C.A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata. Greek textbooks of prose composition and rhetoric, translated with introduction and notes, Atalanta, Society of Biblical literature, 2003; ISBN 1-589-83061-X (XVI,231 p.)
Text published in: Mnemosyne 60, 2007, 495-496
students of the theory of ancient rhetoric focus on the works of the greatest
authors, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. However, there also exist
some less well known writings, which are often less easily accessible,
particularly for those who do not read Greek or Latin.
A. Kennedy, an acknowledged expert in the field, has assembled and translated
four Greek treatises on rhetoric, dating from the Roman period and used in
schools for many centuries, as well as some fragments from Byzantine works. The
four ancient writings are: the Exercises by Aelius Theon (1st cent.
A.D.), the Preliminary exercises attributed to Hermogenes (possibly late
2nd cent.), the Preliminary exercises by Aphthonius the Sophist (4th
cent.) and the Preliminary exercises of Nicolaus the Sophist (late 5th
cent.). Also included are selections from the Commentary on the Progymnasmata
of Aphthonius attributed to John of Sardis (possibly 9th cent.)
the titles and names show, this is not ancient literature meant for the general
reader but for a specialized readership. The texts show us in what manner
ancient pupils were trained in oral and written expression. Boys were given
basic exercises with standard elements such as fable and narrative, anecdote (chreia)
and maxim (gnome), refutation and confirmation, commonplace (topos),
praise and invective, comparison, personification, description (ecphrasis),
thesis and discussion of law. These elements, here given in a roughly ascending
order of difficulty, are treated by all four Greek authors. Obviously, there are
minor differences between them in terminology and nuances, but they present the
theory in a roughly comparible fashion, generally from the point of view of the
teacher, or in such a manner as a teacher could present matters to his pupils.
All translations in this book are clear and readable, and additional information
is provided in some 550 footnotes. The volume also includes a short
introduction, a bibliography and a brief index.
as they are, these texts allow one to imagine what it must have been like to be
a student of Greek rhetoric during the Roman or Byzantine periods. Modern
didactic principles such as furthering creativity or the development of personal
views were not encouraged, teaching being strongly orientated towards tradition.
Studying these texts on progymnasmata may also help to understand more of
what seems typical of Greek and Roman prose and poetry in general, either
non-christian or christian, since these early exercises influenced later writing
in many genres. In this respect, Kennedy's helpful book would seem to merit an
audience of more than just specialists of rhetoric. The new paperback edition of
the work (a draft version of which was published in 1999) will no doubt
stimulate its distribution and use.