2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 4 – Ad Herennium: The Art Of Memory

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this fourth chap­ter, we will learn about the rhetor­i­cal man­u­al long thought to be the work of Cicero, called Ad Heren­ni­um. We will read a pas­sage from book 3 (28–30) about mem­o­ry – a very impor­tant ingre­di­ent for any orator.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 4. Ad Heren­ni­um.

Ad Herennium: An Introduction

(c. 86–82 B.C.)

Ad Heren­ni­um, or Rhetor­i­ca Ad Heren­ni­um, or De ratione dicen­di ad C. Heren­ni­um, is the old­est rhetor­i­cal trea­tise in Latin and one of the most stud­ied books in Euro­pean history.


This book, this trea­tise or rhetor­i­cal man­u­al, was prob­a­bly writ­ten some­time between 86 and 82 B.C. and has no known author, nor a known orig­i­nal title. It has been called a ver­sion of Ad Heren­ni­um or Rhetor­i­ca ad Heren­ni­um, as it is ded­i­cat­ed to one Gaius Heren­nius. Who this Gaius Heren­nius was, we do not know.

The art of rhetoric became increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar and impor­tant in the ancient world and from the 5th cen­tu­ry, B.C. onwards schools appeared where rhetoric was taught. This led to the col­lec­tion of infor­ma­tion, exper­tise, and expe­ri­ences in the form of text­books. An ear­ly exam­ple of this is Aris­tote­les’ (384–322 B.C.) Rhetoric.

For books in Latin about rhetoric, Ad Heren­ni­um is the old­est one known. Apart from Ad Heren­ni­um, we can also find exam­ples in Latin lit­er­a­ture such as Cicero’s De inven­tione and De ora­tore, and Quintilian’s Insti­tu­tio Ora­to­ria.

We don’t know if Ad Heren­ni­um was pop­u­lar dur­ing antiq­ui­ty, we don’t even know if it was ever used by the Romans. How­ev­er, it became one of the most influ­en­tial works on rhetoric fur­ther on in history.

When we stepped into the Chris­t­ian era of Euro­pean his­to­ry, Ad Heren­ni­um popped up like a jack-in-the-box and was rec­om­mend­ed by the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church Fathers. One of the rea­sons for the rec­om­men­da­tions was that from at least Hierony­mus’ time (known to many as Saint Jerome) i.e. c. 347–420 A.D., it was believed that Rhetor­i­ca Ad Heren­ni­um was a work of Cicero.

White Marble statue of Cicero in Rome, Italy.

Today, this hypoth­e­sis has been scrapped, but Cicero was a con­tem­po­rary of the unknown writer of Ad Heren­ni­um and he was one of, if not the, great­est ora­tor Rome had seen. Cicero was also con­sid­ered a so-called “vir­tu­ous pagan” by the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church, deem­ing his works wor­thy of preser­va­tion and study despite him hav­ing been a pagan.

The high esteem and author­i­ta­tive awe in which Cicero was held, rubbed off on Ad Heren­ni­um which in com­bi­na­tion with its format—it is a rather short book, very clear, sys­tem­at­ic, and pedagogic—turned it into one of the most impor­tant text­books of West­ern Euro­pean history.

It became a stan­dard text­book for teach­ing rhetoric in schools from the Car­olin­gian era to the Renais­sance and was usu­al­ly used along­side Cicero’s De Inven­tione. But even long after the Renais­sance, Ad Heren­ni­um, was impor­tant – used still as a text­book, a ref­er­ence, or a mod­el when you wrote new books on the subject.

The work itself is, as men­tioned, clear and ped­a­gog­i­cal­ly writ­ten. It goes through dif­fer­ent kinds of speech­es, as well the mechan­ics of giv­ing a speech, e.g. voice, emo­tion, and body lan­guage, how to han­dle the lan­guage, be elo­quent and cre­ate a var­ied and expres­sive style, but also how to remem­ber your speech.

The book is crammed with exam­ples, which are many times won­der­ful­ly writ­ten. Take this one from liber 4 for exam­ple where the like­ness of an untamed horse is used to illus­trate virtue:

“Neque equ­us indomi­tus, quamvis bene natu­ra con­posi­tus sit, idoneus potest esse ad eas util­i­tates quae desider­an­tur ab equo; neque homo indoc­tus, quamvis sit inge­nio­sus, ad vir­tutem potest pervenire.”

