Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Choosing a Leader

I'm very interested in how Numa was chosen to be king of Rome. From Plutarch:

Both parties came at length to the conclusion that the one should choose a
king out of the body of the other; the Romans make choice of a Sabine, or the
Sabines name a Roman; this was esteemed the best expedient to put an end to all
the party spirit, and the prince would should be chosen would have an equal
affection to the one party as his electors and to the other as his

This got me to thinking of our current political situation. If we asked our current Senators and Representatives to choose a President from the other party, who would they choose? Well, frankly, if both parties had to do such a thing then there would be much mischief as both parties would actively try to subvert the spirit of the question. But I still think it has value as a mental exercise. If one could at least ask all of the Senators and Reps who they would choose, that would be fascinating.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stories from Plutarch

One of the enjoyable parts of reading Plutarch are the little stories that are scattered throughout the narrative. I wanted to separate out a few of them. All of these are from the section on Alexander.
The first takes place while Alexander is consolidating Greece. He goes to Corinth and finds Diogenes lying in the sun:
When he [Diogenes] saw so much company near him, he raised himself a little, and vouchsafed to look upon Alexander; and when he kindly asked him whether he wanted anything, "Yes," said he, "I would have you stand from between me and the sun." Alexander was so struck at this answer, and surprised at the greatness of the man, who had taken so little notice of him, that as he went away, he told his followers who were laughing at the moroseness of the philosopher, that if he were not Alexander, he would choose to be Diogenes.
I love how obviously taken Alexander is when learned men stand up to him! And here is Plutarch relating the famous (even then) story about the Gordian knot:
Most authors tell the story that Alexander, finding himself unable to untie the knot, the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it, cut it asunder with his sword. But Aristobulus tells us it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.
So instead of an anecdote about how Alexander introduced some violence to solve an unsolvable problem, we get a mechanical solution. I also like here how Plutarch shows us that he is sifting through various sources to try and get at the truth.
The next one takes place when he finds that one of his men has defiled the tomb of Cyrus the Great. He put the man to death and had a Greek translation of the tombs inscription added. It read:
"O man, whosoever thou art, and from whencesoever thou comest (for I know thou wilt come), I am Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire; do not grudge me this little earth which covers my body."
'Do not grudge me this little earth . . .' That gave me chills the first time I read it! One last one, this story regarding a drinking contest after a funeral:
Alexander invited a great many of his friends and principal officers to supper, and proposed a drinking match, in which the victor should receive a crown. Promachus drank twelve quarts of wine, and won the prize, which was a talent, from them all; but he survived his victory but three days, and was followed as Chares says, by forty-one more, who died of the same debauch, some extremely cold weather having set in shortly after.
Twelve quarts. Twelve quarts of wine! That would be crazy if it was water, much less wine. And forty-one others also died. I'm guessing that very funerals kill of forty-two of the attendees. I'm also guessing that very few of those funerals involved drinking matches.

Friday, March 23, 2012


In reading about these four figures in Plutarch, I was struck by how very different their motivations and paths to power were.

Lycurgus actively stayed away from the power inherent in his family, or at least power in his name. Instead he used a group of men to intimidate the city of Sparta into adopting his ideals. He didn't do this for personal reasons like wealth or fame. He wanted power so that he could set up the healthiest society he could think of. He created something that was so powerful as to be an archetype nearly 3000 years later yet his name is not widely known. In the end, he sacrificed himself so that the city would be bound to a vow that they made 'until he returned'.

Numa Pompilius didn't seek power. In fact, he had to be convinced to be a king. He would only accept if the gods agreed. He made it clear from the beginning that he would not be seeking war. Instead he seems to have spent much of his time honoring various Roman gods. He is also virtually unknown in modern times. Some few would recognize a work of his mind in the modern calendar. The only other things that lasted from his reign were temples and religious traditions. When he died he destroyed some of the mystical knowledge that he had gained.

Alexander was born to power but had to be violently successful to stay there. He loved philosophy and men of the mind but he is overwhelming characteristic was that of glory and conquest. Notably, he wasn't concerned with wealth and isn't well known for any kind of governing policy. His impact on the world was enormous. He created and destroyed large kingdoms and spread Greek culture far to the east. He died young of a rather inglorious sickness and is still known throughout the world.

