Two Lives of the Orator Isocrates

translated from the Greek and annotated by Brian R. Donovan

The early biographical tradition regarding Isocrates comprises four main Greek texts: English translations of the first two are readily available in the Loeb Classical Library: Dionysius translated by Stephen Usher and issued in 1974, and pseudo-Plutarch translated by H. N. Fowler and issued in 1936 (in Vol. 10 of the Loeb Moralia). There is also an 1874 translation of the pseudo-Plutarch by Charles Barcroft, revised and corrected by William Goodwin, which is available on the Web at Perseus and elsewhere. I have not found English translations of the others and so have made them myself, and offer them below. These are translated from the TLG e-texts, drawn from W. Dindorf’s edition of Scholia Graeca in Aeschinem et Isocratem (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1852) and A. Adler’s edition of Suidae Lexicon (Leipzig: Teubner, 1928–35). Numbers within braces are line numbers, multiples of 25 only. Numbers that are links lead to endnotes (and caret-links lead back).


(from the scholia)

ISOCRATES was born the child of Theodorus the flute-maker, Heduto being his mother. It was not that he worked with his own hands that he was called flute-maker, but that he had slave workers and from this he made his living. He took to wife one Plathane, born of Hippias the orator.1 Having been luckless in the matter of children, he adopted her son Aphareus. He became a student of the philosopher Socrates on the one hand, and the orator Theramenes on the other, “the buskin,” a student of Gorgias (and Gorgias was the student of Tisias). This man was called “the buskin” for this reason: the buskin is footwear fitting women and men, or fitting right and left foot; and whether on the one analogy or the other, he was all the same called “buskin” on account of his propensity for changing sides, just as the buskin is readily adapted to right or left foot or to men or women, never standing firm in one thing only.2 Aristophanes mentions the buskin in The Frogs: “Why have buskin and club come together?”3 For he was always changing sides on political issues, honoring the present administration and then, when it was overthrown, becoming afterwards a denouncer of the same, in which he had before participated. The Thirty, being aware of this before their overthrow, killed him, lest later he denounce them just as he had the Four Hundred, as with god’s help we shall understand. And when he was going off to his death Isocrates accompanied him, intending to share his fate, so as to show even in death how he honored his teacher. He stopped him without persuading him at first, but then said something that did persuade him: for he said, “If you do not leave, {25} you and my teaching shall perish together; so that you honor [me] better by living, making manifest my teaching.” And thus persuaded he departed and took to teaching. And he wrote ceremonial and deliberative discourses: he mostly left forensic oratory alone, because he suffered two bodily defects, that he was timid and his voice was weak. And he was so timid and bashful and unable to bear speaking in crowds, because of his inhibition, that it was said that sometimes when he was holding forth, and some people came to hear him, he grew ashamed and became silent. He acquired great wealth from his teaching, nothing from citizens, in honor of and to maintain his homeland, but from foreigners a thousand drachmas.4 And indeed when one Ephorus, his student, departed for his homeland and came back to resume his studies and gave the thousand, he called him Disephorus.”5 After becoming wealthy he shared his wealth with the city out of love, fulfilling trierarchies and many other public benefits.6 The comic poets used to twit him with enjoying a certain prostitute, Lagisce by name. But we say in his defense that he did not do anything much [wrong], if he had this concubine after the decease of his wife; we say furthermore, to exonerate him further from this charge, that joking on the part of the comic poets is false. For the comic poets are wont to ridicule their main characters for laughter’s sake, as when they presented Socrates as as a paederast. He wrote many discourses, among which are the hortatory addresses, even if some wish to say they were not his on account of the weakness of the style: these speeches we properly recognize as first, not as being better than his other discourses (for surely the Panegyricus surpasses them, and many others), but in that they treat of morals. {50} And it is necessary to set those on morals first among the discourses, just as the farmer is obliged, before sowing the seeds of the intended crop, to clear away from the fields the things that are ruinous to these, such as dog’s-tooth grass and the like; for this cause, and as he was writing these things for children, he was constrained to employ a less elevated style, so that the hortatory addresses may well be his. It is right to seek out for what sort of cause he thus acknowledged them in their right place, first that to Demonicus, next those to Nicocles, and not undifferentiated, as among his other discourses. We say that Isocrates, wishing to become a public benefactor, and thinking it hard to write counsels addressed to everyone, chose to write as if to these men specifically. In truth he was exhorting everyone through the three hortatory addresses, just as Hesiod, in saying, as to his brother, “Work, foolish Perses!”7 is exhorting everyone. So too Isocrates. Accordingly he sets first the To Demonicus, as first discoursing to private persons, then teaching how to reign in the To Nicocles; for one comes to kingship after being a private person first. Then he says in the To Nicocles or On Alliance how it is necessary for even a private person to reign.8 The comic poets, as I said above, twit him with Lagisce; one of these is Strattis, saying these things in Atalante:
