BMCR 2019.02.25

Plutarch and the ‘Persica’. Edinburgh studies in ancient Persia

, Plutarch and the 'Persica'. Edinburgh studies in ancient Persia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. 352. ISBN 9780748645558. £85.00.

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Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes is exceptional among his Parallel Lives in at least two ways; it is one of the four unparalleled lives along with those of Aratus, Otho and Galba, and it represents the sole biography devoted to a barbarian protagonist. In spite of, or perhaps because of this uniqueness, the Artaxerxes did not capture much scholarly attention until recently, when Eran Almagor chose to dedicate all of his efforts to a close reading of this life story of Artaxerxes II. This resulted in the publication of Plutarch and the ‘Persica’, a work consisting of seven chapters including Introduction and Conclusion, and the subject of this book review. At the start of the Introduction, the author declares his intention to construct a bridge between the more historical Achaemenid/Persian studies and the literary studies of Plutarch, the biographer and essayist. It is to this end that he employs two simultaneous approaches, each used to shed light on the other: (1) to define the content and character of the three Persica now lost to us — those of Ctesias, Deinon and Heracleides —, which Plutarch used in the Artaxerxes, and (2) to clarify the literary methods applied by the biographer in composing his work. Within this framework, the subsequent five chapters are devoted to the three writers of Persica.

Two chapters are devoted to Ctesias: Chapter 2 ‘Ctesias (a)’, and Chapter 3 ‘Ctesias (b)’. ‘Ctesias (a)’ examines those passages in which the name of Ctesias is explicitly stated as a source by Plutarch, while the subject of ‘Ctesias (b)’ is those passages quoted by Plutarch in an anonymous fashion, but which can be attributed to Ctesias with a high degree of probability. (This same systematic division is applied also in the chapters on Deinon.) At the end of the chapters on Ctesias Almagor reaches some important and novel conclusions. Notable among them is his observation that while Plutarch read the final six volumes of Ctesias’ Persica with care, although he seems to have explored the preceding ones very little, he was nevertheless still able to refer back to earlier scenes with efficiency, thanks to Ctesias’ style of internal reference.

In Chapter 3 (pp. 77-80, 84-85), Almagor also provides some new insights into the time of publication of Ctesias’ work. For establishing its terminus ante quem, the two instances of Ctesias’ name being mentioned in Xenophon’s Anabasis (1.8.26 and 27) have thus far been regarded as the decisive key. However, by rehabilitating a long-neglected proposition of Félix Dürrbach, Almagor offers a persuasive argument that the two allusions to the physician and historian in the Anabasis are indeed inauthentic and were inserted by a later hand. (This does not cast any doubt on Xenophon’s status as one of the earliest readers of Ctesias: he simply read his Persica and acquired from it details unfamiliar to him, but was reluctant to mention the name of his precursor.) The terminus post quem is represented by the latest event referred to in Ctesias’ Persica itself, which was a description of a grove of palm trees casting their shadow on the grave of Clearchus some time after his death. A discrepancy is noted, however, between the accounts of the two authors who referred to this spectacle. While in Photius’ narrative eight years had passed since Clearchus’ death, Plutarch describes it as occurring only ‘shortly afterwards’. Almagor resolves this controversy in a most ingenious way, by rejecting Plutarch’s claim based on the fact that palm trees can only bear fruit (dates) at least four to eight years after their planting.1

