Last week we introduced our Mnemocity with a focus on our first walk through the city of Salzburg in virtual reality. Today, we’ll explain Quintilian’s meaning for “the treasury of eloquence” as well as go back and see how the Greek and Roman rhetoricians used memory before Google was invented. Furthermore we will have a short introduction to Simonides’ legendary creation of the Art of Memory,-highlighting the relations between memory, architecture and rhetoric.

“For our whole education depends upon memory, and we shall receive instruction all in vain if all we hear slips from us.”
_Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 11.2.1

In ancient times, memory was a quintessential faculty for maintaining a culture. Unlike today, where one Google request supplies us with apparently all there is to know, the Ancients’ cultural identity was held together by a focus on memory as by its animating principle. It is indeed with good reason that Quintilian refers to memory as “the treasury of eloquence”, for in the ages before printing, the rhetoricians had to rely on their memory being well trained. The following remark gives us a vivid idea of how impressively that was done when “in very long pleadings, the patience of the hearer fails sooner than the memory of the speaker.” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 11.2.4)

The Master Key

To prevent the memory of the things one has learnt from fading, the Greek and Roman rhetoricians developed an Art of Memory that would prompt the forgetful nature of the mind to remember and to recite even long speeches by heart and with unfailing accuracy. Apart from other guiding structures like the the master key that opens the doors to the dwelling of a memory palace is found in the use of architectural space.

Mnemonic Effects of Architecture

In this context, Simonides’ legendary creation of the Art of Memory builds a focus on the relation between memory, architecture and rhetoric so definingly that one is tempted to say that mnemotechnic emerged from the ruins of a building. With his observation regarding the powerful mnemonic effects of architecture and imagery, Simonides laid the cornerstone to an art and science that over the course of centuries has significantly shaped the development of Western thought.

Retrace the Route of Memory

Architectural mnemonics, by coupling mental and architectural structure, turn the components of our knowledge into the the bricks and mortar of a memory palace. The development of image based mnemotechnic over time lead to entire memory cities being built within the mind of the beholder: an imaginary city through which the subject, whilst making imaginary excursions, can retrace the route of memory and move through the space of mind as if through the streets of a city.

Such an Art of Memory was widely used amongst European educators, intellectuals and orators from classical Rome through to early modern times. It is only now that the Mnemocity is being rebuilt in the realm of the Salzburg Urstein Institut.

Now that we’ve introduced our Mnemocity and have taken our first walk through virtual reality, come back next Monday, when we’ll share with you the story of Simonides and his method of loci.


MNEMONICS I: Introducing the first multi-blog series on Mnemonics

MNEMONICS II: The Mnemocity

MNEMONICS III: Focus on Memory – Treasury of Eloquence

MNEMONICS IV: The Art of Memory 

MNEMONICS V: Memory and Architecture

MNEMONICS VI: E.N.A.P. – The Art of Learning 

MNEMONICS VII: E.N.A.P. – The Art of Speaking 

MNEMONICS VIII: Illuminate Learning 

Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory. English translations by J. S. Watson. 2006. Iowa State