Friday, July 31, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (Part 4 of 4)

The first three parts of this essay can be accessed here, here, and here.

Before chasing after Pompey and those senators that had fled with him from Rome, Caesar laid the groundwork for ruling the Empire in the case of his eventual victory. After subduing Pompey’s legions in Rome, he returned and was given the powers of the dictator, which he used for a very short period of time to create a legal and social climate conducive to his future plans. He offered clemency to the populares who had opposed Sulla, inviting them back to Rome as full citizens as well as appealing to the masses by forgiving a portion of interest accumulated on outstanding debt. By Plutarch’s account, Caesar wielded the powers of a dictator for a mere eleven days before returning the appearance of sovereignty to what remained of the Senate and acting, himself, as co-consul. Having re-assembled the government of Rome to resemble its appearance before his coup, Caesar then left the city to pursue Pompey.

The war, at first, did not go well for Caesar. His legions, though zealous in their devotion to Caesar, had been at war for nearly eight years and were noticeably weakened because of it. The long and furious marches that were the hallmark of Caesar’s strategy in Gaul and then against Rome herself had taken their toll on both their stamina and numbers. Following Pompey into Greece (where the authority of the senate carried more weight than Caesar’s acclaim among the people of Rome), Caesar found himself in the unenviable position of defending against both Pompey’s now-well provisioned land army and the fleet at his disposal. Caesar ultimately decided that he had a better chance to of defeating Pompey deep inland where the legions could be better provisioned off of the lands they occupied. Moving north towards Macedonia where Scipio’s army lay, Caesar lured Pompey away from his nautical supply line. Finally, at Pharsalia, the two opposing armies camped in preparation for the final battle to decide Rome’s fate.

With Pompey’s army enjoying the advantage of both numbers and provisions, we must accept Plutarch’s conclusion that Caesar gained victory over his opponent by superior strategy. He writes:

When they were ready on both sides to give the signal for battle, Pompey commanded his foot, who were in the front, to stand their ground and, without breaking their order, receive, quietly, the enemy’s first attack, till they came within javelin’s cast…Caesar’s cohorts rushed out and attacked them, and did not dart their javelins at a distance, nor strike at the thighs and legs, as they usually do in close battle, but aimed at their faces. For thus Caesar had instructed them, in hopes that young gentlemen, who had not known much of battles and wounds…would be more apprehensive of such blows…and so it proved, for they were so far from bearing the stroke of the javelins, that they could not stand up to the sight of them, but turned about, and covered their faces to secure them. [595]

Pompey’s army essentially folded in on itself and was massacred by Caesar’s legions. After Pompey fled the battle, Caesar pardoned all the soldiers who had fought against him (and impressing them into his own army) along with the patricians, like Brutus, who had lost, in this final cataclysmic battle, their taste for warring with Caesar. He carried them all along with him into Egypt at Alexandria where he discovered that Pompey had already been murdered. Looking to replenish his coffers after the costly war with Pompey, Caesar demanded that the Egyptians give him an exorbitant amount of money owed to Rome by the Egyptian people. When they initially resisted his efforts to collect, Caesar summoned the deposed queen, Cleopatra, from her exile and forcibly reconciled her to her younger brother-husband that they both might rule in concert to promote stability.

Those who had enjoyed the greatest influence in Cleopatra’s absence chafed at Caesar’s micro-management of Egyptian affairs and began to plot his murder. Catching wind of this plot sooner rather than later, Caesar had most of them executed though one general, Achillas escaped to raise an army of Egyptians up against Caesar’s legions in Alexandria. After a protracted siege, Caesar’s forces eventually prevailed and the boy-king was, in Plutarch’s words, “never seen after” [596]. Cleopatra assumed the full mantle of rule and gave birth to a male heir by Caesar named Caesarion.

After pacifying Egypt, Caesar moved northward again, visiting Syria and then Asia Minor, taking the time to put down a rebellion led by Pharnaces, king of Pontus on his way. He returned to Rome for a time, receiving again the absolute powers of a dictator (this time for a year) and was elected consul again the following year. While many of Pompey’s allies among the optimates had returned to Rome after Caesar’s victory at Pharsalia, two influential senators, Scipio and Cato had fled further west in northern Africa were they rallied outlying areas of the Roman Empire to their cause. In time, Caesar returned to Africa and sought to crush the final spark of the rebellion against his authority. He defeated Scipio, who had allied with the Numidian King Juba and turned to pursue Cato who was nearby in Utica. Cato, understanding the futility of opposing Caesar now that the army they had raised had been defeated, committed suicide, thus depriving Caesar of his final victory over what remained of the optimates. Caesar returned to Rome, celebrating three triumphs, one for each of his major victories over the Egyptians, the Pontians, and the Numidians. He would only return to the battlefield one last time, to subdue some of Pompey’s sons in Spain the following year.

Upon this final victory, Caesar was again declared dictator of Rome but this time, the powers were bestowed for life. He held his final triumph on Rome, celebrating his victories in Spain but the people were less enamored this time. Though perhaps they were just tiring of the spectacle of the triumph, Plutarch suggests that it didn’t settle well with them that they were essentially celebrating the defeat of Romans by Romans. To temper their displeasure, he re-displayed images of Pompey that had been removed from the Forum upon his defeat and, both forgave and enriched his former enemies until, it seemed, all of Rome owed Caesar personally by virtue of his generosity.

For all of the power of which he seemed to now be in possession, Plutarch makes little mention of Caesar’s political agenda after he is crowned dictator for life. Of the many plans he laid out for future implementation, only one does Plutarch attribute to him actually accomplishing.

…his reformation of the calendar in order to rectify the irregularity of time was not only projected with great scientific ingenuity, but was brought to its completion and proved of very great use…Caesar called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time to settle the point, and out of the systems he had before him formed a new and more exact nethod of correcting the calendar, which the Romans use to this day, and seem to succeed better than any nation in avoiding the errors occasioned by the inequality of the cycles. [600]

While he could alter the flow of time, or at least the standard by which it was measured, Caesar’s ultimate goal of being named King of Rome proved terminally elusive. Plutarch recounts several efforts made by Caesar and those who supported him the most vocally to use his unlimited powers as a springboard for a new monarchy. Yet, it is the people of Rome, by Plutarch’s retelling of it, that denied Caesar this final honor, describing a number of occasions where the symbols of royalty were offered to Caesar but, upon registering the people’s displeasure, he declined. It was the threat of this monarchy emerging that drove some of those elevated by Caesar’s own rise to power from being his grateful friends to beginning a plot against his life.

This conspiracy, eventually led by Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, Brutus. Brutus came from a family with a historical legacy of killing tyrants and restoring democracy and so, as Caesar unsuccessfully inched his way closer and closer towards having himself declared king, Brutus came under more and more pressure from the people of Rome to stop him. At the age of fifty-six, Caesar was brutally murdered by Brutus, Cassius and others of the Senate. They fell upon him with daggers, inflicting, according Plutarch, twenty-three stab wounds and Caesar died, fittingly enough, at the feet of a statue of Pompey that he had erected in the Senate.

After initial chaos, Brutus and the other senators managed to establish calm in the city and quickly passed a number of decrees to put the whole affair behind them.

The day after, Brutus with the rest came down from the capitol and made a speech to the people, who listened without expressing either any pleasure or resentment, but showed by their silence that they pitied Caesar and respected Brutus. The senate passed acts of oblivion for what was past, and took measures to reconcile all parties. They ordered that Caesar should be worshipped as divinity, and nothing, even of the slightest consequence should be revoked which he had enacted during his government. [601]

This calm was supplanted though in time by outright hostility when it was revealed that Caesar had left a small piece of his fortune to every Roman citizen. The two people who benefited the most directly from Caesar’s legacy, Marc Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian began consolidating this resentment into a new political faction; just as Caesar had done with that of Marius in his own time. In time, all those responsible for Caesar’s murder were driven from the city by fear of the people and would within just a few years, be killed, whether by the hand of a Roman soldier or by their own. The generational struggle that guided Caesar into politics would continue and, under Octavian (known later as Caesar Augustus), see the Roman republic finally dissolved for a more authoritarian style of rule known to posterity as the Great Age of Caesars.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (Part 3 of 4)

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

Before Julius Caesar left for Gaul, he had been and done many things. He was from a noble (if not celebrated) patrician family. He had become the high priest of the Temple of Jupiter and, years later, the chief priest of all Rome. He had gained considerable rhetorical skills studying under Apollonius at Rhodes and had put those skills to the test advocating for both himself and others in very high profile cases before the senate. He had been elected to a number of high-ranking positions within the Roman government. It can be said, in these areas, that in Rome, Caesar had few peers and no equals. The same could not be said, however, about his military exploits. Despite his early stint in the military while hiding from Sulla and his successful conquests in Spain that earned him the title of Imperator but no triumph, Pompey was the great general of Caesar’s day and, had Caesar not gone to Gaul, that is probably still the way that history would remember him. With four legions under his command and a five year mandate, Caesar forsook all of his other identities and poured himself into becoming a new man in the eyes of the Roman people; a man fit, ultimately, to rule them not as first among many but as one above all.

