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The good, the bad and the clever: rhetoric and anti-rhetoric in the agon of Euripides’ Phoenician Women

Esmée Bruggink

Radboud University Nijmegen

Jocasta: ‘To try to end their strife I persuaded Polynices to come to Eteocles under a truce before taking up the spear. The messenger I sent says that he will come.’ (E. Pho. 81-83; transl. Kovacs 2002)

With this announcement near the end of the opening monologue from Phoenician Women (409 BC), Euripides tells his audience to be prepared for something new. Unlike any previous treatment of the legendary power struggle over the Theban throne, this tragedy includes a last-minute truce between Oedipus’ sons. At the initiative of their mother, Polynices and Eteocles meet face to face in front of the palace in order to reach reconciliation and avoid further conflict. The confrontation, however, achieves the opposite as it quickly deteriorates into mutual death threats. In this paper, I discuss the topical relevance of this particular plot innovation. I aim to demonstrate that the agon scene serves to problematize the role of political discourse in the civic instability of late fifth-century Athens.

The first part of this paper revisits the characterization of the brothers and the purport of their speeches. Modern scholarship on the topicality of the agon has focused primarily on the pejorative portrayal of Eteocles, who worships tyranny and blatantly admits to having wronged Polynices for the sake of it (ll. 506, 524-525; e.g. Mastronarde 1994). His relativistic conception of values (ll. 499-502) and positive evaluation of persuasive speech (ll. 516-517) resonate with sophistic thought (found in e.g. Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen). Mastronarde comments that Eteocles’ rhesis is meant to identify him with Athenian politicians who used their rhetorical training in order to justify their self-interested conduct (1994, 228).

Accordingly, Polynices’ rhesis would constitute a direct attack of sophism, as he insists on the principle of truth and rejects the use of rhetoric altogether: only ‘unjust argument’ needs ‘clever medicines’ (ll. 469-472, cf. 494-496; Mastronarde 1994, 280ff.). By contrast to Eteocles, he maintains that he is acting justly in all respects (l. 492). Lamari hence concludes that he is the moral winner of the agon (2010, 60). I challenge the antithesis posed between the two characters, and, in particular, the positive interpretation of Polynices. Rather, I argue that Eteocles exposes his brother’s claim against rhetoric as a rhetorical strategy itself, which papers over his own wrongdoing in pursuit of power. Following the definition of Hesk (2010, 4ff.), I label this strategy as a ‘rhetoric of anti-rhetoric’.

Anti-rhetoric was regularly employed in the Athenian court and assembly. While public speakers marked themselves as courageous truth-tellers in service of the common good, they accused each other of using sophistic tricks (or ‘witchcraft’) for personal benefit (e.g. Demosthenes, On the Crown 18.276). In the second part of this paper, I point out that the dynamics of the agon thus directly tie in with present discursive practice. I then proceed to discuss the criticism of this practice by the historian Thucydides. In his analysis of the stasis in Corcyra (3.82-83), he denotes as both the cause and effect of political discord not just the manipulation of value terms (e.g. Macleod 1979), but also the accusation of corrupting language back and forth between the two parties (Spielberg forthc.). I extend this discussion with two more relevant sections from book 8, in which Thucydides observes a similar process towards and during the Athenian revolution that took place two years prior to the performance of Phoenician Women.

On the basis of a comparison to these passages, I argue that the established reading of the agon’s relevance to current political concerns must be taken a step further. Rather than ‘casting’ a character in a contemporary role, I suggest that Euripides crafted the scene as a whole to illustrate the malfunction of Athenian public debate and, furthermore, to invite his audience to consider its potentially disastrous consequences as Polynices and Eteocles leave the orchestra again to prepare for war.


Hesk, J. (2000). Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens. Cambridge University Press.

Kovacs, D. (2002). Euripides. Helen. Phoenician Women. Orestes (LCL 11). Harvard University Press.

Lamari, A. A. (2010). Narrative, Intertext, and Space in Euripides’ Phoenissae. De Gruyter.

Macleod, C. W. (1979). Thucydides on faction (3.82–83). Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society (New Series) 25, 52-68.

Mastronarde, D. J. (1994). Euripides: Phoenissae. Cambridge University Press.

Spielberg, L. (forthcoming 2017). Language, stasis, and the role of the historian in Thucydides, Sallust and Tacitus. American Journal of Philology 138.2. 

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Style and Rhetoric

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