Poetry, Extravagance, and the Invention of the 'Archaic' in Plutarch's On the Oracles of the Pythia

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Contribution to Book

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Plutarch’s dialogue On the Oracles of the Pythia centers around the question of why the Delphic oracles are no longer delivered in verse, as they had been in ‘ancient’ times (ta palaia). The answer provided by the character Theon, in a long speech that concludes the text, argues that the ascendancy of prose over poetic oracles is linked to a broader cultural change, and should be celebrated rather than lamented. Moreover, to explain why the Pythias previously prophesied in verse, Theon paints an unflattering picture of the Greek past as an age marked by a penchant for poetry, luxury, and obscurity. In this article I analyse a crucial section of Theon’s argument (24.406C-E) to show how he exploits the metaphorical connotations of literary critical terminology to portray the past ‘poetic’ age as luxurious and extravagant, and to associate prose, and by extension the present, with moderation and restraint. Furthermore, Theon’s positive evaluation of the present does not imply a wholesale rejection of the past; rather Theon splits the past into two distinct eras-a ‘poetic’ followed by a ‘prosaic’-and collapses the second with his own imperial present. In doing so, Theon demarcates an era, characterised as poetic, excessive, and immoderate that bears a striking resemblance, I suggest, to that which we call ‘archaic’.

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Aristoula Georgiadou & Katerina Oikonomopolou


De Gruyter





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Space, Time and Language in Plutarch

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