The 10 Greatest Masters Of Rhetoric In Ancient Athens

The 10 greatest Greek masters of Rhetoric from Athens were said to have been the most influential orators of ancient Greece during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE by Aristophanes of Byzantium.  These writers of judicial history are what follow after the great literature of legends such as the Iliad or Homer.  They are labeled as the Attic orators because of their regional locale and births; the state of Attica in Greece, in which Athens is located.  Many of these orators worked as logographers (speech writers), and teachers, and some were said to have written their own treatises on rhetoric.  The ten orators are Antiphon; Andocides; Lysias; Isocrates; Isaeus; Demosthenes; Aeschines; Lycurgus; Hyperides and Dinarchus (Edwards). 

On Rhetoric: Photo from the Iliad
On Rhetoric: Photo from the Iliad

Understanding that Aristophanes wrote the histories about these  “Alexandrian Ten”, is what leads modern historians to call it that because the group came about during the reign of Alexander.  The work of the Attic orators inspired the later rhetorical movement of Atticism, an approach to speech composition emphasizing a simple rather than ornate style because they were against the “excess of Hellenistic Prose style” (Kennedy 330). 

When Dionysius of Halicarnassus introduces his work On the Ancient Orators, he mentions six out of the ten “Alexandrian” orators, three of which will be studied specifically here: Lysias, Demosthenes, and Aeschines.  Although Dionysius does not agree with the grouping, Quintilian and Plutarch follow the tradition of the Ten.

The Greek Era of the Attic Orators (Rhetoric)

Orators and Rhetoric: Demosthenes Practicing his Craft with a pebble in his mouth
Orators and Rhetoric: Demosthenes Practicing his Craft with a pebble in his mouth

During the Greek era where the “canon of ten” was dubbed, there were no differences between political and judicial oratory in the courts. The ecclesia was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens during its Golden Age (480–404 BCE. The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy, and electing magistrates.  Classical Athenian courts are said to have numbered up to 500 members for the average jury, and there was no specialized training required to be a juror.  This being said, the jury was thus more easily persuaded by emotional appeals (Edwards 4). 

Every citizen had the right to bring a wrongdoer to justice publicly by means of a public suit.  These different cases were assigned to the magistrate who acted similar to the way a judge would act today; they set to abide by city laws to suggest fines and punishments.  The “idealist claim” that a decision of major importance -such as going to war, or choosing a magistrate – would have to meet a quorum of 6,000 men for issues dealing with the “political core”.  But the everyday criminal case was much smaller, reflecting the average of 500 noted above in the work of Edwards.  

Greek Women in Ancient Greek Rhetoric

Homer wrote about the Greek Orators/rhetoric
Homer wrote about the Greek Orators/rhetoric

The living Greek women during the fifth and fourth centuries were not always respected and honored as they once were during the era of the Iliad, we learn that “during the age of Pericles and later, [women] were regarded and treated as altogether inferior beings, incapable of asserting themselves or of exerting any influence for good in the home” states Charles Savage in his Dissertation “The Athenian Family: A Sociological and Legal Study” (22).  It is unfortunate to report this backward trend in knowledge, but it is necessary to understand who was accepted and not accepted at court and to who rhetoric was taught. 

Savage notes that nowhere in the works of Greek authors are there references to educational facilities for women.  Women were thus only allowed to attend court if they were needed as a witness or in support of the litigant’s weakness.  As far as living situations go, we also know that the men and women slept in different quarters.  A testament to this occurs in Lysias’ first speech (On Killing Eratosthenes) in which the litigants claimed to be oblivious to his cheating wife because she slept in the downstairs quarter with their child (Savage 30).  Women at this time were not even considered full citizens. 

If you are enjoying this article, we have similar content studying communication from discourse theory, here.
The Orators/Rhetoric were famous for their philosophical and legal debates.
The Orators/Rhetoric were famous for their philosophical and legal debates.

Only adult males were “empowered to make decisions in the assembly”  after having served at least 2 years in the military, and therefore the orations would be aimed at addressing “ideas about manhood”, contributes author, Joseph Roisman in The Rhetoric of Manhood (1).  And this ideology of manhood was built from their moral ideologies and opposing contexts for the differences between a good and a bad man.  The good Athenian is a positive leader, courageous in war, competitive, as well as helpful to friends.  The bad Athenian is of course the opposite of these. 

The Greek word for instilling discipline and self-control is “Sophrosyne” (7,8).  Self-control and moderation was a virtue that all Athenians praised and strived for.  A Greek remained a boy until about the age of fourteen.  He would be considered a youngster until he was twenty-one.  As a young man, he was expected to join the military until he reached adulthood around thirty (11).  After his service to the country, he was allowed to attend courts and argue for positions within the Senate. 

If you liked this article, we have similar content studying communication from discourse theory, here.

The probable process for hiring a logographer would of course begin with a consultation.  The speech would then be written by the speech writer.  The writer would create an argument dressed in appeals and rhetorical devices.  The client would then attempt to learn the speech if possible.  Memory was a prized art during this era so it was not uncommon.  The litigant would also “be supplied by his speechwriter with various commonplace please, contrasting his own inexperience, and retiring character with perverted cleverness” to win over the jury (Usher 32). 

During Athenian court, there were two presentations, one for each side.  No litigant or plaintiff was allowed to speak during the other’s speech and as a “way of monitoring the time, a water-clock would drip until it ran out” (Wolff 98).  Any evidence was interjected into the performance as well as the questioning of witnesses.  Immediately after the case, the jury voted (Wolff 98).  The typical speech arrangement was said to follow the following four-part division:

  1. introduction/proem
  2. narrative/diegesis
  3. proof/pisits
  4. conclusion/epilogos

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