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This webpage reproduces a section of
Institutio Oratoria


published in Vol. IV
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. IV) Quintilian
Institutio Oratoria

Book XI

Chapter 2

2 1 Some regard memory as being no more than one of nature's gifts; and this view is no doubt true to a great extent; but, like everything else, memory  p213 may be improved by cultivation. And all the labour of which I have so far spoken will be in vain unless all the other departments be co-ordinated by the animating principle of memory. For our whole education depends upon memory, and we shall receive instruction all in vain if all we hear slips from us, while it is the power of memory alone that brings before us the store of precedents, laws, rulings, sayings and facts which the orator must possess in abundance and which he must always hold ready for immediate use. Indeed it is not without good reason that memory has been called the treasure-house of eloquence. 2 But pleaders need not only to be able to retain a number of facts in their minds, but also to be quick to take them in; it is not enough to learn what you have written by dint of repeated reading; it is just as necessary to follow the order both of matter and words when you have merely thought out what you are going to say, while you must also remember what has been said by your opponents, and must not be content merely with refuting their arguments in the order in which they were advanced, but must be in a position to deal with each in its appropriate place. 3 Nay, even extempore eloquence, in my opinion, depends on no mental activity so much as memory. For while we are saying one thing, we must be considering something else that we are going to say: consequently, since the mind is always looking ahead, it is continually in search of something which is more remote: on the other hand, whatever it discovers, it deposits by some mysterious process in the safe-keeping of memory, which acts as a transmitting agent and hands on to the delivery  p215 what it has received from the imagination. 4 I do not conceive, however, that I need dwell upon the question of the precise function of memory, although many hold the view that certain impressions are made upon the mind, analogous to those which a signet-ring makes on wax. Nor, again, shall I be so credulous, in view of the fact that the retentiveness or slowness of the memory depends upon our physical condition, as to venture to allot a special art to memory. 5 My inclination is rather to marvel at its powers of reprodu­cing and presenting a number of remote facts after so long an interval, and, what is more, of so doing not merely when we seek for such facts, but even at times of its own accord, and not only in our waking moments, but even when we are sunk in sleep. 6 And my wonder is increased by the fact that even beasts, which seem to be devoid of reason, yet remember and recognise things, and will return to their old home, however far they have been taken from it. Again, is it not an extraordinary inconsistency that we forget recent and remember distant events, that we cannot recall what happened yesterday and yet retain a vivid impression of the acts of our childhood? 7 And what, again, shall we say of the fact that the things we search for frequently refuse to present themselves and then occur to us by chance, or that memory does not always remain with us, but will even sometimes return to us after it has been lost? But we should never have realised the fullness of its power nor its supernatural capacities, but for the fact that it is memory which has brought oratory to its present position of glory. 8 For it provides the orator not merely with the order of his thoughts, but even of  p217 his words, nor is its power limited to stringing merely a few words together; its capacity for endurance is inexhaustible, and even in the longest pleadings the patience of the audience flags long before the memory of the speaker. 9 This fact may even be advanced as an argument that there must be some art of memory and that the natural gift can be helped by reason, since training enables us to do things which we cannot do before we have had any training or practice. On the other hand, I find that Plato​56 asserts that the use of written characters is a hindrance to memory, on the ground, that is, that once we have committed a thing to writing, we cease to guard it in our memory and lose it out of sheer carelessness. 10 And there can be no doubt that concentration of mind is of the utmost importance in this connexion; it is, in fact, like the eyesight, which turns to, and not away from, the objects which it contemplates. Thus it results that after writing for several days with a view to acquiring by heart what we have written, we find that our mental effort has of itself imprinted it on our memory.

