Second Sophistic

Second Sophistic: Greek cultural movement of the second and third century CE.

A sophist

Ancient society was virtually illiterate. Only a few rich people could afford to attend school. Consequently, almost all communication took place by means of the spoken word, and the art of speaking in public was considered one of the most important of all human activities. Or, formulated more precisely: one of the most important of all male activities, because female orators were almost unknown.

The first to think about rhetorics were the 'sophists' ('intellectuals') of the fifth century BCE, who taught the sons of noble Athenians how to convince or influence the people's assembly. Several handbooks about the art of speaking were written in these days: e.g., the Rhetorics by the great philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BCE). After the fourth century, the Greek cities lost their independence and political decisions were no longer made by speeches in political assemblies. Some thought that rhetorics had died.

Herodes Atticus
Herodes Atticus

When Greece was part of the Roman Empire, the art revived in a different form. From now on, the title 'sophist' indicated rhetorical virtuosos, who were able to improvise in public on historical or fictional themes (meletai). The German language possesses the fine but untranslatable expression Konzertredner to describe these men; in English, they may be called "concert orators" or "show speakers". The founder of these new rhetorics was Nicetes of Smyrna, who lived in the second half of the first century CE. Among the later sophists were illustrious artists like Herodes Atticus, Polemo of Laodicea, Publius Aelius Aristides, and Favorinus of Arelate - men who would travel across the entire Roman world, followed by their fans and disciples. Publius Aelius Aristides was responsible for several thoughtful essays about the importance of eloquence (go here for two examples).

A typical performance of a sophist took place in a theater or a music hall. When the orator had entered the stage, he invited his audience to mention a subject about which he had to improvise a declamation. Often, the people would request a historical speech on the great days of independent Greece, such as:

Fictional or humoristic themes were also popular:

The sophist would choose his subject, leave the stage for several minutes to prepare himself, and would then deliver the requested speech in front of an enchanted audience.

These performances were extremely popular and the sophists were the ancient equivalents of modern pop stars. They were rich men, who could afford excentric behavior like devoting all their time to rhetorics. Show oratory was, therefore, an expression of elite culture, a place where a rich man could show his own importance in an Empire where he could no longer distinguish himself as a politician, and could show that he was as courageous as a soldier. This comparison is hardly exaggerated: it took courage to speak in public, as Synesius of Cyrene indicates in his Dio:

Polemo of Laodicea. Bust from the Temple of Zeus in Athens
Polemo of Laodicea. Bust from the Temple of Zeus in Athens
How dreadful is the role of those who show off their eloquence before audiences! Surely the man who has to please so many people of ill-assorted temperaments is striving after the unattainable. Such is the people's orator, absolutely the slave of the mob, at the mercy of all, and to do him an ill turn is open to all men. The sophist, if laughed at, is a dead man, and he suspects the sullen hearer as well. For he is always the sophist whatever subject he treats of, borrowing appearance rather than truth. A man who is all attention troubles him, as one seeking a handle against him, and none the less he who wags his head about in all directions, as though he did not think the rhetorical display worth listening to.note

The Second Sophictic can also be seen as a response to the global culture of the Roman empire. Many Greeks felt that their culture was very special and hated the fact that they were now powerless. The only way to cope with their own irrelevance was to exaggerate the glories of the Greek past. Because the Second Sophistic also meant care for the old traditions, there is a strong similarity to the contemporary activities of the rabbis in Palestine (who wrote down their old discussions) and the Celtic Renaissance (a return to pre-Roman art forms). It was as if all these cultures wrote down who they were, before they would lose their own identity in the Roman culture. Ironically, the Romans did the same. Their return to the past is called Archaism.


The Greek variant of this cultural phenomenon is called the Second Sophistic (the First Sophistic being the art of speaking of the fifth and fourth century BCE). This term was coined by the sophist and author Philostratus. He also invented a noble past for this recent movement, by claiming that it had been founded by the Athenian orator Aeschines, in the fourth century BCE.


On the second sophistic, one may consult the books by

This page was created in 2005; last modified on 14 April 2020.