Classical Rhetoric and Poetics


Roman Empire - Republican Period

509 BCE - 27 BCE

During this period, Rome expanded from control over the city and its surroundings to an empire that spanned virtually the entire Mediterranean world. During the period, the form of government was republican--headed by two consuls elected by the citizens and advised by a senate of appointed magistrates. The time period was characterized by constant struggles between the patrician land-holding class and the plebian commoner class and the adoption and development of a highly Hellenistic culture. Late in the period, internal tensions and civil wars led to the ascendence and eventual assassination of Julius Caesar, which marked the transition Rome's Imperial Period.

Athens Rises to Power

508 BCE - 448 BCE

Prior to this time period, Sparta had possessed the hegemony in Greece. Athenian dominance arose with the arrival of democratic reforms initiated by Cleisthenes, the solidification a public culture that supported tragic and comic dramatic performances, and the appearance of an intellectual/political class of early philosophers and sophists offering powerful ideas about how a citizen should be equipped to live ethically in such a new society. Athenian dominance was also connected with their leadership in a succession of wars against the Persians that led to the eventual establishment of the Athens-led Delian league.

Greek Classical Period

500 BC - 323 BC

Ephialtes and his Reforms

465 B.C. - 461 B.C.

Prior to Ephialtes, law cases were heard before single magistrates or the Aeropagus (a large professional board of ex-magistrates); after, things shifted to the use of large popular juries (dikasteria) of 201 citizens chosen by lot from a pool of 6,000.

Athenian Hegemony

448 BCE - 430 BCE

Often referred to as the Golden Age of Athens, this period was distinguished by Ephialtes emerging as the leader of the democratic faction and his close associate, Pericles, being elected "strategos" (general) of Athens following Ephialtes's assassination.

Peloponnesian War

431 BCE - 404 BCE

Corinthian War and Second Athenian League

395 BCE - 355 BCE

During this period, Athens's former enemies, Thebes and Corinth, became her allies in a war against Sparta, forming the Second Athenian League, which defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371. After that battle, the league's members turned against Thebes and brought down their dominance at the Battle of Mantinea in 362.

Philip of Macedon

359 B.C. - 336 B.C.

Alexander the Great

356 BC - 323 BC

Macedonian Hegemony

355 BCE - 322 BCE

During this period, Macedon dominated Athens and Greece. Philip of Macedon defeated Athens in 338 at the Battle of Chaeronea. The empire-building of his son, Alexander, brought the classical Greek period to a close by rendering the city-state obsolete as a form of political organization.

Seleucid Dynasty

323 BCE - 83 BCE

The Seleucid Dynasty was founded by Seleucus I Nicator following the division of the Macedonian empire created by Alexander the Great. Seleucus received Babylonia and, from there, expanded his dominions to include much of Alexander's near eastern territories. The great cities of the dynasty remained vibrant centers sustaining Hellenistic culture until the empire was defeated by the Roman legions under the general Pompey.

Ptolemaic Dynasty

305 BCE - 30 BCE

Following Alexander's death, the Ptolemaic dynasty, sometimes referred to as the Lagids or Lagidae, was established in Egypt by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's main Macedonian generals. His family, which included the famous Cleopatra VII (known for her role in disputes between Octavian and Pompey) ruled Egypt until it was conquered by the Romans in 30 BCE.

Antigonid Dynasty

294 BCE - 168 BCE

Following Alexander's death, the Antigonid dynasty emerged and controlled Greece, up until it was conquered by the Roman legions in 168 BCE.

Octavian (Caesar Augustus)

27 B.C. - 14 A.D.

The first emperor of Rome, Octavian was Caesar's grand-nephew and his named son and heir. After Caesar's assassination, he, Mark Antony, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumverate and ruled Rome as military dictators until competition between them tore the Triumverate apart. Octavian emerged from the struggle victorious after defeating Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Soon thereafter, Octavian, renaming himself Augustus, restored the appearance of the republic (reinstating the senate, executive magistrates, and legislative assemblies) but in fact ruled the empire as a dictator, arrogating to himself the power of a living God.

