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proposes a problem, which is then answered by others; the difference is that Athenaeus™ speakers
rely more heavily than Plutarch and his fellow-guests on quotation of texts recalled from memory,
and less on the kind of ingenious personal response which so often follows on from the quotation
of past authorities in the Quaest. conv.
32 The Quaest. conv.™s distinctive style of ingenious conversation is best analysed by Frazier and Sirinelli
(eds.) (1996) 177“207.
33 Ps.-Aristotle, Problems are quoted and argued over in Quaest. conv. 1.9, 3.7, 3.8, 3.10, 6.8, 6.9, 7.5, 8.3
and 8.10; see also Boulogne (1992) 4689, n. 47, citing Metaph. 983b4“6, 995b1“3.
34 In that sense Feeney (1998) 129 is surely wrong to characterise alternative explanation as an exclusively
Latin technique; in doing so he mentions that alternative explanation features in Plutarch™s Roman
questions, which analyse Roman customs, but not in his Greek questions; that distinction ignores the
prevalence of this technique elsewhere in Plutarch™s work: e.g., see Natural questions (discussed by
Harrison (2000)), On the E at Delphi, On the sign of Socrates and On Isis and Osiris; see also Pailler
(1998) on the recurring presence of the question within Plutarch™s lives of ¬gures from the archaic
period.
35 36 See Hardie (1992) 4754 for that phrase.
See Cameron (1995) 71“103 (esp. 103).
¨
54 j a son k on ig
investigated a range of possible causes; he also emphasizes the importance
of the four elements “ earth, air, ¬re and water “ for his view of the work-
ings of the universe, offering one explanation for each element.37 It also has
some overlaps with methods of analysis which were common in Epicurean38
and Pythagorean39 philosophy. In addition, it was closely related to com-
mon patterns of argumentation which were ingrained in rhetorical theory,
and which would presumably have come as second nature to Plutarch and
many of his readers, given their likely saturation in rhetorical training.40
And it was well suited to express the speculative, agonistic idiom which
lay behind much ancient scienti¬c reasoning, and which seems to have
arisen “ at least originally “ from the practice whereby different experts
would offer competing explanations for the same phenomenon in public
contexts.41 In the Sympotic questions that point takes on added complexity
through the presence of individuals from a wide range of different pro-
fessions, so that the variety of different responses is in a number of places
represented as a vehicle for productive comparison between different pro-
fessional viewpoints.42 Perhaps most importantly, it offers the opportunity
to bring different authors of the past into dialogue with each other and
with the symposiasts of the present,43 allowing for comparison between
different explanations and different principles of explanation, and in the

37 See Taub (2003) 121“4; also 151 on similar techniques in Seneca™s meteorological writing.
38 See Hardie (1992) 4761; Asmis (1984) 321“36. Epicurean theory holds that all explanations are equally
valuable, the main aim of explanation being to remove superstition by showing that a number of
plausible rational explanations exist; in some of his works Plutarch rejects that assumption, tending
to hierarchise his alternative explanations according to plausibility (cf. Boulogne (1992) 4694), but
the Quaest. conv. in places comes close to endorsing that Epicurean view, albeit for very different
reasons, by the suggestion that all responses may be equally valid because of their equal capacity to
inspire philosophical re¬‚ection.
39 E.g., see Hardie (1992) 4781“3, mentioning the close links between Platonism and Pythagoreanism
in this period, and the in¬‚uence of Pythagoreanism on Plutarch™s teacher Ammonius.
40 See Schenkenveld (1997) and (1996).
41 E.g., see Barton (1994b), esp. 133“7 on medicine as a ˜conjectural™ skill within which guesswork
played a necessary and accepted role within prognosis, and 147“9 on the centrality of the agˆn to o
ancient science.
42 See Hardie (1992) 4754“6, with reference a number of examples: e.g., Quaest. conv. 9.14 where the
guest list includes ˜the rhetor Herodes, the Platonist philosopher Ammonius, Plutarch™s brother
Lamprias, Trypho the doctor, Dionysus of Melite the farmer, the Peripatetic Menephylus, and
Plutarch himself™ (4755), many of whom tailor their own answer to the question under discussion
according to their own professional or philosophical preoccupations.
