Origins of Public Speaking: Introduction

Parthenon "Parthenon" by Lisa Schreiber. CC-BY-NC-ND.

The art of public speaking was practiced long before the Greeks wrote about it in their treatises more than 2,500 years ago. For Greek men, it was a way of life, a way of being, just like football and baseball are to us today. We attribute today's field of communication to the ancient Greeks because they were the first to systematize the art of public speaking, which they called "rhetoric."

The art, or use of public speaking, is quite different today than when it was practiced by the Greeks, and then the Romans. Theirs was a time that didn't have multimedia—television, radio, internet, movies, newspapers, and the like—for getting their messages to the masses. Instead, the Greeks and Romans informed, praised, or persuaded people the old fashion way—through discourse—otherwise known as the oral tradition. That meant speaking face to face with their audience.

What we know today as the art of public speaking has undergone a number of changes since the days of Pericles, Cicero, and Quintilian. Public speaking brought us through the Middle Ages, experienced a rebirth as a result of the Renaissance, redefined to conquer and explain the known and unknown, interpreted to perform theatrics, and finally, along this historical path from the ancient Greeks and Romans, the art of public speaking was reinvented to accommodate the electronic age of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

So what is public speaking? Has it really changed since the days of the Greeks and Romans, St. Augustine, and Descartes? No, the concept of public speaking hasn't changed; it has basically remained the same. However, as the field of communication transitioned from one era to another, so did the understanding of public speaking.

This chapter is meant to give you, the reader, an accurate and detailed history of how the art of public speaking came into existence beginning with the ancient Greeks and Romans. We will learn how the Greeks came to develop the art and then were followed by the Romans who codified and refined public speaking. After the fall of the Roman Empire, we will see how public speaking was kept alive by just a few individuals until the Renaissance, when documents, or extants (which are treatises and writings that survived history), were discovered in Italy, and the approaches, both scientific and Humanistic, that defined the art of public speaking came about. Finally, we visit the latter part of the 19th and 20th centuries to understand contemporary public speaking.

God, that all-powerful Creator of nature and architect of the world, has impressed man with no character so proper to distinguish him from other animals, as by the faculty of speech. ~ Quintilian

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