“The age of Caesar,” writes classicist Mary Beard, “was a world of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome.” These chaotic times — roughly the middle decades of the 1st century B.C. — were deeply riven by “fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run” and “how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met.” In the end, the Roman Republic was destroyed, as the people — worn out by civil war — turned to the ruthless Augustus to bring them peace, even at the cost of despotism.
That story, at times striking in its contemporary relevance, is vividly retold in these newly translated short biographies of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Brutus and Mark Antony, all five of them extracted from Plutarch’s famous “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” Written in the early years of the 2nd century, this biographical classic quickly became a school text as early as the 4th century and from the Renaissance to the early modern era served as both a popular introduction to antiquity and the preferred leisure reading of everyone from parsons to politicians.
The list of Plutarch’s most ardent admirers includes, for example, Montaigne, Shakespeare (who drew on Thomas North’s translation while writing “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra”), Rousseau (who called the “Lives” his favorite book) and this country’s Founding Fathers, notably Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.
For all these writers, Plutarch is essentially a moralist. As Arthur Hugh Clough noted in an essay introducing the standard 19th-century edition of the “Lives,” Plutarch emphasizes instances of “duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised; hasty anger corrected” along with examples of “humanity, fair dealing, and generosity.” His Greeks and Romans are, above all, exemplars, showing readers what it takes — and costs — to live a life of nobility and consequence. Throughout, Plutarch relies on anecdotes and striking idiosyncratic behavior to illuminate a man or woman’s inner self. As he wrote about Alexander the Great, “a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands fall.”
“The Age of Caesar” opens with an account of the conquests of Pompey and his rivalry with Julius Caesar. One military maneuver succeeds another, and a casual reader may feel confused or daunted. Persist. The other four lives cover territory made familiar by Shakespeare’s Roman plays and largely revolve around Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath. Many of the same events are thus presented, Rashomon-like, from several slightly differing viewpoints.
Famous moments abound: Caesar pauses at the Rubicon with his army, waffles a bit and finally says, “Let the die be cast” as he crosses the river and marches on Rome. In a particularly chilling set piece, Cicero struggles against, then finally accepts, his fated doom. Trying to escape the assassination ordered by Mark Antony, Rome’s great orator takes ship only to find himself pursued by an eerie flock of crows. When he reaches his villa, the crows perch on his windows and one even pecks at the covers when he tries to rest. In the meantime, the hit men arrive. They break down the bedroom door but learn that their target is being carried back down to the sea. One of the killers, named Herennius “went on the run through the walks; and Cicero, catching sight of him, ordered his servants to set the litter down where they were. He himself, stroking his chin with his left hand, as he used to do, gazed steadily at his murderers, his body covered with dust.” Then, “Cicero stretched forth his neck from the litter and was slain, being then in his sixty-fourth year.” Herennius cuts off the orator’s head and hands, which Antony brazenly displays in the capital.
While Plutarch admires, more or less, Pompey’s martial prowess, Caesar’s single-mindedness and Brutus’s patriotism, he shows clear contempt for Mark Antony. Upright citizens, he writes, “abhorred his drunkenness at all hours, his heavy expenditures, his wallowing in love affairs, his days in sleeping or walking about distracted and hung over, and his nights at revels, theaters, and the wedding festivities of mimes and buffoons.” Of course, “the crowning evil that befell him was his passion for Cleopatra.” Plutarch then relates the cinematic scene of Egypt’s queen, arrayed like Aphrodite, floating down the river Cydnus on a golden barge, her fairest maids dressed as Nereids and Graces. (Shakespeare would turn this into some of his most gorgeous poetry.) Antony is waiting at Cilicia to meet her, when suddenly the forum is deserted. Everyone has run off to see Cleopatra’s arrival, leaving the Roman big shot sitting all alone on the rostrum. Plutarch adds that the serpent of old Nile wasn’t incomparably beautiful, but that “her presence cast an inescapable spell. . . . It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice.” Did the stern biographer, despite himself, fall under that spell? His account of her love affair with Antony, which began with calculated seduction and ended in something close to tragedy, has moved readers to tears for almost 2,000 years.
Cleopatra’s suicide by asp brings “The Age of Caesar”— and all of Plutarch’s “Lives,” for that matter — to a close. Pamela Mensch, the translator, and James Romm, the editor and annotator, are highly regarded classicists, and the book’s introducer, Mary Beard, is an even more distinguished scholar. Still, I wouldn’t give up my “Dryden/Clough” edition of the complete “Lives.” Throughout those spirited and stately volumes, Plutarch regularly shows that great leaders transcend their own purely material interests and petty, personal vanities. Noble ideals actually do matter, in government as in life.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
By Plutarch. Translated from the Greek by Pamela Mensch
Edited by James Romm
Introduction by Mary Beard
Norton. 393 pp. $35