43 Cf., e.g., Russell (1973) 44“6: he quotes 5.3 (676C“677b) as a striking but not at all unusual example
of intricate knowledge of a large number of writers within a very short passage; cf. 8.2 (718c), where
one of the guests suggests making Plato a ˜partner™ or ˜contributor™ (koinwn»n) in the discussion.
That technique of introducing authors of the past into dialogue stretches back to Plato (e.g., the
ventriloquising of Simonides at Pl. Prt. 339a“347b), but the sheer frequency of Plutarch™s quotations
takes it on to a different scale. For similar examples in other Imperial authors, see Vitr. De arch. 9,
pr. 17 on the process of entering into conversation with the authors of the past.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 55
process demonstrating the thoroughness with which one has considered
the full range of possibilities. In some cases there is a sense that the explana-
tions offered can be hierarchised according to criteria of plausibility. That
impression is particularly prominent in some of Plutarch™s other dialogues,
where there seems to be a gradual progression from less to more plausible
interpretations.44 However, even there it is rarely the case that one sin-
gle version is ¬‚agged unequivocally as the right one, and in some cases,
especially in the enterprise of interpreting mythical material, that sense of
indeterminacy, in the face of the secrets of the divine, is represented as
necessary and even desirable.45
Speculative, sometimes even absurd, explanations are valued so highly
within the Sympotic questions, as we shall see repeatedly in the section
following, that Plutarch at times seems to be ¬‚aunting the unreliability of
the responses he and (especially) his fellow symposiasts offer, and so making
it deliberately dif¬cult for us to judge exactly what lessons about reading and
responding we should take away from this work. One explanation for that
impression is the co-existence of two separate criteria for judging the value
of explanations within the work. The ¬rst is the criterion of plausibility.
But the second, which sometimes con¬‚icts with that, is the requirement
for explanations which conform to the requirement of sympotic harmony
and entertainment “ what Plutarch calls the ˜friend-making™ character of
sympotic argument46 (not that the two are incompatible, since for Plutarch
the forging of friendship can come from measured discussion as much as
from frivolous speculation). As long as one of these two criteria is satis¬ed,
it seems, the argument in question is likely to be acceptable, although
the relative signi¬cance of those two criteria is also always open to playful
negotiation, and there are moments when characters are criticised for being
excessively ingenious or excessively rhetorical.47 The co-existence of these
two different criteria for valuing contributions “ plausibility and ingenuity “
forces us to face up to the dif¬culty of distinguishing in practice between
appropriate and inappropriate pieces of analysis. It shows us the value of
ingenuity, but also underlines the need for personal experience in judging
how far to take that ingenuity, or what circumstances to use it in.

44 E.g., see Hardie (1992) 4755, making that point for On the E at Delphi and On Isis and Osiris.
45 See Hardie (1992) 4752“4.
46 E.g., see the prologues to books 1 (612d) and 7 (697d); see also many of the articles in Montes Cala,
Sanchez Ortiz de Landaluce and Gall´ Cejudo (eds.) (1999) for discussion of Plutarch™s approval of
e
moderate consumption of wine for its capacity to encourage friendly interaction (esp. Montes Cala
(1999), Teodorsson (1999), G´ mez and Jufresa (1999) and Stadter (1999)).
o
47 E.g., see 8.4 (723f“724a).
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56 j a son k on ig
More importantly, however, Plutarch™s playful displays of ˜interpretative
pluralism™ in this work enact his positive valuation of active reading and
listening; and in the process challenge the work™s readers to participate for
themselves, to judge between the explanations on offer, or to come up with
others which are more plausible or more ingenious. It is this skill of active
reading, I have suggested, which allows us to bring coherence out of frag-
mentation. In that sense, the symposiasts whose answers fall towards the
more speculative end of the spectrum are, paradoxically, giving an enter-
taining performance of the ˜serious™ philosophical requirement for personal
response to discussion, where the fact of participating in the practice of
alternative explanation is as important as the explanations themselves.48
The combination of ˜serious™ and ˜frivolous™,49 and the tension between
single explanation and shared discussion where all contributions are val-
ued equally,50 are, of course, central to the symposium tradition. But in
the Sympotic questions those crucial sympotic ingredients are given a dis-
tinctively Plutarchan spin, as the frivolous joys of ingenious speculation
are shown to embody the most important principles of philosophical edu-
cation. Not only does the text ¬‚aunt the diversity and triviality of the
subjects which are used as starting-points for discussion, but its subject
matter is also further fragmented, and in some cases further trivialised, by
the range of pathways each discussion follows, as new speakers attempt new
explanations. In other words, the diversity of the Sympotic questions™ subject
matter is itself further intensi¬ed by the action of multiplication which is
central to the technique of alternative explanation, which fragments the
world into seemingly independent and incompatible viewpoints. And yet
this technique of fragmentation is itself, paradoxically, the starting-point
for overarching philosophical understanding.

