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Roman Governors, "Greek Failings," and the Political World of Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom

Christopher Fuhrmann

University of North Texas

Local leaders of the Roman Empire’s Greek cities had the difficult task of balancing their own political ambitions, and celebrating their national pride in Greek history, all while maintaining the favor of Roman potentates. While the general outlines of this fraught relationship between Greeks and Romans is well known, I aim to break new ground by focusing especially on the central role of Roman provincial governors as the key intermediaries between Rome and the Greek local elites, and by highlighting specific and detailed evidence of this relationship in the province of Bithynia.

The main evidentiary base for this study are Greeks’ reflections on Roman power during the early empire, starting with the general political advice of Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, and (to a lesser extent) Aelius Aristides.  A carefully prepared handout builds from Plutarch’s well-known remark about Greeks being under Roman kaltioi in Praecepta813e. The most telling example of Greek discomfiture with Roman power is Dio Chrysostom’s criticism of Nicomedia and Nicaea for their petty inter-city strife: “especially among the Romans, these disputes evoke laughter, and even worse, are called ‘Greek failings’.” (Hellênika hamartêmataOr. 38.38, cf. Plut. De fraterno amore487f-488a; Aristid. Or. 23; Robert; Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer, 307-15; Heller). Just before this remark, Dio (38.36f) specifically blamed unscrupulous governors for exploiting these regional tensions for their own corrupt gain. Indeed, scrutiny of the relevant sources from this period highlights remarkable Greek anxiety over unsympathetic or devious Roman governors, and their insecurity concerning the possible weakening of their already-limited means of checking a bad governor’s behavior (e.g. Dio Chrys. Or. 34.9 and 34.38-40; Jones 1978, 79).

The central part of my analysis culminates in a treatment of Dio Chrysostom’s actual political behavior as a member of Prusa’s local elite (esp. Or. 40, 43, 45-50). While paying mere lip-service to the high ideals of moderation (sôphrosynê) and harmony (homonoia) which he and Plutarch voiced to general audiences, Dio himself abandoned these principles in his political operations in Prusa. Dio’s Prusan orations are remarkably under-utilized in otherwise strong scholarship on the Roman East and the Second Sophistic, or, they are read too charitably towards Dio’s motives and political dealings. Persistent problems surrounding Dio’s local ambitions (especially an unpopular building project) show the great difficulty of practicing the political ideals he and Plutarch preached to other Greeks. We will see that Dio misused his connections to Roman governors, failed to serve as an effective intermediary between the governors and Prusa’s citizens, and was directly accused of colluding with a particularly wicked governor (hêgemôn ponêrosOr. 43.11. Bithynia yielded almost 20% of all known cases of repetundaeprosecutions of corrupt governors, more than any other province: Talbert appendix 9.)

Dio’s Prusan orations should be studied in conjunction with Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence, which previous scholars have (for whatever inexplicable reason) tended not to do. Pliny’s letters constitute a valuable outside perspective on Greek elites and political life, and a vital complement to Dio’s details on Bithynia and its governors. For reasons of time my Pliny-Trajan material is narrowly focused, but it serves as reminder that the emperor stood behind every governor as the final Roman audience. Trajan’s condescension towards those “little Greeks addicted to gymnasia” (Ep.10.40, gymnasiis indulgent Graeculi) was the kind of attitude which Plutarch and Dio’s political advice hoped to avert in the Roman officials who ruled them. My paper ends by stressing Greeks’ sensitivity to Roman perceptions of their weakness and internecine dissensions. Indeed, taking the historical long-view of Plutarch himself, by his time one can identify a Greek self-awareness of internal political dissension as a particularly Greek shortcoming, traceable throughout early historical periods; intelligent observers like Plutarch and Dio seem to have felt a keener sense of humiliation at their subjugation to Rome, when they saw Greeks of their own day pulling Roman governors into local conflicts.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number

9.3

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