1902 Encyclopedia > Lysias

Ancient Greek speech writer
(ca. 445 BC - ca. 380 BC)

LYSIAS, whose name follows those of Antiphon and Andocides on the list of the ten Attic orators, marks an important stage in the development of Greek literary prose, and is, in his own province, one of its most perfect masters. He never acquired the Athenian citizenship, but most of his years were passed at Athens; and his life has the interest of close personal association with the most criti-cal period in the history of the Athenian democracy.

Date of his birth.

His extant work belongs to the space from 403 to 380 B.C., but the date of his birth is uncertain. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the author of the life ascribed to Plutarch, give 459 B.C, This date was evidently obtained by reckoning back from the foundation of Thurii (444 B.c), since there was a tradition that Lysias had gone _rhither at the age of fifteen. Modern critics would place ais birth later,—between 444 and 436 B.C.,—because, in Plato's Republic, of which the scene is laid about 430 B.C., Cephalus, the father of Lysias, is among the dramatis personas, and the emigration of Lysias to Thurii was said to have followed his father's death. The latter statement, however, rests only on the Plutarchic life; nor can Plato's dialogue be safely urged as a minutely accurate authority for a biographical detail. We must be content to say that, while the modern view avoids some difficulties, the higher date assigned by the ancient writers is not inconsistent with any ascertained fact, while it agrees better with the tradition that Lysias reached, or passed, the age of eighty. On the other view, all traces of his industry, previously un-remitting, would cease abruptly at the age of sixty-six.

Life to 413 B.C.

Cephalus, the father of Lysias, was a native of Syracuse. On the invitation of Pericles he had settled at Athens as a " resident alien" (/XETOIKOS). The opening scene of Plato's Republic is laid at the house of his eldest son, Polemarchus, in the Peiraaus. Cephalus complains that the visits of Socrates have been rare of late, and expresses the hope that he will come oftener, and without ceremony, as to intimate friends. The tone of the picture warrants the inference that the Sicilian family were well known to Plato, and that their houses must often have been hospitable to such gatherings as the Republic supposes. Thus we have an indirect, but very interesting, confirmation of the phrase used by Dionysius in regard to Lysias—" he grew up in the society of the most distinguished Athenians."

At the age of fifteen—when Cephalus, according to the Plutarchic life, was now dead—Lysias removed from Athens to Thurii, the Athenian colony newly planted on the Tarentine Gulf, near the site of the ancient Sybaris. There the boy may have seen the historian Herodotus,— another of Thurii's early residents,—now a man in middle life; and it pleases the imagination to think that, in their new Italian home, a friendship may have grown up between these two, neither of them an Athenian by birth, yet alike in a simple grace which Athens loved, and alike also in the love which they bore to Athens. At Thurii Lysias is said to have commenced his studies in rhetoric,—doubtless under a master of the Sicilian school,—possibly, as tradition said, under Tisias, the pupil of Corax, whose name is associated with the first attempt to formulate rhetoric as an art. In 413 B.C. the Athenian armament in Sicily suffered that crushing disaster which at the moment seemed to imperil the existence of Athens itself. The desire to link famous names is curiously illustrated by the ancient ascription to Lysias of a rhetorical exercise purporting to be a speech in which the captive general Nicias appealed for mercy to the Sicilians. The terrible blow to Athens quickened the energies of an anti-Athenian faction at Thurii. Lysias and his elder brother Polemarchus, with three hundred other persons, were " accused of Atticizing " ('ATTLKLO-IXOV iyKXr/OeLcn),—a charge which, under the circumstances, implies an honourable loyalty. They were driven from Thurii.

412- 404.

