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Demetrius’ On Style and the Hellenistic theories of euphony

Demetrius’ treatise On Style is one of the earliest works about literary style. Modern scholarship (Grube 1961, Schenkeveld 1964, Morpurgo-Tagliabue 1980, Chiron 2001) focused on the influence that Peripatetic and Stoic ideas had on Demetrius’ formation of four styles. The influence of the Hellenistic euphonists, who are criticized in Philodemus’ treatise On Poems, has been overlooked mainly because of the lack of knowledge about them. Richard Janko’s recent reconstruction of Philodemus’ On Poems (2000, 2020) facilitated our ability to explore the euphonists’ theories and their contribution to ancient literary criticism. In my paper I argue that Demetrius’ analysis of four styles, the grand, the harsh, the forceful, and the plain, is largely inspired by the Hellenistic euphonists.

Demetrius’ association of these styles with euphony or cacophony derives from Pausimachus’ classification of the three kinds of diction: the harsh, the smooth, and the compact. A direct allusion to Pausimachus’ classification is found in On Style 176-8 where Demetrius refers to the different categories of words by the same terms as Pausimachus. Demetrius’ grand style is characterized by cacophony and harshness (On Style 48) like Pausimachus’ harsh diction (On Poems 2, col. 216 J), whereas his elegant style is characterized by euphony and smoothness (On Style 258) like Pausimachus’ smooth diction (On Poems 2, cols. 210, 215 J). Demetrius’ association of the “charms” of elegant style with poetry (On Style 128, 166-7) explains the connection of this style with euphony, which the euphonists originally detected in poetry.

Pausimachus’ mixed diction (On Poems 2, col. 218 J) influenced Demetrius’ view that the different styles can be combined (On Style 36-7). Demetrius’ forceful style, which combines characteristics of both the grand (On Style 255, 272) and the elegant style (On Style 286), corresponds to Pausimachus’ compact diction, which is a mixture of cacophonous and euphonious diction (On Poems 2, cols. 219, 220 J). I argue that Demetrius invents the fourth style, the plain, to serve the needs of letter writing. This style employs cacophonous diction, like the grand style, but differs from it in that it serves mundane content. The correlation of vividness and persuasiveness in this style (On Style 221-2) is inspired by the euphonist Heracleodorus and his association of these two qualities (On Poems 2, col. 93 J).

In my paper I argue that Demetrius employs Pausimachus’ categorization of the three kinds of diction to develop his own methodology for the theory of styles. Unlike the euphonists, Demetrius does not prioritize linguistic sound over content in literary composition but rather refers to the sound of diction as a stylistic trait, which serves content. The main reason is that Demetrius’ treatise examines not only poetry, as the euphonists did, but also prose. Thus, the reconciliation of form and content is important in transferring the euphonists’ theories from poetry to prose. The exploration of the euphonists’ influence on Demetrius’ styles proves the crucial role of their theories in ancient literary criticism.