Introduction to the 14 Standard Exercises of Progymnasmata

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.

The first occurrence of the term progymnasmata is in the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum (1436a26), but may be a later intrusion in that text. In the Christian era the term comes into regular use. It begins to occur in the text of Theon (II, p. 61 Spengel), though more frequently he uses the word gymnasma.

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.

The 14 Series of Exercises

The exercises in the progymnasmatic series as described by Aphtonius are briefly set out below:

1.     Fable

Fable (mythos) is a composition which is false but gives the semblance of truth. Fables are distinguished into: Aesopic, Sybaritic, Lydian, and Phrygian, all of which are eclipsed by the Aesopic, which is associated with Aesop.

Aphthonius distinguishes three forms: rational, involving a human being; ethical, involving an animal; mixed, involving both. A moral prefixed to a fable is a promythion; a moral affixed to the end is called epimythion. Generally, the exercise took the form of assigning the student to write a simple fable in imitation of Aesop.

2.     Narrative

Narrative (Diêgêma) is an exposition giving an account of things which has happened or as though they had happened. Narration (Diêgêsis), which is said to be different from narrative; is the narration of a speech and ordinarily sets forth a series of actions; a narrative, merely describes only one. Its divisions are dramatic, or fictious; historical, based on “ancient report”; and pragmatic, which is used by orators in their contests.

The constituent elements, as derived from Aristotle’s categories, are of six types: agent, action, time, place, manner, and cause. The virtues of narrative are three: clarity, brevity, persuasiveness. Some rhetors tend to make it four, adding “purity of language”.

3.     Chreia

Chreia (anecdote) is a brief saying or action attributed to some character in a pithy form. It is called chreia “Grk. chreiôdês, useful”. Divisions are verbal — as when reporting a saying; action — as when reporting an edifying action; and mixed — a combined reporting of a saying and an action.

Students were not expected to invent a chreia; they were given a saying or a description of an action by a famous person and expected to work it out by writing a paragraph expanding and developing the meaning with the following headings: praise of the chreia; paraphrase; statement of the cause, example of the meaning; contrast and comparison; testimony of others; epilogue. The chreia selected as an example by Aphthonius is “Isocrates said that the root of education is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

4.     Maxim

Maxim (gnômê) is a general declarative statement, recommending or condemning something. The headings are the same as those of the chreia. An example of maxim used here is adapted from a couplet by Theognis: “The victim of poverty should throw himself into the yawning sea or, my Cyrnis, down from sheer cliffs.”

5.     Refutation

Refutation (anaskeuê) is the rebuttal of any matter at hand. Divisions are attack on those who hold the opposite view, followed by exposition using the following headings: unclear and improbable; impossible, illogical, and unsuitable; inexpedient. The exercise, as stressed by Theon, can be applied to fable, narrative, or chreia. Aphthonius’ example is a refutation of the story of Daphne and Apollo as improbable.

6.     Confirmation

Confirmation (kataskeuê) is a statement confirming the credibility of any matter at hand. Here the subject must be neither self–evident nor impossible, but the treatment is exactly the opposite of refutation.

Aphthonius’ example is “the story of Daphne is probable.” However, it should be noted that refutation comes before confirmation in the progymnasmata; this probably because it is easier for a student to attack something which has been argued by another than to undertake an independent proof.

7.     Commonplace

Commonplace (koinos topos) is a composition which amplifies inherent evils. So called because the statement fits types—for example, tyrants—rather than specific individuals, as does vituperation.

In Theon and the Hermogenic treatise the exercise is defined as amplification of either vice or virtue, but in the latter work it is already clear that it is primarily applied to attacking vice, and this remains true in the later history of the exercise. Aphthonius opinion is that it is like a second speech in a trial and has no prooemion, except when one is added in the schools for practice.

No divisions are specified. The headings for ergasia are: contradiction or exposition to sharpen opposition; synkrisis, comparing something better to what is attacked; gnomic heading, attacking the motivation of the doer, followed by parekbasis, or digression, castigating his past life; rejection of pity; and what are called telika kephalaia, “final headings” or “headings of purpose.” These are common to some other progymnasmata and are also the basis of argument in deliberative oratory. They include legality, justice, expediency, practicability, honor, and result.

8.     Encomion

Encomium (enkômion) or praise is a composition expository of attendant excellences. A hymn celebrates gods and is brief, an encomium celebrates mortals and is worked out in accordance with art.

