Oration (Classical Rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Demosthenes (384 BC - 322 BC) is widely regarded as the greatest of the Greek orators. His orations, says M.C. Howatson, "were most carefully prepared but the style aims to conceal this fact, long, periodic sentences often being followed by short, pithy statements, which gives an impression of spontaneity" ( Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 1989). (ZU_09/Getty Images)

An oration is a speech delivered in a formal and dignified manner. A skilled public speaker is known as an orator. The art of delivering speeches is called oratory.

In classical rhetoric, notes George A. Kennedy, orations were classified "into a number of formal genres, each with a technical name and certain conventions of structure and content" (Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 1999). The primary categories of orations in classical rhetoric were deliberative (or political), judicial (or forensic), and epideictic (or ceremonial). 

The term oration sometimes carries a negative connotation: "any impassioned, pompous, or long-winded speech" (Oxford English Dictionary).

From the Latin, "plead, speak, pray"


  • "What, then, is an oration? . . . An oration is an oral discourse on a worthy and dignified theme, adapted to the average hearer, and whose aim is to influence the will of that hearer."
    (Clark Mills Brink, The Making of an Oration. 1913)
  • "It is a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man's oration, nay, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome."
  • The Oration and Classical Rhetorical Theory
    "In classical antiquity, the oration was the very center of rhetorical theory and practice, though among the three types of speech--deliberative, judiciary, and epideictic--the last was to become the most important in the later centuries of antiquity. During the Middle Ages, the secular public speech and the political and social institutions supporting it disappeared more or less completely."
    (Paul Oskar Kristeller, "Rhetoric in Medieval and Renaissance Culture," in Renaissance Eloquence, ed. by James J. Murphy. University of California Press, 1983)
  • The Parts of an Oration in Classical Rhetoric
    "The Introduction is the beginning of the discourse, and by it the hearer's mind is prepared for attention. The Narration or Statement of Facts sets forth the events that have occurred or might have occurred. By means of the Division we make clear what matters are agreed upon and what are contested, and announce what points we intend to take up. Proof is the presentation of our arguments, together with their corroboration. Refutation is the destruction of our adversaries' arguments. The Conclusion is the end of the discourse, formed in accordance with the principles of the Art."
    (Rhetorica Ad Herennium, c. 90 BC)
    "If you read or listen to (for example) political speeches, you will find that many of them follow this order. This is because the form of the classical oration is suited primarily to argument--to the kind of writing in which the writer makes a case for or against something and refutes opposing arguments."
    (David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, Writing Analytically, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009)
    "[Throughout the Renaissance,] the oration remained fixed as the supreme form of discourse, just as it had been for the Romans. In the opinion of Walter Ong, the oration 'tyrannized over ideas of what expression as such--literary or other--was.' . . .
    "It is no exaggeration to say that the rules of the classical oration were applied to every kind of discourse."
    (Don Paul Abbott, "Rhetoric and Writing in the Renaissance." A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America, 2nd ed., ed. by James Jerome Murphy. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)
  • "[The schoolboy] shall have redd unto him the bookes of Cicero Ad Heremium, where in the schoolemaister shall teach the schollers to frame and make an oration according to the precepts of Rhetorick."
    (Tudor plan for study found in the statutes of the cathedral school at Durham, 1593, cited by Arthur F. Kinney in Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric, and Fiction in Sixteenth-Century England. University of Massachusetts Press, 1986)

Examples of Orations