• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!



Page history last edited by Marissa Pierce 12 years, 2 months ago






     Favored for its real-world practical uses, declamation was an educational technique derived from ancient Greece. Later prominent Roman scholars like Quintilian and Seneca the Elder would adopt it and incorporate the practice into their teaching, making it the central core of the school curriculum until the fall of the Roman Empire (Sussman 1). Generally speaking, declamation is defined as a rhetorical exercise or speech through which students practiced the art of oratory and public speaking. Though it was valued early on, this method later lost much of its credibility when nearly everyone began to declaim in the forums and amphitheaters, regardless if they were educated or even part of the school at all. Bits and pieces of declamation can still be found in modern education; teachers still assign poetry recitations and other presentations that students deliver before their classmates. Also resembling the original forms of declamation, law school students participate in mock trial situations and pseudo-trials where they practice going through the motions of courtroom proceedings, such as opening and closing statements.



     The tradition of declamation is split into two parts, the suasoriae and controversiae.  For centuries this organization of the two types remained the accepted method of training the privileged young men for oratory and official service (Winterbottom 12).  The suasoriae, associated with deliberative oratory, involved a student presenting a stance on one side of a decision that a historical or mythical figure would have to make (“Declamation”). Some common example topics were: Should this ruler declare war on his rival nation? Should this person get married?


     The second kind, the controversiae, urged students to become familiar with ethical issues, including judicial and forensic oratory (“Declamation”). This is what most resembles the methods of practice in modern law school classrooms. The student would have to argue one or both sides of the case so that he would become familiar with interpreting laws and applying them to the given cases.


     In both types of declamation, students were expected to compose full speeches, arranged in an effective manner that they would deliver during the course of their rhetorical education.  During the declamation itself, students would have the opportunity to imitate the best writers and speakers of their time in an attempt to try to incorporate those skills into their own style. Quintilian, an advocate of declamation in the Roman tradition, suggests that imitation is a useful tool for young students:

Our minds must be directed to the imitation of all their excellences, for it cannot be doubted that a great portion of art consists in imitation – for even though to invent was first in order of time and holds the first place in merit, it is nevertheless advantageous to copy what has been invented with success (132).

Declamation also served as a method that students could use to practice delivery and all of the accessories that come with it: style, voice, volume, etc.


     Also in both traditions, it was the young men only – the privileged minority – that received this kind of education. These students learned to read and write early on, and later they would study rhetoric from a tutor in hopes of becoming a speaker who could speak extemporaneously to be able to persuade law courts and political gatherings (Winterbottom 12-13).



History: Greek & Roman Declamation

     Historically, declamation has its origins in Greek rhetorical training.  Greek scholars like Aristotle favored this practice in training their pupils for a civic life as citizens.  In terms of the technique itself, Greek teachers asked their students to take a commonly accepted theme – adultery, theft, and public life –come up with a speech about it, and deliver it in front of their other classmates. The subject matter of these declamations was sometimes made into “rudimentary historical fiction” by incorporating famous names, stories, and wars into the speech (Russell 106).  In the Greek version of this tradition, making the stories about Grecian history was significant because of the important role classical history played in the preservation of the past and pride of the Greek people (Russell 107-108). According to D.A. Russell, author of Greek Declamation, the Greek tradition of declamation used approximately 350 different historical themes: “A few are mythological, 43 deal with the Persian war, about 90 with the Peloponnesian war, 125 with the period of Demosthenes, and 25 or so with Alexander” (107).


     The Roman version of declamation not unlike the Greek, though there was a least one main difference. While both traditions acknowledged the two different types of declamation – forensic (controversiae) and deliberative (suasoriae) –in the Roman kind, the former was considered more important and difficult for students to engage with, while the latter dealt largely with issues of history. In Greek declamation, as mentioned above, there was a strong emphasis on the classical histories, which was the prominent subject matter in both the controversiae and suasoriae (Russell 106). Further, again in Greek declamation, the suasoriae’s history goes back as far as the early sophists, who would debate about mythology (Sussman 2). The controversiae, on the other hand, comes from the Greek school exercises, progymnasmata, which involved preliminary school students writing stories, comparing and contrasting ideas, and even establishing arguments on one side or another of fictitious stories of their culture (Sussman 3).


     The Greek teachers, who taught this art to eager students until they were banished, brought the Greek style of declamation to Rome:

By the time of Cato’s death, Rome had reached a level of political, legal, and literary sophistication ripe for the acceptance and success of this new science of persuasion. Recognizing the dangers of such an effective tool and its potential for weakening their grip on the reins of government, the conservative aristocracy vigorously opposed and persecuted the new arrived professors (Sussman 4).

Eventually declamation’s reputation bounced back and Roman teachers began to instruct their pupils in the ways of the useful exercise.


     Roman rhetoricians like Quintilian and Seneca the Elder valued declamation for its practical use and effectiveness in preparing their students for a life as an orator. Quintilian, specifically, argues in his work On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing that declamation is an essential component in training students to be able to speak extemporaneously, which is what he believed is the ultimate goal of the study of rhetoric (154).




            While many scholars acknowledged the useful practice that came with declamation, not everyone agreed. Michael Winterbottom, in his book Roman Declamation, discusses the criticism that declamation received. Specifically, critics stressed the unreality of declamatory exercises, which, they argued, “made the difference between school and [the] forum larger” (4). Other opinions believed that declamation was an ineffective tool to use when teaching young men to be orators because it did not always remain in the classroom.


     Declamation’s voyage outside the educational realm resulted in the development of two kinds of declamation: epideictic and didactic. Epideictic declamations dealt with the public sphere, or what Winterbottom calls the “display face,” whereas didactic was associated with the private, educational face (13). This development into two parts also resulted in the new demographics of declaimers; declamation was no longer only for schoolboys. The epideictic declamations were even executed by many prominent figures in Roman society – Augustus, Ovid, and Agrippa to name a few (Sussman 1). In his work The Elder Seneca, Lewis A. Sussman also notes that groups of men would gather to declaim to one another, and often times the performances would get heated when one would try to out declaim another (16).


     In conclusion, due to its use outside of the classroom and the criticism that it prepared young orators for an unrealistic reality, declamation eventually began to lose prominence. Some elements of the ancient practice continue to live on in public speaking classes and classes in which students are asked to recite famous speeches and poems by well-known authors.


By Marissa Nolan-Pierce

Works Cited

Burton, Gideon O. "Rhetorical Pedagogy: Declamation." Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric. Brigham Young University. Web. 03 Mar. 2012.                <http://rhetoric.byu.edu/pedagogy/Declamation.htm>.


Quintilian. Quintilian: On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing: Translations from Books One, Two, and Ten of the Institutio Oratoria. Ed. James Jerome. Murphy. Carbondale: Southern                Illinois UP, 1987. Print.


Russell, D. A. Greek Declamation. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1983. Print.


Sussman, Lewis A. The Elder Seneca, Volumes 51-54. Leiden: Brill, 1978. Print.


               Winterbottom, Michael. Roman Declamation. Bristol, [Eng.: Bristol Classical, 1980. Print.


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.