Public speaking was central to success in many societies in classical antiquity leading to a wide range of persuasive techniques being developed in this period. Some of the main approaches centered on appeals to emotion, appeals to credibility, and appeals to logic. Aristotle described these as the three main rhetorical appeals, termed pathos, ethos, and logos. Pathos involves the speaker striking an emotional chord with the listener to achieve a wider aim. Ethos involves the speaker asserting themself as a credible figure or citing a credible figure on a topic. Logos can apply a logical, or ostensibly logical, approach to convince listeners. Aristotle outlined these approaches in his influential text Rhetoric which takes account of the susceptibility of audiences to emotional arguments as much as intellectual arguments.
These techniques were applied to great effect over hundreds of years in the classical world, from Pericles’ Funeral Orations and Demosthenes’ Philippics in Athens to Cato the Elder’s speeches calling for war against Carthage and Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations in Rome. Published speeches from these periods reflect a rich tradition of political debate that rewarded the skillful application of persuasive rhetorical techniques.
For more information on some of the main persuasive techniques from antiquity, read more below.
Ancient Modes of Persuasion
Aristotle’s Rhetoric outlines three modes of persuasion in a systematic framework widely considered the most influential text on the subject. In Aristotle’s view, rhetoric was a key element of philosophy alongside logic and dialectic. This contrasted with Plato’s view, which characterized rhetoric as potentially dangerous and misleading. This view was influenced by misleading approaches taken by sophists, which he felt were responsible for the execution of his mentor Socrates. Aristotle’s philosophical position on the subject led to his landmark study of the three modes of persuasion.
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Describing these modes, Aristotle states that Ethos “depends on the personal character of the speaker”, Pathos on “putting the audience into a certain frame of mind,” and Logos on “the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.” An important distinction is made when describing Logos. In order for this to be a persuasive technique, it is not necessary for a statement to provide actual proof as long as it appears to the audience that proof has been provided. Successful application of these three persuasive approaches is often a characteristic component of some of the most influential speeches throughout history.
In rhetoric, the term Pathos refers to arguments that are intended to appeal to emotions within the audience. The Greek word páthos has a range of meanings, including a “strong feeling” or “emotion”. The words sympathy and empathy have their etymological roots in páthos, indicating their meaning in the context of rhetoric. This mode of persuasion often involves the speaker striking a chord with the audience’s concerns or value systems. During the Third Punic War, Cato the Elder famously concluded a series of speeches with the Latin phrase “Carthage delenda est”, which translates to “Carthage must be destroyed”. This repeated refrain drew on emotions of fear and anger within the Senate to gain support.
Ethos refers to a speaker’s ability to convince an audience of their authority to speak on the subject. In Greek, ethos means “character” and has its etymological roots in the word ethica, which specifically describes “moral character”. In Rhetoric, Aristotle describes a range of ways that a speaker can gain credibility with an audience, including demonstrating expertise and showing moral character. Greek philosopher Isocrates argued that a speaker’s ethos or lack thereof is often partly established before they have begun speaking based on an audience’s knowledge of their past actions.
Logos refers to arguments that appeal to logic or present an ostensibly logical line of argument. This is closely linked to ethos, as logical arguments will typically increase the credibility of the speaker. In a modern context, this could include the use of statistics or data to support an argument. Speakers can illustrate a process of logical reasoning to encourage the audience to arrive at their desired conclusion. Although this is compelling, logical fallacies can mean that, although a speaker’s arguments remain persuasive, they are logically invalid.
Logical debates formed a central theme of many plays in Ancient Greece, reflecting its importance more widely in debates within the city-state. Many of Sophocles’ plays included discourse similar in format to a Socratic dialogue. Many philosophical texts also used this approach to convey an authoritative position. This approach was also often satirized in classical Athens. Greek playwright Aristophanes presents Socrates as a sophist using the appearance of logic to mislead. In Plato’s Apology, this play is described as a contributing factor to Socrates’ trial and execution.
The allegation that Socrates was a sophist was damaging. Sophists were considered to use ostensibly logical statements to put forward misleading and inaccurate arguments. This was predicated on the idea that arguments which appear to follow a logical structure are compelling. As a result of this, other schools throughout Athens made continued efforts to differentiate their own teachings from the disreputable connotations associated with some aspects of the Sophists’ teachings. One example of this is Plato’s dialogue Sophists in which Plato argues that philosophers seek the truth whereas Sophists are not concerned with the truth in making arguments.
Kairos refers to an opportune moment within an argument or debate. The ancient Greek word translates to “the right time”, reflecting an opportunity on which the speaker can capitalize. Kairos was considered an important rhetorical technique by both the major schools in classical Athens, The Sophists and the school of Aristotle and Plato. Both schools acknowledged the unique character of individual speeches and debates and highlighted the need to react as individuals presented. Aristotle related Kairos to the three modes of persuasion as the individual circumstances of a speech will determine which mode of persuasion is most effective at a given time.
Hypophora is a rhetorical technique in which the speaker poses a question to the audience and then proceeds to answer it. This can present the idea that the speaker’s ideas stand up to questioning with the question and answer contrived to give that appearance. Hypophora differs from a rhetorical question that the speaker leaves unanswered. Introducing a question can have the effect of engaging the audience with an issue. This device frequently appears in literature, providing structure to a monologue.
Anaphora is a widely used device that involves using a repeated refrain throughout a speech for emphasis. In Greek, anaphora translates to “carrying back” in this context, referring to a callback to a statement made earlier in the speech. This device is frequently also used as a literary device as it can draw emphasis to a concept or build momentum in a passage of text. A famous example of anaphora is in A Tale of Two Cities where Charles Dickens introduces apparently disparate ideas, drawn together through an anaphoric device in the opening statement, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The wide-ranging applications of this device help to explain why it is so frequently used in speech writing.
This rhetorical device has been used frequently in modern speeches. One of the most famous 20th Century examples was Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech”. This was one of a wide range of powerful rhetorical devices anchoring the series of statements in a powerful call for equality and justice. This approach also built momentum and emphasized the phrases that followed. This device is frequently used by preachers delivering sermons and is one example where King drew on his experience as a religious leader in this speech.
An epiphora, also known as an epistrophe, is similar to an anaphora but with the repeated refrain made at the end of a phrase rather than the beginning. The term’s etymology is the Greek word epistrophē, which translates to “turn around”. This device places a similar emphasis on the repeated refrain, building momentum in a passage of a speech. While they are frequently utilized in rhetoric, both epistrophe and anaphora are frequently used literary devices. As well as being a powerful rhetorical technique throughout antiquity, this device has been used widely in more recent history. A famous example of this is in the Gettysburg Address, where Abraham Lincoln stated that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
In rhetoric, Aporia refers to the speaker expressing doubt, often as a pretense to achieve a wider objective. This can result in engaging the audience in a problem or providing the opportunity for the speaker to explore an issue in more depth. This device was used by Demosthenes in his famous speech On The Crown where he opens by stating that he does not know where to begin questioning which of the numerous infractions of his opponent should be used as a starting point.