Rhetorical Pedagogy:
Rhetorical Analysis
Rhetorical Exercises

Imitation was a fundamental method of instruction in ancient Roman and in Renaissance humanist curricula, the practical counterpart ("exercitatio") to rhetorical theory ("ars"; see rhetorical ability).

Imitation took place on many levels and through many methods. At an elementary level students used imitation in learning the rudiments of Greek or Latin (spelling, grammar), copying the purity of speech of a given author. As they progressed, they were taught parsing (finding the parts of speech), which led to various kinds of rhetorical analysis of their models (finding figures of speech, argumentative strategies, patterns of arrangement). Students were instructed to use copybooks to record passages from their reading that exemplified noteworthy content or form, which they would then quote or imitate within their own speeches or compositions.

A number of imitative exercises were provided to help students assimilate and appropriate the virtues of their literary models (see rhetorical exercises). In general, however, imitative exercises consisted either of copying some type of form within the original, but supplying new content; or, of copying the content of the original, but supplying a new form. The intention was to provide a kind of literary and rhetorical apprenticeship by which the best modes of expression from the best models could be appropriated in a regulated, graduated fashion.

Imitation was the bridge between one's reading and writing (or speaking). It also represented the pragmatic arena in which issues of arrangement and style were considered simultaneously, not separately as they sometimes appear to be in the abstraction of a curricular outline.

As a method of composition, imitation is closely related to the principles and practices of amplification and variation. Students moved from close imitations of their models to looser sorts, using these models increasingly as starting points for longer, more involved compositions of their own making.

It has sometimes mistakenly been assumed that imitation had only to do with copying the style of a model, whereas considerable emphasis and instruction has been given by authorities such as Quintilian and Erasmus in how students were to observe and imitate the argumentative methods or the content of models as well.

Still, sometimes imitation did lead to the servile imitation of a single author's style (such as Cicero), or to the errors of copying the worst features of one's model. Its great benefit, however, was to provide students with ready methods of expressing themselves, to integrate the information they'd been taught in a specialized way (such as grammar and rhetoric), and to orient students to observe with great detail those specific linguistic methods that made certain models so successful.

Related Figures

  • mimesis
    This Greek term for imitation more typically labels not the rhetorical pedagogy of imitation, but a specific rhetorical figure.
See Also
  • Invention
    Like the topics of invention, imitation also serves as a starting point for generating discourse.
  • Style-Virtues
    Imitation was a means of identifying and assimilating the various virtues of style from a given literary author.

Sources: Cic. De Or. 2.32-33, 3.31.125; Quint. 10;


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Gideon O. Burton, Brigham Young University
Please cite "Silva Rhetoricae" (