Roman Empire - Imperial Period

27 BCE - 284 CE

This period begins with the Augustan reform and covers the era of Roman dominance and cultural influence under the emperors up to the reforms under Diocletian (r. 284-305) and the beginning Christianization of the Roman Empire. The major rhetorical figure from this period is Quintilian, whose Institues of Oratory denounce what he regards as the degenerate education in rhetoric that was common in this era.


14 AD - 37 AD


37 AD - 41 AD


41 AD - 54 AD


54 AD - 68 AD


68 AD - 69 AD

The first in the year of the four emperors, Galba seized power with support of the Spanish legions, but he was murdered by the Praetorian Guard in a coup led by Otho.


69 AD - 79 AD

Vespasian finally emerged as the victor in the year of the four emperors with the support of the eastern legions. He reigned a decade and died of natural causes.


69 AD

The third in the year of the four emperors, Vitellius seized power with the support of the German legions but was soon thereafter murdered by Vespasian's troops.


69 AD

Reigning from the 15th of January to the 16th of April in 69AD, Otho was the second in the year of the four emperors. He committed suicide after losing Battle of Bedriacum to Vitellius.


79 AD - 81 AD

Titus succeeded his father Vespasian and ruled briefly before dying of fever.


81 AD - 96 AD

Domitian was Vespasian's other son and Titus's brother. He ruled until assassinated by court officials in 96AD.

Five Good Emperors

96 AD - 180 AD

This was a period of relative stability in Rome with many public works and much culture. The period produced the literary artists Martial, Juvenal, Lucian, and Apuleius and the historians Tacitus, Suetonius and the Greek Plutarch. Stoicism was accepted as public philosophy, and Christianity was spreading and gaining influence. With regard to rhetoric, Tacitus’s dialogue on oratory laments decline of the art, but Suetonius’s accounts indicate there were many teachers of rhetoric and deliberative, forensic and epideictic oratory remained important.

Heroic Era


Approx. 1100 BCE - Approx. 800 BCE

The first and greatest of the Greek epic poets, Plato called him the "first teacher" of the tragedeans and the "hegemon paideias," or leader of Greek culture. Some scholars dispute whether an actual Homer existed, rather arguing that his name serves as a "historical context for the poems," which emerged from an oral tradition of rhapsodes between 750-650 BCE.


Approx. 750 BC - Approx. 650 BC

Homer's Iliad & Odyssey

Approx. 600 BCE - Approx. 500 BCE

The written versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey that we have today, according to scholars, crystallized sometime during the 6th century.

Hesiod's Theogony

Approx. 600 BCE - Approx. 500 BCE

The written form of Hesiod's "Theogony" that we have today crystallized sometime during the 6th century BCE

Sophistic Rhetoric


Approx. 490 BCE - Approx. 420 BCE

Protagoras was a sophistic philosopher whose ideas were taken seriously (and, mostly, opposed) by Plato and Aristotle. He is credited with developing the technique of the dissoi logoi and with saying "opposing arguers should strive to make the weaker case appear the stronger" and that "of all things the measure is man, of things that are that they are, of things that are not that they are not."


Approx. 490 BC - Approx. 430 BC

Empedocles was the first pre-Socratic philosopher to write about the self-conscious study of the power of language. He was reputedly the teacher of Gorgias.

Gorgias of Leontini

Approx. 485 BCE - Approx. 380 BCE

The most famous of the Sophists, Gorgias is known for his musical prose, use of poetic/stylistic devices (esp. antithesis and elaborate parallelism), and self-conscious emphasis on how such techniques can be used to manipulate listeners.

Corax & Tisias

Approx. 467 BCE - Approx. 437 BCE

Corax & Tisias, often cited as the first sophistic teachers of rhetoric, worked in Syracuse. Some traditions say Corax was a forensic orator and Tisias a logographer (ghostwriter for speeches), but other traditions say they may have been the same person. Plato attributes to them the innovation of recognizing the greater power of arguments from probability

Gorgias - "On Nature (Or the Nonexistent)

Approx. 444 BCE

In this work, Gorgias argues that nothing exists, if it did it could not be apprehended, and if it could be apprehended, that apprehension could not be communicated.


