What Are the Progymnasmata?

Classical Rhetorical Exercises for Today's Writers

Stone burial monument with relief representing a Roman school with teacher and pupils, about 180 AD. (DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

The progymnasmata are a series of exercises that introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies. Instructors looking for effective approaches to teaching composition or speech might find some fresh ideas in these assignments, even though they were developed over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.

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" (O'Rourke, "Progymnasmata," in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, 1996).

Many of the exercises correlate with the parts of a classical oration.

Corbett and Connors characterize the progymnasmata as "one of the most influential teaching methods to arise from the rhetorical tradition":

The term progymnasmata meant a graduated sequence of rhetorical assignments that students were asked to perform as they became more mature and experienced. Though such assignment sequences seem to have been part of rhetorical training from the fourth century B.C. forward, the two most famous sets of progymnasmata were those of Hermogenes of Tarsus, from the second century A.D. These sequences in Latin translations became the basis for most early rhetorical training from the patristic age up through the Renaissance.
(Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999)

Traditionally, the progymnasmata contained 14 assignments ranked by “the degree of complexity, rising cognitive demands, and increasing range of cultural knowledge.” The early exercises were practiced by younger children as part of a basic language arts curriculum.

Older students tackled the later assignments in courses on rhetoric.

The list of Aphthonius of Antioch (c. 400 A.D.) identifies the following exercises:

  1. Fable, or retelling of a folk tale.
  2. Narrative, either fiction or nonfiction.
  3. Chreia or anecdote, a story based on amplification of a famous statement or action.
  1. Proverb, which asked students to amplify by arguing for or against some maxim or adage.
  2. Refutation, which disproved the persuasive point of a narrative.
  3. Confirmation, which proved the persuasive point of a narrative.
  4. Commonplace, which amplified on the moral qualities of some virtue or vice, often as exemplified in some common phrase of advice.
  5. Encomium or praise, which expanded on the virtues of some person or thing.
  6. Invective, which censured some evil person or thing.
  7. Comparison, which compared two people or things and explored their comparative merits and shortcomings.
  8. Personification, the characterization of some fictional person by the use of appropriate language.
  9. Description, which created intense and graphic depictions of a subject.
  10. Argument, which created and supported a thesis or some general question, such as, "Is town life superior to country life?"
  11. Legislation [or deliberation], in which the student argued for or against the goodness of a law.

At least some of these exercises (narrative, comparison, description, argument) may sound familiar, but don’t dismiss them too quickly. The distinguishing feature of the progymnasmata is their careful arrangement: each one uses a skill practiced in the preceding exercise, while adding some new and more challenging 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.
(Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. Pearson, 2004)

The story of Milo may be pure bull, but not so the progymnasmata. “The most important thing that students learned by working through the progymnasmata,” says Ruth Webb, “was not rules as such but a set of practices and skills that could be put to use in (or transferred to) the composition of full-scale speeches or other types of composition” (Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice, 2009).

As George A. Kennedy has observed, the exercises “were certainly effective in providing students for centuries with verbal skills that many students in our time seem less often to develop” (Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric, 2003).