One of the very few facts we know about Isaeus is that he was a professional speechwriter (logographos). The man behind the speeches, however, is almost entirely obscure. His name does not appear in the historical record until the critical essay written about him in the late first century BCE by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Dionysius himself already had little or no reliable information about his subject. His birthplace was either Athens (according to Hermippus) or Chalcis (according to Demetrius of Magnesia), but if he did not play a prominent role in Athenian politics, this does not necessarily indicate that he was, like the earlier orator Lysias, a resident alien (metic) at Athens.
Isaeus' logographic activity, on the evidence of the dating of the speeches that survive, began in the very early 380s and continued until the later 340s, and so a birth date of ca. 415-410 is feasible. This date would fit with one of the two facts recorded about Isaeus by Hermippus (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Isaeus 1): first, that he studied under Isocrates, who began teaching in Athens in ca. 390. If that is the case, it is interesting that if Speech 5 is correctly dated to 389, Isaeus either seems to have been a student for only a short time or was already writing speeches while learning the trade. Hermippus' second fact was that Isaeus taught Demosthenes, a tradition that recurs in the pseudo-Plutarchan Lives of the two orators (839f, 844b-c), in the expanded form that Isaeus lived in Demosthenes' house and composed for him the early speeches prosecuting his guardians. It was his teaching of Demosthenes that chiefly won Isaeus fame, according to the opening sentence of Dionysius' essay, and one of Demosthenes' rivals, Pytheas, accused him of "digesting the whole of Isaeus and his rhetorical technique" (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Isaeus 4).
The pseudo-Plutarchan Life records that Isaeus "left behind sixty-four speeches, of which fifty were genuine, and his own rhetorical manuals" (839f). Eleven speeches survive, as well as an extended fragment quoted by Dionysius (Isaeus 17), which is regularly printed as Speech 12; in addition, we have from various sources (including Dionysius and the later lexicographers) the names, with fragments in some cases, of over forty lost speeches, some of which probably overlap, plus a number of other fragments and single words of unknown origin. We therefore have a good idea of the range of Isaeus' activity, but it is clear from the surviving speeches and many of the fragments that he concentrated mainly on composing forensic speeches for suits concerned with matters of inheritance. There is some variety in the types of suit involved, including the actual inheritance claims (diadikasiai), subsequent prosecutions for false testimony (dikai pseudomartyrion), the prosecution of a surety (dike engyes), and prosecution for maltreatment of an orphan (eisangelia kakoseos orphanou). Nevertheless, the common subject matter makes Isaeus the Attic orator closest to being a legal expert. Unfortunately, the complex nature of this material has also prompted negative evaluations of his ability, from Dionysius' contrasting of Isaeus' cleverness (deinotes) with Lysias' charm (charis) to Dobson's evaluation of his "efficiency which is admirable, but dull." We shall return to this topic presently and merely note here the crucial importance of Isaeus' speeches as sources in a central area of Athenian law.
Style and Method
Dionysius, as we saw, begins his essay on Isaeus with the statement that his fame was due mainly to his being the teacher of Demosthenes. Dionysius views Isaeus as a link between the older forensic style of Lysias and the mature forensic style of Demosthenes, the unquestioned master of Attic oratory. The critic, however, firmly classifies Isaeus with Lysias and Isocrates as being among the best orators of the earlier generation, not in the later group of Demosthenes, Hyperides, and Aeschines (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On the Ancient Orators 4); and in his stylistic analysis he compares Isaeus primarily with Lysias. Lysias is a clear winner in the comparison: although in many respects (such as clarity, vividness, and conciseness) their language is very similar, that of Lysias is plainer and has a greater moral flavor, his composition is more natural, his figures are simpler, and he has plenty of grace and charm; whereas Isaeus' language has more technical skill and attention to detail, is more elaborate, and contains a variety of figures (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Isaeus 3). Isaeus displays the same cleverness in his writing that is the source of Demosthenes' rhetorical power, yet the cleverness and rhetorical skill make Dionysius suspect of both orators' speeches, which he opposes to the more natural, straightforward works of Lysias and Isocrates (Isaeus 4, cf. 16). In the structure and argument of his speeches, Dionysius observes, Lysias is more simple than Isaeus, whose arguments are developed at great length, backed by emotional appeal and blackening of the opponent's character (Isaeus 3). In these and other features, such as his extensive use of rhetorical questions (Isaeus 12-13) and the arrangement of his material (Isaeus 14-15), Isaeus is the forerunner of Demosthenes, though lacking his supreme talent.