Despite the ambition he displayed, it is valuable to remember that unrest in Gaul actually posed an existential threat to the Romans. The fragmented nature of the Gallic culture made it impossible for Rome to make one peace with one leader in order to settle the issue. Thus, the early history of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul reads almost like a laundry list of the various tribes and kingdoms that he had to bring to heel. As Plutarch notes,

For he had not pursued the wars in Gaul full ten years when he had taken by storm above eight hundred towns, subdued three hundred states, and of the three millions of men, who made up the gross sum of those with whom at several times he engaged he had killed one million and taken captive a second. [583]

Plutarch is quite thorough in his accounting of Caesar’s time in Gaul but, for the sake of brevity, we can narrow his accomplishments down to three. First, he brought the peoples of Gaul who were sympathetic to Roman interests (and influence) firmly under Roman authority whether by means of diplomacy, intimidation or promise of security. Second, he galvanized those who were not under one leader and, in time, defeated them outright, taking that king, Vercingetorix, prisoner and ritually killing him at the climax of his later triumph in Rome. Finally, he repelled the Germanic tribes that threatened Roman interests in Gaul and, in fact, pushed them back further into their own homelands than every before, expanding Rome’s boundaries, unifying a large swath of what is now Europe under one banner. These, along with a host of other minor victories, are the unvarnished facts of what Caesar accomplished during his time in Gaul.

Those facts, however, don’t underscore plainly enough the effect that his victories had back in Rome itself. Plutarch trumpets Caesar’s generosity throughout this section, leaving the reader with the distinct impression that, back home, certain people were becoming very wealthy as Caesar slowly bled Gaul dry of all of its accumulated riches, both material and human. Thus, the intended purpose of giving Caesar his legions and his mandate in the first place (to remove him from the day-to-day of Roman politics and to diminish his memory among the people) had the exact opposite effect. Caesar, by the people’s account, made Rome safer by not only eradicating the threat of a Gallic invasion but by pushing the Germanic tribes further away and taking part of their lands as a buffer against future attacks. He flooded certain channels of the city with riches and slaves, creating the impression that Caesar sought not to enrich himself but enrich Rome through his efforts. Most damningly for his enemies (present and future), he established an impeccable reputation as a brilliant and visceral general who could credibly be compared to any of Rome’s great military leaders, living or dead.

Near the end of his first five year mission, Caesar acquired, through his influence with Pompey and his allies in the senate, a second five year mandate to continue his war. In all, Caesar spent about eight years in Gaul and would no doubt have continued campaigning for the final two had external events not dictated another course of action. Plutarch writes that, upon returning from his expedition to Britain, Caesar:

…found letters which lay ready to be conveyed over the water to him from his friends at Rome, announcing his daughter’s death, who died in labour of a child by Pompey. Caesar and Pompey both were much afflicted with her death, nor were their friends less disturbed, believing that the alliance was now broken, which had hitherto kept the sickly commonwealth in peace, for the child also died within a few days after the mother. [587]

Crassus, we later discover, had died in Parthia some time before and so, as Plutarch puts it, “if the one of them wished to make himself the greatest man in Rome, he had only to overthrow the other.” With the senate so long having been weakened by the influence of the First Triumvirate on the people, Rome’s actual governance fell into the hands of fewer and fewer people until only two remained. Pompey, being in actual possession of the city, threw his influence behind that of the senate, believing reasonably that their efforts combined would be enough to quell Caesar’s threat to their sovereignty. Once achieved, it would have been a simple enough matter to finally extinguish the senate’s authority and establish himself as king of the new Roman empire. Plutarch, more lyrically, paints the situation with unmistakable verity.

So that after so many times stained the place of election with blood of men killed upon the spot, they left the city at last without a government at all, to be carried about like a ship without a pilot to steer her; while all who had any wisdom could only be thankful if a course of such wild and stormy disorder and madness might end no worse than in a monarchy. Some were so bold as to declare openly that the government was incurable but by a monarchy, and that they ought to take that remedy from the hands of the hands of the gentlest physician, meaning Pompey, who, though in words, he pretended to decline it, yet in reality made his utmost efforts to be declared dictator. [589]

Emboldened by this new found prestige, Pompey prematurely ended Caesar’s term in Gaul, demanding he return the legions with which Pompey had supplied him in order to continue his efforts. Seeming at first to be compliant, Caesar returned the legions but sent a generous gift with each soldier, creating something of a fifth column within Pompey’s troops; men under Pompey’s banner but sworn in their hearts to his enemy. From there, the two began a game of offering compromises that neither would desire, each trying to seem more magnanimous in his mercy than the other. In time, though, the senate brought an end to this game and declared that Caesar would be considered an enemy of Rome unless he surrendered his troops and returned to Rome for trial. Caesar immediately mustered his troops and rode for Rome. Caught surprised by the swiftness of his advance, Pompey and his optimates compatriots from the senate were forced to leave the city in order to muster the troops necessary to eventually meet Caesar on the battlefield. And so it was that Julius Caesar made himself “the master of all Italy without bloodshed in the space of sixty days” [591].

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (Part 2 of 4)

Part One of this essay can be read here.

Not long after his aunt’s death, Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, died in childbirth. Plutarch writes that Caesar gave a lyrical and moving eulogy to her memory in the Forum, a practice not often afforded to young women (as opposed to older ones like his aunt, Julia) and one that endeared him to the people of Rome once again. Not long after, he accepted an administrative position in Spain that seems to have bee his first transition into mainstream Roman politics. Upon his return to Rome, Caesar married Pompeia, the granddaughter of his former persecutor, Sulla. It is impossible to mistake, even from this distance, the calculated maneuvering in which Caesar is engaged in his transition from his marriage with Cornelia (the daughter of Cinna, one of Marius’ chief con-conspirators) to Pompeia. As a result, more doors began to open for him politically. Plutarch mentions him working as the “surveyor of the Appian Way” for some period before being appointed to the position of aedile, an administrator in charge of public works and for organizing the games and festivals beloved by the Roman people. About this, Plutarch writes that:

When he was aedile, he provided such a number of gladiators, that he entertained the people with three hundred and twenty single combats, and by his great liberality and magnificence in theatrical shows, in processions, and public feasting, he threw into the shade all the attempts that had been made before him, and gained so much upon the people, that every one was eager to find out new offices and new honours for him in return for his munificence. [579]

At the height of his popularity as aedile, Caesar one-upped the spectacle he perpetuated at his aunt’s funeral by having images and statues celebrating Marius’ military victories on behalf of Rome placed in the public Forum. While this act enraged the Senate, it sent a clear message to those sympathetic to the populares cause that it had found a new champion in Gaius Julius Caesar as well as to the people of Rome that the unchecked authority of the patricians in the Senate was not impervious to criticism. Caesar was brought before the Senate to defend his actions and received from him an apology but old battlelines had been unmistakably re-sketched into dirt for all to see.

It was along these lines that Caesar gained advantage over his enemies as he ran for the office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of Rome. He was opposed in election by two men, both allied with the optimates cause and, after acquiring immense debt in the act of bribing anyone and everyone he thought might aid his cause, Caesar won the election that he told his mother would make him either “high priest or an exile.” The effect on the political landscape in Rome was unmistakable, leading his enemies in the Senate to step up their efforts to stop his political elevation any further. When a man named Catiline was discovered, after his flight from Rome, to have been conspiring “not only to change the present state of affairs, but to subvert the whole empire,” a great investigation was launched to uncover all who may have joined in this cause. As his co-conspirators were brought before the Senate for trial and punishment, all who spoke called for a sentence of execution until Caesar, in his role as the High Priest, said that it was “without precedent and not just to take away the lives of persons of their birth and distinction before they were fairly tried” [580].

