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literature

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Plutarch (ca 46-ca 120)  

No ancient is more instructive about than Plutarch.

Educated in Athens by the Platonic philosopher Ammonius, Plutarch was also influenced by the Peripatetics and Stoics, but he rejected Epicureanism. Traveling throughout Hellas and to Rome as ambassador of his native city, he associated with prominent political and literary figures and proclaimed that Greeks and Romans should be partners in the Roman Empire. In Chaeronea, he maintained a sort of private academy for his friends and pupils, remaining active into old age.

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Plutarch's Moralia and his Parallel Lives, our main biographical source for Greek and Roman military or political leaders, take up twenty-six volumes in the Loeb Classical Library. This makes him the most published Greek author there, excelling even Aristotle's twenty-three volumes and rivaling the Roman Cicero's thirty.

Plutarch's works provide crucial information about ancient sexualities. In the Parallel Lives, he recorded much about the proclivities of the Romans, while three-fourths of his twenty-three Greek heroes had eromenoi (beloved boys) or helped to institutionalize pederasty.

His "Peloppidas," for example, is our best source for Epaminondas, the leader of the Sacred Band of 150 pairs of lovers who so inspired the Greeks. In "Lycurgus," one of our very few sources about Greek lesbianism, Plutarch depicts the Spartan system that produced courageous tyrannicidal couples and also avers that Spartan ladies loved girls.

Plutarch makes Theseus the beloved of the Cretan king Minos and attributes pederastic laws in Athens to Solon. He portrays Themistocles and Aristides, the victors in the Persian wars, as rivals for a beautiful youth and depicts Socrates' favorite Alcibiades as having stolen husbands from women when he was a youth and, as a man, wives from their husbands. According to the Lives, the Hellenistic king Demetrius and Alexander the Great were, like the poets of the Greek Anthology, also promiscuous.

Plutarch's charming dialogue the "Eroticus" is a debate on whether love of women or of youths should be preferred. The author relies heavily on Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium for erotic theory but unlike Plato allows that love of females could be as inspiring as love of boys.

However, like other Greeks, he mostly describes the love of upper-class men for noble youths. One of the speakers in the "Eroticus" proclaims that "it is not gentlemanly or urbane to make love to slave boys: such love is mere copulation, like the love of women."

Plutarch depicts the love of Euripides for Agathon as the archetype of androphile homosexuality, that is, of love between adult males.

In "On the Education of Children," Plutarch expressly condemns the grossly sensual pederasty practiced by Thebans, Elians, and Cretans (including the harpagmos, the ritual kidnapping of the beloved) but praises the more civically oriented and decorous Athenian and Spartan varieties, as had Xenophon and Plato.

In Plutarch's "Gryllus," the chief speaker is a pig that insists that animals conform solely to nature: "to this very day the lusts of animals have encompassed no intercourse of male with male or of female with female. But you have a good deal of this sort of thing among your high and virtuous nobility, to say nothing of the lesser breeds."

This appears to be Plutarch's clever rejoinder to the speaker in Plato's Laws who declares homosexuality to be against nature. Here nature is equated with the behavior of animals; pederasty, with humans, especially the "high and virtuous nobility."

Thus Plutarch attests the millennium-long contribution of paiderasteia to Hellenism but reflects (or deflects) the moralizing criticism of it, whose beginning Michel Foucault aptly traced to the Socratic circle, but whose prevalence during the Imperial period the French scholar vastly overemphasized.

Virtually unknown in the West during the Middle Ages, Plutarch's legacy to Western culture was revived in the Renaissance. Translated into English by Sir Thomas North in the Elizabethan era, his Parallel Lives furnished the material for Shakespeare's Roman plays, while the Moralia were translated by Philemon Holland as The Philosophy (1603). Both translators relied on Jacques Amyot's pathbreaking French translation, which Montaigne also used.

William A. Percy

     

 
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An engraving of Plutarch dating from the Renaissance.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Hirschfeld, Magnus. Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes. Berlin: Louis Marcus Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1914.

Licht, Hans. Sexual Life in Ancient Greece. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.

Martin, Hubert. "Plutarch, Plato, and Eros." Classical Bulletin 60 (1984): 82-88.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Symonds, John Addington. A Problem in Greek Ethics. In Male Love: A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings. John Lauritsen, ed. New York: Pagan Press, 1983.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Percy, William A.  
    Entry Title: Plutarch  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/plutarch.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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