The student challenges the teacher

Two ancient orators are the protagonists of a curious anecdote which illustrates the misleading power of words. They are considered the first creators of the τέχναι ῥητορικαί, i.e. the ‘theoretical and practical manuals of oratory’. They are Corax and Teisias: according to tradition, they were a teacher and his disciple.

The scene is set in Syracuse, in the first half of the 5th century BC.

Corax, a prestigious and famous teacher, has a sort of ‘private school’ attended by boys who want to learn the rudiments of rhetoric. One day, an intelligent and penniless boy called Teisias shows up: he wants to learn the secrets of speaking effectively and persuasively.

Greek Theatre of Syracuse: Sophocles, Antigone 2005

The enthusiasm of the boy moves Corax, who decides to accept him as a disciple for free, on condition that Teisias pays him the fees as soon as he wins his first trial, thus proving that he has become a skilful orator able to earn a living.

Time passes, lessons are over, but Teisias keeps postponing the day of his first trial. Corax gets annoyed, considering his student to be perfectly able to juggle with the art he was taught.

However, Teisias stubbornly keeps postponing his first trial and Corax eventually summons him:


 ‘If I will win the trial, you will have to pay me in the light of the verdict; if you will be the winner, you will have to pay me in the light of our agreement, as you will have managed to win your first trial. In any case, my dear Teisias, you will have to pay’.

But the student does not give up:

‘No, dear teacher. If I win the trial, I will not pay you in the light of the verdict; if you will be the winner, I will not pay you in the light of our agreements, as I will not have won my first trial yet. In any case, I will not pay you, my dear teacher’.

The anecdote is reported by multiple sources, mostly from ancient rhetorical treatises, such as the one by the anonymous author of the Prolegomena in artem rhetoricam (XIV 26, 11).

Τισίας δέ τῖ μαθεῖν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐθέλων τὴν ῥητορικὴν καὶ ἰδών, ὡς πολλοὺς εἰσπράττεται μισθοὺς ὁ Κόραξ τῆς διδασκαλίας, προσῆλθε πρῶτον τῷ Κόρακι προσδιαλεγόμενος αὐτῷ ταῦτα ὡς “Μαθεῖν ἐθέλω τὴν ῥητορικήν, καὶ νῦν μὲν μισθοὺς οὐκ ἔχω, μαθὼν δὲ ἀποτίσω διπλοῦς τοὺς μισθούς.” Κόραξ δὲ φιλανθρώπως φερόμενος ὑπέσχετο καὶ ἐδίδαξε τὸν Τισίαν τὴν ῥητορικήν. Μαθὼν τοίνυν ὁ Τισίας τὰ τῆς τέχνης ἀγνωμονεῖν ἐπειρᾶτο τὸν διδάσκαλον καί φησι πρὸς αὐτὸν · “Ὦ Κόραξ, λέξον ἡμῖν τὸν ὅρον τῆς ῥητορικῆς.” Ὃ δέ φησι «Ῥητορική ἐστι πειθοῦς δημιουργός». Λαβὼν τοίνυν τὸν ὅρον ὁ Τισίας πειρᾶται συλλογίζεσθαι τὸν διδάσκαλον καί φησιν ὅτι “Δικάζομαί σοι περὶ τῶν μισθῶν, καὶ εἰ μὲν πείσω μὴ δοῦναί με μισθούς, ὡς πείσας οὐκ ἔδωκα, εἰ δὲ μὴ ἰσχύσω πεῖσαι, πάλιν οὐκ ἔδωκα, οὐ γὰρ ἐδιδάχθην παρὰ σοῦ τὸ πείθειν. ” Ὁ δὲ Κόραξ ἀντέστρεψεν αὐτὸν ὅτι “Δικάζομαι κἀγώ, καὶ εἰ μὲν πείσω λαβεῖν με μισθούς, ὡς πείσας ἔλαβον, εἰ δὲ μὴ πείσω λαβεῖν με, καὶ πάλιν ὀφείλω λαβεῖν μισθούς, ἐπειδὴ τηλικούτους ἐξέθρεψα μαθητάς, ὥστε τῶν διδασκάλων ἐπικρατεῖν.” Τότε οἱ παρεστηκότες ἐπεβόησαν λέγοντες “κακοῦ κόρακος κακὸν ᾠόν” ἀντὶ τοῦ “δεινοῦ διδασκάλου δεινότερος ὁ μαθητής.

Codrus sacrifices himself for his own country

In his oration Against Leocrates, the fourth century BC Athenian orator Lycurgus accuses his fellow citizen Leocrates of having left the city just before the battle of Chaeronea in order to escape the dangers of war, thus failing his duties towards his country and his fellow citizens.

The passage belongs to the middle of the oration (chh. 84-7), when Lycurgus makes a list of mythical and historical examples which demonstrate the abnegation, the sense of duty, and the heroism of the Athenians of the past in order to emphasise by contrast Leocrates’ pusillanimity.

Domenico Beccafumi: Il sacrificio di re Codro
(Siena, Palazzo Pubblico. Fonte: Wikimedia commons)

The example of the heroic sacrifice of the last mythical Athenian king, Codrus, is interesting. The story is set during a famine, when the Peloponnesians declare war on Athens to conquer its territories and exploit its resources. Before embarking on military operations, the Spartans sent a delegation to Delphiin order to consult Apollo’s oracle on the outcome of the war. According to the tradition, the oracle replied: ‘Dear Spartans, you will overthrow Athensonly if you do not kill his king, Codrus’. The Peloponnesians, then, left the oracle self-confidently and warned their soldiers not to kill king Codrus for any reason. However, a certain Delphian called Cleomantis learned about the response of the oracle and secretly informed the Athenians.

Here is the text of the first part of the passage: (more…)