Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.06

Bernhard Ahlrichs, "Prüfstein der Gemüter." Untersuchungen zu den ethischen Vorstellungen in den Parallelbiographien Plutarchs am Beispiel des "Coriolan". Beiträge zur Altertumwissenschaft, 16.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms, 2005.  Pp. 549.  ISBN 3-487-13036-X.  €78.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alexei V. Zadorojnyi, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 1512 words

The book is a revised Göttingen PhD thesis that purports to be an in-depth case study of the methods of character-portrayal in Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Part 1 puts forward a strongly inductive approach: rather than construe meaning vis-à-vis pre-programmed typological grids, A. seeks to uncover the Plutarchan evaluative categories (21-2) through close reading of a single biography, namely Coriolanus. The idea that each Life has 'its own artistic dynamics' (22 'eine künstlerischen Eigendynamik') is thus consciously radicalized -- characterization has to issue from the specific narrative wherein value-charged notions or epithets are brought into play. A. also hopes to elucidate the rhetoric of Coriolanus by confronting Plutarch's text with its principal source, Bks 6-8 of the Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Part 2, which forms the bulk of the book (44-446), is a perusal of the Life focused on a) Coriolanus' qualities that crystallize the ethical, psychological, and political terminology employed by Plutarch and b) the reworking of the Dionysian material. Part 3 looks at the formal comparison (σύγκρισις) between Coriolanus and Alcibiades that ends this pair of Lives. The conclusions, summed up in Part 4, are that the heroic yet intransigent Coriolanus of the Life is very much a product of Plutarch's creative montage, driven simultaneously by his greater (compared to Dionysius) interest in psychology and his schematic vision of early Rome as a political and cultural organism.

Gaius (Gnaeus) Marcius Coriolanus was not a charmer, but this is hardly an excuse for a dreary book on Coriolanus. A.'s monograph is both heavy-handed and overlong, while its interpretive payoff appears rather slight. I suspect 'monograph' may be a misnomer here because the opus reads more like an ungainly hybrid between a running commentary and a word-list. In essence, A. trawls the Life section by section picking out and glossing all characterization-related lexemes he comes across, such as ὁρμή and γνώμη (58-65), μέτριος (79-81), βέβαιος (103-4), ἀνδραγαθία (111-12), δημοτικός (135-8), ἐπιεικής (138-9), προθυμία (142-4), τόλμη and ἀνδρεία (144-7, 193-5), ὄγκος and φρόνημα (177-80, 184, 253, 303-11), φθόνος (182-7, with 354-7), σοβαρός (200-9), ἁπλοῦς (216-20), ἀτενής (220-2), πικρός (223-9), ὕβρις and θρασύτης (234-8), μεγαλοφροσύνη (248-53 with 285-6), ὑπεροψία and ὀλιγωρία (257-9), ἀλλόκοτος (263-4), χαλεπός and βαρύς (271-2), ἀπάτη (324-6), ἀργία (357-8), μαλακός (363-6), φιλία (378-9), ἀπαραίτητος (388-91), ὁμόνοια (398-401), χάρις (404-5, 407-19), μνησικακία (405-7), ὅσιος (419-21), εὐγνωμοσύνη (475-7), τρυφή (482-6), περιφρόνησις (488-90), ὠμός (506-8), ἐγκράτεια and σωφροσύνη (519-26), and so on. As a result the argument is plodding, crammed with quotations and paraphrase, and willy-nilly tautological -- some key themes are exhausted already in analysis of Cor. 1.4 (56-81). There is also a tendency to spell out the obvious (cf. especially 193 on the terms for courage, or 222-3 n. 210 on ταραχή) yet to take no notice of pretty vital tropes; for instance, the 'fanning-up' (ἐξερρίπιζον) of the hero's temper (Cor. 15.6) is not commented on.

Quite apart from being an unpalatable read, the book is fatally flawed in its methodology. A. is resolved to explain Plutarchum ex Plutarcho, which in practice means pointing out samey bits of phraseology elsewhere in the Lives (the use of Moralia is decidedly limited). What he largely fails to address is the broader intellectual framework that enables this evaluative vocabulary and the ideology behind it. Plutarch is left in a kind of vacuum of his (ill-defined) originality as a moralist-cum-historian narrator, for it is not at all clear how his system of concepts came together (signally, on 452 A. speaks of 'Beobachtungs-', 'Kategorien-', and 'Bewertungsraster'). The Platonic flavour of Plutarch's assessment of emotions and politics is acknowledged sporadically, often in footnotes (43, 54 n. 47, 67-9, 148 n. 44, 183, 214, 222 n. 10, 298-300, 379 n. 300, 522, 525 n. 277). No attempt is made to contextualize Plutarch's views against the tenets of post-classical Platonism (John Dillon's seminal study is not even included in the bibliography) or the rhetorical and philosophical agendas of the Second Sophistic. Having chosen a narrowly philological approach A. staggers into the trap Hugh Lloyd-Jones flagged up long ago: 'One of the most damaging sources of error . . . has been the assumption that in order to study the moral notions found in a work of art or in a society it is enough to list and analyze the words indicating moral concepts which occur in it ...' (The Justice of Zeus, Berkeley 1971, 2).