Dionysius' observations are characteristically acute, but we should beware of accepting them and thereby underestimating Isaeus' ability as a logographer. Confronted by the intricacies of family histories and the obscurities of inheritance laws, Isaeus is ready to dispense with the standard order of forensic speeches of proem, narrative, proofs, and epilogue. He breaks up his narratives into several sections, each with arguments attached, and pays close attention to the beginnings and endings of his speeches. Speech 11 opens forcefully with a discussion of the laws, while Speech 8 equally forcefully closes with a deposition proving the opponent's adultery. Indeed, while Isaeus lacks Lysias' supreme ability of characterization (ethopoiia), he is not at all deficient in using the character of his client or opponent as a means of proof. If, then, Isaeus won a reputation for deception and "being clever at devising speeches for the worse cause" (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Isaeus 4), it must redound to his credit that he did everything he could to help his client's case (id. 3). He was, without doubt, the man to turn to for help in family disputes.
Isaeus' Modern Reputation
Modern criticism of Isaeus has been shaped not so much by Dionysius as by a scholar who took his suspicions to their extremes: William Wyse. Todd (1990) offers a succinct examination of the decline in importance of the orators in the classical curriculum of the late nineteenth century, as scholars became increasingly suspicious of their veracity (and hence their honor). The most notable product of the new thinking was Wyse's monumentally learned commentary, which doubts Isaeus' words at every turn and indeed has virtually nothing positive to say about him. Wyse's commentary and his skepticism have dominated Isaean scholarship ever since, although in more recent times a reaction has begun against the latter. In my Introductions and Notes to the speeches I attempt to give a more balanced view, and if legal historians are destined to be frustrated by what many will continue to regard as Isaean chicanery, it is hoped that the brilliant rhetoric in which Isaeus entangles his readers will come to be recognized in its own right.
The Family, Property, and Athenian Inheritance Law
At the core of Athenian society lay the family unit, the oikos ("house" or "household"). The oikos comprised both people and possessions: members of the family (its head, his wife and children, unmarried or widowed female relatives, and other dependents), slaves and sometimes concubines and illegitimate children, the house itself (usually called the oikia), and the land and other property. Additionally, and very importantly, the oikos was the center of a family's religious observance, with its hearth and ceremonies and, above all, the ancestral graves. Hence the preservation of the individual oikos was a matter of vital concern to both the family and the state.
The head of the household was called its kyrios ("legal representative") and he controlled the property and cult and was responsible for the well-being of the women and children. Throughout their lives Athenian women remained in the guardianship of a kyrios, who normally was their father when they were single and their husband when they married. They had a very limited procedural capacity and could not, for example, appear in court as witnesses: they relied on their kyrios to initiate legal proceedings on their behalf (e.g., 3.2-3). Nor could Athenian women own significant amounts of property, beyond personal clothing and jewelry; and it seems unlikely (though this is a much-debated topic) that women in Athens could own land. Similarly, a father was the kyrios of his son until the latter reached his eighteenth year. At that point the son would become legally independent, but usually he would still live in the oikos of his father, who might, on entering old age, then hand over to him the kyrieia ("control") of the oikos.
