Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.20

Ronald F. Hock, Edward N. O'Neil, The Chreia and Ancient Rhetoric: Classroom Exercises. Writings from the Greco-Roman World v. 2.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.  Pp. xi, 411.  ISBN 1-58983-018-0.  $49.95 (pb).  

George A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Writings from the Greco-Roman World.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.  Pp. xvi, 231.  ISBN 1-58983-061-X.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Maud W. Gleason, Stanford University (
Word count: 2197 words

"What is the chreia?
A concise reminiscence associated with some character.
Why is the chreia a reminiscence?
Because it is remembered so that it may be recited ...
Why is it called 'chreia'?
Because of its being useful ..."

This schoolboy catechism from Oxyrhynchus describes one of the ancient world's most popular sub-genres, the improving anecdote. Many examples are preserved in Diogenes Laertius. "Diogenes lit his lamp in broad daylight and went about, saying: 'I am looking for a[n honest] man.'" The gospels contain many more, "Jesus, on entering the Temple, began to evict the sellers and said to them: 'It is written, "My house shall be a house of prayer," but you have made it a cave for brigands.'" It was presumably to explore the classical prototypes of such anecdotes from scripture that a group was formed at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate University in the late 1970's. In the course of scholarly investigation, Jesus-sayings and Cynic tradition receded from sight, and the focus became the role of the chreiai in rhetorical tradition. The first volume of the group's researches appeared in 19861 and contained translations of the passages in ancient rhetorical treatises that define and classify the chreiai. These treatises are now known as Progymnasmata, although that title did not become standard until the fourth century. They include the works attributed to Theon of Alexandria (1st cent. CE), Hermogenes of Tarsus (2nd cent CE), Aphthonius of Antioch (4th cent. CE), and Nicolaus of Myra (5th cent. CE). Kennedy's Progymnasmata, reviewed below, translates all these treatises in full, plus a 9th century commentary on Aphthonius attributed to John of Sardis. It should be noted that rhetorical elaboration of chreiai seems to have been accompanied by a restriction in the range of their content. While hundreds, if not thousands, of improving anecdotes survive in the sententious authors of antiquity, only sixty-eight are attested in the rhetorical treatises of Hock and O'Neil volume one.

In their second volume Hock and O'Neil focus on texts that illustrate the role played by the chreia in the classroom at all three levels. They include Greek texts of the best (or in some cases, the only) printed editions, with some textual notes of their own. In the primary-level classroom, students read and copied chreiai. Here we have eleven examples found on papyri and ostraka. (Why do so few survive, if these exercises were indeed the foundation of the literate curriculum?) The content of most is improving but banal: Alexander refuses to attack by night; Diogenes, on being asked where the Muses dwell, replies, "In the souls of the educated" (22). A few are startling to the modern ear, "Seeing a woman being educated, [Diogenes] said, 'Wow! A sword is being sharpened... Seeing an Ethiopian defecating, he said, 'Look! A kettle with a hole in it" (10). Although H. and O'N. are not generally concerned to draw out the implications of their texts for social history, they do quote Morgan's explanation that such maxims encouraged students to "identify with powerful high-status Greek or Roman social-cultural groups" by denigrating women and barbarians.2 What fascinated the authors of ancient treatises was not the content of the chreiai but their formal elaboration. This required classificatory subdivision. There are sayings-chreiai and action-chreiai and mixed chreiai. And sayings-chreiai can be subdivided into sayings spontaneous (apophantikon) and sayings elicited (apokritikon). And spontaneous sayings can be sub-sub-divided into those that are unprompted and those that arise from a specific circumstance (32-3).

In the secondary classroom under the grammatikos, students began to join in the grand game of classification. They learned to classify words into parts of speech. They learned to decline nouns and inflect verbs. And they learned to take whole chreiai through an advanced declension exercise called klisis. For example, (nominative) "Pythagoras the philosopher ... used to advise his pupils to abstain from red meat." Genitive, "The statement of Pythagoras is remembered for advising ..." Dative: "To Pythagoras the philosopher ... it seemed best to advise..." and so on into the dual ("The two Pythagorases, the philosophers ..." and plural (65-6). It should come as some consolation to pedagogues of the modern era that the student who labored out this exercise fouled up his verb forms on a number of occasions, particularly in the dual (63).

