The Ancient Biographer – A Quick Look at Plutarch

The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six LivesThe Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives by Plutarch

A selection from Plutarch’s wide-ranging Lives series, The Fall of the Roman Republic focuses on six of the pivotal figures of the Roman Republic changing into the Empire: Gaius Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar and Cicero. Writing in the first century AD, Plutarch compiled biographies of famous Romans and paired them with figures from Greek history: Alexander the Great to Caesar, for example.

It should be noted that Plutarch wasn’t a biographer, at least in the modern sense. He was more of a moralist: his Lives matched two people and were followed by an essay comparing the two, always with a point to be made. His depiction of people – Pompey comes to mind right away, but he’s not the only one – sometimes varies from account to account.

In this volume, Penguin’s messed with the format: the lives are grouped by era. Even in this state, it’s easy to see why Plutarch was popular in antiquity: his biographical sketches are good, dramatic reading. It’s little wonder they’ve inspired writers like Shakespeare. That they’re oftentimes inaccurate isn’t especially the point: they’re moralizing, yes, but they’re fun reading.

The life of Caesar is a good example. In Casear’s own memoirs of the Civil Wars, he makes almost no account of crossing the Rubicon. But here, Plutarch makes a real show of it:

When he came to the river (it is called the Rubicon) which forms the frontier between Cisapline Gaul and the rest of Italy he became full of thought; for now he was drawing nearer and nearer to the dreadful step, and his mind wavered as he considered what a tremendous venture it was upon which he was engaged… For a long time he weighed matters up silently in his own mind, irresolute between the two alternatives… Finally, in a sort of passion, as through he were casting calculation aside and abandoning himself to whatever lay in store for him… (pg 276) 

Indeed, it’s in Plutarch, not Casear’s memoirs, that his immortal line “let the die be cast” can be found. Which brings up the question: if Plutarch isn’t accurate, is he reliable? And if not, what’s the point in reading him?

Speaking as a general reader – I’m not a classical scholar – I found his value comes from his moralizing. The lessons he’s wanted to teach have long since stopped mattering, but the way he’s gone about composing these biographies is what makes them compelling reading. He not only paints an interesting picture of Rome right before, during, and immediately after the civil wars, he’s preserved how people looked at these figures: Caesar, the would-be monarch; Cicero the legendary orator and smartass; Pompey the great, succumbing to flatterers; etc.

To some degree, that’s always the problem with any kind of biography. Not everyone’s lived an amazing life. And not everyone Plutarch did, either. His life of Crassus, for instance, is tremendously short on actual details. So he spiced things up. Was Cleopatra really snuck into a palace rolled up inside a sleeping bag? Did Cicero really smart off all the time? Well, that’s something to be keep in mind here.

It goes hand in hand with another thing about this book: Plutarch isn’t one for providing much context around events. The more I knew about the events around the lives – like Casear or Cicero – the more I was able to get out of his writings. He glosses over details which are important, but not completely relevant to his message. Having some background about these people or the events around Plutarch describes, like the Civil Wars, will help keep things from getting bogged down.

I thought the translation by Rex Warner was clear and read well. The introductions to each Life and notes throughout by Robin Seager were through, if occasionally distracting for the average reader (although a student would probably appreciate the cross-referencing to other works).

My rating: 7 of 10. Recommended for history buffs and those who already know a little about Roman history. Fans of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra might get a kick out of this, too. But those just getting into ancient history, looking for something to start with, should look elsewhere first – Suetonius or Livy come to mind. This is an entertaining volume, but it’s easy to get lost in Plutarch’s moralizing if you’re not careful.

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