(BEING CONTINUED FROM 26/10/18)
In fact, in the case of Numa, Plutarch clearly does not believe in the
legend of Egeria, as he makes clear in De fortuna Romanorum: “For the tale
that a certain Egeria, a dryad and a wise divinity, consorted in love with the man, and helped him in instituting and shaping the government of his State, is
perhaps somewhat fabulous. (…)”. Regarding this passage, D. Babut 1969: 428
suggested that, even though divine filiation is an invention, it is actually “une
invention intéressée pour exploiter à des fins politiques la crédulité publique”.
Therefore Plutarch does not exclude the other possibility of special favours
occurring between god and men that are distinguished by their moral value30.
D. Babut 1969: 467-469 also noted the textual concordance between this
passage (4.4) and the text of In the sign of Socrates (593A) which establishes that
“il existe des hommes d’élite, qu’on peut qualifier de ἱεροί, δαιμόνιοι ou θεοί, et
que la Providence gratifie d’avertissements ou de prémonitions extraordinaires,
parce que leur pureté morale les rend aptes à entrer en contact avec le divin”
We see, then, that Plutarch’s interpretation of the political reforms
carried out by Lycurgus and Numa consists of another example of the
political function of religion, that idea which we found eloquently
expressed before Plato by the oligarch Critias as early as the 5th century.
However, by the time that he wrote these Lives, Plutarch was already a
priest of Delphi31. Was he then devaluing the oracle function, reducing
it to a mere instrument of politics? In fact, on the On the Sign of Socrates
(580A), Galaxidorus also reveals a pragmatic view, accepting that a
politician is likely to exploit the people’s superstitiousness in dealing
with them: “For men engaged in public affairs and compelled to live
at the caprice of a self-willed and licentious mob this may have its use
— to treat the superstition of the populace as a bridle, and thereby pull
them back to the profitable course and set them right”32. In addition,
Plutarch’s political vision of the people is clearly derogatory, presenting it
as a multitude that must be controlled or deceived in order to be saved. A
recent study by S. Said 2005: 7 has identified a notable consistency in the
treatment of the demos in Plutarch’s work, conditioned by his Platonism
(R. 493 a-e): “As a rule, these members of the elite refrain from awarding
the common people any significant place in their writings and, when they
did bother to mention them, it was mostly with disdain. Plutarch (…) is
Having arrived at this point, we can summarize this approach by
distinguishing two different links with a divine entity. The first regards the
connection between the lawgiver and the divinity, which is transmitted
by tradition and becomes a topos usually attached to the names of great
legislators33. The figure of the lawgiver is traditionally attached to the image
of a divinity since his activity, the postulation of a political order, requires this
sacred authority so that it can be observed. This first type of link therefore also
projects a genuine divine source for these political constitutions. However, the
political reforms of Lycurgus and Numa are different, in that they are rules and
institutions postulated by men among men, like a convention: and this provides
our second type of link, where the divine sanction is itself a further human
postulate, a fabricated claim made by the lawgivers because such profound
political reforms would not have been accepted without divine sanction34.
The political lie and the use of superstition represent only useful devices –
as expressed in the Republic (389c-d) and before that in Critias’ fragment – to
establish eunomia and for it is both likely and acceptable that rulers will take
advantage of this divine influence over people’s minds for the common good.
Besides, the rationalized version of these traditional mythoi was attested, as
has been noticed, by Polybius (10.2.8-10), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.61.2)
and Livy (1.18-21). Being probably inspired by a Pythagorean principle, Numa
did wish to replace the “metus hostilis by the metus deorum as unifying force
in the State”35. While in the case of Numa Plutarch clearly does not believe
in the legend of Egeria, in the Life of Lycurgus he would pick up the most
divinized version of the tradition36 and rationalize it by resorting to a Platonic
instrument of rule, comparing Lycurgus twice to a physician (4.3, 5.2), just
like the Platonic frequent physician/ lawgiver parallell (Grg. 464b-465e; R.
