progymnasmata (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

James J. Murphy notes that what is "persistent in the exercises of progymnasmata is the close ties between oral and written composition" (A Short History of Writing Instruction, 2016). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


The progymnasmata are handbooks of preliminary rhetorical exercises that introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. Also called the gymnasma.

In classical rhetorical training, the progymnasmata were "structured so that the student moved from strict imitation to a more artistic melding of the often disparate concerns of speaker, subject, and audience" (Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, 1996).

See the observations below. Also see: What Are the Progymnasmata?

From the Greek, "before" + "exercises"

The Exercises

This list of 14 exercises is drawn from the progymnasmata handbook written by Aphthonius of Antioch, a fourth century rhetorician.

  1. fable
  2. narrative
  3. anecdote (chreia)
  4. proverb (maxim)
  5. refutation
  6. confirmation
  7. commonplace
  8. encomium
  9. invective
  10. comparison (syncrisis)
  11. characterization (impersonation or ethopoeia)
  12. description (ekphrasis)
  13. thesis (theme)
  14. defend/attack a law (deliberation)


  • The Enduring Value of the Progymnasmata
    "The handbooks of progymnasmata may . . . interest modern teachers of composition, for they present a sequence of assignments in reading, writing, and speaking which gradually increase in difficulty and in maturity of thought from simple story-telling to argumentation, combined with study of literary models. As such, the exercises were certainly effective in providing students for centuries with verbal skills that many students in our time seem less often to develop. Because the exercises were so completely structured, furnishing the student with lists of things to say on many subjects, they are open to the criticism that they tended to indoctrinate students in traditional values and inhibit individual creativity. Only Theon, among writers on progymnasmata, suggests that students might be asked to write about their own experiences—something that did not again become a subject of elementary composition until the romantic period. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to characterize the traditional exercises as inhibiting all criticism of traditional values. Indeed, a major feature of the exercises was stress on learning refutation or rebuttal: how to take a traditional tale, narrative, or thesis and argue against it. If anything, the exercises may have tended to encourage the idea that there was an equal amount to be said on two sides of any issue, a skill practiced at a later stage of education in dialectical debate."
    (George A. Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Brill, 2003)
  • Sequenced Exercises
    "The progymnasmata remained popular for so long because they are carefully sequenced: they begin with simple paraphrases . . . and end with sophisticated exercises in deliberative and forensic [also known as judicial] rhetoric. Each successive exercise uses a skill practiced in the preceding one, but each adds some new and more difficult composing task. Ancient teachers were fond of comparing the graded difficulty of the progymnasmata to the exercise used by Milo of Croton to gradually increase his strength: Milo lifted a calf each day. Each day the calf grew heavier, and each day his strength grew. He continued to lift the calf until it became a bull."
    (S. Crowley and D. Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. Pearson, 2004)
  • The Progymnasmata and the Rhetorical Situation
    "The progymnasmata progresses from concrete, narrative tasks to abstract, persuasive ones; from addressing the class and teacher to addressing a public audience such as the law court; from developing a single prescribed point of view to examining several and arguing for a self-determined thesis. The elements of a rhetorical situation--audience, speaker, and appropriate language--are included and vary from one exercise to another. Within exercises subordinate topics or topoi are called for, such as exemplification, definition, and comparison. Yet students have freedom to select their subjects, expand them, and assume a role or persona as they see fit."
    (John Hagaman, "Modern Use of the Progymnasmata in Teaching Rhetorical Invention." Rhetoric Review, Fall 1986)
  • Method and Content
    "The progymnasmata . . . offered Roman teachers a systematic yet flexible tool for incremental development of student abilities. The young writer/speaker is led step-by-step into increasingly complex compositional tasks, his freedom of expression depending, almost paradoxically, on his ability to follow the form or pattern set by his master. At the same time he absorbs ideas of morality and virtuous public service from the subjects discussed, and from their recommended amplifications on themes of justice, expediency, and the like. By the time he reaches the exercise of Laws, he has long since learned to see both sides of a question. He has also amassed a store of examples, aphorisms, narratives, and historical incidents which he can use later outside the school."
    (James J. Murphy, "Habit in Roman Writing Instruction." A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America, ed. by James J. Murphy. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)
  • Decline of the Progymnasmata
    "[W]hen, in the late seventeenth century, training in the three classical genera began to lose relevance and the systematic development of Latin themes through imitation and amplification began to lose favor, the progymnasmata fell into sharp decline. Nonetheless, the training afforded by the progymnasmata has left a strong impression on Western literature and oratory."
    (Sean Patrick O'Rourke, "Progymnasmata." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication From Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)


Pronunciation: pro gim NAHS ma ta