Plutarch’s Style in the Marius

TitlePlutarch’s Style in the Marius
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1960
AuthorsCarney, T. F.
JournalThe Journal of Hellenic Studies

In writing on Plutarch as a literary artist there is a tendency to confuse Plutarch's personality, which appears from his writings as ingenuous and somewhat naïve, with his style, which has all the sophistication of the classical renaissance of which his writings form a part. Actually, extensive acquaintance with many aspects of literary craftsmanship is visible in his work. His careful avoidance of hiatus was noticed as long ago as 1841 by Benseler. More recently it has been discovered that Plutarch writes rhythmical prose, with a great preference for certain definite forms. He is thoroughly versed in the various schemata for the presentation of material. Boissonade termed his style a mosaic because it is so well adapted for dealing with the various themes occurring in the Lives; Plutarch has in fact perfect command over matter and form as a result of a thorough acquaintance with a rich literary tradition.

The metaphors and similes which appear in this Life seem on a first reading in ill accord with the sophistication of its general craftsmanship. They are stereotyped into the thought-content, and even the diction, traditional for the symbolism they express. Their infrequency and the elaboration of the metaphors in particular makes them stand out starkly. This conspicuousness and careful articulation is significant. The metaphors and similes are in fact strikingly put so that they emphasise the passages in which they occur, and recall one another vividly to mind. Analysis reveals that they are used in two ways: as points of reference and emphasis (they occur only at important junctures) and to indicate the unity of lengthy passages. Long and elaborate metaphors occur at 11.1, 35.1, and 46.4, marking respectively the Germanic war, the civil war, and Marius' fate and death. A metaphor and simile grouped together, at 23.1 and at 32.1, 3 respectively, tell of Catulus' reverse and the Social War; two similes commence the developments which are to lead to Marius' death at 45.1–2. Less striking metaphors anticipate the civil war (10.5) and the Marian massacre (43.4).