BMCR 2004.04.32

Sage and Emperor: Plutarch, Greek Intellectuals, and Roman Power in the Time of Trajan (98-117 A.D.)

, , , Sage and emperor : Plutarch, Greek intellectuals, and Roman power in the time of Trajan, 98-117 A.D.. Symbolae Facultatis Litterarum Lovaniensis. Series A ; v. 29. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002. 357 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9058672395 €42.60.

This volume collects papers delivered at a conference in 2000 at the University of North Carolina, sponsored by the International Plutarch Society. Plutarch is, so far as I know, the only author of classical antiquity to have a society of this size and scope named after him. This organisation has been responsible for nurturing a deep and diverse interest, spread over several continents, in Plutarch’s thought. IPS publications have, however, traditionally avoided asking the big questions about methodology, theory and context, collecting instead analecta loosely affiliated to a capacious topic. Sage and emperor goes a considerable way towards correcting the balance, addressing through a series of focused contributions the key question of Plutarch’s relationship to imperial power. It is a much better unified than many earlier IPS publications, and hence more substantial in content and implications.

The topic is an inspired choice. For Wilamowitz, Plutarch — der liebenswürdige Bürger von Chaironeia, der uns immer noch in sein gastfreies Haus ladet — epitomised genial provincialism.1 Since then, scholarship has moved him steadily to the centre of high-empire politics. Part of the reason for this has been the pioneering prosopographical work of Christopher Jones, who has demonstrated that his circles of influence were far from provincial.2 More recently, Plutarch has held an iconic role in the burgeoning field of second-sophistic studies: the Parallel Lives and the Precepts of statecraft have proven particularly rich for those in search of artful negotiations of Janus-faced cultural allegiance.3 But the precise nature of Plutarch’s relationship with the emperor, and particularly Trajan (who looms so large in the works of contemporaries such as Tacitus, Pliny and Dio Chrysostom), has only been treated sketchily.

In fact, of course, the precise nature of that relationship is exactly the problem. At one level stand the big historical questions. Did Plutarch know Trajan? Did he spend time in Trajanic Rome? Is there any accuracy in the Suda’s claim that the emperor awarded him the ornamenta consularia ?4 Are To an uneducated ruler and the dedication to the Apophthegms aimed at Trajan? At another level stand the cultural questions: is there such a thing as a Trajanic zeitgeist? Is there anything that binds together, for example, Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, Pliny and Tacitus?

This volume makes the case for a substantial Trajanic presence in Plutarch’s corpus. According to Philip Stadter’s (very helpful) introduction, Plutarch ‘may have “dwelt in a small town, and have clung to the place lest it become smaller” ( Dem. 2.2), but he had spent many years in Rome, meeting with close associates of the emperors and probably speaking in embassies before the emperor himself. Though a philosopher, he was actively engaged with the Roman elite … [he occupied] an ideal position from which to convey his values to the eminent of the empire’ (p.12, a view reinforced by John Dillon’s sketch of the social status of second-century philosophers).

The most telling phrase here is ‘though a philosopher’. A certain tradition of scholarship has frequently brandished the iconic figure of ‘Plutarch the philosopher’ (and indeed ‘Plutarch the priest’) to wave away questions of social engagement. Philosophers — according to the unstated axiom — do not live in the real world. For Plutarch, though, philosophy was a far from otherworldly enterprise. Though he certainly wrote of daemons, Platonic forms and mysticism, his thinking is characterised in general by a thorough-going pragmatism: as a number of his texts make clear, not least the Lives, philosophy is at its most valuable when it impacts on the real world.5

Where does the emperor fit into this picture? It is sometimes claimed that the advent of Trajan saw a new receptivity in the imperial court towards philosophical instruction. Most famously, Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch’s contemporary (and, apparently, acquaintance), claimed to have discoursed philosophically before the emperor ( Orations 1-4, with 57); Philostratus even has Dio on Trajan’s triumphal chariot, bending the (uncomprehending) emperor’s ear ( Lives of the sophists 488).6 Did Plutarch, like Dio, offer pragmatic advice to the empire’s rulers?

