Rhetoric in the Ancient World

Learning Objectives

Recognize the roots of modern rhetoric in ancient cultures.

Any history of public speaking will have a vanishing point, a point beyond which we can only guess and speculate. Since speaking is ephemeral (nonpermanent), our only knowledge about how ancient people spoke—and what they talked about—comes to us through written records and stories passed down orally from generation to generation. Scientists estimate that humans began using language between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, whereas the earliest writing we know of appeared in Mesopotamia around 5500 years ago.[1] Our understanding of ancient oral culture is either filtered through countless retellings or reliant on the relatively recent invention of writing. From both sources, however, we can see that humans have been using language to inform, entertain, and persuade for many thousands of years.

In the material that follows, we are concerned primarily with the history of rhetoric, which we can think of most broadly as the art of speaking well. Where did we get our notion of how “good” speakers practice their art? As we will see, our modern understanding of rhetorical skill is the product of a long history of cultural encounter and exchange. The interwoven traditions that lead to our ideas about public speaking represent a wide range of practices and experiences, which have led to an even greater diversity of contemporary expectations around public speaking. Each of us has different criteria for the kind of speech that moves, informs, and persuades us. To a large extent, these criteria are influenced by the cultures and histories that make up our identities, as well as the cultural objects with which we choose to interact.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient Sumerian collection of proverbs called The Instructions of Šuruppag is one of the oldest written texts we know of (c. 2600 BCE—c. 2500 BCE). Several of the proverbs offer advice about proper public speech. For instance:

A stone cylinder-seal next to a clay imprint of the seal which shows a seated man, three people in front of him, and a moon shape in between the man and the person in front of him.

Sumerian Cylinder Seal of King Ur-Nammu. The moon god is represented by the crescent.

  • Don’t speak fraudulently; in the end it will bind you like a trap.
  • To speak arrogantly is like fire, an herb that makes the stomach sick.
  • You should not boast in beer halls like a deceitful man.
  • (When someone says) “Let me tell you” about something he (pretends to) know, and comes forward as a witness in a case he knows nothing about, it is an abomination to [the moon god].[2]

Even in the earliest known writing, then, we see advice about how to speak properly in public: don’t lie, don’t boast, and don’t pretend to know things.

Ancient Egypt

We can learn something about the way public speaking was viewed in ancient Egypt from sebayt (“teaching”) texts (ancestors of the text you’re reading now!), which consist of proverbs and teachings about how one should behave. One of the oldest known examples of this genre is the Instructions of Kagemni, which was composed during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, sometime between 1929 BCE and 1895 BCE. The author of the Instructions describes the virtuous “silent man,” who is modest, calm, and practices self-control. This type of person is contrasted with his polar opposite, the “heated man,” in the later Instruction of Amenemope.[3][4]

A photograph of two sheets of papyrus covered in hieroglyphs .

Facsimile of a papyrus by an anonymous ancient Egyptian scribe c. 1900 BCE, showing the beginning of the Instructions of Kagemni.

Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, we find the most recognizable origins of rhetoric, including the word itself, which comes from the word rhetor, a speaker or teacher of public speaking. Among the most important Greek rhetors we find Aspasia of Miletus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who have come to be regarded as the foremother and forefathers of rhetoric.

An oil painting of a man and a woman dressing in classical garb sitting at a table. A young centurion looks on.

The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia, Nicolas-André Monsiau, c. 1800

Although little is known about her because she vanished from history circa 401 BCE, Aspasia of Miletus was perhaps the foremother of classical rhetoric as she is rumored to have taught rhetoric and home economics to Socrates. Her social position was that of a hetaera, or companion who was “more educated than respectable women, and [was] expected to accompany men on occasions where conversation with a woman was appreciated, but wives were not welcome” (Carlson 30). Her specialty was philosophy and politics and she became the only female member of an elite circle that included the most prominent teachers and speakers of the day. In that circle she made both friends and enemies as a result of her political savvy and public speaking ability.

Plato (429–347 BCE) wrote about rhetoric in the form of dialogues wherein the main character is his teacher Socrates (469–399 BCE). Through this form, the dialectic was born. While this term has been debated since its beginnings, Plato conceptualized it as a process of questioning and answering that would lead to the ultimate truth. Think for a moment about contemporary situations that use this method to advance knowledge. What about an in-class discussion wherein the professor questions the students about an interpretation or meaning of a text? Or the role that a therapist takes by asking a series of questions of a patient to help the patient understand their own thoughts, motives, and behavioral patterns? These are just two examples of the dialectic at work. While Plato contributed a great deal to classical rhetorical theory, he was also very critical of it. In the dialogue Georgias, for example, Plato argued that because rhetoric does not require a unique body of knowledge it is a false rather than true art.

While Plato condemned the art of rhetoric, his student Aristotle (384–322 BCE) believed in the possibility of rhetoric as a means of creating community. The dialectical, or give-and-take approach, allows people to share and test ideas with the goal of a more prosperous city-state. He defined rhetoric as the ability to see the available means of persuasion in each particular case.

