Oratory is one of the earliest necessities of society; as soon as men were organised on terms of equality for corporate action, there must have been occasions when opinions might differ as to the best course to be pursued, and, if there were no inspired king whose unquestioned authority could impose his will, the majority must decide whether to flee or to fight, to kill or to keep alive. Thus different plans must be discussed, and, in cases where opinion was evenly balanced, that side would prevail which could state its views most convincingly; and so the need for deliberative oratory arose.
With the Greeks oratory was instinctive; in the earliest semi-historical records that we possess, eloquence is found to be a gift prized not less highly than valour in battle; the kings and princes are not only ‘renowned for their power,’ but are ‘leaders of the people by their counsels, . . . wise and eloquent in their instructions’; strength and courage are the property of all, but the real leaders must be the counsellors, βουλήφοροι ἄνδρες
. Nestor, who is almost past the age for fighting, is honoured among the first for his
eloquence, and whereas Achilles shares with many other warriors the glories of the Iliad,
Odysseus, fertile in counsel, is the chief subject of an entire poem. The speech of Phœnix in the ninth book of the Iliad
shows us the ideals which were aimed at in the education of a prince. He tells how he trained the young Achilles to be a ‘speaker of words and a doer of deeds’; (Iliad, ix. 443
) and Achilles, as we know him, well justified this training. The leading characters in the Homeric poems are already fluent orators, able and ready to debate intelligently on any concrete subject, and, moreover, to seek guidance from general principles. Nestor makes frequent appeals to historical precedent; Phœnix introduces allegorical illustration; (Ibid., ix. 502 sqq.
) many speakers refer to the sanctity of law and custom; though the particular case is foremost in the mind, generalisations of various kinds are by no means infrequent. The Homeric counsellor can urge his own arguments and rebut those of his opponent with a natural facility of speech and readiness of invective which even a polished wielder of personalities like Demosthenes might envy.
From the spontaneous outpourings of Achilles and his peers to the studied artifice of Lysias and Demosthenes is a long journey through unknown country, and it is obvious that no definite course of development can be traced; but a reference to Homer is of twofold importance. In the first place, it may indicate that Greek oratory was obviously of native growth, since the germs of it are to be found in the earliest annals; secondly, Homer was studied with such devout reverence not only by the Athenian orators
themselves but by their immediate literary predecessors, the cosmopolitan Sophists and the rhetoricians of Sicily, that his influence may have been greater than would at first sight seem probable.