The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Synopsis:

The 6th century AD Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius ascended the peak of power and influence amid the post-Roman state of Theoderic the Great. After the dissolution of Roman authority in the late 5th century AD,  Theoderic seized control of Italy and formed a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, which would maintain the ancient traditions, offices, and formal structure of the old Roman heartland. This continuity allowed Theoderic to pacify the Roman population, as well as permitted him to concentrate his power and influence over the Italian peninsula.

Late in the reign of Theoderic, the career of Boethius would come to an abrupt end with the latter being charged with treason by the former. In prison Boethius would go on to write The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his own execution. The book is written in dialogue form between Lady Philosophy and Boethius. The subjects of the dialogue include: the origin and preservation of happiness, pursuit of virtue, inconstancy of fortune, as well as time and free will.

Excerpts:

“…I shall present you with this corollary: since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity.”

“The outcome of human actions is entirely dependent on two things, will and capability. If one of these two is absent nothing can be accomplished. For if the will is lacking, people do not even embark on action which they have no wish to carry out; on the other hand, if they are incapable of doing it, it is vain to will it. It follows from this that if you observed someone wanting to acquire something but totally failing to get it, you can be certain that what he lacked was the ability to attain what he desired.”

“…he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal.”

“Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.”

“God must not be visualized as prior to the created world merely in length of time; rather, it is by virtue of possession of his simple nature. This condition of his, unchanging life in the present, is imitated by the perpetual movement of temporal things. Since that movement is unable to achieve and to match that unchanging life, it degenerates from changelessness into change. From the simplicity of the present it subsides into the boundless extent of future and past.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.

On Clemency – Seneca

Synopsis:

In his essay On Clemency, the stoic philosopher Seneca defines the requisite qualities of an ideal ruler relevant to the notions of justice and mercy. The motive for which Seneca wrote the essay was to instruct the young emperor Nero on how the consummate ruler ought to govern. Nero would of course go on to become the antagonist of nearly all the ideas representing virtue in the essay, thereby defining his legacy in history.

Excerpts:

“The true fruit of right deeds is, to be sure, in the doing, and no reward outside themselves is worthy of the virtues…”

“No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretense soon lapses into the true character. But where the basis is truth and where the roots are solidly planted, time itself fosters growth in size and quality.”

“…in full view for all to see is the happiest of administrations in which the only limitation upon the completest liberty is the denial of license for self-destruction.”

“Lightning’s stroke imperils few but frightens all; so chastisement by a mighty power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but of what it might do.”

“It is a mistake to think that the king is safe when nothing is safe from the king; one bargains for security with security.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Julius Caesar – Movie Review

Synopsis and Review:

Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and released in 1953 this adaptation of the preeminent Shakespeare play of the same name is nearly seamless in its production of the classic. The acting triumvirate of Marlon Brando as Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius dominate the attention of the viewer. The only casting selection that could have been bettered would have been that of Julius Caesar himself – played by Louis Calhern. Mr. Calhern is ostensibly not quite as comfortable with the Shakespearian language as some of the other actors, and often comes off as stilted – as well as lacks the famous charisma that the ‘bald-headed lecher’ Caesar was noted as having. In retrospect, Charlton Heston who had played Mark Antony in the 1950, and 1970 film versions of Julius Caesar may have made a better Caesar. Heston and Brando in tandem would have made quite the pair, and might have possibly taken the film to an even greater echelon of performance.

Shakespeare leaned on Plutarch’s biographies for many of his historical plays, and Julius Caesar is no exception. In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch discusses how the Roman people after the assassination of Caesar were given a speech by Brutus instructing them on the reasoning involved in the murder. After hearing Brutus speak, the people concluded that although they loved Caesar, if he truly wished to be king – as Brutus alleged – then Brutus was just to murder him. However, once the people of Rome are shown the mutilated corpse of Caesar and how many times he had been stabbed they turned on Brutus – he was then compelled to flee the city.

The film impressively exhibits the dynamics leading up to and following the assassination of Julius Caesar, and is indeed a worthy addition to any Shakespearian film library.

