Plutarch, Historical Novelist

Plutarch and His Times

by R.H. Barrow
Indiana University Press, 203 pp., $6.00

Julius Caesar, A Political Biography

by J.P.V.D. Balsdon
Atheneum, 194 pp., $4.50

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, on what he had written in an earlier Life. Predictably Mr. Barrow falls back on the defense that Plutarch’s “aim as he himself said was to write not history but lives.” I suppose I have read that several hundred times: few under-graduates can avoid it if there is a Plutarch question on an examination paper. Indeed Plutarch did say it, in two often cited passages, one introducing his Life of Alexander, the other at the beginning of his Life of Timoleon. He also went on to explain what he meant by it: first, that he would therefore choose the most revealing acts or words, no matter how trivial, in preference to the great exploits (such as pitched battles) for their own sake; second, that the purpose of the whole exercise is self-improvement. I know of no principle of discrimination which allows expansion, abridgment, transposition, and careless inaccuracy in “lives” but not in “history,” and anyway Plutarch speaks in the same passages of his “study of history.”

Nor does Mr. Barrow help us to understand Plutarch by saying the following (after first allowing that there are more digressions “than is strictly necessary” because Plutarch was a “good story-teller” and a “philosopher”):

the major portion [of the Lives] is given up to narrative; and since the hero is a man who has played a big part in the events of his times, campaigns and politics, strategy and state-craft make up most of the narrative.

That is correct for many of the Lives only in the most superficial sense. Consider the Life of Caesar, which follows a rather strictly chronological sequence, as some others do not. The “narrative” then turns out, on even a cursory examination, to be a string of anecdotes, in which, true to his own statement of his methods, Plutarch selects, expands, and contracts to suit his purposes, which rarely coincide with the purposes not only of a modern historian but equally of a modern biographer. Even in the longer accounts of the Gallic Wars and of the civil war against Pompey, where he had Caesar’s own Commentaries before him, he sticks to anecdotal composition. Anyone who needs further persuasion need only compare the Life with Dacre Balsdon’s, which, as the subtitle “A Political Biography” indicates very precisely, is kept within strict and narrow limits. By which I mean neither that Mr. Balsdon is austere nor that he is pedantic. On the contrary, he has a splendid narrative ability and he is willing to assess, to explain, to beg to differ, sometimes to judge. For example,

An easy solution was to get Cicero out of harm’s way for the time being, and Caesar suggested that he should go on an official diplomatic mission to Egypt, an offer which Cicero declines, putting too much reliance perhaps on Pompey’s assurance that Clodius would not harm him. No man of sense ever placed reliance on an assurance from Pompey.

He also provides a skillful introduction into the political institutions of the late Republic, unlike Plutarch who was notoriously weak and blind on this subject. Whatever else one carries away from Mr. Balsdon’s swift biography, one will have a very different image from Plutarch’s (and Shakespeare’s) of the role Caesar played and of the narrow social base on which his assassins stood.

BUT I AM NOT primarily concerned with whether Plutarch is right or Mr. Balsdon is right (along with the whole trend in contemporary historiography which rejects the simple “liberty versus tyranny” image). My main point is that it is self-defeating to approach Plutarch from modern conventions of historical biography. He worked in a totally different tradition. In a long essay, “On the Malice of Herodotus,” he indulges in unrelenting character assassination of the Father of History, and the key to the whole attack lies in one epithet, “barbarian-lover” (the overtones of which are those of our own “nigger-lover”). Elsewhere Thucydides comes in for praise, and thus Plutarch reverses an earlier judgment of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who had written:

The first, and one may say the most necessary, task for writers of any kind of history is to choose a noble subject and one pleasing to their readers. In this Herodotus seems to me to have succeeded better than Thucydides…. Thucydides…writes of a single war…neither glorious nor fortunate; one which, best of all, should not have happened, or should have been ignored by posterity and consigned to silence and oblivion.