The worst eventuality that could befall an Athenian oikos was that it become extinct. The primary method of preserving the oikos was through marriage and the procreation of legitimate male children. There were two forms of marriage in Athens (cf. 6.14): by far, the more common was the process of betrothal (engye) and giving away (ekdosis) of the woman by her kyrios. The other way was by the awarding (epidikasia) of an heiress to a man after judicial process, to which we shall return presently. In marriage by engye the prospective husband came to an agreement with the kyrios of the woman, who in theory at least would have no say in the matter and need not even be present at the betrothal. The formal granting of the woman by the kyrios was the essential part of the marriage. The actual handing over of the bride and transference of the kyrieia to her new husband would usually follow soon after, regularly with a wedding (gamos; for an example, see Hyp. 1.3-7), but might take place several years later if the bride-to-be was still a young girl (as in the case of Demosthenes' sister, who was promised to Demophon by her father on his deathbed when she was only five; cf. Dem. 27.4, 28.15). There was a wide range of relatives to whom a woman might be married, including a half-brother by the same father, a brother by adoption, and an uncle or cousin; she could not however, legally be betrothed to a direct ascendant (father, grandfather) or descendant (son, grandson), brother, or half-brother by the same mother. The other main restriction in our period, originating in Pericles' citizenship law of 451/0, was that both parties should be Athenians, born of an Athenian father and mother.
It was regular practice (though not a legal requirement) for the bride's kyrios to offer her for marriage with a dowry (proix). The prosecutor of Nicodemus raises suspicion against his sister's alleged marriage to Pyrrhus by playing on the lack of a dowry (3.8-9, 28-29, 78). The dowry regularly took the form of money but might also include land and other property. It acted as a form of protection for the wife, since if the marriage ended in divorce, or if either partner died and there were no children, it had to be returned to the donor. The husband did not own the dowry but was expected to use it as capital for generating income to support his wife and children.
Divorce was a straightforward matter for the husband, who could simply send his wife away. This apopempsis was a legal requirement if he caught his wife in adultery. Similarly, the wife's natal kyrios could simply take her away from her husband (aphairesis), either at all times or possibly until she had borne a child. At least in theory, the wife could initiate divorce by leaving her husband (apoleipsis), though she had to inform the Archon (3.78; cf. Dem. 30.17, 26); in the only example we have, Alcibiades simply carried his wife Hipparete back home (And. 4.14; Plut. Alcibiades 8.6). Hipparete was understandably upset by her husband bringing home his mistresses (hetairai), but his behavior reflects that husbands (unlike wives) were not legally required to be sexually faithful to their partners. Indeed, a man might take a concubine (pallake), regularly a slave (as in Ant. 1) or, if kept "with a view to free children" (Dem. 23.53), a free noncitizen, such as Pericles' consort Aspasia (the possibility of citizen women living as pallakai is attested by 3.39). The free children of these unions were called nothoi ("bastards"), and their rights in the family and city as a whole were restricted by their illegitimate status.
The child of a married citizen couple would, if accepted by the father, be formally acknowledged and named at a family religious ceremony ten days after the birth (the dekate); otherwise, the child might be exposed. This acknowledgement of paternity by the father in front of witnesses was highly important for establishing the legitimacy and citizenship of the child, which in turn had consequences for the succession. Inheritance at Athens was based on various key principles. Foremost among these was that direct descendants of the deceased took precedence over collateral relatives (i.e., those who shared a common ancestor with him). Inheritance was male oriented, though not agnatic (i.e., through the male line): sons inherited to the exclusion of daughters, but inheritance could pass through the female line, as was the case with heiresses (see below). Further, it was partible (i.e., male children shared equally, as opposed to a rule of primogeniture); and it had a principle of representation per stirpes ("by lines of descent") not per capita ("by heads"). Thus, for example, if a man had two sons, one of whom predeceased his father but had two sons of his own, they would inherit half the estate of their grandfather, and their uncle would inherit the other half.
