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.