The disagreement between Plutarch and Dionysius, it is evident, is over individual judgment, not over the premises, which they share. History (which includes biography) should both edify and give pleasure: that and that alone is its function and its justification. Serious historians today also hope that their work will please and instruct, but two profound differences have emerged. One may be called sociological: there is, by and large, an altogether different conception of the relation between individuals and institutions, of the role of institutions in shaping human behavior and psychology; we have a developmental as opposed to a static or cyclical conception, even if not everyone still shares the once pervasive faith in progress (an idea that simply did not exist in antiquity). The second difference may perhaps be called philosophical, and it is not easy to pin down exactly. It is a different attitude to the connection between truth and factual accuracy. No respectable historian or biographer of antiquity lied deliberately, but even Thucydides, whose obsession with factual accuracy often bemuses modern students, believed it to be proper and necessary to present the speeches in his history in direct discourse, in his own language and even, at least to some extent, according to his own views of what it was appropriate for the actors to have said. He could see no other way to reveal the essence, the truth, of a situation, and I do not think that he imagined for one moment that anyone would read his speeches as exact abridgments of the originals (even if we assume, which is not self-evident, that there was an original in every case). Thucydides was accuracy-conscious to a degree unmatched by any other ancient writer of history, Tacitus included. There is a brilliant analysis of Tacitus in the second chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis demonstrating how this general point is linked with the “ancients’ way of viewing things,” which “does not see forces, it sees vices and virtues, successes and mistakes.”

Tacitus and Plutarch were almost exact contemporaries, and though one came from the western Empire and wrote in Latin, the other from the eastern, Greek half, they worked within the same historiographical tradition, and they were its last great exponents. Their greatness is attested, as I have already indicated, by their impact on all subsequent thinking about the Graeco-Roman past. The difficult question is then to explain why Plutarch had such a powerful influence. The answer will not be found in Mr. Barrow’s slight book. (It is even slighter than its size suggests, for the 176 pages of text are filled with padding, on how a symposium was conducted, on the career of Sir Thomas North, on repeated sneers at modern scholarship, the best of which he doesn’t seem to have understood very well, and on other irrelevancies.) Writing about Plutarch’s Table Talk, Mr. Barrow says:

…it seems that we are to think of a combination of elements taken from “a university extension lecture,” a reading party, a literary club, a discussion circle, a house-party, while Plutarch himself must have been something like the highly cultivated “squire-parson” found here and there in the eighteenth century.

But copyright libraries are filled with the writings of “squire-parsons,” unread, boring, and without influence of any kind. Nor does “charm” or “Plutarch was a good man” get us much further.

THERE IS NOT MUCH to be gleaned from Plutarch’s own life (with one exception I shall return to). Actually we know little about it. He was born in comfortable circumstances not before A.D. 45 in the backwater town of Chaeronea, on the road from Thebes to Delphi. He played his part in the parochial politics of his native city, held one of the two priesthoods at Delphi for at least twenty years (a layman’s post, hence “squire-parson” is a false epithet), taught “philosophy” (mostly popular ethics), moved freely in leading intellectual circles in Athens and even for a time in Rome, wrote prolifically, was honored with Roman citizenship, and died at a good old age, after A.D. 119. Of his vast literary output, we have about one half, most of it written late in life, conventionally divided into the Parallel Lives, of which a few are now missing, and the Moralia, a collection of essays on a great variety of themes, assembled and given a collective title at an undetermined date after his death.

Behind the writing lay much attentive reading. The Lives cite 111 writers in Greek and forty in Latin by name, and even if Plutarch did not read them all but sometimes relied on quotations in other authors, his familiarity with previous writers was noteworthy by the standards of his day. In a different vein, the essay “On the Face of the Moon” reflects equally wide scientific reading. How wide will not be apparent to the non-expert unless he follows the essay with the notes provided by the Loeb Classical Library editor, Harold Cherniss. Plutarch also had a phenomenal memory and, what is more important, the enviable ability to dredge up the right quotation or anecdote or bit of antiquarian lore which gave color to his argument and helped make otherwise platitudinous or pedestrian comments or incidents memorable to his readers. In that one respect, then, his biography provides a clue to his impact. But it is only an instrumental clue, as is his artistry as storyteller with a purpose, or his talent for distilling the science and philosophy of his day for the equally comfortable gentlemen in the Roman Empire to whom he addressed himself.

