Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.22

Sarah B. Pomeroy (ed.), Plutarch's Advice to the Bride and Groom and A Consolation to his Wife.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  Pp. xv, 224.  ISBN 0-19-512023-X.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, St. John's College, Cambridge
Word count: 1948 words


Includes translations by Donald Russell, commentary and interpretative essays by Sarah Pomeroy, and essays by Simon Swain, Lisette Goessler, Richard Hawley, Cynthia Patterson, Lin Foxhall, Jo Ann McNamara, Emma Stafford, Philip Stadter and Keith Bradley, with a bibliography compiled by David Harvey

This useful volume contains text and translation of, and commentary upon, Plutarch's pair of treatises on matters conjugal (Advice to the Bride and Groom, A Consolation to his Wife), as well as interpretative essays by a number of figures of distinction in the study of ancient gender and of Plutarch's writings and society. The central question raised here concerns Plutarch's status as a representative of contemporary views on sexual relationships between women and men, an issue of considerable academic topicality. Pomeroy (a celebrated scholar, of course, in the field of ancient gender studies) presents this volume as a companion to her earlier social and historical commentary on Xenophon's Oeconomicus,1 and the similarities are close. Although there is some representative work on the formal aspects of Plutarch's composition (notably, the rather baroque structural analysis by Goessler, translated from her 1962 dissertation), on his relationship to the literary and artistic traditions (Stafford on Peitho), and on his sources (Hawley), this volume as a whole reflects Pomeroy's own leanings towards the 'social and historical', rather than the literary.

It is difficult in the extreme to enter any discussion of ancient sexuality without employing the 'F' word. For classicists, the issue of particular urgency raised by the History of Sexuality2 concerns the vexed question of historical continuity and historical 'rupture'. Is it meaningful to talk of a coherent, widespread 'ancient sexuality' (whether we define that as system of sexual practices or of beliefs and ideologies -- or indeed of both), or is sexuality fundamentally contingent upon historical juncture and cultural locale? This is the central issue confronting many of the contributors to this volume. The Roman principate (the time when Plutarch was writing) is widely held by Foucault and others to be a period when sexual ideology underwent fundamental reorganisation. In explicitly comparing and contrasting Advice with Xenophon's Oeconomicus (at pp. 33-42) in her opening essay, Pomeroy programmatically explores the possibility of a historical disjunction between the conceptualisation of sexual relationships in the Classical and the Roman periods of Greek culture.

To an extent, the question of historical change is uncontroversial: classicists have always accepted that ideas alter as they range across cultural systems and historical periods. Yet in the field of ancient sexuality, battles are still being fought keenly. The terrain has shifted from the early nineties, when Halperin, Winkler et al. raised the debate between 'essentialism' (i.e. the belief that sexual orientations and habits are constant across cultures and periods) and 'constructionism' (whereby cultures 'construct' their own idiosyncratic sexualities).3 As is the case with most such extreme polarisations, the discussion has moved on via a kind of Hegelian synthesis: a culture's sexual system can now be interpreted as a mixture of continuities (including, potentially, some near 'universals', such as incest taboo) and distinctive features. We have now broached a new set of problematics, with a characteristically self-reflexive, post-modern twist: what meanings are created by scholarship's narratives of continuity and discontinuity? What is at stake, for example, when we subsume Roman sexuality (or sexualities) into a Hellenocentric model of 'ancient sexuality'?4 Why have there been countless accounts of ancient women, and (until recently) none of ancient masculinity?5 Historical meaning, as much recent work has reminded us insistently, is (partly? largely? wholly?) created by historical scholarship.

