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


  1. I'm reminded of the Nietzschean "will to power." One wonders if ideals, holiness, and glory were in fact facades behind which power was actually sought. Plutarch doesn't paint it that way. The early oppressions Caesar experienced from Sulla taught him that power was necessary for safety...sort of ironic results. He had some glory-hunger in him, i.e. I'm older than Alexander, yet I haven't done what he did, he also had a semblance of holiness, i.e. witness the immense love and respect his soldiers had for him, they crossed the Rubicon too...and he also may have had some ideals, i.e. the political party put down by Sulla does surface as a concern for him, and he seemed to recognize that possession of certain ideals, or the perception that they are possessed, is a key to obtaining power, for, again, the devotion of his soldiers on innumerable occasions transcends the average power-hungry egoist. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that he cultivated personal power as the means to political power...

    1. I'm pretty sure that if Julius Caesar had had a longer reign, he wouldn't have been the worst Caesar in Roman history. As you mention, he was able to make strong connections with his troops. Plutarch mentions that they felt shame for not being able to keep up with him as he chased down Pompey.
      Also, and I'm just thinking of this now, his quest for power did have some real limits. He could have seized power but instead he worked hard to have the people acclaim him. The real affection of the people must have had some importance to him.