The transcendent arrogance of autocratic rulers is hardly a new historical phenomenon. More than 2,000 years before our own troubled times, some of ancient Rome’s leading politicians allowed their colossal egos to destroy a venerable system of Republican government.
Pamela Mensch’s new translation of five Plutarch biographies of famous Roman generals and politicians – Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, Brutus, Antony – offers a timely occasion to reflect on the folly and danger of unchecked hubris.
Plutarch was a prolific chronicler of illustrious figures. His enormous "Parallel Lives" was a series of biographies that paired Greek and Roman statesmen based on perceived similarities. Twenty-three of the pairs survive, so Mensch’s translation, dubbed The Age of Caesar, is only a small sliver of a much broader original work. But the five Roman lives that the volume collects form an astute grouping of figures whose interwoven families and fortunes shaped much of the political history of the Roman world in the first century BC.
Unlike many modern biographers, Plutarch wanted his work to provide moral instruction to readers: “The thought and recollection of good men instantly comes to mind ... and keeps upright those striving toward virtue, preventing their fall.” This vision of biography’s ethical potential does not exclude recounting the bad behavior of his subjects – the love life of Marc Antony and the political betrayals of Caesar and Cicero are recounted in lurid detail – but it does situate the work within a moral universe. Plutarch, unlike Suetonius, seems motivated less by a love of gossip than a desire to find some sort of wisdom in the study of history.
Many of the famous stories from these Plutarch lives have a cautionary flavor. When the general Pompey, for instance, abandons his effort to drive a chariot drawn by four elephants into Rome because the gates of the city are too narrow, it’s clear that this will be just one of many collisions between his ego and reality. Not satisfied with conquering only the human inhabitants of parts of North Africa, Pompey decides to hunt lions and elephants, so that the wild beasts of Africa “should not be left without some experience of the courage and strength of the Romans.”
Just as grandiose and dangerous as his urge to impress wild animals was Pompey’s willingness to ignore any laws that might check his enormous ambitions. He once threatened his critics by saying, “Will you not stop quoting laws to us who have swords by our sides?” This disregard for law, however, ultimately entails its own destruction. Pompey was beheaded in Egypt by enemies relying on just this sort of extrajudicial violence.
Plutarch does relate many moments of courage and humility. Julius Caesar, fighting with his troops during a disastrous battle, grabbed a fleeing Roman standard-bearer by the neck, spun him around and said, “There is the enemy.” Caesar showed a similar disregard for death in refusing to use a bodyguard, saying, “it was better to suffer death once than always to be expecting it.” Brutus and Marc Antony shared Caesar’s assumption that life is only valuable under certain conditions. Rather than face the dishonor of defeat, both Brutus and Antony fall on their own swords.
Though Brutus is often remembered as the treacherous murder of Julius Caesar, Plutarch is actually quite sympathetic to his motives for masterminding the murder. Whereas most of the conspirators would have been happy to assume Caesar’s place themselves, Plutarch paints Brutus as genuinely distraught by the prospect of autocratic rule and willing to die in defense of the Republican ideal. Plutarch was the source of Shakespeare’s depiction of Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all.” Shakespeare also borrowed liberally from Plutarch’s life of Antony in his depiction of Cleopatra as a seductive oriental enchantress and Marc Antony as her innocent victim. (Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra complicates this picture in a helpful way.)
Plutarch is also a fascinating source of social history. Casual asides about the fashion styles of togas, methods of embalming bodies, and daily life in the Roman army offer vital windows onto a vanished world, while descriptions of Roman politics – literal slinging of mud, rampant bribery, brawls and political murder – show just how much was at stake in defending the legal institutions that promoted social order.
But one theme resonates with particular force today: the perils of morally bankrupt leaders who have gained enormous power. Describing a series of murders sanctioned by Caesar, Antony, and Lepidus, Plutarch writes: “No wild beast is more savage than man in possession of the power to indulge his passion.” Just before Pompey was killed in Egypt, he supposedly quoted two lines from Sophocles that show a kind of tragic recognition of his own fate: “he who traffics with a tyrant becomes his slave, though he goes to him a free man.”