declamation declamatio meletê
   Rhetorical Pedagogy: Rhetorical Exercises
Gk. "practice"

The culminating exercises of a rhetorical education were those practice speeches known as declamations. These complete practice orations came after the rudimentary exercises or progymnasmata. While those preliminary exercises dealt with general themes in abstract terms (such as the thesis exercise), a declamation applied a theme to a specific individual or a given pragmatic concern (hypothesis). By providing a specific context or kairos for oratory, students were introduced to the constraints of both occasion and audience, and the need (through decorum) to find apt words for them within a unified oration.

These exercises were either deliberative in nature (the suasoria) or forensic (the controversia):


In these practice speeches a student presented advice to a specific historical or mythical character faced with a decision on taking a course of action. These typically involved debating some ethical dilemma in selecting the best policy. As such, these speeches constituted practice in deliberative oratory and, because of their imaginative enactments, join the progymnasmata exercise, impersonation, in teaching students to understand the role of character (or ethos) in persuasion. Of special emphasis in the suasoria was attention to the division of the ethical argument.

Example Themes

Should Cato get married?
Should Alexander take to the sea?
Should the Spartans withdraw from Thermopylae?
Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia?
Should the Scythians return to their former way of life in the wilderness or remain a city people?


If the suasoria engaged students in ethical deliberation, the more advanced controversia invited the student into an imaginary judicial or forensic debate, and is comparable to (or a continuation of) the progymnasmata exercise in defending or attacking a law. In both cases the student could be asked to argue either or both sides of an issue (see in utrumqe partes). Also, like the impersonation exercise, a controversia was argued from the perspective of a given character.

The controversia consisted of an imaginary legal case. A student was presented with a given law and a situation in which the law is violated. He would then, either as plaintiff or defendant, have to interpret and apply the law in a complete forensic speech, staying in the character of the person whom he was designed to impersonate. Doing this sometimes involved the student in creating a credible backstory to explain or excuse the motives and culpability of his "client." As the most developed of the practice speeches, a controversia was expected to have the arrangement of a complete oration, including an introduction, a narrative statement of the facts, confirming proofs, and a conclusion.

Sample controversiae which circulated in antiquity reveal these declamations as rhetorical showpieces in which all of the topics of invention, various figures of speech, and elements of stylistic composition were displayed to show off the verbal agility of the student and his mastery of rhetorical techniques, especially the various methods given focused attention within the progymnasmata exercises, such as the inclusion of dialogue (dialogismus) or painting a vivid description.

Example Controversia

"The Case of the Poor Man's Bees"

Law: One may sue for unlawful damage to property

Situation: A poor man and a rich man have adjacent gardens. The rich man has flowers; the poor man, bees. The rich man complained that the bees were feeding on (and harming) his flowers, and told the poor man to move his bees. He did not, so the rich man put poison on his flowers, which killed the poor man's bees. The rich man is charged with unlawful damage to property.

[Impersonating the poor man, the student then presents his case against the rich man.]

Sources: Seneca, Controversiae, Suasoriae; Quint 2.6-7, 2.10; Quint. Declam.


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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
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