t riv ialit y a nd coh ere nce : s y m p o t i c q u e s t i o n s
b ooks 2 a n d 3
How, then, does Plutarch embed these principles within the detailed tex-
ture of his work? For one thing, he regularly offers his readers or his fellow
symposiasts explicit justi¬cation for the strategies of ingenious and creative

48 Just as in the context of Roman religious interpretation the performance of multiple explanations
for any single ritual may be in itself more signi¬cant than the desire for interpretative ˜accuracy™: see
Feeney (1998), esp. 127“31.
49 For Plutarch™s justi¬cation of the mixture of seriousnesss and frivolity in the Quaest. conv., see, e.g.,
the prologue to book 6 (686d).
50 See Relihan (1992).
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 57
argumentation. In 6.8, for example, Plutarch records his own attendance
at a public ritual designed to drive out the disease of boulimia; and then
afterwards at a symposium gathering where the disease was discussed. First,
he tells us, a number of suggestions were made about the origins of the dis-
ease™s name and of the ritual which had just been performed. In summing
up this ¬rst phase of the discussion Plutarch emphasises the atmosphere
of co-operation in which it was conducted: ˜These were the things which
made up the shared eranos of conversation™ (6.8 (694b)),51 an eranos being
a feast funded by the shared contributions of the participants. Discussion
then proceeds to the causes of the disease. After a number of suggestions
about why boulimia tends to af¬‚ict those who walk through heavy snow,
the symposiasts lapse into silence, at which point Plutarch offers his readers
a brief aside: ˜When silence fell, I re¬‚ected on the fact that to idle and untal-
ented people listening to the arguments of their elders brings a feeling of
relaxation and satisfaction; whereas those who are ambitious and scholarly
use it as spur to make their own attempt at seeking and tracking down
the truth™ (694d).52 He then shrewdly introduces a claim made by Aristotle
about the natural heat of the body, and the conversation once more begins
to circulate, ˜as one would expect™ (‚per o”n e«k»v (694e)). This passage
is typical of patterns which are repeated over and over again throughout
the Sympotic questions: the use of past authority to provide a stimulus for
present discussion; explicit recommendation of independent thought, in
language which is closely reminiscent of Plutarch™s work On listening (espe-
cially the contrast between passive ¬lling of the mind and active kindling of
it at 48c, quoted above); and use of the language of contribution to describe
individual attempts at explanation. The last of those is especially frequent,
and is often combined with an emphasis on the way in which Plutarch™s
own ˜contributions™ to discussion are improvised, made whether or not he
is con¬dent of having a reliable answer. In 3.5 (652b), for example, Plutarch
tells us that he is reusing an argument he had come up with a few days
before, when he had been forced to extemporise (aÉtoscedi†sai). In 2.2
(635c), similarly, Plutarch speaks ˜in order to avoid the impression of join-
ing in the conversation without making a contribution™.53 The requirement
of being an entertaining conversationalist, and to be generous with one™s


ta“ta m•n o”n ›ranon koin¼n –k p†ntwn suneplžrou l»gwn.
51
genom”nhv d• siwp¦v, –gÜ sunno¤n ‚ti t‡ t¤n presbut”rwn –piceiržmata toÆv m•n ˆrgoÆv
52
kaª ˆjue±v o³on ˆnapa…ei kaª ˆnap©mplhsi, to±v d• jilot©moiv kaª jilol»goiv ˆrcŸn –nd©dwsin
o«ke©an kaª t»lman –pª t¼ zhte±n kaª ˆnicne…ein tŸn ˆlžqeian . . .
Ëp•r to“ mŸ doke±n ˆs…mbolov to“ l»gou metasce±n.