Aristotle divided the “means of persuasion” into three parts, or three artistic proofs, necessary to persuade others: logical reason (logos), human character (ethos), and emotional appeal (pathos). These three approaches continue to shape the way we analyze persuasive strategies. We’ll take a closer look at logos, ethos, and pathos in another module.

The Classical Period flourished for nearly a millennium in and around Greece as democracy gained prominence. Citizens learned public speaking from early teachers known as Sophists. Sophists were self-appointed professors of how to succeed in the civic life of the Greek states. Have you ever been called sophisticated? Maybe you learned from a sophist! (From the Greek word sophistes “a master of one’s craft; a wise or prudent man, one clever in matters of daily life”; from sophos “skilled in a handicraft, cunning in one’s craft; clever in matters of everyday life, shrewd; skilled in the sciences.”)[5] In the word sophistry, which means a clever argument designed to deceive the listener, we still retain some of the Greeks’ concern about the way rhetorical skill could be used for dishonest ends.

Ancient Rome

Two other key figures in classical rhetoric are Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Quintillian (c. 35–95). They deserve recognition for combining much of what was known from the Greeks and Romans into more complete theoretical systems. Many of the concepts to emerge from this time are still relevant today, although they may have been transformed in some way to reflect a more contemporary context. You may, for example, recognize them in the setting of a public speaking course.

One of Cicero’s major contributions was the the formation of the “five canons of rhetoric”:

  • invention
  • arrangement
  • style
  • memory
  • delivery

All these contributions should be easily recognizable as the stages of speech preparation. Chances are, the speeches you give in this class will be evaluated according to a version of the five canons!

Ancient China

The ancient roots of modern rhetoric reach well beyond the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The study of rhetoric had a long and vibrant history in ancient China. Xing Lu provides the meanings of key Chinese rhetorical terms as used in classical Chinese texts.

  • Yan (言) speech, talks, and the use of language
  • Ci (辞) modes of speech, types of discourse, eloquence, style
  • Jian(谏) giving advice, persuasion
  • Shui/shuo(说) persuasion/ explanation, idea, thought
  • Ming(名) naming, symbol using, rationality, epistemology
  • Bian(辩) distinction change, justice-eloquence, arguments, persuasion, debate, disputation, discussion [6]
Close up of a fresco showing a man's face.

Confucius, fresco from a Western Han tomb of Dongping County, Shandong province, China. Anonymous Chinese painter of the Western Han period, (202 BC – 9 AD)

Perhaps the most influential teachings in the development of ancient Chinese rhetoric were those of Confucius (Chinese: 孔夫子; pinyin: Kǒng Fūzǐ, 551–479 BCE), especially after Confucian ideas were adopted as the official ideology of the Han court (from 141 BCE onward). Like Plato, Confucius was worried about the way clever speech could conceal bad motives. For this reason, Confucius always emphasized that virtue is found in actions, rather than words (Ding, Huiling. “Confucius’s Virtue-Centered Rhetoric: A Case Study of Mixed Research Methods in Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 142–159, 150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20176771)

In his discussion of the speech-action, or yan-xing relationship, Confucius stresses that actions play a more important role than words in persuasion. A gentleman “is quick in action yet cautious in speech” (1.14, 4.24, 12.3) and “always puts his ideas into action before speaking about it” (2.13). He should be sincere and faithful when speaking and “listens to what people say [and] observes what they do” before trusting them. (5.10) (Ding, p. 150)

An ink drawing of two Chinese women talking

Ban Zhao, as painted by Gai Qi, 1799

While most of the classical theorists were men, theorizing about traditionally male roles, Ban Zhao (c. 45 CE–115 CE, also spelled Pan Chao) provides historical insight into Eastern rhetoric and the role of women in rhetoric. A strong believer in the benefits of education, she was one of the first people to argue for the education of girls and women. Writing on the four qualifications of womanhood (virtue, words, bearing, and work), she said of womanly words, they “need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation,” but women should “choose words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and to not weary others (with much conversation), [these] may be called the characteristics of womanly words” (Ban Zhao 417). Although our views of gender and gender roles are very different than those of Ban Zhao’s time, it is revealing to see how she creates a space for women to speak and be heard within the constraints of her cultural context.

  1. Clayton, Ewan. “Where Did Writing Begin?” The British Library, The British Library, 9 Apr. 2019, http://www.bl.uk/history-of-writing/articles/where-did-writing-begin.
  2. Johandi, Andreas. "Public speaking in Ancient Mesopotamia: Speeches before Earthly and Divine Battles." When Gods Spoke: Researches and Reflections on Religious Phenomena and Artefacts, edited by Märt Läänemets, Vladimir Sazonov, Peeter Espak, Tartu University Press, 2015, pp. 71–106
  3. Lichtheim, Miriam. "Didactic literature." Ancient Egyptian Literature: History & Forms, edited by Antonio Loprieno, E.J. Brill, 1996.
  4. Instructions of Kagemni. 22 July 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instructions_of_Kagemni.
  5. “Sophist (n.).” www.etymonline.com/word/sophist.
  6. Lu, Xing. Rhetoric in Ancient China, Fifth to Third Century BCE: a Comparison with Classical Greek Rhetoric. Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998, p. 5.