This statement questioned the veracity of the trial that had just taken place and, according to Plutarch, influenced many who spoke after him to reverse their certainty in seeing the men put to death. Cato, the functional head of the optimates in the Senate, reproached Caesar in his closing argument, accusing him of being involved himself in the conspiracy and, ultimately, the men were sentenced to be executed. By Plutarch’s account, the optimates were so incensed by Caesar’s opposition to them that:

As Caesar was going out of the senate, many of the young men who at that time acted as guards to Cicero ran in with their naked swords to assault him. But, Curio, it is said, threw his gown over him, and conveyed him away, and Cicero himself, when the young men looked up to see his wishes, gave a sign not to kill him, either for fear of the people or because he thought the murder unjust and illegal. [580]

Caesar was eventually exonerated by the Senate for any involvement with Cataline’s rebellion and, indeed, was elected to be the praetor of Rome for one year. While he was praetor, Caesar divorced his wife, Pompeia, under rather unusual circumstances. During a festival where the women were sequestered from the men in accordance with the rite, it was discovered that a young man named Clodius, disguised as a young woman, had made his way into Caesar’s home with the intention of coupling with Pompeia, whom Plutarch describes as having “no aversion to him.” Though Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, Plutarch does note that Caesar made no attempt to revenge himself upon Clodius and, in fact, appointed him to positions of status within the government later. The inclusion of these details suggests that Plutarch believes that Caesar may have, in fact, orchestrated his wife’s public disgrace in order to sever the now unneccesary ties their marriage created between him and the optimates.

When Caesar’s term as praetor expired, he was given the province of Spain to administer similarly. While in Spain, Caesar polished his credentials as an effective general by subduing long rebellious tribes in the area and earning, from his legions, the title of Imperator. It was customary, after receiving this title, for a general to return to Rome for a triumph. However, at the same time, Caesar was vying to become co-consul of Rome. This presented a problem as any general being honored with a triumph was expected to remain outside of Rome until the Senate summoned him home. However, it was also custom that anyone petitioning for the consulate must be in Rome to do so. After failing to persuade the Senate to bend the rules in order to overcome this paradox of tradition, Caesar gave up his right to a triumph and returned to Rome to begin his campaign to become consul. Had the Senate known the means by which Caesar planned to gain the consulate, they might have pushed harder for him to accept his triumph instead.

Upon returning to Rome, Caesar reconciled to long-standing foes, Crassus and Pompey, and then bound the three of them together in an alliance that rendered the Senate nearly impotent. With Crassus’ money and Pompey’s military prowess backing him, Caesar could not be stopped in his quest to attain the position of consul and, upon his appointment, began introducing a variety of controversial bills designed to please the people and further weaken the aristocracy. When the Senate became enraged by his agenda, he turned then to the people to ratify his legislation. Plutarch writes that:

He hurried out of the senate, and presenting himself to the people, and there placing Crassus and Pompey, one on each side of him, he asked them whether they consented to the bills he had proposed. They owned their assent, upon which he desired them to assist him against those who had threatened to oppose him with their swords. They engaged they would, and Pompey added further, that he would meet their swords with a sword and buckler too. These words the nobles much resented, as neither suitable to his own dignity, nor becoming the reverence due to the senate, but resembling rather the vehemence of a boy or the fury of a madman. But the people were pleased with it. [582]

As Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey moved to consolidate the power of their new alliance (sometimes called the First Triumvirate), there was a flurry of marriages to cement the bonds. Pompey married Caesar’s daughter, Julia (born from his first marriage) and, some time after, Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of one of Crassus’s allies named Piso who was named consul when Caesar’s term had ended. Pompey, through the threat of force, got Caesar appointed to govern Gaul and got the Senate to allow him four legions to subdue it. It might have seemed like a good deal for both the Senate and Pompey for Rome would be rid of his ambitions for at least five years and Pompey would preside in his stead as the man of the people. Little could they have known that, by the time he returned, he would be positioned to master them all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (part 1 of 4)

Great Books: Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans: Caesar
Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CE
Place: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

The complete text for Plutarch's biography of Julius Caesar can be found online at

There is only one life story in the Western culture more mythologized and still culturally accessible than that of Gaius Julius Caesar and the more celebrated owes a greater debt to Caesar’s legacy for his own persistence than either could have imagined while still living. Caesar’s biography has been pored over and debated upon endlessly since the moment of his death and has since passed through the hands of each ascending segment of the Western culture in turn. The purpose of exploring of this particular biography is not to reconcile or fact-check Plutarch’s version against the others, but to examine the singular filter through which Plutarch sees the historical Julius Caesar and how it shapes the way that his life and death are reported.

Plutarch opens his story of Caesar’s life as many of his biographers do, in his late teens. To understand how he set out on the path he did, it is essentially appreciate the complexities of the political environment in which he was raised. When Caesar, at the age of sixteen, suddenly found himself the head of his family, Rome was in the midst of a great political upheaval. Two former allies, Marius and Sulla, had turned Rome into a battlefield for their dueling ambitions. Sulla eventually vanquished and murdered Marius and ordered his images to be banned from the city and his family and allies to be murdered. Marius was Caesar’s uncle and, by the time Sulla had defeated him, Caesar had married Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, a former consul of the Republic and of one Marius’s early supporters in the conflict against Sulla.

Assuming all of that information as common knowledge unworthy of repetition, Plutarch begins Caesar’s biography with the observation that “at the beginning, while so many were to be put to death, and there was so much to do, Caesar was overlooked by Sulla and yet he would not keep quiet” [577]. Despite his youthful bravado, Caesar quickly recognized the value of survival over defiance and escaped Sulla’s wrath by leaving the city. Plutarch either doesn’t know or has a reason for omitting the fact that Caesar joined the military though he does record the “short stay” he spent at Bithynia (in modern day Northern Turkey) with its king, Nicomedes. In recounting another tale about Caesar’s having been kidnapped by pirates, Plutarch does allude to the authority that he had somehow acquired, though still technically being hunted by Sulla.

As soon as his ransom was come from Miletus, he paid it, and was discharged, and proceeded at once to man some ships at the port of Miletus, and went in pursuit of the pirates, whom he surprised with their ships still stationed at the island and took most of them…[he later] went off to Pergamus, where he ordered the pirates to be brought forth and crucified; the punishment he had often threatened them with whilst he was in their hands, and they little dreamt he was in earnest. [577]

Sulla only ruled Rome for about two years before retiring from the city, opening the way from Caesar to begin plotting his way back. He had already pursued two paths of increasing his status, the first in the Temple of Jupiter and the second, in the military. Before returning to Rome, he set off on a third, studying rhetoric with Apollonius in Rhodes. While Plutarch rightly notes that Caesar would ultimately choose to be “first rather amongst men or arms and power,” one should not overlook the importance of his training as a public speaker. It was this set of skills, in fact, that he first employs upon finally returning to Rome, advocating for a number of Greek interests in the city and increasing his favor among its people “by the affability of his manners and address, in which he showed a tact and consideration beyond what could have been expected at his age.” [578]

The first sign of the people’s love for Caesar, according to Plutarch, was his election as a soldiers’ tribune. This was a rank of some importance that gave him command over a portion of the consul’s legions and, no doubt, added considerably to his knowledge of the military as it related to both warfare and politics. Armed with this newly elevated status and his considerable rhetorical skills, Caesar seized upon the death of his aunt, Julia to engage in an act of provocative political showmanship.

… making a magnificent oration in praise of his aunt Julia, wife to Marius, publicly in the Forum, at whose funeral he was so bold as to bring forth the images of Marius, which nobody had dared to produce since the government came into Sulla’s hands, Marius’s party from that time having been declared enemies of the state. [578]

Without going to far off into the weeds regarding the conflict between Sulla and Marius, each had reached the summit of their power via two different political avenues that might, today, be thought as analogous to political parties. Marius, like Caesar after him, was a populares or a person elevated to the various positions of power via the people’s assembly. Sulla belonged to the optimates, a political interest that sought to keep the authority in the hands of a narrow band of families long associated with the Senate. As the optimates rule reached its highest point under Sulla’s dictatorship, this act of re-introducing Marius into the city posthumously marked the beginning of a return for the populares, whose own power would reach its height under that of Julius Caesar himself. Ironically, both parties and the distinctions between them became functionally meaningless under the Imperial authority established under Augustus after Caesar’s death.

