Narratio in Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Cicero's characterization of narratio (55 BC).

 R. Nordquist

In classical rhetoric, narratio is the part of an argument in which a speaker or writer provides a narrative account of what has happened and explains the nature of the case. Also called narration.

Narratio was one of the classical rhetorical exercises known as the progymnasmata. Quintilian believed that narratio should be the first exercise introduced by the teacher of rhetoric.

"Instead of conveying knowledge," says Franklin Ankersmit, "the historical narratio is essentially a proposal to look at the past from a certain point of view." (See "Narratio in Historiography" in Examples and Observations, below.)

Examples and Observations

  • "The narratio follows the exordium and gives background information. It relates events that have occurred which provide the occasion for the speech. 'A narrative based on the persons should present a lively style and diverse traits of character' and have three qualities: brevity, clarity, and plausibility."
    (John Carlson Stube, A Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading of the Farewell Discourse. T&T Clark, 2006)
  • "[I]n a piece of deliberative rhetoric, narratio is only supposed to include the facts that are germane to the presentation the speaker wants to make to his audience, 'not saying more than the case demands' [Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 4.2.43]."
    (Ben Witherington, III, Grace In Galatia. T&T Clark, 2004)
  • Cicero on the Narratio
    "As to the rule which exacts brevity from the narration, if brevity be understood to mean no superfluous word, then the orations of L. Crassus are brief; but if by brevity be meant such stringency of language as allows not one word more than is absolutely necessary to convey the bare meaning--this, though occasionally useful, would often be extremely hurtful, especially to the narration, not only by causing obscurity, but by doing away with that gentle persuasiveness and insinuation which constitute its chief excellence. . .
    The same perspicuity ought to distinguish the narration as the rest of the speech, and is all the more imperatively demanded there, because less easily attained than in the exordium, confirmation, refutation, or peroration; and also because this part of the discourse is much more imperiled by the slightest obscurity than any other, elsewhere this defect does not extend beyond itself, but a misty and confused narration casts its dark shadow over the whole discourse; and if anything be not very clearly expressed in any other portion of the address, it can be restated in plainer terms elsewhere; but the narration is confined to one place, and cannot be repeated. The great end of perspicuity will be attained if the narration be given in ordinary language, and the occurrences related in regular and uninterrupted succession."
    (Cicero, De Oratore, 55 BC)
  • Colin Powell's Report to the U.N. on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq (2003)
    "Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed. These tubes are controlled by the Nuclear Suppliers Group precisely because they can be used as centrifuges for enriching uranium. . .
    Most U.S. experts think they are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Other experts and the Iraqis themselves argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher.
    I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old Army trooper, I can tell you a couple of things: First, it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so.
    Second, we actually have examined tubes from several different batches that were seized clandestinely before they reached Baghdad. What we notice in these different batches is a progression to higher and higher levels of specification, including, in the latest batch, an anodized coating on extremely smooth inner and outer surfaces. Why would they continue refining the specifications, go to all that trouble for something that, if it was a rocket, would soon be blown into shrapnel when it went off?"
    (Secretary of State Colin Powell, address to the U.N. Security Council, Feb. 5, 2003)
  • Narratio in Historiography
    "Each attempt to define (part of) historical reality may satisfy some historians but never all of them. In other words, the link between language--i.e. the narratio--and reality can never be fixed in a way acceptable to all historians, thus becoming the knowledge of a generalized knowing subject. The fact that debate and discussion have a much more prominent place in historiography [which] in other disciplines and that historiographical debate rarely, if ever, results in conceptions shared once and for all by all historians should not be seen as a sad deficiency of historiography that has to be remedied, but as a necessary consequence of the linguistic instruments used by historians."
    (Franklin Ankersmit, "The Use of Language in the Writing of History." Working With Language: A Multidisciplinary Consideration of Language Use in Work Contexts. Walter de Gruyter, 1989)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Narratio in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Narratio in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Narratio in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).