An Opaque Mirror for Trajan

A Literary Analysis and Interpretation of Plutarch's 'Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata'

Laurens van der Wiel

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The first full in-depth analysis and interpretation of Plutarch’s Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata in its entirety as a literary piece of art.

Plutarch’s Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata (Sayings of Kings and Commanders) holds a peculiar position in his oeuvre. This collection of almost 500 anecdotes of barbarian, Greek, and Roman rulers and generals is introduced by a dedicatory letter to Trajan as a summary of the author’s well-known and widely read Parallel Lives. The work is therefore Plutarch’s only text that explicitly addresses a Roman emperor and is likely to shed light on his biographical technique. Yet the collection has been understudied, because its authenticity has been generally rejected since the nineteenth century. Recent scholarship defends Plutarch's authorship of the text, but some remain sceptical. This book restores its reputation and provides a first full literary analysis of the letter and collection as a genuine work of Plutarch, wherein he attempts to educate his ruler by means of great role models of the past. Plutarch’s thinking about the function of role models (exempla) is not only relevant for Plutarchan research, but also for our knowledge of exemplarity, a key feature both in Greek and Latin literature in the early imperial period in general. Therefore An Opaque Mirror for Trajan is also of interest for literary and historical scholars who study the broader context of ancient literature of the first centuries CE.

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Text Editions, Translations, and Abbreviations


Part I. Preliminaries

1 Authenticity
1.1 The Dedicatory Letter
1.1.1 Writing Style and Content
1.1.2 Plutarch and Trajan
1.1.3 Conclusion
1.2 The Collection
1.2.1 Hiatus
1.2.2 The Origins of the Apophthegms
1.3 Conclusion

2 Dating
2.1 Absolute Dating
2.2 Relative Dating: The Collection and the Parallel Lives
2.2.1 The Connection Between the Works
2.2.2 Romans Absent From the Collection
2.2.3 The Relative Chronology
2.3 Conclusion

3 Early Imperial Anecdote Collections
3.1 Plutarch’s View on Collections of Sayings and Anecdotes
3.1.1 Gnome, apophthegma, apomnemoneuma, and chreia
3.1.2 Anecdote Collections
3.2 Plutarch and Valerius Maximus
3.2.1 The Prefaces
3.2.2 The Structure of the Collections
3.3 Conclusion

Part II. A Literary Analysis


1 The Dedicatory Letter (172B–E)
1.1 The Dedication (172BC)
1.2 The Apologetic Part (172C–E)
1.3 A Clash between the Two Parts
1.4 Conclusion

2 The Letter and the Structure of the Collection
2.1 Apophthegms
2.2 Sections on Historical Figures
2.3 Sections on Peoples and Types of Government
2.4 A World History
2.5 Overview

3 The Monarchical Sections (172E–184F)
3.1 Persian Despotism (172E–174B)
3.1.1 Cyrus (172EF)
3.1.2 Darius (172F–173B)
3.1.3 Xerxes (173BC)
3.1.4 Four Sections on Artaxerxes Mnemon (173D–174B)
3.1.5 Memnon (174B)
3.2 The Egyptian Kings (174C)
3.3 Barbarian Disarray (174C–F)
3.4 Sicilian Tyranny (175A–177A)
3.4.1 Gelon and Hiero (175A–C)
3.4.2 The Dionysii (175C–176E)
3.4.3 Dion and Agathocles (176E–177A)
3.5 Macedonian Monarchy (177A–184F)
3.5.1 Archelaus (177AB)
3.5.2 Philippus (177C–179C)
3.5.3 Alexander (179D–181F)
3.5.4 The Diadochi (181F–184F)

4 The Greeks of the Core Mainland (184F–194E)
4.1 The Athenians (184F–189D)
4.1.1 Love of Honour and Justice (184F–186F)
4.1.2 Four Generals, Two Orators (186F–187E)
4.1.3 Phocion (187E–189B)
4.1.4 Peisistratus and Demetrius of Phalerum (189B–D)
4.2 The Spartans (189D–192C)
4.2.1 Early Sparta (189D–190A)
4.2.2 A Period of Wars (190A–D)
4.2.3 Lysander (190D–F)
4.2.4 Agesilaus (190F–191D)
4.2.5 Nine Short Sections (191D–192C)
4.3 The Thebans (192C–194E)
4.3.1 Epameinondas (192C–194C)
4.3.2 Pelopidas (194C–E)

