Is a term applied to the period c. ad 60–230 when declamation became the most prestigious literary activity in the Greek world. Philostratus coined the term in his Lives of the Sophists, claiming a link between the classical sophists and the movement whose first member he identified as Nicetes of Smyrna in the reign of Nero. The term ‘sophist’ seems restricted to rhetors who entered upon a career of public displays.
On the evidence of Philostratus, whose 40 lives of imperial sophists include several Severan contemporaries, and of other literary and epigraphic texts, it is clear that for these 170 years declamation was not simply an exercise for rhetors and their pupils but a major art form in its own right. It flourished esp. in Athens and the great cities of western Asia Minor, esp. Pergamum, Smyrna, and Ephesus. Rhetors, whether resident teachers of rhetoric or touring eminences, would draw aficionados in large numbers to private or imperial mansions, lecture halls in libraries, council‐houses (see boule), concert halls (see odeum), and even theatres. After a less formal discourse which acted as a prelude, their formal speech was more often deliberative (Latin suāsōria; see rhetoric, latin) recreating a historical situation, always from before 323 bc (e.g. Artabanus urges Xerxes not to invade Greece), than forensic (contrōversia—e.g. should a man who both started and then halted civil war be rewarded or punished?), often involving tyrants, pirates, or rape. Rhetors also had opportunities to deliver diverse display speeches: e.g. Polemon's speech commemorating the dedication of the Athenian Olympieum in ad 131/2, or Aelius Aristides' praise of Rome and lament for Smyrna devastated by an earthquake.
Many sophists, esp. many of those written up by Philostratus, were influential in their cities and even provinces, intervening to check civic disorder or inter‐city rivalry, or dispatched as envoys to congratulate emperors on their accession or to win or secure privileges for their cities (and often themselves). We know of some omitted by Philostratus who, like his sophists, held city offices or were honoured with statues.
But for most teaching must have taken more time and energy than declamation, and it was to encourage education that Vespasian gave rhetors, like grammatici (see education, roman) and doctors, immunities from city offices, judicial service, and priesthoods whether city or provincial, immunities confirmed by his successors and extended to philosophers by Nerva or Trajan (see immunitas; liturgy). Antoninus Pius limited holders to between three and five according to the city's size (and excluded philosophers), though those deemed of special excellence were supernumerary and, unlike the others, immune even when teaching outside their city. Emperors also established salaried chairs of rhetoric: Vespasian of both Greek and Latin at Rome, Pius allegedly throughout the empire. To the civic chair of Greek rhetoric then founded at Athens with a salary of a talent, Marcus Aurelius added c.170 an imperial chair salaried at 10,000 drachmae. From no later than Hadrian the equestrian post of secretary for Greek correspondence was, appropriately, often held by a distinguished rhetor, and this led to a procuratorial career (see procurator) and further rewards. Some posts, however, and the elevation of sophists to the senate, like their authority within city or province, may be as much attributable to their birth into their cities' governing élites as to their skill in manipulating enthusiastic audiences.
Subjects: Classical Studies.