Plutarch or Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, is a Greek writer and historian, known for his famous works, ‘Parallel lives’ and ‘Moralia’. Plutarch primarily was a priest at the Apollo Temple at Delphi, but he also served as a magistrate in Chaeronea and held office as an archon (a title for a specific public office). He lived from 46 to 120 AD and started his biographical works by writing about the Roman rulers from Augustus to Vitellius. His biographies can also be classified under studies about character and leadership traits, rather than as purely historical account of yesteryear rulers. This does not in any way mean his accounts lacked historical information, because they had them in plenty. In fact, Plutarch is one of the most authoritative sources of the history of Roman and Greek Empire of the first century AD. But his biographies are not just statement of historical facts, as they delve into the character of the personality written about and offer life lessons for many subsequent generations. His works are a window into what motivated these great men into achieving greatness and how exactly they go about it.
The life of Julius Caesar is one such account where Plutarch tells the life story of one of the greatest personality ever lived, and talks about his rise and fall vividly. He gives detailed account of the historical facts surrounding his ascension to the pinnacle of his political ambitions and then how everything fell apart. He talks about, among other things his friends, love life, beliefs, what he did right and what went wrong. He puts together a plethora of events that gives us an insight into the man behind the Shakespeare’s famous character ‘Julius Caesar’. His account is the main source of Julius Caesar life (along with ‘The Twelve Caesars written by Suetonius and writings of Sallust) till date and gives a detailed account of his deeds, battles, victories, political maneuvers and most of all his capacity to inspire his follower/soldiers.
“His soldiers showed such good will and zeal in his service that those who in their previous campaigns had been in no way superior to others were invincible and irresistible in confronting every danger to enhance Caesar's fame.”
In “Parallel Lives”, Plutarch lays down a collection biographies of historically significant personalities. Through this work he chooses a pair of personalities, usually a Greek and a Roman, and draws parallel patterns between their lives. By this, he intended to provide model patterns for leadership traits and also to promote mutual respect between the Greeks and Romans. Out of the entire literature only twenty two versions of comparisons and four single biographies are available today. The most popular ones among these comparisons are biographies of Demosthenes (Greek Orator) and Cicero (Roman Orator) and that of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. The method of comparison was to first give out the basic details of the personalities compared, such as their date of birth, their education, achievements, religious beliefs, battles fought, political ambitions and death or assassination. After furnishing these details separately for each individual, Plutarch then launches into a formal comparison. Thus his accounts both act as a historical data mine and also as a source of character analysis (William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar was primarily based on the facts and characterizations presented by Plutarch’s version).
In the ‘Life of Julius Caesar’, Plutarch starts with narrating, how Sulla after gaining power tried to persuade Caesar to divorce his wife which he declined. He then had to abscond as he got into the bad books of Sulla due to his friendship with his uncle Marius. Then Plutarch launches into the fascinating story of the boy who fled Rome to escape from being beheaded by Sulla, and the adventures he had in his way to becoming the greatest ruler of Rome. He talks about the audacity of the boy in commanding the very pirates who held him captive, and the ruthlessness with which he crucified them after being released. He narrates in vivid detail the battles won, alliances formed, love life and marriage, elections and finally the triumph.
The chapter titled “A Man of Unlimited Ambitions: Julius Caesar”, is one of the important historical account of Julius Caesar’s life. This part narrates the incidents that happened after Caesar rose to power, and concentrates on how the people’s champion became the enemy of the senate. It deals with the phase where people who were threatened by Caesar’s rising power, finally found something concrete to cite as a reason for their hatred towards him. Plutarch explains how even though senate went on showering titles and honors on Caesar, these titles were only for namesake and in an honorary capacity. They wanted the real legislative power to remain with a collective body which is the senate itself. They believed it is the only way to preserve the republican form of governance of Rome and prevent tyranny.
In fact, all these titles and honors showered on Caesar, was later used as a reason to substantiate the claim of the conspirators, that he is a vain and self obsessed ruler, and he could turn into a dreadful tyrant. Plutarch, saw in Julius Caesar, a man who would not rest on his laurels but surge ahead in thirst for more. He says that his victories rendered fuel to his burning desire and his ambitions surged new heights with every victory accomplished.
