Monthly Archives: February 2013

To write or not to write? Alcidamas and the art of improvization

In my last post, I discussed the importance of ‘memory’ in ancient rhetorical theory and practice.  It was crucial to develop effective techniques for memorizing entire speeches because there was an expectation that the orator not rely on notes or read from a script.  This is to be contrasted with the way in which modern practitioners of debate and advocacy usually rely on the tools and techniques of writing.  Watch Prime Minister’s Question Time or a debate in the House of Commons and you will see that the front benchers on both sides have pre-prepared notes and that they scribble away with a pen as they listen to speeches and questions to which they will have to respond.

Despite the requirement to speak without written aids, the ancients clearly had plenty of uses for writing when preparing, memorizing and disseminating orations.  Written composition (both of real speeches and imaginary exercises) was an important element of Greek and Roman rhetorical education, theorizing and the creation of ‘real speeches’ from the late fifth-century BC onwards.  So-called ‘sophists’ like Antiphon wrote legal speeches for clients who had found themselves in court. In Athens, litigants had to speak for themselves, and although you could assign most of your speaking time to an experienced advocate this was frowned upon and therefore rare. The comic dramatist Aristophanes offers us an insight into the hard work that could go into learning a speech if you were an inexperienced novice.  In his play Knights the Paphlagonian slave (aka the highly experienced and wealthy politician, orator and litigator Cleon)  mocks his opponent, Sausage-seller, for thinking that he can match him when it comes to public oratory:

‘Do you know what I think’s come over you? What comes over most people.  I suppose you gave a good speech in a piffling little case against an alien immigrant after muttering it over all night, repeating it to yourself in the streets, drinking water, rehearsing it to an audience and exasperating your friends.  And then you thought you were capable of public speaking.  You fool,  what an absurd idea!’ (lines 346-50, trans. A. Sommerstein).

Of course, Cleon turns out to be wrong about his opponent’s abilities in a comic fantasy where the hateful demagogue can only be beaten by someone who has the same low-class background and base instincts as he.  In reality, a successful politician like Cleon would very likely have received training from the ‘sophists’.  For these were not mere hacks churning out speeches for money – although some did also do that.  They were professional researchers and teachers of argumentation and rhetorical technique.  As with modern academics, the line between ‘teaching’, ‘research’ and ‘showing off for money’ was somewhat blurred with the sophists. Plato was not sympathetic to them, but in one of his dialogues, it is clear that the sophist Gorgias is an amazing performer of extemporaneous speech-making who wows the crowds as well as attracting ambitious young men to learn from his example.  In Thucydides’ account of a crucial debate at Athens, Cleon (somewhat disingenuously) chides the Athenian people for behaving like ‘spectators of sophists’ rather than citizens debating matters of life and death for the city (3.38.7).

But carefully crafted written material was also crucial to this rhetorical research and training.  Antiphon wrote a series of ‘imaginary’ court speeches called Tetralogies which may have been used to explore the limitations and benefits of different kinds of evidence and techniques of argumentation with paying pupils.  Gorgias himself wrote a famous speech in defence of the mythical Helen whose seriousness and purpose is hard to gauge.  But it is certainly good evidence for the role of written composition for the display and dissemination of innovative forms of rhetorical persuasion during this period.


The Pnyx was where the Athenian assembly met. This picture details archaeological remains of the speaker’s plaftorm (Bema) of Pnyx III (a rebuild around 345-335 BC).  The Bema was carved right out of the bedrock. View from the northwest. Picture source and further information:

And yet, writing was a technology which had to be handled with care by anyone who needed to persuade an Athenian audience.  The surviving orations of speechwriters like Antiphon and Lysias show that speeches written for clients not normally in the public eye had to sound natural, authentic and spontaneous – there are elements which are deliberately chatty or imperfect.  Both writers are excellent at adapting the arguments and style of their speeches to the character and situation of their clients.  Whether the citizen juries who listened to these speeches were fooled into believing that these clients had prepared the speeches by themselves is a difficult question for another post.

But we do have evidence that the memorizing of a speech which had been written out in its entirety was not considered by everyone to be the best way of doing things.  In a fascinating work which is sometimes called On Those Who Write Speeches and sometimes given the alternative title On Sophists, a sophist called Alcidamas denigrates the efficacy of speech-writing as a skill in comparison with the ability to speak extemporaneously.  Here he is on the problems of memorizing writing:

‘I also think that learning written speeches is difficult, remembering them is laborious and forgetting them in trials is disgraceful.  For all would agree that it is more difficult to learn and remember small things than large, and many things than few. In extemporaneous speaking you need to keep your mind fixed on the arguments alone and you can supply the right words as you proceed; but in written speeches in addition you must necessarily learn and remember precisely the words and even the syllables […] Furthermore, if you forget something in an extemporaneous speech, your disgrace is not clear to others. For since the expression can be easily broken up and the wording has not been precisely determined, if a speaker forgets one of the arguments, it is not difficult for him to skip over it and pick up the other arguments in order, thereby keeping the speech free of disgrace […] But if those who recite written speeches during a trial forget or alter even a small detail, they are inevitably beset by uncertainty and wandering and searching […} The speaker’s helplessness is disgraceful, ridiculous and hard to remedy.’ (Alcidamas On Those Who Write Speeches, 18, 20-21, trans M. Gagarin).

Alcidamas then makes the more positive point that extemporaneous speakers can respond much more flexibly to the mood and disposition of the audience than those who deliver written speeches.  The latter, he says,

‘take great trouble over their composition before a trial, but sometimes miss the opportunity (kairos): either they irritate the audience by speaking longer than they desire, or they cut short their speech when people still want to hear more.  For it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for human foresight to reach into the future and know precisely what attitude the audience will have toward the length of a speech.  In extemporaneous speeches, however, the speaker can note the effect of his words and control them, cutting short some lengthy remarks or extending the presentation of short topics.’ (22-3)

The concepts of kairos (the ‘right moment’/opportunity) and to prepon (‘appropriateness’) which Alcidamas champions will have to be unpacked in another post.  But Alcidamas has a good point even for our own modern experience: a fixed text can be stilted and inflexible in the dynamic and fluid context of live debate and disputation.  And many of us have been in situations where we have needed to rapidly adjust the nature, length or style of what we have to say because of the apparent mood or expectations of our audience.  This would  have been even more salient in classical Athens where a massed citizen audience was largely used to listening to and watching oratory rather than writing and reading it.

Alcidamas holds his hand up to the irony that he rails against writing speeches in a piece of writing (29-34: on this and more, see Professor Mike Edwards’ excellent chapter in Ian Worthington’s very useful Companion to Greek Rhetoric).  He says he does so in order to show howeasy speech writing is and he admits that he uses writing to prepare display speeches before a large audience.  For Alcidamas writing should not be rejected out of hand.   But it must only be an ancillary skill.  In live debate, you prepare your arguments in advance but choose the actual words at the time of speaking.  That’s the only way to nail the opposition and secure the good will of the audience.

This polemic may partly have been directed at Isocrates, a contemporary of Alcidamas who wrote out his speeches about policy and educational values and seems to have published many of them to be read like pamphlets rather than delivering them orally.  Isocrates had even written his own ‘speech’ called Against the Sophists.  (In Athens, a ‘sophist’ is usually what someone else is.  You don’t label yourself a sophist).  By  the fourth century, then, the role of writing in the production of oratory has become a highly contentious issue.  In another post we will explore the reasons for this further.  But we only have to think about how we feel when we learn that a politician or celebrity is ventriloquizing words crafted by a paid adviser, to get some sense of what is at stake.