Greeks on Greekness: Tim Whitmarsh

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Tim Whitmarsh, St. John’s College, Cambridge; now University of Exeter

“The sincerest form of imitation: flattery and constancy”

‘Friendship’ (philia) was one of the most fundamental components of Greek society: from Homer through elegy, tragedy, Plato and beyond, it is repeatedly proposed as the glue that holds Greek culture together. But with this perceived centrality comes a self-aware reflexion upon the ambiguities of friendship. What does it mean to be a friend? How do you know if someone truly is one? And how do you spot a flatterer, a fake, imitative friend? This essay deals with a text by Plutarch, a central writer of the Roman Greek period, on ‘how to tell a flatterer from a friend’. Tracing the uncertainty about the ontological status of the friend to the problematic site of the aristocratic symposium (an institution that for Plutarch is definitively Greek in its celebration of reciprocity between equals), it argues that Roman Greek anxieties about friendship are related to larger anxieties about the sociocultural status of Greece in Plutarch’s time. If Greeks are now subsumed into the hierarchical structures of Roman society, if they are forced to play the patronage game, can they still employ the traditional language of friendship, equality and reciprocity? If so, how? This problem is played out in the very structure of the essay itself, with its (?) cliental address to Philopappus, the super-rich, consular Roman-Greek-Syrian ‘king’. Could we ever know for sure what Plutarch is up to in this subtle badinage between friends?