A Brief History of Ancient Greek Rhetoric
The ancient Greeks wondered about language. And what caused their
wonderment was the realization, coming from collective political
arrangements, that language spoken or written at certain times and in
certain circumstances had very real effects on the polis.
Prior to Solon's reforms circa 590 B.C.E., the Greeks had lived since about
the ninth century B.C.E. in feudal-tribal units governed by aristocratic,
land-holding families. The families cooperated economically and politically
to a certain extent across the region. But such cooperation was often
strained by economic competition and war.
During the seventh century, Athens was ruled by its aristocracy through the
Council of Areopagus (appointed aristocrats) and the archons (appointed
executives within the Council). Various intrigues and infighting among the
families kept Athens and the region of Attica from progressing economically
and politically to the point where Athens was far more a backwater of the
Greek world than its cultural and political center. Realizing that reforms
were needed in order to promote economic growth and political strength, the
Council appointed one of its archons, Solon, to draft a new political plan.
The Council agreed to abide by his reforms for a period of ten years. This
was the beginning of Athenian democracy.
Solon's political reforms, while hardly democratic in any modern sense, had
the effect of bringing a broader range of citizens into the process of
governing and of restricting the aristocratic families from dictating to
the emerging polis. For nearly 100 years, the reforms let the Greeks get
used to the idea that a broader range of citizens could and should govern
Attica. Farmers and craftsmen (an emerging middle class), however, soon
became frustrated with the reforms because Solon's plan created classes of
citizens based on wealth and property. But these reforms created the basis for
Cleisthenes' reforms of 508 B.C.E., following an increasing clamor from the
rising middle class for further political power, created the radical
democracy associated with Athens. He created the Assembly--a democratic,
policy-making body made up of all male citizens of Attica over the age of
twenty. A judicial system of citizen jurors opened the way for citizens and
non-citizens to seek justice for civic or criminal wrongs. And a group of
ten generals was annually elected for single terms, one from each district.
The adoption of this political system created the new democratic polis. For
the Greeks, the term "polis" did not correspond to our understanding of
city. Instead, the term identified a community in which it was expected
that civic affairs were the business of all citizens. An increasing sense
of community and political participation coming from Solon's reforms helped
build the socio-political foundation for the reforms of Cleisthenes. These
changes were nearly 100 years in the making.
This civic-mindedness created a new attitude about participation in civic
affairs. The Assembly did not go wanting for participants. The courts did
not go wanting for jurors. Athenians came to see their radical democracy as
a community trust and participation in its business as a duty. Those of
lesser means could certainly participate by attending the Assembly. From
those of greater means, more was expected--such as outfitting ships,
commissioning plays, and building public monuments.
The nature of the system demanded participation. And the nature of the
system demanded that citizens speak. It rapidly became apparent that the
primary political skill of the age was the ability to speak effectively for
one's interests. The Greeks developed the concept of rhetoric to describe
the art and process of effective public speaking.
The importance of effective public speaking is illustrated in much Greek
literature and philosophy. We can begin to see Cicero's concept of "the
good man speaking well" in Greek works such as Xenophon's Memorabilia and
Plato's Phaedrus. For example, in Phaedrus, Socrates helps the young
Phaedrus understand the structure of a proper rhetoric, including having
specific knowledge of a subject and understanding of one's audience.
The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes helped the idea of polis to develop in
the minds of the Greeks, in which participation in public affairs was
expected and cherished. The institutional structure of Athenian democracy
demanded participation, and, structurally, that participation had to be
verbal: citizens had to speak to participate.
Greeks who could pay for it sought education to help them speak with
authority. The first teachers of rhetoric in the Greek world were the
itinerant lecturers of the fifth century known as the Sophists, or wise
men. Sophists taught by example the skills of civic life. The Sophists
explored a wide range of human experience within Greek culture. The
breadth of their curriculum was made possible partly by their position as
foreigners in Attica. They came to Athens from across the Greek world and
brought with them outside perspectives that often clashed with the cultural
and philosophical norms of Attica.
For the Greeks, the practice of rhetoric was the practice of political
science. From the structure of Greek political practice, I think we can say
that the Greeks saw politics as a multifaceted, social process for making
the polis work. We may define "work" in the Greek context as promoting
economic expansion, ensuring security, and promoting civic virtue and
At each point in the process, some body of citizens was charged with the
duty of making decisions. And those decisions were made through
deliberation and voting--both speech acts. For the Greeks, to speak was to