— Ad Heren­ni­um, 4.59

“Nei­ther can an untrained horse, how­ev­er well-built by nature, be fit for the ser­vices desired of a horse, nor can an uncul­ti­vat­ed man, how­ev­er well-endowed by nature, attain to virtue.” (transl. Har­ry Caplan)

Manuscript from c. 1350-1400 of Ad Herennium

What set Ad Heren­ni­um apart from oth­er rhetor­i­cal works was that it cov­ers all sides of rhetoric. Many times you would only learn about rhetoric in the­o­ry from a rhetor­i­cal text­book, but Ad Heren­ni­um also gave you the prac­ti­cal side of rhetoric. How to actu­al­ly hold a speech. The com­plete­ness of the man­u­al with the­o­ry and prac­tice hand in hand is what made it so pop­u­lar for schools and teach­ers of the sub­ject. It was the per­fect hand­book on how to hold a speech. A “rhetoric 101”, so to speak.

In today’s chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose, we will turn to book 3.28–30 and a pas­sage of Ad Heren­ni­um that is the old­est sur­viv­ing treat­ment in Latin of this spe­cif­ic sub­ject. A sub­ject that is always rel­e­vant, and where the old tech­niques described in Ad Heren­ni­um are still – after over 2000 years – being used suc­cess­ful­ly, and not just in the rhetor­i­cal sphere. I’m talk­ing about the so impor­tant mem­o­ry and mnemon­ic techniques.

Further reading

I high­ly rec­om­mend that you join the great num­ber of peo­ple who through­out his­to­ry have read and stud­ied Ad Heren­ni­um, and read this gem from cov­er to cov­er. If not in Latin, read it in Eng­lish or find a trans­la­tion to your pre­ferred lan­guage. You can find it in Latin with a par­al­lel Eng­lish trans­la­tion here.

If you want to know more about Cicero, long thought to have writ­ten Ad Heren­ni­um, check out Chap­ter 5 of 2000 Years of Latin Prose.

Latin audio and video

Click below to read and lis­ten to a pas­sage from Ad Heren­ni­um.

Video with English subtitles

Audio recording of the Latin text

Latin Text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage in Latin.

Ad Herennium, 3.28–30

Nunc ad the­saurum inven­to­rum atque ad omni­um par­tium rhetor­i­cae cus­to­dem, memo­ri­am, transeamus.

Memo­ria utrum habeat quid­dam arti­fi­ciosi, an omnis ab natu­ra profi­cis­catur, ali­ud dicen­di tem­pus magis idoneum dabitur. Nunc proinde atque con­stet in hac re mul­tum valere artem et prae­cep­tionem, ita de ea re loque­mur. Placet enim nobis esse arti­fi­ci­um memoriae—quare placeat alias osten­de­mus; in prae­sen­tia cuius­mo­di sit ea aperiemus.

Sunt igi­tur duae memo­ri­ae: una nat­u­ralis, altera arti­fi­ciosa. Nat­u­ralis est ea quae nos­tris ani­mis insi­ta est et simul cum cog­i­ta­tione nata; arti­fi­ciosa est ea quam con­fir­mat induc­tio quaedam et ratio prae­cep­tio­n­is. Sed qua via in ceteris rebus ingenii boni­tas imi­tatur saepe doc­tri­nam, ars por­ro nat­u­rae com­mo­da con­fir­mat et auget, item fit in hac re ut non­numquam nat­u­ralis memo­ria, si cui data est egre­gia, sim­ilis sit huic arti­fi­ciosae, por­ro haec arti­fi­ciosa nat­u­rae com­mo­da retineat et ampli­ficet ratione doc­tri­nae. Quapropter et nat­u­ralis memo­ria prae­cep­tione con­fir­man­da est ut sit egre­gia, et haec quae doc­t­ri­na datur indi­get ingenii. Nec hoc magis aut minus in hac re quam in ceteris art­ibus fit, ut inge­nio doc­t­ri­na, prae­cep­tione natu­ra nitescat. Quare et illis qui natu­ra mem­o­res sunt utilis haec erit insti­tu­tio, quod tute paulo post poteris intel­legere; et si illi, freti inge­nio, nos­tri non indi­ger­ent, tamen ius­ta causa dare­tur quare iis qui minus ingenii habent adi­u­men­to velimus esse. Nunc de arti­fi­ciosa memo­ria loquemur.

Con­stat igi­tur arti­fi­ciosa memo­ria ex locis et imag­inibus. Locos appel­la­mus eos qui bre­viter, per­fecte, insignite aut natu­ra aut manu sunt abso­lu­ti, ut eos facile nat­u­rali memo­ria con­pre­hen­dere et amplec­ti quea­mus: ut aedes, inter­colum­ni­um, angu­lum, for­nicem, et alia quae his sim­il­ia sunt. Imag­ines sunt for­mae quaedam et notae et sim­u­lacra eius rei quam mem­i­nisse volu­mus; quod genus equi, leo­nis, aquilae memo­ri­am si vole­mus habere, imag­ines eorum locis cer­tis con­lo­care oportebit.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 4. Ad Heren­ni­um.

