oratory (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Marcus Tullius Cicero
In Paradoxa Stoicorum (The Stoic Paradoxes, 46 BC), Roman philosopher, politician, and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero says, "Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable.". (PaoloGaetano/Getty Images)


Oratory is the ancient art of public speaking. Adjective: oratorical.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle identifies three major branches (or genres) of oratory: deliberative (legislative), judicial (forensic), and epideictic (ceremonial).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples of Oratory

From the Latin, "speak"


  • Oratory in Ancient Greece
    "[I]f we take 450 [BC] to mark the start of the sophistic period, what was the state of rhetoric by this time? First, Homer, Hesiod, and the epic tradition had made public speaking in deliberative and forensic settings a necessity for all the leaders of the community and also established a tradition of public eulogies in which women participated as well as men. In the centuries that followed, at least in Athens with the growth of democracy, deliberative oratory flourished and continued to be a requirement of leadership. During this period the sphere of epideictic oratory, first portrayed in Homer, was enlarged in importance in the form of public funeral orations and set in a full ritual context controlled by men, who would make the funeral oration an integral part of the political ideology of the city. Finally, as legal procedure became more regulated, it was no longer important for judges to speak well in order to resolve disputes and by the fifth century their role was reduced to the silent casting of a vote. But forensic oratory flourished in the form of litigants' speeches, and to judge from the evidence for the work of Corax and Tisias, this was the sphere that particularly attracted their attention. And one specific interest of theirs was the creation of pairs of opposed speeches on a particular subject, especially where the second speech neatly reverses the argument of the first."
    (Michael Gagarin, "Background and Origins: Oratory and Rhetoric Before the Sophists." A Companion to Greek Rhetoric, ed. by Ian Worthington. Blackwell, 2007)
  • Aristotle on Rhetoric and Oratory
    "Beginning with his famous opening statement [in Rhetoric] that 'rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic,' Aristotle attempts to reground oratory by emphasizing its capacity to use reasoning from common premises and other forms of logical argument for persuasive purposes. Other writers, he complains, have not even touched upon the real core of rhetoric, for they focus on the formal properties of speeches and how to persuade by producing emotional effects and the like. All of this, he sweepingly asserts, is extrinsic to the art itself (1354b)."
    (David Cohen, "The Politics of Deliberation." A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism, ed. by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted. Blackwell, 2004)
  • Cicero on Oratory
    "There is to my mind no more excellent thing than the power, by means of oratory, to get a hold on assemblies of men, win their good will, direct their inclinations wherever the speaker wishes, or divert them from whatever he wishes. In every free nation, and most of all in communities which have attained the enjoyment of peace and tranquility, this one art has always flourished above the rest and ever reigned supreme."
    (Crassus in De Oratore, by Cicero, 55 BC)
  • The Decline of Oratory
    - "It has become commonplace today to lament the loss of the arts of eloquence. In our electronic age, it is said, the conditions which once allowed oratory to flourish have all but disappeared. Speech communities have been fractured; the ambitions of political oratory have been trivialised, its passions and arguments reduced to mere sound bites; and the sites of public debate have been privatised and rededicated to the gods of a consumer culture. Striking examples of public speech, such as the Earl Spencer's eulogy on Princess Diana, are greeted with surprise as the last gasps of a dying art rather than as proof of the vitality of the tradition. . . .

    "[The] feeling that oratory is in a steep (and perhaps irreversible) decline is a recurrent theme in western rhetoric. Leading historians and rhetoricians of the first century AD--the elder Seneca, Tacitus, Quintilian, 'Longinus'--were united in the belief that oratory had lost its former glories, though they gave different reasons to account for that decline."
    (Michael Edwards and Christopher Reid, Introduction to Oratory in Action. Manchester University Press, 2004)

    - "America was once a nation of high-school and college rhetoricians schooled by oratory manuals like the one written by the Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair, a Cicero for modern times. Lawyers and clergymen aspired to be Hancocks and Clays. To be American was to sound off stylishly. Jefferson’s 1777 draft for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom could be read as much for the blazing force of its diction as for the nobility of its principles. Mark Twain could growl tigerishly at the follies of American imperial overreach, but even those, like Teddy Roosevelt, who hated what he said, were provoked by the cunning of his voice.

    "And now, as the gears of election time begin to crank and grind, and the tinny operetta of soundbites tunes up, where is this once mighty republic of words? In the pit of the tweet, that’s where. In the echo chamber of radio rant, where sycophants call in to be patted on the head by talk-show tribunes. In the pseudodemocracy of the blogosphere, where every and any utterance demands equal right to our attention no matter how banal the notion, how crippled the syntax, or how inanely dude-heavy the patter."
    (Simon Schama, "Out, Damned Tweet!" Newsweek, July 18, 2011)
  • Appeals to Fear and to Passion
    "There is no power like that of true oratory. Caesar controlled men by exciting their fears; Cicero, by captivating their affections and swaying their passions. The influence of the one perished with its author; that of the other continues to this day."
    (Senator Henry Clay)
  • The Lighter Side of Oratory
    "Oratory: the art of making deep noises from the chest sound like important messages from the brain."
    (attributed to composer H.I. Phillips)


Pronunciation: OR-eh-tor-ee