classical rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was one of the greatest theoreticians of rhetoric in the classical era. (A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images)


The expression classical rhetoric refers to the practice and teaching of rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome from roughly the fifth century B.C. to the early Middle Ages.

Though rhetorical studies began in Greece in the fifth century B.C., the practice of rhetoric began much earlier with the emergence of Homo sapiens. Rhetoric became a subject of academic study at a time when ancient Greece was evolving from an oral culture to a literate one.

See the observations below. Also see:

Periods of Western Rhetoric


  • "[T]he earliest surviving use of the term rhetorike is in Plato's Gorgias in the early fourth century BCE. . . . [I]t is likely, although impossible to prove definitively, that Plato himself coined the term."
    (David M. Timmerman and Edward Schiappa, Classical Greek Rhetorical Theory and the Disciplining of Discourse. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • Rhetoric in Ancient Greece
    "Classical writers regarded rhetoric as having been 'invented,' or more accurately, 'discovered,' in the fifth century B.C. in the democracies of Syracuse and Athens. . . . [T]hen, for the first time in Europe, attempts were made to describe the features of an effective speech and to teach someone how to plan and deliver one. Under democracies citizens were expected to participate in political debate, and they were expected to speak on their own behalf in courts of law. A theory of public speaking evolved, which developed an extensive technical vocabulary to describe features of argument, arrangement, style, and delivery. . . .
    "Classical rhetoricians--that is, teachers of rhetoric--recognized that many features of their subject could be found in Greek literature before the 'invention' of rhetoric . . .. Conversely, the teaching of rhetoric in the schools, ostensibly concerned primarily with training in public address, had a significant effect on written composition, and thus on literature."
    (George Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton University Press, 1994)
  • Roman Rhetoric
    "Early Rome was a republic rather than a direct democracy, but it was a society in which public speaking was as important to civic life as it had been in Athens . . ..
    "The ruling elite [in Rome] viewed rhetoric with suspicion, leading the Roman Senate to ban the teaching of rhetoric and close all the schools in 161 BC. Although this move was partially motivated by strong anti-Greek sentiments among the Romans, it is clear that the Senate also was motivated by a desire to eliminate a powerful tool for social change. In the hands of demagogues like the Gracchi, rhetoric had the potential to stir the restless poor, inciting them to riots as part of the endless internal conflicts among the ruling elite. In the hands of skillful legal orators like Lucius Licinius Crassus and Cicero, it had the power to undermine Rome's traditionally rigid interpretation and application of law."
    (James D. Williams, An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric: Essential Readings. Wiley, 2009)
  • Rhetoric and Writing
    "From its origin in 5th century BC Greece through its flourishing period in Rome and its reign in the medieval trivium, rhetoric was associated primarily with the art of oratory. During the Middle Ages, the precepts of classical rhetoric began to be applied to letter-writing, but it was not until the Renaissance . . . that the precepts governing the spoken art began to be applied, on any large scale, to written discourse."
    (Edward Corbett and Robert Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Women in Classical Rhetoric
    Though most historical texts focus on the "father figures" of classical rhetoric, women (though generally excluded from educational opportunities and political offices) also contributed to the rhetorical tradition in ancient Greece and Rome. Women such as Aspasia and Theodote have sometimes been described as "the muted rhetoricians"; unfortunately, because they left no texts, we know few details about their contributions. To learn more about the roles played by women in classical rhetoric, see Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, by Cheryl Glenn (1997); Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900, edited by Jane Donawerth (2002); and Jan Swearingen's Rhetoric and Irony: Western Literacy and Western Lies (1991).
  • Primary Rhetoric, Secondary Rhetoric, and Letteraturizzazione
    "Primary rhetoric involves utterance on a specific occasion; it is an act not a text, though subsequently it can be treated as a text. The primacy of primary rhetoric is a fundamental fact in the classical tradition: through the time of the Roman Empire teachers of rhetoric, whatever was the real situation of their students, took as their nominal goal the training of persuasive public speakers; even in the early Middle Ages, when there was reduced practical opportunity to exercise civic rhetoric, the definition and content of rhetorical theory as set forth by Isidore and Alcuin, for example, show the same civic assumption; the revival of classical rhetoric in Renaissance Italy was foreshadowed by renewed need for civic rhetoric in the cities of the 12th and 13th centuries; and the great period of neoclassical rhetoric was the time when public speaking emerged as a major force in church and state in France, England, and America.
    "Secondary rhetoric, on the other hand, refers to rhetorical techniques as found in discourse, literature and art forms when those techniques are not being used for an oral, persuasive purpose. . . . Frequent manifestations of secondary rhetoric are commonplaces, figures of speech, and tropes in written works. Much literature, art and informal discourse is decorated by secondary rhetoric, which may be a mannerism of the historical period in which it is composed. . . .
    "It has been a persistent characteristic of classical rhetoric in almost every stage of its history to move from primary to secondary forms, occasionally then reversing the pattern. For this phenomenon the Italian term letteraturizzazione has been coined. Letteraturizzazione is the tendency of rhetoric to shift focus from persuasion to narration, from civic to personal contexts, and from speech to literature, including poetry."
    (George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 2nd ed. University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
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Nordquist, Richard. "classical rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). classical rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "classical rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).