Ancient memory techniques go back to oratorical training in theory, but in practice probably much further back in human history. PPhilostratus records the reputation of Dionysius of Miletus and his “memory-men”. But one of the most easily abused and likely misunderstood method from the ancient world is the “memory palace” (or “method of loci“), made famous by Cicero, but credited to the lyric poet Simonides.
Cicero De Oratore 2.352–355
“But, so I may return to the matter”, he said, “I am not as smart as Themistocles was as to prefer the art of forgetting to the art of memory. And So I am thankful to that Simonides of Ceos who, as they say, first produced an art of memory. For they say that when Simonides was dining at the home of a wealthy aristocrat named Scopas in Thessaly and had performed that song which he wrote in his honor—in which there were many segments composed for Castor and Pollux elaborated in the way of poets. Then Scopas told him cruelly that he would pay him half as much as he had promised he would give for the song; if it seemed right to him, he could ask Tyndareus’ sons for the other half since he had praised them equally.
A little while later, as they tell the tale, it was announced that Simonides should go outside—there were two young men at the door who had been calling him insistently. He rose, exited, and so no one. Meanwhile, in the same space of time, the ceiling under which Scopas was having his feast collapsed: the man was crushed by the ruins a d died with his relatives. When people wanted to bury them they could not recognize who was where because they were crushed. Simonides is said to have shown the place in which each man died from his memory for their individual burials.
From this experience, Simonides is said to have learned that it is order most of all that brings light to memory. And thus those who wish to practice this aspect of the skill must select specific places and shape in their mind the matters they wish to hold in their memory and locate these facts in those places. It will so turn out that the order of the places will safeguard the order of the matters, the reflections of the facts will remind of the facts themselves, and we may use the places like wax and the ideas like letters written upon it.”
Sed, ut ad rem redeam, non sum tanto ego, inquit, ingenio quanto Themistocles fuit, ut oblivionis artem quam memoriae malim; gratiamque habeo Simonidi illi Cio quem primum ferunt artem memoriae protulisse. Dicunt enim cum cenaret Crannone in Thessalia Simonides apud Scopam fortunatum hominem et nobilem cecinissetque id carmen quod in eum scripsisset, in quo multa ornandi causa poetarum more in Castorem scripta et Pollucem fuissent, nimis illum sordide Simonidi dixisse se dimidium eius ei quod pactus esset pro illo carmine daturum: reliquum a suis Tyndaridis quos aeque laudasset peteret si ei videretur. Paulo post esse ferunt nuntiatum Simonidi ut prodiret: iuvenes stare ad ianuam duos quosdam qui eum magnopere evocarent; surrexisse illum, prodisse, vidisse neminem; hoc interim spatio conclave illud ubi epularetur Scopas concidisse; ea ruina ipsum cum cognatis oppressum suis interiisse; quos cum humare vellent sui neque possent obtritos internoscere ullo modo, Simonides dicitur ex eo quod meminisset quo eorum loco quisque cubuisset demonstrator uniuscuiusque sepeliendi fuisse; hac tum re admonitus invenisse fertur ordinem esse maxime qui memoriae lumen afferret. Itaque eis qui hanc partem ingeni exercerent locos esse capiendos et ea quae memoria tenere vellent effingenda animo atque in eis locis collocanda: sic fore ut ordinem rerum locorum ordo conservaret, res autem ipsas rerum effigies notaret, atque ut locis pro cera, simulacris pro litteris uteremur.
thanks to S. Raudnitz for reminding me of this passage too!
As a bonus, here’s Plato for the mind and wax:
Plato, Theaetetus 191a
Soc. “For the sake of argument, imagine that there is a single chunk of wax in our minds, for some it is bigger, for some smaller, and for one the wax is clearer, while for another it is more contaminated and rather inflexible; for others, in turn, the wax more pliable and even.”
Soc. Let us say that this is the gift of the Muses’ mother, Mnemosunê, and when we wish to recall something we have seen or heard or thought ourselves, we show this wax to our perceptions or thoughts and find the imprint, just as we find meaning in seal rings. Whatever is printed can be remembered and understood as long as its image persists. Whenever it is softened or cannot be recorded is forgotten and not understood.”
Soc. Θὲς δή μοι λόγου ἕνεκα ἐν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἡμῶν ἐνὸν κήρινον ἐκμαγεῖον, τῷ μὲν μεῖζον, τῷ δ᾿ ἔλαττον, καὶ τῷ μὲν καθαρωτέρου κηροῦ, τῷ δὲ κοπρωδεστέρου, καὶ σκληροτέρου, ἐνίοις δὲ ὑγροτέρου, ἔστι δ᾿ οἷς μετρίως ἔχοντος.