Caesar's rise was both political and military. He rose in popularity despite opposition from the great families of Rome. He used glory and riches from conquest to increase his standing. His ultimate aim was to have the Roman people overcome their traditional fear of dictators and proclaim him to be their 'king'. He was motivated by power and glory. He sought reforms that would invest more power in him, though an alternate explanation is that he honestly thought Rome needed more centralized power to deal with problems. He was killed to keep that power out of his hands. Caesar is one of the best known figures in human history.

To me this breaks down a bit like this:
Lycurgus: Ideals
Numa : Holiness
Alexander: Glory
Caesar: Power

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Numa and Caesar and the Calendar

I didn't go into much detail about this but the subject of two of our recent reads had significant impact on our modern calendar. Back on Leap Day I ran across this interesting article that went into great detail about both of them and went on to tell about the only known February 30th. Excerpt:

Again, this is all shrouded in legend and tradition, but the story is that Numa Pompilius, the likely mythical second king of Rome, reformed the calendar by adding January and February to the beginning of the year and attempting to switch things back to a lunar calendar. Complicating matters was the Roman belief that odd numbers were lucky, so Numa made eight months last 29 days and four others be 31 days longs for a total of 356 days.

But, of course, that was an even number, rather defeating the point of the whole odd-obsessed exercise, so one month was made even and, to minimize the bad fortune, shorter than all the others. And if you're going to pick a shortest, unluckiest month, I think everyone in the northern hemisphere can agree that there is no more perfect candidate for that dubious honor than February. Adding a leap month of 27 days and shortening February for an extra-long year of 377 or 378 days every so often kept Numa's calendar on track with the solar year.

I'm so used to the idea of a calendar being set in (proverbial) stone. The idea of playing around with the months to that degree is almost unthinkable. And then Caesar stepped in to help:

By the time Julius Caesar had assumed his title of "dictator in perpetuity" in 46 BCE, the calendar was badly out of alignment and nobody was really sure what day it was anymore. Caesar's time in Egypt had brought him into contact with the scholars of Alexandria, who informed him that some centuries prior a Greek scholar - either Cleostratus in the 5th century or Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th, we're not sure which - had determined the true length of the year was just about 365.25 days long. The historians Plutarch and Pliny the Elder, both writing about a century later, say that upon his return to Rome Caesar enlisted the aid of the Mediterranean world's greatest philosophers and mathematicians to implement a new calendar, with the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes getting the main credit for the new calendar.

The result of all this was something very close to the calendar we use today, as two days were added to January, Sextilis - later renamed August by Caesar's successor, who not coincidentally was named Augustus - and December to bring them up to 31 days, and a single day was added to April, June, September, and November to get them to 30. It should be pointed out that the most logical thing to do would probably have been to have seven 30-day months and five 31-day months to get to 365, but for reasons that are likely lost to history Caesar decided to keep February just 28 days long, giving it the small consolation of a leap day every four years to keep the calendar in line with the year.

And that fixed things. Mostly. They still had to fix the whole leap year thing. Which they did in the 16th century. (I'm not sure if we'll read about that at all.) As I said, the whole article is worth reading.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

April Reading

From the New Testament: Gospel of St Matthew and Acts of the Apostles Kindle/Nook/Google, Google
St Augustine: 'Confessions' books 1-8 Kindle/Nook/Google

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plutarch - 'Alexander'

Plutach begins writing about Alexander by telling us outright that he isn't giving a full history but rather is 'writing about lives'. He tells us that Alexander was born with a leg up, heir to the king of Macedonia, but that his family life was an uneasy one. His mother was long suspected of being part of a snake cult and was widely distrusted. Eventually his father, Philip, was urged to take a different wife. At one point, Alexander was at risk of losing his share of the throne but his Philip changed his mind.
Alexander was different from an early age. He was absurdly successful. For instance, once his father was thinking of buying an excellent horse. Excellent except that it was too wild for any real use. Alexander simply went forward, diagnosed what was scaring the horse and tamed him. This was his beloved Bucephalas. Philip asked Aristotle to become Alexander's teacher and this sparked a love of philosophy that stuck with him all of his life.
Philip was assasisnated when Alexander was only 20 and he was proclamied king of Macedon. The work that Philip had done to unite the Greek cities came undone and Alexander had to put it back in place. He did so quickly and without much problem. He then turned north and secured his border there, razing the city of Thebes as a lesson to anyone else would oppose him.
Then it was on to Asia and the Persian empire. I won't go into a blow by blow account. Just look at the map above. The word that best fits Alexander's path of conquest is 'epic'. He quickly reduced the Persian empire and conquered it. He moved on and on and only stopped in India because his army grew tired. He was apparently planning on conquering Arabia when he fell ill and died.
Some things stand out in his short life. First of all, he was very decent towards his conquered foes. Plutarch writes of his treatment towards Darius's mother, wife and daughters. After they were captured they were treated with all honors. Alexander worked hard to make them feel safe and prosperous.
Secondly, while Alexander sought fame, he didn't seek wealth. He gave up gold and treasure freely to his men and kept very little for himself. This went so far as to create arguments between he and his mother.
Third (and most interesting to me), he had an abiding love of philosophy and philosophers. He carried a treasured copy of Homer's 'Illiad' with him and kept it under his pillow. When he was in India, he met some of the local wisemen:

