In the widest sense a term designating the artistic use of language, primarily in speech but secondarily in writing, with the purpose of influencing the hearers or readers. As such rhetoric has arisen in civilizations and languages the world over, and in Syriac the most notable extant rhetoric may be thought to be the poetry of Ephrem, which, through the artistic use of the Syriac language, was designed to persuade the hearers to adhere to his vision of the Christian faith and to dissuade them from the ways of his opponents. Within the sphere of European and Near Eastern civilization, however, ‘rhetoric’ often serves as a short designation for what may be more precisely termed ‘classical rhetoric’, the theory of discourse, applied both to speaking and writing, developed in ancient Greece and Rome. This theory or technique was presented in treatises and manuals in Greek and Latin, and became, both at elementary and higher levels, a principal component of the educational system of classical and late antiquity. With the influence of Greek culture in the Syriac-speaking area, classical rhetoric became familiar to Syrians and exercised an influence also on Syriac literature, and in this sense the term rhiṭuriqe (or similar) and its cognates are employed in Syriac, from the Greek (technē) rhētorikē. John bar Aphtonia, founder of the famous Monastery of Qenneshre, was born in Edessa of a father who, according to a Syriac panegyric of John, ‘partook of secular wisdom, as not without foresight it ends up with the art of rhetoric (ummānuthā d-rhiṭruthā)’.

Classical rhetoric categorized discourse as forensic (judgement on the past), deliberative (advice for the future), or epideictic (praise or blame), and examples of each may be found in Syriac literature. The oration of Narsai on the three E.-Syr. teachers has been analysed as a speech of defence structured according to the precepts of forensic rhetoric, and the Book of Steps as a set of exhortations patterned after the principles of deliberative rhetoric. The clearest examples of the influence of classical rhetoric in Syriac, however, fall within the realm of epideictic: an anonymous speech in praise of John bar Aphtonia, an oration on Severus of Antioch by Giwargi bp. of the Arab tribes, and an oration on Philoxenos of Mabbug by Eli of Qarṭmin.

The ‘Book of Dialogues’ of Yaʿqub bar Shakko is evidence that even as late as the 13th cent. Syriac scholars accorded rhetoric a place in their curriculum of ‘secular wisdom’ consistent with the position it held in late antiquity, for Book One of this treatise has four sections devoted to grammar, rhetoric, poetics, and the copiousness of the Syriac language, Book Two being devoted to logic and philosophy. Most of the sections on rhetoric and poetics are derived from the single extant treatise in Syriac devoted entirely to rhetoric, that by Anṭun of Tagrit. This lengthy treatise (in five Books) exhibits several points of contact with classical rhetorical theory, but also some significant differences. While naming Gregory of Nazianzus, whose orations he knew in Syriac translation, ‘the prince of rhetors’, Anṭun equally admired the ‘ornamentation of words’ (the subject of Book Five) produced by Ephrem.

The ‘Rhetoric’ of Aristotle, in modern times the most widely admired treatise of Greek rhetoric, was not as influential in late antiquity as the works of other Greek writers on rhetoric. It was, however, included by late antique Alexandrian philosophers in the Organon, the set of treatises by Aristotle devoted to logic. Like other treatises of the Organon, it was rendered into Syriac. The Syriac version is lost, but was probably the basis for the ‘old’ (i.e., prior to Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq) Arabic version, which is extant and was the subject of commentaries by Islamic philosophers. The Syriac version was the subject of a commentary by Bar ʿEbroyo in his ‘Cream of Wisdom’, although Bar ʿEbroyo also made much use of the Arabic commentary by Avicenna on the old Arabic version.


  • A.  Böhlig, ‘Zur Rhetorik im Liber Graduum’, in SymSyr IV, 297–305.
  • P. E.  Eskenasy, Antony of Tagrit’s Rhetoric Book One: introduction, partial translation, and commentary (Ph. D. diss. Harvard University; 1991). (review by E. Riad, in OrSuec 41–42 [1992–93], 309–14)
  • M. C.  Lyons, Aristotle’s Ars rhetorica: The Arabic version (1982).
  • K. E.  McVey, ‘The memra of Narsai on the three Nestorian doctors as an example of forensic rhetoric’, in SymSyr III, 87–96.
  • eadem, George, bishop of the Arabs. A homily on blessed Mar Severus, patriarch of Antioch (CSCO 530–1; 1993).
  • R. R.  Phenix, The Sermons on Joseph of Balai of Qenneshrin. Rhetoric and interpretation in fifth-century Syriac literature (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum; 2008).
  • J. W.  Watt, The fifth Book of the Rhetoric of Antony of Tagrit (CSCO 480–1; 1986).
  • J. W.  Watt, ‘Syriac panegyric in theory and practice’, LM 102 (1989), 271–98.
  • J. W.  Watt, ‘Grammar, Rhetoric, and the Enkyklios Paideia in Syriac’, ZDMG 143 (1993), 45–71.
  • J. W.  Watt, ‘The Syriac reception of Platonic and Aristotelian rhetoric’, ARAM 5 (1993), 579–601.
  • J. W.  Watt, ‘A portrait of John bar Aphtonia, founder of the monastery of Qenneshre’, in Portraits of Spiritual Authority, ed. J. W. Drijvers and J. W. Watt (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 137; 1999), 155–69.
  • J. W.  Watt, Aristotelian rhetoric in Syriac. Bar Hebraeus, Butyrum Sapientiae, Book of Rhetoric (Aristoteles Semitico-Latinus 18; 2005).
  • J. W.  Watt, ‘Literary and philosophical rhetoric in Syriac’, in Literary and philosophical rhetoric in the Greek, Roman, Syriac and Arabic worlds, ed. F. Woerther (Europaea Memoria 1.66; 2009), 141–54.

How to Cite This Entry

John W. Watt , “Rhetoric,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rhetoric.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

John W. Watt , “Rhetoric,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rhetoric.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Watt, John W. “Rhetoric.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Rhetoric.

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