Simonides of Ceos
Roman legend claims that Simonides of Ceos was the inventor of the method of loci where large amounts of data can be remembered in order by placing images that represent the data into mental locations or journeys. (The actual origin of the technique goes far back into prehistory though — read The Memory Code for the full story.)
I was in the Greek Islands last summer and tried to visit his birthplace on Kea, but due to a Greek holiday I couldn’t find a ferry from Athens. I’m planning on visiting Kea next summer to make a memory journey in his hometown of Ioulis.
Scroll down for the story of Simonides as told by Cicero in De Oratore.
There is a story that Simonides was dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman named Scopas at Crannon in Thessaly, and chanted a lyric poem which he had composed in honor of his host, in which he followed the custom of the poets by including for decorative purposes a long passage referring to Castor and Pollux; whereupon Scopas with excessive meanness told him he would pay him half the fee agreed on for the poem, and if he liked he might apply for the balance to his sons of Tyndaraus, as they had gone halves in the panegyric.
The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed, the story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.
He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it.
Here is Quintilian’s version:
The first to teach an Art of Memory is said to have been Simonides, of whom a well-known story is related: That when, for a stipulated sum, he had written in honor of a pugilist who had won the crown, an ode of the kind usually composed for conquerors in the games, half of the money was refused him because, according to a practice very common with poets, he had made a digression in praise of Castor and Pollux, for which reason he was told to apply for the other half to the deities whose praises be had chosen to celebrate. The deities, according to the story, paid it. During a splendid entertainment in honor of that victory, Simonides, being invited to the banquet, was called away from it by a message that two young men, mounted on horses, earnestly requested to see him. When he went out, he found nobody, but he discovered, from what followed, that the deities were not ungrateful to him, for he had scarcely passed the threshold when the banquet room fell down upon the guests and crushed them so horribly that those who went to look for the bodies of the dead, in order to bury them, were unable to recognize, by any mark, not only their faces, but even their limbs. Simonides, by the aid of his memory, is said to have pointed out the bodies to their friends in the exact order in which they had sat. But it is by no means agreed among authors whether this ode was written for Glaucus of Carystus or Leocrates, or Agatharcus, or Scopas, and whether the house was at Pharsalus, as Simonides himself seems somewhere to intimate and as Apollodorus, Eratosthenes, Euphorion, and Eurypylus of Larissa have stated, or at Cranon, as asserted by Apollas Callimachus, whom Cicero has followed, giving wide circulation to his account of the story. It is generally believed that Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, was killed at that banquet; his sister’s son is said to have perished with him, and some think that most of the family of another and older Scopas was killed at the same time. However, that part of the story relating to Castor and Pollux appears to me to be utterly fabulous, as the poet himself has nowhere alluded to the occurrence, and he assuredly would not have been silent about an incident so much to his honor.
From what Simonides did on that occasion, it appears to have been remarked that the memory is assisted by localities impressed on the mind, and everyone seems able to attest the truth of the observation from his own experience, for when we return to places, after an absence of some time, we not only recognize them, but recollect also what we did in them.