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Isocrates’ Letter to Archidamus in Its Literary Context

Mitchell Parks

Though its authenticity has been convincingly defended (Smith 1940), Isocrates’ letter to Archidamus III of Sparta (Ep.9) has received scant attention, aside from Garnjobst 2006, for its rhetorical merits; it deserves a more important place within the study of fourth-century literature and of the early prose encomia especially. Alongside other contemporary texts, including Isocrates’ own Archidamus (on which see Harding 1973 and Azoulay 2006), the letter takes part in a heated debate over both the posthumous reception of the career of Archidamus’ father Agesilaus and the future of Hellenic affairs in general. Written c.356 BCE, Ep.9 addresses the praise that others have already given to Archidamus and Agesilaus (Ep.9.1) and also, through praeteritio, serves as a miniature encomium in its own right. Isocrates ostentatiously avoids unvarnished praise, however (Ep.9.6–7, 12): he advises Archidamus not to repeat the mistakes of his father (cf. Ep.7.6), but to champion Isocrates’ cause of leading a united Greece against Persia (Ep.9.17). While other scholars (e.g., Wareh 2012:146) have noted that Xenophon’s Agesilaus (post-360 BCE), a lavish encomium of the deceased king, will have been among the texts Isocrates had in mind as predecessors, in this paper I argue that Ep.9 responds directly to the Agesilaus, casting itself as a rival to the praise bestowed by Xenophon.

Isocrates applies various corrections to Xenophon’s brand of encomium, just as he corrects, and thereby supplants, Polycrates in the Busiris. Most obvious is Isocrates’ use of the framing technique from his Evagoras (post-373 BCE), which also encapsulated praise of a father within an address to his son (cf. Too 1995:58–9); Xenophon, by contrast, does not mention Archidamus III even once in the Agesilaus, which has no explicit addressee. Whereas Xenophon had attempted to leave his text as an uncontroversial memorial to the generalized, timeless virtues of Agesilaus, by addressing Archidamus Isocrates brings praise of Agesilaus into its contemporary context, critiques it, and attempts to put it to use by encouraging his son to achieve specific political goals. Isocrates also subtly contests the deeds Xenophon chose as praiseworthy: while Xenophon had praised Agesilaus for his victories in Asia and at Coroneia, Isocrates prefers the defense of Sparta in 362 (Ep.9.4) and calls on Archidamus to outdo his father’s failures against Persia (Ep.9.13–14). Corrections abound even on the level of the language employed by the authors. For example, in explaining his preference for protreptic discourse, Isocrates asserts several times, starting with the very first sentence, that straightforward praise of Archidamus and Agesilaus would be too easy (λίαν ῥᾴδιος, Ep.9.1, cf. Ep.9.2, 6, 7, 14). This assertion directly contradicts the opening of the Agesilaus, in which Xenophon argues that it is not, in fact, easy to praise his subject (οὐ ῥᾴδιον, 1.1). Through correcting the frame, content, and language of Xenophon’s praise for Agesilaus, Isocrates establishes a mode of encomium that, despite criticizing one of its subjects, nonetheless aims to inspire pragmatic political action, rather than mere imitation of virtue.

Finally, in the conclusion of the paper I offer suggestions as to how the letter’s relationship to contemporary literature could aid in our understanding its apparently truncated ending.

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Civic Responsibility

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