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The Use and Abuse of History: Xenophon and Plutarch’s Lives Revisited

Eran Almagor

For Plutarch, as indeed for other Greek imperial writers, Xenophon was one of the classical authors, whose works were familiar enough to serve as background against which new accounts were to be written or assessed by readers. While mentioning him throughout his works (in both the Lives and the Moralia), Plutarch never treats Xenophon as a historical agent, but rather as a text or a source. This paper attempts to reconsider Plutarch’s use of Xenophon within the context of the issue of genre. In particular, the question addressed here is whether the way Xenophon is used in the Lives is akin to history, with its focus on facts, or whether it is closer to literature, in creating a new invented fictional narrative.
This query is a test case of a general question which sets out to determine whether Plutarch’s biographical writing follows Aristotle’s definition (Poetics, 1451b1-8) of history as interested with ‘what happened’ and with particular facts as opposed to poetry’s concern with general truths and ‘what might happen’. The case of Xenophon is unique in that it can provide a basis to compare Plutarch’s depiction with the original extant text and analyze what the biographer attempted to do. Almost all previous studies devoted to Plutarch’s employment of Xenophon (e.g, Hamilton, 1994; Stadter, 2012) see Plutarch’s handling of Xenophon within a framework that seeks to evaluate the true and factual course of events. Thus, in the terms of this approach, when there is a discrepancy between the two, Plutarch is seen as merely trying to ‘correct’ his predecessor or to reach at a truthful account. The notion of Plutarch’s ‘manipulation’ of his sources in an invented presentation is hardly contemplated.
This paper will deal with the three ways Plutarch diverges from Xenophon in the Lives: (1) by adducing a different version to that of Xenophon, whether from a named or unnamed source; (2) by altering the text of Xenophon; (3) by using the original text in a different context or with a completely different significance. It will be shown that Plutarch is not wholly concerned with facts in his presentation of the life of his protagonist. The possibility that Plutarch is composing fictional descriptions, which can only work given his readership’s familiarity with Xenophon’s texts, will be introduced. The biographies used for this paper are mainly those of the Persian king Artaxerxes and the Spartan king Agesilaus.

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Between Fact and Fiction in Ancient Biographical Writing

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