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The Glory Without the Glamour: Shared Political Rhetoric in Plutarch and Tacitus

Adam Kemezis

Tacitus (b. c. 56) was a slightly younger contemporary of Plutarch's (b. c. 50), but they are usually read as representing different political cultures, Tacitus that of the Senate and Plutarch that of the imperial Greek polis. It is therefore surprising how many similarities emerge when the Agricola in particular is read alongside Plutarch's political treatises, especially the Political Precepts (Praecepta gerendae rei publicae) and the Should Old Men Engage in Politics? (An seni res publica gerenda sit). Plutarch, in spite of his many personal connections with the Roman elite (see Jones 1971) addresses himself in his writings to the local sphere and in fact deprecates ambition for senatorial office (see Swain 1996; Halfmann 2002). Tacitus, though a provincial himself, is more interesting in trying to define senatorial identity in the monarchical state (see Sailor 2008). Nonetheless, both men share a rhetoric that privileges useful political activity over specious forms of glory, and they conceive of that dichotomy in very similar terms. This rhetoric is shared with contemporary authors in both languages (e.g. Quintilian, Dio Chrysostom), but far less with their Antonine or Severan counterparts

            Tacitus' idealized version of Agricola and Plutarch's model Greek politician both embrace the utilitarian and even the banausic side of administrative work (Agr. 21 ≈ Praec. 811C); while both insist that genuine glory is to be gained in the political sphere, both also acknowledge severe limitations on that glory. There are times when the only way to get things done is to let someone else take credit (Agr. 7-8 ≈ Praec. 816D). One's freedom of action is always circumscribed by a higher authority, be it the emperor for Tacitus or the provincial governor for Plutarch (Agr. 39 ≈ Praec. 813D-814C). Both express disdain for politicians who make showy but futile protests against authority and invoke ancient freedoms in crowd-pleasing but inappropriate ways (Agr. 42 ≈ Praec. 814C). These ancient freedoms – the Republic for Tacitus, classical Hellas for Plutarch – function similarly for both authors, and both see a tension between the glorious but tumultuous past and the secure but mundane present.

            My paper will explore these points of similarity and try to place them in a Flavian-Trajanic political context. In particular, Plutarch's enthusiastic incorporation of the mundane aspects of politics into high-status literature is very much a product of his time. It can be seen also in his contemporary Dio Chrysostom, but scarcely at all in Aristides, Philostratus and other key figures of the Antonine and Severan periods. This paper will try to place these changes in literary discourse within a dynamic picture of developments in political culture at the imperial level. Key contemporary events include the Flavians' opening of the upper echelons of power to provincial elites (see Mellor 2003), including those from the east, as well as a marked increase in euergetic activity in the eastern cities (Zuiderhoek 2008). While there is no reason to believe that either Plutarch or Tacitus was familiar with the other's work, each author is starting with an old and culturally distinct tradition and infusing it with the same rhetoric. That rhetoric is characteristic of the Trajanic era, but represents the shared Flavian experience of new political opportunities conflicting with authoritarian repression.

Session/Panel Title

Writing Imperial Politics in Greek

Session/Paper Number

5.2

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