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Rhetorical Aeschylus

Allannah Karas

In terms of rhetoric, Aeschylus is often considered irrelevant.  Many manuals of ancient rhetoric would agree that “disappointingly but perhaps rather predictably, the earliest tragedian, Aeschylus, does not add much to our knowledge of rhetoric” (Usher 1999, 16).  Aeschylus’ work with persuasion, specifically in the Oresteia, has been very comprehensively discussed (Halliwell 1997; Buxton 1982; Kennedy 1963); moreover, there have even been some studies on specific rhetorical techniques found in Aeschylus (Navarre 1900).  Nonetheless, there remains a certain tendency to exclude Aeschylus from the purview of rhetorical history, perhaps due to the preference for the more obviously intricate speeches of later tragedians, specifically Euripides.  I believe, however, that rhetoric in Aeschylus should be re-examined.

This paper examines Eumenides 778-891 through the lens of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.  Aeschylus seems to directly (and perhaps even deliberately) anticipate the three basic pisteis or modes of persuasion discussed at length by AristotleFor, in these speeches, Athena almost systematically goes through each mode in order to win over the fearsome Erinyes after Orestes’ acquittal in court.  In her first speech (Eu. 778-92), Athena attempts to pave the way towards reasoned discourse with the highly aggravated goddesses; thus, she uses two basic arguments (Rh. 1356a), one from cause and effect (Rh. 1400a) and the other from authority (Rh. 1398b).  When this appeal to reason does not produce the desired results, she tries the mode of persuasion based on pathos (Eu. 824-36), first seeking to arouse the emotion of shame (Rh. 1384a), then fear (Rh. 1382b), and finally potential feelings of friendship (Rh. 1381a).  Athena’s third speech (Eu. 848-69) adopts the mode based on ethos: she emphasizes her own trustworthiness by affirming her personal wisdom (phronesis), virtue (arete), and good will (eunoia) (Rh. 1378a).  After a seemingly consistent failure, Athena makes a final attempt at persuasion in her fourth speech (Eu. 881-891), using all three pisteis once more.  With this last bit of rhetorical eloquence, combined with some measure of Peitho’s charm (referenced as trickery, kleptetai, in Rh. 1480b5; 1404b24-25), Athena succeeds in persuading the Erinyes to become Eumenides. 

Even though Aeschylus wrote years before Aristotle and almost a century before “rhetoric” existed as a formal discipline, his Rhetoric provides a solid theoretical platform for re-examining the persuasive art.  Not only does Aristotle choose examples most frequently from tragic dialogue (Bromberg 2009), but also, instead of limiting his exposition of rhetoric to a commentary on style and technique (Kennedy 2007), Aristotle places primary emphasis on rhetoric as “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Rh. 1355b).  As a result, the bulk of Aristotle’s text focuses on the three pisteis or modes of persuasion, ethos, pathos, and logos (Rh. 1356a), as the core of rhetorical speech.  These facets of the Rhetoric make it an appropriate reference text for examining Aeschylean speeches, specifically those speeches discussed in this paper.

As this paper demonstrates, Athena’s speeches in Eumenides 778-891 are a genuine triumph of rhetorical skill, indicating that Aeschylus composed these speeches with a rhetorical sensitivity not often attributed to him.  In addition to this, commentators have not failed to point out the significance of these speeches to the founding of the Athenian court, the historical birthplace of formal rhetorical speech (e.g. Sommerstein 1989).  As a result of these and similar observations, I would like to provide the above analysis as a possible platform for revaluating Aeschylus as a rhetorically relevant figure in early Greek literature.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy: Rhetoric, Cartography, and the Death of Astyanax

Session/Paper Number

68.1

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