What would Plato have done?

Christopher Krebs

  • The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives by Plutarch, translated by Pamela Mensch
    Norton, 393 pp, £28.00, March 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 29282 4

On inauguration day in January, the 45th president-elect of the United States arrived at the White House in a cavalcade of black cars, stepped from his armoured limousine, strode up the stairs, and greeted Barack and Michelle Obama with a handshake and air kisses. Melania Trump caught up with her husband moments later, an unwieldy Tiffany-blue gift box in her gloved hands. Like numerous contemporary commentators, Plutarch of Chaeronea would have noticed that the president-elect did not wait for his wife. In the preface to his biography of Alexander the Great, he wrote that ‘a clearer insight into character is often given by a small thing or a word or a jest than by engagements where thousands die, or the biggest of pitched battles, or the sieges of cities.’ He was writing in Greek around 110 ad, under the Roman emperor Trajan, having spent the better part of his life studying the lives of powerful men, many of whom had attempted to mould history to their liking.

Chaeronea, a town in Boeotia in central Greece, was the site of a showdown in 338 bc between Philip II of Macedon and a coalition led by Athens and Thebes, Boeotia’s biggest city. Philip won the day. Three years later, Thebes was sacked by Philip’s son Alexander, and under Roman rule weeds sprouted in the agora. By Plutarch’s time, Boeotia was a provincial backwater. He ‘breathed history’, Donald Russell wrote in his 1972 study; he grasped ‘not only the splendour of it but the misery’. His wealthy, well-positioned family provided him with the finest education – in Greek rhetoric, literature and history – and gave him the opportunity to travel and study abroad: he visited Athens, Alexandria and other centres of learning.

Though a Roman citizen, Plutarch’s command of Latin wasn’t as good as he would have liked it to be: he felt unable, he confessed in his Life of the Greek orator Demosthenes, to appreciate ‘the beauty of the Roman style and its quickness, and the figures of speech and the rhythms’. It’s hard to tell whether this was modesty, and how much his shortcomings mattered: most members of the imperial elite were fluent in his mother tongue. He made powerful friends, some of whom he acknowledged with namings and dedications. (In his Life of Theseus, he addresses Quintus Socius Senecio, twice elected consul: ‘You know, O Sossius Senecio, how geographers squeeze all that escapes their actual knowledge into the outer reaches of their maps?’) But his own political career was confined to a few, mostly symbolic appointments and honours, including a procuratorship over the region of Achaea and the consular insignia, which bestowed the rank of a former consul without exercise of the office. The most important of them, in his view, was a priesthood at Delphi, which supplies us with an approximate date for his death: an inscription on a statue dedicated to the emperor Hadrian shortly after his reign began in 117 mentions Plutarch in that capacity; another dedicated in 125 shows that the appointment had passed to someone else.

This towering figure of the ancient world – a citizen of Rome, Athens and Delphi – spent most of his life in the quiet of his birthplace, thereby ensuring, he joked, that it did not ‘become smaller still’. Among family, friends and companions conjured up from the past, he devoted himself to studying, writing and teaching. His output was vast: his extant works fill 26 volumes in the bilingual Loeb series; and while they include some spurious works attached to the corpus because of his fame, many genuine pieces have been lost. A late antique list specifies 227 titles, which, for all the inaccuracy in the detail, provides a fair approximation. These works have traditionally been grouped into biographies, on the one hand (almost fifty have come down to us)and, on the other, more than seventy miscellaneous essays, from ‘The Face in the Moon’ and ‘The Intelligence of Animals’ to ‘The Obsolescence of Oracles’, ‘Advice on Public Life’ and the ever helpful ‘On Praising Oneself Inoffensively’: ‘an uneven collection’, as James Romm writes in his engaging preface to The Age of Caesar, which has nonetheless provided ‘a model for modern moral essayists, including Montaigne and Emerson’.

