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Greek Wisdom and Philosophy in the Early Empire: Plutarch in comparison to Flavius Josephus

Andreas Schwab

Ruprecht-Karls-University of Heidelberg

In my paper I will illuminate and compare for the first time in which contexts, how, and why Plutarch and his near-contemporary Flavius Josephus, both active in the intellectual world of the Early Empire (Kendra 2012), engaged so intensively with early Greek philosophy, philosophers and the wisdom of the so-called Seven Sages (Solon, Thales etc.). Plutarch’s writings, particularly the famous Banquet of the Seven Sages, his Life of Solon, and the Delphic treatises, are our most important testimonies on the Seven Sages and certain early Greek philosophers in the intellectual world of the Early Empire before Diogenes Laertius (Hershbell 1971, 1986, Busine 2002, Wöhrle/McKirahan 2014). Flavius Josephus’ references to some early Greek philosophers and sages play a significant role in his two books Against Apion, On the Antiquity of the Jews and also as a source for some early Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria or Eusebius (Schwab 2012: 166-8). This use raises important and neglected questions: how and why do Plutarch and Josephus engage so creatively with these famous figures of the past? Instead of reconstructing an ‘original’ doctrine of Solon or the ‘real’ image of Thales from textual evidence in Plutarch and Flavius, I will instead focus on the remarkable argumentative contexts and genres in which these two intellectuals of the Early Empire refer to these representatives of early philosophy and wisdom (Schwab 2015).

Both writers have a number of points in common: they are remarkably well-educated authors with a religious background, with Plutarch serving as a Delphic priest and Josephus, originally ‘Joseph Ben Mattijahu’, descended from a Jewish priestly caste and affiliated with the Pharisees. Both are originally from the periphery of the Roman Empire, Boeotia and Judea respectively, and each plays a remarkably prominent role in social and public life. Both have connections to Rome and also write for Greek and Roman readers (Pastor et al. 2011, Stadter 2015); each is profoundly interested in history and biography, dealing in their writings particularly with the past as one major subject: the past of Greece and Rome, Egypt or the Jewish people, portraying important figures such as Solon, Lycurgus, Moses, and Abraham. In a comparison of Plutarch’s Lycurgus and Josephus’ Moses, Feldman (2005: 241) notes that “their biographies share a number of similar themes: genealogy, upbringing, subjection to envy, the cardinal virtues (especially moderation), eagerness to learn from others, relation to the divine, rejection of kingship, organization of government, military leadership, educational policies, etc.”.

In my paper I will investigate a selection of key passages from both authors in which they refer to some early Greek philosophers and sages: mainly from Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris, The E at Delphi, The Oracles at Delphi and The Banquet of the Seven Sages (Kim 2009) and Josephus’ two books Against Apion, On the Antiquity of the Jews. By a close analysis and comparison of both authors’ references to early Greek philosophers and sages, I will argue that each reference is part of a larger argumentative project that can be connected to the cultural, social and intellectual marketplace of the Early Roman Empire. A comparison between these two contemporaneous writers will reverse the traditional focus on reading the philosophers back into the archaic period, and instead will shed new light on the presence of early Greek philosophy and wisdom in Plutarch and Josephus, by explaining why these references to the past constitute a vivid part of the rhetorical, literary and intellectual world of the Early Empire.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual World of the Early Empire (organized by the International Plutarch Society)

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