Theory and Practice in Libanius' Progymnasmata

Craig Gibson

University of Iowa

In Greek rhetorical schools of the imperial period, students learned to compose and deliver their own speeches by first working through a graded series of exercises in prose composition called progymnasmata.  Of the many methods that must have existed for teaching the progymnasmata in antiquity, we know only a handful in detail.  We have treatises by Aelius Theon (first or fifth century C.E.), Ps.-Hermogenes (second century), Aphthonius (fourth century), and Nicolaus (fifth century), which discuss the teaching and composition of the exercises and provide the curriculum with a grounding in theory.  Some teachers also supplemented their oral or written instruction with sample exercises for students to imitate; by far the largest such collection is that of Libanius (fourth century).  However, Libanius does not describe the theory that informed his practice.  The goal of this paper is to analyze and describe the theoretical underpinnings of Libanius' practice by comparing his collection of sample exercises to the recommendations of the four surviving treatises.  This comparison suggests that Libanius essentially followed the theoretical guidelines of Ps.-Hermogenes: none of his sample exercises violates Ps.-Hermogenes' recommendations; Libanius sometimes agrees in practice with Ps.-Hermogenes against other ancient theorists; and Libanius uses many of the same themes and literary sources that Ps.-Hermogenes does.  However, Libanius differs from his model in that he expected his students to know much more about ancient history and biography; the influence of this aspect of his pedagogy can be seen in the short sample exercises included in the treatise of Aphthonius, one of Libanius' more accomplished students.

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