Plutarch and His Times
Julius Caesar, A Political Biography
Thomas North’s translation of Jacques Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch’s Lives was published in 1579. In the next generation Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, and thus at second hand Plutarch placed an indelible stamp on the images of four or five major personalities (and on one legendary one). No amount of historical scholarship has succeeded in seriously replacing or correcting those images, comparable to Tacitus’s Tiberius or Nero, in the public consciousness or in the Western literary tradition, and it is to be doubted whether the future will see a radically different Brutus or Cleopatra. There’s a sobering thought for the professional historian.
No one wants to deny Shakespeare’s paramount role, but that Plutarch could do pretty well unaided is clear from some lesser examples, such as the Spartan Lycurgus or the Gracchi. It may seem eccentric to draw the comparison, but I think one can defend the simple equation, Shakespeare was to Plutarch as Plutarch was to his sources. Coriolanus offers the neatest proof. Both drew on a single source of primary information, Shakespeare on Plutarch and Plutarch on the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek rhetorician and antiquarian who worked in Rome and died perhaps half a century before Plutarch was born. In a close study of this Life, Donald Russell of St. John’s College, Oxford, demonstrated several years ago that apart from new bits which Plutarch drew from his extensive reading, from the antiquarian digressions and moral reflections he introduced, and from obvious slips, whether of memory or of copying, there are persistent changes which he classifies as “expansions,” “abridgments,” and “transpositions.” The literary gain is very great, but what about the historical side? It doesn’t matter to the argument that Coriolanus was a legendary figure anyway or that in many other Lives Plutarch turned to more than one source. The fundamental conclusion remains that Mr. Russell’s “historical novelist” is the right classification. Plutarch, and no one else, created out of the legend of Coriolanus “what it was for Shakespeare, a tragedy of ambition and anger.”
By modern conventions, although some may seem reluctant to say this outright, there is no defense for Plutarch. When he isn’t fictionalizing or putting his own free interpretation on behavior or repeating tales which he either knows to be untrue or prefers not to look into too carefully, he is often being careless and inaccurate for no other reason than indifference to the kind of accuracy we prize above all in the historian. He has three different occasions, for example, in three separate Lives, to mention the conference at Lucca hastily summoned by Caesar in 56 B.C. in an effort to save the crumbling Triumvirate. The three accounts differ enough for R. H. Barrow, who sets out the variants in parallel columns, to call attention to the implication that Plutarch was working from “different traditions.” Undoubtedly. But he was not such a fool as not to be able to check back, if he couldn’t remember,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.