In this voyage, he took ten of the Indian philosophers prisoners,who had
been most active in persuading Sabbas to revolt, and hadcaused the Macedonians a
great deal of trouble. These men, calledGymnosophists, were reputed to be
extremely ready and succinct intheir answers, which he made trial of, by putting
difficultquestions to them, letting them know that those whose answers werenot
pertinent, should be put to death, of which he made the eldestof them
judge. The first being asked which he thought mostnumerous, the dead or
the living, answered, "The living, becausethose who are dead are not at
all." Of the second, he desired toknow whether the earth or the sea
produced the largest beast; whotold him, "The earth, for the sea is but a part
of it." Hisquestion to the third was, Which is the cunningest of
beasts?"That," said he, "which men have not yet found out." He bade
thefourth tell him what argument he used to Sabbas to persuade him
torevolt. "No other," said he, "than that he should either live ordie
nobly." Of the fifth he asked, Which was eldest, night orday? The
philosopher replied, "Day was eldest, by one day atleast." But perceiving
Alexander not well satisfied with thataccount, he added, that he ought not to
wonder if strangequestions had as strange answers made to them. Then he
went on andinquired of the next, what a man should do to be
exceedinglybeloved. "He must be very powerful," said he, "without
makinghimself too much feared." The answer of the seventh to hisquestion,
how a man might become a god, was, "By doing that whichwas impossible for men to
do." The eighth told him, "Life isstronger than death, because it supports
so many miseries." Andthe last being asked, how long he thought it decent
for a man tolive, said, "Till death appeared more desirable than life."
ThenAlexander turned to him whom he had made judge, and commanded himto give
sentence. "All that I can determine," said he, "is, that they have every
one answered worse than another." "Nay," said theking, "then you shall die
first, for giving such a sentence.""Not so, O king," replied the gymnosophist,
"unless you saidfalsely that he should die first who made the worst
answer." Inconclusion he gave them presents and dismissed them.

Isn't that wonderful? He was clearly charmed through and through by them.

He died young, of sickness. Plutarch discards the possibility of poison and accounts well of the last days of Alexander. In reading this, it almost appears that as soon as Alexander's eastward push was ended, his life lost meaning but that's almost certainly just a consequence of the timing, rather than a real element of the narrative.
He led a simply amazing, almost unbelievable life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Plutarch - Caesar

If I was staying in order, this would have been about Alexander the Great. But today is the Ides of March and how can I pass on that? Also, I saw this on Twitter today and thought it was too good not to share:
'People are losing the spirit of Ides of March. Not just about stabbing. It's about coming together to stab in groups.'

Plutarch puts a lot of focus on the early political career of Julius Caesar. There were a lot of ins and outs and I don't think that I followed it all but the basic pattern was that Caesar advanced on two tracks. He both a) appealed to the people and b) used money, often going deep into debt, to buy support. Some of the more powerful families saw him as a danger early on but they couldn't quite get a handle on him and stop his movement.
He soon became politically powerful enough to be awarded several governorships. He used these as a springboard to attack Gaul (modern France). The text doesn't go into much strategic detail but the Romans overpowered the various Gallic tribes. These conquests gave him more money and fame. But it wasn't enough. Plutarch writes:
It is said that another time, when free from business in Spain, after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. "Do you think," said he, "I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?"

