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  • Jacob P.B. Mortensen (a1)


In his book on Plutarch's Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum from 2009, Geert Roskam takes up the question of the genre of the work. Few scholars have approached this question and they have had little to say. Hence, Roskam's treatment of the question is much appreciated. Among the suggestions previously put forth is the suggestion by F.H. Sandbach, who argued that the work should be regarded as a treatise, while H.N. Fowler stated in the ‘Introduction’ to the Loeb Classical Library translation that the work is an essay. Other suggestions regarding the genre of Maxime cum principibus include the notion that it is a diatribe and a parva disputatio e magisterio orta. Of course, although all four suggestions have something to say for themselves, they are rather imprecise and not actual genres in a specific sense. The diatribe often surfaces as a convenient label for ancient philosophical discourses, but it is a misleading label, since what it picks out was not recognized as a distinctive form or stylistic level in antiquity. In addition, the technical and literary uses of the Greek word διατριβή were entirely different.


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1 Roskam, G., Plutarch's Maxime cum Principibus Philosopho Esse Disserendum. An Interpretation with Commentary (Leuven, 2009).

2 Sandbach, F.H., ‘Some textual notes on Plutarch's Moralia’, CQ 33 (1941), 110–18, at 113; cf. Barigazzi, A., ‘Note critiche ed esegetiche agli scritti politici di Plutarcho’, Prometheus 7 (1981), 193214, at 194; Gallo, I., ‘Forma letteraria nei “Moralia” di Plutarcho: Aspetti e problemi’, ANRW 2.34.4 (1998), 3511–40, at 3524.

3 Fowler, H.N., Plutarch's Moralia, vol. 10 (Cambridge, MA, 1969), 27.

4 Hartman, J.J., De Plutarcho scriptore e philosopho (Leiden, 1916), 472; Pohlenz, M. in Hubert, C., Plutarchi Moralia, vol. 5, fasc. 1, rev. Drexler, H. (Leipzig, 1960), vi.

5 Cf. Trapp, M.B., Maximus of Tyre. The Philosophical Orations (Oxford, 1997), xxxv n. 70; Throm, H., Die Thesis (Paderborn, 1932), 6271. For a more affirmative use of the diatribe as a genre, cf. Stowers, S., The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans (Chico, California, 1981).

6 Roskam (n. 1), 28.

7 Regarding the life and writings of Aelius Theon, cf. Hock, R.F. and O'Neil, E.N., ‘Aelius Theon of Alexandria’, in Hock, R.F. and O'Neil, E.N. (edd.), The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric. Volume I: The Progymnasmata (Atlanta, 1986), 6378, at 63–6; Webb, R., ‘The Progymnasmata as practice’, in Too, Y.-L. (ed.), Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Leiden, 2001), 289316, at 293–4; Cribiore, R., Gymnastics of the Mind (Princeton, 2001), 185219.

8 Cf. the translation by Kennedy, G.A., Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Atlanta, 2003) and the translation with notes by J.R. Butts, ‘The “Progymnasmata” of Theon: a new text with translation and commentary’ (Diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1987). For a critical edition, cf. Patillon, M. and Bolognesi, G., Aelius Theon: Progymnasmata (Paris, 1997).

9 Roskam (n. 1), 25. In the following, I paraphrase Roskam's text.

10 Roskam (n. 1), 26.

11 Roskam (n. 1), 27.

12 Roskam (n. 1), 28.

13 Roskam (n. 1), 28.

14 Roskam (n. 1), 28.

15 Cf. the dialogues of Plato and Cicero.

16 Cf. the Apocolocyntosis (diui) Claudii by Seneca the Younger or the Satyricon by Petronius.

17 Cf. the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes or Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. On Homer as a philosopher, cf. Oration 26 of Maximus of Tyre (Trapp [n. 5], 213–22) and the lost treatise of Favorinus On Homer's Philosophy.

