Plutarch seems to have decided very late in life to learn Latin, so that we are often in doubt, whether his remarks about the Latin language and its etymologies are reliable. A. Strobach claims to do more. She tries to determine, how interested Greeks and Romans were in other languages and how they viewed these ( “Fremdsprachenproblematik”). She chose a very suitable author, namely Plutarch, for her dissertation (Leipzig 1996). That is very welcome, particularly as most of the current research on Plutarch is in Italian or English 1 and only a few contributions come from Germany. 2
The introduction presents previous, more general approaches to the problem of knowledge of foreign languages in the ancient world (1-21). Remarks on Plutarch’s biography, and above all his travels to Rome and the chronology of his works are included (22-31). Then S. discusses Plutarch’s use of Latin sources (32-46) beginning with the important autobiographical remark in Dem. 2 S. stresses that it was not necessary for Plutarch to speak Latin in Rome, for his friends had knowledge of Greek. The inquiry of the word field βάρβαρος traces the meaning from Homer to Plutarch in large steps (47-54). 3
The main part of the dissertation deals with etymologies (55-141); complete lists in alphabetical order are appended (186-209). 4 The text treats only remarkable examples. Etymologies of Greek words concern names and epithets of gods, meals and other things (55-68). A degression examines Greek dialects in Plutarch’s work (69-72). The majority of etymologies are of Latin words (73-115). Like a lot of other authors, Plutarch thought that Latin was derived from Greek. Latin words for gods, months, politics, topography and persons are etymologized in Plutarch’s works. Etymologies of “barbarian” (not Greek or Latin) words are obvious in De Iside et Osiride (Egyptian) and Ps. Plut. De fluviis (different languages) (115-141). The names of Egyptian gods (Osiris, Isis, Sarapis etc.) are examined in detail. And although Plutarch visited Egypt, most of his etymologies rely on books (Manetho and his readers) or Greek-speaking priests—and not on Plutarch’s own knowledge of Egyptian.
The catalogue of etymologies shows a great amount of work, but the additions to our knowledge of the subject are in my opinion minor. Admittedly, Plutarch’s works cannot be dated exactly and do not allow a detailed reconstruction of his learning of Latin. Nevertheless S. could have analyzed the etymologies in other ways, for example the relationship to the Varronian and Verrian etymologies, available through De lingua latina and Festus’ De verborum significatu. The last-named work was never quoted by S. Why was this complete lexicon (with the epitome by Paulus), full of etymological remarks, excluded? Someone like Plutarch who lacked perfect knowledge of Latin will have used lexical information. 5 S. has not tried to distinguish between etymologies cited by Plutarch and those we can identify as his own.
The literary functions of the etymologies could also have been distinguished. It’s not enough to say that Plutarch had fun with etymologies (181). In fact, the biographies of the early Roman figures needed a lot of additional antiquarian information to fill the space because Plutarch found less on these figures in the annalistic tradition. The presentation of a lot of etymologies filled these gaps, for example three etymologies of pontifex in Numa 9,1-3 or six etymologies of ἀκύλια in Numa 13,5-6. S. mentions these etymologies of course, but their place in her interpretation is small. Summarizing remarks are few, and a comparison of Plutarch’s way of etymologizing Latin and Egyptian words is missing. The rest of the book deals with Romans, who, according to Plutarch, learned Greek. Other areas in which Greek was used in Rome are also discussed. (142-179)
To conclude, we have a very comprehensive work with an impressive list of etymologies in Plutarch and full discussion of the modern literature, 6 but the yield for the “Fremdsprachenproblematik” is rather small. The etymologies often indicate his antiquarian interests and not his competence in foreign languages. In my opinion S. could have gained more new insights from the voluminous work of Plutarch.
1. Cf. the Introduction of B. Scardigli (ed.): Essays to Plutarch’s lives, Oxford 1995 (reviewed by T. P. Hillman, BMCR 95.9.22). Both Moralia and Lives will be commented extensively in Italian: Corpus Plutarchi Moralium, diretto da I. Gallo, Napoli 1988- (so far 25 volumes); Vite Parallele, ed. M. Manfredini, Milano 1977- (so far 17 lives in 9 volumes).
2. For example S. Schroeder: Plutarchs Schrift De Pythiae oraculis, Stuttgart 1990; H. Heftner: Plutarch und der Aufstieg des Pompeius, Frankfurt 1995 or the articles concerning Plutarch in Prinzipat und Kultur im 1. und 2. Jahrhundert, ed. by B. Kuehnert, V. Riedel and R. Gordesiani, Bonn 1995.
3. The Diccionario Griego-Espanol is not mentioned; the extended article should have been used (Volume 3, 1991, col. 681s.).
4. S. has collected much more etymologies than Otto Goeldi: Sprachliche Interessen Plutarchs, Diss. phil. Zürich 1921/22. Goeldi was interested in the linguistic aspects of the etymologies.
5. Th. Litt: Über eine Quelle von Plutarchs Aetia Romana, RhM 59 (1904) 603-615 collected parallels between Plutarch and Festus. Such Latin lexical information could have be mediated by Juba.
6. Simon Swain’s Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World AD 50-250 (Oxford 1996), reviewed by P. Gordon in BMCR 97.4.17, was published too late for consideration in S.’s dissertation, submitted in 1996.