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Lycurgus and Other Lies: Plutarch's "Agis and Cleomenes" and the Rhetoric of Political Revival

Mallory Monaco Caterine

          Plutarch, in both his literary activities and his role as a priest at Delphi, exemplifies the desire to preserve and revivify Greek cultural heritage that characterizes Imperial Greek literature.  At the same time, however, Plutarch expresses in his works a deep skepticism of those individuals who aspire to revive the political past of Greece.  This paper argues that Plutarch’s presentation of revivalist political rhetoric in the Lives of Agis and Cleomenes resonates with his concerns about contemporary attempts at civic revival in the poleis of the eastern Empire.  He expresses his distrust of such rhetoric in the Praecepta gerendae reipublicae, a pamphlet advising a young politician on his budding career.  There he compares individuals who yearn for the revival of archaic and classical Greek political power to children playing dress-up in their fathers’ clothes (814A2-C5); such politicians are not just ridiculous, but in fact dangerous, because they may provoke unwanted Roman intervention.  Despite his own biographies of past Greek statesmen, he censures demagogues who excite the masses with stories of the Persian War when there is no longer any venue for Greeks to pursue similar military achievements. Plutarch thus draws a distinction between the potential political danger of aggressive, nostalgic rhetoric and the sustainability of past Greek glories in the realm of cultural activities.

          This sentiment is echoed by Plutarch’s narratives of the Hellenistic Spartan kings Agis IV and Cleomenes III, who sought, or claimed to seek, a revival of the Lycurgan constitution. Yet for different reasons, both men failed to achieve a long-lasting renaissance of Spartan power, and left the city in a state of irrecoverable weakness.  My arguments concern how Plutarch understood and portrayed the Spartan reformers, not the realia of their intentions or accomplishments.  Therefore, after a few preliminaries about the challenges posed by the “Spartan mirage” and Plutarch’s sources, the majority of my talk consists of close-readings of the long speeches of Agis and Cleomenes found in Plutarch’s narratives (Agis 10.2-4, Cleom. 10).  Each speech occurs at the moment when the protagonist’s plans for reform become evident to the Spartan people, and both men rely on alleged Lycurgan precedents to justify and legitimize their social and economic reforms.  When these speeches are compared with the Life of Lycurgus, Agis appears to have been more faithful to Lycurgus’ aims (as Plutarch understood them) than Cleomenes.  Indeed, the narrative surrounding Agis’ speech connects the young king’s reforms to several other Spartan traditions that were at least perceived by the author to be archaic in origin.  In contrast, in the synkrisis with the Gracchi, Plutarch reuses language found in Cleomenes’ speech –an anecdote about Lycurgus and Charilaus, and the metaphor of the politician-as-doctor – to highlight how far removed Cleomenes’ actions were from those of his purported model.  By using Cleomenes’ words against him, Plutarch demonstrates that Cleomenes abused Lycurgus’ noble legacy and name in order to push through changes to the Spartan polity that were more innovative than restorative.

          By constructing narratives in which Agis and Cleomenes fail to revive an idealized Greek past, Plutarch encourages his readers to recognize the impossibility of trying to restore the Greeks to their past political independence.  The pax Romana had long limited the opportunities that Greeks had for political and military aristeia; consequently, the Greeks of the past could be imitated in their virtues, but rarely in their deeds. In both the Moralia and the Lives, Plutarch distinguishes between the role of the Greek past in contemporary Greek cultural activities and the role it ought to play in contemporary Greek political activities. In other words, Plutarch wants his readers to know their history, but to recognize the realities of life under Roman control. Thus, Plutarch’s antiquarianism and his skepticism of the rhetoric of political revival are in fact complementary, since they reflect his keen perception of the cultural and political hierarchies that dominated the lives of Imperial Greeks.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Receptions of Classical Literature

Session/Paper Number

49.2

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