Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric in Action

By Ian Worthington | Go to book overview
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History and oratorical exploitation

Ian Worthington

Greek oratory is a vast mine of information, of which the historical must comprise the greater portion. That history holds this leading place in speeches is not surprising: history was part of an orator’s training, and Isocrates for one deemed it important that an orator be able to choose the right historical example at the proper moment (4.9-10; cf. 15). Rhetorical allusion to a particular event or period inserted into a speech was calculated to have the desired effect on the audience and thus lend weight to the overall thrust of the speech. That the accuracy of the historical information contained in speeches by the Greek orators is open to doubt is no small understatement. To be fair, some of the historical narrative is valid, and from time to time can be corroborated by independent evidence; one such instance is Andocides’ quoting of the law of Demophantus of 410 (1.96), which is supported by inscriptional evidence (IG i2 298). All too often, however, validity is not the case: the orators lie, distort, deliberately deceive, suppress the truth, and prevaricate as a matter of course. This is not surprising, given the genre in which they wrote and that they were not historians nor claimed to be: they were practitioners of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, and as such facts, persons and events were exploited, manipulated and even, if necessary, created to persuade the audience. In the Assembly the aim of symbouleutic oratory was to influence the people to vote for or against a policy; in the lawcourts, forensic oratory aimed to convict or to acquit the accused party; and at official state gatherings epideictic oratory attempted to move and to exhort the people emotionally and psychologically. To these ends the orators used their history, and historical accuracy or methodology, along the lines of the


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