Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.28

G. O. Hutchinson, Plutarch's Rhythmic Prose.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. x, 339.  ISBN 9780198821717.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Ronald Blankenborg, Radboud University Nijmegen (

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Hutchinson’s is not the first book on rhythmic prose, but the data it relies on makes it the most impressive. In order to elaborate on Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose, Hutchinson parsed all the Parallel Lives by hand, as well as many other writings, both by Plutarch and others. The result is an insightful and fascinating overview of the various ways in which rhythm brings out the content of Plutarch’s writings, and underlines their argumentative force. However, before the reader of Hutchinson’s latest publication on these matters1 can start on an interesting journey through the pervasive rhythms of the Lives exemplified in many densely annotated passages (pp. 87-304), he/she is well advised to get acquainted with the technical details and terminology in the three preliminary chapters: Hutchinson’s book ‘aspires to make progress in the understanding of prose rhythm’ (p. vii), and to answer the question whether most Imperial Greek prose is significantly rhythmic (p. 10). And, last but not least, ‘the reader should also be beginning to see how important the rhythm is to a detailed reading and general appreciation of a rhythmical text’ (p. 16).

For rhythmic prose and its impact are not as self-explanatory as one might think. Greek prose appeared rather late when compared to poetry (p. 1), whose characteristic effect, in Hutchinson’s words, is ‘to produce a more rapt attention, as the listener is absorbed in a special aesthetic sphere: the listener is enchanted, bewitched’ (p. 2). In prose, rhythm may play a part in such ‘heightened and extreme attention’ (p. 3). Soon after its introduction, Greek prose began to cultivate particular rhythmical patterns, detectable in the text through the identification of metrical unities. Hegesias of Magnesia was credited with the systematic application of metrical cola as the building blocks of prose composition, and, as a result, equally criticized for corruption of style (‘asianism’) through using them too lavishly. Aristotle famously warned against such lavish application (Rhet. 3.1408b21-2, 1408b31, 1409a21-2); Cicero championed rhythmic prose in Rome. That is, a rhythmic prose marked by frequently occurring endings of sentences and phrases. These Hegesean endings take the following metrical shapes: ˉ ˇ ˉ ˉ ˇ ˉ, ˉ ˉ ˉ ˉ ˇ ˉ, ˉ ˇ ˉ ˉ, ˉ ˇ ˉ ˉ ˉ and ˉ ˇ ˉ ˇ ˉ, all based on the (resolved) cretic (ˉ ˇ ˉ).

Hutchinson (pp. 23-32) uses an algorithm both to identify the level of rhythmicality of specific Greek writing authors and genres, both from the Imperial period and from preceding eras, and to establish each author’s and genre’s deviation from the ‘group’ median rhythmicality. Thus, he is able to conclude that narrative is the best predictor of rhythm (p. 25). In his description of the relation rhythm-attention, Hutchinson carefully notes that ‘not all weighty words occur in rhythmic phrases’ (p. 37): nonetheless, he sees sufficient evidence to expect particular moments of attention in the ends of phrases, indicated by a rhythmic close, and their beginnings immediately following a rhythmic clausula. ‘Attention’ is not meant here as a mere synonym for ‘emphasis’, but rather as an indication that ‘rhythmic organization enhances emphasis produced by meaning, sharpens our attention, helps us observe more point in a word and more connections with other words, encourages us (if you like) to read more slowly’ (p. 41). To further illustrate this notion of attention for readers, Hutchinson uses quotations from the Lives to show the particular ways in which rhythm underlines meaning (pp. 47-66): 1) the brevity of rhythmic phrases, highlighting important words, 2) the way rhythmic phrases encompass pairs of related words, e.g. by turning related words into clausulae, or 3) matching words through correspondence or contrast, 4) emphasis through stress on the phrases’ first and last word, 5) verbs filling an entire rhythmic phrase (reinforcing the sense of syntactic structure), 6) highlighting of isolated phrases in context by shaping them as a rhythmic phrase, 7) the sensation of ‘overlap’,2 and 8) the avoidance of (or rather: allowance for) hiatus within the scope of the rhythmical phrase. To conclude the technical remarks, Hutchinson rules out the possible objection that the density of rhythmic phrases in Plutarch is due to chance (p. 68).