Though Sulla had abdicated power and, soon thereafter, died, it can be said that, in Caesar’s time, the old guard of the Senate had retained much more authority than it had enjoyed previous to his dictatorship. With the memory of Sulla’s troops marching in to sack the city and murderously taking its revenge of Marius’ allies, there was little incentive for the populares to re-emerge as a counterbalance to this unchecked power as long as it lacked a strong leader with the bonafides (in this case, the admiration of the people) to wield their collective authority. By having images of Marius’ prominently displayed in the Forum for the first time since his death, Caesar was sending out a rallying cry to those sympathetic to the cause of the populares that he was the heir to Marius’ legacy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Seven of Seven)

Parts One through Six of this essay can be accessed in the archive on the right of the screen.

There is ample evidence that Alexander was much more at ease with conquest than with complexities of ruling over the vast terrain he had already taken. It is not surprising, then, that he did not tarry long at Susa but, instead, began his next campaign to extend his armies (and the Greek cultural influence) further east than had ever been attempted. As if to underscore the urgency with which he set his thronging army back into action, he opened the march with an act of incomprehensible finality.

Alexander, now intent upon his expedition into India, took notice that his soldiers were so charged with booty that it hindered their marching. Therefore, at the break of day, as soon as the baggage wagons were laden, first he set fire to his own, and to those of his friends, and then commanded those to be burnt which belonged to the rest of the army. [568]

Though Plutarch writes that the men were “inspired” by his intentional arson, he also notes in the following paragraph that Alexander “was now grown very severe and inexorable in punishing those who committed any fault.” It does not take a social scientist to presume that his soldiers may have continued supporting his efforts more out of fear than out of an urge to seek yet more glory, yet more wealth and yet more territory. Plutarch’s narrative of the conquest that seemed to have no end becomes sketchier after Darius’ death. Literally, two years of campaigning are boiled down into just a few nondescript paragraphs detailing various wounds that Alexander received and the interpretation of certain omens that preceded the taking of particular cities.

His narrative picks back up with some detail around 326 BCE when Alexander met the forces of Porus on the river Hydaspes at the foot of the Himalayas. His account of the battle, involving a dangerous river crossing at night, echoes Alexander’s earlier battle against Darius’ general at Granicus. Despite being opposed by a robust army with elephants, chariots, and thousand of soldiers at its disposal, Alexander’s army was victorious and Porus, unlike Darius before him, surrendered and, for his humility, was retained to rule the region as satrap under Alexander’s authority. Plutarch indicates that Alexander desired to push further into India, crossing the Ganges into lands truly unknown but, the realities of a war without end seem to have caught up with him.

But this last combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but twenty thousand foot soldiers and two thousand horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, too…for they were told the kings of the Gandaritans and the Prasesians expected them there with eighty thousand horse, two hundred thousand foot, eight thousand armed chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants. [570]

Whether guided by the discontent of his army or the real possibility that all he had gained might yet be lost, Alexander, for the first time since he had begun his war against the Persians, turned back and began a slow trek, presumably towards home. Taking small fortified cities on his way, Alexander traveled down their rivers for about seven months until, at last, he reached the sea, or, more specifically, the Indian Ocean. At Pattala, he made an odd decision to split his land and sea forces, marching his army along the southern edge of the continent while the fleet shadowed him at sea, following the coast. The expedition proved to be an arduous one.

[Alexander] returned himself by land through the country of the Orites, where he was reduced to great straits for want of provisions, and lost a vast number of his men, so that of an army of one hundred and twenty thousand foot soldiers and fifteen thousand horse, he scarcely brought back above a fourth out of India, they were so diminished by disease, ill diet, and the scorching heats, by most by famine. [572]

Restored somewhat by provisions taken at the city of Pura and tributes from surrounding kingdoms, Alexander’s taste for war and hard marching seems to have been slaked. The once-disciplined Greek army (though now composed of many peoples from every land taken in its wake) degenerated, at Alexander’s behest into a “disorderly and wandering march” through Carmania that was, by Plutarch’s account, “accompanied with all the sportiveness and insolence of bacchanals, as much as if the god himself had been there to countenance and lead the procession” [572]. Finally, the land army rejoined the fleet at Harmozia which was positioned at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Though he dreamed of sending an expedition around the southern tip of Africa to enter the Mediterranean from the East, Alexander found himself suddenly burdened by the cumulative effects of ruling a territory so vast with an army now so ragged from war. Vassal nations, once conquered, now began to question the invincibility of Alexander’s authority. Macedonia herself saw her government splinter into fragments with parts governed by Alexander’s regent and others taken by his mother to rule. Making haste back towards his homeland, Alexander stopped in at Susa to marry Darius’ daughter, Statira II, no doubt with intention of cementing his authority over the Persians before returning to Greece.

Bad luck and trouble seemed to follow Alexander on his journey homeward as friend after friend died of excess, whether in food, drink, battle or some combination of the three. Plutarch writes that:

When once Alexander had given way to fears of supernatural influence, his mind grew so disturbed and so easily alarmed that, if the least unusual or extraordinary thing happened, he thought it a prodigy or a presage, and his court was thronged with diviners and priests whose business was to sacrifice and purify and foretell the future. So miserable a thing is incredulity and contempt of divine power on the one hand, and, so miserable, superstition on the other, which like water, where the level has been lowered, flowing in and never stopping, fills the mind with slavish fears and follies, as now in Alexander’s case. [575]

Not long after his wedding, Alexander, presumably consumed by one of these frightful moods, either fell victim to a fever and drank himself to death while in it or drank himself senseless and lapsed into said fever. Whatever the order, the result was the same. As reported by Plutarch, Alexander “fell into delirium, and died on the thirtieth day of the month of Daesius.”

Without Alexander’s personal vigor, unyielding vision, and, most importantly, individual sanction for the transfer of power after his death, the vast empire he had conquered fragmented within months of his death. Greek military power in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond became a thing of the past though, most importantly, the Greek culture persisted throughout what Alexander would have called “The Known World” for centuries beyond his passing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Six)

Parts 1-5 of this essay can be accessed from the archive to the right of the screen.

Having finally defeated the historical enemy of the Greeks and acquired a giant empire in the process, one could assume that Alexander’s life from that point forward might be wrapped up by saying, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Nothing could be further from the truth for it is Darius’ death that serves as the fulcrum between Plutarch’s largely positive narrative about Alexander and the dour tale of the young Emperor’s descent into paranoia, madness, and eventual death that follows.

After a couple of throwaway tales about scouting expeditions and rescuing Bucephalus from barbarian kidnappers, Plutarch begins threading the loom for the darker portion of the tapestry to emerge. As Alexander transitions from conqueror to ruler, Plutarch begins to make note of changes in his behavior and demeanor. He began to partially emulate the style of Persian dress, under the auspices, at first, of engaging in pacifying diplomacy with the Persians he now ruled but, eventually, assuming a hybrid of Macedonian and Persian costuming to signify his role as a unifying figure between these multi-generational enemies.

Even as he continued to engage in minor skirmishes to subdue small pockets of resistance within the newly forged empire, the difficulty of holding together pieces of his army that had, in some cases, been campaigning with him for going on five years began to fray the relationship between he and his most reliable forces. This tension became more pronounced as Alexander’s paranoia began to rule more and more of his decision making progress. This tendency first reaches a boiling point, in Plutarch’s account, when Alexander begins to question the loyalty of Parmenio’s son, Philotas.