Justinian’s Military Organization – Hans Delbrück

Synopsis:

In the second volume of his History of the Art of War, Hans Delbrück devotes a chapter in book three to the military organization of the early Byzantine/late Roman Empire under the emperor Justinian. He examines the dissolution of discipline within the ranks, as well as the transition to a generally cavalry centered army. This more mobile force than the famous legions of previous epochs – particularly the republican one – was the culmination of centuries of evolution within the Roman army that had commenced under the emperor Gallienus. The resultant innovations from this transformation would give Justinian the edge in escalation dominance over the barbarian kingdoms in the West, and would open-the-door to a Roman re-conquest of North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula – all within the span of forty years.

Excerpts:

“The active armies were quite small. Belisarius had 25,000 men when he won his victory over the Persians at Daras in 530. He landed in Africa with no more than 15,000 men, and of these 15,000, the 5,000 cavalry included in that total were sufficient to defeat the Vandals in the open field. Even smaller was the army with which Belisarius moved to Italy in order to destroy the East Gothic Kingdom eleven years after Theodoric’s death: there were no more than 10,000 to 11,000 men. ”

“A contemporary author, Agathias (5. 13), estimated that the total Roman army must have been 645,000 men strong but that only 150,000 men were actually available under Justinian.”

“A very large number of the soldiers with whom Belisarius had conquered Italy deserted to the Goths when, after he was relieved, the Roman domination again collapsed and Totila established the Gothic kingdom.”

“After the fourth century A.D., and after the disappearance of the legions, everything changed. The barbarian mercenaries now felt that they were the masters. Woe to the prince or the general who might have dared to incur their displeasure by his strictness!”

“Procopius considers it a half-miracle and an extraordinary accomplishment of Belisarius that the Romans marched into Carthage in good order, ‘whereas otherwise the Roman troops never march into their own cities without disorder, even if there are only 500 of them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from History of the Art of War, Volume II: The Barbarian Invasions, Hans Delbrück, University of Nebraska Press.

The Punic Wars – Nigel Bagnall

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Synopsis:

Born in India in 1927, Sir Nigel Bagnall served as Chief of the General Staff in London for the British Army in the late 1980s. In his survey of the Punic Wars among Rome and Carthage he bestows upon the reader notable erudition of the subject paired with the employment of his vast practical experience as a soldier in the British Army. The blending of his learnedness in both capacities lends to manifest an uncommon narrative of the life and death struggle among the two ancient superpowers – with Rome emerging as the ultimate victor. Bagnall likewise intercedes his own narrative with a chunk of commentary following the telling of the events of the First Punic War, and it is in this commentary that the book sets itself apart from other histories of these imposing wars.

Excerpts:

“When comparing the constitutions of Rome and Carthage, Polybius concludes that Rome was at its zenith when the Senate was at the height of its power and that its decisions were usually sound because they were being made by the best men available. Carthage on the other hand, because its strength and prosperity had preceded that of Rome, was past its prime by the time of the Punic Wars, and the people had gained too much power. In making this assessment, Polybius, however appears to have only considered the constitution as it affected a city state and to have overlooked the wider fact that, whereas Rome had forged a confederation of states which held together even when gravely threatened, Carthage had merely created a feudal empire with no sense of corporate loyalty.”

“Although there will admittedly never be any way of determining exactly why Carthage and Rome went to war, there are nevertheless two clearly identifiable factors which made such a war more probable. First, that the Romans saw an opportunity to advantage themselves, and second, that because they saw that the Carthaginians were unprepared militarily they succumbed to this temptation. Nothing appears to have changed in human nature during the last twenty centuries. Whether as individuals, or collectively, most of the human race displays an unfortunate proclivity for opportunism unless deterred by the threat of sufficiently painful consequences.”

“Although the terminology is today’s, it will still be helpful at this point briefly to distinguish between the three levels of war:

Strategic Level The definition of the strategic objectives to be achieved in fulfillment of government policy.

Operational Level The planning and execution of military operations to achieve stated strategic objectives.

Tactical Level The planning and conduct of battles in pursuit of the operational aim.

In nontechnical language: having decided what you want to do, you plan how this is to be achieved and coordinate the actual battles to be fought in its fulfillment.”