Plutarch’s Lives exerted an even greater influence. They can be imagined as a gallery, one spacious wing housing individual portraits of Roman emperors, Greek poets and philosophers. Almost all of these have been lost: only the labels and the occasional shadow on the wall remain. Another wing, however, contains a rich collection of diptychs or Parallel Lives, which juxtapose a Greek and a Roman. Alexander the Great is paired with Julius Caesar; Pericles with Fabius Maximus, who saved Rome from Hannibal; Demosthenes with Cicero. Demosthenes’ speaking style, Plutarch remarks, was ‘without prettiness or pleasantry’; it didn’t ‘smell of lamp-wicks, as Pytheas scoffingly said, but of water-drinking and anxious thought, and of what men called the bitterness and sullenness of his disposition’. Plutarch often looked to the writing or speaking style of his subjects for hints about their character.

His pairing of Greeks and Romans reflects the larger entanglement of the two histories and cultures. Greece continued to exert its cultural influence long after its incorporation into the Roman Empire in the second century bc. Cicero modelled himself on Demosthenes; his tirade against Mark Antony in the Philippics invokes the Athenian orator directly. A few decades later, Horace memorably dismissed the military dominance of Rome by suggesting that Greece still held cultural sway over its new imperial master: ‘Conquered Greece conquered the savage victor.’ By Plutarch’s time, a Greek renaissance had taken hold in the Roman Empire, producing such writers as the ‘golden-mouthed’ orator Dion of Prusa, and Lucian, who imagined going to the moon centuries before Jules Verne thought of it.

‘I began the writing of my Lives for the sake of others,’ Plutarch wrote, ‘but I find that I am continuing the work and delighting in it now for my own sake also, using history as a mirror and endeavouring in a manner to fashion and adorn my life in conformity with the virtues therein depicted.’ Biography, like history, was a guide to living: Plutarch often reflects on their kinship, as daughters of memory, one with a statuesque beauty, the other livelier and more amusing. ‘It’s biography,’ Plutarch writes in defence of the trivial: he liked to gossip, and it suited his temperament. Greek and Roman historians had always taken a personalised approach to history. When Caesar fought the resistance in Gaul in 52, it needed a name and a face, which he provided by crafting his narrative around the Gallic leader Vercingetorix. Carlyle’s view that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’ would have seemed obvious to most ancient historians. It was more plausible still in a monarchical system. In Plutarch’s day, the Roman Empire was governed by a single potentate: political history collapsed more readily into biography. Unsurprisingly, Suetonius, the other great biographer of antiquity, was Plutarch’s contemporary.

Personal improvement, Plutarch suggests in one essay, is best achieved by ‘setting before one’s eyes those who are good or who have been so’. Think of a quandary, and imagine ‘what Plato would have done in this situation’. Plutarch conceives of each Life as a mirror, in which readers can adjust their comportment and strive for composure. (This moralising imperative works with distorted mirrors too, when Plutarch finds fault with a character.)

The biographer’s aim therefore is to bring out ‘the character and manner’ of his subject with lavish attention to detail, like a sympathetic – or on occasion a cold-eyed – portraitist. Individual portraits can easily be seen in aggregate as a portrait of a period. The Age of Caesar brings together five of Plutarch’s most famous biographies, excerpting the Roman halves of the Parallel Lives. Something is lost by excluding the Greeks: the subtlety often lurks in the collocation; in the comparison of Alexander and Caesar we’re reminded that Pompey – celebrated as ‘the Great’ during his lifetime and rumoured to have owned a cloak of Alexander’s – was destroyed and replaced by Caesar. On the other hand, Romm is right to point out that the half-lives allow for ‘a fuller exploration of a single place, time and culture, and a richer sense of the historical context’.

