Pliny the Elder on Memory, ~77 CE

Naturalis Historia, Bk. VII

Chap. XXIIII: Examples of memorie.

Translated by Philemon Holland (1601)

AS TOUCHING MEMORIE, the greatest gift of Nature, and most necessarie of all others for this life; hard it is to judge and say who of all others deserved the cheefe honour therein: considering how many men have excelled, and woon much glorie in that behalfe.

King Cyrus was able to call every souldior that he had through his whole armie, by his owne name. L. Scipio could doe the like by all the citizens of Rome. Semblably, Cineas, Embassador of king Pyrrhus, the very next day that he came to Rome, both knew and also saluted by name all the Senate, and the whole degrees of Gentlemen and Cavallerie in the cittie. Mithridates the king, reigned over two and twentie nations of diverse languages, and in so many tongues gave lawes and ministred justice unto them, without truchman: and when hee was to make speech unto them in publicke assemblie respectively to every nation, he did performe it in their owne tongue, without interpretor.

One Charmidas or Carmadas, a Grecian, was of so singular a memorie, that he was able to deliver by heart the contents word for word of all the bookes that a man would call for out of any librarie, as if he read the same presently within a booke. At length the practise hereof was reduced into an art of Memorie: devised and invented first by Simonides Melicus, and afterwards brought to perfection and consummate by Metrodorus Scepsius: by which a man might learne to rehearse againe the same words of any discourse whatosever, after once hearing.

And yet there is not a thing in man so fraile and brittle againe as it is, whether it be occasioned by disease, by casual injuries and occurrents, or by feare, through which it faileth sometime in part, and otherwhiles decaieth generally, and is cleane lost. One with the stroke of a stone, fell presently to forget his letters onely, and could read no more: otherwise his memorie served him well ynough. Another, with a fall from the roufe of a very high house, lost the remembrance of his own mother, his next kinsfolke, friends, and neighbours. Another, in a sicknesse of his forgot his owne servants about him: and Messala Corvinus the great Oratour, upon the like occasion, forgot his owne proper name.

So fickle and slipperie is mans memorie: that oftentimes it assaieth and goeth about to leese it selfe, even whiles a mans bodie is otherwise quiet and in health. But let sleep creepe at any time upon us, it seemeth to be vanquished, so as our poore spirit wandereth up and down to seeke where it is, and to recover it againe.

(Source; paragraph breaks added for reading ease)


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