11 The first person to discover an art of memory is said to have been Simonides,​57 of whom the following well-known story is told. He had written an ode of the kind usually composed in honour of victorious athletes, to celebrate the achievement of one who had gained the crown for boxing. Part of the sum for which he had contracted was refused him on the ground that, following the common practice of poets, he had introduced a digression in praise of Castor and Pollux, and he was told that, in view of what he had done, he had best ask for the rest of the sum due from those whose deeds he had  p219 extolled. And according to the story they paid their debt. 12 For when a great banquet was given in honour of the boxer's success, Simonides was summoned forth from the feast, to which he had been invited, by a message to the effect that two youths who had ridden to the door urgently desired his presence. He found no trace of them, but what followed proved to him that the gods had shown their gratitude. 13 For he had scarcely crossed the threshold on his way out, when the banqueting hall fell in upon the heads of the guests and wrought such havoc among them that the relatives of the dead who came to seek the bodies for burial were unable to distinguish not merely the faces but even the limbs of the dead. Then it is said, Simonides, who remembered the order in which the guests had been sitting, succeeded in restoring to each man his own dead. 14 There is, however, great disagreement among our authorities as to whether this ode was written in honour of Glaucus of Carystus, Leocrates, Agatharcus or Scopas, and whether the house was at Pharsalus, as Simonides himself seems to indicate in a certain passage, and as is recorded by Apollodorus, Eratosthenes, Euphorion and Eurypylus of Larissa, or at Crannon, as is stated by Apollas Callimachus, who is followed by Cicero,​58 to whom the wide circulation of the story is due. 15 It is agreed that Scopas, a Thessalian noble, perished at this banquet, and it is also said that his sister's son perished with him, while it is thought that a number of descendants of an elder Scopas met their death at the same time. 16 For my own part, however, I regard the portion of the story which concerns Castor and Pollux as being purely fictitious, since  p221 the poet himself has nowhere mentioned the occurrence; and he would scarcely have kept silence on an affair which was so much to his credit.

17 The achievement of Simonides appears to have given rise to the observation that it is an assistance to the memory if localities are sharply impressed upon the mind, a view the truth of which everyone may realise by practical experiment. For when we return to a place after considerable absence, we not merely recognise the place itself, but remember things that we did there, and recall the persons whom we met and even the unuttered thoughts which passed through our minds when we were there before. Thus, as in most cases, art originates in experiment. 18 Some place is chosen of the largest possible extent and characterised by the utmost possible variety, such as a spacious house divided into a number of rooms. Everything of note therein is carefully committed to the memory, in order that the thought may be enabled to run through all the details without let or hindrance. And undoubtedly the first task is to secure that there shall be no delay in finding any single detail, since an idea which is to lead by association to some other idea requires to be fixed in the mind with more than ordinary certitude. 19 The next step is to distinguish something which has been written down or merely thought of by some particular symbol which will serve to jog the memory; this symbol may have reference to the subject as a whole, it may, for example, be drawn from navigation, warfare, etc., or it may, on the other hand, be found in some particular word. (For even in cases of forgetfulness one single word will serve to  p223 restore the memory.) However, let us suppose that the symbol is drawn from navigation, as, for instance, an anchor; or from warfare, as, for example, some weapon. 20 These symbols are then arranged as follows. The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living-room; the remainder are placed in due order all round the impluvium59 and entrusted not merely to bedrooms and parlours, but even to the care of statues and the like. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details. Consequently, however large the number of these which it is required to remember, all are linked one to the other like dancers hand in hand, and there can be no mistake since they what precedes to what follows, no trouble being required except the preliminary labour of committing the various points to memory. 21 What I have spoken of as being done in a house, can equally well be done in connexion with public buildings, a long journey, the ramparts of a city, or even pictures. Or we may even imagine such places to ourselves. We require, therefore, places, real or imaginary, and images or symbols, which we must, of course, invent for ourselves. By images I mean the words by which we distinguish the things which we have to learn by heart: in fact, as Cicero says, we use "places like wax tablets and symbols in lieu of letters."​60 22 It will be best to give his words verbatim:​61 "We must for this purpose employ a number of remarkable places, clearly envisaged and separated by short intervals: the  p225 images which we use must be active, sharply-cut and distinctive, such as may occur to the mind and strike it with rapidity." This makes me wonder all the more, how Metrodorus​62 should have found three hundred and sixty different localities in the twelve signs of the Zodiac through which the sun passes. It was doubtless due to the vanity and boastfulness of a man who was inclined to vaunt his memory as being the result of art rather than of natural gifts. 23 I am far from denying that those devices may be useful for certain purposes, as, for example, if we have to reproduce a number of names in the order in which we have heard them. For those who use such aids place the things which have to be remembered in localities which they have previously fixed in the memory; they put a table, for instance, in the forecourt, a proof in the hall and so on with the rest, and then, when they retrace their steps, they find the objects where they had placed them. 24 Such a practice may perhaps have been of use to those who, after an auction, have succeeded in stating what object they have sold to each buyer, their statements being checked by the books of the money-takers; a feat which it is alleged was performed by Hortensius. It will, however, be of less service in learning the various parts of a set speech. For thoughts do not call up the same images as material things, and a symbol requires to be specially invented for them, although even here a particular place may serve to remind us, as, for example, of some conversation that may have been held there. But how can such a method grasp a whole series of connected words? 25 I pass by the fact that there are certain things which it is impossible to represent by  p227 symbols, as, for example, conjunctions. We may, it is true, like shorthand writers, have definite symbols for everything, and may select an infinite number of places to recall all the words contained in the five books of the second pleading against Verres, and we may even remember them all as if they were deposits placed in safe-keeping. But will not the flow of our speech inevitably be impeded by the double task imposed upon our memory? 26 For how can our words be expected to flow in connected speech, if we have to look back at separate symbols for each individual word? Therefore the experts mentioned by Cicero​63 as having trained their memory by methods of this kind, namely Charmadas, and Metrodorus of Scepsis, to whom I have just referred, may keep their systems for their own use. My precepts on the subject shall be of a simpler kind.

