From Peithô's Web

W. Rhys Roberts translation


Chapters 23-27


THE figures, which are termed polyptota--accumulations, and variations, and climaxes--are excellent weapons of public oratory, as you are aware, and contribute to elegance and to every form of sublimity and passion. Again, how greatly do changes of cases, tenses, persons, numbers, genders, diversify and enliven exposition. 2. Where the use of numbers is concerned, I would point out that style is not adorned only or chiefly by those words which are, as far as their forms go, in the singular but in meaning are, when examined, found to be plural: as in the lines

      A countless crowd forthright

Far-ranged along the beaches were clamouring "Thunny in sight!"

The fact is more worthy of observation that in certain cases the use of the plural (for the singular) falls with still more imposing effect and impresses us by the very sense of multitude which the number conveys. 3. Such are the words of Oedipus in Sophocles:

            O nuptials, nuptials,
Ye gendered me, and, having gendered, brought
To light the selfsame seed, and so revealed
Sires, brothers, sons, in one--all kindred blood!--
Brides, mothers, wives, in one!--yea, whatso deeds
Most shameful among humankind are done.
(Oedipus Tyrannus 1403, at Perseus)

The whole enumeration can be summed up in a single proper name--on the one side Oedipus, on the other Jocasta. None the less, the expansion of the number into the plural helps to pluralise the misfortunes as well. There is a similar instance of multiplication in the line:--

Forth Hectors and Sarpedons marching came,

and in that passage of Plato concerning the Athenians which we have quoted elsewhere. 4. 'For no Pelopes, nor Cadmi, nor Aegypti and Danai, nor the rest of the crowd of born foreigners dwell with us, but ours is the land of pure Greeks, free from foreign admixture,' etc.(Menexenus 245d, at Perseus). For naturally a theme seems more imposing to the ear when proper names are thus added, one upon the other, in troops. But this must only be done in cases in which the subject admits of amplification or redundancy or exaggeration or passion--one or more of these--since we all know that a richly caparisoned style is extremely pretentious.



Further (to take the converse case) particulars which are combined from the plural into the singular are sometimes most elevated in appearance. 'Thereafter,' says Demosthenes, 'all Peloponnesus was at variance' (On the Crown, 18, at Perseus). 'And when Phrynichus had brought out a play entitled the Capture of Miletus, the whole theatre burst into tears (Histories 6.21, at Perseus). For the compression of the number from multiplicity into unity gives more fully the feeling of a single body. 2. In both cases the explanation of the elegance of expression is, I think, the same. Where the words are singular, to make them plural is the mark of unlooked-for passion; and where they are plural, the rounding of a number of things into a fine-sounding singular is surprising owing to the converse change.



If you introduce things which are past as present and now taking place, you will make your story no longer a narration but an actuality. Xenophon furnishes an illustration. 'A man,' says he, 'has fallen under Cyrus' horse, and being trampled strikes the horse with his sword in the belly. He rears and unseats Cyrus, who falls (Xenophon, Cyropaideia 7.1.37, at Perseus).' This construction is specially characteristic of Thucydides.



In like manner the interchange of persons produces a vivid impression, and often makes the hearer feel that he is moving in the midst of perils:--

Thou hadst said that with toil unspent, and all unwasted of limb,

They closed in the grapple of war, so fiercely they rushed to the fray;     (Iliad XV. 697, at Perseus)

and the line of Aratus:--

Never in that month launch thou forth amid lashing seas.

2. So also Herodotus: 'From the city of Elephantine thou shalt sail upwards, and then shalt come to a level plain; and after crossing this tract, thou shalt embark upon another vessel and sail for two days, and then shalt thou come to a great city whose name is Meroe (Herodotus, Histories 2. 29)' Do you observe, my friend, how he leads you in imagination through the region and makes you see what you hear? All such cases of direct personal address place the hearer on the very scene of action. 3. So it is when you seem to be speaking, not to all and sundry, but to a single individual:--

But Tydeides--thou wouldst not have known him, for whom that hero fought.     (Iliad V. 85, at Perseus)

You will make your hearer more excited and more attentive, and full of active participation, if you keep him on the alert by words addressed to himself.



There is further the case in which a writer, when relating something about a person, suddenly breaks off and converts himself into that selfsame person. This species of figure is a kind of outburst of passion:

Then with a far-ringing shout to the Trojans Hector cried,

Bidding them rush on the ships, bidding leave the spoils blood-dyed--

And whomso I mark from the galleys aloof on the farther side,

I will surely devise his death.

(Iliad XV. 346, at Perseus)

The poet assigns the task of narration, as is fit, to himself, but the abrupt threat he suddenly, with no note of warning, attributes to the angered chief. He would have been frigid had he inserted the words, 'Hector said so and so.' As it is, the swift transition of the narrative has outstripped the swift transitions of the narrator. 2. Accordingly this figure should be used by preference when a sharp crisis does not suffer the writer to tarry, but constrains him to pass at once from one person to another. An example will be found in Hecataeus: 'Ceyx treated the matter gravely, and straightway bade the descendants of Heracles depart; for I am not able to succour you. In order, therefore, that ye may not perish yourselves and injure me, get you gone to some other country.' 3. Demosthenes in dealing with Aristogeiton has, somewhat differently, employed this variation of person to betoken the quick play of emotion. 'And will none of you,' he asks, 'be found to be stirred by loathing or even by anger at the violent deeds of this vile and shameless fellow, who--you whose licence of speech, most abandoned of men, is not confined by barriers nor by doors, which might perchance be opened!(Perseus, Against Aristogiton 1, 27)' With the sense thus incomplete, he suddenly breaks off and in his anger almost tears asunder a single expression into two persons,--'he who, O thou most abandoned!' Thus, although he has turned aside his address and seems to have left Aristogeiton, yet through passion he directs it upon him with far greater force. 4. Similarly with the words of Penelope:--

Herald, with what behest art thou come from the suitor-band?

To give to the maids of Odysseus the godlike their command

To forsake their labours, and yonder for them the banquet to lay?

I would that of all their wooing this were the latest day,

That this were the end of your banquets, your uttermost revelling-hour,

Ye that assemble together and all our substance devour,

The wise Telemachus' store, as though ye never had heard,

In the days overpast of your childhood, your fathers' praising word,

How good Odysseus was.

(Odyssey IV. 681-689, at Perseus)

On the Sublime, tr. Roberts


Peithô's Web