Lysias, Against Eratosthenes



This unit has four main aims:

  1. To extend your ability to read, understand and translate accurately into idiomatic English Lysias' speech Against Eratosthenes;
  2. To gain an insight into political developments in Athens in the period leading up to the prosecution of Eratosthenes;
  3. To gain an appreciation of the structure and stylistic features of the speech;
  4. To study features of linguistic interest contained in the speech.


The author

Lysias was born in Athens some time in the middle decades of the 5th century B.C. (his suggested birth-year ranges from 459/58 to 430/29). He was one of the two sons of Cephalus, a native of Syracuse in Sicily who had come to live in Athens as a wealthy metic (resident alien). After the death of their father, Lysias and his elder brother Polemarchus went to the colony of Thurii in southern Italy where they became citizens. Lysias was apparently 15 at that time. However, the brothers were forced into exile in 412 because of their pro-Athenian sympathies and returned to Athens the following year. Here they lived as resident aliens, acquiring considerable wealth as manufacturers of shields. Their wealth made them obvious targets of the board of thirty oligarchs (see below under Historical Background) who shortly after coming to power in 403 ordered their execution and the confiscation of their property. Polemarchus was put to death, but Lysias escaped the city, fleeing to Megara (a city located between Athens and Corinth) and joining the ranks of the exiles who banded together under Thrasybulus. After the overthrow of the Thirty, Lysias was awarded full citizenship status for his services to the state. But shortly afterwards, this status was withdrawn. This was probably on purely constitutional grounds, and Lysias continued to live in Athens as a prosperous inhabitant of the city, though without political rights. He died some time after 380.

Lysias' compositions

Lysias enjoyed a considerable reputation as a logographos, a speech-writer and teacher of rhetoric, both in his own lifetime and in later antiquity. His work was regarded as the model of Attic prose style. He was noted for the purity, simplicity, and clarity of his style, and his ability to adapt his speeches to the character of his clients. "Lysias stands in the judgment of the Greek and Roman critics as the greatest representative of the Plain Style in prose composition.... Lysias took the plain, direct speech of daily life, purified it of its colloquialisms and vulgarities, and shaped it into a perfect medium for the expression of his thought. His language is the current speech of his own day." (H.L. Adams)

Some 425 legal speeches were originally attributed to him, though in the 1st century B.C. scholars regarded only 233 of these as having actually come from his pen. Today we have a total of 35 speeches allegedly authored by Lysias. But of these only 23 are complete, and some are very likely the compositions of other authors.

Historical background

In the year 404 B.C., the Peloponnesian War (the conflict between Athens and Sparta which began in 431) ended in ignominious defeat for Athens. In September of the preceding year the Athenian fleet was almost totally destroyed by the Spartan commander Lysander at Aegospotami in the Hellespont region. Lysander subsequently blockaded the Peiraeus, the port of Athens, and the Spartan king Pausanias placed Athens itself under siege. With its resources now exhausted Athens was forced to surrender. Although their allies pressed for the destruction of the city, the Spartans contented themselves with demolishing its walls (and the walls of the Peiraeus). In accordance with the terms of the treaty imposed upon Athens, the Athenian fleet was reduced to twelve ships.

The Spartan victory effectively brought the democratic regime in Athens to an end, and paved the way for the establishment of oligarchic control in the city. The democratic elements had been significantly reduced by the heavy casualties inflicted on them at Aegospotami and in the siege of Athens. And although the subsequent peace treaty contained no stipulation for the replacement of democracy by an oligarchic form of government, it did demand the restoration to Athens of all oligarchs forced into exile during the democratic regime.

At the outset, there were two groups within the ranks of the oligarchs - a moderate group and an extreme group of whom the leading lights were Theramenes and Critias respectively. For a time the moderates acted as a restraining influence on the more extreme elements.

The rise and fall of the Thirty

With the backing of Sparta. a board of thirty oligarchs was set up to redraft the Athenian constitution, and to present their proposals to the Assembly. In association with this a purge was carried out of all "evil-doers" in the city. But once they had gained temporary power, the oligarchs began to tighten their stranglehold on the state. The term "evil-doers" was conveniently vague, and the purge which initially concentrated on the city's sycophants (professional informers) was extended to all political opponents in general, and to many others, both citizens and metics. The latter were particularly targeted because of their wealth, for if they were successfully prosecuted for alleged offences, their property was confiscated.

Thus the rule of "The Thirty" which was moderate to begin with was soon transformed into a reign of terror, during which intimidation, proscription, murder, and confiscation of property became commonplace. Information about the oligarchic regime is provided in a work called in English The Constitution of Athens and (wrongly) attributed to Aristotle; The relevant sections are 34-38. In Lysias' speeches Against Nicomachus and Against Eratosthenes we are given further information about the illegal practices of the various members of the Thirty. It was proposed, for example, to reduce the citizen body to no more than 3000 selected citizens, with all other former citizens to be sent into exile, or executed. The number executed is put at about 1500, while thousands more fled. The moderates amongst the oligarchs, led by Theramenes, strongly objected to the measures adopted by the extremists. However Critias, the leader of the extreme elements, had Theramenes condemned and executed in the Council Chamber.

