7 Rules Of Public Speaking In Ancient Athens

The ancient Athenians were particularly proud that their city officially secured the most basic component of freedom of expression: the right to freedom of speech. The value in the freedom of speech was in the manner in which you addressed your audience. It is that combination of freedom and respect that was -and always should be- a vital element of democracy… Any lack of respect towards the audience was considered non-democratic by the Athenians. An Athenian citizen was expected to display a morally acceptable behavior towards his fellow citizen.

Without civility, Democracy does not work
Ancient Athenian politician Pericles delivering a speech at Pnyx. Painting by German history painter Philipp von Foltz (1852)

Freedom of speech was the constitutional right of all citizens- be they rich or poor, nobles or peasants, powerful or powerless. All male Athenians that had completed their military service were granted the right to address the Public Assembly -also known as Ecclesia. The Ecclesia was considered to be the most important body of Athenian democracy. The person that addressed it was regarded as sacred, and the speaker’s rights were protected by Law. The President of the Assembly, also known as Proedros, had the power to inflict penalties to anyone that interrupted the speaker. An Athenian citizen was expected to show politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech.

The speaker had to follow certain rules. Aeschines (an Athenian politician and orator of the 4th c. BCE) provided us with valuable information on this subject: If the speaker didn’t follow seven basic rules, they could be punished.

 Rules of Public Speaking in the Athenian Senate and Assembly
  1. Do keep to the subject being discussed.
  2. Do treat each subject separately.
  3. Do not address the same subject twice in the same day.
  4. Do not be insulting and invective towards a fellow citizen.
  5. Do not use slander against a fellow citizen.
  6. Do not interrupt the proceedings by standing up or shouting or speaking on anything irrelevant.
  7. Do not make physical contact with the presiding officials or interfere with their duties.

Aeschines, Against Timarchus [35]

Model of the Old Bouleuterion, ca. 500 BCE Model by Petros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias, Athens, Agora Museum.

The Board of Presidents were authorized to impose a fine of up to 50 drachmas* to anyone who violated the above rules. The President also demanded any citizen in violation of the rules to step down from the speaker’s podium.

(*Note: A drachma was equivalent to a day’s salary… So 50 drachmas was a lot of money at that time.)

Wow… How times have changed since then! Don’t you think we’re missing some common sense with a healthy dose of good manners, today? Which of those rules do you believe we need the most? Given the social media age that we now live in, I believe #4 is the one we need more today!

Demosthenes (384-322 BCE) Vatican Museum

4 thoughts on “7 Rules Of Public Speaking In Ancient Athens

  1. Jamie Collins says:

    I agree! We need a lot more of #4 in our world. I can’t believe how horrible people are and that they are encouraging their children to be disrespectful as well.

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