He soon became so powerful that a power struggle ensued between Caesar and Pompey. Pompey ordered Caesar back to Rome but Caesar was afraid that he would be prosecuted if he went home unprotected. By tradition (law?), Roman generals were forbidden to bring their armies into Italy. Caesar broke that and crossed the Rubicon, the river that was the border, with one legion. This sparked a Civil war. Caesar won fairly easily as Pompey couldn't raise a reliable force in opposition. Before long Caesar had chased down all opposition and returned to Rome.
But then he faced a challenge unlike the previous ones. He was obviously in line to be declared a king but Roman tradition was strongly against such a move. He tried various ways to have the crown 'offered' to him by the people but he couldn't get popular will to acclaim him. Finally, a band of Senators decided that he must be taken care of before he figured out a way to become a dictator.
He was rushed to the floor of the Senate and there taken by surprise and attacked. He suffered 23 stab wounds. According to Plutarch, when he was attacked by his friend Brutus he gave up the fight and let them kill him. The Senators went out to the people, thinking they would be treated as saviors. Instead they were reviled. The ensuing power struggle created a series of civil wars that in turn created the Roman empire.

Caesar was killed in 44BC and Plutarch wrote about him some 150 years later. It seems clear from the text that Plutarch didn't like him. That he thought him too ambitious and unworthy. That's especially interesting when you think of how revered Caesar came to be. The Russians named their royalty, the Czars, after him. As recently a conqueror as Napoleon thought they were following in Caesar's footsteps.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Plutarch - Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius Compared

In my humble opinion, this is the genius of Plutarch. He selected various Greek figures and then chose a Roman figure to compare them to. You can imagine how that could be done with contemporary books. The only one that I can think of offhand is a very good book by Chris Matthews (yes, the pundit) on Kennedy and Nixon. Sadly, only 18 of Plutarch's comparisons are still around.
Both Lycurgus and Numa were close to power. Plutarch notes that Lycurgus turned it down and Numa (reluctantly) accepted it. Both men were scholars. Neither one was harsh. Lycurgus molded his society while Numa was somewhat hands off. Plutarch notes:

But by his superintendence of the young, his collecting them into
companies, his training and drill, with the table and exercises common to all,
Lykurgus showed that he was immensely superior to Numa, who, like any
commonplace lawgiver, left the whole training of the young in the hands of their
fathers, regulated only by their caprice or needs; so that whoever chose might
bring up his son as a shipwright, a coppersmith, or a musician, as though the
citizens ought not from the very outset to direct their attention to one object,
but were like people who have embarked in the same ship for various causes, who
only in time of danger act together for the common advantage of all, and at
other times pursue each his own private ends. Allowance must be made for
ordinary lawgivers, who fail through want of power or of knowledge in
establishing such a system; but no such excuse can be made for Numa, who was a
wise man, and who was made king of a newly-created state which would not have
opposed any of his designs.

Of course today we seem more value in letting people pick their own way through. We can see more of Plutarch's judgment with his closing here:

Yet this fact seems to tell for Lykurgus, that the Romans gained such an
enormous increase of power by departing from Numa's policy, while the
Lacedaemonians, as soon as they fell away from the discipline of Lykurgus,
having been the haughtiest became the most contemptible of Greeks, and not only
lost their supremacy, but had even to struggle for their bare existence. On the
other hand, it was truly glorious for Numa that he was a stranger and sent for
by the Romans to be their king; that he effected all his reforms without
violence, and ruled a city composed of discordant elements without any armed
force such as Lykurgus had to assist him, winning over all men and reducing them
to order by his wisdom and justice.

The Spartan way certainly had its success but it proved brittle in the end.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Plutarch - 'Numa Pompilius'

According to Plutarch, Numa Pompilius was the second king of Rome. The first king was the legendary Romulus and after he died there was quite a dispute over who should succeed him. At the time, the city of Rome was basically peopled by two tribes, the Sabines and the Romans. In trying to find a successor, both tribes wanted one of their people to lead them. As a compromise, each tribe decided to pick someone from the other. This exercise made it clear that Numa should be their new king.
He was reluctant but they argued him into the spot. He consulted the augers and they told him that the gods were fine with it. So he accepted. One of the reasons that he held back is because he thought that Rome would want to continue its warlike ways and he was a man of peace. In fact his reign was something of a pause for the Romans.
Numa was scholarly and deeply dedicated to pleasing the gods. In his time he created several temples and orders of priests. In fact, the word Pontiff is thought to come from his name.
He also tried to fix the calendar so that it matched up with the solar cycle. He did fairly well at this but didn't account for the quarter day (or so) of slippage. It fell to Julius Caesar to add in the leap year.
I was moved by this:

