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Plutarch's Usable (But Not Too Usable) Late Republican Past in the Praecepta rei publicae gerendae

Gavin Weaire

Plutarch's Politika parangelmata (Praecepta rei publicae gerendae) is a work whose opening is diffident about its own value. Plutarch characterizes the work as a second-best way to fulfil the philosopher's duty to instruct, since the work's addressee, Menemakhos, lacks the time to learn through observation of actual politics (798A-C). This diffidence clusters especially around paradeigmata. Plutarch highlights rhe exceptional variety of his paradeigmata as the distinctive feature of the work, but distances himself from this by attributing it to Menemakhos' request (798C).

Plutarch's handling of historical paradeigmata in the Politika parangelmata is obviously relevant to the discussions of Greek collective memory during the Roman Empire, a topic for which the Politika parangelmata has traditionally been seen as a key text (e.g. Swain 1996 166-168; Roskam 2002 183; Cook 2004). The Politika parangelmata is distinguished by its interest in the alterity of the past and how that calls for the politikos to be selective in his application of historical incidents to the current situation (esp. 814A-C). However, studies of this feature of the Politika parangelmata have largely focused on its ideas about the classical Greek past (the only area in which Plutarch explicitly addresses the problem of the applicability of specific past incidents to the present).

Another element of the work's variety of paradeigmata comprises its numerous Roman references. These involve almost thirty named individuals and range chronologically from Horatius Cocles to Domitian. Unsurprisingly, the Late Republic is well-represented. As a period it poses two main problems of applicability for Plutarch's version of contemporary politics The first problem is that the Late Republic's dysfunctional politics and especially its civil wars epitomize features opposite to those that Plutarch claims characterize politics in his own time (805A-B; 824D-F). The second is that the leading politicians of the Late Republic exemplify achievement on a scale beyond the restricted one that Plutarch advocates as the appropriate level for the politikos. The leading politicians of the Late Republic would be more applicable models for someone who sought to hold positions above the level of local politics, an option whose possibility Plutarch recognizes but which he opposes (814D). Plutarch's handling of certain Roman paradeigmata signals awareness of these difficulties (esp. 814C-D; 815E-F).
From the perspective of applicability, it is more important to observe which individual Romans are the focus of Plutarch's advice than whether they are presented as positive or negative exempla. For instance, Caesar (mentioned three times: 810C; 814D; 818D) initially appears to be a moderately important presence in the text. However, Caesar is always a secondary character in an anecdote in which some other figure is the focus of attention. Caesar's Trajanic image as founder of the imperial system renders him radically inapplicable (Pelling 2002). The single most applicable Roman is a selective version of Cato the Younger (804C; 808E; 809D; 810C; 818D; perhaps 811A-B).
Another feature of the Late Republican paradeigmata of the Politika parangelmata is Plutarch's bold but inconsistent use of accommodation (for the term see Lambrecht 1994 65-73) to present figures who were probably obscure (e.g. Carbo: 801B) as if unquestionably familiar to the reader. This is less evidence for the knowledge expected of the reader (since the point of anecdotes can be inferred from context), than a demonstration of Plutarch's ability to assimilate Roman knowledge into usable forms.
The paper concludes by exploring one complex Roman paradeigma, centering upon Sulla, in more detail (806B-E; Roskam 2008 330-331). This anecdote is an unusually close mirror to the educational concerns of the introduction and also more explicitly than most signals the problems with its own application. Sulla appears both as foolish young man (Menemakhos) and as wise mentor (Plutarch) . This dramatizes the process of education in politics and underlines the importance of subordinating the lessons of the Politika parangelmata to knowledge derived from other sources.

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Plutarch and Late Republican Rome

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