Just Friends: Talking about Patronage with Plutarch and Pliny

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.27 (17/3/15)

‘Just Friends: Talking about Patronage with Plutarch and Pliny’                          Dana Fields

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

Greek and Roman elites in the age of Trajan inhabited an increasingly shared social environment, as reflected in literary works like Plutarch’s Sympotic Questions. This paper uses Plutarch and Pliny to test the limits of cultural sharing on the subject of patronage, within that shared social world.

Plutarch’s How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend focuses on unequal relationships between elites and proclaims that it will help its reader (at first presumed to be a man in an exalted social position) detect flatterers among his inferiors. However, the last third of the essay consists of advice that is aimed rather at helping the inferior man in such a relationship negotiate the tricky gap between the Greek aristocratic (and especially sympotic) ideal of equality and a reality in which Roman hierarchy has created greater stratification between members of the elite.

I set this work beside Pliny’s Letters to contrast the ways in which these authors discuss (or avoid discussing) aristocratic patronage. While both authors couch their references to patronage among elites in the language of friendship (which Richard Saller has identified as a way of avoiding the demeaning associations of the cliens), Pliny talks much more about mutual obligation, acknowledging the social ties of patronage even as he avoids its name. He is clearly aware of hierarchy in such relationships (see e.g. Letter 7.3, with its reference to “amicitiae tam superiores quam minores”), but this in itself does not seem to be a source of concern. By contrast, Plutarch’s text suggests discomfort with the very existence of such inequality and dependency among elites, owing in part to a deep-seated Greek conception of freedom as rooted in individual self-sufficiency (autarkeia).