There was scarcely any one who had greater repute among the Macedonians that Philotas, son of Parmenio. For besides that he was valiant and able to endure any fatigue of war, he was also next to Alexander himself the most munificent…But he carried his arrogance and his pride of wealth and his habits of display and luxury to a degree of assumption unbecoming a private man; and affecting all the loftiness without succeeding in showing any of the grace or gentleness of true greatness… [563]

According to Plutarch, Philotas had taken a female slave named Antigone as part of his spoils. After a while, he began to confide her in his belief that “all the great actions were performed by him and his father” though it was Alexander who received the glory and the credit. It is recounted that she passed this information along to one of Alexander’s advisors and was eventually brought before Alexander himself to repeat what she had heard. Alexander took no action against Philotas then but ordered the woman to continue relaying any mutinous words or actions that she was able to glean.

Later, when a man loyal to Alexander named Nicomachus caught wind of a plot to assassinate him, he tried to bring the news to the court via Philotas. According to Plutarch, Philotas refused the men access to the court twice before they took the information to someone else, who notified Alexander at once. Already suspicious of Philotas’s popularity with the men of his army and his questionable belief in Alexander’s own greatness, Alexander was easily convinced by those around him that Philotas must be himself the mastermind of the plot. Though Plutarch provides us with no evidence or even supposition that Philotas was guilty of anything other than disrespect, Alexander had him tortured to death and then had Parmenio executed for good measure. “These actions,” writes Plutarch, “rendered Alexander an object of terror to many of his friends” and sent shockwaves all the way back to Macedon and Greece. Antipater, another general who served under both Phillip and Alexander, began quietly solidifying alliances among the Greeks in order that he might find a port of refuge should Alexander turn on him as well.

The next target of Alexander’s disproportionate response, however, would not be one of his suspected enemies, but his friend, Clitus who had, in fact, saved Alexander’s life at least once and to whom he was bonded like a brother. One night, in the midst of a long drinking binge, Clitus took offense at songs designed to mock particular Macedonians being sung in front of barbarians (ie anyone that wasn’t Greek) and, ill-considered or not, turned his anger towards Alexander. His reproach escalated into a full-blown argument between the two until Alexander killed him to the shock of everyone present. The incident deeply upset Alexander, who, according to Plutarch, regretted his actions immediately. Alexander fell into a dark depression from which he eventually emerged, but perhaps more deranged and unsettled than ever before.

The final schism reported by Plutarch is probably of more interest to history than it was to Alexander’s increasingly nervous court as it concerns his relationship with Aristotle. During the period when Alexander was mourning his execution of Clitus, his advisers brought in two different philosophers to console him. The first, Callisthenes, was a student of a friend to Aristotle and the second, Anaxarchus is described by Plutarch as having “always taken a course of his own in philosophy, and had a name for despising and slighting his contemporaries” [566]. Callisthenes had apparently already done much to earn the general displeasure of the Macedonians, including insulting them at the king’s request (as a form of moral instruction) and striking far deeper with his pointed barbs against them than good taste might dictate. When the plot against Alexander (that got both Philotas and Parmenio executed) was uncovered, a rumor was spread that the perpetrator, a young man named Hermolaus, had gotten the idea by asking Callisthenes what he needed to do in order to become “the most illustrious person on Earth.” Callisthenes was presumed to have told him that “the readiest way was to kill him who was already so” as well as reassuring him “not to be awed by the golden couch, but remember that Alexander was a man equally infirm and vulnerable as any other” [567].

According to Plutarch, not only did Alexander have Callisthenes killed (the method again varies) but the philosopher’s relation to Aristotle placed a permanent wedge between the King and his former teacher and may well have led to Aristotle’s abandonment of Athens and subsequent death in Boetia.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Five)

The first four parts of this essay can be accessed from the archive bar on the right side of the screen.

The Battle of Gaugamela has been covered in depth by such a variety of historians, both ancient and modern, that we ultimately learn more about Plutarch and the slant of his narrative from his account of it than we do about this decisive battle that effectively spelled the end of the Persian empire. As Plutarch’s stated purpose is to focus his “more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men,” he spends the paragraphs leading up to the battle sketching out contrasting pictures of his opposing generals’ states of mind, rather than their military readiness.

Upon discovering the news of his wife’s death, Darius is portrayed as being torn between his grief at watching his empire slowly destroyed by Alexander’s relentless campaigning and his lyrical admiration for his opponent’s virtue. Plutarch quotes him (rather liberally one suspects) as saying:

“Ye gods,” said he, “of my family and of my kingdom, if it be possible, I beseech you to restore the declining affairs of Persia that I may leave them in as flourishing a condition as I found them, and have it in my power to make a grateful return to Alexander for the kindness which in my adversity he has shown to those who are dearest to me. But, if the fatal time be come, which is to give a period to the Persian monarchy, if our ruin be a debt that must be paid to the divine jealousy and vicissitude of things, then I beseech you grant that no other man than Alexander may sit upon the throne of Cyrus” [555].

Despite his uncertainty regarding the future, Darius, by Plutarch’s account, came seeking Alexander with “a million of men” (though historians of every era have reached widely differing conclusions about this). The two armies met at a place known as Gaugamela, probably located near Mosul in modern Iraq. Unlike the previous battles, in which the terrain and subterfuge played a huge role in the outcome, the scene Plutarch describes sounds a lot like two giant armies, lining up on open terrain so that a clear victory might be achieved by one or the other. Darius, who had been attacked at night by Alexander twice now, kept his men nervously waiting all night for the battle to begin. Meanwhile, Alexander after “performing certain mysterious ceremonies, and sacrificing to the god Fear,” ignored the advice of his second general, Parmenio, who wanted to use the nighttime to level the advantage in numbers that Darius enjoyed, and instead went to bed.

As for the battle itself, Plutarch is a better biographer than a military historian. Though he includes more details about this battle than previous ones, his account focuses more on Alexander’s personal courage than on tactics.

And not only before the battle, but in the height of danger, he showed himself, and manifested the self-possession of a just foresight and confidence. For the battle for some time fluctuated and was dubious…But before they could come to blows with the first ranks, the barbarians shrunk back, and were hotly pursued by Alexander, who drove those who fled before him into the middle of the battle, where Darius himself was in person [557]

However the battle itself may have been fought, Alexander’s bold charge right up the center of the Persian line, as is accepted among many ancient historians of the day, was the deciding factor. Soon, Darius found his chariot trapped by the dead bodies of the men given the duty of protecting him and managed to escape only with his life (again) by abandoning the battlefield on horseback. With his exit, the Persian army (along with its supplemental troops drawn from many places) lost its spirit and surrendered the victory to Alexander.

Before leaving the Battle at Gaugamela, Plutarch’s unshielded disregard for Parmenio as a meaningful contributor to Alexander’s legacy of conquest is worthy of some discussion. Parmenio had been among Phillip’s generals and, as such, represented the one of the only direct ties back to Macedonia from whence this expedition originally began. As Parmenio’s contribution to holding the army together and waging war as co-general doesn’t fit in with Plutarch’s mission to glorify Alexander at the expense of all else, Parmenio is ultimately cast as a villain of sorts. He is described throughout the work as a foot-dragging, overly conventional and, eventually, openly critical detractor from Alexander’s greatness. Plutarch describes his contribution to the Battle of Gaugamela as “sluggish and unserviceable” while wondering aloud “whether age had impaired his courage….or that, as Callisthenes says, he secretly disliked and envied Alexander’s growing greatness.” It’s entirely feasible that these were ideas that Alexander himself propagated after things turned sour between he and Parmenio later, but Plutarch certainly shows no reservations about reporting it as fact rather than speculation or, even, outright slander.

After the battle, despite the fact that Darius had escaped, there was little else for Alexander to do but march down the royal Persian road and take the throne at Susa. Meeting little to no resistance along the way, Alexander was recognized as the rightful ruler of the known world upon his arrival and, pleased by the unimaginable luxury of the Persian court, settled his army in the area for the winter. Plutarch is meticulous in his description of the spoils taken at Susa and to whom they were sent to back in Greece, whether to reinforce alliances or just to enrich those friends and loved ones whom he had not seen in over three years now. He also suggests that a torpor of sorts fell over the armies while wintering in Susa, much to Alexander’s chagrin.

