In the ancient city-state of Athens, Greece, public speaking was a central part of everyday life. To understand the importance Athenians placed on public speaking, specifically persuasive rhetorical speech, one must know the political context from which it arose. There are two main political reforms that occurred in Athens which served as a catalyst for the emerging need of public speaking and the study of rhetoric. They are: 1) the creation of a democratic state; and 2) a system of common courts (Conley, 1990).
Athens was one of the earliest (508-322 BCE) and most radically democratic governments in recorded history. Athenian democracy was founded on the principle that power should reside in the citizenry rather than a small group of elites. This principle was upheld through the establishment of the ekklesia, or Assembly. The Assembly referred to the regular meeting of the demos, or citizenry, to deliberate and vote on all aspects of Athenian life. Although women were considered citizens, only free men, whom were 18 or older and of Athenian descent could actively participate in the Assembly. Gender based exclusion from legislative activities was not unusual; in the US, women were ban from voting until 1920! That was less than a century ago. In spite of this omission, democratic participation was so highly valued in Athens that Assembly members were paid to attend meetings to ensure that even the poor could attend (Blackwell, 2003). Thus, once a member of the Assembly any man, regardless of class, was free to speak his mind. Freedom of speech was a hallmark of the Assembly since it was believed that without free speech no amount of deliberation would yield effective policy and law.
However, just because one could speak didn’t mean everyone would listen, individuals would have to learn the art of persuasive speaking to capture and keep the Assembly’s attention.
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