A klisis-exercise in Latin survives from late antiquity in the Ars grammatica of Diomedes (67-77). Here the saying, "the roots of education are bitter but the fruit is sweet," usually attributed to Isocrates or some other Greek sage, is attributed to Cato (67-72). Was this exercise perhaps intended not for native speakers of Latin but for Greek speakers boning up on Latin to enter imperial service or the law school in Beirut?

In the tertiary classroom under the rhetor, students learned to elaborate their chreiai in preparation for full-fledged declamations. Theon had his own system of elaboration; Hermogenes' system had Hellenistic roots (as we can see from its similarities to the Rhetorica ad Herennium); Aphthonius changed some terminology, and his system continued in use for 1000 years (83-90). Under this system a student worked up his chreia under eight headings. He would praise it, paraphrase it, give its rationale, argue from the opposite, argue by analogy, give an example, cite testimony of the ancients, and conclude with an epilogue (90). Neither Aphthonius nor his predecessors seem to have felt the need to explain how this sort of work-out strengthens the rhetorical aspirant. In the fifth century Nicolaus pointed out that the first heading corresponds to the encomiastic prooimia of a standard four-part speech while the paraphrase corresponds to the narrative, and the next five headings correspond to a diegesis while the last one is like the epilogue. And Doxopatres, in the eleventh century, explained that the person who has practiced the encomiastic elaboration of his chreiai (the first of the eight headings) will be prepared to capture the goodwill of his audience when he composes the introduction of a real speech (91).

The rest of this volume consists of worked-out examples of chreiai elaborations. The earliest to survive are by the fourth-century rhetoricians Sopatros and Libanius. Sopatros' examples, (recovered from John of Sardis' commentary on Aphthonius), show that a modicum of compositional freedom persisted in the elaboration of chreiai until Aphthonius' recipe became canonical (110). Libanius' examples are preceded by a useful biographical introduction, with copious footnotes to his autobiography and letters (now translated in a convenient selection by Scott Bradbury3) (113-25). Some points of general interest to classicists emerge from Libanius' chreiai: the role of fear and corporal punishment in the ancient classroom (133, 160, 170-1), and an interesting example of the way typological thinking operated in an encomiastic context (Alexander the Great credited with affability, a virtue he is not otherwise known for, perhaps by conflation with the emperor Julian, whose affability Libanius was wont to praise (127, 143)). And any academic who has written too many recommendation letters will smile at Libanius' description of the friend's role in matchmaking, "extolling the qualities [the candidate] does have and imputing to him those he does not" (147).

The Byzantine chreiai elaborations with which this volume concludes are likely to be of less interest to classicists than the earlier material, though the massive inertia of an educational system that kept students grinding away at the same exercises for a millennium does give one pause. In the 12th century Basilakes began the practice of developing traditional rhetorical exercises on Christian themes (for example, an encomium of humility, an ecphrasis of a baptistery, and an ethopoiia, "What words the slave of the high priest might say after having his ear cut off by St. Peter and healed by Christ" (261, 282)). Is the remarkable thing about this development that it came so late or that it happened at all?

Kennedy's volume differs from Hock and O'Neil's in that it focuses on progymnasmata treatises in their entirely, not just on the chreia exercise. It does not include a Greek text, but a complete English translation of the treatises of Theon, [Hermogenes], Aphthonius, Nicolaus, and John of Sardis. Its introductory material for each selection, though valuable, is briefer.

