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Plutarch’s Protean Tyrant

Marcaline Boyd

University of Delaware

The consensus of scholarly opinion holds that Plutarch condemned tyranny as the worst political regime (Teixeira 1988). One prevalent line of thinking has seen Plutarch’s tyrant as a type — a perverted ruler, destructive to his community (Wardman 1974, 49–57; Aalders 1982, 35). This paper will argue that Plutarch’s conception of tyranny extends beyond the negative characterization suggested by these studies and was, in fact, sophisticated and sometimes even ambivalent. Accounting for this sophistication are the shifting narratological agendas and ethical purposes that shaped Plutarch’s works.

For example, in the Mulierum Virtutes, Plutarch uses the good-king/bad-tyrant dichotomy so as to vilify his heroine Eryxo’s enemy Learchus and thereby elevate his laudanda. Plutarch says that the Battiad Arcesilaus II transformed from king to tyrant (ἀντὶ βασιλέως ἐγεγόνει τύραννος) as a result of his friendship with Learchus (φίλῳ πονηρῷ Λαάρχῳ, 260e). An aspiring tyrant, Learchus goes on to behave as one, executing and banishing the Cyrenaeans and eventually poisoning Arcesilaus and usurping his throne (260f–261b). In the end, Learchus is killed thanks to Eryxo and the return to legitimate government is marked by Battus III’s proclamation as “king” (261b). Thus, Plutarch applies the dichotomy to this brief interlude in the Battiad dynasty in order to project tyranny’s negative associations onto Arcesilaus and Learchus.

Elsewhere, Plutarch’s characterization of tyrants shows strong influences of the discourse of tyranny, whereby the tyrant is reduced to a standardized portrait with particular vices (Luraghi 2018). Alexander of Pherae is a case in point. Plutarch describes him as “wicked” (ἀνήκεστος) and “beastly” (θηριώδης); full of “savagery” (ὠμότης), “strong sexual desire” (ἀσέλγεια) and “greed” (πλεονεξία, 26.2). One of the most laudatory Lives by virtue of Plutarch’s shared Boeotian heritage with Pelopidas (Georgiadou 1997, passim), the Life molds Alexander, Pelopidas’ enemy and architect of his death, into the worst kind of tyrant. This characterization, in turn, amplifies the struggle between the two antagonists and further heroizes Pelopidas. A similar dynamic between hero and adversary is found in Dion, where Dionysius II’s portrayal also draws on the discourse of tyranny (Beneker 2012, 87–102).

Some tyrants, however, are recognized as virtuous rulers. Plutarch says that Gelon, Hieron, and Peisistratus obtained their tyrannies through wickedness but ruled with virtue” (ἀρετὴν) and turned out to be “moderate” (μέτριοι) and “well-disposed to the demos” (δημωφελεῖς, De sera 6). Although at odds with Plutarch’s hero Aratus, the tyrant Lydiades lacks tyrannical qualities (e.g. ἀκρασίᾳ (incontinence); πλεονεξίᾳ (greediness), 30.2) and abdicates from power (30.4). Outside of the Life, Plutarch insists that “even during his tyranny” (εἶτ' ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ τυραννεῖν), Lydiades underwent a drastic change and restored the laws to his citizens (De sera 6). These scenarios have been noted as evidence of tyrants’ rehabilitation, but it is worth stressing that Plutarch continues to label them tyrannoi rather than assign a new title (Nerdahl 2011, Teixeira 1988). Tyrants, according to Plutarch, then could be good or at least not completely bad; and, in Plutarch’s framework of moral virtue, a versatile and multifaceted concept of tyranny proved useful in his reshaping of history.

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The Discourse of Leadership in the Greco-Roman World

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