The detail of Plutarch’s Roman biographies is gripping. After Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony emerges from the senate as ‘the most brilliant of men’, having counselled calm and circumspection, only to incite the people with his funerary oration: ‘Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest – for Brutus is an honourable man; so are they all, all honourable men – come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.’ In Plutarch, and then in Shakespeare, conflagration ensues, and a monarchy rises from the ashes of the Republic. It was an age, as Mary Beard says in her introduction, of ‘political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome, and fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run, how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met’. Plutarch uses the term kakopoliteia to describe the mayhem; Pamela Mensch translates it well as a ‘sorry state of government’. All five of Plutarch’s characters tried (and failed) to redress it. All five died violent deaths, from stabbing and decapitation to self-evisceration. By the middle of the first century, Rome was destined for rule by one man.

Plutarch seems not to notice that in the course of this turmoil a cultural revolution took place, as Romans stepped away from the cultural shadow of Greece, producing a staggering concentration of world-class literature, comparable only to the classical period of fifth-century Athens: Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus and then Virgil, Horace, Ovid. The Roman Lives show no real interest in this creative storm and Plutarch’s indifference possibly played a part in the long delay in the proper appreciation of the cultural life of the late Roman Republic. Yet much of what we know today about the political figures of the period is thanks to Plutarch. He took his information from sources that were closer to them in time (and are now lost): Asinius Pollio, a historian and intermittent member of Caesar’s staff, supplied many of the colourful details in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar.

Plutarch has appealed to generations of readers. Montaigne said that his own writings were ‘wholly compiled of what I have borrowed’ from Plutarch and Seneca the Younger. He singled out the Parallel Lives for Plutarch’s depth of judgment and instruction in virtue. At roughly the same time, Shakespeare drew on Plutarch, especially for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. In the Life of Brutus, Plutarch has Cassius and Brutus, struggling in the wake of the dictator’s assassination, share their thoughts before their last battle. Brutus says that he intends to return victorious or not at all, to which Cassius, smiling, replies: ‘Either we will be victorious or we will not fear the victors.’ Shakespeare follows Plutarch verbatim in parts of this passage, though he loses the pithy wordplay: ‘For ever, and for ever, farewell, Brutus! If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed; if not, tis true this parting was well made.’ But in some of the most famous lines in the tragedy, Shakespeare improves on the original: ‘I have no fear of these fat, long-haired men,’ Plutarch’s Caesar says, referring to Brutus as well as Cassius, ‘but rather of those pale, thin ones.’ ‘Let me have men about me that are fat,’ Shakespeare’s Caesar says, ‘Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o nights;/Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;/He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.’ A lapidary couplet from Shakespeare’s version of Antony’s funeral oration would have appealed to Plutarch: ‘But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world; now lies he there.’

Shakespeare was inspired by Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of the Lives. North’s Plutarch was not from the Greek, but from Jacques Amyot’s French translation, which appeared twenty years earlier and greatly increased the number of Plutarch’s readers. Plutarch’s style, with its fluid syntax, confident word order and copious vocabulary, is a challenge to translators. So is the constant flow of analogies and examples. Erasmus confessed to a ‘not inconsiderable difficulty’ in rendering ‘the subtlety of Plutarch’s expressions’, which he compared to ‘a most exquisite mosaic work’. The first sentence of the Life of Caesar illustrates the difficulty: ‘The daughter of Cinna, the former ruler (of the city of Rome), Cornelia – Sulla, when he came to power, unable, as he was, to separate her from Caesar by either promise or threat, confiscated her dowry.’ There are three tesserae here: Cornelia, daughter of Cinna; Sulla, the newly established dictator; and Caesar. In the Greek, partly because of the word order, partly because of other advantages of a morphological language, they conjoin in a sonorous whole, but it’s nearly impossible to render in English, as my clunky translation suggests. Mensch opts here and elsewhere for smoothness: ‘When Sulla became master of Rome, he tried to make Caesar divorce his wife Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who had once held sole rule in the city; but as he was unable to effect this either by promises or threats, he confiscated the woman’s dowry.’ Some of Plutarch’s manner has been lost, but it’s a price worth paying to bring Plutarch to new readers.