Plutarch’s portraits of leaders in the Lives reflect a careful blending of incidents from a hero’s personal life and his political and military career, which together provide exempla to guide readers in cultivating moral character and effectiveness in managing public affairs. Designing these portraits required being selective about the details of a person’s life. As Plutarch indicated at Cimon 2.4–5, a representation had to retain the undesirable elements of a man’s character without giving them undue prominence. On this basis, it seems reasonable that Plutarch might have omitted key incidents which, if included, would have over-emphasized one virtue or vice. Similarly, a balanced portrait of a man’s successes and failures in managing political or military matters might also necessitate selective exclusion of episodes described by historians. Against this backdrop, the question arises: to what extent can Plutarch’s omission of key incidents from a Life be viewed as purposeful fine-tuning of his narrative to clarify certain lessons in leadership? This issue is here investigated in the context of the Alcibiades, Agesilaus and Fabius Maximus. It will be shown that Plutarch’s silences and omission of well-known episodes impact the ethical and pragmatic lessons in these Lives, and serve to sharpen the focus on the specific lessons in leadership that each Life was designed to convey.
In his Crassus, Plutarch furnishes a peculiarly brief narrative (five chapters, chs. 12–16 inclusive; approximately six pages of the Teubner text) for the career of M. Licinius Crassus from the end of the Spartacan War to his departure for Syria (70–55 BCE). These chapters constitute a particularly noticeable example of telescoping, which appears especially conspicuous given the excruciatingly detailed narrative that comes next: the Parthian misadventure, to which Plutarch devotes the second half of the Life (chs. 17–33). The unevenness of pace and detail raises questions of Plutarch’s rationale for writing Crassus, and how it frames the interpretation of other Lives, in particular Pompey and Caesar. Evidence internal and external to Crassus intimates that Plutarch could have produced a more substantial biography should he have so desired to write it. There are two possible reasons for this extreme selectivity. First, the text is not Plutarch’s final version, but a draft (hypomnema). Second, the text is, in fact, as the biographer intended: the gaps reflect the biographer’s genuine opinion of Crassus’ perceived lack of a role, direct or indirect, in this crucial historical period.
At Demosthenes 15.5 Plutarch calls into question Idomeneus’ claim that Aeschines was acquitted by 30 votes in the trial over his actions on the Second Embassy to Philip. Plutarch states, however, that it is unclear whether Demosthenes’ speech (D. 19) on the false embassy was ever delivered. He draws this conclusion based, it would seem, on his own reading of Aeschines and Demosthenes: “But it would seem to hold no truth, if one must judge by the speeches on the crown (D. 18; Aeschin. 3) written by each man, for neither of them has distinctly and clearly mentioned the suit as actually coming to trial.” Plutarch’s words suggest familiarity on his part with these two speeches, which not only serve as important sources for the Demosthenes but are, I argue, the only speeches directly used for biographical information. In the case of Aeschines, his presence looms large in the first twenty-four chapters of the Life until his voluntary exile to Rhodes, the result of failing to receive one-fifth of the vote in his suit against Ctesiphon. Plutarch references Aeschines several times in these first chapters as a source, but ignores at times important details that Aeschines provides about Demosthenes. In this chapter I also explore why Plutarch includes what he does, and at times excludes or at least is silent on certain other details from Aeschines 3.
Christians possibly appeared on the Roman radar as early as 44 or 45, and Plutarch might have heard of them during his trip to Smyrna during the reign of Nero. In none of his extant works, however, does Plutarch mention them, although they might have appeared in his lost Claudius and Nero. With possibly three trips to Rome after the famous fire, and with many friends there, he should at least have heard about Christians in connection with the fire. A fruitful line of inquiry is Plutarch’s association with prominent Romans. The following names are suggestive: L. Mestrius Florus, proconsul of Asia under Domitian, probably 88/89; Minucius Fundanus, suffect consul in 107, born near Pliny’s birthplace, and a correspondent of that author; Arulenus Rusticus, suffect consul in 92, a friend both of Pliny and Tacitus. Some of Plutarch’s friends governed provinces where there were problems with Christians, similar to those of Pliny in Pontus. Overall, it seems impossible that Plutarch, with his interest in cults, something shared by many governors of provinces, would not have learned something about Christianity. This does not mean, however, that he would have felt compelled to write about it. Moreover, his avoidance of contemporary topics and use of old sources might have prevented him from including Christianity somewhere in his extant writings such as the Quaestionum Convivalium. Study of Plutarch’s treatment of Judaism in this work can offer important insights into why he might have been silent about the Christians.