“The effectiveness of Hannibal’s administrative and constitutional reforms, however, is demonstrated by the continuing rise in Carthaginian prosperity even after his flight. In 191 BC, Carthage offered to pay off the whole of the war indemnity, while supplying large quantities of grain to provision the Roman armies – offers which either for reasons of hurt pride, or from a desire not to end symbols of Punic subservience, were disdainfully declined. No more than the fulfillment of her treaty obligations was expected of Carthage. But how far Carthage was prepared to go in order to placate the Romans and show her loyalty as an ally is indicated by the presence of Carthaginian contingents fighting alongside them in their wars against Philip, Antiochus and Perseus.”

“Following the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus endeavored to ensure that Rome’s attitude to Carthage was one of moderation. But he did not survive the political infighting, and with his departure came a reversion, under the leadership of Cato, to the earlier policy of vigorous confrontation with Carthage. After being threatened and having disarmed to demonstrate their willingness to placate Rome under almost any circumstances, the Carthaginians were obliterated. The lesson here is writ large and clear. It is the longterm predisposition of states which should govern our relationships with them, not the ephemeral appearances of some charismatic leader.”

*All excerpts have been taken from The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean, Nigel Bagnall, Pimlico.

Against Fear of Death – Cicero

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Synopsis:

In the first book of his Tusculan Disputations Cicero examines the idea of death, the quality of the human soul, the pursuit of virtue as an end, as well as the mood of human nature. The essay is conveyed in dialogue form among a teacher and his pupil.

Excerpts:

“And yet a responsible farmer will plant trees, even though he’ll never see them bear a single olive. Won’t a great man plant laws, practices, a commonwealth?”

“But somehow there remains in our minds a vision, as it were, of generations to come: a vision that appears most readily and blazes forth most intensely in those with the greatest talent and the deepest soul.”

“We naturally believe that gods exist, but we discern their qualities through the exercise of reason. Just so, we share a universal feeling that souls live on, but we must use reason to determine where and in what condition.”

“The soul senses its own motion; when it does, it senses that it has been moved by its own power, not by anything else, and that it can never be deprived of itself. Which means it is eternal.”

“Although glory is not to be sought for its own sake, it follows virtue like a shadow.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

The Life of Pyrrhus – Plutarch

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Synopsis and Commentary:

Plutarch wrote the life of Pyrrhus as part of his Parallel Lives in which he pairs a famous Greek and Roman with independent biographies of each. Pyrrhus is paired with Gaius Marius the famous Roman general that defeated Jugurtha as well as a major Germanic invasion of Italy and later helped to undermine the Roman Republic in his quest for power. Pyrrhus and Marius have very little in common, and conceivably were only paired to sustain the motif of the book.

Among the countless generals in the history of Western warfare perhaps none has won more battles in concert with ultimate defeat in wars than Pyrrhus of Epirus. Even though he failed in nearly all of his endeavors he was able to gain a lasting reputation for military genius which has endured and will endure in Western culture. His most towering opponent – republican Rome – possessed that crucial additive in warfare which Pyrrhus lacked: the resolve to never accept defeat. Such resolve was manifest in the belief that every war was a life-and-death struggle for republican Rome. Despite the ability of Pyrrhus to achieve awe-inspiring battlefield victories the war itself was more of a passing enthusiasm than a life-and-death struggle for him, and so he met failure after failure in the eventual aims of the wars he fought.

Pyrrhus remains an enigma in Western culture. His battlefield successes, his spectacular military genius, and his Alexander like charisma ought to have produced an unstoppable military juggernaut, but rather than climbing the heights that Alexander once did he met ultimate failure in war after war.

Excerpts:

“…Pyrrhus only by arms and in action, represented Alexander. Of his knowledge of military tactics and the art of a general, and his great ability that way, we have the best information from the commentaries he left behind him. Antigonus, also, we are told, being asked who was the greatest soldier, said, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old’…

“…Hannibal of all great commanders esteemed Pyrrhus for skill and conduct the first, Scipio the second, and himself the third, as is related in the life of Scipio.”

“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.”

“…What he got by great actions he lost again by vain hopes, and by new desires of what he had not, kept nothing of what he had. So that Antigonus used to compare him to a player with dice, who had excellent throws, but knew not how to use them.”

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.