Theon's treatise affords a number of valuable opportunities to observe the ancient teacher's mind at work. When he recommends that teachers select from ancient prose authors good examples of each type of exercise for their students to memorize, he gives a useful picture of the sort of chestnuts venerated by Greek teachers of the early Roman period (Sophocles abjuring the pleasures of Aphrodite in Republic 329c as a chreia, the ring of Gyges from the Symposium as a mythical narration, Cleobis and Biton from Herodotus as a factual narration, etc.) (9-12). Theon is unique in that he pays attention to educational psychology. He advises the teacher not to correct every mistake in every composition lest pupils become discouraged. His rationale for assigning "problems already elaborated by the ancients" is that students "may acquire confidence if they have written similarly, and if not that they may have the ancients as correctors" (14-5). When Theon defines the chreia against the maxim and the reminiscence, his logic, based on exclusive alternatives, shows the classificatory mentality that produced phenomena as diverse as stasis-theory and Galen's endlessly sub-divided typology of the pulse. Creativity was not a buzzword in the ancient classroom, but Theon, unlike his more hidebound successors, apparently can envisage young students making up their own fables -- after their minds have been suitably primed with examples from the ancients (26). He even endorses the occasional composition of essays about student's own friends or experiences of public events, "such as a riot, a procession, a spectacle, or political agitation" -- what Kennedy in his note endearingly calls "What I did on my summer vacation," observing dryly, "There would have been ample opportunity to describe riots, processions, spectacles, and political agitation in ancient Alexandria" (69 with n. 206).

When it comes to narrative, Theon anticipates Strunk and White: "As for style, in aiming at clarity one should avoid poetic and coined words and tropes and archaisms ... And do not use a phrase instead of a word; for example, "he departed this life" rather than "he died," and things like that" (30, 33). He gives us pages of examples of how students might rework Thucydides' narrative of how the Thebans seized Plateaea: as a question, as a command, as a wish etc. (33-8). Theon appears to have been a great partisan of Thucydides, and rails at how he has been butchered in the classroom, "Avoid doing what some teachers do, leaving aside the brilliance and sublimity in Thucydides, while cutting him down into an imitation full of obscurities and stressing whatever is abstruse and difficult in his writing" (68).

Aphthonius was a pupil of Libanius, and his treatise attained canonical status because it included examples (though Kennedy observes that some of these are weakly argued) (89). This work attained an astonishing popularity in the Renaissance: 114 printings of 10 editions between 1507 and 1680 (90). Of special interest to classicists is his encomium of Thucydides, which refers to a selection of purple passages in vogue among rhetoricians (almost all from the first three books) (108-110). When Aphthonius mouths platitudes about the moral failings of the poor in his elaboration of a protreptic maxim or dutifully rehearses the failings of Philip, we are reminded how the endless repetition of commonplaces against adultery, murder, and temple-robbery -- commonplaces that seem so platitudinous to us -- formed the reassuring moral armature of ancient society.

Since post-Aphthonian treatises are fairly repetitive, the reader will value Kennedy's little introductions all the more, since they set out the features that make each one distinct. Nicolaus was particularly interested in identifying which parts of an oration each progymnastic exercise prepared students to handle (130); after-dinner speakers will appreciate his advice about how to compose encomiums for boring and undistinguished people (156-7). While Aphthonius' ecphrasis of the Serapeum of Alexandria (a place he may have never seen) attains at least to the complexity of Solomon's temple, John of Sardis' attempted elucidation of this ecphrasis in his commentary must be comparable to the Nuptual Number squared (if any Platonist can imagine such a thing) (118-20, 219-221). Yet Kennedy's patience and erudition shows no sign of strain.

Who will benefit from these books? They are in some ways more learned and encyclopedic than the average classicist requires. The die-hard enthusiast of Byzantine rhetorical theory probably owns Walz and may not need translations, while the Greekless amateur may be defeated by the untranslated technical terms that appear in Hock and O'Neil. One can never grasp the cultural significance of rhetoric from technical treatises alone. Those who are interested in broader cultural questions in ancient education will also want to consult Morgan, whom both these books cite, and Cribiore, who appeared too late for them to use.4 (Norman's translations of Libanius also provide a valuable glimpse of the late antique educational scene in Antioch).5 But cumulatively these books do a tremendous service in making available a body of knowledge that was once universally familiar among the educated but has since become arcane.


1.   These examples come from the introduction to volume one in the series, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric: Volume I: The Progymnasmata (Society of Biblical Literature, 1986).
2.   Teresa Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge, 1998) p. 150.
3.   Scott Bradbury, Selected Letters Of Libanius From The Age Of Constantius and Julian (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
4.   Teresa Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge, 1998); Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton, 2001).
5.   A. F. Norman, Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture as Observed by Libanius (Liverpool, 2000).

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