53
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58 j a son k on ig
own interventions, seem to outweigh any requirement to aim for a single,
correct answer.
There is also a recurring emphasis on the requirement for young men
to learn from their fellow symposiasts, as I suggested earlier. Those scenes
of learning contain both explicit and implicit instruction on the styles of
speech and interpretation one should aim for, lessons offered both to the
young symposiasts themselves and to us. Plutarch™s teacher Ammonius plays
a prominent role, both in book 9 and elsewhere, as if to remind us of the
way in which Plutarch™s own interpretative virtuosity has itself been learnt,
painstakingly and gradually, in the course of a long process of development
from pupil to expert.54 In 3.1, for example, Plutarch records an occasion
in Athens, at a party held after a sacri¬ce to the Muses, where Ammo-
nius criticises the practice of wearing ¬‚ower garlands at a symposium as
an unworthy practice for serious philosophers, and so prompts the ˜young
men™ (o¬ nean©skoi (646a)), at least those who do not know him well, to
remove their garlands in embarrassment. Plutarch, however, knows better,
as Ammonius™ star-pupil should, and so sets out to refute his philosophical
mentor: ˜I knew that Ammonius had thrown the topic into our midst in
order to encourage practice and further enquiry™ (646a).55 He seems to have
grasped the need to exercise one™s ingenuity, and the need to admit at least
certain types of pleasure into the symposium, in contrast with the other
young men who fall for Ammonius™ insistence on a complete banishment
of frivolity. Plutarch™s impressive display then continues in 3.2, which is
represented as a continuation of the conversation in 3.1. Ammonius sets
out an argument for the belief that ivy is a hot plant, rather than a cold
one, as is commonly believed. Once again the young men are cowed into
silence. The other, more experienced, guests then urge the young symposi-
asts to attempt a response, and it is once again Plutarch who speaks, as
soon as a promise has been secured from Ammonius not to intimidate the
young men by arguing against them. Plutarch contradicts Ammonius with

54 E.g., see Clement and Hof¬‚eit (eds.) (1969) 95 for the point that the conversations of the Quaest. conv.
seem to date over a period of twenty to thirty years; cf. Jones (1966) 206“7 on changing representation
of Ammonius through the work, portrayed with varying degrees of authority depending on the degree
of maturity in his pupils and fellow guests. In 9.15, for example, Ammonius™ speech occupies almost
the whole discussion, and thus stands as the closing speech of the whole work. In 9.14 Ammonius
guides discussion (e.g., at 744b, where he rejects too ready acceptance of an implausible explanation;
and at 746b, where he calls for more responses at the very end of his own speech, despite the fact that
¬ve guests have spoken already), and has the penultimate speech (745d“746b), with only Plutarch
to follow him; in other words it is Plutarch who himself responds to Ammonius™ prompting, as
often elsewhere (e.g., at 8.3 (721d) and 9.2 (738a)), as if to show how Plutarch™s career has itself been
shaped from his teacher™s encouragement.
–gÜ d ¬ e«dÜv ‚ti gumnas©av ™neka kaª zhtžsewv katab”blhken –n m”swƒ t¼n l»gon ¾ %mmÛniov . . .
55
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 59
reference to precisely the passage of Aristotle used by Ammonius himself.
Strikingly, that technique of arguing against an opinion with reference to
exactly the principles cited in support of it is used similarly by Florus in
3.4 (651c), on a different occasion, in a way which offers us the oppor-
tunity to build a cumulative picture of the lessons embedded in the text
through consecutive reading of these different and apparently disjointed
dialogues.
In the second half of book 3 (3.6 and 3.7) “ as often elsewhere “ Plutarch
switches from description of his early philosophical training to description
of occasions much later in his life, after he has reached a position of author-
ity.56 In 3.7, for example, Plutarch™s aged father proposes to ˜the young
men who were interested in philosophy™ (to±v jilosojoo“si meirak©oiv)
(655f ) a discussion of why sweet new wine is the least intoxicating kind of
wine, while the experienced Plutarch looks on. On this occasion there are
several contributions, in contrast with the silence of 3.1 and 3.2.57 Plutarch
sums up these contributions with praise of the young men™s ingenuity and
readiness to speak, although he also points casually to two very obvious
explanations they have missed, one of them taken from Aristotle, as if to
remind us “ and them “ that ingenuity on its own is never enough, unless
it is supplemented by exhaustive reading. The contrast between the young
Plutarch and the old Plutarch, at the beginning and the end of book 3,
seems deliberately pointed, reminding us of how the day-to-day experi-
ence of philosophical speculation can contribute to lifelong education and
philosophical self-improvement.
