Theory versus Practice: Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom,
and Local Politics in the Early Roman Empire

Christopher Fuhrmann

Well into the period of the Pax Romana, political tensions at the local level continued to threaten civic harmony.  Rome allowed provincial communities a great deal of autonomy, enough freedom to cause some concern.  The observations of two early second-century Greek intellectuals shed much light on the risks which provincial politics entailed.  In his Precepts of Statecraft, Plutarch advises a young up-and-comer how to navigate the vicissitudes of a public career.  In numerous addresses before various cities, Dio Chrysostom likewise preaches moderation to rowdy mobs and factious local elites.  Indeed, scholars such as Christopher Jones and Giovanni Salmeri have noted their similar political outlook.  But theory and practice diverge when it comes to Dio’s own political maneuvering in his hometown of Prusa.  This paper will advance our understanding by showing how Dio, acting as a power-hungry member of Prusa’s elite, frequently does the exact opposite of what Plutarch and he himself had advised.

The opinions which Plutarch and Dio share as detached political observers tell us much else about the culture and society of the eastern Roman empire.  Both men are acutely aware of the problematic legacy of the past – of “those Greeks of old.”  Plutarch in particular criticizes modern orators who stir up trouble by harping on the great achievements of classical Athens.  Both he and Dio urge self-restraint and cooperation rather than excessive ambition and competition in political relations.  They also show that Greek communities were self-conscious of how others perceived them.  Cities jockeyed for higher status within their provinces and traded negative stereotypes of one another.  The overarching spectator was Rome, for a community’s relationship with the emperor and his representatives could bring rewards or punishment.  Greek cities strove to attain the maximum benefits of Roman rule, while also avoiding Roman interference in their affairs.  Internal discord could upset this balance.  Plutarch strongly criticizes the common practice of seeking Roman intervention to settle disputes, thus gradually frittering away what remains of local freedom.  Dio makes the same explicit point when he addresses Tarsus and other cities as a guest speaker. 

But Dio is no armchair politico.  When he addresses his own city as an ambitious member of its elite class, a transformation occurs.  He pays rhetorical lip service to the Plutarchan theme of moderation, but a close reading of the Prusan orations shows him as the central figure in much strife and controversy.  Often accused of corruption and power-mongering, it was especially his over-zealous plans to renovate Prusa that aroused protest from every quarter.  In the face of civic opposition, he threatens to exploit his Roman connections to appeal against his fellow citizens – all the way to the emperor if necessary – to obtain satisfaction.  As a local politician, he thus exemplifies the very practices that he and Plutarch condemn.

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