But when he [Alexander] perceived his favorites grow so luxurious and extravagant in their way of living and expenses…he reproved them in gentle and reasonable terms, telling them he wondered that they who had been engaged in so many single battles did not know by experience, that those who labour sleep more sweetly and soundly than those who are labored for…And to strengthen his precepts by example, he applied himself now more vigorously than ever to hunting and warlike expeditions, embracing all opportunities of hardship and danger…But his followers, who were grown rich, and consequently proud, longed to indulge themselves in pleasure and idleness, and were weary of marches and expeditions, and at last went so far as to censure and speak ill of him. [560]

It begs mentioning that Plutarch spends almost as much time describing uncouth things that Alexander did while drinking heavily as he does insisting that Alexander’s reputation as a drunken lout was undeserved. These are the inconsistencies in his depiction of Alexander that are difficult to reconcile and represent, so far as we can see from this distance, the gap between the myth and the man that Plutarch refuses to treat as separate personages.

After the winter, Alexander resolved to marshal his armies once again to track down the elusive Darius but, even as he prepared to leave the capital, word arrived that Bessus, a Persian satrap and one of the commanders that opposed him at the Battle of Gaugamela, had prevented Darius from escaping out of Persia and was holding him for Alexander to take. Though Plutarch is less than clear in explaining the sequence of events, Alexander rushes far ahead of his army, accompanied by only his most ardent and able followers, in an attempt to reach Darius before harm might befall him. He was not successful.

And, at last, after much trouble, they found him lying in a chariot, wounded all over with darts, just at the point of death…he told Polystratus, who gave [him water], that it had become the last extremity of his ill fortune to receive benefits and not be able to return them. “But Alexander,” said he, “whose kindness to my mother, my wife, and my children I hope the gods will recompense, will doubtless thank you for your humanity to me. Tell him, therefore in token of my acknowledgement, I give him this right hand,” with which words he took hold of Polystratus’s hand and died. When Alexander came up to them, he showed manifest tokens of sorrow, and taking off his own cloak, threw it upon the body to cover it. [562]

While this account is very touching, it does make one somewhat suspicious that Plutarch has become a mouthpiece for what Alexander had wanted people to believe rather than a seeker of the truth. Given Alexander’s propensity for having people in his social orbit punished (sometimes with death) for minor indiscretions, this image of him deeply concerned for the well-being of an enemy he had relentlessly pursued for three years of his still-young life just seems too saccharine to be accurate. More likely, Alexander wished to have Darius publically transfer the authority of the Empire to him (as he had insisted when offered terms for truce earlier) in order to better maintain order in the outlying areas of his now radically expanded empire. It is also possible that he just wished to kill Darius personally to earn the glory among the Greeks that would come from having done so. While ancient historians were not of one accord as to what exactly happened to Bessus for having slain Darius before Alexander’s arrival, every account differs only in the mode of his death and not the severity with which he met it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Four)

The first three parts of this essay can be read here, here, and here.

In one battle, Alexander had changed the political landscape of the Mediterranean and Asia (what we now think of as Asia Minor and the Middle East) forever. Functionally, he now controlled all of Greece and Asia Minor and became master of an unimaginable hoard of slaves and treasure seized from the Persians at Damascus. Despite his upbringing as a prince of a nation flush with military success, the spoils won from the Battle of Issus were enough to cause Alexander to remark, “This, it seems, is royalty” [550].

Plutarch uses the aftermath of the battle as another opportunity to rhapsodize on Alexander’s benevolence, detailing a half dozen or more ethical situations that arose from his success and how he, invariably, resolved them in a manner more generous than might be expected. Of greatest importance to history, as it had yet to unfold, was Alexander’s treatment of Darius’s mother, wife, and two daughters. Upon learning that they had been taken among the Persians at Damascus, Plutarch writes that:

Alexander sent Leonnatus to them, to let them know that Darius was not dead, and that they need not fear any harm from Alexander, who made war upon him only for dominion; they should themselves be provided with everything they had been used to receive from Darius. [550]

Despite the temptation to immediately pursue Darius and deliver the killing blow while he was still in retreat, Alexander decided instead to bring the eastern coast of the Mediterranean under his authority, whether by diplomacy or force. Some, like the peoples of Cyprus, surrendered without a fight. As a result, Alexander marched unopposed as far as modern day Lebanon before reaching the well-defended island city of Tyre which refused to submit to him.

With no fleet of his own to attack the island, Alexander first blockaded Tyre from land reinforcements and then set about building a land bridge to Tyre across which he could move his large siege engines and armies. Though it took seven months and the lives of hundreds of his men, Alexander eventually reached the city and overcame its defenses. He ordered the destruction of large portions of the city and sold most of its inhabitants into slavery as punishment for refusing his authority.

As with Thebes before it, the destruction of Tyre sent a chilling message to the other vassal nations that found themselves suddenly far stranded from their Persian rulers: Submit or be destroyed utterly. While the historical record tells us that the Siege of Gaza a few months later was an equally bloody ordeal, Plutarch chooses to skim over it for reasons that remain his own, deciding to fix instead on the strange manner in which Alexander was seriously wounded (his version includes a bird, a dirt clod, and an unruly siege engine). Regardless, by 332 BCE, Alexander had subdued the entirety of the eastern Mediterranean coast and, without pause, turned his attention immediately towards Egypt.

Unlike the coastal cities that held out against Alexander (who by and large fought for their own independence rather than out of a tortured sense of loyalty to Darius), Egypt was only too happy to welcome Alexander as their ruler. Plutarch’s first mention of the Egyptians announces their capitulation as an established fact, noting that, “when he was master of Egypt, designing to settle a colony of Grecians there, he resolved to build a large and populous city and give it his own name” [552]. After laying out the plans for Alexandria, Alexander set out on a dangerous journey to consult the Oracle at Ammon. While Plutarch again offers little speculation on his motivation, one can presume that his intentions were at least two-fold. First, in order to legitimize (if not secure) his sovereignty over Egypt, he would have to be anointed to some extent by its religious leaders. Second, the Oracle at Ammon was as revered as that at Delphi and Alexander, it seems, had a few questions yet that he believed only a god could answer.

Having passed through the wilderness, they came to the place where the high priest, at the first salutation, bade Alexander welcome from his father Ammon. And being asked by him whether any of his father’s murderers had escaped punishment, he charged him to speak with more respect, since his was not a mortal father. Then, Alexander, changing his expression, desired to know if any of those who murdered Phillip were yet unpunished, and further concerning dominion, whether the empire of the world was reserved for him? This, the god answered, he should obtain and that Phillip’s death was fully revenged, which gave him so much satisfaction that he made splendid offerings to Jupiter, and gave the priests very rich presents. [553]

Every historian who approaches Alexander as a subject must wrestle at some point with the question of whether or not he believed that he was born of divinity and Plutarch is no exception. His methodology gives him some distance from the topic as he presents evidence for and against the idea throughout the whole of this biography. It is, nonetheless, tempting to look at this moment in Ammon where Alexander is informed in no uncertain terms that he is the son of the greatest god (for the priests, Ammon; for Alexander, Zeus; and for Plutarch, Jupiter) and wonder if this is when he began to believe his own hype. His success as a general was without question as he had accomplished in three years what the Greek city-states, in hundreds of years, could not. Claiming that one was a distant descendent of a god (as both Phillip and Olympias had) was the privilege of the nobility. To insist that one was the direct offspring of Zeus was an exponentially more audacious claim and yet that, whether by his own design or by those who venerated him in the chaos that reigned after his death, is the myth that survived him.

While in Egypt, Alexander received a letter from Darius outlining terms for a cease-fire. In exchange for the cessation of hostilities between them and the safe return of the hostages, Darius was willing to cede all lands west of the Euphrates to Alexander, along with a ridiculous amount of treasure and the hand of one of his daughters in marriage to Alexander to bind the agreement. Alexander sent word back that unless Darius came before him and yielded his authority, he would come and take it by force.

