You are here


In several Prologues (Aem.I.1-8, Per I.1-II.4, Dtr I.1-8), Plutarch clearly asserts that he is writing his Lives to provide exempla of conduct readers should either imitate or avoid. Scholars have assumed that Plutarch’s statesmen were intended to be models of virtue and vice, yet such exempla are difficult to identify1. My paper argues that the Lives do in fact provide clear exempla, but they reflect principles of effective and ineffective statesmanship. Using Pericles, Nicias and Phocion as the backdrop, I demonstrate that Plutarch designed the Lives to illustrate universal principles of the art of statesmanship and to portray the subjects of the Lives as definitive exempla to guide statesmen of his own era.

I begin with a brief summary of Plutarch’s treatment of principles of statesmanship in the Moralia and the major techniques employed to incorporate the same principles into the Lives. Of particular importance are (1) explicit authorial comment, often amplified by the metaphors of the helmsman, physician or musician; (2) comparison to other statesmen exemplifying the same principle; and (3) the manipulation of historical accounts. Through these techniques, Plutarch underscores the moral traits, skills of persuasion and practical judgment that impact political effectiveness and links them to their effects on reputation, goodwill in political relations and benefit or injury for the state.

The greater part of my talk examines how these techniques transform Pericles, Nicias and Phocion into exempla of specific principles of political effectiveness. Pericles models the importance of eloquence and a reputation for incorruptibility, of “give and take” in relations with the people and of standing by one’s judgment in the face of attacks; Nicias portrays the ruinous effects of timidity and a reputation for cowardice and of deference to self-serving men; and Phocion illustrates the necessity of blending virtue with expediency in mediating with an overlord and his prefects. Pericles, Nicias and Phocion are tied to the same principles in other Lives and the Moralia, establishing them as clear-cut exempla to guide statesmen facing similar political challenges in any era—including Plutarch’s own day.

1See, for instance, Duff’s Parallel Lives (1999), the variety of perspectives on these themes in Pelling’s Plutarch and History (2002) and the range of views in Nikolaidis’ The Unity of Plutarch’s Work (2008).

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy