SECOND MEETING OF THE
NORTH AMERICAN SECTIONS
INTERNATIONAL PLUTARCH SOCIETY
"Plutarch's Unexpected Silences"
15-18 May, 2019
HIGHLY CUSTOMIZABLE THEME
SECOND MEETING OF THE
NORTH AMERICAN SECTIONS
INTERNATIONAL PLUTARCH SOCIETY
"Plutarch's Unexpected Silences"
15-18 May, 2019
HIGHLY CUSTOMIZABLE THEME
SECOND MEETING OF THE
NORTH AMERICAN SECTIONS
INTERNATIONAL PLUTARCH SOCIETY
"Plutarch's Unexpected Silences"
15-18 May, 2019
By Itidorfa07 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped from original)
Lion of Chaeronea Statue

Abstract Details

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5/16/2019  |   11:30 AM - 12:00 PM   |  Hampton Inn Conference Room

Better Left Unsaid: Somatic and moral disgust in Plutarch’s Artaxerxes

Plutarch’s Artaxerxes is a rare exception to the biographer’s general trend of parallel Greek and Roman Lives; the Life chronicles a barbarian and, perhaps because of this, lacks a true pair (Mossman 2010). The Life is also unusual for its depiction of a change in adult character (Gill 1983; Duff 2008). Plutarch portrays a mild-mannered king at the beginning of the Life, only to make a drastic shift in this characterization during an account of the soldier Mithridates’ execution by scaphism (Art. 16). Plutarch’s vivid description of the execution includes a host of disgusting actions and creatures: cloying amounts of milk and honey poured into Mithridates’ mouth (16.2); swarming flies that completely obscure his face (16.3); and maggots arising from rotting excrement to eat the man inside out (16.3). I argue that Plutarch remains silent in this passage concerning any explicit character change, and instead relies on his audience’s connection between somatic and moral disgust to mark Artaxerxes’ moral shift. Disgust functions within society and literature at two corresponding levels: primary, or somatic; and secondary, or moral. Primary disgust most likely originated as a food-related aversion to potentially contaminated objects (Rozin and Fallon 1993). However, disgust has also evolved on a moral level to establish social boundaries and marginalize those who do not belong (Lateiner and Spatharas 2017). The primary disgust of Mithridates’ execution is apparent; just reading Plutarch’s description can cause one to gag. What Plutarch leaves unsaid is the moral disgust transferred to Artaxerxes, the party responsible for Mithridates’ suffering. Without explicitly condemning Artaxerxes as a barbarian, Plutarch utilizes cultural connections between primary and secondary disgust to mark Artaxerxes as morally reprehensible to a Greek audience focused on learning and practicing virtue.

Rebecca Moorman (Primary Presenter), rmoorman@wisc.edu;
Rebecca Moorman is a PhD candidate in Classics within the Department of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation considers the role of the senses and synaesthesia in the corpora of Lucretius, Persius, and Apuleius, with a case study on the aesthetics of disgust and its literary and philosophical functions. Rebecca's interest in Plutarch began with her Master's thesis, which explored the role of temporal distance and sociopolitical influence on biographer and historian depictions of Julius Caesar. She has also worked on Plutarch's views concerning female capacity for virtue and education. Rebecca holds an MA in Classics from UW-Madison and a BA in Classical Languages from Macalester College.

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