Soc. Δῶρον τοίνυν αὐτὸ φῶμεν εἶναι τῆς τῶν Μουσῶν μητρὸς Μνημοσύνης, καὶ ἐς τοῦτο, ὅ τι ἂν βουληθῶμεν μνημονεῦσαι ὧν ἂν ἴδωμεν ἢ ἀκούσωμεν ἢ αὐτοὶ ἐννοήσωμεν, ὑπέχοντας αὐτὸ ταῖς αἰσθήσεσι καὶ ἐννοίαις, ἀποτυποῦσθαι, ὥσπερ δακτυλίων σημεῖα ἐνσημαινομένους· καὶ ὃ μὲν ἂν ἐκμαγῇ, μνημονεύειν τε καὶ ἐπίστασθαι ἕως ἂν ἐνῇ τὸ εἴδωλον αὐτοῦ· ὃ δ᾿ ἂν ἐξαλειφθῇ ἢ μὴ οἷόν τε γένηται ἐκμαγῆναι, ἐπιλελῆσθαί τε καὶ μὴ ἐπίστασθαι.
And Quintilian trying to turn our ability to fantasize into something more ‘productive’:
Quintilian’s Inst. Orat. 6.2
“The fictions I have been talking about pursue us when our minds are at rest as empty hopes or certain daydreams so that we imagine we are on a journey, sailing, fighting, talking to new people, or distributing wealth we do not have—and we seem not to be considering but to be doing these things. Couldn’t we transfer this vice of the mind to something useful?”
quod quidem nobis volentibus facile continget; nisi vero inter otia animorum et spes inanes et velut somnia quaedam vigilantium ita nos hae de quibus loquor imagines prosecuntur ut peregrinari navigare proeliari, populos adloqui, divitiarum quas non habemus usum videamur disponere, nec cogitare sed facere, hoc animi vitium ad utilitatem non transferemus [ad hominem]
And Plutarch on the importance of memory for education
Plutarch, The Education of Children (Moralia 9)
It is especially important to train and practice children’s memory: for memory is the warehouse of learning. This is why we used to mythologize Memory as the mother of the Muses, making it clear through allegory that nothing creates and nourishes the way memory does. This should be trained in both cases, whether children have a good memory from the beginning or are naturally forgetful. For we may strengthen the inborn ability and supplement the deficiency. The first group will be better than others; but the second will be better than themselves. This is why the Hesiodic line rings true: “If you add a little by little, and you keep doing it, soon you can have something great.”
Parents should also not forget that a skill of memory contributes its great worth not only to education but to life’s actions in general. For the memory of past events becomes an example of good planning for future actions.”
Πάντων δὲ μάλιστα τὴν μνήμην τῶν παίδων ἀσκεῖν καὶ συνεθίζειν· αὕτη γὰρ ὥσπερ τῆς παιδείας ἐστὶ ταμιεῖον, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μητέρα τῶν Μουσῶν ἐμυθολόγησαν εἶναι τὴν Μνημοσύνην, αἰνιττόμενοι καὶ παραδηλοῦντες ὅτι οὕτως οὐδὲν γεννᾶν καὶ τρέφειν ὡς ἡ μνήμη πέφυκε. καὶ τοίνυν ταύτην κατ᾿ ἀμφότερ᾿ ἐστὶν ἀσκητέον, εἴτ᾿ ἐκ φύσεως μνήμονες εἶεν οἱ παῖδες, εἴτε καὶ τοὐναντίον ἐπιλήσμονες. τὴν γὰρ πλεονεξίαν τῆς φύσεως ἐπιρρώσομεν, τὴν δ᾿ ἔλλειψιν ἀναπληρώσομεν· καὶ οἱ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἔσονται βελτίους, οἱ δ᾿ ἑαυτῶν. τὸ γὰρ Ἡσιόδειον καλῶς εἴρηται
εἰ γάρ κεν καὶ σμικρὸν ἐπὶ σμικρῷ καταθεῖο
καὶ θαμὰ τοῦτ᾿ ἔρδοις, τάχα κεν μέγα καὶ τὸ γένοιτο. (=Works and Days, 361-2)
μὴ λανθανέτω τοίνυν μηδὲ τοῦτο τοὺς πατέρας, ὅτι τὸ μνημονικὸν τῆς μαθήσεως μέρος οὐ μόνον πρὸς τὴν παιδείαν ἀλλὰ καὶ πρὸς τὰς τοῦ βίου πράξεις οὐκ ἐλαχίστην συμβάλλεται μοῖραν. ἡ γὰρ τῶν γεγενημένων πράξεων μνήμη τῆς περὶ τῶν μελλόντων εὐβουλίας γίγνεται παράδειγμα.