Lysias was a member of a wealthy and prominent family of metics, a legal category of resident immigrants in Athens who paid additional taxes and were restricted from participation in certain civic activities and institutions. Lysias’ father, Cephalus, had emigrated from Syracuse to Athens, perhaps at the request of the famous Athenian statesman Pericles, where he established an extensive and profitable manufacturing enterprise producing shields for the Peloponnesian war effort. As a result, Cephalus socialized with the upper echelon of Athenian society. Cephalus’ home, for example, serves as the setting of Plato’s Republic (Rep. 328b) in which his elder son, Polemarchos, is one of Socrates’ interlocutors (a young Lysias also makes a brief cameo). When Lysias was fifteen—perhaps following his father’s death—he resettled for a time at the pro-Athenian colony of Thurii in southern Italy. Here he may have received rhetorical training from Tisias of Syracuse, an early innovator in rhetorical education (Ps.-Plutarch, Lysias). Possibly exiled from Thurii for his support of Athens following their failed invasion of Sicily, Lysias returned to Athens in the final years (perhaps 412/11 BCE) of the war with Sparta. The defeat of Athens and subsequent installation of a violent pro-Spartan oligarchy, the Thirty, significantly impacted the trajectory of Lysias’ life and career.
The Thirty financed their reign of terror through the seizure of wealth and property from metics, among whom Lysias’ family was a prominent target. Consequently, Lysias and his brother Polemarchos were arrested by agents of the Thirty, including a certain Eratosthenes. While Lysias managed to escape this unlawful detention with his life, his brother was killed by Eratosthenes. After the rule of the Thirty was toppled and democratic rule reinstated in 403 BCE, the newly installed democratic government passed a general amnesty in hopes of swiftly reintegrating members of the oligarchic faction. The amnesty agreement allowed members of the Thirty to remain in Athens and keep their citizen status if they submitted to a public examination (euthuna) of their activities under the oligarchy. The conditions of the amnesty did not apply, however, to those members of the Thirty shone to have committed homicide (Rhodes 1981: 468). Under these circumstances, Lysias brought a charge of homicide against Eratosthenes, likely at his public examination. This speech, dating to 403/2 BCE and delivered by Lysias on his own behalf, appears to be his first foray into forensic oratory. If indeed the speech against Eratosthenes for the murder of his brother was Lysias’ first courtroom speech, it launched an immensely successful and productive career as a speech writer (logographos). Over the next two decades, he composed upwards of 200 speeches. That Lysias was well into adulthood at the time this speech was given makes his subsequent blossoming as an in-demand speech writer all the more remarkable.
Whereas Lysias’ legal status as a metic significantly limited his own ability to speak in public, Athenian citizens were expected to deliver their own speeches in court cases. Since not every citizen wished to or had the ability to properly represent themselves in a legal proceeding, speechwriting developed into a profession. Citizens would pay Lysias to write a speech that the client would then present in the first person in court; how involved a client was in drafting the arguments of the speech remains a point of scholarly debate (Dover 1968: 148-74 argues for the speech writer as a “consultant” that worked in tandem with the client; see the response of Usher 1976).
While Lysias supported the democratic counter-revolution against the Thirty and was briefly awarded citizenship by the democratic leader Thrasybulus, his clients were drawn from varied walks of life and political backgrounds. Today, only 23 complete speeches ascribed to Lysias survive with another 12 in partial states of preservation, though not every speech in this collection is believed to be genuine. The vast majority of these speeches were composed as part of court cases, and as such provide a rich trove of material for historians of late fifth- and early fourth-century Athens.
Beyond the general contours sketched above it is impossible to reconstruct an exact and detailed chronology of Lysias’ life given our current sources, even such major events as the date of his birth remain unclear. Besides his speech against Eratosthenes and some further fragmentary speeches, most of what we know about Lysias’ life comes from several ancient biographies, whose authors had access to sources now lost. While not in full agreement on all details, the biographies written by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Pseudo-Plutarch (in his collection Lives of the Ten Attic Orators) are our best ancient sources for the chronology of the orator’s life and career as well as an analysis of his literary reputation. Dover (1968: 28-46) remains an essential survey of Lysias’ life and Todd (2007: 5-17) covers the sources and problems facing a historian in reconstructing a chronology. On the authenticity of various speeches ascribed to Lysias, see the important discussions in Dover 1968 and Usher and Najock 1982. Modern understanding and appreciation of Lysias as a stylist and speech writer remains greatly indebted to the analysis of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which every student of Lysias and Attic prose should read. Blass (1887: 1.383-421) and Jebb (1893: 1.158-96) remain foundational studies of Lysias’ style, while Bateman 1962 and Usher 1965 offer valuable discussion of Lysias’ argumentation and delineation of character. Viidebaum (2021) provides a detailed discussion of the development of the figure of Lysias in the rhetorical tradition.