Friday, February 7, 2014

Roman Lives: Final Review

Roman Lives is Plutarch’ depiction of eight of Roman great rulers: Cato the Elder, Aemillius Paulus, the Gracchi (Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus), Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and Antony. As these consuls ruled simultaneously one after another, we could see at once, the personal characters and moral behaviors of these consuls, as well as how Rome was dynamically shaped during their ruling. They might not be the greatest, but Plutarch picked them particularly as a mean of mirroring.

I treat the narrative as a kind of mirror and try to find a way to arrange my life and assimilate it to the virtues of my subjects. (…) I receive and welcome each of them in turn as my guest, so to speak, observe ‘his stature and his qualities’, and choose from his achievements those which it is particularly important and valuable for me to know. ‘And oh, what greater delight could one find than this?’ ~Plutarch

All of the consuls—succeed or failed—have brought great influences over Roman at that era, and by that, means, over the whole world. Plutarch brings us to learn how their personal characters and decisions influenced their successes and failures, and with that, all of us could learn from the greatnesses and the mistakes.

I have written brief description for each consul in my grammar-stage reading post, and from that we could get a glimpse of their achievements. Of the eight, Aemilius Paullus is my most favorite one—and I think Plutarch has placed him as the major model for an ideal great leader. Frankly speaking, this is the first time I’ve ever heard about him—and I believe he is not very popular—but it doesn’t mean he is not great. In short, I think Aemilius Paullus is what a leader should be. He was well bred, and was descended from Pythagoras the philosopher. He ruled with virtues. Unlike many young men born from noble families, who pursued as higher glory as possible in young age, Aemilius focused on his courage, fairness and integrity. This brought respect from both his friends and the people. He was very attentive in doing his jobs and guarding the traditions—he brought the same discipline while he was priest as well as military commander.

He was lenient to Roman enemies. He never enriched himself from the defeated provinces or towns, but instead, he left them united in peace, and even restored their settlements. This brought respect from his enemies, as well as his troops, for he was generous to them. When King Perseus of Macedonia troubled Rome, the people chose Aemilius to fight the enemy. He accepted it so nobly, and people were so proud, that Plutarch described it as…”this shows how the Roman people subjected themselves to virtue and goodness in order to gain power and dominion over the rest of the world.”

Aemilius’ remarkable virtue was how he regarded fortunes. He believed that after a great fortune, we must be brave and ready to accept any misfortunes that would surely come after it. One of my favorite quotes from Aemilius’ speech is after he lost his son right on his triumph after defeating Perseus. The other is his scolding Perseus for being so cowardly in accepting his misfortunes:

Courage in those who meet with misfortunes goes a long way towards enabling them to win the respect even of their enemies, but for Romans there is nothing more dishonourable than cowardice, even if the coward prospers.”

Speaking of great men of Rome, we could not overlook Pompey—The Great, and Julius Caesar. However, I see their greatnesses are mostly in their military and political achievements. They were not so great as persons. Caesar was too ambitious; all his generosities did not come from his nobleness, but because he wanted to buy people’s affection. He might have succeeded in winning people’s heart—thanks to those generous gifts—but his greediness was not left unnoticed by the Senate. Pompey, on the other hand, was loved by everyone—the Senate and the people. However, he lacked the strong principle which we often see in great men, such as Aemilius Paullus. Pompey was too susceptible and was easily spoilt by flatters. Even Caesar deplored how easily Pompey was defeated by him; that he did not show his greatness in his—probably—most important battle against Caesar. I think Pompey is glorious and was called ‘Great’, firstly, because people praised him, rather than his genuine personality.

After the best, came the worst. I still cannot decide which one of the eight is the worst consul. Is it Marius or Sulla, who made Rome lost its grandeur by their brutality? Or Antony, with his greatest flaw—his passion towards Cleopatra? I exclude the Gracchus here because I see that they were actually right by bringing reformation to support plebeian, but they did not have genius minds to cautiously execute it. They made the same mistake as Caesar, they focused too much on the people, while ignoring the Senate’s strength.

Back to the worst trio… Although I was terribly disgusted by Marius and Sulla—they do not deserve to be called ‘great’, by the way—I am mostly disappointed by Antony. He was well bred too, like Aemilius. He was loved by his colleagues and the people. Caesar even regarded him highly, and Antony became one of Caesar’s best friends. However, he could not control his passion. Antony was a great military commander; he had talent and skill. He was good in war strategy, and he was loved by his army. Their loyalty towards him, even when he abandoned them for Cleopatra, was remarkable. But again, is it worth to risk so much for only a woman—though she was as attractive as Cleopatra? Antony could have been so great, but instead he ended so low. Oh Cleopatra…..! And so, from the eight consuls in this Lives, I think Antony is the most undeserved to be called great!

This is my first history reading—yes, I have never read any history work before, shame on me!—and I’m glad I had picked Plutarch for the start. His way of telling the history is compelling, especially the battles, he told it with great details in very lively style; although he could sometimes be widely out of context while telling the historical facts. No wonder Shakespeare could be so detailed in writing Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, because he used very much the sources from Plutarch’ Lives.

Four stars for Roman Lives.


I read Oxford World’s Classics paperback

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