The remainder of the book (chapters 4-25, pp. 87-304) is devoted to what Hutchinson labels the ‘commentary’, a vast list of example passages from the Lives, each followed by interpretative issues arising from, and suggested by, the rhythmic analysis, in order to show that ‘rhythmic analysis must be integrated into larger criticism, for the sake of both’ (p. 84). To stress this point further, chapters 4 to 25 are each followed by an appendix that presents prose passages deemed less rhythmic or unrhythmic (written by Plutarch and others) that deal with the same topic as the passage from the Lives. All passages, as in chapters 1-3, are translated. Because of its deliberate focus on rhythmic analysis, the commentary makes little reference to editions and translations, and does not attempt to provide systematic discussion or bibliography on the historical and literary questions that the passages raise. Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose ends with a conclusion (pp. 305-308), bibliography (pp. 309-320), and two useful indices, one of passages (pp. 321-331), and one general (pp. 332-339).

Readers of chapters 4 to 25 are in for an interesting journey through the Lives. A wide variety of passages is presented, parsed, and commented on under thematic headings (e.g. chapter 4 ‘Life as Art’ [Timoleon 35], chapter 7 ‘What to Write under a Statue?’ [Cato Maior 19.4-6], chapter 10 ‘Daggers and Dangers’ [Brutus 10.4-6, 13.7-10, 29.2-3, 40.7-8], and chapter 25 ‘More Tears in Achilles Tatius’ [Achilles 7.4.3-6]). Inevitably, certain types of comments and phrases occur very frequently in the commentary sections, e.g. ‘a distinctive verb, brought out by the rhythm’, ‘the rhythm contributes to the structure’, ‘rhythmic magnificence’, ‘the point is (not) presented rhythmically’, ‘the rhythmic organization adds some underlining/emphasis’, ‘rhythm mirrors/reinforces word-order/structure’, etc. All aspects of rhythm are closely tied to the passages’ content, hence regularly recurring (and often similarly sounding) interpretative remarks, like ‘two items are grouped together’, ‘the name/event is thrown in sharper relief/stands out’, or ‘all gain some emphasis’. Some readers may grow tired of such repetition, or come under the impression (against Hutchinson’s warning, p. 35n3, cited above) that something similar (such as ‘emphasis!’) may be said about any and every sentence or phrase in a passage identified as rhythmic prose. But that feeling or verdict would do injustice to the case this book tries to make and the results it presents. Hutchinson strives to make his readers ‘read Plutarch more closely and responsively’ (p. 46). And so he does: interpreting a passage through rhythmic analysis makes for slow but attentive reading, and slow reading creates opportunities to discover new meaning in well-known and broadly studied passages. Two examples from Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose may illustrate this claim:

