Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 17 February 2020


Imitatio (μίμησις‎), the study and conspicuous deployment of features recognizably characteristic of a canonical author's style or content, so as to define one's own generic affiliation (see genre).

Although Plato (Resp.10) and Aristotle (Poet.) often apply μίμησις‎ philosophically to the semantic relation by which language or art represent their objects, the more widespread ancient usage of the term is rhetorical, to designate a later writer's relation of acknowledged dependence upon an earlier one. The Muse is the daughter of memory: poets have always learned from other poets (ἕτερος ἐξ ἑτέρου σοφὸς τό τε πάλαι τό τε νῦν‎, ‘one learns his skill from another, both long ago and now’: Bacchyl. Paean fr. 5 Snell–Maehler) and are listeners or readers before they become singers or writers. But starting already with the sophists, the careful study and imitation of (usually written) models of discourse became an established educational technique. Throughout antiquity, a strong continuity in method and attitude linked school exercises on canonical texts (memorization, excerpting, paraphrase, translation, commentary, variation of theme or style, comparison) with a poetic practice which drew attention to its skilled use of models, ‘not so as to filch but to borrow openly, in the hope of being recognized’ (Seneca the Elder, Suas. 3. 7 on Ovid).

Ancient rhetoricians and pedagogues discuss the methods and dangers of imitatio in detail and with considerable psychological acumen; the most interesting surviving treatments are by Dionysius(7) of Halicarnassus, Seneca the Elder (L. Annaeus Seneca (1)) (Controversiae) and the Younger (L. Annaeus Seneca (2)) (Ep.114), ‘Longinus’ (Subl. 13–14), and Quintilian (Inst. esp. 10. 2). The ancient discussions cover many of the textual relations described by modern theories of intertextuality, including prominent use of allusion—so that a later author can demonstrate that he belongs to the same genre as an earlier one or acquire by reflection some of his prestige—and covert use to create an élite community of those readers cultured enough to recognize it; but parody is neglected (ancient imitation always implies admiration), plagiarism is despised (as κλοπαί‎ or furta), and global intertextuality within the linguistic or literary system is ignored (ancient imitation is always directed to individual authors grouped together by genre).

Typically, ancient literary theory, which never entirely abandoned a model of oral communication, tends to view systematic issues like tradition and genre in interpersonal, binary, and hence moralistic terms. Ancient discussions of imitation urge emulation and rivalry (ζῆλος‎), not servile dependence, recommend critical study and a plurality of models, and establish as the highest goal a melding of the student's personality with his model's. Reverence for the great men of the past as heroes to be imitated is a fundamental feature of ancient culture which, specified in literary terms as imitatio of the canonical authors, contributed importantly to the later notion of the pedagogical value of antiquity as a whole and decisively shaped the classical tradition. See education, roman; literary criticism in antiquity; literary theory and classical studies; rhetoric, latin; plagiarism.


A. Reiff, Interpretatio, imitatio, aemulatio: Begriff und Vorstellung literarischer Abhängigkeit bei den Römern (1959).Find this resource:

A. Thill, Alter ab illo: Recherches sur l'imitation dans la poésie personnelle à l'époque augustéenne (1979).Find this resource:

D. A. Russell, in D. West and A. J. Woodman, Creative Imitation and Latin Literature (1979).Find this resource:

G.-B. Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation (1986).Find this resource:

P. J. Parsons, in A. Bulloch and others (eds.), Images and Ideologies (1993), 162 ff.Find this resource:

Do you have feedback?