Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.04

J. L. Marr, Plutarch: Lives. Themistocles.   Warminster:  Aris and Phillips, 1998.  Pp. 172.  ISBN 0-85668-676-X (hb).  £35.00.  ISBN 0-85668-677-8 (pb).  £13.25.  

Reviewed by Tim Rood, The Queen's College, Oxford (
Word count: 1840 words

J. L. Marr's edition of the Themistocles is a very useful addition to the earlier volumes on Plutarch in the Aris and Phillips series, all featuring introduction, text, facing translation, and commentary: editions of the Cicero by John Moles (1988), of the Aristeides and Cato pair by David Sansone (1989), and of the Malice of Herodotus by Anthony Bowen (1992). Comparison with the earlier volumes devoted to the Lives does, however, raise the question of why the Themistocles is split from its pair, the Camillus. Moles' edition, though devoted to the Cicero alone, at least has the justification that the Cicero is long and complex enough to stand on its own without the Demosthenes, and that it includes a thorough introduction of some fifty or so pages. Marr, by contrast, is not writing on one of the longer biographies, and he offers only seven pages of introduction (he refers the reader to Sansone and Moles for longer introductions to the literary aspects of Plutarch's Lives, and to their place in the tradition of literary biography).

Marr compensates for the relative shortness of the text on which he is commenting by offering a more detailed commentary (100 pages). His book is aimed at a reader who does not necessarily know any Greek, but who is interested in the historical problems raised by Plutarch's Themistocles. Marr sets these out in a clear and unpretentious manner; indeed, for the reader who wants an uncluttered presentation of the key issues, his commentary is in some ways preferable to that of his main predecessor (to whom he acknowledges a great debt), Frank Frost (Princeton, 1980).

The clarity of Marr's commentary is important because it tackles some fairly difficult, yet important, historical problems. Plutarch has been cited as evidence for issues such as the date of Themistocles' exile: during Themistocles' flight to Asia, was it Naxos (Thucydides, most manuscripts of the Themistocles) or Thasos (one manuscript of the Themistocles) that he passed? Marr offers useful discussions of such problems, while naturally avoiding giving much documentation of the extensive earlier discussions of these topics (he is wisely sceptical about the value of the story of Themistocles' flight, whichever reading is adopted). Even more helpful, perhaps, are his clear analyses of the differences between Plutarch's account and other sources (Herodotus, Thucydides, Nepos' Themistocles, and Plutarch's own Aristides). These should make his volume useful for students who want to compare, say, Herodotus' and Plutarch's accounts of the Persian Wars. Indeed, Marr also discusses some of the problems in Herodotus' account of the Persian Wars.

My main criticism of Marr's commentary is not so much its historical focus, as the restricted range of this focus. Plutarch's Themistocles is fascinating evidence for the reception of the Persian Wars, in particular for the traditions that built up around one prominent individual from that era. Marr frequently addresses the issue of how stories about Themistocles developed. He proposes sources such as Themistocles' family (and ultimately Themistocles himself), after their return to Athens, for apologetic and dramatic material; the Alkmeonid family tradition, as well as oligarchic sources later in the fifth-century concerned about the relationship between naval power and democracy, for anti-Themistoclean material; and letter writers in rhetorical schools in the first century AD. He also speculates about the origin of some stories in Herodotus (e.g. he argues that the story that the Athenians thought of moving to Italy in 480 arose after the foundation of Thurii). What Marr does not offer, however, is a clear indication that the development of stories about the past is of great historical interest in itself, and a concentrated exposition of how oral tradition operated in a society such as fifth-century Athens, and later.

Marr's historical focus separates him from many recent commentators on Plutarch. These commentators have tended to pay attention to Plutarch's ethical concerns, to the way his analysis gains from his modifications to his source material, and to Plutarch's Roman world. Marr does not neglect such issues. He notes, for instance, that the fact that Plutarch was himself Boiotian is relevant for the way he portrays Thebes' role in the Persian Wars (n. on 9. 3); and he argues that the terms in which Plutarch describes Themistocles' sight-seeing trip to Sardis are more appropriate to Plutarch's own time (n. on 31. 1). And it can be argued, in any case, that the Themistocles is in some ways (e.g. in its political analysis) a relatively unchallenging biography -- though this argument would still leave open the interesting question why that is so. There are places, however, where Marr could have pointed out that some literary tactics are familiar from Plutarch's other works (e.g. Plutarch often attributes responsibility for a measure to his subject even if this was not explicitly stated in his sources: this is relevant for Marr's note on 11. 1, where he points out that no other source makes Themistocles responsible for the decree before Salamis to recall those who had been ostracized but argues that Plutarch may still be right).

Marr's text is based on Ziegler's Teubner edition; his list of divergences (p. 7) suggests that his is a slightly more conservative text. (He discusses briefly the reasons for his choices in the commentary, but assumes no knowledge of Greek.) The translation is accurate and helpful. Some verbal plays are lost: e.g τῇ δὲ φιλοτιμία ... φιλοτιμούμενος at 5. 3, translated as 'the desire to be famous ... ambition'. 'Acestorides' at 13. 1 seems to be a slip for Acestodorus (the same slip appears on p. 104 of the commentary). More importantly, perhaps, Marr's translation at 15. 4 follows Perrin (Loeb) and Scott-Kilvert (Penguin) in misleadingly imposing an interpretation of the scope of the Simonides quotation (or rather paraphrase). Some scholars have thought that the phrase 'as Simonides has said' goes with the preceding phrase ('their resistance lasted till evening'): Marr's punctuation precludes this. The issue is important because the question whether Simonides mentioned Themistocles by name in his Salamis poem depends on it.

