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Political Παρρησία in Plutarch: When Does It Work?

Brad Buszard

Christopher Newport University

Christopher Pelling has shown in his contribution Sage and Emperorthat Plutarch, unlike Pliny and Dio of Prusa, never addressed himself to Trajan in any direct way (“Plutarch’s Caesar,”S&E213-226). Plutarch nonetheless had other, less direct ways to influence Roman power. Despite the autocratic innovations of Antonine Rome, some power still resided in the senatorial class, whose members performed important functions within the imperial administration and had access to the emperor himself (J. Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps, 75-76). Some of Plutarch’s dedicatees and several of his other Roman connections were among this elite (C.P. Jones, Plutarch and Rome48-64; K. Ziegler, Plutarchos von Chaironeia, 51-60). Perhaps he could influence Rome through them. But if Plutarch’s readers were to act as an effective brake or spur to the emperor’s impulses then they would sometimes need to be blunt. For them, frank speech, παρρησία, would be among the most important of Plutarch’s political themes. 

Three questions would have to be decided before Plutarch’s readers might attempt παρρησία, all of which are are taken up repeatedly and handled fairly consistently through the Livesand the Moralia. First, the prospective advisor has to determine whether the target would be receptive to παρρησία; second, the advisor needs to decide whether he or she is the right person to deliver frank advice effectively; third, the adviser has to choose how and when best to deliver the advice. 

The first question is the simplest for Plutarch. Trajan was not a Domitian; indeed, he took pains to differentiate himself from the disgraced deus et dominus (Bennett 63-67). Frank speech had, moreover, been a characteristic Roman virtue since the Republic. Moderate autocrats like Hieron of Syracuse (Ap. reg. 175b) and the Spartan king Theopompus (Ap. Lac. 221d) had been open to παρρησία, as had Pompey (Pomp. 10.13) and M. Antonius (De fort. Rom. 320a). Trajan too should be receptive.

Caution would still be necessary in identifying an appropriate speaker. Established virtue (ἀρετή) was essential (Prae. ger. reip. 822f). Nobility (Vitae decem oratorum 842d; Regum et imper. 207f) and maturity could also be beneficial (An seni resp. 797e), especially if the speaker could adopt the stance of a father or mentor (Prae. ger. reip. 802f). Poverty would not be an issue, so long as the speaker’s liberty was not undercut by greed (De superst.165a). And women could be especially effective in speaking frankly (Mul. Uirt. 253c), especially women like Plotina and Marciana, who had a personal connection to the advisee (Mul. Uirt. 245a;Con. praec. 139f). If one hesitated to address Trajan, perhaps one could work through his wife and sister.

The most difficult question, about which Plutarch has the most to say, is how to deliver the advice. In Plutarch’s, as in Plato, παρρησία is often ineffective, useful only for a transient effect and leaving no lasting change in its recipient’s outlook or behavior. How might one give a potentially receptive emperor good advice without offending or being taken for a flatterer? Plutarch suggests that one wait for certain situations that are better suited for παρρησία, especially drinking parties (Quaest. Rom. 289a; Quaest. con. 715f & 716c). Whatever the environment, παρρησία is better used sparingly, kept in reserve for important issues (Prae. ger. reip. 818b;Quaest. con. 704e; Quomodo adulescens 29c), and especially for times when the welfare of the state itself is at stake (Prae. ger. reip. 815d). Spontaneity can be helpful (Demetr. 42.7; Quaest. con. 634e), but in general the speaker should ask premission before speaking out (Quaest. con. 617f), and any reproaches he or she offers should be mixed with praise, so that παρρησία does not become ὕβρις (Prae. ger. reip. 810c). 

When used appropriately, delivered by the proper speaker to a receptive target, παρρησία can work. Through judicious application, Plutarch’s elite Roman readers could share the insights they gained from his works with the emperor himself. Perhaps this is one reason Plutarch was so interested in the theme, considering the problem some 200 times over the course of his literary career. He could not speak to Trajan himself, but maybe his readers would.


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Truth to Power: Literary Rhetorical and Philosophical Responses to Autocratic Rule in the Roman Empire

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