The Plutarchan texts that deal most explicitly with the relationship between morality and politics are That a philosopher should especially converse with men in power and To an uneducated ruler. Geert Roskam offers a broad overview of these two texts, which are also considered by Giuseppe Zecchini, whose brief (5-page) discussion confines itself to the points that Plutarch is building on the Platonic image of the philosopher-king and that Trajan might have fitted the bill. Neither of these efficient surveys could, however, be said to exhaust the issues. Both authors (Roskam only implicitly) accept that these texts are addressed to Trajan; but what Plutarchan scholarship needs urgently is a powerful critical review of that issue, and of the question of how ideologically ‘Trajanic’ they are.

Mark Beck’s chapter, meanwhile, stakes a strong claim for Plutarchan authorship of the one (?pseudo-)Plutarchan text that explicitly addresses Trajan. Against the received view, he claims that the dedication to the emperor at the opening of the Apophthegms of the kings and emperors is genuinely Plutarchan. This is a convincing defense of a fascinating text, amputated from the corpus only by the text-critical sword-wielding that dominated much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is clearly a text that will bear more scrutiny.

Other chapters deal more broadly with questions of philosophical pragmatics, going beyond strict application to Trajan. Two chapters near the end, Jan Opsomer on cosmopolitanism in On exile and Alexei Zadorojnyi on How a young man should listen to poets, discuss texts that are indeed saturated with philosophical ideals, but also directly confront the exigencies of life for the second-century Greco-Roman elite. Aurelio Pérez Jiménez offers a brief sketch of the role of exemplarity and emulation in the Lives. Birgit van Meirvenne’s chapter elucidates a text that pits Plutarch against not the emperor but a powerful cog in the state machinery, Prince Philopappus. How to tell a flatterer from a friend, she shows, shares material with Phocion and Principles of statecraft : questions of flattery and friendship clearly do have political bite. This conclusion is in itself not new,7 but the substance of the essay adds important depth to the existing discussions.

Such issues of friendship are very much to the point: how does one integrate a broadly pragmatic approach to politics with a traditionally Greek approach to sodality and sympotic ethics? Plutarch clearly had, and wanted to be seen as having, lots of friends; but he was also one of antiquity’s most prominent theorists on friendship (writing, amongst other things, precisely On having lots of friends). In an extremely rewarding chapter, Luc van der Stockt explores his views on the role of friendship in politics. Tracing recurrences of single quotations ‘laterally’ across the works, van der Stockt proposes that Plutarch organises consistent thematic ‘clusters’ around individual quotations. In broad terms, the argument here is simple: that Plutarch views friendship as an important, if at times ethically problematic, tool in the art of politics. But the chapter’s attraction lies in its ingenious hypertextual methodology, and in its subtle and learned unpacking of knotty passages.

No doubt the most celebrated aspect of Trajan’s reign was the proclamation of a novum saeculum, when you could — supposedly — say what you thought and think what you liked. Joseph Geiger argues that the Parallel Lives treat a number of politically sensitive figures — Pompey, Brutus, Cato, Antony — who might have caused offence under the less benevolent regimes of Domitian and his predecessor. This argument necessarily rests upon a certain amount of speculation: it is not clear that a provincial Greek composing sober, philosophically informed Lives would have run the same risks as say, Cremutius Cordus. Geiger’s discussion is alive to the complexity of the issues surrounding the novum saeculum, though: as he observes in conclusion (pp.99-100), none of the literary new-agers actually chooses to exercise his ‘freedom’ by writing about post-Domitianic figures. Libertas had its limits. (Which begs the question: should we trust the Trajanic publicity machine’s rhetoric of emancipation at all?)