At his own wish, it is said, the body was not burned, but placed in two
stone coffins and buried on the Janiculum Hill. One of these contained his body,
and the other the sacred books which he himself had written, as Greek
legislators write their laws upon tablets. During his life he had taught the
priests the contents of these books, and their meaning and spirit, and ordered
them to be buried with his corpse, because it was right that holy mysteries
should be contained, not in soulless writings, but in the minds of living men.
. . .
Four hundred years afterwards, when Publius Cornelius and Marcus Baebius
were consuls, a great fall of rain took place, and the torrent washed away the
earth and exposed the coffins. When the lids were removed, one of the coffins
was seen by all men to be empty, and without any trace of a corpse in it; the
other contained the books, which were read by Petilius the praetor, who reported
to the Senate that in his opinion it was not right that their contents should be
made known to the people, and they were therefore carried to the Comitium and
burned there.

We are all dust in the end but it's particulary sad when books are lost forever.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plutarch - 'Lycurgus'

I'm going to roll these out in pieces every couple of days. I think that will work best for general discussion.

And it should be said upfront that there is no way to really tell how reliable a historian Plutarch was. That's especially true when it comes to semi-legendary figures like Lycurgus. This doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention, just that we should keep a dose of salt handy.

Lycurgus was the father of the Spartan way of life. He was somewhat in in line for the throne but kept away from it out of fear that he would be blamed if his nephew died. He went so far as to choose exile in Crete so as to be beyond suspicion. While there he studied the way different societies work (or don't work) and decided to create a perfect society in Sparta.
This was done by force. He got together a band of armed men and took over the marketplace. The king was worried that he would be assassinated but they soon convinced him to join them. A Senate was formed and only it would decided when matters would be put to a vote. Plutarch finds that this solved the problems presented by either monarchy or democracy.
He went about this methodically. Lycurgus redistributed the wealth of everyone so that there would be no envy or greed. He also pushed the citizens away from arts and crafts. He purposefully made outside trade difficult so that everyone would have 'moderation'.
He also redefined the family structure. Men and women barely spent time together. Husbands would allow other men to sleep with their wives if the husband thought better children would result. (I can't, for even a single moment, comprehend how that thought process would work out in practice.) At the age of seven, boys would go from their families to the Spartan academy. There they would learn the Spartan code and be raised as warriors. Plutarch tells of a young boy who stole a fox and hid it under his coat. He didn't cry out, even as the fox disemboweled and killed him. They were pretty tough.

Lycurgus had some strong ideas on what a perfect society would look like. Unlike other philosophic theorists, he was able to actually bring this about. To my modern ears, it sounds awful. It should be noted that Sparta became a power after these reforms took place. They became the most feared army in Greece. But at what price?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Biography of Plutarch

Plutarch was a Greek man, from a wealthy family, who grew up near Delphi. He was a Roman citizen, in the time of the Roman empire. Plutarch is known primarily for two things, his biographies and a series of essays and lectures on morals and customs.
The biographies (or histories) are the most important because they provide some unique links to ancient history. Without Plutarch, we would have lost quite a bit of knowledge. For instance, he provided one of only five accounts of Alexander the Great.
His technique was interesting, he would write about a Greek subject and then a Roman citizen. In some cases (possibly all of them) he would then write a comparison of the two. Scholars believe that less than half of his works still exist.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Subject Timeline

I thought it might be helpful to know when our various subjects were around. Plutarch himself was born in 46 AD and lived until 120 AD. We'll be reading about:

Lycurgus 820 - 730 BC (?)
Numa Pompilius 753 - 673 BC
Alexander 356 - 323 BC
Caesar 100 BC - 44 BC

Friday, March 2, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March Reading

Plutarch: 'Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans' (only Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Lycurgus and Numa compared, Alexander, Caesar) Kindle/Nook/Google

And with this we leave the Greek writers. But not the Greeks themselves as we open with the history of Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan way of life. Numa Pompilius was the second king of Rome. And of course you've probably heard of Alexander the Great and Caesar. Sadly, this is the only Plutarch on the list.

I'm tempted to suggest a viewing of the movie '300' to familiarize yourself with the Spartans but from what I understand they might have taken a few liberties. (No, really.)
A couple of years ago I read 'Fire from Heaven' by Mary Renault, an historical novel dealing with Alexander's early years. The book was striking for it's heroic portrayal of the boy with an nearly indomitable spirit from early days. It apparently was the inspiration for the Oliver Stone film 'Alexander'. I thought 'Fire from Heaven' was pretty good.
We'll cover Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' in year seven. I'd recommend Shaw's version too.