Last week we’ve explained Quintilian’s meaning for “the treasury of eloquence” as well as went back and saw how important memory was for the Greek and Roman rhetoricians. Today, we will not only tell you the story of how two young men saved Simonides life, but go into detail and explain his method of loci.
There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honour of his host. […]
The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment.
Cicero, De Oratore 2.86.352
By calling Simonides away from the banquet moments before the crash, the two young men not only saved both his life and the names of the guests from oblivion but also drew his attention to the principles of the Art of Memory he is said to have invented. These principles are to be found in the observation Simonides made in the aftermath of his barely escaping certain death. As Cicero points out, “Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place [Latin: loco]” in which each of the guests had been sitting at the banqueting table to locate the dead and to restore their identities.
The Method of Loci
The ingenious conclusion Simonides derived from this traumatic experience is that the best aid to clear memory consists in spatial arrangement associated with imagery. That is to say that an association of facts with images can easily be remembered against a familiar background. In this way, the visual memory image of friends sitting around a banqueting table happens to be the most memorable point of departure from which the method of loci originates. (Incidentally, since Simonides’ serendipitous discovery is based on a rather tragic accident, we can only repeat what Quintilian already noted: “Hence, in this case, as in many others, art has had its origin in experiment.” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 11.2.17) [Link: Serendipity]
In the First Place, In the Second Place…
In his account of Simonides, Cicero explains how it is done:
“Persons desiring to train this faculty [of memory] must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves.” (Cicero, De Oratore 2.86.354). When one says ”in the first place… in the second place…” one still uses probably without realising that very same places [loci] the Roman rhetoricians used to give memorable structure to their discourses. To remember the place is tantamount to remembering everything connected to it.
Now that we are aware of Simonides’ Method of Loci and how Cicero explained how the memory is trained, we’ll come back next Monday realizing that we can underpin Quintilian’s remark on the exceptional reliability of our spatial and episodic memory with the insights of neuroscience. Furthermore, we will go into detail why a lived architectural surrounding is thus ideally suited for being employed in the methodical construction of artificial memory.
MNEMONICS IV: The Art of Memory
Cicero. De Oratore. English translations by E. W. Sutton. 1967. London
Quintilian. Institutes of Oratory. English translations by J. S. Watson. 2006. Iowa State