on July 27, 2010
Plutarch was a classical Greek historian during the Roman period who was well rounded and provides us with important insights into the classical world through his writings. Most important among these writings are the extensive biographies he wrote of important individuals from Greece and Rome. Some of his sources are now lost to us, but the tales live on.
This particular collection is a set of six biographies of individuals set in the late Republic: Gaius Marius (who instituted various military reforms which probably doomed the Republic), Sulla (the first to enforce a dictatorship over the republic through civil war), Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero. Through these writings we are introduced to religious customs, stories of prophecies, and tangential tales that have in some ways eclipsed the subject of the biography.
For example, in the biography of Crassus, we are introduced to a fairly full account of the Spartacus War and the appeal of that story during McCarthy-era America among those who were dissenting from McCarthy's rhetoric is obvious.
For all of this, the line that stands out in my memory is the popular description of Sulla being that his face was a "mulberry with oatmeal sprinkled on it."
on December 8, 2014
The selection of lives in this book is not quite as good as those in Makers of Rome, but it does have Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, so it's worth reading for those alone. The rest are also interesting, just not as interesting after having read the other book.
on May 10, 2009
In a recent interview, Bob Dylan cites a number of ancient historians and philosophers as his favored reading, and makes a special mention of Plutarch's Roman lives as a book to which he returns over and over again. It is easy to see why. In an age of murkiness and mediocrity, cheap sensationalism and formula, an existence that is electric but at the same time sickly and often vacuous, it is an almost therapeutic experience to spend time with the ambitious, able, brave, visionary, and healthy-spirited generals. The facts and figures, the sequence of events depicted, are far less important than the experience itself, the pleasure of being in the company of soldiers who prize wisdom, moderation, efficiency, and honor over all. These were self-made men, entrepreneurs in the modern sense. The empire was no accident, and this books is a reminder of what we once were, and could still one day be.
on February 6, 2010
Plutarch is the opposite of Isaaic Asimov. Foundation portrays history only in terms of massive predictable, quantifiable and eminently understandable trends. There is little accounting for individual personalities; only stochastic movements of people, information, money, and resources. On the other hand, Plutarch writes history in the form of biographic essays, showing us one unique, sometimes inconsistent, often inscrutable man at a time.
Six Lives was written 150 years after the fall of the Roman Republic, and gives the reader a feel for six top leaders of the Republic. I think they help show that while the Empire was sexier than the Republic, the Republic may have more to teach us... It's history is the cautionary tale of a prosperous, learned society with codified rights (for some), and elements of representative governance, which proceeded down a path to dictatorship. Some understanding of how this happened may be gleaned from the six lives Plutarch examines:
GAIUS MARIUS parlays success as a General into a legendary political career, becoming the first man to be elected Consul seven times. He is responsible for the slaughter on the Capitoline Hill, demonstrating an arrogance and ruthlessness which makes him plenty of enemies and few friends. He spends his last few unhealthy years fleeing political rivals and seeking sanctuary wherever he can find it, much as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi "the Shah of Iran" did in 1979. I'm not sure why Gaius was included on this list; he seems the less impressive than the others.
SULLA is a little Roman Joseph Stalin. Turning on the public who elected him Consul, he maneuvers himself into a position of Dictator, and then proceeded to butcher over 12,000 citizens, political opponents, personal enemies and their families for the slightest real or perceived transgressions. Through sheer dumb luck, Sulla was asked to receive the surrender of notorious outlaw Jogurtha on behalf of Rome. Sulla hadn't contributed anything to Jogurtha's defeat and capture, but that didn't stop him from commissioning statues in Rome depicting him standing triumphally over the humbled outlaw. His peers were particularly miffed by a giant gold ring he had custom made, bearing the surrender scene. I guess he wore it under their noses, like bad bad LeRoy Brown. That must have been some outrageous piece of jewelry, to get mention Plutarch`s book, written 150 years later! I wish somebody who saw it would have drawn a picture! Sulla died, incidentally, of a gruesome intestinal worm infestation. (Ascaris??)
CRASSUS (Triumvir #1) is best known as the General who defeated Spartacus, and in his day: the richest man in Rome. His for-profit fire company used to show up at burning homes to negotiate a bargain sale of the house. If the owner refused, the firemen turned around and went home! He comes across as the weakest of the Triumvirs, with no realistic shot at coming out on top over Pompey or Caesar. Brutal ending for Crassus: a beheading when his military adventures in Parthia go bad.
POMPEY (Triumvir #2) is the military strategy whiz-kid, who becomes General at twenty-two, and gets his own Triumph (victory parade) without the normally required rank of Praetor. His career as statesman is less impressive. When Crassus's death ends the Triumvirate, the Republic descends into civil war. Pompey snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and loses to Caesar. Shortly after, he seeks asylum in Egypt, and is murdered by King Ptolmey's agents, in an example of cold-blooded Machiavellian politics which Plutarch explains well on page 239. Side note: while reading this section, I couldn't help feeling Pompey's nemesis, the renegade king Mithridates, was a much more intriguing personality.
CAESAR (Triumvir #3) is the best known of these men, so I won't elaborate. No matter; there is so much overlap of events in the personal histories of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, that reading them in succession starts to feel a bit like Rashomon. If you have read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and the preceeding chapters on Crassus and Pompey, this section has little new to offer.
