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“Although She Wished to Speak”: Plutarch’s Creation and Silencing of Powerful Women in his Dialogues

Dawn LaValle

Magdalen College, University of Oxford

Plutarch has a professed interested in recording women’s speech and women’s deeds, and the women he records often do not fit into the gender expectations set by his predecessors. Yet at the same time, I argue in this paper, Plutarch follows the long-standing literary tradition of not allowing women to speak in their own voice in philosophical dialogues, seen most spectacularly in his dialogues the Amatorius and the Symposium of the Seven Sages. While he allows for a much wider expression of gender characteristics in his women’s lives, he does not extend that generous expansion to their literary lives.

There has been a recent surge of interest in the Imperial dialogue, stemming from the challenge laid down by Goldhill 2008 that the genre went through a fundamental change in the Imperial period, leading to its ultimate self-destruction. Many scholars have recently pushed back against Goldhill’s reading, such as Cameron 2014 and Föllinger and Müller 2013. However, the debate over the changes in this fertile period has overlooked one of the key areas of transformation. Starting in the 3rd century, women are at last allowed to speak on-stage in dialogues (e.g. Methodius of Olympus, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine). Plutarch’s experimentation with the vibrant presence of women in his dialogues who are nonetheless not allowed to speak, is an important stage in this larger story of the shift in women’s literary roles and the shift in expectations of the dialogic genre.

Plutarch insists on commemorating women in public not only in works such as the Virtues of Women and the Sayings of Spartan Women, but also within his large corpus of dialogues. Perhaps the most strongly-painted of these figures is Ismenodora, the rich widow who courts and finally abducts a youth Bacchon in the course of the dialogue Amatorius. Her superior position over her beloved in terms of age, wealth and virtue make her a frightening character for some of the interlocutors. Plutarch, on the other hand, in his own persona in the dialogue, defends the possibility of the wife being superior to the husband in a marriage: “No one is his own master, no one is unrestricted. Since this is so, what is there dreadful about a sensible older woman piloting the life of a young man?” (754D, trans. Helmbold). Yet even this strong woman is compelled into literary silence. The entire dialogue may be about her and her controversial actions, but she herself never appears on-stage to argue her defense.

In this paper, I will compare Plutarch’s treatment of Ismenodora in the Amatorius with his treatment of another powerful woman, Cleobulina, in his Symposium of the Seven Sages. Cleobulina is spoken of in the highest terms as a fitting member of the company of the ancient sages because of her fame in composing riddles. When first introduced, she is said to possess a political mind (νοῦς πολιτικὸς) and be influential with her father, the tyrant Cleobulus. Although deemed worthy to take part in the symposium (against all Greek tradition), she too like Ismenodora is never allowed to speak in her own voice. When riddles are belittled by a symposiast in the course of the party, Cleobulina wishes to speak a rebuttal but it is Aesop who comes to her defense and reports a clever riddle she told them all before dinner (154B).

Both of these powerful women, respected for their wisdom and feared for their power, are not allowed to speak during the dialogues. In fact, in all of Plutarch’s approximately fifteen surviving dialogues, not a single woman speaks in her own voice. Through following a generic expectation established by Plato, Plutarch puts a literary constraint on women whom he otherwise approvingly depicts as pushing against traditional gender roles. He plays with allowing gender non-conformity, only to quietly and forcefully put these women back in their place as non-speakers. 

Session/Panel Title

Women and Agency

Session/Paper Number

43.3

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