Subjects are persons, things (like justice), times (like spring), places, animals, and growing things (like olive trees); they may be common, for example the Athenians, or individuals. Headings are: prooemion, divided into nation, city, ancestors, and parents; upbringing, divided into habits, art, and laws; deeds, divided into those relating to soul, body, and fortune; synkrisis, or favorable comparison with another; epilogue, for example a prayer. Aphthonius supplies an encomium of Thucydides, comparing him to Herodotus, and an encomium of wisdom.

9.     Vituperation

Vituperation or invective is a composition expository of attendant evils. Aphthonius says that it differs from the koinos topos in that it does not seek punishment, but in fact it differs more significantly in attacking some person or thing specifically named, rather than a type. Headings are identical with those of encomium. The example given is an invective against Philip of Macedon.

10.     Comparison

Comparison (synkrisis) is a comparative composition, setting something greater or equal side by side with the subject. Generally it may be viewed as a double encomium or an encomium coupled with an invective, and its subjects are similar to those of the two preceding exercises. Its effect is deinos, or forceful, a word borrowed from the theory of style. The subjects compared should not be dealt with separately, but the student should consider both, heading by heading. Aphthonius’ example is a synkrisis of Achilles and Hector.

11.     Impersonation

Impersonation (Ethopoeia or personification) is an imitation of the ethos of a person chosen to be portrayed. Aphthonius uses ethos in the Aristotelian sense of the character of a speaker, including presentation of moral choice embodied in words and arguments. “Imitation” means that the exercise takes a dramatic form whereby one or more characters is imagined as speaking.

There are three forms: eidolopoeia is a speech attributed to the ghost of a known person; in prosopopoeia, used by Theon for the exercise as a whole, the character of the speaker is a creation of the writer, for example a mythological figure; in ethopoeia narrowly defined, the third form, the speaker has an historical or traditional character, but is imagined in some situation where the writer has freedom in imagining what he would say.

An example given by Aphthonius is a speech for Heracles in reply to Eurystheus when the latter imposes the labors on him the divisions of ethopoeia as whole are pathetical, ethical, and mixed. The “characters” of style to be applied to ethopoeia are, according to Aphthonius, clarity, brevity, floridity, lack of finish, and absence of figures; this terminology is not that of Hermogenes on style, indicating that his work was not yet the standard authority. Instead of headings there are to be divisions into past, present, and future time.

12.     Description

Description (ekphrasis) is a descriptive composition bringing the subject clearly before the audience mind’s eye. Its subjects, like those of encomium, may be persons, actions, times, places, animals, and growing things. The description should be complete, of a person for example from head to foot, of actions from the start to the outcomes. Divisions are simple and compound. The “character” of style should be aneimenos, relaxed, but ornamented with a variety of figures. An example given by Aphthonius is an ecphrasis of the acropolis of Alexandria.

13.     Thesis

Thesis or argument is a logical examination of a subject under investigation. The forms are political and theoretical. Political theses include not only such matters as ‘Should the city be walled?’ but also social questions, ‘Should one marry?’

Theoretical theses are those which cannot be put into practice, but are debated: for example, ‘Is the heaven spherical? Hypotheses add attendant circumstances of person, action, cause, “and the rest”; for example, “The Lacedaimonians deliberate whether to wall Sparta as the Persians approach.”

Aphthonius seems to assume that thesis is a progymnasma, hypothesis a declamation. The divisions of thesis are ephodos, or approach, used instead of a prooemion, followed by the “final” headings which were noted under koinos topos. Aphthonius’ example is a treatment of the thesis ‘Should one marry? It includes not only defense of the thesis, but an antithesis and a lysis, or solution.

14.     Introduction of a law

Introduction of a law (nomou eisphora) Aphthonius chose to name this exercise gymnasma rather than progymnasma, and it has many of the characteristics of an hypothesis, though the principals are not necessarily named. It takes two forms, advocacy of a proposed law (synêgoria), and opposition (katêgoria).

The headings are constitutionality, justice, expediency, and practicability. The thesis for or against the law is to be stated, then the counterargument, then the headings are to be listed. The example given is a speech opposing a law requiring an adulterer, taken in the act, to be killed. From such an exercise it would be an easy step to those meletai on imaginary court cases involving husbands, wives, and adultery which are frequently cited in the Hermogenic corpus.

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.

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  • References
    • Ronald F. Hock and Edward N.O’Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, Volume 1: The Progymnasmata (Society of Biblical Literature Texts and Trans. 27; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 7.
    • Theon, Progymnasmata 1; Hock and O’Neil, “Aelius Theon of Alexandria: On the Chreia,” in The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 82 – 83.
    • Silver Rhetoricae: Chreia, or AnecdoteOpens in new window

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