“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.)