“Character is destiny.” This saying, often attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, sums up the outlook of the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, who sought to show how character shaped the destinies of both individuals and the state.
Plutarch, however, was not a true historian in the modern sense, but a moralist concerned to portray the distinctively Roman virtues. His subjects--especially Rome’s builders, such as Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, and Cato the Elder--illustrate his themes of Roman valor and tenacity. Conversely, he suggests that it was the character of men such as Sulla and Antony that destroyed the Republic.
Plutarch’s gauges of character include one’s conduct in war, in politics, and in love. Thus Caesar, though power-mad, is praised for his mercy toward conquered enemies. The use of money was another important index of character; Plutarch disapproves of Antony for seizing others’ property to indulge his spendthrift ways. (He also scorns Antony, the skilled strategist, for tolerating Cleopatra’s ill-advised military decisions.)
Some of Plutarch’s judgments may surprise modern readers. We condemn Brutus as a traitor for murdering his dear friend Caesar; to Plutarch, however, this was a noble act of self-sacrifice to preserve the Republic.
Another strong theme of Plutarch not found in modern historical writing is the way “Heaven” and “fate” influence important state decisions. Sometimes character seems to...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Customarily, in the Parallel Lives, the parallel pairs are accompanied by an introduction. Within these stand whatever dedicatory or prefatory statements that Plutarch wished to make. Many provide clues not only to the specific point of the given pair but also to the general theory of bioi (“lives”) under which Plutarch worked. He clearly distinguished “lives” from “researches,” which meant, as he put it in the “Alexander,” that the most brilliant exploits often tell readers nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall, or of marshaling great armies, or laying siege to cities.
Since these introductions are typically found with the Greek “life” that was written first, an edition or a reading focusing exclusively upon the Roman half of the pair may well lose the sense that Plutarch intended. That must be said since it is common to look at subgroupings of Parallel Lives to obtain from these quasi-biographical essays information of a historical nature. That is especially the case in instances in which a period of time or a personality is otherwise poorly covered because of the loss of sources from which Plutarch worked.
It is appropriate to consider not only Plutarch’s knowledge of Roman sources but also his apparently rather poor knowledge of the Latin language. Nevertheless, much can be gained by reading all the lives appropriate to the end of the Roman republic. The lives of “Caius Marius,” “Sulla,” “Crassus,” “Lucullus,” “Pompeius,” “Cicero,” “Julius Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Brutus,”...
(The entire section is 719 words.)