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.

RHETORICA AD HERENNIUM FROM MS VAT. PAL. LAT. 1459, FOL. 1R. BIBLIOTHECA APOSTOLICA VATICANA
RHETORICA AD HERENNIUM FROM MS VAT. PAL. LAT. 1459, FOL. 1R. BIBLIOTHECA APOSTOLICA VATICANA

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.
CICERO, STATUE, ROME

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
RHETORICA AD HERENNIUM, 1350–1400, BEINECKE MS 681, FOL 1R

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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