The Classical Essay: Based on Ancient Oratorical Structuring


* This guide on writing a Classical Essay was written by Serena Beetner and Mary Bruinius, former Writing Center Consultants, in fulfillment of an assignment for the Writing Center staff development course, Topics in Composition. The purpose of this guide is to provide insight into the Classical Essay as well as to provide helpful hints and advice to anyone who may be completing a similar assignment.

In ancient Greek and Roman society, rhetoricians developed an established method of argument known today as classical oration. Classical oration consists of six parts: the exordium, the narratio, the partition, the confirmatio, the refutatio, and the peroratio. This method of persuasion is still used in modern classrooms as a model for argumentative papers.

-- Exordium: The introduction

  • Establish your reliability as an author.
  • Write it after writing the narratio and the confirmatio.
  • Review the situation because the audience might not know the background.
  • Keep the audience's attention by:
    • Showing the importance of the issue.
    • Show how the issue affects the audience.
    • Show how the issue affects everyone.
    • Show how the issue affects the general good of the community.

-- Narratio: Sets forth facts of the case.

  • Often narrative.
  • Probably contains the thesis (or partition).

-- Partition: The thesis.

  • Usually a part of the narratio.
  • Names the issues in dispute.
  • Lists arguments to be used in order of their appearance in the paper.

-- Confirmatio: Writer lays out and supports arguments.

  • Clearly defines and supports each argument.
  • Presents research results to support thesis.

-- Refutatio: Writer looks at counter arguments and demonstrates why they aren't compelling.

  • Presents research and perspective on counter arguments.
  • Explains why counter arguments are impractical.
  • Demonstrates the deviations from logic.
  • Shows how these arguments are weak.
-- Peroratio: Conclusion/resolution of paper.
  • Summarizes.
  • May include emotional appeals.
  • Enhances the reliability of yourself as a writer.


Things to Ask Yourself after You Write Your Argument:

  1. Is it clear? Can you state the claim or the main point of your paper and list the parts that develop it?
  2. What should I add? Make sure you have details to support your argument.
  3. What should I cut? Take out all extra words, repeated ideas, and unnecessary material.
  4. Are the language and style consistent and appropriate throughout? Delete words that create a conversational or informal tone in your paper. Also, edit out all cheerleading, slogans, cliches, needless repetition, and exhortations.
  5. Is there enough stylistic variety? Seek variety in phrasing, sentence length, etc.
  6. Have I used the active voice most of the time? Active voice: Virtual reality enhances nearly every aspect of our lives. Passive voice: Nearly every aspect of our lives will be enhanced by virtual reality.
  7. Have I followed grammar rules?

Examples of Assignments: Below are examples of progymnasmata, or elementary exercises used to teach rhetoric.

--Expand on a common expression.

  • Practice elaborating on the moral qualities of a virtue or vice, such as:
    1. It matters what company you keep.
    2. Offense is easy, reconciliation is hard.
    3. The safest course is to believe in no one.
    4. Love as soon to hate, hate as soon to love.
    5. The friendship of princes of perilous.
    6. War is pleasant to those who have not experienced it.
    7. The best provision for old age is learning.

--Retell a story from poetry, history, fairy tales.

  • Construct a characterization of some fictional person.
    1. Write out the character's general habits of mind and action and how they portray powerful emotions.
    2. Write out how the character responds to certain situations.
    3. Write out the character's tastes and favorite sayings.

--Write a descriptive essay about an object noting its physical characteristics in the order in which they appear.

--Write a composition that asks and answers a political or theoretical question, arguing some significant contemporary issue.

--Praise or denounce a law.
  1. Could examine the consequences of breaking the law. Are the consequences just or unjust?
  2. Consider which provisions directly affect other laws?
  3. Is it clearly written and consistent with itself?
  4. Consider if it is just and expedient?
  5. Whether or not the law can be enforced?

An 18th Century Example of a Classical Oration in the Form of a Written Essay: A Modest Proposal by Jonathon Swift

-Exordium: Background on the overcrowded situation in the country, the beggars, and the children.

-Narratio: The children are a hindrance on the working population.

-Partition: In order to solve the problem of overpopulation, we ought to sell the children for food and use the skins for handbags and boots.

-Confirmatio: Statistics demonstrate this would be a good solution to the population problem. One child would feed a family, and it would lesson the Roman Catholic population. Poor tenants will have something of their own that they can sell to make money. It will help marriage.

-Refutatio: Population will be decreased, but speaker views this a s good thing. No one else will take an active stance to help the economy.

-Peroratio: Although the speaker will not benefit, the nation as a whole will benefit from taking his suggestions.


Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 4th ed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Crowley, Sharon. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. New York, New York: Macmilliam College Publishing Company, 1994.

Spurgin, Sally De Witt. The Power to Persuade: A Rhetoric and Reader for Argumentative Writing. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,


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E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.