Greek Writers and Roman Exemplarity: Cultural Interactions

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.33 (21/3/15)

‘Greek Writers and Roman Exemplarity: Cultural Interactions’                                                                                        Rebecca Langlands

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

Why, at the start of the second century CE, is it the Greek writer Plutarch who takes it upon himself to craft elaborate moralising biographies of the great exemplary figures of Republican Rome, while these traditional exempla are largely conspicuous by their absence from the works of his Latin-writing contemporaries Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius? All these authors make it clear in their works that they see moral exemplarity as a pressing contemporary concern, but their writings respond to the tradition of Roman exemplarity in different ways, with Plutarch exhibiting the most evident enthusiasm for traditional tales established in Roman cultural memory. The focus of this paper will be Plutarch’s appropriation of the Roman exemplary discourse in a range of his writings, and it will explore the relationship between his treatment of exemplarity and those of Latin texts written in the same period.

The focus on exemplarity – a phenomenon which is both textual and extratextual and which relies on a culture of shared knowledge and consensus – will enable us to develop a model for understanding the interactions between texts that moves beyond intertextuality to take into account the significance of wider cultural settings. Literary and rhetorical exemplarity is a highly referential practice and relies to a large extent on a shared resource of stories and meta-exemplary principles held in common by a unified community. Argument and moral instruction proceed by means of allusion to familiar figures. How far, then, does Plutarch share in the same extratextual culture of exemplarity and narrative traditions that animated the works of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial? How far does he participate in the Roman cultural consensus surrounding Roman exempla? How far is his treatment of exemplarity informed, on the other hand, by an independent Greek literary, rhetorical and philosophical tradition? Can Plutarch’s rather different articulation of exemplary concerns be explained by his need to spell out stories and ethical structures that can remain implicit in the Latin texts? The paper will begin to explore the broader cultural dynamics that are revealed by a comparison of contemporary Greek and Roman treatments of this fundamental Roman cultural practice of exemplarity.