A legitimate son (or grandson or a son adopted during his adoptive father's lifetime) automatically inherited all the deceased's property and took over from him control of the oikos if he was its kyrios. He did not need to go through any legal process but simply took possession of the estate by embateusis ("entry"), and if anybody made a rival claim, he could block it by testimony (diamartyria) that he was the legitimate son (or grandson or adopted son). If he was a minor when his father died, the son became an orphan (orphanos), whether or not his mother was still alive, and came under the general protection of the Eponymous Archon (Aesch. 1.158; Dem. 43.75). This official, who gave his name to the Athenian civil year, would ensure that a guardian or guardians were appointed, if the deceased had not already made arrangements; Demosthenes had three such guardians. The boy would usually live with and under the kyrieia of the guardian until he came of age, and in this period, the guardian was expected to maintain and increase his estate. In a society in which so many men lost their lives in war, the state was particularly concerned to ensure the welfare of its future citizens; maltreatment (kakosis) of an orphan could lead to prosecution of the guardian by eisangelia (as in Speech 11), in which the usual penalties suffered by a prosecutor who failed to obtain one-fifth of the votes in a public suit (a heavy fine and loss of the right to bring similar cases in future) did not apply.
In all other circumstances, recourse to a judicial decision was necessary. If a claim was uncontested, it was termed an epidikasia; if there were rival claimants, it was a diadikasia. If somebody testified (by diamartyria) that the inheritance was "not awardable" because there was in existence a legitimate son or son adopted during the deceased's lifetime (see below), this prevented further claims, unless the testimony was itself challenged by a prosecution for false witness (pseudomartyria). There were three alternative scenarios to the regular succession of a son (or direct male descendant): the deceased left no son but a daughter or daughters (or granddaughter or great-granddaughter); he adopted a son (or more rarely a daughter, as when Hagnias adopted his niece, 11.8); or the estate was claimed by the nearest collateral relative.
When the deceased left only a daughter (or other female descendant), she was called an epikleros (pl. epikleroi). This word is regularly translated as "heiress," but an heiress in Athens did not own the property; rather, it was vested in her until her son became an adult. The heiress would therefore need to be married to the nearest relative of her father (often her uncle) or, if he declined, the next nearest (and so on; see below for the order of precedence). To ensure offspring, the husband was required by law to have intercourse with his wife three times a month (Plut. Solon 20.2-5). He likewise did not own the estate, but he did have control of it until their son grew up, and so the estate of a wealthy heiress was an attractive proposition. Therefore, if the heiress was already married but childless, her nearest relative could claim her by epidikasia before the Archon and require her to divorce her husband (cf. 3.64, 10.19); similarly, a man might divorce his wife to claim an heiress. On the other hand, when the heiress belonged to the lowest property class, and there might not be a ready claimant, the Archon could compel the nearest relative to marry her or to give her in marriage with a dowry he had to provide (unless he was also from that class). Andocides makes capital out of his own and his cousin Leagrus' willingness to marry two impoverished heiresses (And. 1.117-119).
A father who had no male children might make arrangements to adopt a son during his lifetime. The adoptee would usually be a relative and an adult who had at least one brother (so that his own oikos was not in danger of becoming extinct; cf. 2.10, 21). By the adoption, the adoptee would lose membership of his natal family (cf. 10.4) and become legally the son of the adopter. If the father had a daughter, his adopted son would normally marry her. The advantage of such an adoption inter vivos ("between living people") was that the adoptee became the undisputed heir and could take possession of the estate by embateusis. Since, however, an adoption inter vivos could not be annulled, problems might arise if the adopter later had a son of his own, in which case the son and adopted son had to divide the estate (6.63). Consequently, adoption inter vivos would normally be carried out by an older man, with the danger that he might die before the process was completed (the circumstances in Speech 7) or that the adoption might be challenged on the ground of his being under the influence of a woman (see Speech 2).
