Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.02

Jeffrey Beneker, The Passionate Statesman: Eros and Politics in Plutarch's Lives.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 258.  ISBN 9780199695904.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Georgia Tsouvala, Illinois State University (


The Passionate Statesman: Eros and Politics in Plutarch’s Lives is an insightful volume based on a thorough revision of Beneker’s 2003 doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. This book explores the intersection of passion and politics in Plutarch’s biographies, with a special emphasis on the ways in which Plutarch represents and uses the influence of eros on the careers of some of the most famous statesmen of the Graeco-Roman world. Beneker argues that Plutarch saw a statesman’s behavior and action as determined partly in response to that individual’s passions, in general, and to erotic desire, in particular. He illustrates this position briefly in the Introduction in the case of Solon and Pisistratus, and in more detail throughout the book, but especially with Pelopidas-Marcellus in chapter 2. The aim of the book is to explore how Plutarch used eros in his biographies so that it would “act as a lens both for his interpretation of historical sources and for his composition of political biographies” (3). The focus is to explore how a man’s response to erotic desire in the private sphere influences his effectiveness and authority in the public sphere (6).

The study includes a brief Introduction, which concisely summarizes Beneker’s thesis and methodology, and the overarching themes of the book. In Chapter 1, Beneker sets the foundation for the book and examines the erotic relationships in the biographies of Brutus and of Pericles, as well as in the Dialogue on Love, which “illuminates the mixture of Platonic philosophy and Aristotelian ethics that underpins Plutarch’s general thinking about ethics in the Parallel Lives, and reveals how he thought that erotic desire could play a crucial role in the development of ‘higher’ forms of affection, such as philia” (3). Brutus’ marriage to Porcia and Pericles’ relationship with Aspasia provide examples to highlight Plutarch’s reliance on the Aristotelian and Platonic philosophical models of love and sexual desire. In short, Plutarch envisions marital philia as the couple’s mutual affection for character, an affection that retains its erotic and physical elements (54). Based on Aristotle’s notion of friendship combined with Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul, Plutarch promotes a philosophy of marriage rooted in philia and mutual respect supported by erotic attraction between the partners. Although not unique to Plutarch, this model of ethics in respect to erotic relationships has not been explored as thoroughly before in respect to its use in Plutarch’s biographies, and this is where Beneker’s major contribution lies.

My only criticism is that this chapter does not take into account fully the gendered constructions of character and virtue in Plutarch. Such discussion would make sense especially in respect to the heterosexual relationships of these statesmen, because Plutarch makes value judgments on an individual’s character and virtue, and creates examples for his audience to avoid or follow. These characterizations depend on his definitions of what constitutes appropriate female and male character and behavior. Furthermore, such discussion would expand Beneker’s points not only on Plutarch, but also on Plutarch’s reliance on Xenophon’s philosophical model for his conception of erotic desire in Chapter 5. There is no doubt that Plutarch takes for granted certain definitions of good character and proper female virtue. For example, Porcia is praised as philosophos and philandros, but her husband Brutus is never described as philogynes or philogynaios by Plutarch (a word with negative connotations, cf. philogynian in Mor. 706B). Porcia’s philandria, however, is praised and held up as an ideal (and purely) feminine quality. Furthermore, even in the (almost) exemplary marriage and paradigmatically ethical philia of Brutus and Porcia, the female protagonist invokes the influence of her father, Cato, in the shaping and strength of her character, and she concludes her speech by adding the influence of her husband (13.9-10). “Thus she demonstrates the source of a woman’s nous” (42). Porcia’s admired “quality of character” is based on the influences of the two primary male models in her life, and she is praised and trusted by Brutus only after she proclaims and behaves in accordance with those models and values. In some ways, then, she is the equivalent of Ischomachus’ unnamed wife in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, who is also trusted and praised by her husband when she acquires a masculine mind under his guidance. Both women could be trusted and respected and, on occasion, could even lead their husbands, but only after they achieved habituation and competence in masculine virtues and values.

Chapter 2 considers the lives of Pelopidas-Marcellus, the Philopoemen and the Dion and their eros for martial glory and political affairs. Beneker argues that Plutarch applied the framework of moral virtue, in general, and of eros, in particular, to his general understanding and use of history, and that this conceptual framework in turn influenced his reading and writing of his own narrative of historical events and persons in the Parallel Lives. Beneker calls this process the “historical-ethical reconstruction of events and persons” (62). Based on previous work by Pelling,1 Beneker argues that Plutarch does not simply suggest ethical explanations in his historical narratives but rather he reshapes history for ethical purposes (i.e., to demonstrate the character of his subjects and to provide moral and protreptic instruction for his audience). Although he is usually faithful to the historiographical tradition, when earlier writers provide an inconsistent or inadequate explanation of a statesman’s actions, Plutarch improves upon the source tradition by inserting moralizing comments and, thus, exposing the general-statesman’s underdeveloped virtue and irrational impulses.

Chapter 3 explores the empowering role of eros in the Alexander-Caesar and compares it with the erotic desire of Cyrus in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Both Alexander and Caesar were especially subject to an eros for ambition and glory, and Plutarch contrasts that eros with the typical eros for another person. His heroes’ restrained responses to erotic desire indicate the seriousness of their ambition and their dominance over political and military rivals. When they are most driven and successful, erotic desire exerts no influence or is used for political (Barsine) or intellectual (Cleopatra) purposes.

Taking the opposite direction in respect to self-restraint, Chapter 4 focuses on the Demetrius-Antony and the cautionary tale of the general-statesman, dominated by eros and lacking in self-control, which leads to a profoundly negative arc in his career. Beneker discusses the Demetrius as prelude to the Antony. While the Greek statesman maintains a separation between his private and public life, Antony fails to do so and as a result his private life overwhelms his military and political responsibilities. Furthermore, Antony was dominated in his passions and weakness, especially by Cleopatra, and failed to develop and exercise moral virtue. His political demise and ultimate death were due to the struggle between Antony’s reason and passion rather than his poor generalship or insufficient manpower (157).

In addition to presenting the middle ground, both ethically and politically, in the Agesilaus-Pompey, Chapter 5 forms a conclusion of sorts in that it touches upon and expands on the overarching themes of the book investigated thus far. Beneker returns to the Alexander to restate his claim that Plutarch relies on a Platonic-Aristotelian ethical model, where restraint is acquired by training the passions to submit to reason. Furthermore, Beneker maintains, Plutarch distinguishes between the permanent, virtuous state of sophrosyne achieved through training and habituation, and that of enkrateia, self-restraint achieved through the constant struggle between passion and reason that is kept under control – but not necessarily permanently. Beneker also uses examples from Agesilaus-Pompey to explore how Plutarch depicts the political implications of a statesman’s response to eros. The intersection of the private and public spheres of a political man’s life in the Pompey reasserts the idea that Plutarch uses the narration of a man’s private erotic relationships to interpret the general-statesman’s historical action and, also, to give structure to his biography.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography, an index locorum, and indices of Greek words, names, and topics. It also includes a preface, table of contents, and a note on editions and abbreviations used. In conclusion, although Chapter 1 would have benefitted from further attention to the role of gender in Plutarch’s constructions of virtue and character, the book makes a significant contribution to the study of Plutarch and should be of interest not only to scholars of Plutarch, but also to anyone interested in ancient politics and philosophy. Beneker’s discussion of Plutarch’s adaptation of his historiographical tradition, along with Pelling’s essays, 1 should be recommended reading for students and scholars of ancient history.


1.   See, especially, the essays collected in Pelling, C. (2002), Plutarch and History: Eighteen Studies (London and New York).

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