and Lagisce, Isocrates’ mistress,
finds me gathering figs, and then, if she has come quickly,
the flute-borer himself.9
Some say that he was born before the Peloponnesian War **** {75} by twenty-two years.10 According to some he also was a pupil of Prodicus of Ceos and Gorgias of Leontini.11 While still young he appeared to surpass those around Lysias the rhetor, who were born before him, and Plato testifies to this in the Phaedrus, having made Socrates speak thus: “Isocrates is young yet, Phaedrus: I am willing to say what I prophesy of him: for with respect to speeches he seems to me above being ranked with those around Lysias.”12 He had many students, of whom the following are esteemed and illustrious: Theopompus and Ephoros, by whom histories were brought forth; Hyperides, Isaeus, Lycurgus, who are judged and acknowledged among the Ten Orators; then Philiscon, his own namesake Isocrates, Theodectes, Androtion who wrote a chronicle of Athens (and against whom Demosthenes wrote), and Python the Byzantine, Philip’s orator. In connection with Theopompus and Ephorus something of the following witty sort is reported of him: for he had this ability too. As he observed Theopompus taking up a small subject and expanding on this and speaking a long time (as he does in his history of Philip), and Ephorus taking up a large subject with many things bound up in it, and yet speaking briefly and elliptically, he said that “I have two students, of which the one needs the whip, the other the bridle,” speaking of the whip in relation to Ephorus, on account of the sluggishness and slowness of his nature, and of the bridle on account of the abundance and excess of Theopompus’ language. He held a philosophic school near the Lyceum gymnasium. And this too is said of him, that having been accused of discrediting the democracy in writing to Nicocles (who was a king) with his words of advice and encouragement, he parried in his defense out of these {100} hortatory speeches themselves, saying with respect to that, “for just as one practicing politics under democracy must attend to the crowd, so too it befits one making his home in a monarchy to hold the king in awe.”13 As to his own forensic speeches and those which had to be spoken in public, it is said that he either presented them through others or (a few) by himself. It is fitting to speak also of the man’s style. We already said before that he became an emulator of Gorgias in the matching of words with similar endings and in the use of balanced constructions, but not always to the point of tedium like him; he employs diction that is clear and moral and persuasive, but it is not concise and graceful like that of Lysias.14 For this is also said, that these men were jealous rivals of one another as teachers. His style is continuous with respect to thoughts: for before completing one point he interweaves another thought with it. And his introductory sections are also extended. If some introduce some other discourses as being his, those are not to be admitted alongside the ones listed. These are the ones ascribed: nine hortatory, on the preparation of race-courses, on independence, Sinopic, the island speech, three miscellaneous, the Amphiction speech, on the settlement of the Milesians; seven epideictic, encomium of Clytaemnestra, Penelope, Menecrates, funeral oration for those at Thyrea, Neoptolemus, Pariacus;* plea in reply to the commander’s letter, on the quail, in defense of Timotheus, the trustee speech, about the water-pitcher; five miscellaneous, on philosophy, on Plato, on Strife, protreptic, attack on the sophists.15 It is said that he also wrote an Art of Rhetoric, but it happened that in course of time it was destroyed. Someone will say, from what is it clear that this is the case? We say that Aristotle {125} the philosopher, having collected arts of rhetoric, recalls this very thing.16 Some say he lived a hundred years, others ninety-eight. He died during the archonship of Chaerondas, after the battle of Chaeronea, distressed at the defeat and disaster that there befell the Athenians at the hands of Philip. He fasted to death, over nine days as Demetrius says, fourteen per Aphareus.17 He died after reciting the following verses from three plays of Euripides:18
Danaus the father of fifty daughters;
Once Cadmus had left Sidon town;
Pelops son of Tantalus coming to Pisa;
—signifying with these that, just as those who were barbarians had entered and occupied Greece, Philip had become the fourth despot of Greece. For Danaus, an Egyptian barbarian (Egypt being then under the Persians), fleeing his brother on account of the oracle he carried about, having come to Argos occupied it. Cadmus of Sidon, being a barbarian (for Sidon too was under the Persians), coming thence to Thebes in search of his sister Europa, occupied it. Similarly Pelops the Phrygian (and Phrygia itself was in Asia), fleeing the plot of Ilus, he making war on his own father, came to Pisa and later ruled the whole Peloponnese—wherefore it was called the Peloponnese. He having said these things and finally died, the Athenians, since he had love for the city, gave him honorable public burial, and put carved stone sirens {150} on his monument, signifying the artistry of the man. And these are the facts concerning the divine orator.


