Recent focus on the Lives of Plutarch has highlighted the importance of syncrisis within paired biographies for a more nuanced and complete reading of his work. It is common to argue that Lives contain comparisons, both direct and implied, between published parallels such as Themistocles-Camillus or Coriolanus-Alcibiades in ways that illustrate how men in similar situations react and what implications can be gleaned from such occurrences. Such evaluation helps to establish the context of moral character within each pair of Lives. In this paper, I will argue for expanding this comparative approach beyond formal pairs, in a way encourged by recent scholarship (esp. Marincola, Beneker, Stadter); a syncritical approach to the Lives of Themistocles and Alcibiades, in fact, provides critical insight into Plutarch’s views of the morality and character of these critical personages who “bookend” the Athenian empire (Forde, 69-70).
Historically and rhetorically, the tradition surrounding Alcibiades has frequently been connected to that of Themistocles. The dialogue Alcibiades of Aeschines of Sphettus directly compares Alcibiades to Themistocles and generally finds him wanting (Podlecki, 78 n.3). Modern scholars continue to draw parallels between the two heroes (McGregor, 27; Podlecki 139, de Romilly, 227-229), and Frost argues that tales of Themistocles as a troublesome youth (Them. 2.8) were added to the historical tradition due to similarities between him and Alcibiades (Frost, 1980, 22). The traditional connections do not seem to have escaped Plutarch. His biographies of the two men contain several thematic connections, many of them reminiscent of the ways syncrisis is established in the formally paired Lives (cf. Larmour, 4174-4200; Pelling, 1989; Duff, 249-52). For example, both statesmen refuse to learn an instrument (Them. 2.4; Alc. 2.5-6) and each is opposed by a powerful rival of more traditional demeanor, Aristides and Nicias. Plutarch also draws the two together by characterizing them with identical qualities. For instance, when the Spartan embassy arrives to discuss peace in 418 BCE, they are amazed at Alcibiades’ shrewdness (δεινÏŒτης) and intelligence (σÏνεσις, Alcibiades, 14.10), a pair of Themistoclean qualities (Them. 2.6). Alcibiades’ unethical cleverness, most clearly demonstrated in this episode with the Spartan embassy, mirrors Themistocles’ own deception when he buys Athenians the time to rebuild their city walls without Spartan interference (Them. 19; see Gribble, 27). Given the amount of coincident parallels between the two, as well as the Plutarchan themes of envy, ambition, and exile, one may be surprised that connections between these two Lives are not more commonly discussed.
Most interestingly, while drawing similarities between the two men, Plutarch at the same time portrays some critical differences. Of most importance are the circumstances surrounding each man’s ostracism. These exiles highlight the similarities between their military and political careers while underscoring subtle differences in their character. Ultimately, Themistocles, living a life of Persian luxury, perishes on his own heroic terms, “fittingly,” while Alcibiades is ambushed while sleeping with a local woman, exhibiting the type of licentiousness that had led to the end of his political career. Plutarch’s nuanced depictions of these parallel Athenians provide standard material for moral reflection while perhaps metaphorically illustrating the subtle shift that has occurred between Athens at time of the Persian Wars and Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. In sum, a syncritical reading of these two men who stand at the termini of the Athenian empire provides additional insight into evaluating them specifically, and encourages other such approaches to syncrisis in the Lives.
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- Frost, F. J. Plutarch’s Themistocles: A Historical Commentary. Princeton, 1980.
- Gribble, D. Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation. Oxford, 1999.
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- Larmour, D.H.J. “Making Parallels: Synkrisis and Plutarch’s Themistocles and Camillus,” ANRW II.33.6 (1992): 4154-4200.
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- McGregor, M.W. “The Genius of Alkibiades,” Phoenix 19.1 (1965): 27-50.
- Pelling, C. “Synkrisis in Plutarch’s Lives,” in Miscellanea Plutarchea, (1989) 83-96. Reprinted in C. Pelling, Plutarch and History. London, 2002, 349-64.
- Podlecki, A.J. The Life of Themistocles: A Critical Survey of the Literary and Archaeological Evidence. Montreal and London, 1975.
- Stadter, P.A. “Parallels in Three Dimensions,” in Humble (2010): 197-216.