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.


  1. I'm not sure that Plutarch disliked Caesar. Unfortunately, no comparison to Alexander is extant, which would give a more explicit judgment, but the Caesar he depicts has many admirable and worthy qualities, including almost unearthly ambition. Do you have any specific comments that demonstrate Plutarch's total dislike?

    1. I just looked back through my notes to see if I had anything and I don't. I'll browse a bit more and see if I can find something concrete. It just seemed to me that the entire tone of how Caesar is treated is much different than the obvious regard for Alexander. It's a huge shame, as you say, that we don't have a comparison written by Plutarch.