The two chapters that follow are about Deinon: Chapter 4 ‘Deinon (a)’, and Chapter 5 ‘Deinon (b)’. For the character of Deinon’s Persica, Almagor offers a new perspective countering R. Stevenson’s assumption that the work had a chronological structure,2 and suggesting instead that it was arranged thematically. His view is that Plutarch was not fully acquainted with Deinon’s reports, but knew them only from summaries or notes, perhaps composed for him by his assistants. This led to Plutarch’s misunderstanding the chronology of events as recorded by Deinon, and resulted in his needlessly placing the assassination of Stateira much too early in time. Almagor also suggests that at some point Deinon’s Persica was circulated together with the book on Alexander written by his son, Cleitarchus. I still wonder, however, how it was possible for a thematically organised treatise to be connected seamlessly to a history of the generation that followed. This concern is not lessened by Almagor’s own description of the relation between the two works as ‘linking the end point of one with the start point of the next’ (p. 150). Chapter 5 (‘Deinon (b)’), on the other hand, struggles with the question of Plutarch’s source for Artax. 23-30, for which he does not explicitly state a main informant. Almagor tentatively points to a ‘common source’ that may have been used by Plutarch as well as other classical writers, and reaches the conclusion that it would most probably have been Deinon’s Persica.

The last chapter is dedicated to Heracleides, the most minor of the three Persica writers. In fact, he is only named once in the Artaxerxes (23.6). For Almagor, Heracleides’ work was not a history in the strictest sense, but rather a compendium of accounts from Persia that he gathered from the works of other Greek authors, most notably Herodotus, Xenophon (the Cyropaedia) and perhaps Ctesias, and their derivatives. Furthermore, this writer was no more than a name for Plutarch, and therefore was not seriously scrutinised by him. Even this single reference to the author was likely the result of a mistake; the Persian king who married his daughter Amestris was not Artaxerxes at all, but Xerxes. This chapter is followed by a Conclusion, reviewing the discussions so far.

Two appendices following the Conclusion complete the book. Appendix I, ‘Two Notes on the Cypriot War’ discusses the question of Tiribazus’ presence at the scene of the naval Battle of Citium, on which Almagor casts doubt. Appendix II, ‘Plutarch, the Persica and the Regum et Imperatorum Apophthegmata ’ deals with the controversial authorship of the collection of sayings of kings and emperors ( Moralia 172b-194e); for Almagor, this collection was at the very least not intended by Plutarch to be circulated as it exists today.

This latest work of Almagor will serve as an indispensable basis for future discussion of the Life of Artaxerxes, alongside the historical commentary offered by C. Binder.3 The author is essentially successful in completing the two tasks he set out for himself at the inception. He manages to reveal several unknown features of the three lost Persica, as well as Plutarch’s methods of dealing with them (only some of which I could address here). On the other hand, it is not certain to what extent we can apply these conclusions to Plutarch’s other biographies. In his study, Almagor does not often refer to other Lives, with the exception of those of Themistocles and Alexander, and furthermore, he does not attempt a comparison with any of the Roman Lives. This might seem unnecessary at first glance, given the fact that Artaxerxes was not a contemporary of Plutarch’s Roman subjects, but in his Introduction Almagor does stress that Plutarch’s interest in Persia derived from his status as ‘a child of the Imperial period’ (p. 16). For the author, the Life of Artaxerxes may have been inspired by the preparations for Trajan’s Parthian campaign (p. 25) and furthermore, Rome had a chance of becoming the heir to Persia, ‘a portrayal which ultimately made all references to the Achaemenid Persians operate in a subtle way as implicit allusions to Rome’ (p. 18). If this is indeed the case (and I agree with these suppositions), what effect did Plutarch’s position as a Greek intellectual of the Roman Imperial period have on his view of Achaemenid Persia? Were there any differences between, e.g., the perspective of classical Athenians living in and idealising democracy and the views of those who had experienced Roman Imperial rule (a type of monarchy)? I would very much like to see these questions answered, although that may well be sufficient scope for another monograph.


1. I note a minor error of translation in Chapter 2 (p. 59). In Photius’ epitome of Ctesias’ work, the volume number ten is parenthesised, although it is “nine” that should have been placed in parentheses. (In the Greek text the reference is correct.)

2. Rosemary B. Stevenson (1997), Persica: Greek Writing about Persia in the Fourth Century BC, Edinburgh, 14.

3. Carsten Binder (2008), Plutarchs Vita des Artaxerxes: Ein historischer Kommentar, Berlin.