CICERO is the lone intellectual of the group. It's nice to know that political power wasn't completely limited to generals, but Cicero wasn't nearly as powerful as the others on this list. I like him better in his own work: On the Good Life Penguin Classics. Plutarch thinks Cicero is a too-clever-by-half smartass, but does grudgingly admit his brilliant oratory skills, and his impressive legal career. Sadly, Cicero's life illustrates that being right or just or smart was not enough to ensure the public's goodwill during the Republic. Without question, military might ruled the day.
1) Get a good Atlas of the Roman World for reference when you read this. There are plenty of places mentioned in this book, and no maps. This is a setup for much confusion: what the Romans called "Albania" is in present-day Georgia, while what we now call "Albania", the Romans called Dyrrhachium; what the Romans called "Iberia" is in present-day Armenia... etc.
2) If you go to Rome, be sure to seek out some of the ruins of the Republic: Temple of Hercules Victor, and the Temple of Portunus.
on May 8, 2007
Plutarch's 6 biographies of Roman politicians/generals give a fair picture of a decadent Rome in the 1st century B.C.: mighty unequal distribution of wealth and `legal safeguards inadequate to deter the forces of law and order from murder.' `Since the whole state was rotten within itself, it was in the power of any bold man to overthrow it.' Bold were men like the generals, `who had risen to the top by violence.'
Plutarch's portraits of `Gaius Marius' and `Crassus' are very superficial.
On the contrary, his picture of `Sulla', the first Roman dictator, is very clear-cut: `Sulla, a butcher. (He got) immunity for all his past acts, while for the future he was to have the power of life and death, the power to confiscate property, to found new cities or to demolish existing ones.'
A brave `Cicero' attacked Sulla's murky business transactions in court.
`Pompey' restored the powers of the tribunes, the representatives of the plebeians, and the rights of the classes outside the Senate to serve on juries in law courts. He worked together with `Caesar' to destroy the powers of the aristocracy. After they grabbed power, they fought one another: `armies of the same kin, ranks of brothers, here the whole manhood and might of a single state was involved in self-destruction.'
Why did they fight? Out of greed and personal rivalry.
Caesar won and asked to be given all powers. The Romans opted for the Hobbes/Machiavelli solution: `the rule of one man would give them respite from the miseries of the civil wars, and so they appointed Caesar dictator for life. This meant an undistinguished tyranny; his power was now not only absolute, but perpetual `... until the Ides of March.
Plutarch's dramatic talent produced a shocking tale, full of `putting to death', `cutting into pieces', burning to the ground, slaughtering, enslaving, looting and plundering.
A must read for all those interested in the history of mankind.
on July 28, 2000
I loved Plutarch's detailed accounts of the lives of these great Romans. I especially liked his life of Julius Caesar although I don't agree with him that Caesar, from the beginning, sought to overthrow the Republic. It might not be politically correct to admire Caesar but I do. He was a man of careful thought and decisive action. He was a leader of the first order. The other biographies are equally fascinating.
on January 3, 2012
Plutarch's Lives has been parceled out by the Penguin editors, but this volume is a great start for anybody who wants to get to the bottom of the Fall of the Roman Republic. Although Plutarch's method is biographical, the biographies are very wide ranging and expansive. In this volume we have the biographies of six of the biggest movers and shakers: Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero. Most of the widely disseminated anecdotes you hear about these guys are from this volume, which Plutarch actually put down about 250 years after events described within. Things pick up quickly with the tale of Marius, the brilliant but flawed general who overcame the financial basis of Rome's military by having any Roman citizen eligible to serve in the Legions. Marius saved Rome by defeating a massive German influx, but then became a nightmare of a Consul.
Sulla was Marius's younger rival who had his own day as Rome's consul, but was the first actor in the Late Republic to march his armies on Rome herself and Plutarch goes into great length to tell us about his reign of terror, his rapine looting of Greece during the Mithriditic war and the end of Civil and Social Wars. *That said, it can be argued that in his role of Dictator, Sulla went a long way to instituting some reform in the hopelessly corrupted Roman Republic, however what reforms he instituted were soon undone by the next three great men profiled in this book.
Crassus, Pompey and Caesar all come in for critical treatment from Plutarch and if you read this book you will be getting more than just straightforward biographies of these three, however, Plutarch seems hobbled by the same problem as modern political writers, he focuses heavily on personality to the detriment of paying attention to broader social, political or economic factors which may have shaped the era of the three triumvirs.
Finally we are given a biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the subjects who has some sympathy from Plutarch.
*** SPOILER ALERT!!!!*** Just about all these guys come to a very bad end. If you are down with reading accounts of true crime, massacres, political skullduggery and mass bloodshed, this book may be right up your alley!
on February 14, 2002
Plutarch provides a superb history concerning the decline and collapse of the Roman Republic, following the lives of Sulla, Marius, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero. The first five were very powerful soldiers aspiring to the position of dictator, and the final was perhaps the greatest Latin orator and a lawyer of unparalleled skill. The history is very thorough and definitely worth reading.
However, Plutarch's writing leaves much to be desired. It is slow and dull for the most part, and he provides few insights into what he is writing...he only recounts facts and does not even bother trying to analyze the situation. This can be good, but it makes for dull reading and you finish the book feeling as if you had just read a textbook.
Recommended for people very interested in this period, or amateur historians, but not for the lay reader.
on June 27, 2013
I was required to read four of the chapters for my Western Civilization class, and ended up reading way more. I loved reading about these guys and ancient Rome. It is so interesting and these men and their culture is fascinating. The writing is not dry and makes the history exciting to read about. I'm going to finish the whole thing just for fun-imagine that!
on March 7, 2016
Unless you know the history of Rome quite well already it is a bit difficult to follow this classic author, as his narrative ways are difficult