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

Sponsored by the International Plutarch Society. Organized by Mark Beck, University of South Carolina, and Jeffrey Beneker, University of Wisconsin, Madison

If the dedicatory letter to Trajan that serves as preface to Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders is genuine, then Plutarch wished the emperor to reap what he called “the first fruits of philosophy” by reading the wise words of “famous leaders, lawmakers, and rulers” selected from the Greek past. Dio of Prusa, rather than send a letter, stood in person before Trajan to deliver four orations on kingship, relying (as did Plutarch) on the sayings of ancient leaders, but also transmitting the wisdom of Homer and the philosophers, and just as often speaking in his own words. The Younger Pliny also publicly addressed Trajan in his Panegyricus, and he himself sought the emperor’s own wise advice in an exchange of letters while he served abroad as governor.

Questions about the nature of autocratic power and how it should be wielded were very much on the minds of many Greeks and Romans. Numerous imperial authors working in multiple genres addressed directly or indirectly the threat posed by irresponsible rulers and the benefits that flowed from virtuous kingship, not only during the reign of Trajan but in the early empire in general. Praise, advice, cajoling, satire, and other techniques were all employed in response to imperial power, by the authors mentioned above, as well as others such as Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and even Marcus Aurelius (in a self-reflective way).

In this panel we expand upon the aims of Philip Stadter and Luc Van der Stockt in their collection of essays, Sage and Emperor, which explored connections between Plutarch’s oeuvre and the emperor Trajan. We solicit abstracts for papers that explore literary, rhetorical, and philosophical responses to autocratic power in the early empire, and we seek to address these basic questions: What was the social and intellectual context in which the authors wrote and how was that context formative in nuancing the various authorial responses? What did authors have to say to contemporary statesmen, whether civic leaders, Roman imperial officials, or the emperor himself? What models of autocratic rule received affirmation or, in the case of negative paradigms, vilification in these works? And how did authors address contemporary issues in their philosophical inquiry, rhetoric, or literary work? (Adapted from Stadter and Van der Stockt 2002, 1).

Abstracts should be sent electronically, in MS Word format or PDF, to Jeffrey Beneker ( In preparing the abstract, please follow the formatting guidelines for individual abstracts that appear on the Society for Classical Studies web site, and plan for a paper that takes no more than 20 minutes to deliver. Abstracts will be judged anonymously. Membership in the International Plutarch Society is not required for participation in this panel, but all presenters must be members of the SCS. The deadline is March 1, 2018.