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Sulla and the Creation of Roman Athens

Inger Neeltje Irene Kuin

In this paper I propose a new explanation of Plutarch’s view of Sulla’s (lack of) strategy in the sack of Athens. Plutarch describes Sulla’s attack on Athens as “fighting against shadows” (σκιαμαχοῦντα, Sull. 13), but scholars have considered this depiction a grave and surprising error (e.g., Santangelo 2007), given the strategic importance of the city for Sulla. I suggest that Plutarch’s analysis is based on his anachronistic presentation of Athens in the life: the city is depicted as the site of Greek culture and philosophy, rather than a strategic battleground. In other words, Plutarch retroactively attributes a first century CE notion of Athens to its first century BCE conquest. This attribution, however, should not be viewed as a lack of historical awareness on the part of the author. Plutarch’s characterization of Sulla’s attitude to Athens is part of a larger attempt to adapt the past to fit with the present that surrounds him.

Recent scholarship on ideas about Greece and Greekness in Plutarch, and in imperial Greek literature generally, has focused on authors’ attitudes towards the classical Greek past with few exceptions (one being Spawforth 2006). This results from, as has often been pointed out (from Bowie 1970 through Konstan and Saïd 2006), a bias in the sources themselves: Greek imperial literature harkens back to the days of Pericles and Solon, viewing Athens as a “quasi-mythical place (...) a freefloating [sic], timeless universe” (Schmitz 2011: 240). By looking at an example of how the late-Republican past of Roman Athens was constructed, I aim to enhance and complicate the scholarly narrative of the treatment of Greece and Athens in early imperial literature. In Sulla 13 Plutarch, a Greek author and Roman citizen, projects the shared Greco-Roman, imperial notion of Athens as a cultural entity onto the Roman general Sulla, for whom Athens in reality would have been important chiefly as an economic and political entity (Habicht 1997; Santangelo 2007). In other words, Plutarch’s historical circumstances influence not only his view of classical Athens, but also his ideas about late Republican politics.
As an alternative to the idea of Sulla wanting to take Athens because of ‘the city’s former glory’, Plutarch suggests that he may have been angry at jokes shouted from the wall by Aristion (Sull. 13). Both possibilities belittle the strategic importance of the battle. Elsewhere in the life Plutarch reports Sulla’s theft of the library of Apellikon (Sull. 26), and his ravaging of the wooded suburb where the Academy stood, as well as the Lyceum (Sull. 12). Plutarch presents Sulla as a destroyer of the cultural and philosophical capital of Athens, and this view influenced later authors like Lucian (Ind. 4, Zeux. 3), Aelian (fr. 53 Hercher), and Pausanias (1.20.4, 9.7.5, 9.30.1, 9.33.6, 10.21.5-6). Plutarch’s predecessor Diodorus Siculus, in contrast, frames the conquest of Athens explicitly as an important strategic move on Sulla’s part in the larger context of the First Mithradatic war (38-39, fr. 6). I suggest, therefore, that Plutarch’s attribution to Sulla of the idea that Athens is nothing but a shadow is a connecting step in the formation of a depoliticized version of the city in the Greco-Roman imagination. This step creates a false, but potentially comforting sense of historical continuity.
My account of the view of Athens constructed by Plutarch for Sulla is part of a larger project that looks at the depiction of Athens in the author’s Roman lives. A better understanding of Plutarch’s representation of Athens from 146 BCE onwards will provide insight into the development of the notion of ‘Roman Athens’, which, I argue, was a key element in the construction of a shared Greco-Roman past in the early Empire.

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Plutarch and Late Republican Rome

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