Do we still use rhetoric from the Hellenistic and Roman periods today?

In my last blog, “The Apostles and Classical Rhetoric”, I examined the rhetoric style of the Apostles after the birth of Christ (Anno Domini) or as most refer to it today, C.E. (common era)[see post]. As I included George A. Kennedy’s research from his textbook Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, I will also use his research to examine classical rhetoric over the 300 years leading up to Christ’s birth, The Hellenistic Age.

During this time following the brief reign of Alexander the Great, power in the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and North Africa was held by Alexander’s Greek generals and their successors. In this Hellenistic Age, the canonization of rhetoric would be divided into five categories: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. The statis theory and the identification of tropes, figures of thought, and figures of speech would also be developed. The Greek rhetorician, Hermagoras, added the main ingredients of rhetoric that we still use today:  theses and hypotheses (Kennedy, 100).

How important is the audience, or student?

One part of these rhetoric principals from the Hellenistic Age that I believe is vital to my instruction of Rhetoric is the exordium:  preparing the audience to receive the speech and make each listener benevolus (well-disposed to the speaker), attentus (attentive), and docilis (receptive). Rhetoric cannot be effective if your listener is not receiving it. This is a two-sided process. The Instructor, or rhetorician, must prepare effective, credible arguments, deliver them with a narration that is brief, clear, and probable, and include a strong refutation.

The listener, or student, must prepare for the topic ahead of time (textbook readings, brainstorming, etc) and be ready to receive the information with few distractions. It is important to pre-determine what is the purpose of this rhetoric: is it for a grade (most common), to expand and educate the mind, to improve writing skills, to take action and improve a situation, or all of the above. This pre-determination must be exercised by both the speaker and the listener.

Is grammatical instruction still important?

The second part of rhetoric during the Hellenistic and Roman periods that I appreciate, greatly, is the development of grammar. I still include grammar instruction in my rhetoric courses and believe it is a vital element of effective composition. The most famous Roman grammarian was Aelius Donatus (4th century) who wrote Ars Minor and Ars Grammatica (124). The first, Ars Minor, is limited to the discussion of the eight parts of speech ( noun, pronoun, verb, etc). The second, and more widely appreciated, Ars Grammatica, discusses barbarism (a mistake in the form, spelling, or pronunciation of a word) and solecism (a mistake in the use of a word).

Donatus also includes these figures of speech:

  • Prolepsis: anticipating and answering possible objections
  •  Zeuxis: realism
  • Paronomasia: a play on words, a pun
  •  Schesis onomaton: repetition of two or more different words with the same meaning,
  •  Parhomoeon: alliteration
  •  Homeoptoton: similar endings in the last words of successive clauses or phrases,
  •  Homoeoteleuton: the accidental omission when copying a text of a passage between repeated words or phrases
  • Polyptoton: the rhetorical repetition within the same sentences of a word in a different case, inflection, or voice of etymologically related words in different parts of speech
  • Hirmos: in hymnology of the Greek church, the first strophe or stanza of a standard ode
  • Polsyndeton: the repetition of conjunctions in close succession, and
  • Dialyton: a rhetorical figure by which the connecting participle is omitted

The thirteen tropes which Donatus states that give “proper meaning for good usage” are: metaphora, catachresis, metalepsis, metonymia, antonomasia, epitheton, synecdoche, onomatopoeia, periphrasis, hyperbaton, hyperbole, allegoria, and homeosis. [These were more familiar–from my graduate Poetry course]

Kennedy’s statement following this section is pretty accurate: “Technical rhetoric (and grammar) is technical and thus often dry”(125). [But oh, so fascinating to many of us, especially for those readers who are still with me in this blog post! ]“In antiquity it had to be learned by rote by teenage students, although their studies were enlivened by practice in declamation, with its bizarre themes of pirates and ravished maidens” (125). I sense that Kennedy is using the term “antiquity” to refer to this Roman period. However, since the publication of his textbook in 1999, grammar has gone by the wayside of antiquity in pre-university education. He continues: The strength of classical instruction in rhetoric should be noted. It had a concept of unity of the material: it dealt with the whole argument, the whole speech, the whole of education (124).

Modern Instruction of Rhetoric

The philosophy of Rhetorical instruction in higher education has changed dramatically over the past twenty-five years that I have been teaching. Most of the styles and components of classical rhetoric from the Hellenistic and Roman periods have been abandoned. The Aristotelian rhetoric (ethos, pathos, logos) and critical thinking have been disregarded for the more popular idea of “write fluently on any topic from any perspective”. 

In light of this trend, however, I will continue to teach the important basics of rhetoric some of which are found in Kennedy’s chapter from the Hellenistic and Roman periods: technical rhetoric and grammar; critical thinking and reasoning; the inclusion of classical literature and writing as models’ addressing a variety of ideas, issues, contexts, perspectives, and convictions beyond the assigned task or beyond the author’s explicit message; and how to enter a conversation as students read topics that will engage them and inspire them to respond—and enter the conversations themselves.

When in Rome…or Texas!

Work Cited

Kennedy, George A. (1999). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition. London:

     UNC Press.