There is a strong circumstantial case, then, for seeing Plutarch as centrally engaged with many of the key players in the empire, perhaps even with Trajan himself, and, what is more, as fully conversant with the Trajanic ideology of cultural accommodation between (Greek) philosophical instruction and (Roman) power. But this would be to neglect certain crucial issues, which are neatly raised by Ewen Bowie. Firstly, how secure is this portrait of Trajan as a philosophical devotee? As Bowie writes, ‘the only claim ever made that Trajan was prepared to listen to a philosopher concerns (and presumably goes back to) the boastful and unreliable Dio of Prusa’ (p.51). Historians often cling too hastily to the concept of ‘imperial ideology’, as though it were a single, self-evident, megalithic entity. How confident can we be that Dio’s self-serving myth of imperial symbouleutics would be recognised as definitive of Trajan’s disposition by many, even any, of his contemporaries? Two contributions in this volume, by Koeppel and Boatwright, discuss Trajan’s self-representation in his column and in his building programme respectively: it is instructive that in neither case is the emperor’s relationship with philosophy projected.

Secondly, Plutarch made (as Bowie’s panoramic but sharply focused argument makes abundantly clear) conspicuously much less use of the opportunities for Roman preferment than did his peers. The evidence for his engagement with Roman — rather than local — politics is, actually, thin. When Plutarch recommends political engagement, it is invariably civic politics that he means. The scarce biographical information he gives us all points to a vigorous engagement in Chaeroneian and Delphic issues; though he does tell us visited Rome, he gives no indication of any purpose there other than lecturing.8 It is sobering to recall that we would not know of his Roman citizenship at all if it were not for a single statue-base. The case for Plutarch and Trajan, then, needs to be made against the background of the author’s near-total silence on the matter — this in one of the largest of all the corpora that survive from antiquity.

This leads us to perhaps the central question raised by the majority of contributions to this volume: how do we gauge, even conceptualise, Trajanism in Plutarch’s works when it is almost always unexpressed? A tactic that recurs throughout is to draw parallels between ideas expressed within the texts and contemporary issues impelled by the emperor. Thus Frederick Brenk locates Isis and Osiris in the context of Trajan’s interest in Isiac religion, and in particular the construction of the ‘Kiosk of Trajan’ in the precinct of Isis at Philae; there is evidence on either side (evidence that Brenk carefully nuances) for a move towards prioritising Osiris over Isis. Along similar lines, Maria Schettino argues that Lysander-Sulla reflects upon Nerva’s programmatic choice of the ‘best’ successor, and associates Plutarch’s ethical thought on kingship with contemporary debates. Philip Stadter’s chapter on ‘Plutarch and Trajanic ideology’ reads a sequence of monarch-idealising Lives ( Solon – Publicola, Numa) against a template of Trajanic ideology derived from Pliny’s Panegyricus. Paolo Desideri argues that Plutarch’s praise of the Spartan educational system in Lycurgus reflects upon an issue that was (he argues) alive in his contemporary world, namely the benefits of public education.

But again we return to the problem that Plutarch rarely adverts directly to the contemporary world (the allusion to Domitian at Publicola 15, discussed by Stadter, is a rare and striking exception). For two contributors to this volume, his writings are notable not for their engagement with issues of contemporary currency but for their avoidance of them. Thomas Schmidt explores points of contact between Plutarch’s representation of barbarians and those of contemporary Greek (Dio, Chariton) and Latin (Tacitus, Pliny) authors, and also Trajanic public representations of Parthians and Dacians (on coinage and on the column). Schmidt’s conclusion is that Plutarch’s approach is entirely traditional and reflects nothing of the contemporary world: he is wholly insulated by literary confabulation from contemporary politics. Chris Pelling, meanwhile, argues that the Caesar is carefully written to avoid the many resonances it might have had, so that the text might have a timeless rather than a contemporary feel; overall, he suggests, the Lives strategically aim for an immemorial rather than a time-specific feel.