Soon after, Darius’ wife, Statira, died in childbirth. Plutarch explicitly states on numerous occasions that Alexander did not force himself upon her or any of Darius’s family during their captivity. The timing however of this particular death (some two years after Darius’ defeat at Issues) suggests that someone was keeping her company in the aftermath and, given the lifestyle that Alexander lavished upon Statira and the others, it makes more sense that the child would have been his as, by the rules of war, she was part of his personal spoils. With peace denied and new indignities having been suffered by Darius, there was to be nothing to stand in the way of a fresh engagement between these two empires.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Three)

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

Before extending our discussion of Alexander’s exploits among the Persians, Plutarch’s own narrative designs insist that we take a moment to acknowledge a few aspects of Alexander’s person and the world in which he lived not related specifically to military conquest. Plutarch makes the observation early on in his biography that Alexander’s temperament was different than many of his contemporaries. Growing up, as he did, in an ascendant kingdom flush with new wealth, his principle interest seems to be focused more on knowledge than anything else (as suggested in the story of his meeting with the Persian ambassadors). We can easily imagine Phillip as something of a social-evolutionary throwback; a king eventually ruling over Greek cities in disarray that had done away with kings as an institution of government for centuries. He had accepted the mantle of Greek Supreme Commander against the Persians, but there is little evidence from what remained of his life that he ever intended to fulfill that promise. It was a title that showed his mastery over the more civilized people to his south and, perhaps little else, which, given the sorry state of affairs in Greece at the time, may have suited them just fine.

Alexander, in contrast, embraced information acquired through learning. Though he was a noted patron of the arts, Plutarch tells us that he disdained sport of all kind, presumably recognizing it as a sublimation of the military urge for which he strove in its pure form for the length of his adult life. He seems, at least from this distance, determined to bring to life the legendary qualities that he found in The Iliad and lacking in the world around him. It is only fitting then that his last action before engaging the Persians for the first time was to visit Troy and bask in the vicarious glory of its relics and statuary; in some sense, mixing the functions of ritual and play into one seamless act of devotion to a long-since decayed ideal.

The other exotic aspect of Plutarch’s examination of Alexander’s life is the attention paid to omens and sacrifices as the catalyst for the more climatic events. Both Alexander and Darius draw sustained inspiration from various portentous events though, in nearly every case, the omen reported is always favorable to their endeavors. This leads us to believe that either their interpreters were smart enough to know that every odd occurrence better equal something good or their life expectancy might not be so hot or that bad omens were perhaps left unmentioned as they diverted the observer from whatever action against which it portended. Some have noted that Rome in the 1st century CE was, in many ways, more superstitious than the late-Hellenic culture from which Alexander himself emerged. This sustained emphasis on the power of the supernatural on mortal events is woven into the very fabric of Alexander’s myth, if not his life and makes Plutarch’s re-imagination of him perhaps more epic than if spun by an earlier or later writer.

After having taken the Pamphylian coast down to Side, Alexander turned his army north and westward on a winding path through rugged terrain. Skirmishing with unallied Pisidians along the way, he eventually reached the land of the Phrygians. While Plutarch describes him as having “conquered the Phrygians,” he makes no mention of a siege which suggests that the city merely capitulated to his obvious military superiority. Gordium was also a major stopping point on the Persian royal road leading to the eastern coast. In taking this city, Alexander effectively cut Darius off from using the road to rush reinforcements or supplies to his insurgents still operating in those territories.

As Alexander turned again southward, after having taken another city on the road a little further west, and eventually entered Cilicia. Perhaps weakened from wounds sustained in earlier battles, Alexander became gravely ill in Cilicia. Plutarch suggests that bathing in a cold river set off his sickness and that he was only cured by medicinal means that brought him closer to death before bringing him back from it. Temporarily deprived of leadership, the massed army of Macedonian, Greek, and assimilated armies along the way came to a standstill in Cilicia. As Plutarch recounts, the significance of this was not lost on Darius even if he misjudged the reason.

Darius was by this time upon his march from Susa, very confident, not only in the number of his men, which amounted to six hundred thousand, but likewise in a dream, which the Persian soothsayers interpreted rather in flattery to him than according to the natural probability…There was at this time in Darius’s army a Macedonian refugee, named Amyntus, one who was pretty well acquainted with Alexander’s character. This man, when he saw Darius intended to fall upon the enemy in the passes and defiles, advised him earnestly to keep where he was, in the open and extensive plains, it being the advantage of a numerous army to have field-room enough when it engages with a lesser force. Darius, instead of taking his counsel, told him he was afraid the enemy would endeavor to run away, and so Alexander would fall out of his hands. “That fear,” replied Amyntus, “is needless, for assure yourself that far from avoiding you, he will make all the speed he can to meet you, and is now most likely on his march toward you.” [548-9]

As history would show, this was the omen to which Darius should have hearkened as, within days, his fortunes and the once-impervious empire that rested on his shoulders would be rent asunder by Alexander and his armies at the Battle of Issus. Meeting in the valleys and swamps of Cilicia, Darius realized too late that his overwhelming numbers were of little use in the fragmented terrain and lost not only the battle but his wife, two daughters, and a substantial amount of treasure in a hasty retreat that barely saved his own life.

1st image- Portrait of Alexander the Great. Marble, 2nd-1st century BC. Said to be from Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by Andrew Dunn, 2004.

2nd image- Alexander at Ilium by Andre Castaigne (1898-99)

3rd image- Alexander Cutting the Gordion Knot, by Martino Altomonte. 1708.

4th image- The Battle of Alexander at Issus. Albrecht Altdorfer. 1529

Monday, July 6, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Two)

This first portion of this essay can be read here.

Plutarch remarks that Alexander’s transition to power could not have come at a more pivotal moment in Macedonian history. While Phillip’s throne could and did pass from him to Alexander by virtue of blood (as well as ambition), the same could not be assumed of his mantle as Supreme Commander of the Greeks against the Persian Empire. If the Greeks were to be counted among Macedonia’s subjects, they would have to be conquered anew and many feared that the effort necessary to bring this about might rend the country apart.

Alexander, by Plutarch’s account, would hear none of this caution and, after subduing the barbarian tribes to his north and west to the banks of the Danube, he turned his attention to important Greek cities already in revolt, Thebes and Athens. After making initial attempts at diplomacy, Alexander turned the full might of his armies upon Thebes so that, in Plutarch’s word, he might make them, “so severe an example [that it] might terrify the rest of Greece into obedience” [545]. In 335 BCE, Thebes, with the exception of her temples and a house belonging to the poet Pindar, was burned to the ground and its citizenry, for the most part, sold into slavery.

As might be expected, the Athenians quickly lost their own taste for defiance and entered Alexander’s burgeoning empire as willing and respected servants. With the wealth and armaments of the whole of civilized Greece (with the exception of Sparta) backing him, Alexander accepted the title as the Supreme Greek Commander against the Persian Empire and began plotting the downfall of his counterpart among them, Darius III. Plutarch makes no mention of whether the Greeks actually thought Alexander could deliver what he was promising but it does not take a time machine to appreciate that a young, ambitious ruler making mischief outside of Greece had to be preferable to one focused on micro-managing affairs at home. Before venturing to the East to begin his campaign, Alexander traveled to the Oracle at Delphi to gauge divine opinion on his actions. Plutarch, who, in his role as high priest of Apollo at Delphi would have access to records regarding the event, recounts it as such:

Then he went to Delphi, to consult Apollo concerning the success of the war he had undertaken, and happening to come on one of the forbidden days, when it was esteemed improper to give any answer from the oracle, he sent messengers to desire the priestess to do her office; and when she refused, on the plea of a law to the contrary, he went up himself, and began to draw her by force into the temple, until tired and overcome with his importunity, “My son,” said she, “thou are invincible.” [546]

From Delphi, Alexander travels on to Troy where, we are told, he makes a sacrifice to Minerva (Athena). Given what we know about Alexander’s love for the Iliad, it’s not hard to imagine him choosing Troy as his point of departure so that he might bask in the glory of legend before creating a few of his own. He would not have long to wait as a large Persian army, commanded by satraps (local governors appointed by Darius III) was amassed on the opposite side the river Granicus and represented the very large barrier that Alexander would have to go through in order to gain access to the interior of Asia.

The Battle of Granicus. Engraving based on a painting by Lebrun

By Plutarch’s account, the battle begins with Alexander making a foolhardy rush across the river in the middle of the night on his horse to attack the enemy with his cavalry splashing along behind him to keep him from getting killed in the opening moments of the campaign. Plutarch writes:

However, he persisted obstinately to gain the passage, and at last with much ado making his way up the banks…he had instantly to join in mere confused hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, before he could draw up his men, who were still passing over into any order. For the enemy pressed him with loud and warlike outcries; and charging horse against horse, plied with their lances; after they had broken and spent these, they fell into it with their swords. [547]

Conjuring an image that recalls Groo the Wanderer moreso than the soon-to-be master of the known world, this is an archetype that Plutarch utilizes over and over; of Alexander as an impetuous but fearless leader who is always willing to throw himself headlong into the enemy with no concern for his well-being. While we can accept some of this as myth-building (as it reinforces the essential nature of Alexander’s conquest), one is tempted to believe some of the hype, given the number of times that Alexander is gravely wounded in battle.