Philip V came to the throne of Macedon when he was eighteen and reigned for over forty years (221–179 BCE). He was incessantly active, marching armies over the whole of the Greek peninsula as well as sailing throughout the Aegean. The highest hopes were had of him, as even Plutarch reports (Aem. 8.4). Why, then, does such a Macedonian monarch, who ruled three times as long as Alexander, who marched cumulatively perhaps as many miles, who interacted with an array of famed Greek and Roman figures over his long career, rarely appear in Plutarch’s immense oeuvre? If, as T.E. Duff notes (1999, 59), Plutarch avoided the likes of Philip V, as well as Philip II, as people not to imitate, why is it that Plutarch uses Philip II quite frequently in a variety of passages and anecdotes, while Philip V is hard to find, grudgingly named in a few passages. This paper identifies how and explains why Plutarch turns his back on Philip V as much as possible in his Lives and excludes him almost completely from the Moralia. In the former Plutarch allows him into the narrative only when his historical involvement cannot be avoided or is remarkably despicable; in the latter, in his few appearances, Plutarch’s disdain for Philip and his turpitudinous character is made clear by the context. Plutarch did not, therefore, wholly exclude Philip V from all his works, but his moral outrage at the behaviour of this notorious autocrat explains the absence of a Life.
The Lives of Plutarch are chock full of silence. As recently argued by Chrysanthou (2018), what Plutarch leaves out is vital to the method of moral instruction he is employing, in that it makes the reader work, to make their own connections and interpretations of the subject. And Plutarch, as Konstan (2004) has demonstrated with regard to the De audiendis poetis, is conscious of complex, even modern methods of interpreting reading, and, as Duff (2011) has demonstrated, his audience in the Lives is particularly sophisticated, assumed to be capable of myriad types of interpretive nuance and possibility. And so, Plutarch’s silences are an instructive area for exploration in Plutarch’s narrative practices. Such gaps in the Life of Dion form fertile ground for this sort of examination, as Plutarch offers multiple types of narratorial silence in this Life. Of course, he employs standard interpretative gaps that are a crucial part of any narrative, but there are other occurrences that are likely a conscious result of Plutarch’s compositional approach. For example, for a portion of Dion’s exile, he devotes his narrative to events in Sicily, abandoning Dion’s affairs in Greece. Also, Plutarch provides sparse details of plot and counterplot as Dion gathers recruits to usurp Dionysius II. Finally, Plutarch’s omission of Callippus from the narrative until the conclusion despite his historical presence during the events of Dion’s return to Sicily is particularly interesting. Here, Plutarch retroactively fills in details that the biographer had passed over in silence before, while also alerting the reader to the fact that he had omitted these details! Through my examination of scenes like this from the Dion, I will examine the impact that these silences have on the narrative and the sophisticated reader’s moral and historical interpretation of the Sicilian statesman.
Sulla and Caesar are linked in Roman history by their willingness to invade Italy, their victories in civil wars, and their assumption of dictatorships. Their military successes provided them the means to seize sole power for themselves. How, then, are we to judge those victories? How does military success interact with a statesman’s moral character and political achievement, particularly when military victories enable tyranny? Plutarch’s Sulla and Caesar are surprisingly silent about these questions. This chapter builds on previous scholarship to explore the nature of this silence. One reason to read these two biographies together is that both share a similar fundamental structure: a controversial political rise (Sull. 1–10; Caes. 1–14) and an autocratic political finish (Sull. 30–38; Caes. 57–69) that bookend an extended narrative of military victories in foreign and then civil wars (Sull. 11–29; Caes. 15–56). The political narratives of these two Lives emphasize vices and weaknesses in the characters of their subjects while the military narratives display their virtues and victories, thus establishing a tension between the two spheres that Plutarch chooses not to resolve (Sull. 30.6; Caes. 69.1). The chapter concludes by considering whether Plutarch’s respect for military success is perhaps too ingrained for him to fault it for the political consequences it makes possible.
Plutarch devotes one of his two Jewish questions in his Quaestionum Convivalium to the God of the Jews. The discussion is very well informed, depending as it does on Hecataeus of Abdera, and is mainly devoted to Jewish ritual, arguing that its similarities prove the identity of the God of the Jews with Dionysus. Though interpretatio Graeca is a well-known phenomenon, Plutarch’s approach here is quite astonishing. Despite his involvement and deep interest in religion, including foreign (e.g., Egyptian) religions he entirely disregards what is considered by moderns as Judaism’s most prominent feature contrasting it with ‘pagan’ antiquity, monotheism—as he was also totally ignoring the young and rising Christianity. This chapter will try to provide the background to this strange silence.