Lysias and Polemarchus now settled at Athens (412 B.C.). They were rich men, having inherited property from their father, Cephalus; and Lysias claims that, though merely resident aliens, they discharged public services with a liber-ality which shamed many of those who enjoyed the franchise (oi*Y 6/j.olm'S fieT0iK0vvra<; oxnrep airoi e7roAiTeuovTO, In Eratosth., § 20). The fact that they owned house property shows that they were classed as lo-orcAeis, i.e., foreigners who paid only the same tax as citizens, being exempt from the special tax (/XCTOIKIOV) on resident aliens. Polemarchus occupied a house- in Athens itself, Lysias another in the Peiraeus, near which was their shield manu-factory, employing a hundred and twenty skilled slaves. This life of comparative peace and prosperity was broken up by the defeat of Athens at ^Egospotami (405 B.C.). In the next spring Athens surrendered to Lysander. The Thirty Tyrants were established at Athens under the protec-tion of a Spartan garrison. One of their earliest measures was an attack upon the resident aliens, who were represented as disaffected to the new government. As foreign residents successful in commerce, the Attic metoikoi were exposed at such a time to perils like those of the Jews in a mediaeval city, or in modern Russia. Lysias and Polemarchus were on a list of ten singled out to be the first victims. Polemarchus was arrested, and received " the usual message" (TO e.Wi<rp.ivov irapayye.Xp.a, In Eratosth., § 17) "to drink the hemlock." Lysias had a narrow escape, with the help of a large bribe and a lucky accident. He slipped by a back-door out of the house in which he was a prisoner, and took boat to Megara.


After the expulsion of the Thirty Tyrants, the democracy was formally restored in the autumn of 403 B.C. Lysias appears to have rendered valuable services to the exiles during the reign of the tyrants, both by his own liberality and by procuring aid from other quarters. Thrasybulus now proposed that these services should be recognized by the bestowal of the citizenship. The proposal happened to be informal in one particular. The senate of five hun-dred had not yet been reconstituted, and hence the measure could not be introduced to the ecclesia by the requisite " preliminary resolution " (_n-po^ovXevp.a) of the senate. On this ground it was successfully opposed; and Lysias missed the reward which he had so well earned. That passage of his 'OAv/xTua/cos (§ 3) in which he claims to give advice as a good citizen seems to breathe the feeling that, if he was still but an alien at Athens, he was at least a true Tro\iT7]s of Greece.

The last chapter of his life now opens. He is no longer the wealthy merchant, superintending his shield manu- factory in the Peiraeus. The pillage by the tyrants, and his own generosity to the Athenian exiles, had probably left him poor. He now appears as a hard-working member of a new profession,—that of writing speeches to be delivered in the law-courts. The thirty-four compositions extant under his name are but a small fraction of those which the ancient world possessed. From 403 to about 380 B.C. his industry must have been great and incessant. The notices of his personal life in these years are scanty. In 403 he came forward as the accuser of Eratosthenes, one of the Thirty Tyrants, and delivered the splendid oration which we possess. This was his only direct contact with Athenian politics. The story that Lysias wrote a defence for Socrates, which the latter declined to use, probably arose from a confusion. Several years after the death of Socrates the sophist Polycrates composed a declamation against him; and to this Lysias replied with a defence of the philosopher. A more authentic tradition represents Lysias as having spoken his own "Olympiacus" at the Olympic festival of 388 B.C. The occasion was one of peculiar interest. Dionysius L, tyrant of Syracuse, had sent to the festival a magnificent embassy. Tents embroidered with gold were pitched within the sacred enclosure ; and the wealth of Dionysius was vividly brought before the minds of the Panhellenic concourse by the number of chariots which he had entered for the most costly and brilliant of the Olympic contests. This was the moment at which Lysias lifted up his voice to denounce Dionysius as, next to Artaxerxes, the worst enemy of Hellas, and to impress upon the assembled Greeks that one of their foremost duties was to deliver Sicily from a hateful oppression. The latest work of Lysias which we can date (a fragment of a speech "For Pherenicus")belongs to 381 or 380 B.C. He probably died in or soon after 380 B.C.

Character of the man and his work.