18 Cf. the biographies of Plutarch and Lucian.

19 The exercises were increasingly difficult. The first exercise would merely consist of repeating or rephrasing a very short story (διήγημα/διήγησις, μῦθος) or an exchange in action/words (χρεία) between two persons. However, the further on the student went with these ‘preliminary exercises’, the more advanced and disputative the exercises became. There is a difference of opinion among ancient rhetoricians as to whether the exercise in thesis belonged to the secondary stage of school with the grammaticus or to the tertiary stage of school with the actual rhetor (for the discussion, cf. A.D. Booth, ‘Elementary and secondary education in the Roman empire’, Florilegium 1 [1979], 1–14; Booth, A.D., ‘The schooling of slaves in first-century Rome’, TAPA 109 (1979), 1119; Kaster, R.A., ‘Notes on “primary” and “secondary” schools in Late Antiquity’, TAPA 113 [1983], 323–46).

20 The other four extant Progymnasmata gathered in Kennedy's translation (the Progymnasmata of Hermogenes, Aphtonius, Nicolaus and John of Sardis [with fragments from Sopater]) basically stick to the twelve exercises with minor variations.

21 A thesis can be a macro genre in the sense that an entire work can be regarded as a thesis—as is the case with the Philosophical Orations by Maximus of Tyre or with De aeternitate mundi by Philo. A thesis can also be a micro genre in the sense that it constitutes a minor element in a text; for instance cf. the enquiry ‘whether Charicles should marry’ in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (1.8) or ‘whether Dorcon or Daphnis is the most beautiful’ in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (1.16).

22 Patillon translates ‘une controverse en parole’ (πρᾶγμα λογικὴν ἀμφισβήτησιν), whereas Kennedy translates ‘a verbal enquiry’ following the Greek manuscripts, which read ἐπίσκεψις λογική (cf. Patillon [n. 8], 82; Kennedy [n. 8], 55 n. 174).

23 Theon in Patillon (n. 8), 82 ([120]). References by scholars to Theon's text ordinarily make use of page numbers in vol. 2 of Spengel's Rhetores Graeci in square brackets [ ] (Spengel, L. [ed.], Rhetores Graeci, 3 vols. [Leipzig, 1854–6]).

24 For examples of this, cf. Orations 1, 2, 5, 12, 13 or 25 of Maximus of Tyre (Trapp [n. 5], 5, 17, 42, 108, 116, 207). In order to understand a thesis, it is important to understand what the main proposition being discussed is. Most often, the topic being investigated has been formulated explicitly well before the halfway point, but seldom in the very first sentence. The strategy of opening the thesis with a maxim, a proverb, a myth or a striking image was to sharpen the focus of the addressee. Once this was done, the author had secured the attention and goodwill of the reader.

25 Cicero emphasizes the same in Inv. rhet. 1.1.8: sine certarum personarum interpositione.

26 It is not absolutely necessary to follow the sequence of headings provided by Theon, since he does not even pass on the same sequence himself in the formal list of the chapter on the thesis and the two examples he provides. Each student should work through the overall line of his own argument and construct it in such a way that it stands as strong as possible. To further add to this point, it should be observed that Theon provides lists of headings and arguments for most of the exercises, and these lists often overlap from exercise to exercise. He also states that it is possible to use headings and arguments from other exercises, even if they are not mentioned in the present exercise. In the exercise on the chreia, Theon states near the end [105] that we can follow the same order of arguments and headings in both the refutation and the confirmation of the chreia and the maxim, but the advanced student can also go straight to the exercise of the thesis in order to get headings and arguments for the exercise (τοῖς δὲ ἤδη τελειοτέροις προσήκει τὰς ὰφορμὰς λαμβάνειν καὶ ἐκ τῶν πρὸς τὰς θέσεις ήμῖν παραθησομένων [105]).

27 For various positions, cf. Roskam (n. 1), 76.

28 Hermann Throm points this out regarding the headline; cf. Throm (n. 5), 79.

29 Cf. Roskam (n. 1), 25 n. 52.

30 Cf. Webb (n. 7), 289; Kennedy, G.A., ‘Introduction’, in Kennedy, G.A., Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Atlanta, 2003), ixxvi, at ix–xiii; T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge, 1998), 159.

31 Cf. Larmour, D.H.J., ‘The synkrisis’, in Beck, M. (ed.), A Companion to Plutarch (Oxford, 2014), 405–16, at 407; Swain, S., ‘Plutarchan synkrisis’, Eranos 90 (1992), 101–11; Larmour, D.H.J., ‘Plutarch's compositional methods in the Theseus and Romulus’, TAPA 118 (1988), 361–75, at 364.


  • Jacob P.B. Mortensen (a1)


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