27 If a speech of some length has to be committed to memory, it will be well to learn it piecemeal, since there is nothing so bad for the memory as being overburdened. But the sections into which we divide it for this purpose should not be very short: otherwise they will be too many in number, and will break up and distract the memory. I am not, however, prepared to recommend any definite length; it will depend on the natural limits of the passage concerned, unless, indeed, it be so long as itself to require subdivision. 28 But some limits must be fixed to enable us, by dint of frequent and continuous practice, to connect the words in their proper order, which is a task of no small difficulty, and subsequently to unite the various sections into a whole when we go over them in order. If certain portions prove especially difficult to  p229 remember, it will be found advantageous to indicate them by certain marks, the remembrance of which will refresh and stimulate the memory. 29 For there can be but few whose memory is so barren that they will fail to recognise the symbols with which they have marked different passages. But if anyone is slow to recognise his own signs, he should employ the following additional remedy, which, though drawn from the mnemonic system discussed above,​64 is not without its uses: he will adapt his symbols to the nature of the thoughts which tend to slip from his memory, using an anchor, as I suggested above, if he has to speak of a ship, or a spear, if he has to speak of a battle. 30 For symbols are highly efficacious, and one idea suggests another: for example, if we change a ring from one finger to another or tie a thread round it, it will serve to remind us of our reason for so doing. Specially effective are those devices which lead the memory from one thing to another similar thing which we have got to remember; for example, in the case of names, if we desire to remember the name Fabius, we should think of the famous Cunctator, whom we are certain not to forget, or of some friend bearing the same name. 31 This is specially easy with names such as Aper, Ursus, Naso, or Crispus,​65 since in these cases we can fix their origin in our memory. Origin again may assist us to a better remembrance of derivative names, such as Cicero, Verrius, or Aurelius.​66 However, I will say no more on this point.

32 There is one thing which will be of assistance to everyone, namely, to learn a passage by heart from the same tablets on which he had committed it to writing. For he will have certain tracks to guide  p231 him in his pursuit of memory, and the mind's eye will be fixed not merely on the pages on which the words were written, but on individual lines, and at times he will speak as though he were reading aloud. Further, if the writing should be interrupted by some erasure, addition or alteration, there are certain symbols available, the sight of which will prevent us from wandering from the track. 33 This device bears some resemblance to the mnemonic system which I mentioned above, but if my experience is worth anything, is at once more expeditious and more effective. The question has been raised as to whether we should learn by heart in silence; it would be best to do so, save for the fact that under such circumstances the mind is apt to become indolent, with the result that other thoughts break in. For this reason the mind should be kept alert by the sound of the voice, so that the memory may derive assistance from the double effort of speaking and listening. But our voice should be subdued, rising scarcely above a murmur. 34 On the other hand, if we attempt to learn by heart from another reading aloud, we shall find that there is both loss and gain; on the other hand, the process of learning will be slower, because the perception of the eye is quicker than that of the ear, while, on the other hand, when we have heard a passage once or twice, we shall be in a position to test our memory and match it against the voice of the reader. It is, indeed, important for other reasons to tests ourselves thus from time to time, since continuous reading has this drawback, that it passes over the passages which we find hard to remember at the same speed as those which we find less difficulty in retaining. 35 By testing ourselves to see  p233 whether we remember a passage, we develop greater concentration without waste of time over the repetition of passages which we already know by heart. Thus, only those passages which tend to slip from the memory are repeated with a view to fixing them in the mind by frequent rehearsal, although as a rule the mere fact that they once slipped our memory makes us ultimately remember them with specially accuracy. Both learning by heart and writing have this feature in common: namely, that good health, sound digestion, and freedom from other preoccupations of mind contribute largely to the success of both. 36 But for the purpose of getting a real grasp of what we have written under the various heads, division and artistic structure will be found of great value, while, with the exception of practice, which is the most powerful aid of all, they are practically the only means of ensuring an accurate remembrance of what we have merely thought out. For correct division will be an absolute safeguard against error in the order of our speech, 37 since there are certain points not merely in the distribution of the various questions in our speech, but also in their development (provided we speak as we ought), which naturally come first, second, and third, and so on, while the connexion will be so perfect that nothing can be omitted or inserted without the fact of the omission or insertion being obvious. 38 We are told that Scaevola, after a game of draughts in which he made the first move and was defeated, went over the whole game again in his mind on his way into the country, and on recalling the move which had cost him the game, returned to tell the man with whom he had been playing, and the latter acknowledged that he was  p235 right. Is order, then, I ask you, to be accounted of less importance in a speech, in which it depends entirely on ourselves, whereas in a game our opponent has an equal share in its development? 39 Again, if our structure be what it should, the artistic sequence will serve to guide the memory. For just as it is easier to learn verse than prose, so it is easier to learn prose when it is artistically constructed than when it has no such organisation. If these points receive attention, it will be possible to repeat verbatim even such passagesº as gave the impression of being delivered extempore. My own memory is of a very ordinary kind, but I found that I could do this with success on occasions when the interruption of a declamation by persons who had a claim to such a courtesy forced me to repeat part of what I had said. There are persons still living, who were then present to witness if I lie.

