The Progymnasmata: An Overview

Progymnasmata is a set of preparatory exercises set up to train students of rhetoricOpens in new window for the composition of prose and performance of practical orations. Progymnasmata is generally distinguished into two groups: those that can be a part of a speech; and those that can be either a part or a whole speech.

The first exercise in the progymnasmatic series required students to retell one of Aesop’s fables. The student’s ability to narrate would be stretched by the further requirement that they tell the same story backwards or starting in the middle.

The exercises began from simple tasks as retelling classical literary passages such as an anecdoteOpens in new window, fableOpens in new window, or a story, and continued with more complex ones, in which material from epic poetry, tragedy, and other literary genres was manipulated for different purposes.

The exercises also led to performance of orations, i.e. declamationsOpens in new window, where one would be taught for extemporaneous composition and delivery of full-fledged speeches.

A notable example of the type of skills that the exercises developed is the teaching on use of the chreiaOpens in new window, an action or saying attributed to a certain character or to its equivalent. Being copied, memorized, delivered, and elaborated in a number of forms and increasing complexity.

Aelius TheonOpens in new window provides a good illustration of the various uses of chreia. First, the student would recite it, saying, for instance,

  • “Isocrates the rhetor said that a talented student is a child of god”.

Then the student would inflect the chreia, putting its characters into singular, dual, or plural, e.g.,

  • “Isocrates the rhetor said that a talented student is a child of god”,
  • “the two rhetors named Isocrates used to say that two talented students were two children of gods”, and
  • “the rhetors named Isocrates said that talented students were children of the gods”.

The same would be done with the inflection of the nouns of a chosen sentence in all the possible cases, for instance, “Isocrates said that …” (nominativeOpens in new window), “it is a saying of Isocrates that …” (possessive or genitiveOpens in new window), “it seemed fit to Isocrates to say that …” (objectiveOpens in new window or dative). A rather advanced complexity was commenting on the chreia, for instance, adding to it a statement that the saying of IsocratesOpens in new window is true, noble, advantageous, or something similar.

Chreia could also be expanded by virtue of amplificationOpens in new window, and then compressed as briefly as possible. Likewise, chreia could be refuted as unclear, pleonasticOpens in new window, ellipticOpens in new window, impossible, implausible, false, inappropriate, useless, or shameful; it could also be confirmed with use of as many topics as possible. The same sort of procedure was applied to the stories from epic poetry and tragedy, which would first be refuted, and then confirmed.

The 14 Standard Exercises of Progymnasmata

The progymnasmata (sometimes called gymnasmata) comprises a series of 14 standard exercises, which include fableOpens in new window, narrativeOpens in new window, chreiaOpens in new window, maximOpens in new window, refutationOpens in new window, confirmationOpens in new window, common-place (general topic)Opens in new window, encomiumOpens in new window, vituperationOpens in new window, comparisonOpens in new window, speech-in-character (impersonation)Opens in new window, descriptionOpens in new window, thesisOpens in new window and introduction of a lawOpens in new window.

RhetoricOpens in new window, at the most general level, is divided into three species: judicialOpens in new window, deliberativeOpens in new window, and panegyricalOpens in new window; thus, some of these exercises prepare student for judicial speech, some for deliberative, and some for the third, the panegyrical. Looking at another dimension, a rhetorical speech is composed of five parts, these include, prooemion, narration, antithesis, solution, and epilogue. Some of the progymnasmata exercises teach the use of prooemia, some of narrations, others of arguments in antitheses and solutions, and there are also some that practice use of epilogues. We discuss each of the 14 exercises in turn, in the articles underneath.

Important Hint! 

The progymnasmata treatment of short excerpts from classical literature, and even whole classical passages, developed a capability in students to read the same literary material in different ways and use it for different purposes. In addition to this, the exercises in composition created a rich store of literary examples in one’s mind, and provided the lexical, stylistic, and argumentative resources which could be used to present the same material in different ways. In general, the goal of the exercises was to lead students systematically through series of advanced composition to the point at which students would master the techniques of creative imitation, composing a speech extemporaneously, drawing from the thesaurus of models deposited in their memory.

Theon Prog. (96. 19 – 21);
Rhetorica ad Herennium (4.56 – 57);
Rhetorica ad Alexandrum (4th Bc);
Aphthonius (4th cent. AD).