Lives by Plutarch
Plutarch was a Greek, born in the early days of the Roman Empire (during the reign of Claudius), and his Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans compare famous Greek statesmen and soldiers with their Roman equivalents. Through them, he managed to cover most of the history of Greece and Rome up to his own lifetime. But Plutarch was a philosopher and moralist before he was a historian, and his Lives were written with explicitly didactic ends. As far as I can tell, the main lesson to be gained is that being a famous Greek or Roman statesman or soldier is likely to get you exiled at some point, and probably also murdered. There is a great deal of political intrigue here, and much of it is fascinating; there's good reason that the Lives have been used as dramatic source material by Shakespeare and HBO.
But as with many modern biographies, there are occasionally times when detail bogs things down. From the chapter on Demosthenes:
But after Philip, being now grown high and puffed up with his good success at Amphissa, on a sudden surprised Elatea and possessed himself of Phocis, and the Athenians were in a great consternation, none durst venture to rise up to speak, no one knew what to say, all were at a loss, and the whole assembly in silence and perplexity, in this extremity of affairs, Demosthenes was the only man who appeared, his counsel to them being alliance with the Thebans. And having in other ways encouraged the people, and, as his manner was, raised their spirits up with hopes, he, with some others, was sent ambassador to Thebes.
Imagine, a few millennia from now, someone reading several pages about whether Karl Rove will appear before Congress openly and under oath, or privately and without a transcript. Or worse, imagine sitting through the last few Star Wars movies. This gives you some idea how tedious the minutiae here sometimes becomes.
But these moments are exceptions. Most of the time, the Lives are wonderful fun, especially once we get to Cicero, Caesar and Antony. Of course, I was familiar with the stories here, not just from Mr. Osborne's 5th-grade history class and Shakespeare's plays, but from reading Cicero's letters just a few weeks ago. But it is strangely thrilling to read a story one has heard so many times before, knowing that, for the first time, you are reading the version from which all the others are drawn. Even more thrilling is to read the odd details that have been conveniently left out of the subsequent drafts:
When he came to the river Rubicon, which parts Gaul within the Alps from the rest of Italy, his thoughts began to work, now he was just entering upon the danger, and he wavered much in his mind, when he considered the greatness of the enterprise into which he was throwing himself. He checked his course, and ordered a halt, while he revolved with himself, and often changed his opinion one way and the other, without speaking a word. [...] At last, in a sort of passion, casting aside calculation, and abandoning himself to what might come, and using the proverb frequently in their mouths who enter upon dangerous and bold attempts, "The die is cast," with these words he took the river. Once over, he used all expedition possible, and before it was day reached Ariminum, and took it. It is said that the night before he passed the river, he had an impious dream, that he was unnaturally familiar with his own mother.
I remember the part about the die being cast, but I'm not sure Mr. Osborne told me about that dream.
--CRB, April 1, 2007