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Plutarch and Oracles in the Lives and the Moralia

Amy Lather

            The role of oracles in Herodotus and Thucydides has been well examined. It has been argued, for example, that oracles provide Herodotus with a way for him to authorize his narrative voice (Kindt 2006) or to invite the reader's interpretation of the text (Barker 2006). Similarly, Marinatos (1981) has maintained that Thucydides critically engages with the ambiguities of oracular language. However, the oracles that appear in Plutarch's Lives have received no such systematic attention. This is surprising, given the array of oracles that appear in the Lives and because of the unique insight that Plutarch, as a priest of Delphi, may offer. This paper will examine the role of oracles in three of Plutarch's Lives and argue that his treatment of oracles therein reveals a relationship between Plutarch's authorial persona in the Lives and certain aspects of Plutarchan theology, as set out in the three Delphic dialogues of the Moralia. Recent scholarship has also sought to demonstrate correspondence between the Moralia and the Lives (e.g. Nikolaidis 2008), and this paper encompasses a similar aim.

            It is argued that this relationship is most clearly illustrated in the Lives of Theseus, Solon, and Lycurgus, and particularly in the oracles guaranteeing divine sanction for political reforms. First, it will be shown how Plutarch, in quoting oracles, glosses over ambiguities in their language by depicting his characters instantly grasping the oracle's meaning and acting in accordance with its directive, even when its language is metaphorical or ambiguous. Thus, rather than dwelling on the interpretative process and the ambiguities involved in oracular consultation, Plutarch focuses instead on elucidating these messages by presenting them as clear directives for the specific actions that follow from the consultation in his narrative. In this way, oracles can play a straightforwardly causal role in Plutarch's biographical accounts.

            The claim will be that this portrayal of the oracular process corresponds to Plutarch's meditations in the Delphic dialogues of the Moralia, particularly in the De Pythiae Oraculis. Here, Plutarch emphasizes the innate capacity of humans to understand the divine speech of oracles, but also recognizes that such utterances may at first seem ambiguous or unclear (e.g. de Def. 409e, de Pyth. 408A-B). Nevertheless, it is maintained that even such ambiguous messages were always ultimately decipherable to their recipients (de Pyth. 407D). Plutarch's treatment of oracles in these Lives thus appears to be informed by the theological and religious views expressed in the Delphic dialogues in demonstrating just how ambiguous oracles can be interpreted correctly so that their directives may become clear.

            This paper concludes by arguing that Plutarch, by illustrating the kind of oracular interpretation described in the Delphic dialogues, thus as a narrator assumes the role of a Delphic interpreter, able to understand the Pythia's pronouncements and explain their meanings to the readers of the Lives. Oracles, then, by enabling Plutarch to showcase his understanding of divine speech, become a specific means by which he can authorize his narrative persona as well as the biographical accounts that he constructs in the Lives.

Session/Panel Title

The Second Sophistic

Session/Paper Number

11.2

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