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date: 22 May 2024



  • Glenn W. Most
  •  and Gian Biagio Conte


  • Latin Literature
  • Reception

Topos, a standard form of rhetorical argumentation or a variably expressible literary commonplace.

In classical rhetoric, inventio aids the orator to find elements of persuasion: τόποι or loci are both the places where such elements (especially plausible argumentative patterns) lurk, and those patterns themselves (e.g. Arist.Rh. 2. 22–3; Quint. Inst. 5. 10); if universally applicable (in various senses) they can be called κοινοὶ τόποι or loci communes. They are the habitual tools of ordinary thought but can also be studied and technically applied. No two rhetoricians provide the same catalogue, but some of the more familiar τόποι include arguments ad hominem or a fortiori, from homonymy or *etymology, from antecedents or effects.

Although in this sense the ancient discussions remain important for contemporary analyses of everyday argumentation, the general decline of rhetoric in modern culture has led topoi, like other rhetorical concepts, to seek refuge in literary studies. The recent critical topos of applying the term also, and especially, to commonly but variably expressed literary contents (clichéd metaphors and commonplace thoughts) ultimately derives from E. R. Curtius, who sought in his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages to refound the cultural unity of Europe upon the heritage of Latin rhetoric. Correspondingly, many of Curtius's own examples—‘brevitas-formula’, the composition of a poem as a nautical voyage, ‘emphasis on inability to do justice to the topic’, ‘I bring things never said before’, ‘praise of forebears and their deeds’, etc.—remain closely linked to traditional rhetorical structures. But his extension of the concept from rhetorical forms to literary contents paved the way for the banalizing inclusion of unformalized commonplaces (already Curtius, who sometimes linked topoi with unconscious ‘archetypes’, included ‘all must die’, ‘ape as metaphor’, *locus amoenus, ‘perpetual spring’, puer senex, ‘the world upside-down’). To be sure, communication both ordinary and literary depends upon shared premisses, and novelty, like familiarity, can only be perceived against the background of what is already known. Ancient authors, perhaps because their audience was more restricted and shared with them a more limited cultural background, seem to have been fonder of such commonplaces than modern ones and to have drawn upon a smaller stock (sometimes doubtless supplied by appropriate rhetorical manuals). But they can use them for very different purposes (e.g. to create complicity with the audience, to advertise generic affiliations, to vary surprisingly in detail or context, to provide reassurance by not varying) and may often have believed in their truth. See communes loci; progymnasmata.


  • E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages2 (1990. Ger. orig. 1948).
  • L. Hunter, Toward a Definition of Topos (1991).
  • T. Reinhardt, Cicero's Topica (2003), 18–35.