Aeschines compares the jurors in Ctesiphon’s trial to auditors reviewing accounts. Just as auditors have to put aside their preconceptions and follow only the numbers, jurors have to follow the facts even if they lead to surprising conclusions. In reply, Demosthenes borrows Aeschines’ metaphor, but he mocks the idea that jurors resemble the kind of accountants who move pebbles on an abacus. These accountants strike numbers from their records when the accounts balance. Facts aren’t like numbers, however. They don’t cancel each other out and then disappear. The jurors, as accountants making an audit of facts, must consider how the facts will be remembered for all time.
The distinction between what jurors do and what accountants do is not as clear as Demosthenes claims it is in On the Crown. In other surviving forensic speeches, including many by Demosthenes himself, the jurors are asked to consider numbers and calculations of all sorts. They judge cases that involve assets, interest, and returns on investments. Sometimes they have to take into account how many days, weeks, months, or years have passed, how large or small something is, or how many degrees of kinship separate relatives. Numbers also factor into almost every surviving speech from the assembly. The assemblymen hear about amounts of money, amounts of ships, and amounts of Athenians, as well as how these amounts are related to each other. Aristotle and Xenophon both insist that numerical, and especially financial, expertise is a prerequisite for speaking in the assembly. Speakers in the assembly and the courts are never neutral sources of information, however, even when they seem to be providing impartial data such as numbers. They choose the numbers to present and how to present them, influencing the way audiences react. Numbers are a fundamental aspect of Athenian persuasion, but one that ancient rhetorical theorists rarely address.
My project, which considers this relationship between numbers and rhetoric, is still in the early stages. Following insights of modern scholars, I will be considering three foundational questions over the next four months at the CHS.
First, what is the relationship between numbers and character? Presenting numbers and calculations in an ostensibly competent and transparent way would seem to contribute to a speaker’s credibility, a central aspect of what Aristotle calls ethos. Since Athenian audiences were well-known to be biased against expertise they considered excessive, however, speakers had to negotiate the potential pitfalls of posing as numbers whizzes. One way speakers may have done this was by attributing mastery to their audiences as well as to themselves, creating a rhetorical fiction where speakers and listeners participated in an experience of shared accounting. Such collective accounting may have appealed to democratic ideals, since public reviews of financial records were an integral part of the Athenian democracy.
Second, what is the connection between numbers and prose style? Speakers sometimes present numbers in isolation, but most often they mention multiple numbers at once, sometimes in the form of catalogs or lists. Such lists may be related to the tradition of catalog poetry, and they may have been designed to appeal to audiences accustomed to finding aesthetic pleasure in hearing about accumulation in a familiar, formulaic way. Numbers also often appear at either the beginning or end of cola and lend themselves to sound effects that depend on repeated patterns, such as rhyme. Word order and sound effects may have played a role in how audiences processed numbers and assessed their importance.
Third, how did the tactile, material aspect of counting affect how Athenian audiences heard and internalized numbers and calculations? If the Athenian conceived of numbers as physical counters situated in time and place, at least to some extent, then hearing them recited in court may have activated memories of particular counting experiences. Numbers may have been a way to appeal to audience’s imaginations, contributing to the sense of “vividness” that ancient authors described with the word enargeia. In the case of numbers, the enargeia would have depended on imagined touch and feel as much as on imagined sight.
As my project progresses, I plan to address other aspects of numbers in Athenian oratory, as well as numerical metaphors and, perhaps, a sampling of numbers in other genres. I am grateful for the opportunity to pursue research on this project at the CHS.
Peter A. O’Connell
Peter A. O’Connell is an assistant professor of Classics and Communication Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard and an M. Phil. degree from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow. He has also been a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Stanford. He works primarily on Attic oratory, and his book, The Rhetoric of Seeing in Attic Forensic Oratory, was published in 2017. Interested in all areas of ancient Greek literature, he has recently written articles on Sappho and Gregory of Nazianzus’s poetry.