436 BCE - 333 BCE

A contemporary of Plato and head of a rival academy, Isocrates is one of the major figures in the history of rhetoric for his view of rhetorical education as paideia (philosophical training in citizenship).

Gorgias's Embassy to Athens

427 BCE

Gorgias was sent from Leontini to Athens (possibly with Tisias) on an embassy to ask for Athenian protection from the Syracusians. His speeches were a sensation and helped set off a furor for rhetoric.

Gorgias - "Encomium to Helen"

Approx. 416 BCE

Anonymous, "Dissoi Logoi"

Approx. 403 BCE - Approx. 395 BCE

This anonymous work explores how strong opposing arguments can be made on particular topics, an approach to rhetorical instruction associated with the sophists which many have noted seems to advocate for a sort of situational ethics/cultural relativism.

Isocrates Opens His School

393 BCE

Isocrates opened his school when he was in his early 40's, featuring a pedagogy where students wrote on serious topics and regularly practiced performing them.

Platonic Rhetoric


469 bc - 399 bc

While he is not technically the first Western philosopher, it is difficult to argue that anyone other than (Plato's) Socrates is the father of Western philosophy. While he didn't leave any writings, records of his life survive in Plato's dialogues and other contemporary writings, which elaborate a picture of him as an itinernant "gadfly" intent on pestering the citizens of Athens into living more reflective, "examined lives."


428 BC - 347 BC

Plato was the greatest pupil of Socrates. He founded his Academy for educating the elite youth of Athens in 387 and wrote many dialogues featuring Socrates and elaborating Western culture's first systematic examination of philosophy, conceived as the use of method to engage in the disinterested study of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues.

Plato - "The Apology of Socrates"

387 BCE

This early work dramatizes Socrates's trial and his statements in his "defense," which really function as an indictment of Athenian culture and an elaboration of the foundational principles of the examined, philosophical life. At the beginning of the work, Socrates says that a rhetor is skilled in speaking, and he is not that, unless you call those who speak truth rhetors. He also often mentions the difficulty of the philosopher persuading the many, noting that he is not willing to stoop to crying or bringing forth his children to persuade the dikasteria to prevent his execution.

The Platonic Academy

387 BCE - 83 BCE

Plato founded The Academy in 387, and it persisted as an important educational institution throughout the Hellenistic period promoting a generally skeptical approach to philosophical thought and rhetoric. Plato's pupil, Speusippus, succeeded Plato as head of the Academy when he died in 347, while Aristotle went on to found his rival Peripatetic school.

Plato - "Protagoras"

386 BCE

At the home of Callias, Socrates engages in dialetical debate with Protagoras and twenty-one other people including Hippias of Elis and Producs of Ceos, as well as Alcibiades. Protagoras admits being a sophist and to making his students into good citizens. Socrates does not believe virtue can be taught. Protagoras says it can be by myth rather than by reason. Socrates badgers him on whether virtue is one or many things and gets Protagoras to agree with him that it is one, while convincing himself in the process that it can indeed be taught, laying the groundwork for his implicit concession to Socrates's argument for philosophy being superior to rhetoric.

Plato - "Gorgias"

386 BCE

One of Plato's earliest dialogues, the Gorgias offers a direct critique of Sophistic rhetoric as a false art (or, a knack similar to cookery) that is, furthermore, ethically suspect and intellectually disingenuous. In the dialogue, Socrates converses with, questions, and debates Gorgias of Leontini and his proteges and proposes (and some would argue exemplifies) an alternative form of wholly ethical rhetoric based in knowledge of and absolute respect for the truth, openness to refutation, and the intellectual and moral superiority of "philosophy" to rhetoric.

Plato - "The Republic"

380 BCE

In Plato's most systematic work, "The Republic," the rhetorician Thrasymachus’s debunking of rhetoric is what prompts Socrates to defend justice. Socrates, perhaps unexpectedly, says midway through the long dialogue that he and Thrasymachus have become friends, because in speaking he has become convinced rhetoric is necessary to soothe the crowd and “sell” philosophy to the city.

