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Imitation (mimesis,
imitatio)
MICHAEL P. FRONDA

In Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy,
mimesis referred to how written and visual
arts mimicked or imitated the world.
The term, and its Latin equivalent imitatio
(“imitation”), were more widely used in
rhetoric and all genres of literature. In this
context, imitation meant an author’s conscious use of features and characteristics of
earlier works to acknowledge indebtedness to
past writers. Imitation can be found in nearly
all works by Greek and, especially, Roman
authors. Ancient theoretical discussions of
imitation agree that good imitation required
more than simple copying. An imitator was
expected to emulate many models, join imitated material seamlessly to his own, reshape
and vary it for its new context, and improve
upon it. Perhaps the most notable ancient
treatment is DIONYSIUS OF HALICARNASSUS’ On Imitation (Peri mimeseos), which survives only in
fragments. It may have been the source for
QUINTILIAN’s famous list of desirable Greek
models (Inst. 10.1–2).
The ubiquity of imitation has obvious
ramifications for the study of ancient history.
Ancient historians regularly employed
“substantive imitation,” introducing narrative
details or inventing whole episodes based on
imitated models (see INVENTIO). For example,
LUCIAN (Hist. conscr. 15) relates how a contemporary historian inserted a fictitious plague
into his account of the Parthian Wars, modeled

on Thucydides’ account of the Athenian
plague. Also, when two accounts of an event
share similarities, it can be difficult to determine whether they derive from a common
source or one is a case of imitation. The process
of imitation (mimesis, imitatio) has drawn
recent scholarly attention because of its relevance to the study of ancient reception and
intertextuality.
SEE ALSO:

Historiography, Greek and Roman.

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Markovic, M. (1983) “Roman poets as literary
historians.” Illinois Classical Studies 8: 211–37.
Muckelbauer, J. (2003) “Imitation and invention in
antiquity: an historical-theoretical revision.”
Rhetorica 21: 61–88.
Perry, E. (2002) “Literary criticism and the Roman
aesthetics of artistic imitation.” In E. K.
Gazda, ed., The ancient art of emulation: studies
in artistic originality and tradition from the present
to classical antiquity: 153–71. Ann Arbor.
Reiff, A. (1959) Interpretatio, imitatio, aemulatio:
Begriff und Vorstellung literarischer Abha¨ngigkeit
bei den Ro¨mern. Bonn.
Russell, D. A. (1979) “De imitatione.” In West and
Woodman, eds.: 1–16.
West, D. and Woodman, D., eds. (1979) Creative
imitation and Latin literature. Cambridge.
Woodman, T. (1979) “Self-imitation and the substance of history: Tacitus, Annals 1.61–5 and
Histories 2.70, 5.14–15.” In West and Woodman,
eds.: 143–55.
Zimbrich, U. (2010) [online] [Accessed January
26, 2010.] “Mimesis.” Brill’s new Pauly online.
Available from http://www.paulyonline.brill.nl.

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition. Edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine,
and Sabine R. Huebner.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.