The volume is well produced. I noticed a few small printing errors: two Greek words are joined together at 5. 6, 11. 4, and 12. 3; and there is a missing breathing at 15. 1, and a missing quotation mark at 16. 2. On p. 167, 'Thuc. 6. 3. 2' should read 'Thuc. 6. 32'.

Finally a few specific remarks on individual passages:

1. 1: I doubt that Plutarch's Greek suggests that Phanias denied that Themistocles' mother's name was Habrotonon. Marr notes that the name 'suggested easy sexual availability', but not the significance of the habro- root.

2. 3: Marr prefers Madvig's emendation ὑπερῶν to the manuscript reading ὑπερορῶν. The passage runs (in Marr's translation): 'For in his moments of relaxation and leisure, away from his studies, he did not play or take things easy like the rest of the boys, but was to be found rehearsing or composing speeches all by himself. ... he would learn only reluctantly and without enthusiasm those subjects which are character-forming or aim at any pleasant or liberal accomplishment; whereas he manifested a great passion, far beyond his years, for those subjects which are taught with a view to developing intelligence or practical knowledge, since he was someone who put all his confidence in his natural abilities.' A problem with Madvig's emendation is that the stress on Themistocles' trust in his nature is at odds with his alleged passion for one type of learning. The MSS reading ('disregarding') evokes Thucydides' portrayal of Themistocles as someone who did not need to learn anything from any teacher (1. 138. 3: note οἰκεία ... ξυνέσει: the stress on Themistocles' isolated speech-making does not contradict this; and one might stress the use of λεγομένων in the phrase τῶν δ' εἰς σύνεσιν πρᾶξιν λεγομένων ('taught with a view to ...' doesn't seem quite right; Plutarch seems to imply that Themistocles was sceptical of the alleged help).

2. 8: Marr notes the symbolic function of the story that Themistocles' father tried to deter him from a political career by pointing to old triremes lying abandoned on the sea-shore - but not the irony (we can read the warning as counter-productive).

5. 5: 'The story [of Themistocles' choregic inscription] does not illustrate Plutarch's point very well.' But would Plutarch's audience have been able to draw the chronological conclusions that Marr does? Marr does not comment on 'even at that time': what vision did Plutarch have of the development of the use of displays such as tragedy for political ends?

7. 1: 'Does Plutarch imply that Themistocles wanted to send the fleet en masse to attack Xerxes' forces as they crossed the Hellespont? There is no hint of such an unlikely plan in the other sources.' It is worth noting that Themistocles' alleged stratagem is rather like that attributed to the Syracusan Hermokrates in Thucydides' account of the Syracusan response to news of the impending Athenian invasion of Sicily: could a later account of the Peloponnesian War have influenced stories about the Persian Wars? Cf. 14. 3, where Themistocles' tactic of waiting for the wind recalls (as Frost notes ad loc.) Thucydides' description of Phormion at Naupaktos. Also perhaps 10. 8-9, where Plutarch's account of the mixed emotions at the sight of the Athenians leaving Athens by ship and the suffering of those left behind echoes two scenes in Thucydides (6. 30-1, the departure of the fleet to Sicily; 7. 75, the departure of the Athenian army from Syracuse); admittedly the motifs became a stock part of emotive historiographical descriptions.

9. 1: 'Leonidas lay dead': does κεῖσθαι evoke the famous Thermopylae epigram (Hdt. 7. 28. 2)?

10. 1: 'At this point Themistocles, at a loss how to win over the populace by rational arguments, proceeded to bring divine portents and oracles to bear on them, like a playwright deploying machinery in a tragedy': Marr comments that Plutarch uses the comparison 'to pour scorn on supposedly supernatural interventions'; it surely also hints that Themistocles's intervention is decisive and successful. ('Rational' is slightly misleading for ἀνθρωπίνοις: arguments do not need to bring in gods to be irrational; conversely, not all rhetorical uses of the divine are irrational).

22. 3: 'A bust of Themistocles stood ... right down to my time': Marr comments that 'his use of the imperfect tense, ἔκειτο does not imply that the bust had been removed before the time at which he was writing; only that it was there when he visited the shrine.' Plutarch's meaning is surely more general: the bust was there in his time. The future perspective implied by the imperfect is very common in such passages (see e.g. Hdt. 1. 5. 4, 52, 66. 4; Plb. 2. 40. 6; Paus. 10. 12. 4).

24. 5: 'Acted his part' is rather weak for συντραγῳδῆσαι. Plutarch's use of this verb is perhaps relevant for the issue of whether stories about Themistocles' supplication of Admetus could have been perceived as being in some way related to Aeschylus' and/or Euripides' plays about Telephus (see Marr's note on 24. 2).

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