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.

1 comment:

  1. Plutarch is filled with wonderful stories. He's on my list of books to read to my kids, but the list is long, and kids grow fast.