(entry from the Suda)

Isocrates, son of Theodorus the flute-maker, orator, born in the 86th Olympiad, which was after the Peloponnesian Wars.19 And because of the weakness and haltingness of his voice he did not speak in the courts, but he taught many, and wrote 32 discourses: he lived just 5 years shy of the century mark. Brothers were born to him Tisippos and Theomnestos and Theodoros: His teacher was Gorgias, some say Tisias, others Erginos; others yet say Prodicus, and others Theramenes. His discourses are most numerous.


(links are to English versions (mostly) on Perseus)

1^ The “he” of the preceing sentence is Theodorus; that of this one, Isocrates himself. Accounts vary on whether Plathane was Hippias’ daughter or had been his wife: pseudo-Plutarch seems to me (and to Fowler) to favor the former at both 838a and 839b, though the wording there (and here, too) is somewhat ambiguous on this question, enough that Barcroft translates those two loci as split on it. The Greek just here could conceivably mean that Plathane bore children to Hippias rather than being one of his children herself. Harpocration (s.v. Aphareus, qtd. Diels/Kranz Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker 86.A.3) says that Aphareus was Hippias’ son, though accounted Isocrates’. R. C. Jebb, in The Attic Orators from Antiphon to Isaeus, 2:29 (London: Macmillan, 1893), calls her Hippias’ widow.

2^ Cf. Xenophon Hellenica 2.3 §§30–31 & 47, where this is a nickname applied by Critias to Theramenes, referring to his supposed readiness to take either the democratic or the oligarchic side, just as the kothornos fit either the left or right foot indifferently.

3^ Line 47, asked by an amused Heracles, on seeing Dionysus disguised as him; the metonymy operates through the association of both wine-god and boot with tragedy. Since the play predates Critias’ gibe, it is unlikely that this is aimed at Theramenes—though he is explicitly named as the butt of gibes elsewhere in that play, at ll. 541 and 967– 8.

4^ Cf. ps.-Plutarch Life of Isocrates 838f.

5^ Cf. ps.-Plutarch Life of Isocrates 839a, which adds that this Ephorus (who became a historian, as noted below) was from Cyme and initially left without having succeeded in his studies, only to be sent back with the second fee by his father Demophilus. (Ps.-Plutarch also captures the joke better by rendering the nickname “Diphorus,” omitting the “se,” so that it more clearly signifies “Twice-Bringer.”)

6^ Progressive taxation in Athens took the form of requiring a wealthy citizen to fund some particular civic good, such as sponsoring a trireme for the navy for a year as a trierarch, or producing a full day’s program for the theater as a choregos. Such an obligation, expensive but compensated with conspicuous honor and bragging rights, was called a leitourgia, folk-work.

7^ Works and Days 397.

8^ Over him- or herself, that is (To Nicocles 29–31). In other scholia and in Ammonius, this alternate title On Alliance (Symmachikos) is associated rather with Nicocles than with To Nicocles.

9^ That is, she (Lagisce) finds the flute-borer also. Athenaeus gives a slightly different version of this fragment at 13.62 (Kaibel). The female speaker appears to be reporting her own or someone else’s speech, about herself and Isocrates and Lagisce. “Flute-borer” refers to Isocrates in terms of his father’s business, with obvious classist sneer and sexual innuendo; and “gathering figs” may be sexual slang, or a reference to the professional law-court troublemakers known as sycophants (literally “those who show figs,” a tribe Isocrates detested), or, most likely, both.

