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Mediterranean Chronology

The Sophists


In an age questioning tradition, the Sophists characterized the Greek culture with their innovation. Prevalent in the middle of the fifth century BC, this group of scholars was part of the establishment of philosophy in history. However, their significance covers a wide variety of fields, typifying the value of the well-rounded citizen of the ancient world. The Sophists were first to make an occupation out of traveling to give public lectures. This was not an organized society or school, but a trend of individuals. For a fee, these men spoke on typical subjects such as math or grammar, but also ranging to rhetoric, education, and ethics.

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While every Sophist may have his forte, his finest skill was probably the delivery of the lecture itself. Public speaking was a skill more valued in the Ancient world than today, thus becoming more of an art. For citizens, lectures were not only an educational experience but an entertaining experience as well. With the rise of philosophical thought, skills of questioning, argument, and rationale became highly esteemed as men sought to attain such. In the opinion of some, the Sophists made it difficult to distinguish between mind games and serious philosophy or teaching.

The connotation of a Sophist was one that changed over the years. Initially, the word simply referred to those who taught rhetoric. These teachers were some of the first to introduce higher education to the Ancient world. However, as some Sophists became more radical, there was more room for criticism. Plato was one of these critics. He openly condemned the Sophist's "job," looking upon it as dishonest and untrue. On the other hand, in an age that was accustomed to changing ideas, the Sophists were widely accepted. Their popularity is revealed in the fact that they usually had a group of young men following as they traveled.

The most widely known of these traveling lecturers was Protagoras, who made radical suggestions in regards to ethics and virtue. He was the subject of criticism primarily for his high fees, but also for his argumentative nature. In addition, Gorgias was memorable for his reflections on oration, as well as skepticism. Both of these men contribute to a body of philosophical works that reveal a lot about their culture and world view. Their ideas were radical and questioned the traditions of their day. Other Sophists were Xenophanes, Prodicas, Hippias, Antiphon, and Thrasymachus. Despite their contribution, all of these men were part of a movement that valued philosophy and rhetoric, two arts exemplifying change in the Ancient world.


Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murphy. Oxford History & the Classical World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Everyman's Classical Dictionary. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961).

The Praeger Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Civilization. (New York: Frederick H. Praeger Publishers, 1967).

Edited by: Keely A. McGowan
Researched by: Susie Okpe
Written by: Kjerstin E. Olson
October 28, 1996

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