The Sympotic questions™ many scenes of learning are thus threaded through
the work in a way which prompts us “ as well as the young symposiasts
of the dialogues themselves “ to draw lessons from them. We undergo a
repeated process of exposure to common patterns of argumentation, dia-
logue after dialogue, just as the young men must learn night after night,
and gradually we begin to build up a sense of how we can make the dif-
ferent dialogues ¬t together with each other. There is space here to discuss
only one other example of that kind of patterning, from book 2. Here
56 There are several similar instances in other books of older men setting an example for their younger
fellow-guests, although their authority is not always unchallenged: e.g., at 1.2, Plutarch™s father begins
the discussion by playfully criticising Plutarch™s brother Timon for his seating of the guests; Timon
disagrees, and Plutarch and his other brother Lamprias then argue themselves over the dispute; in 5.3
(676e“677b) a learned rhetorician impresses the younger men, but Plutarch and his friend Lucanius
make a point of disagreeing.
57 That silence has also just been mirrored in 3.6 (653e), another of the dialogues set later in Plutarch™s
life where the young men are reduced to silence when one of the older guests contradicts their
claim that Epicurus should not have introduced discussion of the best time of day for sex into his
Symposium.
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60 j a son k on ig
again recurring themes and principles of argument cluster together in a
way which gives a shadowy impression of coherence and progression to the
book. 2.1, for example, is a discussion entitled ˜What are the subjects about
which Xenophon says people, when they are drinking, are more pleased
to be questioned and teased than not™. This is the longest dialogue in the
whole of the Sympotic questions, but the problem also spills out beyond
the end of 2.1, into the repeated scenes of teasing with which the rest of
book 2 is saturated, as if to emphasise the need to supplement theoretical
discussion, however exhaustive, with personal experience: it may not be
enough to have theoretical knowledge of teasing; in addition one must
learn by seeing teasing in action. In 2.2 (635a), for example, in the course
of a discussion on ˜Why men become hungrier in the autumn™, Plutarch™s
brother Lamprias is teased for his gluttony; at 2.10 (643e), a totally separate
occasion, Lamprias acknowledges his own gluttony but accuses Hagias of
the same; in 2.3 (635e) Plutarch is teased by Alexander for not eating eggs,
but then teases Alexander in return (635f ); and Soclarus is teased in 2.6
(640b) for the strangeness of the plants which grow in his garden, an obser-
vation which then leads into erudite scienti¬c/horticultural discussion on
techniques of grafting.
Equally prominent in book 2, though perhaps less obvious, since it is
not the subject of explicit discussion at any stage, is a recurring interest
in the dangers of misattributing causes in analysing remarkable natural
phenomena. In 2.7, for example, there is a long discussion of a type of ¬sh
called the ˜ship-holder™ (–cenh¹v), which is said to have the power to slow
down ships, despite its tiny size, by attaching itself to their hulls. At the end
of this discussion, Plutarch debunks a whole series of explanations for that
remarkable power by suggesting that the ships are held back not by the ¬sh,
but by seaweed, which is precisely the thing which attracts the ¬sh there in
the ¬rst place. In other words, he rejects the possibility that the presence of
the ¬sh is the cause of the ship™s slowness, pointing out that the presence
of the ¬sh and the slowness of the ship may instead be common symptoms
of a third phenomenon, the seaweed. That strategy of argument is closely
matched in the two quaestiones which follow. In 2.8 Plutarch rejects the
explanations offered for the belief that horses bitten by wolves tend to be
unusually spirited, by suggesting that it is only the spirited horses who
escape from the wolves in the ¬rst place. And then ¬nally in 2.9, we hear
a discussion about why sheep bitten by wolves have sweeter ¬‚esh. Here,
however, there is no explicit attempt to draw the obvious conclusion “ not
that they have sweet ¬‚esh because they are bitten, but rather that they are
bitten because they have sweet ¬‚esh to begin with. As so often, Plutarch
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 61
seems to be leaving us to make that conclusion independently, drawing out
for ourselves the lessons of the two preceding dialogues.
