Crowning Thersites : the relevance of invective in Athenian forensic oratory



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This dissertation examines the function and relevance of invective in late 4th century oratory. I bring together recent approaches to performance, humor, and legal studies in order to reevaluate the role of character depiction, and especially character assassination, in forensic rhetoric. Both on the comic stage and in the courts, evoking derisive laughter from the audience was an important mechanism for effecting social control. I demonstrate how the orators draw from Old and Middle Comedy to depict opponents as character types, like braggarts (alazones), flatterers (kolakes), and comic prostitutes (male hetairai/pornoi). I argue further that speakers do not use invective to skirt legal issues; rather, they tailor their arguments about character to the legal charge. In the Athenian system, the concept of legal relevance was broad and subject to manipulation. The only mechanism of restraint on a speaker was the threat of being shouted down (thorubos) by the jury. Invective, therefore, was not automatically “out of bounds”. Moreover, issues of character and morality were of increasing public concern in 4th-century Athens (as evidenced by Xenophon, Middle Comedy, and oratory alike). To the minds of Athenian jurors, information about character provided important evidence for reaching a just verdict.