Julius Caesar – Plutarch

Synopsis:

Plutarch’s biography of Julius Caesar examines the moral, and intellectual dimensions of Caesar’s character. Context is a pronounced component of Plutarch’s analysis – which utilizes the underlying Roman political culture of the era as a bedrock feature of the narrative. Further, Plutarch uses biographical anecdotes to advance an image of Caesar as a world historical individual.  

Excerpts:

“Sulla, without openly objecting, took measures to see that he was not elected and discussed the question of whether or not to have him put to death. When some of his advisers said that there was no point in killing a boy like him, Sulla replied that they must be lacking in intelligence if they did not see that in this boy there were many Mariuses.

“Cicero, who is thought to have been the first to have seen beneath the surface of Caesar’s political program and to have feared it as one might fear the smiling surface of the sea, and who understood how powerful a character was hidden behind Caesar’s agreeable, good-humored manners, said that, in general, he could detect in everything that Caesar planned or undertook in politics a purpose that was aiming at absolute power.

“For the cause of the civil wars was not, as most people think, the quarrel between Caesar and Pompey; it was rather their friendship, since in the first place they worked together to destroy the power of the aristocracy and only when this had been accomplished quarreled amongst themselves.

“For when Pompey, for some reason or other (possibly over caution), instead of putting the finishing stroke to his great success, retired as soon as he had driven the routed enemy inside their camp, Caesar, who was with his friends, remarked to them as he was leaving them: ‘Today the enemy would have won , if they had a commander who was a winner.’

“Brutus fancied that he heard a noise at the entrance to the tent and, looking towards the light of the lamp which was almost out, he saw a terrible figure, like a man, though unnaturally large and with a very severe expression. He was frightened at first, but, finding that this apparition just stood silently by his bed without doing or saying anything, he said: ‘Who are you?’ Then the phantom replied: ‘Brutus, I am your evil genius. You shall see me at Philippi.

*All excerpts have been taken from Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin Books.

The Rise of Constantius III – Michael Kulikowski

Synopsis:

The elevation – and subsequent domination – of the late Roman Empire by Constantius III came about within the context of the power vacuum generated by the execution of the Roman generalissimo Stilicho. Successful in several campaigns in Spain and Gaul, Constantius for a time managed to restore Roman power-projection in both domains. Later, he shared power with Honorius as co-emperor.

Excerpts:

“Disease had rid Honorius of one of his chief tormentors, but it was a new arrival in the regime who delivered him from the still more pressing challenge of Constantine in Gaul. Flavius Constantius, who would dominate the next decade of western Roman history in much the same way that Stilicho had the last, was a native of Naissus.

“He played no documented role in the chaos before and after Stilicho’s execution, and emerges on the scene only in 410, perhaps as comes domesticorum, when he orchestrated the second fall of Olympius and had him clubbed to death. Constantius was then elevated to the magisterium utriusque militiae, senior commander of the praesental army.

“In places where the imperial superstructure was restored, as it was in much of Gaul and Spain, the period of local autonomy looked like an unfortunate interlude; in places where it was not, it was remembered as a popular revolt against Rome.

“For a very brief moment, Honorius was the sole person claiming the western throne. That was in itself a triumph at this point, but the successive proclamations in most of the western dioceses revealed a pattern of entrenched warlordism that would characterise the rest of the fifth century.

“Constantius had every reason to be well pleased. He was now clearly the dominant power in the state, and the fact that we know so little about the court factions surrounding him suggests that there was none that could challenge his predominance.

*All excerpts have been taken from Imperial Tragedy: From Constantine’s Empire to the Destruction of Roman Italy, AD 363-568, Profile Books Ltd.

Lycurgus of Sparta – Plutarch

Synopsis:

The life of Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta is mostly legendary in character – and Plutarch admits this much in his biography of him. Accordingly, Plutarch dedicates much of his biography of Lycurgus to the Spartan city-state and the constitution which Lycurgus created. In this way Plutarch keenly balances the mythical context with his own reflections on the enduring institutions which Lycurgus devised.

Excerpts:

“The Egyptians say that he took a voyage into Egypt, and that, being much taken with their way of separating the soldiery from the rest of the nation, he transferred it from them to Sparta, a removal from contact with those employed in low and mechanical occupations giving high refinement and beauty to the state.

“Amongst the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which having a power equal to the king’s in matters of great consequence, and, as Plato expresses it, allaying and qualifying the fiery genius of the royal office, gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth.

“A third ordinance of Rhetra was, that they should not make war often, or long, with the same enemy, lest that they should train and instruct them in war, by habituating them to defend themselves.

“The senate, as I said before, consisted of those who were Lycurgus’s chief aiders and assistants in his plans. The vacancies he ordered to be supplied out of the best and most deserving men past sixty years old.

“Aristocrates, the son of Hipparchus, says that he died in Crete, and that his Cretan friends, in accordance with his own request, when they had burned his body, scattered the ashes into the sea; for fear lest, if his relics should be transported to Lacedaemon, the people might pretend to be released from their oaths, and make innovations in the government.

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

The Death of Persia, and the Death of Alexander the Great – Frederick the Great

Synopsis:

Frederick the Great devotes a small corner of his Anti-Machiavel to answer why the Persian Empire of Darius III did not rise again following the death of its conqueror – Alexander the Great. Rather than destroy the empire Alexander in a sense co-opted it, and used the institutions of the Persian Empire for his new Macedonian Empire. Frederick also keenly compares from a cultural/political context the nation-states of Europe in his own era with those of Alexander and Darius.

Excerpts:

“The same policy which carried the King’s ministers to the establishment of an absolute despotism to France, also taught them to distract the nation by using its lightness and inconstancy, to make it less dangerous: a thousand frivolous occupations, the trifles and the pleasures, was given in exchange for their rights and their power.

“France’s powerful armies, and a very large number of fortresses, ensure that the French Sovereign will possess the throne forever, and they do not have anything to fear now concerning internal wars or their neighbors invading France.

“The author (Machiavelli) considers these things from only one point of view. He does not discuss the structure each government has: he appears to believe that the power of the empire of Persia and the Turks was founded only on the general slavery of these nations, and on the single rise of only one man who is the absolute ruler. He is of the idea that a despotism without restriction, established well, is the surest means that a prince has to ensure reign without disorder, and resist its enemies vigorously.

“The difference of the climates, the peoples’ diets, and their level of education, establish a total difference between their way of living and of thinking – like the difference between an Italian monk and a Chinese scholar. The temperament of the English, stout-hearted but hypochondriacal, is completely different from the proud courage of the Spanish; and the French have as little resemblance to the Dutch as the promptness of a monkey-cry has with the phlegm of a tortoise.

“It was noticed from time immemorial that the custom of the Eastern people was a spirit of constancy in their practices and their old habits, of which they almost never depart. Their religion, different from that of Europeans, still obliges them in some way, for fear of trouble visiting their Masters, the company of not to consort with those which they call the infidel; and to avoid carefully all that could pollute their religion and upset the structure of their government. Here is what, in their countries, makes for security of the throne, rather than that of the monarch: the Emperors are often dethroned, but the empire is never destroyed.

*All excerpts have been taken from Anti-Machiavel, Newark Press.