The qualities of the man are expressed in his work; indeed, it is through this, rather than through the recorded facts of his biography, that he becomes a living person to us. It is a kindly and genial nature which we see reflected there,—warm in friendship, loyal to country,—with a keen perception of character, and a fine, though strictly con-trolled, sense of humour. The literary tact which is so remarkable in the extant speeches is that of a singularly flexible intelligence, always obedient to an instinct of gracefulness. Among the earlier artists of Greek prose Lysias owes his distinctive place to the power of concealing his art. The clients of the professional "speech-writer," like those of the modern advocate, might be of all sorts and conditions. The modern advocate, however, speaks in his own person. The Athenian " logographer" merely wrote the speech which his client delivered. It was obviously desirable that such a speech should be suitable to the age, station, and circumstances of the person into whose mouth it was put. Lysias was the first disciple of Greek rhetoric who succeeded in making this adaptation really artistic. He aimed, not merely at impressive effect in eloquence, pathos, or argument, but at dramatic propriety. Hence it was absolutely essential for him to abandon the stiff and monotonous splendour of the earlier and cruder rhetoric. He could not achieve his purpose unless he brought his art into harmony with the ordinary idiom of everyday life. His client must appear to be speaking as the citizen, who was not a professed rhe-torician, might conceivably speak. Lysias achieved this reconciliation with a skill which can be best appreciated if we turn from the easy flow of his graceful language to the majestic emphasis of his predecessor Antiphon, or to the self-revealing art of his successor Isseus. Translated into terms of ancient criticism, the achievement of Lysias is described by saying that he became the model of the "plain style" (l<T)(y6s ^apaKTr/p, lo-^vrj, Xirrj, acpeXrj^ Aefts; genus tenue or subtile). From the latter part of the 4th century B.C. onwards, Greek, and then Roman, critics distinguished three styles of rhetorical composition—the " grand " (or " elaborate "), the " plain," and the " middle." These epithets were relative to the language of daily life,—the "plain" being nearest to this, and the " grand" furthest from it. Greek rhetoric began in the "grand" style; then Lysias set an exquisite pattern of the " plain": and Demosthenes might be considered as having effected an almost ideal compromise. We moderns perhaps cannot fully seize that nameless and undefinable grace (x^pis) of Lysias which the Greek critic of the Augustan age indicates in such striking words :—

" "When I am puzzled about one of the speeches ascribed to him," says Dionysius, " and when it is hard for me to find the truth by other marks, I have recourse to this excellence, as to the last piece on the board. Then, if the graces of speech seem to me to make the writing fair, I count it to be of the soul of Lysias ; and I care not to probe the question further. But if the stamp of the lan-guage has no winningness, no loveliness, I am chagrined, and sus-pect that, after all, the speech is not by Lysias ; and I do no more violence to my instinct (OVKCTI PUL^O/ICU TT\V &\oyov aio-Bncnv), even though in all else the speech seems to me clever and well finished,— believing that to write well, in special styles other than this, is given to many men, but that to write winningly, gracefully, with loveliness, is the gift of Lysias " (Dionys., Be Lys., ii.).


The more salient traits of the Lysian style can be recognized by all. The vocabulary is pure and simple. Most of the rhetorical "figures" are sparingly used,— except such as consist in the parallelism or opposition of clauses. The taste of the day,—not yet emancipated from the influence of the Sicilian rhetoric,—probably demanded a large use of antithesis as an essential condition of impressive speaking. Lysias excels in vivid description; he has also a happy knack of marking the speaker's character by light touches. The structure of his sentences varies a good deal according to the dignity of the subject. He has equal command over the " periodic" style (KaT¤o-Tpap,p.evr] Ac^ts) and the Don-periodic or "continuous" (elpofiivrj, SiaAcAu/xcV^)—using now one now the other, or blending them, according to circumstances. His disposi-tion of his subject-matter is always simple. The speech has usually four parts,—introduction (_Kpooip.iov), narrative of facts (SiTjy^o-is), proofs (mo-ms), which may be either external, as from witnesses, or internal, derived from argument on the facts, and, lastly, conclusion (oriAoyos). It is in the introduction and the narrative that Lysias is seen at his best. In his greatest extant speech—that " Against Eratosthenes "_—and also in the fragmentary " Olympiacus," he has pathos and fire; but these were not characteristic qualities of his work. In Cicero's judg-ment, Demosthenes was peculiarly distinguished by force (vis), iEschines by resonance (sonitus), Hyperides by acuteness (acumen), Isocrates by sweetness (suavitas); the distinction which he assigns to Lysias is subtilitas, an Attic refinement,—which, as he elsewhere says, is often joined to an admirable vigour (lacerti), (Cic, Be Or., iii. 7, § 28; Brutus, § 64). The judgment is interesting as showing how a Roman critic of unquestionable competence recognized the peculiar place of Lysias in the development of Greek oratory. Nor was it oratory alone to which Lysias rendered service ; his work had an important effect on all subsequent Greek prose, by showing how perfect elegance could be joined to plainness. Here, in his artistic use of familiar idiom, he might fairly be called the Euripides of Attic prose. And his style has an additional charm for modern readers, because it is employed in describing scenes from the everyday life of Athens.