40 However, if anyone asks me what is the one supreme method of memory, I shall reply, practice and industry. The most important thing is to learn much by heart and to think much, and, if possible, to do this daily, since there is nothing that is more increased by practice or impaired by neglect than memory. 41 Therefore boys should, as I have already urged,​67 learn as much as possible by heart at the earliest stage, while all who, whatever their age, desire to cultivate the power of memory, should endeavour to swallow the initial tedium of reading and re-reading what they have written or read, a process which we may compare to chewing the cud. This task will be rendered less tiresome if we begin by confining ourselves to learning only a little at a time, in amounts not sufficient to create disgust: we  p237 may then proceed to increase the amount by a line a day, an addition which will not sensibly increase the labour of learning, until at last the amount we can attack will know no limits. We should begin with poetry and then go on to oratory, while finally we may attempt passages still freer in rhythm and less akin to ordinary speech, such, for example, as passages from legal writers. 42 For passages intended as an exercise should be somewhat difficult in character if they are to make it easy to achieve the end for which the exercise is designed; just as athletes train the muscles of their hands by carrying weights of lead, although in the actual contests their hands will be empty and free. Further, I must not omit the fact, the truth of which our daily practice will teach us, that in the case of the slower type of mind the memory of recent events is far from being exact. 43 It is a curious fact, of which the reason is not obvious, that the interval of a single night will greatly increase the strength of the memory, whether this be due to the fact that it has rested from the labour, the fatigue of which constituted the obstacle to success, or whether it be that the power of recollection, which is the most important element of memory, undergoes a process of ripening and maturing during the time which intervenes. Whatever the cause, things which could not be recalled on the spot are easily co-ordinated the next day, and time itself, which is generally accounted one of the causes of forgetfulness, as to strengthen the memory. 44 On the other hand, the abnormally rapid memory fails as a rule to last and takes its leave as though, its immediate task performed, it had no further duties to perform. And indeed there is  p239 nothing surprising in the fact that things which have been implanted in the memory for some time should have a greater tendency to stay there.

The difference between the powers of one mind and another, to which I have just referred, gives rise to the question whether those who are intending to speak should learn their speeches verbatim or whether it is sufficient to get a good grasp of the essence and the order of what they have got to say. To this problem no answer is possible that will be of universal application. 45 Give me a reliable memory and plenty of time, and I should prefer not to permit a single syllable to escape me: otherwise writing would be superfluous. It is specially important to train the young to such precision, and the memory should be continually practised to this end, that we may never learn to become indulgent to its failure. For this reason I regard it as a mistake to permit the student to be prompted or to consult his manuscript, since such practices merely encourage carelessness, and no one will ever realize that he has not got his theme by heart, if he has no fear of forgetting it. 46 It is this which causes interruptions in the flow of speech and makes the orator's language halting and jerky, while he seems as though he were learning what he says by heart and loses all the grace that a well-written speech can give, simply by the fact that he makes it obvious that he has written it. On the other hand, a good memory will give us credit for quickness of wit as well, by creating the impression that our words have not been prepared in the seclusion of the study, but are due to the inspiration of the moment, an impression which is of the utmost importance both to the orator and to his cause. 47 For  p241 the judge admires those words more and fears them less which he does not suspect of having been specially prepared beforehand to outwit him. Further, we must make it one of our chief aims in pleading to deliver passages which have been constructed with the utmost care, in such manner as to make it appear that they are but casually strung together, and to suggest that we are thinking out and hesitating over words which we have, as a matter of fact, carefully prepared in advance.