5 The Roman Sections (194E–208A)
5.1 The Conquerors of the Roman Republic (194E–202E)
5.1.1 Manius Curius and Gaius Fabricius (194E–195C)
5.1.2 Fabius Maximus and Scipio Maior (195C–197A)
5.1.3 Titus Quintius Flamininus (197A–D)
5.1.4 A General’s Experience: Three Sections (197D–198D)
5.1.5 Cato Maior (198D–199E)
5.1.6 Scipio Minor (199F–201F)
5.1.7 Caecilius Metellus (201F–202A)
5.1.8 Marius, Sulla, and the Civil War (202A–E)
5.2 Gaius Popillius (202E–203A)
5.3 The End of the Roman Republic (203A–206F)
5.3.1 Lucullus and Pompeius (203A–204E)
5.3.2 Cicero (204E–205E)
5.3.3 Caesar (205E–206F)
5.4 The Roman Principate: Augustus (206F–208A)

Concluding Remarks

Part III. A Guide for the Emperor


1 The Individual Characters
1.1 Moralism and Characterization
1.1.1 Moralism
1.1.2 Characterization
1.1.3 Conclusion: A Collection of Problematic Heroes?
1.2 Negative Exempla
1.2.1 The Prologue to Demetrius–Antonius
1.2.2 Negative Exempla in Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata
1.3 ‘Perfect’ Exempla
1.3.1 The Comparison of Aristeides and Cato Maior
1.3.2 Perfect Exempla in Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata
1.4 Positive Exempla
1.4.1 The Prologue to Pericles–Fabius Maximus
1.4.2 The Prologue to Aemilius–Timoleon
1.4.3 De profectibus in virtute 84B–85C
1.4.4 Positive Exempla in Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata
1.5 Conclusion

2 Peoples and Their Rulers
2.1 Three Types of Barbarians
2.2 Sicilian Tyranny
2.3 True Monarchy
2.4 Other Types of Government
2.5 Conclusion

3 A World History
3.1 Plutarch’s ‘End of History’
3.2 World History in Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata
3.2.1 Two Paralleled Chronologies
3.2.2 The Driving Force Behind History: φιλοτιμία
3.3 Conclusion: A Warning for the Emperor

Concluding Remarks

General Conclusion

Appendix I: A Restructuring of the Collection
Appendix II: The Collection and the Plutarchan Oeuvre
1 List of Parallel Passages
2 Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata and the Parallel Lives
3 Apophthegms Occurring in Two Other Plutarchan Works
Appendix III: The Relative Chronology of the Parallel Lives
1 Methodology
2 The Cross-References: Jones (1966) Revisited
3 Content-Related Criteria
4 Conclusion

Primary Literature
Secondary Literature

Index locorum

Format: Monograph - hardback

Size: 234 × 156 × 30 mm

520 pages

ISBN: 9789462703902

Publication: January 17, 2024

Series: Plutarchea Hypomnemata

Languages: English

Stock item number: 158509

Laurens van der Wiel is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Warsaw. He is part of the project “Thinking of Thinking. Conceptual Metaphors of Cognition in the Plutarchan Corpus”.

Van der Wiel’s thoughtful, detailed, and meticulous study breaks new ground, and greatly enhances our understanding of the relationship between Plutarch’s dedication letter to Trajan and the 'Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata' collection. He forcefully and persuasively argues for the authenticity of both the letter and the collection. This is unquestionably the most important interpretation of this somewhat neglected aspect of Plutarch’s oeuvre yet published.
Mark A. Beck, University of South Carolina


Superbly thorough and in many ways groundbreaking reading of an understudied work by Plutarch. The ethical programme and historical scope of 'Sayings of Kings and Commanders' are vigorously reappraised.
Alexei V Zadorojnyi, University of Liverpool