In this highly energised field of debate, Pomeroy's own contributions to this volume stand out for both their purposeful clarity and their defiant defence of historical narrative as a mode of explanation. In her view, the relationship between the cultures of Xenophon and Plutarch is primarily characterised by historical rupture: she writes of a series of 'major differences between the classical and the late Hellenistic periods with regard to gender relations' (p. 39). In what do these differences consist? It is perhaps no great surprise to read that '[b]y Plutarch's day' (p. 36), conjugality had supplanted pederasty as the dominant sexual ideology of the élite, a view that has been put forward by Foucault and Simon Swain (for a related point, see also Swain in this volume, pp. 95-6).6 The widespread conversion of Greek sexual mores, however, cannot be insisted upon in quite such binarist terms. While it is true that homosexuality is vigorously decried by Dio Chrysostom (Oration 7), this is not a universal picture. Lucian, Maximus of Tyre, the epigrammatists and Achilles Tatius all present positive representations of pederasty; and to dismiss these as 'merely' playful (as Foucault seems to) is naïve.7 The occlusion of this evidence for the approbation of pederasty leads to a certain simplification of the picture; it also poses the question (which surfaces elsewhere in this volume, as we shall see presently) of just how emblematic Plutarch is of his culture, and indeed what it means to take a writer as emblematic in this way.

Pomeroy's other 'major difference' between the two periods is that 'women in Plutarch's day enjoyed more autonomy than their classical counterparts' (p. 39). At one level, this is incontrovertible: as she shows, the Roman period saw the woman's right to divorce enshrined in law, and less sex-segregation (see also Foxhall, pp. 144-5; McNamara, p. 152). As Pomeroy makes clear, Plutarch has (surprisingly, in the depressingly misogynist Greek tradition) considerable sympathy for his wife. Elsewhere, Stadter shows that, although women are generally only mentioned in times of crisis, Plutarch shows a sustained interest across his oeuvre in reciprocity and harmony between the sexes (Stadter's analysis of Isis and Osiris in these terms is particularly enlightening and interesting). So Plutarch does seem to manifest a new regard for sexual mutuality. On the other hand, Pomeroy's implication that there is an absolute and self-evident scale of 'autonomy' for women could be taken as misleading. Could it not be said, on the contrary, that Plutarch's expressed concerns with reciprocity and conjugality are an alternative strategy for silencing women? As McNamara writes, in a vigorous and stimulating essay, Plutarch's seductively egalitarian-seeming approach to women is based upon a 'concept of womanhood whose real happiness lay in finding a man strong enough to master her' (p. 160). Plutarch thinks 'seriously' (p. 159) about marriage with sympathy and sensitivity, but predominantly from the perspective of the 'traditional assumption of male superiority' (p. 160). As with the supposed cultural conversion from pederasty to conjugality, the hypothesis that the posited 'liberation' of women constitutes an index of historical change is at the very least controversial.

Such concern with the degree to which Plutarch displays an unremarkably traditional androcentrism (and, conversely, the degree to which he marks the beginning of a new age of tolerance and sensitivity) is strong throughout this volume, and particularly in the essay by Patterson. She asserts that Plutarch is conspicuously resisting new conjugal ideals and siding with a centuries-old tradition: 'Plutarch does not enunciate a "new" marital morality à la Musonius Rufus, but ... offers a "compendium" of well-known advice -- if in a notably more positive format than was traditional in Greek literature' (p. 136). On this interpretation, the Plutarch of Advice is not 'of his time', but a throwback to an earlier set of ideological values. Yet this conclusion, emphasising continuity, is open to the same charges of reductivism as the blunt assertion that Plutarch marks a new era. There is a specific problem raised by taking Plutarch as an ambassador of his times: he is an eccentric in his own times, an incorrigible archaist (as Pomeroy observes, pp. 39-40), and also, to a degree, a harbinger of later neoplatonism. Yet such problems are not, it seems to me, confined to Plutarch: they will arise whenever we seek to make an isolated literary text the foundation-stone of a historiographical narrative. How paradigmatic is a text of its culture? And paradigmatic how? The traditional polarity of 'change' versus 'continuity', unless treated with great caution, lacks the requisite nuance to deal with these complex issues.