Plato - "Phaedrus"

370 BCE

In this late dialogue which returns to the question of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, Phaedrus is enchanted with a speech by Lysias defending the non-lover as superior to the lover. He reads it aloud, then Plato offers a more logical, well-organized speech on the same theme. Then, Socrates's demon makes him return and give a longer, more literary/analogical speech in which love is compared to a chariot with winged horses. Socrates ultimately argues that true persuasion is a universal art of psychagogia, the leading of souls, which would need to be developed by a person skilled in dialectic who studied human souls and their passions and made all the correct definitions and analytical divisions to develop a true rhetorical science fully consonant with philosophy.

Aristotelian Rhetoric & Poetic


384 BCE - 322 BCE

Aristotle was born in the Macedonian town of Stagira in 384 BCE. Aristotle's father was court physician to King Philip, who would eventually go on to conquer and unite Greece and father Alexander the Great. Aristotle became a student at Plato's academy at the age of 17 and distinguished himself while there especially with his thinking on Logic and Argument. Aristotle left the Academy in 347 when Plato died because, as a non-Athenian, he could not take over. In 342, he became tutor to Alexander the Great, a position he held for two years before returning to Stagira for a time. In 336, he returned to Athens and opened his Peripatetic school, creating many of his greatest works as lectures. He taught there until 323, when Alexander's death forced him to leave Athens. He died shortly after in 322.


371 BC - 287 BC

Aristotle's heir, Theophrastus assumed leadership of the Peripatetic school from the time that Aristotle left Athens. He wrote many treatises on rhetoric, all of which are now lost, but which helped to ensure the survival of a Peripatetic (Aristotelian) view of rhetoric. He sometimes credited with having developed the doctrine of the "three styles" (grand, middle, low) from concepts implicit in Aristotle's theory.

Peripatetic School

335 BCE - Approx. 250 BCE

Around 335 BCE, after Philip of Macedon died and Alexander ascended (and thus no longer needed a tutor), Aristotle founded his school, which met in the colonnades of the Athenian lyceum (and from which location it took its name). The "school" was less formal than the academy, mainly consisting of Aristotle's lectures and some cooperative scientific research and philosophical inquiry among the school's junior and senior members. Aristotle left the school in 323, around the time of Alexander's death, in order to avoid anti-Macedonian persecution. His former pupil, Theophrastus, took over as head of the school.

The Rise of Rome

Zeno of Citium

334 bc - 262 bc

Zeno founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which laid great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of Virtue in accordance with Nature. It proved very successful, and flourished as the dominant philosophy from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era. With regard to rhetoric, the Stoics valued simplicity, brevity, and correctness in discourse, and under their influence, rhetoricians greatly extended the classification of tropes and figures.

Hermagoras of Temnos

Approx. 199 BCE - Approx. 100 BCE

Hermagoras was an important and influential Hellenistic rhetorical theorist. While none of his writings survive, he is noted by Cicero, Quintilian, and others for having developed "stasis theory," an inventional technique that guides forensic orators in defining the key questions in any case. According to Hermagoras, these are: 1.) What are the signs that X committed an act?; 2.) If X committed an act, was it criminal?; 3.) If X committed a crime, were there extenuating circumstances; and 4.) If X does deserve to be tried for committing the crime, is the trial being conducted properly?


106 BC - 43 BC

Generally regarded as the next great rhetorician in the classical tradition after Aristotle, his reputation as a thinker on rhetoric was established with his De Inventione (c. 86 BCE) and consolidated with later, more complex works such as De Oratore (c. 55 BCE). Cicero was not only a theorist but was (and is) widely regarded as the most accomplished forensic (courtroom) orator of his time period and also was a major political force and deliberative (political) orator, advocating to protect the republic from demagoguery and tyranny.

De Inventione

Approx. 86 BCE

Cicero's youthful work on rhetoric summarizes the categories for rhetorical study that were operative in the standard education of his time period, including the types of rhetoric and the five canons of rhetoric. The work contains detailed discussion only of the canon of invention, however.

