Theofanis Tsiampokalos | Plutarch and Rhetoric

3rd June, 2024 in Author’s corner

Theofanis Tsiampokalos is research associate in classics at Trier University.

As I studied Plutarch’s works, what intrigued me most was not what Plutarch said about rhetoric, but what he could have said, but did not.

In his book, Plutarch and Rhetoric, Theofanis Tsiampokalos offers new insights into Plutarch’s seemingly moderate attitude towards rhetoric. The hypothesis explored by Tsiampokalos introduces, for the first time, the broader literary and cultural contexts that influenced and restricted the scope of Plutarch’s message. It paints a picture of a philosopher who may not regard rhetoric as a lesser means of persuasion, but who faces challenges in openly articulating this stance in his public discourse. A Q&A with the author.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.

My book reexamines Plutarch’s (c. 40/45–c. 125 CE) views on rhetoric within the context of the so-called Second Sophistic. This was a period of cultural revival during the Roman Empire, roughly from the first to the third century CE. It is characterised by a resurgence of interest in classical Greek literature and a renewed appreciation for rhetorical performances. The latter required systematic training in rhetoric, often considered the culmination of education. My book explores Plutarch’s interplay with this trend. Plutarch represented a different educational tradition, one that might have been regarded as competitive from a certain point of view: that of philosophy. The book takes as its point of reference Plutarch’s views on rhetoric, previously described by many scholars as moderate, , and then sets out to analyse and interpret these views within the broader context mentioned above. This study investigates how historical and ideological limitations, especially those related to higher education, shaped and restricted Plutarch’s discourse on rhetoric. By considering these broader contexts, the book offers new insights into the complexities and constraints Plutarch navigated in his work.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

My interest in the subject was inspired by a combination of factors. Academically, I was fascinated by the complex interplay between rhetoric and philosophy in ancient texts, especially during the Second Sophistic period. The cultural and literary renaissance of this era and its impact on higher education positioned rhetoric once again in opposition to other traditional educational offerings, including philosophy. I was intrigued by the antagonisms created within this field and the way in which Plutarch engaged with these issues. Moreover, the works of scholars who have explored the nuances of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy in antiquity have greatly influenced my perspective. This book ultimately derives from my PhD thesis. My mentor at the University of Athens, Professor Dimitrios Karadimas, played a crucial role in guiding my research and encouraging me to delve deeper into Plutarch’s writings. As I studied Plutarch’s works, however, what intrigued me most was not what Plutarch said about rhetoric, but what he could have said, but did not. This line of questioning quickly led me to a host of other writers, both contemporary to and earlier than Plutarch, who had positioned themselves regarding the conflict between philosophy and rhetoric in the first and second centuries of our era. Contrasting Plutarch’s statements on rhetoric with those of others led me to increasingly interesting conclusions about the interrelationship between philosophical training, character formation, speech and power.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

If you’re interested in delving deeper into the subject of Plutarch and rhetoric, I have a few reading suggestions. A foundational work is Robert Jeuckens’s 1907 dissertation, Plutarch und die Rhetorik, which provides a systematic and comprehensive, though somewhat descriptive, analysis of the topic. Another valuable resource is the edited volume Rhetorical Theory and Praxis in Plutarch, edited by Professor Luc van der Stockt from the University of Leuven and published in 2000, which I highly recommend for its insightful contributions. Additionally, a notable book from 2018 is Plutarch’s Rhythmic Prose by Professor Gregory Hutchinson from Oxford, which explores an important aspect of Plutarch’s own rhetoric as a writer. There is also a rich bibliography in scholarly articles and chapters in edited volumes and handbooks dealing with various relevant aspects of Plutarch’s work, reflecting the remarkable resurgence in Plutarch studies since the mid-twentieth century. For those keen to learn more, I suggest visiting the website of the International Plutarch Society ( and checking out their activities and publications. The Society also publishes the yearly journal Ploutarchos n.s. (

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?

The writing process for this book was both challenging and rewarding. The book results from my PhD thesis, which was written consecutively in three different countries: Greece, Switzerland, and Germany. I began writing my thesis in Athens but then undertook a number of extended research stays abroad. These stays, despite the usual logistical challenges, proved immensely beneficial. The writing process greatly benefited from the conversations I had not only with my supervisor in Athens, Dimitrios Karadimas, but also with my supervisors during my research stays: Professors Christoph Riedweg in Zurich, Bernhard Zimmermann in Freiburg, and Georg Wöhrle in Trier. Each brought a unique perspective, which was immensely helpful. I am grateful to all of them and regard them as my mentors. A surprising aspect was the sheer amount of material available on Plutarch and rhetoric. Initially, I underestimated the depth and breadth of existing scholarship, which led to some delightful discoveries along the way. Amusingly, I found myself engrossed in the intricacies of ancient rhetorical techniques, sometimes even attempting to apply them in my daily conversations just for fun. It’s amazing how relevant some of these ancient strategies still are today! Overall, the process was a journey of constant learning and unexpected connections that made writing this book an incredibly fulfilling experience.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?

I would like them to remember that my book offers a nuanced exploration of the interplay between rhetoric and philosophy in Plutarch’s works. This is not a study aimed at merely elucidating what Plutarch believed about rhetoric. Rather, it takes what Plutarch says about rhetoric as a starting point to examine how it fits within the broader cultural and literary milieu of his time. I hope readers appreciate the depth of research and the differentiated perspective I am offering. Moreover, while writing this book, I envisioned a readership beyond specialized academics. I aimed to create a book accessible to readers who might not have any prior knowledge of Ancient Greece, Rome, or Greek and Latin. I believe this inclusivity is crucial today, as we recognize the diversity and richness of our world. Therefore, I want readers to remember that this is a book that avoids presupposing any specialized knowledge about the subjects treated, so that it may also serve as an entry point for newcomers to the field.

Your book is published open access thanks to the partial support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?

The open access publication process for my book went smoothly, thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. The support from the fund was instrumental in making this happen, and the coordination with the publisher was efficient and straightforward. Open access is particularly attractive for my book because it aligns with my goal of reaching a broad and diverse audience. By making the book freely available, it removes barriers to access and ensures that readers, regardless of their institutional affiliations or financial resources, can benefit from the research. This inclusivity is especially important in today’s interconnected world. As the book has only been available for a couple of days, it’s too early to gauge the full impact of open access on its reach. However, I am optimistic that the open access model will facilitate wider dissemination and engagement with the work, and I look forward to seeing how this develops.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?

Yes, I do have plans for another publication. For the past couple of years, I have developed a keen interest in the textual transmission and reception of Presocratic philosophy. This term refers to the body of philosophical thought that developed in ancient Greece before the time of Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE). The writings of these early thinkers have almost all been lost, and our knowledge of them typically depends on secondary material in the form of quotations, paraphrases, and other references found in later authors. However, in my new project, I am not so much interested in reconstructing the original lost sources as I am in exploring the reception of Presocratic teachings across subsequent philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions. I aim to identify new interpretative contexts for these teachings. I would certainly consider publishing my next book open access. The benefits of open access, such as broader accessibility and increased engagement, are very appealing. Ensuring that my research is accessible to a wide audience, including those without institutional access to academic resources, aligns with my commitment to inclusivity and knowledge dissemination.

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