Plutarch’s Romans

I want to comment on the lives of some of the early Romans in Plutarch (see Penguin’s The Makers of Rome). First is Fabius Maximus (c. 280-203 BC), the general who opposed Hannibal’s invasion through his famous delaying tactics which were meant to oppose the enemy by gradually wearing him down at a time when Roman armies could not defeat the Carthaginians in open combat. But Fabius’ indomitable personality also gave way to inflexibility. He was inordinately jealous of Scipio Africanus who successfully took the battle to the very shores of Carthage itself.

Plutarch is good at giving us well rounded portraits of men who are seldom all good or all bad. That said, Fabius’ contemporary Marcellus (c. 286-208) emerges one of the most noble Romans in Plutarch’s chronicle, perhaps only to be rivaled by Brutus.

Fighting appealed to his temperament, and he was a daring soldier who bore himself with lordly assurance on the battlefield, but in other respects he was modest and humane. He had enough regard for Greek culture and literature to make him honour and admire those who excelled in them, but he himself never found the leisure to master or even study these subjects to the extent that he would have wished.

By pursuing a more aggressive war against Hannibal, Marcellus’ tactics balanced those of the cautious Fabius. Of particular interest is the Roman siege of Syracuse in which the defenders made use of the ingenious war machines designed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes to hold off the attackers for many months.

In the late 2nd century BC the Gracchi brothers—Tiberius and Gaius—ruled as popular tribunes. They helped initiate open class conflict and civil war which would plague Rome for decades to come. It is clear that Plutarch has mixed feelings about these men, and it would be too easy to condemn (or condone) their “proto-radicalism.” The essential problem was that Rome favored monopolies on economic and governmental power, dominated by either aristocratic or democratic factions. It was a situation that encouraged hatred, envy and unrest. What Rome sorely needed was a broad middle class and a free market system.

I will conclude with a few comments on Marc Antony (c. 83 – 30 BC). He has come down to us as the embodiment of the playboy adventurer. Yet Plutarch paints a picture of him that is by no means unsympathetic. He was simple and generous. He could take criticism, including jokes at his expense. Antony was a capable commander beloved by his troops, willing to share their dangers and hardships on campaign. Yet at the battle of Actium his infatuation with Cleopatra got the better of him. He abandoned his men, thus dooming his own pretensions as Caesar in the east. If any character comes across as truly despicable it is the scheming Cleopatra or the arrogant and ruthless Octavius (later Caesar Augustus).

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