Rhetorical Theory of Myth

Categories: Ancient Learning > Myth & Poetry > Theory of Myth

1 Introduction

In antiquity, grammarians and rhetoricians divided education between them in a way that is quite foreign to modern conventions. The most basic teaching was done by “schoolmasters” (lat. magistri ludi), who were responsible only for basic literacy (sometimes in one language, sometimes in both Greek and Latin, or other languages). After this, not all but many students would go on to study with a grammarian to learn the “grammatical art”, which included both grammar in the modern sense and literary studies, with the focus being on poetry (above all, Homer in Greek and Vergil in Latin). Some scholars would keep advancing their expertise in grammatikē for the rest of their lives, while others saw it as only a stepping stone to the rhetorical schools. In turn, some became professional orators and/or rhetoricians (teachers of rhetoric), while others went on to study jurisprudence and become lawyers. (Or, much more rarely, passed from rhetoric to philosophy.)

Myths, as the proper subject of poetry, were seen as lying in the remit not of rhetoricians, but of grammarians (which is why I call theirs the Mainstream Theory of Myth). Nevertheless, the myths were a constant presence to students of oratory, in the literary models they studied, in their school exercises, and in the subjects they would treat in their own career as speakers or writers. Accordingly, teachers of rhetoric of necessity developed something of their own theory of myth, conditioned by their peculiar context.

The single most important fact to keep in mind, perhaps, is that in the ancient world, the Greek word mythos and the Latin fabula both equally referred to the marvellous stories of gods and heroes which we now call ‘myths’, and to ‘fables’, the quaint tales of talking animals commonly attributed to Aesop. In rhetorical training, fables had a firm position as one of the genres of progymnasmata or ‘preliminary exercises’, which were practiced by students before they were ready to compose full orations. As such, rhetoricians tended to spend far more time thinking about fables than myths, and classified the latter only as a sub-type of ‘narrative’ (gr. dihēgēma, lat. narratio). As such, rhetorical theory of myth is generally something of an afterthought, compared to the central place myths had in grammatical teaching.

2 Myth in the Progymnasmata

Quintilian 2.18

poetry, simple texts (Hermeneumata); orators, different perspective on myths


Cicero & other Latin rhetoricians

Menander, Περὶ ἐπιδεικτικῶν 389.17, 402.19

Aelius Theon, Progymnasmata p.59, p.64-67; p.73; p.95-96
Scholia on Aelius Theon: p. 257-260

Nicolaus, Progymnasmata 7.8, 12.17 (mythika dihêgêmata), 13.4
Anonymi in Aphthonium, Incerti auctoris prolegomena in progymnasmata 14.162.22 (mythikês historias)
Joannes Doxopatres, Prolegomena in Aphthonii progymnasmata 14.90.16 — 14.92.7

Rhetorica Anonyma, Expositio artis rhetoricae 3.725
Rhetorica Anonyma, Epitome artis rhetoricae 3.650
Rhetorica Anonyma, Prolegomena in artem rhetoricam 14.19.15

Hermogenes, Περὶ ἰδεῶν λόγου 1.1, 1.6, 2.4, 2.10-12
Hermogenes, Περὶ εὑρέσεως [Sp.] 3.15.62
Hermogenes, Progymnasmata [Dub.] 2.12

Anonymi in Hermogenem, Introductio in prolegomena Hermogenis artis rhetoricae 14.267.24
Anonymi in Hermogenem, Commentarium in librum περὶ ἰδεῶν 7.882.26, 7.954.9 (Περὶ σεμνότητος) down to 7.956.10, etc.
Anonymi in Hermogenem, Commentarium in librum περὶ εὑρέσεως 7.853.7
A. in H., Excerpta e prolegomenis in librum περὶ στάσεων 14.298

Rhetorica Anonyma, In librum περὶ ἰδεῶν 7.82 > summary of on semnotês

Joannes, Commentarium in Hermogenis librum περὶ ἰδεῶν 6.249.26; 6.484.9 > and more

Aelius Aristides, Ars rhetorica [Sp.] 1.1, 2.4

the other Joannes

Cicero, Progymnasmata etc. on mythoi

Marius Victorinus, Explanationes in rhetoricam > fabul*. Also Grillius?
Iulius Victor, Ars Rhetorica: poetic*, fabul*?
Excerpta rhetorica (Paris. 7530) > fabulosa
? Panegyric for Theodosius (fabul-)
Panegyric for Maximian & Diocletian > neque enim fabula … (commonsense?)

Cicero, (ps)Quintilian