An alternative method was testamentary adoption. Since there were clear rules of succession in Athens, the scope for making a will was limited, and its main purpose was to ensure an heir in the absence of a son or daughter or adopted son. The attraction of this method of adoption was that the adopter, often a younger man who might, for example, be facing the dangers of military service, could make provisional arrangements (cf. 6.7) or later amend the will; the downside was that the adoptee did not have the right of embateusis but had to make a claim by epidikasia, which might then be contested (as in Speech 1). A third method of adoption was posthumous adoption (11.49), which was used, for example, in the case of the son of an epikleros who was posthumously adopted as the son of his maternal grandfather (Dem. 43.11-15).
Finally, the group of kin who had inheritance rights as collateral relatives in the absence of a daughter or adopted son was legally defined and known as the ankhisteia, though where the precise limits of this group lay is the subject of the Hagnias inheritance dispute (Speech 11). Ascendants of the deceased probably had no rights, nor did his widow. The relatives who did have rights were organized by order of precedence into eight categories, beginning with four on the father's side of the deceased: brothers and half-brothers by the same father and their descendants (probably without limit); sisters and half-sisters by the same father and their descendants; paternal uncles, their children, and grandchildren; and paternal aunts, their children, and grandchildren. The next four categories were on the mother's side: half-brothers by the same mother and their descendants; half-sisters by the same mother and their descendants; maternal uncles, their children, and grandchildren; and maternal aunts, their children, and grandchildren. More distant relatives on the father's side could claim if there were no ankhisteis.
The translation is based on the Greek text of Forster's 1927 Loeb edition. I have, however, followed my published readings at 4.7, 5.9, and 26 (see notes). The manuscripts of Isaeus contain Arguments (Hypotheseis) to the speeches, which were composed in later antiquity and therefore have no independent authority. These are translated in the Appendix.
- Andrewes, A., 1961: "Philochoros on Phratries," JHS 81, 1-15.
- Avramovic, S., 1990: "Plaidoyer for Isaeus, or. IX." in G. Nenci and G. Thür (eds.), Symposion 1988: Vorträge zur griechischen und hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte. Köln-Wien: 41-55.
- Cox, C. A., 1998: Household Interests: Property, Marriage Strategies, and Family Dynamics in Ancient Athens. Princeton.
- Davies, J. K., 1971: Athenian Propertied Families 600-300 B.C. Oxford.
- Develin, R., 1989: Athenian Officials 684-321 B.C. Cambridge.
- Edwards, M. J., 2002: "Two Awkward Women in Isaeus (Is. 5.9, 26)," CQ 52, 592-597.
- Forster, E. S., 1927: Isaeus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA.
- Harrison, A. R. W., 1968: The Law of Athens: The Family and Property. Oxford.
- Humphreys, S. C., 1983: "The Date of Hagnias' Death," CP 78, 219-225.
- MacDowell, D. M., 1982: "Love versus the Law: An Essay on Menander's Aspis," G&R 29, 42-52.
- Parker, R., 1996: Greek Religion: A History. Oxford.
- Rubinstein, L., 1993: Adoption in IV. Century Athens. Copenhagen.
- ———, 2000: Litigation and Cooperation: Supporting Speakers in the Courts of Classical Athens. Historia Einzelschriften 147. Stuttgart.
- Thompson, W. E., 1970: "Isaeus VI: The Historical Circumstances," CR 20, 1-4.
- ———, 1976: De Hagniae Hereditate: An Athenian Inheritance Case. Leiden.
- Wevers, R. F., 1969: Isaeus: Chronology, Prosopography, and Social History. The Hague.
- Wyse, W., 1904: The Speeches of Isaeus. Cambridge.
The most recent studies of Isaeus have been in Italian:
- Avramovic, S., 1997: Iseo e il diritto attico. Napoli.
- Cobetto Ghiggia, P., 2002: Contro Leocare (sulla successione di Diceogene). Pisa.
- Ferrucci, S., 1998: L'Atene di Iseo. L'organizzazione del privato nella prima metà del IV sec. a. C. Pisa.
- ———, 2005: Iseo. La successione di Kiron. Pisa.
See also the works by Kennedy, MacDowell, Todd, and Usher listed in the Series Introduction.