Classics Isocrates
Massimiliano Carloni
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0383


Isocrates (b. 436–d. 338 BCE) was one of the most successful rhetoricians in 4th-century BCE Athens. Some of the most influential politicians and authors of the time came from his school. He never used the word rhetoric to denote his teaching, preferring instead such terms and phrases as philosophia and ē tōn logōn paideia (the culture of discourse). According to him, eloquence could not be disjointed from morals. Speaking well presupposed thinking well, and at the same time contributed to a person’s ethical development. Moreover, rhetoric could not be imparted as a set of strictly defined rules, applicable to any situation and capable of making anybody a great orator. Instead, the student’s natural endowment (physis) and the acquisition of experience through exercise (gymnasia) played a fundamental role in the pedagogical process. More generally, no such knowledge existed that could offer people a firm grasp on the practical issues of life. Humans had to rely on their judgment (doxa) and on their ability to assess present circumstances and make decisions accordingly (phronēsis). Isocrates never took part in the active political life of Athens and did not deliver speeches in the Assembly. Nevertheless, he influenced the politics of the time in many different ways, most significantly through his students, among whom were important political and military figures such as Timotheos, and through his written speeches, which were meant to be read. Twenty-one of them have reached us, together with nine epistles (the authenticity of some texts is disputed). These speeches have been generally classified as “epideictic” (display speeches with no immediate practical aim), but they take very different forms from each other: encomia (speeches of praise), deliberative orations (just like those delivered in the Assembly), and collections of advice in the form of maxims. These speeches are usually long, complex in argumentation, rich in historical exemplification, and show a highly refined and balanced style that has been a model for centuries of successive authors. They deal with some of the most relevant political issues of the time, such as the relationship between Greek cities (Athens and Sparta in particular), the dangers posed by the nearby Persian Empire, and the emergence of Philip of Macedon. Isocrates called for concord, justice, and the defense of Greek culture, and voiced concerns shared above all by a cultivated and well-to-do elite, faced with the instabilities and profound changes of the Greek world during the fourth century BCE.

General Overviews

Cawkwell 2016 is a good starting point. Helpful introductions are offered by general overviews of Greek rhetoric, such as Usher 1999 and the essays contained in Worthington 2007. Alexiou 2020 provides an intellectually stimulating and up-to-date exploration of 4th-century BCE Greek rhetoric, and his chapter on Isocrates is highly recommended. For those looking for more detailed analysis, Blank 2014 is the way to go. Roisman, et al. 2015 is mostly concerned with the biographical tradition on Attic orators.

  • Alexiou, Evangelos. 2020. Greek rhetoric of the 4th century BC: The elixir of democracy and individuality. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110560145

    An overview of a whole century of Greek rhetoric, with chapters devoted to specific authors and careful analyses of individual speeches. On Isocrates, pp. 26–52 (on Isocrates’ relationship to Plato and Alcidamas), pp. 96–158 (general chapter devoted to Isocrates). Particularly concerned with the interaction between individual and community in 4th-century BCE Athenian rhetoric and society.

  • Blank, Thomas. 2014. Logos und Praxis: Sparta als politisches Exemplum in den Schriften des Isokrates. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110342512

    Although mainly focused on the use of Sparta as political exemplum, includes extensive discussions of methodological questions involved in the study of Isocrates (pp. 3–74), as well as complete presentations of the scholarly status quo concerning the speeches analyzed.

  • Cawkwell, George Law. 2016. Isocrates, 436–338 BCE. In Oxford Classical Dictionary. Edited by Tim Whitmarsh. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Concise presentation of Isocrates’ life and writings, with particular focus on the wider significance of his rhetorical and pedagogical ideals. Available online by subscription and in print in the 4th edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

  • Roisman, Joseph, Ian Worthington, and Robin Waterfield. 2015. Lives of the Attic orators: Texts from Pseudo-Plutarch, Photius, and the Suda. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides translations of the main biographical sources on the Attic orators. Pseudo-Plutarch’s Lives of the Ten Orators is accompanied by a detailed commentary. On Isocrates, see especially pp. 139–169.

  • Usher, Stephen. 1999. Greek oratory: Tradition and originality. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Includes a survey of Isocrates’ career with regard to both legal (pp. 118–126) and epideictic-political speeches (pp. 296–323).

  • Worthington, Ian, ed. 2007. A companion to Greek rhetoric. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Includes a chapter devoted to Isocrates by Terry L. Papillon (pp. 58–74), alongside many other relevant chapters that explore topics related to Isocrates (especially “Epideictic Oratory” by Christopher Carey, pp. 236–252).

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