortable with (or unable to imagine) the reality of a poor, physically disabled citizen delivering such a humorous and adroit speech against an elite challenger (Dillon 1995: 37-39).
As is true with almost all courtroom speeches from Athens, the outcome of the case is lost to history. We are left, instead, with a vivid and engaging specimen of Attic oratory.
Outline of the Speech
The basic structure of the speech is as follows.1
- Prooemium: Introduction (Chs. 1–3)
- The defendant welcomes the opportunity to tell his life story.
- The defendant asserts that the challenger lies and the root of his accusations are envy for the defendant is a better citizen than he.
- Prothesis: Statement of Case (Chs. 4–5)
- The defendant summarizes the challenger’s charges, namely that the defendant is not disabled and earns a sufficient income, demonstrated by the fact the defendant rides horses and has a trade.
- Narrative (Ch. 6)
- The defendant tells a sad tale: his father left him no inheritance, he supported his mother until her recent passing, and he remains unmarried.
- Emotional Appeal #1 (Chs. 7–8)
- The defendant encourages the Council to follow the precedent of previous decisions and grant continued access to the disability benefit, especially given the fact that he is now older and more infirm.
- Response to Major Accusation #1: Wealth (Ch. 9)
- The defendant argues the depth of his poverty is most apparent by the fact that the challenger would never accept an exchange of property (antidosis).
- Response to Major Accusation #2: Mobility (Chs. 10–13)
- The defendant claims he rides borrowed horses in order to aid his mobility on longer journeys, just as he uses canes to help him walk.
- The defendant contends were he wealthy and not disabled he would own a saddled mule.
- The defendant asks should the Council reverse the precedent and agree that he defendant does not meet the eligibility requirements, what keeps the defendant from running for Archon and the challenger being voted a disability benefit?
- Emotional Appeal #2 (Ch. 14)
- The defendant flatters the Council, saying it is populated by men of sound judgment, which will allow it to resist the arguments of the challenger and plainly observe that the defendant qualifies for the benefit.
- Response to Minor Accusation #1: Moral Character (Chs. 15–18)
- The challenger claims that the defendant is insolent and violent; however. the defendant argues, poor men like himself do not have the luxury to act in such a morally corrupt manner
- Response to Minor Accusation #2: Supports Unsavory Men (Chs. 19–20)
- The challenger claims that the defendant hosts unsavory men at his workshop, but the defendant responds that it is a common pastime of men to frequent local workshops and thus paints the challenger as unfairly maligning working-class habits
- Emotional Appeal #3 (Chs. 21–27)
- The defendant professes that fortune and previous juries have granted him this benefit;
- Misfortune has already deprived him of so much that all he has left is this benefit;
- He is a good citizen and democrat.
- The defendant reminds the Council that they have the opportunity to teach the challenger not to attack men weaker than himself
Overall, the structure of the speech is not standard. Particularly notable in this regard is the large amount of space Lysias gives to emotional appeals (especially at the speech’s conclusion) in comparison to the complete absence of witness or documentary evidence. While Usher (1999: 107) considers these structural anomalies to be further evidence of the speech’s origins as a parodic display piece, the emphasis given to emotional appeals and humorous hypotheticals can also be explained—as we shall explore in the interpretative essays—in terms of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the defense case: Lysias does not have strong evidentiary support for his defendant’s eligibility so he deploys instead the tactics of distraction and distortion (Carey 1990).
- 1In addition to the commentary, consult individual interpretive essays for further and detailed discussion of the argumentation, style and historical background of specific chapters and sections. Usher (1999: 107-108) offers another organizational scheme.