The idea begins with the ancient Greek poet Simonides, who was reciting a poem in a house when the ceiling collapsed. Somehow he escaped, although everybody else was crushed to death. Although the bodies of the victims were unrecognizably mangled by the gravity of the fall, Simonides was able to recall the precise places where the guests were sitting. With the association of memory with locus and location, the idea of a memory house, memory palace, or memory theater was born. The time of speech could be mastered by the spatial recollections of loci, of topoi. One would walk around in one's memory as if in a building or, better, storehouse, inspecting the objects therein. Saint Augustine, trained as a teacher of rhetoric, even went looking for God in memory, only to discover there was "no place" where he could be found.
[...] This kind of artificial memory was common in antiquity. Seneca, a teacher of rhetoric, could recite two thousand names in the order in which they had been given. Simplicius, a friend of Saint Augustine, could recite Virgil backwards. (I once met a Swede at a party in Stockholm who could sing every Swedish entry to the Eurovision Song Contest since 1958—you just said the year, 1978 say, and he would begin: "Dinga, dinga dong/ Binga, binga bong"). The striking images in a memory theater would arouse intense inner powers of visualization to aid recollection.