As the Greek army arrives on the opposite bank to join their war-crazed leader, the Persian forces are quickly overwhelmed and dissolve under the force of their attack. Only one group of Greek mercenaries surrender to Alexander, presumably hoping their common heritage will spare them the indignity of execution. Alexander’s response is to attack them without warning, resulting in further casualties. Plutarch obviously doesn’t approve of this Greek on Greek violence as he describes Alexander’s refusal to accept their surrender as “guided rather by passion than judgment,” noting later that the “obstinacy of his to cut off these experiences desperate men cost him the lives of more of his own soldiers than all the battle before” [547-8].

The Capture of Miletus by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899)

Whatever his shortcomings may have been at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander knew that he had changed the rules of the battle that the Greeks had been fighting against the Persians for centuries with a single victory. Turning his army southward, he took the rich city of Sardis and then went on down the Western coast to liberate former Greek colonies at Ephesus, Miletus, and Halicarnassus. These early successes provided Alexander with something of a quandary. In toppling Sardis, he had disrupted Persian authority in the entire area and returned to Greek authority the very colonies that had been the original source of enmity between the two peoples. Traditional strategy, like that exercised by Darius, dictated that he should consolidate his rule in the area and, as Plutarch puts it, “made himself secure in the resources of these provinces” [548].

There was something, however, about the relative ease with which he had been able to accomplish a feat that had eluded the Greeks for hundreds of years that spoke to his more impulsive side. The decision, according to Plutarch and the myth-makers that preceded him, ultimately did not come from Alexander himself but from an unexpected intervention of the supernatural.

While he was thus deliberating what to do, it happened that a spring of water near the city of Xanthus in Lycia, of its own accord, swelled over its banks, and threw up a copper plate, upon the margin of which was engraven in ancient characters, that the time would come when the Persian empire should be destroyed by the Grecians. [548]

Whether spurred by his own ambition or this miraculous prophesy coming to light just as he debated his next move, Alexander quickly marshaled his armies and turned them eastward, conquering along the treacherous Pamphylian coast until they reached the city of Side which surrendered without a fight.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part One)

Great Books: Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecian and Romans: Alexander
Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CE
Place: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

Alexander the Great. 3rd century BC statue, signed "Menas". - Picture by: Giovanni Dall'Orto

The complete text of Plutarch’s biography of Alexander can be found online at
and utilizes the same Dryden translation as the quotations in this essay. All page attributions refer to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World series from Encyclopedia Britannica.

With our third Plutarchan biography now under analysis, we are able to discern at least two valuable truisms in his writing on the lives of historical figures. First, the closer that the subject approaches to the time in which Plutarch is writing, the more credible strains of information that he must filter regarding that subject in order to create a narrative that is truly his own. Second, while Plutarch places a high premium on empirical evidence (literal mountains of which still existed in Plutarch’s time), he does not discard what is clearly hearsay or outright myth-building in his quest to reconstruct the meaning of Alexander’s life. Towards the end of his introduction, Plutarch defends his approach with candor.

As portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others [541].

He begins, however with those facts about Alexander’s birth and lineage that are as beyond dispute as a study of the past will allow. Alexander was born to King Phillip II of Macedonia and one of his wives, Olympias. Both lines could purportedly trace their lineage back to Zeus himself though this probably tells us less about his actual ancestry and more about (forgive the pun) the penetration of the overarching culture that venerated Zeus in this and other parts of Greece.

Plutarch spends a good deal of time in his treatment of Alexander’s childhood emphasizing the tensions between Phillip and his son, beginning with the story (or stories) surrounding his birth. Olympias, he records, participated in cultic rituals unfamiliar to Macedonia that venerated snakes and, quite possibly, incorporated them into the act of worship. From this simple point of departure, a wide range of myth is generated regarding Alexander’s birth, ranging from a number of dreams predicting his greatness to a full-blown visitation by Zeus himself to the Queen’s bed in order to conceive the world’s new master.

Later, Plutarch describes a meeting between a young Alexander and ambassadors from the Persian Empire in which he so impresses them with his penetrating questions that they praise him as Phillip’s superior even before he ascends to the throne. This, added with commentary that Alexander chafed at his father’s every military success as a battle that he would not be glorified in waging himself reinforces a narrative that Alexander considered himself as somehow bigger than the kingdom he would inherit as well as the King from whom he would inherit it. Indeed, this very idea is placed into Phillip’s mouth after Alexander tames a wild horse named Bucephalus with only his natural graces, to which Phillip is supposed to have uttered his timeless words, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worth of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee” [543].

At first, though, Alexander’s remarkable qualities seem to earn him great favor with his father. Though Alexander’s early education was overseen by famed teachers of his time, Phillip thought enough of his son’s potential to recruit perhaps the Greek world’s most renowned philosopher, Aristotle to be his tutor at the age of fourteen.

It proved to be something of a Faustian bargain for Aristotle. In exchange for his services, Phillip restored and repopulated Stagira, Aristotle’s birthplace which had been destroyed in recent conquest. Aristotle ended up spending two years actively teaching Alexander before the demands of the state drew the young prince away to more pressing affairs. History suggests that Aristotle spent four more years (until Alexander’s ascendancy to the throne) at the palace before returning to an Athens now subdued by Macedonian authority. Plutarch makes little pit stops while telling Alexander’s tale to indicate how the relationship with Aristotle cooled over time, indicating perhaps that the master was dissatisfied with his student’s application of his theories on governance. Still, Alexander was reported to have carried an edition of the Iliad notated by Aristotle himself on the length of his journeys and never repudiated his teacher to such as degree as to order his execution; a rarity among those who stayed too long within his erratic orbit.

Just as Alexander is elevated to regent of the kingdom at the age of 16 (notching a few military victories of his own in his father’s absence), dissension about the eventual line of succession begins to arise. Working militarily in tandem, Alexander and Phillip conquered both the Thebans and Athenians. Phillip was eventually named as the Supreme Commander of a planned invasion of the Persian empire on behalf of all the Greek cities but Sparta. Upon his return to Macedonia, however, he chose to marry a woman named Cleopatra, the niece of Attalus, one of his more celebrated generals. As Olympias was not of Macedonian origin, an heir between the couple would have threatened Alexander’s claim to the throne, despite his proven service to the kingdom.

These fears came to a head at the royal wedding when Attalus offered a toast in hopes of a legitimate heir to Phillip’s throne. Alexander became incensed and began verbally berating him, only to have his father advance upon him with the intention to kill him. As Plutarch recounts the story, Phillip tripped on his way and fell flat on his face before the disgusted Alexander who, in turn, fled the capital with his mother. After a short self-imposed exile, tensions between the Phillip and Alexander were eased by friends interceding on the behalf of both and, in time, Alexander returned to his father’s side.

This threat to his eventual rule became more exaggerated when he later intercepted a courier from a neighboring state, offering the king’s eldest daughter to another of Alexander’s brother, Arrideus. Fearing his father again meant to bypass him in the eventual transfer of power, Alexander sent an advocate back to the Persian satrap, tarnishing Arrideus as an illegitimate heir and offering his own services as husband to the princess. Furious that his son would undermine his authority so openly among his vassals, Phillip banished all of Alexander’s entourage from the kingdom.

Whether guided by Olympius, Alexander or other less visible forces within the kingdom, a man named Pausanias, rendered all of the political posturing moot when he assassinated Phillip. After dispatching his enemies and other contenders to the throne, Alexander then ascended the throne of Macedonia at the age of twenty. He was taking over a kingdom, “beset on all sides with great dangers and rancorous enemies” [545]. Though Phillip had radically expanded the influence of Macedonian authority, the lands he conquered were far from subjugated and still desired internal rule. It was poised on this precipice of outright rebellion across the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander took the reins of power and began plotting his own course forward; one that would lead him away from Macedonia, never to return.