Thirty-four speeches (of which three are fragmentary) have come down under the name of Lysias ; no fewer than one hundred and twenty-seven more, now lost, are known from smaller fragments or from titles. In the Augustan age four hundred and twenty-five works bore his name, of which more than two hundred were allowed as genuine by the critics. The enormous number of ascriptions indicates that Lysias was reputed to have been a fertile writer. Our thirty-four works may be classified as follows :—

A. EPIDEICTIC.—1. Olympiacus, xxxiii., 388 B.C.; 2. Epitaphius, ii. (purporting to have been spoken during the Corinthian War; certainly spurious), perhaps composed about 380-340 B.C.

B. DELIBERATIVE.—Plea for the Constitution, xxxiv., 403 B.C.

C. FORENSIC, IN PUBLIC CAUSES.—I. Relating to Offences directly against the State (ypa<pa\ Sn/j-oo-íav ctSiKnudraiy) ; such as treason, malversation in office, embezzlement of public moneys. 1. For Polystratus, xx., 407 B.C.; 2. Defence on a Charge of Taking Bribes, xxi., 402 B.C.; 3. Against Ergocles, xxviii., 389 B.C.; 4. Against Epicrates, xxvii., 389 B.C.; 5. Against Nieomachus, xxx., 399 B.C.; 6. Against the Corndealers, xxii., 386 B.C. (?) II. Cause relating to Unconstitutional Procedure (ypacpii vapavóuaiv). On the Property of the Brother of Nieias, xviii., 395 B.C. III. Causes relating to Claims for Money withheld from the State (enroypacpai). 1. For the Soldier, ix. (probably not by Lysias, but by an imitator, writing for a real cause), 394 B.C. (?) ; 2. On the Property of Aristophanes, xix., 387 B.C.; 3. AgainstPhilocrates, xxix., 389 B.C. IV. Causes relating to a Scrutiny (SoKiuacla) ; especially the Scrutiny, by the Senate, of Officials Designate. 1. Against Evandrus, xxvi., 382 B.C.; 2. ForMantitheus, xvi.,392 B.C.; 3. Against Philon,xxxi., between 404 and 395 B.C.; 4. Defence on a Charge of Seeking to Abolish the Democracy, xxv., 401 B.C.; 5. For the Invalid, xxiv., 402 B.C. (?) V. Causes relating to Military Offences (ypatpal \nrora- |iou, acTpareias). 1. Against Alcibiades, I. and II. (xiv., xv.), 395 B.C. VI. Causes relating to Murder or Intent to Murder (ypcupal <¡>óvov, rpav/xaros IK itpovoias). 1. Against Eratosthenes, xii., 403 B.C.; 2. Against Agoratus, xiii., 399 B.C.; 3. On the Murder of Eratosthenes, i. (date uncertain) ; 4. Against Simon, iii., 393 B.C.; 5. On Wounding with Intent, iv. (date uncertain). VI. Causes relating to Impiety (ypatficá áo-efieías). 1. Against Andocides, vi. (certainly spurious, but perhaps contemporary); 2. For Callias, v. (date uncertain); 3. On the Sacred Olive, vii., not before 395 B.C.

D. FORENSIC, IN PRIVATE CAUSES.—I. Action for Libel (SiVn KaKvyopias). Against Theomnestus, x., 384-3 B.C. (the so-called second speech, xi., is merely an epitome of the first). II. Action by a Ward against a Guardian (StVn etriTpoirTJs). Against Diogeiton, xxxii., 400 B.C. III. Trial of a Claim to Property (SiaSi/cacn'a). On the Property of Eraton, xvii., 397 B.C. IV. Answer to a Special Plea (irpbs irapaypa<priv). Against Pancleon, xxiii. (date uncertain).