Perhaps Schmidt’s and Pelling’s (and indeed Bowie’s) scepticism offers a glimpse of the Wilamowitzian Plutarch, the otherworldly old buffer with his eyes too fixed on the heavens to spot the deep wells around his feet (although Pelling, at any rate, represents Plutarch’s exclusion of politics as deliberate and knowing). But the onus of argumentation might very well, conversely, be shifted onto those who want to read analogies between Plutarch’s writings and Trajanic ideology (even assuming we can identify what that is). When does a coincidence become a ‘genuine’ analogy? What authorises the identification of analogies? Why does Plutarch avoid explicitness? Contemporary scholarship on imperial literature has developed highly sophisticated strategies for analysing the content of texts, but it struggles to conceptualise what is not in the texts. The pressing challenge is to move the debate forward while avoiding the extremes, of sterile literalism on the one hand and arbitrary supplementation on the other.

One final issue is raised by this volume, but only indirectly: what does it mean to ‘be political’? Is networking within the authoritarian centres of power the only valid form of politics? Given the general turn within Classics towards Foucauldian ideas of widely disseminated matrices of power and towards anthropological ideas of social poetics, it may be that the next questions to ask of Plutarch will concern his management of power at the ‘micro-level’. How, indeed, should you tell a flatterer from a friend? How do you praise yourself in passing? How should a young man listen to poetry? These precise, locally targeted questions perhaps hold the key to Plutarch’s significance as a mediator of power.

That, however, will be a different project. The volume in hand addresses a crucial topic for Plutarchan scholarship in the early 21st century, presenting a suitably diverse range of approaches; its best chapters bring to bear deep knowledge and genuine critical edge. It is overall commendably unified. These will not be the last words on the topic, but the debate has certainly shifted forward substantially.


1. U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, ‘Plutarch als Biograph’, in Reden und Vorträge 2.4 (Berlin, 1926), 247-79, at 278. The essay is translated as ‘Plutarch as biographer’, in B. Scardigli (ed.), Essays on Plutarch’s Lives (Oxford, 1995), 47-74.

2. C.P. Jones, ‘The teacher of Plutarch’, HSCP 71 (1961), 205-13; ‘Towards a chronology of Plutarch’s works’ JRS 56 (1966), 61-74, reprinted in Scardigli (n.1), 95-123; ‘Sura and Senecio’ JRS 60 (1970), 98-104; Plutarch and Rome (Oxford, 1971); B. Puech, ‘Prosopographie des amis de Plutarque’, ANRW 2.33.6 (1992), 4831-93.

3. C. Pelling, ‘Plutarch: Roman heroes and Greek culture’, in M. Griffin and J. Barnes (eds.), Philosophia togata: essays on philosophy and Roman society (Oxford, 1989), 199-232; S. Swain, ‘Hellenic culture and the Roman heroes of Plutarch’, JHS 110 (1990), 126-45; repr. in Scardigli (n.1), 229-64; id., Hellenism and empire: language, classicism, and power in the Greek world, AD 50-250 (Oxford, 1996), 135-86; T. Duff, Plutarch’s Lives: exploring virtue and vice (Oxford, 1999), 287-309; T. Whitmarsh, Greek literature and the Roman empire: the politics of imitation (Oxford, 2001), 184-86.

4. Suda π 1793.

5. See generally Whitmarsh (n.3), 184-85.

6. For Plutarch’s acquaintance with Dio, see nos. 204 and 227 in the Lamprias catalogue.

7. T. Engberg-Pedersen, ‘Plutarch to Prince Philopappus on How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend’, in J.T. Fitzgerald (ed.), Friendship, flattery and frankness of speech: studies on friendship in the New Testament world (Leiden, 1996), 61-79. Cf. also T. Whitmarsh, ‘The sincerest form of imitation: Plutarch on flattery’, in D. Konstan & S. Saïd (eds.), Greeks on Greekness ( PCPS supplement, forthcoming).

8. Jones, Plutarch and Rome (n.2), 20-4.