The estimable Greek historian depicts ancient Rome’s violent politics.
Biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46-120 C.E.) aimed to reveal “the manifestations of a man’s soul” in his Parallel Lives, portrayals of major Greek and Roman historical figures. Set beside one another, these biographies, Plutarch hoped, would edify readers who sought moral self-improvement. From that work, classicist Romm (Classics/Bard Coll.; Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, 2014, etc.) has selected five Roman lives: military general Pompey; lawyer and orator Cicero; Caesar, central to all of these lives; his treacherous adversary Brutus; and his supporter Antony, a vainly handsome man “of princely dignity.” These biographies, Romm believes, offer “an immersion in the events of the classical past and an encounter with its greatest personalities.” An introduction by noted classical scholar Mary Beard and informative footnotes help to fill in that sense of the past, and a felicitous translation by Mensch makes Plutarch’s prose lively and accessible. The biographies are thrillingly dramatic, as Plutarch recounts savage battles, bloody betrayals, and constant political upheaval. Central to that upheaval was the murder of Caesar, after he declared himself “Dictator for Life,” by a cadre assembled by Brutus. After arrogantly reproaching petitioners, Caesar found himself surrounded by murderers. “Whichever way he turned he met with blows aimed at his face and eyes, and was driven here and there like a wild beast,” Plutarch wrote, “trapped in everyone’s hands.” Caesar was felled with 23 stab wounds, and some of the assassins themselves were wounded in the melee. Carried out in the name of liberation from Caesar’s tyrannical rule, the killing had the opposite effect, making the populace worship Caesar “as a god” and turn against the conspirators. Among other dramatically intense scenes, Cleopatra’s inconsolable grief after Antony’s death and her suicide by asp bite stand out.
If crucifixions and ferocious street fighting no longer characterize contemporary politics, Plutarch’s rivalrous, “inglorious” world in discomfiting ways echoes through our own time.