“Caesar's many successes, however, did not divert his natural spirit of enterprise and ambition to the enjoyment of what he had laboriously achieved, but served as fuel and incentive for future achievements, and begat in him plans for greater deeds and a passion for fresh glory, as though he had used up what he already had.”
Plutarch opines that this drive for ambition was the ultimate cause for his downfall. His desire to be the king and his passionate pursuit of royal power is what according to Plutarch, the first authentic reason for hatred against him for the multitude who was jealous of his growing power. He says
“But that which brought upon him the most apparent and mortal hatred was his desire of being king; which gave the common people the first occasion to quarrel with him”
He recollects the incident when Caesar was returning from Spain and some of the supporters shouted in Welcome saying “hail the King” and he replied that his name was Caesar and not king. He was visible discontented with that the silence that followed his words.
The final straw for the senators was when Caesar was seated and did not stand up in the rostra, when the consuls followed by the whole senate came to inform him of the new honors bequeathed on him in 44 BC. His being seated the whole time was considered as an impolite gesture and was considered to have treated the senate as some ordinary privateers and not men of importance. It did not go well with the public also, who thought insulting the senate was paramount to insulting the people whom they represent. Many of the senators excused themselves from the function and Caesar too realizing his mistake left early, saying that whoever wants to kill him for his mistake is welcome to do that. Later on he tried to justify his behavior citing health problems, as a reason for not getting up to receive the senate.
Also during the festival of Lupercalia, Antony, who was one of the participants of the festival, ran up to Caesar and presented him with a diadem. Caesar refused it and this was greeted with applause from the crowd. Antony represented the diadem and Caesar refused again, which was met with a louder applause. But later Caesar’s statues around the capital were seen bejeweled with royal tiaras, which were removed by Flavius and Maryllus. Through these incidents Plutarch conveys the desire of Caesar for royal power and how the people though they liked him, did not want a monarchy and rather preferred to be ruled by elected representatives.
Having established Caesar’s ambitions to rule, Plutarch now turns his attention to the other major reason for his downfall –trust. Caesar trusted his allies particularly Marcus Brutus. Marcus Brutus was a descendant of the elder Brutus, who ended the rule of kings and brought power into the hands of the senate originally, from his father’s side. But Marcus Brutus was not able to take any step against Caesar’s growingly authoritative style because of the favors he enjoyed due to his friendship with him. Not only did Caesar pardon Marcus and his friends’ for their role in helping Pompey, but he also granted Marcus, the most highest praetorship for that particular year. Caesar also made Brutus consul and preferred him or that post against his rival Cassius. He was even quoted saying though Cassius had many qualifications, he could not deny the post to Brutus.
When people tried to warn Caesar about Brutus and his role in conspiring against him, he simply denied their claim saying "Brutus will wait for this skin of mine," Though Caesar considered Brutus worthy to be a ruler, he thought Brutus would not be so ungrateful as to murder him. But the conspirators were already recruiting Brutus, by planting doubts about Caesar’s motives and aspirations in his mind. But Plutarch also states that Caesar was not altogether convinced about Brutus as he makes a mention that “he did not fear such fat, luxurious men, but rather the pale, lean fellows”, implying he did not find Antony and Dolabella as big a threat as Cassius and Brutus.
But we find that in spite of these misgivings he had about Brutus and his friends, he still walked into that theatre of Pompey on that fateful day of Ides of March without any security measure. He either trusted his friends too much or believed himself too much, as these friends of him (almost 60 of them) stabbed him not less than 60 times and assassinated him. Thus through Plutarch’s version of his life we get a peep into the human side of this great Roman figure. Yes, this biography was a credible source of historic information of a period almost 2000 years ago and one of the few accounts that stood the test of time. But, it will be more remembered for its role in throwing light on the character, personality and ambitions of a person whose life and death was an important milestone in the history of Roman civilization. In conclusion it would be appropriate to quote M.Ambler, who uttered the following words in the fifth annual PNEU conference.
“Many centuries have passed since Plutarch lived and worked, but his writings have been touched with a picturesque glamour and with a distinct personality which has travelled with them through the ages and shines now even through the translations.”