The illegal practices and ruthless purges of the Thirty united the ranks of the exiles, now some thousands strong, under the leadership of Thrasybulus, who had been banished by the Thirty and had initially fled to Thebes. He now led his ever-increasing forces in an attack on the Peiraeus, occupying there the high ground of Munychia. In the showdown which followed, the forces of the Thirty were defeated, Critias was killed, and most of the survivors of the Thirty took refuge at Eleusis (where they had had the foresight to arranged safe haven). The newly constituted body of 3000 citizens deposed the Thirty and set up in their place a commission of ten, which included Eratosthenes, with the intention of paving the way for a reconciliation between oligarchic and democratic elements. Yet the commission soon demonstrated its bias towards the policies of the Thirty, and actively collaborated with them and their supporters. In response to the increasing tension and hostility between the opposing sides, Thrasybulus mobilised his forces and entered Athens in triumph. Shortly afterwards democracy was restored.

The speech

The speech Against Eratosthenes (no. 12 according to the numbering used in the Lysian corpus) was delivered in 403, not long after the overthrow of the Thirty. It is the only speech we have in the Lysian corpus which was definitely delivered by Lysias himself. As its name indicates, it was directed specifically against Eratosthenes, one of the members of the Thirty, but it also deals with the regime of the oligarchs as a whole. It also refers to the earlier oligarchic revolution which took place in Athens in 411, and of which Eratosthenes had been a supporter.

After the overthrow of the Thirty, a general amnesty had been proclaimed in Athens. This prohibited the prosecution of anyone for political activities up to this time - with the exception of the actual members of the Thirty. In their case they had the option of settling in Eleusis or going into permanent exile, or else remaining in Athens and subjecting themselves to due legal process. Eratosthenes chose the last of these alternatives.

E.S. Shuckburgh notes "the unique historical value of this speech, as being an exposition, though from a partisan point of view, of the conduct and policy of the Thirty Tyrants, composed immediately after their expulsion by one who had personal experience of their rule, and who from his own sufferings would be likely to put every point against them with the most telling force. At the same time we must remember that it was addressed to an audience who also knew accurately the facts of the case, which would be a check on excessive exaggeration or directly false statement."

The second person against whom Lysias directs his attack in the speech is Theramenes (secs. 62-78), leader of the moderate group in the Thirty. As we have noted, Theramenes' opposition to the extreme measures of the Thirty led to his execution. Theramenes had long been known for his political versatility, as he swung from one side of the political spectrum to the other. In 411 (probably around June), he had been actively involved in setting up the oligarchic Council of 400 which for a short time exercised a despotic regime over the Athenian state. Then four months later he helped overthrow the 400 (September) and was involved in establishing a modified democratic system in its place. After Athens' disastrous losses at Aegospotami, Theramenes negotiated the terms of peace with Sparta, and was subsequently involved in setting up the board of Thirty Tyrants of which he himself became a member.

The notes

In the notes which follow, a number of references are made to comments contained in the editions of the speech by H.L. Adams, Lysias, Selected Speeches, Univ. of Oklahoma, 1905, repr. 1970, M. Edwards & S. Usher, Greek Orators - I Antiphon and Lysias, Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1985, and E.L. Shuckburgh, Lysiae Orationes XVI, London, 1939. (Further background information on Lysias can be found in A. Dihle, A History of Greek Literature, London, NY, Routledge, 1994, 203 ff. ) The notes make occasional reference on grammatical points to JACT (Joint Association of Classical teachers Greek Course, Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises).


The notes provide literal translations of a number of passages. These translations are intended to assist you in analysing and interpreting sentences or phrases which may cause you some difficulty. Occasionally the notes provide a freer or more idiomatic translation of a passage as well as a literal one. But generally it will be left to you to compose a final translation, which should of course be expressed in good, idiomatic English.

Structure (adapted from Adams' introduction to the speech)

A. 1-3. Introduction (Prooivmion): The particular difficulties of this prosecution.

B. 4-19. Narrative (Dihvghsi"): The honourable record of Lysias' family, and the story of the crime of the Thirty against the family.

C. 20-23. Digression (Parevkbasi"): Denunciation of the defendants by means of a summary contrast between the patriotic services of Lysias' family and the crimes of the Thirty.

D. 24-25. Proposal (Provqesi"): Questions put to Eratosthenes by the prosecutor.

E. 26-80. The Arguments (Pivstei"): (a) arguments based on the immediate charge (secs. 26-37); (b) arguments based on the general career of Eratosthenes (secs. 38-61); (c) arguments to counteract the defence that Eratosthenes was a friend and supporter of Theramenes (secs. 62-78); (d) conclusion that the time has come to bring Eratosthenes and his fellow-rulers to justice (secs 79-80).

F. 81-100. Peroration (!Epivlogo"): This includes discussion of the penalty that should be inflicted, an attack on those who will support the defendants, the implications of acquitting the defendants, appeal to the jury, summary of the crimes of the accused and a call to the jury to avenge the dead.

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