It is no secret that our view of early (that is, before the influence of Plato, during the period c. 450-390) Greek rhetoric has been strongly influenced by the hostile attacks levelled at it and at the sophists in general by the philosopher Plato, but recognition of this fact has not eliminated the influence and Plato’s criticisms continue to shape our understanding of the formative period of Greek rhetoric in ways that are not fully appreciated. My intention in this chapter is to consider the force of Plato’s criticisms, to examine closely one issue on which modern scholars still follow Plato’s lead, even though he is demonstrably wrong, and then to suggest some features found in the rhetorical and sophistic works themselves that should form the starting point for a more accurate picture.
According to the current view, 1 rhetoric originated in Sicily with the handbooks of Corax and Tisias as a response to the large number of legal suits which arose after the overthrow of the Syracusan tyrants in 467. The study of rhetoric then became a primary interest of the sophists, who advertised their skills to young men desirous of getting ahead in the world of the democratic polis, especially at Athens. Success in these circumstances depended on one’s ability to persuade large audiences in the Assembly or the courts, the latter of which became more important after the judicial reforms of Ephialtes in 462. The main vehicle for persuasion was rhetoric, a techne whose subject-matter covered the wide range of activity of the Greek word logos, which could mean ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘argument’, ‘reasoning’, and more, and which included everything from small grammatical details, such as Protagoras’ criticism of Homer for phrasing the first verse of the Iliad as a command rather than a request (Arist. Poetics