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How to Talk about Money in Attic Oratory: Insults and Iambos

Robert K Morley

The University of Iowa

The law courts of Athens regularly oversaw lawsuits involving money, especially those involving inheritance. The speeches of Isaeus deal with such cases and offer insight into how individuals could talk about money in legal matters. His repertoire of rhetorical arguments included elements of slander, insult, and mockery, and he often employed these in cases involving money. In this paper I investigate how Isaeus’ clients used insults to their advantage when discussing wealth and their opponents’ misuse of it. I use examples from the iambic tradition originating with the Archaic poets in order to show how Isaeus’ use of insults is a continuation of the iambic tradition but also formulated specifically for the law courts. Placing the insults of Isaeus in the iambic tradition reveals how discourse about wealth in the law courts was designed to walk a thin line between appropriate and inappropriate language.

Previous studies of the use of insults or invective in Attic oratory have focused on connections to comedy or tragedy, rather than a persistent iambic tradition (Harding 1994; Miner 2006). There have also been studies on the influence of iambos on comedy and its prevalence in fifth and fourth century Athens (Rosen 1988; Carey 1994; Zanetto 2001; Bowie 2002). However, Worman (2008) has persuasively argued that iambic discourse was prevalent in classical literature and crossed into different genres, including Attic oratory. It is possible, therefore, that invective in the orators was influenced not only by comedy, but also by other private and public performances in the iambic tradition. Furthermore, previous studies have focused on the speeches of Demosthenes and Aeschines since the two orators frequently insulted each other, while other orators have been given little attention.

I begin by reviewing the speeches that concern wealth and relevant uses of invective. I give special attention to the speeches of Isaeus since they often deal with cases concerning inheritance. Next, I show how invective works to the speaker’s advantage in the cases concerning inheritance but also how it could be a risk, since the language of the orator could not be too abusive or insulting. If the judges considered the language too slanderous or irrelevant to the case, this would greatly affect the chances of winning the case. I then compare relevant examples from iambic poetry and comedy to the invective found in the speeches. I conclude by arguing that the insults in Isaeus’ speeches are a part of a broader iambic tradition and that invective in the law courts was in certain ways unique and particular to legal settings. I further conclude by outlining how speakers in the law courts could talk about money and their opponents’ immoral misuse of money.

For example, the orators, especially Isaeus, often composed speeches that attacked their opponent’s improper use of wealth. This highlights the immoral behavior of the opponent and questions whether he should win the inheritance. As two examples, the speaker in Isaeus 5 says that his opponent “terribly and shamefully destroyed [his] inheritance, and having turned it into money [he] bewails poverty” (κακῶς καὶ αἰσχρῶς διολώλεκας, καὶ ἐξαργυρισαμενος πενίαν ὀδύρῃ, 5.43), and in Isaeus 10 the speaker charges that his opponent has “wasted the inheritance on boys” (οἶκον καταπεπαιδεραστηκέναι, 10.25). In these and other examples, the speakers’ opponents have wasted their wealth, often on immoral activities, and in this way have dishonored themselves and the city. The language Isaeus uses to describe the wasting of one’s inheritance is similar to that in the Archaic poets, who often describe wealth or inheritance as being “devoured.” Thus Alcaeus uses the verb δάπτειν (70; 129), Solon uses τρύχειν (4), and Hipponax uses κατεσθίειν (26). The verb κατεσθίειν also appears in comedy and oratory as in Aristophanes (Eq. 258) and Aeschines (1.42).

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Attic Oratory

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