Several of the contributors also address the related question of how Plutarch's text bears upon society. For Swain and Foxhall, Plutarch is (even when discussing marriage) a political writer. Following Paul Veyne and others, Swain notes the 'close parallel between calls for, or the advertisement of, social harmony and calls for, or the advertisement of, harmonious relations in the life of the home' (p. 88). Whereas Patterson sees Plutarch (in contrast to Musonius Rufus) as visibly depoliticising the discourse of marriage by excluding any explicit reference to its social benefits (pp. 132; 136), Swain points to a significant continuity of terminology between political and conjugal discourse (particularly in the use of the language of ὁμόνοια and κοινωνία, p. 95): a harmonious marriage represents synecdochically a harmonious polity. This kind of sensitivity to vocabulary and nuance opens important avenues for research, emphasising that writing does not have to advertise its politics in order to be 'political'. Foxhall, meanwhile, seeks to site Plutarch's views on gender relations -- which she interprets as broadly repressive -- in the context of the increasing sociopolitical importance of women in the Roman empire. 'The elite women of Greek cities under Rome did not behave like the good Greek women of old,' she concludes, 'but Plutarch would have loved it if they had' (p. 150). This approach is largely helpful for introducing some much-needed 'thick description' into the picture of contemporary Roman Greece; but the assessment of Plutarch as (simply) an old codger nostalgic for the sexual propriety of yore is suspiciously Wilamowitzian, and in this case is only scantly supported by textual evidence.

Finally, Bradley's essay on Plutarch's 'Images of Childhood' uses Advice and Consolation to challenge a number of well-established historiographical narratives concerning children and childhood. For a start, childhood 'as a specifically demarcated stage of life' is not, as some have claimed, 'a discovery of the early modern world' (p. 191): Plutarch's writings show a keen awareness of children's differing consciousness of and relationship to the world. Bradley links Plutarch's heightened awareness of childhood (which, he argues, runs parallel to the high degree of representation of children in art) to a process of historical change in ancient society, and loosely, to high infant mortality rates (not, of course, a sufficient explanation per se: infant mortality rates were high in Classical Athens, but childhood not particularly a subject of interest). These assertions, though, run into a number of problems, problems which Bradley confronts self-consciously. How does Plutarch's construction of childhood differ from modern ones? (An important and unaddressed question: why do Plutarch's biographies so rarely begin in childhood?) Does literary writing such as Plutarch's reflect society? Does literary writing influence society? 'These are complex issues far beyond the scope of this essay' (p. 193); but they are central to the concerns of the volume as a whole, and it is useful to have them highlighted (even if no satisfactory conclusion is reached).

This is a useful collection that will, no doubt, well serve its intended readership (p. vii) of students pursuing courses on women, gender and the family. The translation is, as one would expect from Donald Russell, excellent (two gripes in connection with Advice: ch. 25 does not correspond to the Teubner text reproduced in the volume; there is also some terminological inconsistency, e.g. ἑταιρικόν is translated as 'like a mistress' at ch. 18, but ἑταίρα transliterated as hetaira at ch. 29). In addition, it marks an important contribution to research into a writer whose star is in the ascendant, and into a period of Greek culture that is gaining increasing attention and recognition. As will be clear from what is written above, there are some big issues addressed here; and, although, they are (as one would expect) not always resolved in a consistent or even convincing manner, it is helpful to have them viewed in sharper focus.


1.   Sarah B. Pomeroy, Xenophon, Oeconomicus: a Social and Historical Commentary, with a new English Translation (Oxford, 1994).
2.   M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume I: Introduction (London, 1981); Volume II: The Use of Pleasure (London, 1987); Volume III: The Care of the Self (London, 1988). All trans. R. Hurley.
3.   David Halperin, One hundred years of homosexuality: and other essays on Greek love (New York, 1990), esp. 41-53; John J. Winkler, The constraints of desire: the anthropology of sex and gender in ancient Greece (New York, 1990).
4.   Judith P. Hallett & Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. Roman Sexualities (Princeton, 1997).
5.   Lin Foxhall & John Salmon, eds. When Men were Men: Masculinity, Power, and Identity in Classical Antiquity (London, 1998); eid., eds. Thinking Men: Masculinity and its Self-representation in the Classical Tradition (London, 1998).
6.   Foucault, Care of the Self (n. 2), 150-232; Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 (Oxford, 1996), 118-31. I doubt whether either Foucault or Swain, however, would put the matter in quite such stark terms.
7.   Simon Goldhill, Foucault's Virginity: Ancient Erotic Narratives and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge, 1994), 46-111.

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