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.

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