By “comfortable” I mean not only well situated financially and with full leisure, but also comfortable because the Roman Empire gave them peace and protection at a price they accepted. “Freedom” to men like Plutarch embraced the rule of law, freedom from revolution or confiscation, the privilege of privacy, of study, even of teaching, so long as the emperor and the imperial system were not touched upon except in flattery; in short, security for those who had the means to live comfortably and the good taste not to embroil themselves in forbidden fields. There is one horrible personal story told about Plutarch in antiquity. He once ordered a slave to be flogged; the latter protested his innocence, and so Plutarch carried on a philosophical debate with the poor tortured wretch, saying to the flogger, “While he and I are discussing things, you just carry on.” If the story is not true, it is ben trovato. It befits the freedom of Plutarch’s world and it can be, and has been, turned into a morality tale by appending the adjectives “unruly” and “impertinent” to the slave. Plutarch, we are asked to believe, made of even this impossible situation a demonstration of his virtues. Who but a good man would have had the wisdom and the will to seize this opportunity for moral instruction? Or in his writings to abstain so completely from contemporary social and political conditions?

ONE FUNCTION of moral education and popular ethics has always been ideological and status-quo preserving. It is no coincidence that some early reformers recommended the inclusion of Plutarch’s essay On Education in the classical curriculum. Few writers have presented the need for moderation, self-discipline, reasonableness, inner peace and virtue (though technically different from the Stoic formulation) with such charm and such candy-coating, thanks not only to his easy style and his intellectual simplicity (at least in appearance), but also to the learning and associative skill already mentioned. The audience was never a mass one; it was restricted to the leisurely, and even among them to the more intellectually minded. Plutarch served admirably to confirm them psychologically in their positions of wealth and status, and at times to console. If one could read them in the original Greek, so much the better did they serve. Today, I believe, the Moralia have lost even that appeal, and they are read, in any language, only by scholars. There is still no English translation of the whole set (until the Loeb Classical Library finally completes its fifteen-volume project, begun in 1927).

The Lives have had a different career. Following North there were several other complete English translations, all commercially successful. Then came a decline in our own century. The older translations by the Langhornes and by Clough became stylistically offputting, the modern one in the Loeb is only serviceable. Penguins have recently brought out a large selection, grouped by subject and thus sacrificing such values as there may have been in the original “parallel life” concept. But my guess is that even the Penguin project is aimed at a captive school and university audience and is not evidence of a continuing or renewed popular interest. In my experience, few students enjoy reading Plutarch, except as a source of information for Greek and Roman history or as a figure in the history of biography, both legitimate approaches but very modern ones different from anything that came before.*

I have gone into the fate of Plutarch in our day because it may offer still another clue, a negative one, to his impact in the past. The Lives share the ideology of the Moralia; Plutarch was the same man in both, with the same values, ideas, and convictions. But the Lives meant something in addition, simply because an interest in the trivia of great men seems to be universal. “Vices and virtues, successes and mistakes,” to return to Auerbach’s phrasing, are more comprehensible, more suggestive, more appealing than “forces.” Hence the Lives, with their marvelous artistry, were a pleasurable source of edification. Or they could be read anecdotally, without any conscious element of learning or uplift at all. They still can, and if they no longer are, except rarely, I suspect that the explanation is not in a change in psychology but in the dominance of the new mass media. Why bother with Julius Caesar and his wife Pompeia, who had to be beyond suspicion, when for a few pennies or the turn of a dial, one can have Stalin and his daughter Svetlana?

  1. *

    A word of warning may be in order about the new Lives from Plutarch, edited by John W. McFarland, Pleasant & Audrey Graves, Random House, 284 pp., $5.95. The twelve lives which are abridged are not even “approximately half the length of the originals,” as claimed, and what is there is a brutal paraphrase in “clear modern English” designed to meet the “almost overwhelming competition for attention in today’s crowded, hurried life” and to counteract the “once-brave promise of collectivistic, materialistic, scientific solutions of the problems of man.”