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.

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