Anonymous - Rhetorica ad Herennium

Approx. 84 BCE

Once thought to have been written by Cicero, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (now attributed to an anonymous Hellenistic teacher of rhetoric) is the oldest surviving rhetorical manual in Latin. It offers a highly useful window into the standard content of a Greek-influenced rhetorical education in first century Rome. The Rhetorica ad Herennium remained influential as one of the most widely read texts on classical rhetoric up until the Renaissance. Books I & II discuss invention, especially as it pertains to forensic oratory; Book III begins by discussing invention as it pertains to deliberative and ceremonial oratory and moves on to discuss arrangement, delivery, and memory; and Book IV is focused entirely on style.

De Oratore

Approx. 55 BCE

De Oratore (Of Oratory) is Cicero's most important work elaborating his theory of rhetoric. In this dialogue, Crassus, Antonius, and other minor characters converse and debate various Aristotelian, Isocratean, and Hellenistic conceptions of rhetoric, how it should be taught and practiced, its ethical status, and its value in public life.

Imperial Roman Rhetoric and Poetic


65 BCE - 8 BCE

Horace was the leading Roman lyric poet during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), or Epistle to the Pisos is perhaps the definitive document of the Roman adaptation and extension of Greek (Aristotelian) thinking on the subject of poetics.

On the Sublime

Approx. 1 CE - Approx. 99 CE

On the Sublime (or On Height) is a rhetorical treatise formerly thought to be have been written Cassius Longinus of 3rd century CE. However, most scholars today agree that textual evidence points to authorship by a 1st century Greek or Hellenic Jew who taught rhetoric/literature to Roman clients. The work became influential in European literature when it was translated into French by the literary critic Nicholas Boileau in 1674, and it is often attributed with having helped to incite the Romantic movement in the late eighteenth century.


35 AD - 100 AD

Generally regarded as the major rhetorical figure/theorist during Rome's imperial period, Quintilian authored the Institutes of Oratory, a twelve-volume work which exhaustively synthesized transmitted the existent tradition of classical rhetoric, offered a pedagogical program that resisted what Quintilian considered to be a dangerous trend toward the use of declamations, and contributed the influential and Cicero-influenced theoretical concept of the vir bonus (good man speaking well).

Second Sophistic

35 CE - 476 CE

This movement or period in the history of rhetoric was named the Second Sophistic by Philostratus in his book, Lives of the Sophists (c. 230 CE). Associated figures included Nicetas of Smyrna, Aelius Aristides of Smyrna, Dio Chrysostom, Herodes Atticus of Smyrna, Philostratus, Lucian, and Polemon of Laodicea. The movement's emphases initially developed from the influence of the so-called Asianist teachers of rhetoric hailing from Greece, Turkey, and the eastern Mediterranean, though by Philostratus’s time the emphasis was more on the so-called Atticist figures, which he argues is exemplified by Aelius Aristides. Figures of the Second Sophistic expressed great interest in etymologies, grammar, stylistic abundance and were also characterized by a fascination with ancient Greek culture. In general, their focus was more literary than political (students were encouraged to study literature). Additionally, there was strong pedagogical emphasis on the creation and performance of declamations, highly stylized ceremonial speeches delivered as private entertainment in which the orator portrays a participant in a fantastic historical event (a “suasoria”) or a complicated crime (a “controversia”) or extravagantly praises someone or something. The subject matter of such speeches tended to reinforce traditional values, and much stylistic embellishment was considered to be the mark of a good declamation.

Hermogenes of Tarsus

160 CE - 250 CE

At about 18-20 years old, Hermogenes wrote an influential lost work titled Hermogenes’s Art of Rhetoric. This work covered progymnasmata, issues (stasis theory), invention, style, and “forcefulness." It also argued for the existence of one ideal style based on the style of Demosthenes. It contained lots of classical examples and preservation of Attic rhetoric, thus generally preserving a conservative understanding of the rhetorical tradition. The legend of Hermogenes is he lost his speaking abilities in middle age, was ridiculed as an old man, and when he died he was cut open and it was discovered that his heart was covered in hair.