What Is Declamation?

Declamation (Greek ‘melete’; Roman ‘declamatio,’ literally declaration) was a practical exercise in ancient rhetoric, originally incorporated into the curricula of Greek and Roman rhetoric schools in order to train students for future positions as public speaker or advocate-politician.

Declamation came after the preliminary exercises or progymnasmataOpens in new window and became prominent in Greek rhetorical education in the third century BCE, although earlier works such as Antiphon’s TetralogiesOpens in new window and even PlatoOpens in new window’s dialogues reveal that fictions of rhetoric are more or less as old as systematic thought about rhetoric itself.

The Exercises of Declamation

Declamation was regarded as a rhetorical showpiece and was separated into two constituent exercises:

  1. the controversia, with its form like judicial or forensic debate, dealt exclusively with speeches of defence or persecution in imaginary judicial proceedings; the proposition below might form the foundation for a controversia and produce accusations and defences: “A married woman gave birth to a black baby. She is charged with adultery.” and;
  2. the suasoria—that which is deliberative in nature, was oriented towards an exhortation wherein the speaker might encourage or discourage a historical or mythological character faced with a dilemma on taking a course of action. One was given a theme such as “Should Cicero beg Antonius to spare his life?” Theoretically the same speaker might engage one side and then promptly reverse himself and plead the opposite cause.

Declamations generally began with the pedagogue, or teacher of rhetoric, proposing a theme or thesis Opens in new window. Sometimes the teacher added colorsOpens in new window and elegant details, in order to make a theme more compelling, or interesting, or simply to add grandeur to a boring theme.

Oftentimes the theme might range from ties of fidelity between fathers and sons, to heroes and tyrants in the archaic city, or conflicts between rich and poor men. It was a common practice that the pedagogue or teacher would prepare a model declamation for the students to imitate; which they in turn composed and delivered their speeches to an audience of their classmates, sometimes in the form of mock trials, after which the teacher would critique their performances.

An exercise for imitation known as prosopopoeia Opens in new window was incorporated into declamations; with it students would learn to declaim in the ethos or character of the person for whom they were speaking—a mythological or historical personage at some critical point in life.

The declamation exercises were also pursued by adult who sought to entertain a circle of friends or even a broader public with a display of verbal dexterity. Within this context, declamatory skill was cultivated for amusement, as a social grace, with no necessary connection to historical facts, public law courts, or contemporary realities.

Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae: DeclamationOpens in new window
Wkipedia: DeclamationOpens in new window
Theresa Enos, Encyclopedia of Rhetoric & Composition: Communication from Ancient Time, Declamation (163–164)Opens in new window
Erik Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self.Opens in new window
Seneca, Controversiae and Suasoriae. Ed. M. Winterbottom. Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974.
Winterbottom, M. Roman Declamation. Bristol: Phillimore, 1980.
Kennedy, Geroge A. The Art of Persuasion in Greece, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.
Quintilian, Declamationes Maiores. Ed. G. Lehnert, Leipzig: Teubner, 1905 (Declamationes Minores. Ed. C. Ritter. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884.) Cicero, De Oratore, Trans. G.L. Hendrickson and H.M. Hubbell, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1962.