The book mulls over many pertinent 'words' but displays little appreciation of the idiolect they belong in. Besides, the time-honoured technique of citing Plutarchan loci that A. relies on throughout the argument undermines the initial pledge to capture Plutarch's judgement by zooming in on a single Life (24, 29-30, 34-41); after such a claim it is critical to justify one's reading of the biographer's oeuvre as a macro-text that can be trusted to cross-illuminate itself.

In his anatomy of Coriolanus A. draws on a range of earlier scholarship, most prominently Donald Russell, Christopher Pelling, and Tim Duff as well as Barbara Bucher-Isler with her 1972 Norm und Individualität in den Biographien Plutarchs (Bern and Stuttgart). He rarely misses a chance to query their findings; however, much of his polemics hits air. Firstly, it is too easy to find fault with Bucher-Isler's slim and hermeneutically sterile catalogue of ethical nomenclature across the Lives. As far as Pelling and Duff (and, to a lesser extent, Russell) are concerned, A.'s objections are for the most part nit-picking and all but unfair (cf. 12 n. 9, 15 n. 26, 66, 215-16 n. 173, 242-3 n. 291, 295 n. 499, 338-40, 393-4, 535-6 n. 11, etc). I feel that A. could have been more generous to the scholars whose insights shaped his own exegesis; for example, the intuition about the Parallel Lives' binary model of Roman politics (demos vs aristocracy) is leased from Pelling (129-30, 188, 233, 240, 338-9), whereas the rationale for the Plutarchan altering of Dionysius has been worked out by Russell (see JRS, 1963). On the other hand, the subject of Plutarch's descriptive (aka implicit or embedded) moralism that Pelling and Duff have shown to be so fruitful is oddly neglected. Once or twice (16-20, cf. 82) A. verges on challenging Pelling's principle of 'integrated' characterization in Plutarch but stops short of a coherent counter-argument -- only the chapter on Marcius' mother (113-27, esp. 118) briefly reopens the case.

To me, the topics where A. ought to have scored plenty of interpretive mileage are 1) the role of background voices, collective and individual, in the Life, and 2) the representation of the Roman identity. The book promises (36-8 and 30-1) to tackle both questions as a priority, yet the ensuing analysis is piecemeal and anemic. On the Romaness A. restates the clichés (78-9, 92-3, 149-53, 196, 527-8); the Plutarchan elision of the pietas-motif which was paramount in Dionysius' tale of Coriolanus is logged but not really pursued (88-9, 116-17, 392-3, 421-3). The discussion of the 'Folienfiguren' and their reactions to the protagonist (69-70, 156-9, 163-5, 279, 529) somehow does not take off either as should become apparent by the time it reaches its interim conclusion (139).

The book lacks indices of any kind; in a study preoccupied with vocabulary this is regrettable. Bibliography is scrappy and not really up-to-date. The worst omission is F. Frazier, Histoire et morale dans les Vies Parallèles de Plutarque (Paris 1996), but a number of immediately relevant articles have been overlooked too, e.g. C. Pelling, 'The Shaping of Coriolanus' in Plutarch and History (London 2002); V. Castellani, 'Plutarch's "Roman" Women' in E. N. Ostenfeld (ed.), Greek Romans and Roman Greeks (Aarhus 2002); M. McDonnell, 'Roman Men and Greek Virtue' in R. M. Rosen and I. Sluiter (eds.), Andreia (Leiden and Boston 2003); several accounts (notably by C. Schneeweiss and L. de Blois) of Platonism in Plutarch's Lycurgus-Numa; the list can go on. 'Dihle 1982' (61 n. 69) and 'Shipley 1997' (325-6, with typo in n. 95) do not appear in bibliography. Sometimes A. forgets to specify which publication by the same scholar in a given year is being referred to -- so with 'Ingenkamp 1992' (97 n. 8 and 108 n. 61), 'Martin 1961' (136 nn. 48, 50-1, 346 n. 164). Otherwise the typos I could spot were few: 46 n. 9 'Herr' should be 'Heer', misprints in Greek on 97 n. 7 (end), 99, 273 n. 428, 500 n. 180. The argument would also benefit from more overt sign-posting -- strangely enough, the abundant discursive subheadings of sections are a hurdle rather than an aid to the reader.

Overall, this is one of the least attractive books on Plutarch to be published in recent decades. It should have been the editors' responsibility to enforce a thorough revision of the 'raw' PhD thesis. As it is, the book does not stand up to the standards of international scholarship in the field. It beggars belief when a text of five-and-a-half hundred pages manages to say almost nothing new or interesting or indeed of any constructive substance. Ironically, A. has realized the book's title; his tome is a veritable Prüfstein of the reader's endurance.

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