Regarding the Spartan Life, the topos of the divine assistance, however, has
to be integrated and analysed in a larger historical perspective: the “Spartan
talent for official lying and myth-making” as described by A. Powell 2010:Regarding Spartan internal affairs, this scholar (2010: 126-127)
presented the full list of the royal rulers of the Agiad and Eurypontid houses
over the period 500-395 BC, demonstrating that “most (seven out of eleven)
royal rulers of Sparta were either killed, enduringly exiled or threatened with
exile”. Thus, the use of divine sanction in secular matters became an effective
political device used by kings in times of insecurity, such as from the reign of
Kleomenes until Agesilaus. Thus, the so-called Spartan stability and internal
concordance was actually no more than a convenient image, successfully “sold”
to the wider Greek world at the same time as Sparta was beset by striking
On the contrary, in the case of the Roman counterpart, religion played
an important role within the Roman collective memory38 as well as in the
political field, as Polybius (6.56.2-13) said: “the quality in which the Roman
commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their
religious convictions. (…) I mean superstition which maintains the cohesion
of the Roman State”. However, unlike the Spartan lawgiver, Numa participates
in the order created by him, while Lycurgus, being so external to his own
order, must depart in order to force the people to obey the laws without the
force of his personality39. Thus, if Lycurgus is superior to Numa due to his
educational reform40, “the greatest and noblest task of the lawgiver” (Lyc. 14.1),
turning Sparta into a πόλις φιλοσοφοῦσα, Numa seems to have realized the
Platonic ideal of philosopher-king long before Plato’s Republic: “the power of a
king should be united in one person with the insight of a philosopher, thereby
establishing virtue in control and mastery over vice” (Num. 20.7)41. In the work
To an Uneducated Ruler (780C), Plutarch alludes to the Hellenistic theory
of the king as divine living law42 (νόμος ἔμψυχος43), according to whom the
ruler should follow the law of reason which will lead his rule to the necessary
stability: “not law written outside him in books or on wooden tablets or the
like, but reason endowed with life within him.” As Plutarch puts it, and the
ruler can only reach this lofty ideal through philosophy44.
To sum up, there is no real contradiction between Plutarch’s general
disapproval of superstition and the religious and political lie, which legitimated
both reforms of Lycurgus and Numa. In fact, they were just techniques that belonged to the τὸ πολιτικόν sphere, protected the τὸ βέλτιστον, the best
interest of the state and intended to “pull them [the mob] back to the profitable
course and set them right” (De gen. Socr. 579F).
In these Lives, the political lie may be seen as an expression of pronoia, i.
e., an exceptional ability to analyse his own present circumstances, just as in
that Polybian example of Scipio (10.2.8-10) or even the Plutarchean Fabius
Maximus (Fab. 7.2)45. On the other hand, Plutarch, in the path of Greek
skeptical, rationalist and humanist view eloquently expressed by Critias,
admits the use of political lie as a likely origin of these political reforms, which
is related to his often derogatory treatment of the demos, already present in
Plato (Saïd, 2005). Although Plutarch has recognized that “for Philosophy
such outward seeming appears not only unseemly but in open conflict with her
claims” (De gen. Soc. 580A-B)46, he accepts the use of superstition with some
leniency for political purposes.
Ália Rosa Rodrigues
Universidade de Coimbra
30 Another testimony is Cicero who also manifests his incredulity on these tales and justifies it with the necessity to mix history and poetry, because while in the former, “everything that is judged is the truth”, in the second “it is generally the pleasure one gives” (N.D. 3.91).
31 Accordingly to C. P. Jones 1966, Plutarch becomes priest of Apollo at Delphi after 96 or possibly earlier and the composition of this pair of Lives is located between c. 96 and c. 120. 32 G. J. D. H. Wzn. Aalders 1982: 50.
33 A. Szegedy-Maszad 1978 and B. Liou-Gille 2000: 174-177.
34 See also Praec. ger. reip. 813B-C.
35 R. M. Ogilvie 1978: 90 and A. Walbank 1967: 741.
36 Diodorus Siculus 7.12; [Xenophon], The Polity of the Lacedaemonians I. 2; Ephorus ap.Strabo 10.14.19 (= FGrHist 70F 149).
37 M. Flower 2002 has made penetrating observations on the construction of the Spartan ‘mirage’ through a process of invention of tradition, i. e., “traditions invented, constructed and formally instituted at a specific point in time and for a specific purpose”, for instance, every time the Spartans changed something in their society, they attributed the change to Lycurgus.In fact, he argued that this device was used so often that he concluded that “any synthetic history of Spartan institutions is impossible” (idem, p. 192), as the tradition of the “ancestral” (i.e. Lycurgean) iron currency, for instance.
38 See also G. Dumézil 1958. 39 J. D. Lewis 2007: 63.
40 On this matter, see P. Desiredi 2002.
41 Cf. Pl., R. 487e, Lg. 711E.
42 See also G. J. D. H. Wzn. Aadalers 1982: 45 and D. Babut 1969: 85-87.
43 Cf. Plu, De Alex. fort. aut virt. 1, 330D; Alex. 52.5 and Art. 23.5.
44 G. Roskam 2002: 180.
45 The contrary can be found also in Plutarch, Comp. Per.-Fab. 2.4.
46 Contra De superst. and De Is. et Os. 2, 68, 71.
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