10^ Asterisks indicate a lacuna in the Greek text. To suppose that Isocrates’ birth preceded the war’s outbreak by that much is absurd, as making his age not 98 or 100 (as this text itself says) but rather 115 at the time of the Battle of Chaeronea. The generally accepted date of his birth is 436 B.C., just five years before the war, which would indeed make him 98 at the time of Chaeronea.

11^ But the verb ἤκουσε may well just mean “read,” rather than “was a pupil of”: see Yun Lee Too, The Rhetoric of Identity in Isocrates (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 236, citing Dirk M. Schenkeveld, “Prose Usages of Ἀκούειν ‘To Read’” (Classical Quarterly, N.S. 42.1 [1992]: 129–141).

12^ Plato Phaedrus 278e–279a, with minor alterations. R. L. Howland reads this seemingly favorable notice as mordantly ironic, in “The Attack on Isocrates in the Phaedrus” (Classical Quarterly, O.S. 31.3/4 [1937]: 151–159); Jebb, however, argues that there was no such “feud” between the two, 2:47–50.

13^ To Demonicus 36.

14^ These things have not been said before in the present discourse. What was said before was, first, that Gorgias was his teacher Theramenes’ teacher (ll. 6–8), and later that he himself reportedly ἤκουσε (read/was a pupil of) Gorgias, and surpassed Lysias while yet young (ll. 75–81).

15^ This would appear to be a list, subdivided by the named categories, of the spuriously attributed speeches, since only the last item listed seems to correspond to a canonical discourse by Isocrates (and an incompletely preserved one at that, though the canonical Antidosis vouches for the canonicity of Against the Sophists)—and even those canonical titles that appear elsewhere in this document (Panegyricus, To Nicocles, To Demonicus) are omitted here. The asterisk signifies a spot of irremediably corrupt text; the list of epideictic speeches has by then reached its announced quota of seven, and its closing colon, but the following list lacks a heading (which would probably be forensic speeches).

16^ Isocrates’ view of rhetoric tends (most clearly at Against the Sophists 12) against the very idea of reducing it to anything so cut and dried as a written Art or τέχνη. The Aristotelian work here adduced is clearly Συναγώγη Τεχνῶν, a survey of such manuals, itself also lost, though more likely to have actually existed. Our main insight into it is through Cicero’s Brutus, which claims, of Isocrates’ abandoning the profession of logographer, “orationes aliis destitisse scribere totumque se ad artes componendas transtulisse” (“he stopped composing orations for others, and entirely applied himself to compiling Arts”)—which is manifestly nonsense, since most of his extensive extant œuvre dates from after he gave up logography, and conspicuously avoids general rhetorical theory and precepts.

17^ In the text we have, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Isocrates, §1 ll. 45–8) says merely that he died voluntarily a few days after the battle. Jebb (2:29–31) rejects altogether the tradition of a suicidal response to Chaeronea, pace Milton.

18^ These would seem to be the opening lines of Archelaus, Phrixus, and Iphigenia among the Taurians, respectively, though only fragments of the first two plays survive. Ps.-Plutarch confirms that these are opening lines (837e), as does Jebb (2:29 n. 5). Isocrates cites these same three mythic examples of barbarian/Asian refugees’ becoming rulers in Greece, and praises Helen for bringing the war that reversed this trend, in his Encomium of Helen 68. That Philip is here pointedly analogized to barbarians implies, as does the Dissoi Logoi at 2.12, that Macedonians were felt not to be Greek.

19^ No, it was before the war: 436–32 B.C., the former date being the generally accepted one for Isocrates’ birth.

Translations and annotations ©2012 by Brian R. Donovan (a Professor of English at Bemidji State University). This document is offered for the free and unrestricted use of students, teachers, and scholars everywhere, consistent with academic integrity. It may be non-commercially reproduced in full in any format, provided that such reproduction includes this copyright notice. Quotations from these translations should be accompanied by due acknowledgment of their source. Commercial publishers wishing to make use of these translations or annotations or both should contact the translator.