Classics Declamation
Neil W. Bernstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0274


A declamation in the ancient Greco-Roman context refers to a speech in the character of a speaker before an imaginary law court on a fictional, mythical, or historical theme. The range of declamatory topics can be illustrated by examples such as Seneca’s Suasoria 6, in which a fictionalized Cicero considers whether to beg Mark Antony for his life; Lucian’s “The disowned son” (Abdicatus), on a son who studied medicine after being disowned but refused to cure his stepmother; and Choricius of Gaza’s Declamation 1 (10), in which Polydamas attempts to convince Priam that Achilles should be allowed to marry Polyxena. Practitioners declaimed in a variety of contexts. Both professional and amateur rhetors gave demonstration speeches before large audiences. Teachers produced model exercises and commentaries for the use of elite male students, for whom declamation represented an advanced phase of their rhetorical education. We possess a substantial corpus of Greek and Latin practice speeches, technical and pedagogical handbooks, and commentaries and working notes by practitioners and teachers that ranges from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine period. Nineteenth and 20th-century scholars paid little attention to declamation, and its contemporary study still remains relatively obscure. Part 1, consisting of the sections General Overviews and Essay Collections, accordingly begins with materials that may help orient the novice reader of declamation. Declamation has often been studied in the context of social history, principally family, education, and law. Literary scholars have examined this hybrid genre’s connection to other genres, such as New Comedy and the ancient novel. The article’s second part surveys the thematic studies involving declamation. Much scholarly effort still must be devoted to basic philological work: establishing reliable texts of declamation along with translations and commentaries. The article’s third part catalogs these fundamental research tools.

General Overviews

The surveys of Pernot 2000 and Kennedy 1994 are introductions to oratory in the Greek and Roman world aimed at general readers. Lausberg 1998 is a fundamental dictionary of rhetorical figures, with ample illustration from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sources. Russell 1983 is a brief but essential introduction to the conventions of Greek Declamation; Heath 2004 provides far more extensive background in social history and rhetorical theory. Chapters in Dominik and Hall 2010 discuss declamation in the context of Roman rhetoric. Many of the more recent works on Declamation and Education supplement and supersede Bonner 1949.

  • Bonner, Stanley F. 1949. Roman declamation in the late Republic and early Empire. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Dated in some respects but still useful as a brief introduction. Traces the development of Roman declamation from Cicero through Seneca; the texts’ connections to Greco-Roman law; and declamation’s dialogue with the literature of the Julio-Claudian period.

  • Dominik, William J., and Jon Hall. 2010. A companion to Roman rhetoric. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Includes useful introductions to the role of oratory in Roman social and political life; Roman orators such as the Elder Seneca and Quintilian; and connections between declamation and literature in other genres.

  • Heath, Malcolm. 2004. Menander: A Rhetor in context. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199259205.001.0001

    Through focus on Menander Rhetor, a Greek rhetorical teacher of the 3rd century CE, Heath surveys historical developments in Greek rhetorical theory and the social context of declamatory study and practice.

  • Kennedy, George A. 1994. A new history of classical rhetoric. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Aimed at the general reader. Surveys Greco-Roman rhetoric from the 5th century BCE to the Byzantine period.

  • Lausberg, H. 1998. Handbook of literary rhetoric: A foundation for literary study. Edited by David E. Orton and R. Dean Anderson. Translated by M. T. Bliss, et al. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    An exhaustive compilation of rhetorical figures, with references to Greek, Latin, and French rhetorical sources.

  • Pernot, Laurent. 2000. La rhétorique dans l’Antiquité. Paris: Librairie Générale Française.

    Aimed at the general reader. Surveys Greco-Roman rhetoric from the 5th century BCE to the Roman empire. Provides a useful glossary of rhetorical terms.

  • Russell, Donald A. 1983. Greek declamation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511897887

    This classic brief survey of the conventions of Greek Declamation introduced the key term “Sophistopolis,” referring to the fictional world of declamation.

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