Oratory, or the art of public speaking, played a major role in political and public life in the ancient world. This was especially true in the city-state* of Athens during the 400s and 300s B.C. and in the Roman Republic*. During these periods, political leaders used oratory to convince their fellow citizens of the wisdom and appeal of their policies. Oratory became the principal reason for the study of rhetoric*, which remained central to the educational system of the Greeks and Romans for centuries.
In his handbook Rhetoric, the Greek philosopher* Aristotle defined three types of oratory. Judicial oratory, which concerned past events, consisted of courtroom speeches. Because participants in legal disputes represented themselves in court, many people hired professional speech- writers to prepare their speeches. Deliberative oratory involved public discussion of the best course to take in the future. Orators attempted to sway voters or move people to action during debates held in front of the assembly of citizens. Epideictic oratory, or display speeches, provided opportunities for orators to show off their skills. Such speeches were often given either to praise or to blame someone. Funeral orations were a type of epideictic oratory.
*city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
Greek oratory flourished during the late 400s and the 300s B.C. The great orators of this period were considered models of oratorical skill, and Hellenistic* scholars preserved many of their speeches. The earliest of these speechmakers was Lysias. He was known for his simple, direct style and for the way he used language to make the speaker appear likable and persuasive because the speech was written for a particular defendant to deliver for himself. The great orator Demosthenes developed a grand, impressive style. In speeches such as the Philippics and Olynthiacs to the Athenian assembly, Demosthenes attempted to alert his fellow Athenian citizens to the threat of Philip II of Macedonia. He appealed to his listeners’ sense of history and to their own nobility. Another great orator, Aeschines, delivered speeches that favored vivid descriptions rather than logic. Aeschines was Demosthenes’ political enemy, and the rivalry between the two men came to a head in 336 B.C. Aeschines brought a suit against a man named Ctesiphon for illegally proposing to award a crown to Demosthenes for his service to Athens. When the case came to trial six years later, Demosthenes made a brilliant speech, titled On the Crown, in support of Ctesiphon, and Aeschines was overwhelmingly defeated. Aeschines left Athens and settled in Rhodes.
The education of upper-class Romans, which emphasized the study of rhetoric, was designed to produce skilled orators who could deliver speeches in the law courts, before the people, and in the Roman Senate. Students of rhetoric and oratory learned how to select appropriate subjects for their speeches and how to influence their listeners by appealing to their sense of logic and to their emotions. Students of oratory also learned various styles of speechmaking, which ranged from plain to grand. They used memory devices to help them remember points they wished to make in long speeches. Finally, they studied techniques for delivering effective speeches, including gestures and dramatic uses of the voice.
Orators also learned the five parts of a judicial speech. The beginning of a speech was the prologue, which was designed to win the goodwill of the audience. During the narrative, the orator presented the essential facts of the case. The speaker expressed his own point of view of the facts in the confirmation, and he attempted to demolish his opponent’s opinions or point of view in the refutation. Finally, during the epilogue, the speaker delivered his conclusion, usually by rousing the emotions of the audience.
Beginning in the 100s B.C., Roman orators practiced their skills by delivering declamations. Declamations were speeches on selected topics. Those drawn from history and mythology were called suasoriae; those from complicated legal situations were called controversiae. One famous suasoria concerned the question of whether, during the Trojan War, Agamemnon should sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to gain favorable winds for his ships. An example of a controversia is the following: The law says that a woman who has been raped has the choice of marrying the man or having him killed. A man is found guilty of raping two women in one night. One woman decides for death; the other decides for marriage. The speaker argues one side of the case or the other.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
During the Roman Empire, oratory lost its importance as a political tool because the emperors held virtually absolute power. Instead, declamations became a form of popular entertainment. Declamations by great orators became social occasions, sometimes attended even by the emperor. Although oratory had lost its political force, people continued to study the great political speeches of Demosthenes and other famous orators as models of the power of language. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Roman.)