The Method of Loci and Latin

What do an ancient memory technique and the roman language have in common (apart from both being ancient…)? The answer is quite a lot,

The technique I’m talking about is known as the ‘method of loci’, or ‘the method of place’, and comes from the Ancient Greek poet Simonides. according to the story, Simondes was at a dinner party and stepped out for some aif immediately before the roof fell in. When they were recovering the bodies, Simonidies was able to identify them by remembering where everyone was sitting. fRom this he realised the power of visualisation as atechnique to help you remember something.

Fom this event, the method of loci was born. These days it’s more popularly known by reference to a memory palace’, which is a more complicated version, but the basic idea is actually very simple, and can be learnt to very powerful effect in only a few minutes.

It doesn’t have to be as complicated as a full palace…

It doesn’t have to be as complicated as a full palace…

So how does it work?

The idea is to start with a place you know very well, and can imagine confidently, accurately, and instantly. Most people start with their bedroom, house, apartment, office, things like that. Once you’ve done that, you ‘place’ the thing or things you want to remember in that space, connecting it in some way. So, for example, if you wanted to remember ‘paper towels and yoghurt’, and your space was your apartment, you could cover the door (in your mind) with paper towels, and, when the door is open, step on spilt yoghurt on the floor. imagine that in as much detail as you can, and yu’ll find it’s very easy to recall it later by ‘walking’ the same path (in this case, simply entering the apartment).

That’s it. But this simple technique is very powerful, and you can add so many different things, and remember very large quantities of information very quickly.

The most obvious connection between this technique and latin is, of course, to use the technique to help you remember words, phrases, or (even better), whole sentences. And there’s certainly an advantage to this, but, as I’m not big on trying to memorise a language, that’s not really what I tend to do. But f you want to, go for it

For me, however, the connection is far subtler, and far more important.

The thing you need to understand about Latin is that it is a very pictorial language. Very pictorial. This means that the best way to think in and understand latin is visually, through pictures. It’s no surprise that the Roman orators would memorise and recall their speeches visually, by walking throught loci wehre they had saved the whole speech. Yes, this is a useful and effective technique in any language, but with Latin, he connection runs deeper, because in a very real sense, Latin is like the method of loci itself.

When Latin speaks, it takes you on a journey through a building. Better yet, a tour through an art gallery. Yes, the tour guide can take you trhough the different halls - show you the portrits, the renaissance, the impressionists, and so on - but the real interest is in the things the tour guide points out along the way… the details about the artists and the particular paintings.

It’s the same with Latin. The author or speaker takes you on a journey from A to B. But the devil is n the detail, the little asides. I’ll say more about latin as a language of asides in another post, but for now, let’s continue the art analogy. Let’s take this sentence from Nepos (Themistocles, 8):

Ibi cum cives principes animadvertisset timere ne propter se bellum iis Lacedaemonii et Athenienses indicerent, ad Admetum, Molossum regem, cum quo ei hospitium erat, confugit.
— Cornelius Nepos, Themistocles, 8

The journey through the art gallery, the walk through the memory palace, so to speak, is contained here:

Ibi [...] ad Admetum [...] confugit.

In English: “Then he fled to Admetus”.

This is the locus, the place or space in which all the details, the rest of the sentence, are placed. Everything else is just a little more detail as you walk through:

Ibi - then


cum cives principes animadvertisset timere

In other words, when the chief citizens became afraid. But why were they afraid?

ne propter se bellum iis Lacedaemonii et Athenienses indicerent

That is, afraid that the Spartans and Athenians would declare war.

Okay, so we know the then when he flees to Admetus. But who’s Admetus?

Molossum regem

The king of Molossis. Okay, but why him?

cum quo ei hospitium erat

‘With whom he had hospitality’, i.e. he owed him a favour.

So now we’ve walked through the space of then, and Admetus. those tw things, like the space in our old memory technique, provide the pins to which the details are attached.

Once you start reading this way, latin starts to make a LOT more sense! Hope this helps!

Alexander WestenbergComment