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 Athenian democracy.

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 participation.

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 govern.