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Women in Classical Rhetorical Theory during Ancient Times


The classical rhetorical theory dated back to the 5th Century BCE has been used by many great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates. Whether these rhetoricians were orators or writers, they all used this theory to influence their audience and spread messages to their listeners (“Rhetoric in ancient times”, n.d.). Despite the fact that there were many restrictions on women’s rights in ancient times, they also have used the classical rhetorical theory to share their wisdom and were teachers of rhetoric. An example of it is the research on Aspasia and Sappho.

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The classical rhetorical theory has been used since ancient times to this day. The study of this conceptual flow started with ancient philosophers. It has been around since people began pronouncing words and realizing that it has some impact on listeners (“Classical rhetorical theory”, 2014). It seeks the understanding of persuasion and how it is used correctly. As a consequence, the ability to perform in public in the ancient world reached its height (Herrick, 1907). Though rhetoric may seem more powerful through spoken words, many men and women practiced it by writing to unify cultures and help political thoughts. For instance, Ancient Athens was a great location for the use of rhetoric with democratic reform.


In many cultures of the ancient world, women had to contend with the conventions and rules set by men. It cannot be denied that the latter had a dominant position in public life and government. Therefore, it is no coincidence that many images of women in literature and myths written by ancient male writers are presented in such a manner as to blame women for the problems of the world.

In particular, in ancient Greece, women were not recognized as complete citizens of the country and could not work at specific jobs and attend certain events. As known, many women stayed in the house most of the time due to their restrictions on daily living except for when there were occasions of religious festivals to attend. As a consequence, rhetorical research has also made women silent and invisible for over 2,500 years.

Nevertheless, at the present time, studies led by feminist scholars have the reason of the knowledge of at least two Greek women who have made significant contributions to the study of rhetoric. They broke convention and matched their male counterparts in their research on the word and its effect on listeners. One of those women was Aspasia, which was a female rhetorician, influential teacher, and orator in Classical Greece of the 5th century BCE (“Women in the history of rhetoric”, n.d.). Aspasia was one of the few women mentioned in classical rhetorical theory. In many arguments, it is talked about how it impacted the writing of Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration” (“Women in the history of rhetoric”, n.d.) It was considered that she had a significant influence on Socrates, and some other famous philosophers, sharing what she knows about rhetoric and her political skill with them.

On the one hand, theatrical performances and texts from that period portrayed her as a foreigner and a woman of easy virtue. On the other hand, Greek philosophers, in contrast, spoke of her with undisguised admiration in many of their dialogues. During her stay in Athens, she gave birth to a son with Pericles and faced an rejection due to her immigrant status (“Women in the history of rhetoric”, n.d.). As a consequence, even respected women dealt with negative attitudes.

No original writings created by Aspasia have survived since that time. In spite of it, she is mentioned in famous philosophical texts such as Symposium, Menexenus, Memorabilia, and Oeconomicus (“Women in the history of rhetoric”, n.d.). In particular, Socrates is frequently portrayed in it as praising the wisdom and experience of Aspasia. As a result, research on female mentoring and classical rhetoric might significantly benefit from the inclusion of writings on Aspasia.

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Another woman who contributed to the classical rhetorical theory was Sappho. She was an early 6th century BCE writer from the island of Lesbos in Greece, from an aristocratic family (“Women in the history of rhetoric”, n.d.). It is reliably known few facts about her biography, but it is believed that she had several brothers and a daughter. Sappho is considered the author of the first elegies, iambs, and epigrams and wrote a number of Hellenistic poems. She was known for her dialect, which many other Greeks did not understand, and became famous for her lyric poetry on romantic themes, in which she wrote about desires, especially between women.


To conclude, although men’s dominant position in public life and government during ancient times, among the classical rhetorical theory followers, were not only they but also women. This theory helps them identify the art of persuasion to attract an audience, be an influential teacher, speaker, and convey the thoughts of a lyrical nature. Aspasia and Sappho were teachers of it and wanted to get their point across through writing and spreading their knowledge. Although women, especially immigrant ones, were mistreated during this historical period in Athens, these rare examples of respect for them provide glimpses of women’s influence in shaping the classical theory of rhetoric that has been hidden for centuries.


Classical rhetorical theory in interpersonal communication, psychology, behavioral and social science. (2014). Communication Theory, Web.

Rhetoric in ancient times. (n.d.). Introduction to Communication, 2020. Web.

Women in the history of rhetoric. (n.d.). American Society for the History of Rhetoric, 2020, Web.

Herrick, R. (1907). Composition and rhetoric. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.

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