BMCR 2014.09.38

A Companion to Plutarch. Blackwell companions to the ancient world, 98

, A Companion to Plutarch. Blackwell companions to the ancient world, 98. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Blackwell, 2014. xvi, 625. ISBN 9781405194310. $195.00.


Beck’s book is the long-awaited companion to antiquity’s most eminent biographer and moralist, Plutarch of Chaeronea. It comprises a large gamut of contributions by world-leading scholars with the aim of offering an encompassing survey of the author’s life, setting, and worldview. The Companion is prefaced by an Introduction to the major scholarly trends in Plutarchan studies (e.g. history and topography, aesthetics, characterization, compositional methods), and then treats in four distinct sections Plutarch’s political and intellectual milieu (Part I), the philosophical backdrop to his Moralia (Part II), the most salient themes of his biographical output (Part III), and, finally, his astonishing afterlife (Part IV).

The first three chapters that make up Part I are now the most up-to-date accounts of Plutarch’s context. They provide beginners in the field with the basics and serve as a useful reminder to those already initiated. Philip Stadter’s treatment of Plutarch and Rome is rich in information and at the same time a pleasant read, and the same can be said for Michael Trapp’s chapter on Plutarch as a philosopher. Thomas Schmitz’s chapter focuses on Plutarch’s place in the so-called Second Sophistic. It provides a useful discussion of how Plutarch understood notions pertaining to sophists. He presents these either in a positive light, following Herodotus’s definition of the sophist as a wise man, or in a negative light that reflects Plato’s prejudice against sophistic deception and amorality. One of the most thought-provoking points here is the link between sophists and excessive ambition ( philotimia); this corroborates Schmitz’s conclusion that the Second Sophistic was not a living reality for Plutarch (it flourished a generation later in Asia Minor, away from mainland Greece), but an ‘ideological construct’ (40) meant to provide his readers with counter-examples to avoid. A comprehensive study on Plutarch’s attitude towards rhetoric in particular is still needed. Lieve Van Hoof’s contribution on Plutarch’s practical ethics is interesting and well-written. Drawing on her recently published monograph,1 Van Hoof reassesses the value of Plutarch’s popular-philosophical essays (for a long time seen as second-rate philosophy), and argues that these were meant to reform the social behavior of Plutarch’s audience. In classifying those essays into thematic groups, Van Hoof excludes works such as On Moral Virtue, How Could One Become Aware of One’s Progress in Virtue?, and the Dialogue on Love, claiming that they ‘do not share in the aim and strategies that characterize Plutarch’s practical ethics’ (141). One wonders how clear-cut and unequivocal such distinctions are, especially in view of the practical advice provided in those writings. How Could One Become Aware of One’s Progress in Virtue? for instance seems to meet Van Hoof’s main criteria: this one too is targeted at a highly elite audience (Sosius Senecio is the direct dedicatee but as often he represents the unification in a single person of Roman power and Greek culture, representing thus a larger readership); although it might be an essay seemingly treating the Stoic notion of prokopē (ethical progress), the theoretical/technical discussion fades away and is replaced by a series of exhortations designed to initiate readers into philosophy without distancing them from social participation. In fact, the work conforms to the reader’s social ambitions by offering relevant advice for instance on proper public performance (e.g. 80B-E) or the ideal attitude in the company of peers (e.g. 81F-82F). In general, Van Hoof’s work introduces fresh interpretative methods for the Moralia and casts new light on their peculiar nature.

Marianne Pade’s chapter is one of the most valuable in the volume. By discussing Plutarch’s reception from Antonine Rome all the way up to the Italian Renaissance, Pade gives a comprehensive overview of how Plutarch’s works were transformed by later authors and cultures. Her lucid exposition, accompanied by concrete examples and overwhelming textual evidence which betrays long expertise in the field,2 will stimulate further research in less explored periods. Her section entitled ‘Plutarch in Medieval Byzantium’, although it considers many key figures, leaves out some important ones: Michael Psellos (1018–after 1081) is a case in point, as there is a significant amount of borrowing from the Moralia in Psellos’ Philosophica and Theologica Minora as well as from the Parallel Lives in his Chronographia. Similarly, Plutarch was a precious source for Komnenian intellectuals such as John Tzetzes ( Chiliades, 3.105-234, 10.624-674) and Nikephoros Basilakes ( Progymnasmata, 11), whereas Plutarch’s prominent standing in the activities of Palaiologan literati is not attested by the case of Maximus Planudes alone, but also by that of Theodore Metochites and that of Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos. Pade could have also referred briefly to Plutarch’s fortunes in the Syriac and Arabic world (e.g., Syriac translations, the popularity of the Pseudo-Plutarchan tradition in the Arabic-Islamic Middle Ages). Nonetheless, her neat emphasis on the intellectual processes that introduced Plutarch to the Latin West or on how his texts responded to the peculiarities of Italian Humanism, especially in the context of ideology and the propaganda of the Medici, compensates for such gaps and makes the chapter a reference point for any reader who wishes to get a concise image of Plutarch’s afterlife.

Other important contributions to the companion include the chapter by Jan Opsomer on Plutarch and the Stoics, who suggests that the Stoic commonplaces found in Plutarch’s works are subordinated to the fundamental tenets of Platonism to which he is devoted; those by Geert Roskam and Chris Pelling that explore deftly Plutarch’s political philosophy from different perspectives yet both emphasizing the pedagogical drive of statesmanship in the Lives and the Moralia; and that of Anastasios Nikolaides on morality, characterization, and individuality. The variety of subjects represented in this collection is impressive, and most of the contributions are learned, succinct, and professional.

All in all, Beck’s Companion to Plutarch has now become the major reference work for scholars and students of Plutarch, as well as for a wider class of readers (specialists and non-specialists alike) who want to enter the charming world of the Chaeronean philosopher. We now look forward to its siblings, the Cambridge Companion to Plutarch and Brill’s Companion to Plutarch’s Reception, which will round off the recently burgeoning activity on antiquity’s great classic.3


1. L. Van Hoof, Plutarch’s Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy. Oxford/New York 2010.

2. M. Pade, The Reception of Plutarch’s Lives in Fifteenth-Century Italy, vols 1-2. Copenhagen 2007.

3. F. Titchener and A. Zadorozhnyy, The Cambridge Companion to Plutarch. Cambridge forthcoming; K. Oikonomopoulou and S. Xenophontos, A Companion to the Reception of Plutarch. Leiden forthcoming.