It has long been recognized that the debate between Helen and Hecuba in Euripides’ Troades (915-1048) imitates the basic framework of an Athenian criminal trial. Moreover it has often been argued that the two speeches reflect the kind of sophistic rhetoric exemplified by Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen (e.g., Scodel 99-100, Goldhill 236-38, Conacher 51-58). I argue that both sides of the debate imitate sophistic rhetorical experiments, but also rhetorical training pieces in general. I argue further that while each speech fails rhetorically in a manner typical of such exercises, Euripides’ larger aim is analytic: He draws attention to narrative logic, probability, and characterization as discrete elements that are necessary for successful tragic storytelling, but that produce absurdities in isolation.
Helen’s speech recounts her story from the birth of Paris to her recent marriage to Deiphobos, with emphasis on the machinations of the gods. In forensic terms her speech is constructed entirely around the narrative of events or diegesis. Hecuba’s speech has no narrative section and concentrates almost entirely on “artificial proofs” based on probability (eikos) and character (ethos). Her goal is to show that the divine could not have played a role in these events, which are easily explained by Helen’s obvious depravity. Neither argument is satisfactory on its own: Helen’s argument produces absurd inferences (e.g., she deserves an award rather than punishment) and she is unable to explain her second marriage to Deiphobos. Hecuba offers only a fragmentary and trivializing account of the Trojan War from which the gods are wholly absent, a point contradicted by the prologue and other details of the play as a whole (cf. Scodel 96-97, Lloyd 106-08, Croally 148).
Use of one type of argument to the near exclusion of others is characteristic of extant rhetorical exercises and set-pieces. Hecuba’s heavy reliance on arguments from probability has close parallels in Antiphon’s first “Tetralogy” (Antiphon 2.1-4) and Gorgias’s Defense of Palamedes (cf. Carawan 241-46, Gagarin 51-55, Knudsen 36-39, 56). The Odysseus, a riposte to Gorgias attributed to Alcidamas, confronts the Gorgias’s abstract arguments with detailed narrative and character assassination (cf. Worman 182-85, Knudsen 44-48). The form of Lysias 1 (On the Killing of Eratosthenes) suggests a tradition of rhetorical exercises in diegesis already in the early fourth century (Porter, esp. 74-75, cf. Perotti). The speeches in Antisthenes’ Ajax and Odysseus, which rely inordinately on ad hominem character assassination, can also be compared with Hecuba’s performance (Knudsen 56). Such one-sided rhetorical experiments could be useful in showing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular type of argument, but would not have been effective in a real trial setting where a blend of different argument-types was required.
However such texts were used, their deficiencies had little practical consequence outside the context of a real-life trial. By contrast, the agon of the Troades plays out within a complete, albeit fictional, judicial framework -- Helen and Hecuba speak as defendant and accuser before Menelaus and the Chorus (not to mention the external audience). This creates serious problems of interpretation, and indeed much scholarly discussion has dwelt upon identifying the “winner” of the debate.
I argue that through this scene, Euripides explores the intersection of myth and poetic composition through the lens of contemporary rhetorical theory. By setting these competing but equally deficient speeches in the larger context of the Troades, Euripides produces a reflection on the rhetorical and thematic requirements of tragedy itself. The frigid effect of the scene on the play as a whole is surely intentional and points to what is glaringly absent from the agon’s overall depiction of the Trojan War myth, i.e., precisely the pathos that permeates the rest of the play. Euripides’ engagement with forensic and sophistic rhetoric looks forward to Aristotle’s Poetics, where the correct balance of narrative logic, probability and characterization are viewed as essential elements in a composition whose overall function is to evoke a particular emotional response.