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This webpage reproduces the Introduction to
Roman Questions


published in Vol. IV
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. IV) Plutarch, Moralia

p2 Roman Questions

Translator's Introduction

The Roman Questions is an attempt to explain one hundred and thirteen Roman customs, the majority of which deal with religious matters. The treatise is one of three similar compilations of which two have been preserved and one, the Quaestiones Barbaricae (No. 139 in Lamprias's list), has been lost. Plutarch possessed a great desire to know the reason why: besides the many discussions of a similar sort contained in the Symposiacs (Table Talks), there is extant a discussion of Physical Causes, and the titles of other writings of the same sort have been preserved for us in Lamprias's list of Plutarch's writings.1

The Greek title, which means "causes", is twice mentioned by Plutarch himself in the Lives,2 and we might call it "The Reasons Why." In nearly every case at least two and often more reasons are given; of these presumably not more than one can be right. Thus the other explanations will embody the results of Plutarch's researches on the matter or his own quaint speculations. Consequently the book, which is an important source for Roman p3customs, especially for religious customs, has been of the greatest service to students of early Roman religion, a field in which so little is certain and which provides (even as it provided for Plutarch) such glorious opportunities for speculation that it has been somewhat overtilled in recent years. Anyone interested in such matters may observe the trend of this scholarship if he will examine F. B. Jevons' reprint of Holland's translation of the Roman Questions (London, 1892); or better, H. J. Rose, The Roman Questions of Plutarch, a New Translation with Introductory Essays and a Running Commentary (Oxford, 1924). Professor Rose might, indeed, have improved his translation by consulting some good Greek lexicon; but the essays and the commentary are very valuable, for they contain, among other matters of interest, a discussion of Plutarch's sources and of early Roman religion; the commentary is fortified with abundant references to ancient writers and to modern scholars. It is a scholarly work and the most important contribution to the study of the Roman Questions since Wyttenbach.

This treatise could hardly have been written by a person ignorant of Latin. Plutarch in his Life of Demosthenes, chap. ii, modestly disavows any profound knowledge of Latin; yet he had read a considerable amount in the language and had spent some time in Rome. Hence he was quite able to use Latin works in compiling the Roman Questions. Some Roman writers he mentions by name, especially Varro, and Verrius Flaccus, an antiquarian of the Augustan age. Livy is specifically cited but twice in the Moralia, once in the present work and once in the De Fortuna Romanorum; yet he is referred p4to no less than twelve times in the Lives, most of these citations being in the Marcellus and the Camillus. Perhaps Plutarch's more exact acquaintance with Livy, if he ever acquired this, dates from a time later than the period during which he was engaged in the compilation of the Roman Questions.

Other Roman authorities are mentioned occasionally, such as Cato the Elder, Nigidius Figulus, Antistius Labeo, Ateius Capito, and Fenestella; but no doubt they and others are used in accounts introduced by such expressions as "they say," "some say," "the story is told," and the like. Some of these references have, in fact, been traced by scholars to their originals. It has been remarked of Cicero that any statement found in that author's works appears, or has appeared, elsewhere. The same affirmation might be made of Plutarch with some confidence. Unless he specifically testifies to oral tradition or hearsay, we may be certain that his facts, like Cicero's, are drawn from his extensive reading.

Critics lay stress on a few mistakes which Plutarch made in interpreting Latin (these will be found noted in Rose and in Hartman), but against them must be set the unnumbered instances in which he is right. He did not, however, have to depend wholly on Latin writers, for he undoubtedly had at hand the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st cent. B.C.) and the works of Juba,3 the scholarly king of Mauretania, who as a youth had been brought to Rome in 46 B.C. to grace the triumph of Julius Caesar. Juba became greatly interested in Roman p5customs, and wrote a book in which he paralleled them with the customs of other peoples.

Many of the matters discussed in the Roman Questions are to be found treated elsewhere in Plutarch's work, particularly in the Roman Lives. The Lives of Romulus and of Numa are especially rich in parallel passages; for very many of the Roman customs were thought to go back to the earliest period of Roman history.

The book was probably published after the death of Domitian in A.D. 96, though this is a not quite certain inference from the text (276E). The work is No. 138 in Lamprias's catalogue of Plutarch's works. The MS. tradition (on which see J. B. Titchener, University of Illinois Studies, IX., 1924) is good.

The Editor's Notes:

1 (149) Αἰτίαι τῶν περιφερομένων Στωικῶν; (160) Αἰτίαι καὶ τόποι; (161) Αἰτίαι ἀλλαγῶν; (167) Αἰτίαι γυναικῶν.

2 Life of Romulus, chap. xv (26E); Life of Camillus, chap. xix (138E).

3 Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. iii.465‑484.

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