48 It should now be clear to all what is the best course to adopt for the cultivation of memory. If, however, our own memory be naturally somewhat dull or time presses, it will be useless to tie ourselves down rigidly to every word, since if we forget any one of them, the result may be awkward hesitation or even a tongue-tied silence. It is, therefore, far safer to secure a good grasp of the facts themselves and to leave ourselves free to speak as we will. 49 For the loss of even a single word that we have chosen is always a matter for regret, and it is hard to supply a substitute when we are searching for the word that we had written. But even this is no remedy for a weak memory, except for those who have acquired the art of speaking extempore. But if both memory and this gift be lacking, I should advise the would‑be orator to abandon the toil of pleading altogether and, if he has any literary capacity, to betake himself by preference to writing. But such a misfortune will be of but rare occurrence.

50 For the rest there are many historical examples of the power to which memory may be developed by natural aptitude and application. Themistocles is said to have spoken excellently in Persian after a  p243 year's study; Mithridates is recorded to have known twenty-two languages, that being the number of the different nations included in his empire;​68 Crassus, surnamed the Rich,​69 when commanding in Asia had such a complete mastery of five different Greek dialects, that he would give judgement in the dialect employed by the plaintiff in putting forward his suit; Cyrus is believed to have known the name of every soldier in his army, 51 while Theodectes​70 is actually said to have been able to repeat any number of verses after only a single hearing. I remember that it used to be alleged that there were persons still living who could do the same, though I never had the good fortune to be present at such a performance. Still, we shall do well to have faith in such miracles, if only that he who believes may also hope to achieve the like.

The Translator's Notes:

56 Phaedr. 275A.

57 See X.I.64.

58 Cic. de Or. II.LXXXVI.352.

59 The impluvium was the light-well in the centre of the atrium with a cistern beneath it to catch the rainwater from the roof, which sloped inwards.

60 De Or. II.LXXXVI.354.

61 De Or. II.LXXXVII.358.

62 Of Scepsis, the favourite of Mithradatesº Eupator. See de Or. II.LXXXVIII.360. He used the signs of the Zodiac as aids to the memory, subdividing each into thirty compartments. Quintilian wonders on what principle he can have made such a division, necessarily purely artificial in nature.

Thayer's Note: To people sufficiently versed in astrology, each of the 360 degrees of the zodiac — or, to use ancient terminology, "places" or "parts" — has a clear individual identity, in much the same way as the tiniest hamlets do in the mind of someone who knows a region very well. The more esoterically inclined practitioners of today's art very occasionally make use of the so‑called Sabine places — which despite the name have nothing to do with the ancient Sabine people and appear to be a 19c or 20c invention — that characterise each degree; but already in Antiquity, decans, terms, faces, "places" properly speaking (2½° wide), critical degrees and the positions of the fixed stars, all of which are covered in great detail by such writers as Manilius, Ptolemy, and Firmicus Maternus, combined to produce a very detailed mental map of the heavens in the mind of the more erudite astrologer. Quintilian's contemporary Ptolemy, for example, while not believing in the interpretive value of individual degrees, is a witness that others did (Tetrabiblos I.22).

63 de Or. II.LXXXVII.360. Charmadas or Charmides, an elder contemporary of Cicero.

64 Sects. 18‑23.

65 Boar, Bear, Long-nose, and Curly respectively.

66 Cicero, a sower of chickpea (cicer), according to Pliny (XVIII.10). AureliusAuselius, child of the sun (a sole) according to Festus. Verrius unknown.

67 See I.I.36; II.VII.1 sqq.

68 King of Pontus.

69 Consul, 131 B.C. Commanded in the war against Aristonicus of Pergamum, was defeated and killed.

70 Rhetorician of first half of fourth century B.C.

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