Chapter 12, ‘Mist or Smoke?’ (pp. 169-177), deals with Flamininus 4.8-12, a passage about the moment when Roman troops cause panic in enemy ranks with an unexpected smoke signal followed by a war cry. Readers who are sensitive to the rhythmic subtleties of Plutarch’s rendering of the battle will experience the fight first-hand. Rhythm underlines the organization of the stratagem, both with regard to what the Romans know and their enemies are not yet aware of. Flamininus’ own ingenious tactics are conjured up. Consider the following sentence (copied from p. 172), with ‘|’ indicating the right-hand boundaries of the clausulae: | τῶν δ’ἄλλων ἑκατέρωθεν ἅμα | πειρωμένων ἁμιλλᾶσθαι, | καὶ ταῖς τραχύτησιν | ἐμφυομένων προθύμως, | θ’ἥλιος ἀνέσχε, | καὶ καπνὸς οὐ βέβαιος, | κτλ. (‘The others attempted to fight from both sides of the river at once, and stuck enthusiastically to the rough places. The sun rose, and so did some smoke which was not firmly formed’). Hutchinson points out that ‘the other two parts of Flaminius’ forces might have been expected to receive a main clause […, b]ut they are subordinated in a genitive absolute, and another main clause succeeds in this big sentence [….] The effect is not only to subordinate the other two parts to Flaminius and the main army, but also to conjoin the genitive participles | πειρωμένων and | ἐμφυομένων to the preceding nominative participles | βαλλόμενος and | (καὶ) συμπλεκόμενος, and so accumulate a sense of the Romans’ struggles and determination. Rhythm reinforces the structure: the participles all effectively begin a rhythmic unit.’ Subsequently, the sun coming up is rhythmically paired with smoke rising up, bringing uncertainty for both sides. As soon as the Roman war cry is heard, the whole landscape is vividly (or rather: audibly, through recurring clausulae) depicted resounding with noise.

In chapter 19 (pp. 263-266), ‘A Blasé Mother’ (Cleomenes 43 (22). 4-5), we hear how Cleomenes’ mother Cratesicleia forsakes her own well-being (she must be taken hostage so that the Egyptian king Ptolemy may help Sparta) for the greater good: her son and Sparta. This is quite a dramatic scene, as Cleomenes at first is reluctant to ask this favor of his mother. Cleomenes’ dilemma is articulated in the rhythm, as the words ‘hostage’ and ‘mother and children’ are juxtaposed (ἠξίου λαβεῖν ὅμηρα | τοὺς παῖδας καὶ τὴν μητέρα, | ‘(King Ptolemy) asked his children and his mother as hostages’). Rhythm further contrasts the worried son and the no-nonsense mother; the latter shows contempt for her body by giving the words | τὸ σῶμα τοῦτο | ‘this body of mine’ a separate rhythmic unit. A scornful rhythmic phrase | αὐτοῦ καθήμενον | ‘it is merely sitting here (waiting to fall apart from old age)’ enhances her detachment.

Many more examples like the two above may be drawn from the pages of the commentary sections. The question remains, though: who is going to draw them from those pages? Students and scholars working on Plutarch’s Lives will not and cannot use the notes to the passages cited as a running commentary. Those working on an individual Life find only fragments in this book, others working on issues of rhythm may be eager to find a ‘rhythmical commentary’ to the complete text of a Life. Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose thus runs the risk of not being consulted as often as it should, or not attracting as much scholarly attention as it deserves. The book is well worth the time of everyone interested in the workings and impact of prose rhythm, and in the fruits to be harvested from reading slowly and responsively. It is also interesting for students and scholars of metrics as Hutchinson deals with intricate problems (in prose even more so than in poetry) concerning hiatus and elision (see especially p. 64 n12).

Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose is well produced, and shows hardly any typos or infelicities, which is remarkable for a work that contains a fair number of metrical symbols and diacritical signs. All the more reason therefore to recommend it to a broad audience, which may enjoy the subtleties of prose rhythm even more by listening to all the passages analyzed read aloud in accompanying online videos.3


1.   Earlier publications include ‘Rhythm, style , and meaning in Cicero’s prose’, CQ n.s. 45, 485-99 (1995), ‘Appian the artist: rhythmic prose and its literary implications’, CQ n.s. 65, 788-605 (2015), and ‘Repetition, range, and attention: the Iliad’, in Chr. Tsagalis (ed.), The Winnowing Oar: New Perspectives in Homeric Studies (Berlin 2017), 147-172.
2.   Because the syllable that ends one rhythmic phrase is the first syllable of the next. Compare the notion of epiploke in poetry, cf. T. Cole, Epiploke: Rhythmical Continuity and Poetic Structure in Greek Lyric (Cambridge, Mass. 1988).
3.   Videos may be viewed on the Oxford University Press website Companion Website.

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