Vocabulary & Commentary

Below you will find some key­words and com­ments on the text.

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.

ab natu­ra profi­cis­catur: whether it comes from nature

proinde atque con­stet: just as if it were estab­lished that…. Con­stat with the accusative and infi­tive often has the mean­ing of “it is estab­lished, accept­ed, agreed upon”.

placet: here it seems prop­er, I am of the opi­on that…

alias: adv. at anoth­er time

in prae­sen­tia: at present, for the time being

cuius­mo­di: of what sort, what it is like

nat­u­rae com­mo­da: the advan­tages of nature, i.e. gifts accord­ed some­one by nature

item: sim­i­lar­ly

nos­tri indi­get: requires, needs us, i.e. the pre­cepts of the author of Ad Heren­ni­um.

quapropter: there­fore

loci et imag­ines: loca­tions. In the realm of mnemon­ics, loca­tions are the real or imag­ined places where one places images (imag­ines) that refer to the infor­ma­tion one wants to mem­o­rize. I will treat the art of mem­o­ry at length in an upcom­ing article.

paulo post: short­ly after, shortly

inter­colum­ni­um, ‑i, n. the space between two columns. Inter in com­pound nouns indi­cates the space between two things, e.g. inter­reg­num, the time between the end of one king’s rule and the begin­ning of another’s.

quod genus: here for exam­ple. Cf. anoth­er exam­ple of this expres­sion from Ad Heren­ni­um: Quod genus, si dicam me ex provin­cia redi­isse, pro­fec­tum quoque in provic­ni­am intel­le­gatur (“For exam­ple, if I were to say that I have returned from the province, it would be under­stood that I had also gone there”.)

English Translation

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text.

Ad Heren­ni­um, 3.28–30

Now let me turn to the trea­sure-house of the ideas sup­plied by Inven­tion, to the guardian of all the parts of rhetoric, the Memory.

The ques­tion whether mem­o­ry has some arti­fi­cial qual­i­ty, or comes entire­ly from nature, we shall have anoth­er, more favourable, oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss. At present I shall accept as proved that in this mat­ter art and method are of great impor­tance, and shall treat the sub­ject accord­ing­ly. For my part, I am sat­is­fied that there is an art of memory—the grounds of my belief I shall explain else­where. For the present I shall dis­close what sort of thing mem­o­ry is.

There are, then, two kinds of mem­o­ry: one nat­ur­al, and the oth­er the prod­uct of art. The nat­ur­al mem­o­ry is that mem­o­ry which is imbed­ded in our minds, born simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with thought. The arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry is that mem­o­ry which is strength­ened by a kind of train­ing and sys­tem of dis­ci­pline. But just as in every­thing else the mer­it of nat­ur­al excel­lence often rivals acquired learn­ing, and art, in its turn, rein­forces and devel­ops the nat­ur­al advan­tages, so does it hap­pen in this instance. The nat­ur­al mem­o­ry, if a per­son is endowed with an excep­tion­al one, is often like this arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry, and this arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry, in its turn, retains and devel­ops the nat­ur­al advan­tages by a method of dis­ci­pline. Thus the nat­ur­al mem­o­ry must be strength­ened by dis­ci­pline so as to become excep­tion­al, and, on the oth­er hand, this mem­o­ry pro­vid­ed by dis­ci­pline requires nat­ur­al abil­i­ty. It is nei­ther more nor less true in this instance than in the oth­er arts that sci­ence thrives by the aid of innate abil­i­ty, and nature by the aid of the rules of art. The train­ing here offered will there­fore also be use­ful to those who by nature have a good mem­o­ry, as you will your­self soon come to under­stand. But even if these, rely­ing on their nat­ur­al tal­ent, did not need our help, we should still be jus­ti­fied in wish­ing to aid the less well-endowed. Now I shall dis­cuss the arti­fi­cial memory.

The arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry includes loca­tions and images. By loca­tions I mean such scenes as are nat­u­ral­ly or arti­fi­cial­ly set off on a small scale, com­plete and con­spic­u­ous, so that we can grasp and embrace them eas­i­ly by the nat­ur­al memory—for exam­ple, a house, an inter­colum­nar space, a recess, an arch, or the like. An image is, as it were, a fig­ure, mark, or por­trait of the object we wish to remem­ber; for exam­ple, if we wish to recall a horse, a lion, or an eagle, we must place its image in a def­i­nite location.

Trans­lat­ed by Har­ry Caplan, (1954)

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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