E. MISCELLANEOUS.—1. To his Companions, a Complaint of Slanders, viii. (certainly spurious) ; 2. The kpwriKOs in Tlato's Phsedrus, pp. 230 E-234. This has generally been regarded as Plato's own work ; but the certainty of this conclusion will be doubted by those who observe (1) the elaborate preparations made in the dialogue for a recital of the epariK6s which shall be verbally exact, and (2) the closeness of the criticism made upon it. If the satirist were merely analysing his own composition, such criticism would have little point. Lysias is the earliest writer who is known to have composed ipmriKoi; it is as representing both rhetoric and a false epas that he is the object of attack in the Phsedrus.

F. FRAGMENTS.—Three hundred and fifty-five of these are collected by Sauppe, Oratores Attici, ii. 170-216. Two hundred and fifty-two of them represent one hundred and twenty-seven speeches of known title ; and of six the fragments are comparatively large. Of these, the fragmentary speech " For Pherenicus " belongs to 381 or 380 B. c., and is thus the latest known work of Lysias.

In literary and historical interest, the first place among the ex-tant speeches of Lysias belongs to that "Against Eratosthenes" (403 B.C.), one of the Thirty Tyrants, whom Lysias arraigns as the murderer of his brother Polemarchus. The speech is an eloquent and vivid picture of the reign of terror which the thirty established at Athens ; the concluding appeal, to both parties among the citizens, is especially powerful. Next in importance is the speech " Against Agoratus " (399 B.C.), one of our chief authorities for the internal history of Athens during the months which immediately followed the defeat at JEgospotami. The " Olympiacus " (388 B.C.) is a brilliant fragment, expressing the spirit of the festival at Olym-pia, and exhorting Greeks to unite against their common foes. The " Plea for the Constitution " (403 B.C.) is interesting for the manner in which it argues that the wellbeing of Athens—now stripped of empire—is bound up with the maintenance of democratic principles. The speech " For Mantitheus " (392 B. 0.) is a graceful and animated portrait of a young Athenian «r7reus, making a spirited defence of his honour against the charge of disloyalty. The defence '' For the Invalid " is a humorous character-sketch. The speech '' Against Pancleon " illustrates the intimate relations between Athens and Plataea, while it gives us some picturesque glimpses of Athenian town life. The defence of the person who had been charged with destroy-ing a moria, or sacred olive, places us amidst the country life of Attica. And the speech " Against Theomnestus " deserves attention for its curious evidence of the way in which the ordinary vocabulary of Athens had changed between 600 and 400 B.C.


All MSS. of Lysias yet collated have been derived, as H. Sauppe first showed, from the Codex Palatinus X (Heidelberg). The next most valuable MS. is the Laurentianus C (15th century), which I. Bekker chiefly followed. Speaking gene- ° ^ rally, we may say that these two MSS. are the only two which carry much weight where the text is seriously corrupt. In Oratt. i.-ix. Bekker occasionally consulted eleven other MSS., most of which contain only these nine speeches : viz., Marciani F, G, I, K (Venice) ; Laurentiani D, E (Florence); Vaticani M, N; Parisini U, V; Urbinas 0.

Lysias in Oratores Attici, ed. I. Bekker, 1828 ; ed. G. S. Dobson, with variorum notes, 1828; ed. J. G. Baiter and Hermann Sauppe, 1850. In Teubner's series, ed. Carl Scheibe, 1st ed. 1852, 2d ed. (based on C. L. Kayser'a collation of X), 1876. Text, ed. Cobet, 1863. Selections from Lysias and ^Eschines, ed. Bremi, 1826. Selections from Lysias, ed. lvauchenstein, 1864; ed. Frohberger, 1868; ed. Jehb, in Selections from the Attic Orators, 1880. German translation, with notes, by Baur (1869); and of selections, by Westermann (1869). (R. C. J.)

The above article was written by R. C. Jebb, LL.D., Professor of Greek, Univeristy of Glasgow.

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