c. 77 | Misenum

Art of Memory

Pliny the Elder recalls those who remembered.

It would be far from easy to pronounce what person has been the most remarkable for the excellence of his memory, that blessing so essential for the enjoyment of life, there having been so many who have been celebrated for it.

King Cyrus knew all the soldiers of his army by name, Lucius Scipio the names of all the Roman people. Cineas, the ambassador of King Pyrrhus, knew by name all the members of the senate and the equestrian order the day after his arrival at Rome. Mithridates, who was king of twenty-two nations, administered their laws in as many languages and could harangue each of them without employing an interpreter. There was in Greece a man named Charmidas, who, when a person asked him for any book in a library, could repeat it by heart just as though he were reading. Memory, in short, has been made an art, which was first invented by the lyric poet Simonides and perfected by Metrodorus of Scepsis so as to enable people to repeat word for word exactly what they have heard. Nothing whatever in man is of so frail a nature as memory, for it is affected by disease, injuries, and even fright, being sometimes partially lost and at other times entirely so. A man who received a blow from a stone forgot the names of the letters only, while on the other hand, another person who fell from a very high roof could not so much as recollect his mother, or his relations and neighbors. Another person, in consequence of some disease, forgot even his own servants, and Messalla Corvinus, the orator, lost all recollection of his own name. And so it is that very often the memory appears to attempt, as it were, to make its escape from us even while the body is at rest and in perfect health. When sleep, too, comes over us, it is cut off altogether, so much so that the mind, in its vacancy, is at a loss to know where we are.


Pliny the Elder

From Natural History. In addition to this encyclopedia, Pliny also wrote now-lost books on grammar, history, and competitive javelin throwing. A lifelong bachelor who died while investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, Pliny reportedly demanded to be carried in a litter, even for short distances, so as not to interrupt his reading and writing. “He never read without taking notes,” his nephew later wrote, “and he used to say that there never was a book so bad that it was not good in some passage or another.”