Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 06, 2009

PLUTARCH: Lives (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar)

Every biography has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every life story is based on that simple theme. Plutarch has chosen some of the great Greeks and Romans of the past as his theme. These were all truly great men. That is, if your definition of a great man is someone who does great things. Some were good, some were bad, but all of them were great. You may not like what they did (Hitler and Stalin for example) but you can’t argue that their lives didn’t matter. They did matter. They mattered very much, and they changed history.

These four men chosen by Plutarch also mattered. They mattered a great deal to the Roman world. Marius was a classic rags-to-riches story. Plutarch says Marius started with nothing: He was born of parents altogether obscure and indigent, who supported themselves by their day labor. Sulla also started with nothing, but in a different situation: Sulla was descended of a patrician or noble family but In his younger days he lived in hired lodgings at a low rate and started out his life with a father who left you nothing. Pompey had a totally different background from either Marius or Sulla: never had any Roman people’s goodwill and devotion more zealous throughout all the changes of fortune, more early in its first springing up, or more steadily rising with his prosperity, or more constant in his adversity than Pompey had. The black mark against Pompey was that his father, Strabo, had been a detested general. Caesar too had been born wealthy, and he knew how to spend it. According to Plutarch the open house he kept, the entertainments he gave, and the general splendor of his manner of life contributed little by little to create and increase his political influence. In fact, He was so profuse in his expenses that, before he had any public employment, he was in debt thirteen hundred talents.

Obviously these men came from very different backgrounds but they had this much in common: they all rose to supreme power in the Roman state. They each did it in different ways and Plutarch traces the details in each biography. He shows their beginnings, their rise to power, and what finally happened to them at the end.

Marius gave himself up to drinking deep and besotting himself at night in a way most unsuitable to his age…he fell into a pleurisy…kept his bed seven days, and then died. Sulla’s end was not pleasant: his bowels were ulcerated, till at length the corrupted flesh broke out in lice…He went frequently by day into the bath to scour and cleanse his body, but all in vain… Pompey didn’t die of natural causes: Septimius first stabbed him from behind with his sword; and after him likewise Salvius and Achillas drew out their swords. He, therefore, taking up his gown with both hands, drew it over his face, and neither saying nor doing anything unworthy of himself, only groaning a little, endured the wounds they gave him, and so ended his life, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, the very next day after the day of his birth. Caesar also met with the treachery of assassination: when he saw Brutus's sword drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted, letting himself fall, whether it were by chance, or that he was pushed in that direction by his murderers, at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompey's statue stood, and which was thus wetted with his blood. So that Pompey himself seemed to have presided, as it were, over the revenge done upon his adversary, who lay here at his feet, and breathed out his soul through his multitude of wounds, for they say he received three and twenty. And so ended the lives of these four great men. Their achievements were extraordinary. So are Plutarch’s biographies.


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