Plutarch thus repeatedly emphasises the requirement that the philoso-
pher should be able to use any conversation as a starting point for philoso-
phy, by applying his or her own distinctive skills of reading. In that sense it
should not matter whether we read things disjointedly and out of context or
not. And yet at the same time he weaves complex thematic continuities into
his work, challenging us to draw these out for ourselves and so to experience
the way in which disparate material can begin to resolve itself into unity if
only we read carefully enough “ not only ethical unity, but also narrative
unity, for example in this intricately developed progression of examples of
particular types of argumentation in Book 2, which between them tell a
carefully structured story about how we can hone our own skills of anal-
ysis.58 I do not mean to suggest that the Sympotic questions aspires to any
kind of overarching and continuous narrative coherence. As we have seen,
it is a work which values single, disjointed facts and speci¬c occasions very
highly. The Sympotic questions aspires to unity only through its attention
to the speci¬c, which we must put into shape for ourselves. But it does, I
suggest, frequently gesture towards thematic connections and progressions
between its different parts, as if to give us a faint and preliminary glimpse
of the kind of coherence we can expect to emerge from our own readings
of Plutarch™s work, and of the world, if we are only willing to put the
effort in.
Those impressions throw a provocative light on Plutarch™s deceptively
simple programmatic statements of intent. Here I look brie¬‚y at the most
often quoted of those, in the prologue to book 2. There Plutarch catches
breath to look back at the subject matter and arrangement of the previous
book. He distinguishes, ¬rst, between ˜sympotic™ subjects (sumpotik†) on
the one hand, which consist of debates about the proper way to run a
symposium and to behave at one; and ˜symposiac™ subjects (sumposiak†)
on the other, which form suitable topics of symposium conversation, but
without having any direct connection with the symposium setting; and
he categorises the quaestiones of book 1 retrospectively according to that
scheme. And then in the closing sentences of the prologue he proclaims
the randomness which underlies his principles of composition “ ˜These
things have been recorded haphazardly and without being put in order,

58 In that sense Gallardo (1972) 189 seems wrong to say that the gaps between adjacent quaestiones in
the Quaest. conv. prevent a coherent reading: ˜Dada la estructura de la obra, resulta imposibile hacer
un estudio de los personajes o de la progresi´ n de la acci´ n, pues esta ultima no existe.™
o o ´
¨
62 j a son k on ig
but rather as each of them came to my memory™ (629d)59 “ before ¬nally
explaining to his addressee, Sosius Senecio, that the reader is likely to come
across some of Sosius™ own contributions to discussion in what follows. In
both of these claims, I suggest, this prologue is more complex than it might
initially appear, and than is usually assumed. First, in the light of the work™s
constant saturation with didactic material, of the kind we have already
glimpsed above, the stated distinction between ˜sympotic™ and ˜symposiac™
subjects begins to seem disingenuous. In fact all of the discussions of the
Sympotic questions are ˜sympotic™, in the sense that each of them is equally
concerned with exploring the question of how best to speak and behave in
the symposium. All of these dialogues are equally didactic. Secondly, the
claim to have composed haphazardly breaks down, as we come to perceive
the Sympotic questions™ shadowy overtones of patterning emerging from the
mass of disjointed detail. Plutarch™s claim to have composed ˜as each thing
came to my memory™60 looks, on closer inspection, not like a statement of
the work™s randomness, but rather like an attempt to equate the ordering
of the work with the retrospective patterning which memory inevitably
imposes. The statements Plutarch makes in this prologue might at ¬rst
sight be taken to support stereotypes of artlessly structured miscellanistic
writing. But on closer inspection we can see that Plutarch actually plays
along with those stereotypes knowingly, while at the same time ultimately
resisting them, at least for those who can read closely and creatively enough
to spot the trick.

lo c al identities in th e s y m p o t i c q u e s t i o n s
What, then, of the political world, the world of the Roman Empire? The
¬rst thing to note is Plutarch™s representation of geographical distinctions.
The overriding impression the Sympotic questions projects is one of men

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