The Life of Mark Antony by Plutarch

This is one of the longest lives at 87 chapters, longer than Sertorius (27), Crassus (33), Cicero (49), Brutus (53), Caesar (69), Cato the Younger (73) or Pompey (80). Dates and other information in square brackets are not in Plutarch but content I’ve added in to make the account more accurate.

Plutarch’s life of Marcus Antonius

(1) Marcus Antonius [83 to 30] came from an undistinguished family. His grandfather was murdered during the purges of Marius in 87 BC. Plutarch tells an anecdote about how, when a friend came asking for money, all his father could give him was a bowl, and that when his wife discovered it was missing she threatened to torture all the slaves to find it until his father confessed to having given it away. (Torture all the slaves? So the references to torturing slaves to  establish something, as jokily referred to in the plays of Plautus and Terence, is based on common practice.)

(2) His mother was Julia, a third cousin of Julius Caesar. When his father died, his mother remarried Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, an eminent man of noble family who was always in debt due to his extravagance and so had got lured into the Catiline conspiracy. He was one of the conspirators caught in the capital about whom the famous debate in the senate was held (where Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger put opposing views, namely clemency versus execution, as described in detail in Sallust’s Catilinarian Conspiracy). As a result of Cato’s violent argument, Lentulus was summarily executed on the orders of Cicero, consul at the time. According to Plutarch, this explains Antony’s violent hatred of Cicero who he would, 20 years later, directly cause to be executed. Thus does the whirligig of time being in his revenges.

A promising youth, Antony fell under the influence of Gaius Scribonius Curio, who debauched him with wine and women till he was massively in debt and Curio’s father banned him from the house. Then he fell in with Publius Clodius Pulcher, the street demagogue and rabble rouser. He acquired so many enemies that he thought it wise to leave Italy for Greece, where he studied military tactics and oratory. Interestingly, Plutarch tells us that Antonius adopted:

the Asiatic style of oratory, which was at the height of its popularity in those days and bore a strong resemblance to his own life, which was swashbuckling and boastful, full of empty exultation and distorted ambition.

So by chapter 2 we know where Plutarch’s sympathies lie. With Brutus the liberator and Cato the principled, against Caesar the tyrant and Antony his swaggering lieutenant. OK. Good.

(3) Antony accompanies Grabinius to Syria as captain of his horse and distinguishes himself in a siege against Aristobulus at Jerusalem in 57 BC. He plays a leading role in the campaign to restore King Ptolemy XII Auletes to the throne of Egypt after he’d been dethroned by his people. For example, capturing the city of Pelusium. (Cato 35, Pompey 49) Something which, presumably, endeared him to Ptolemy’s daughter, Cleopatra, when he was to meet her 15 years later.

(4) “He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Hercules.” He liked to play on his putative descent from Hercules. He dressed casually, was boastful and banterish, all this produced goodwill and reputation among the soldiers, helped by ‘his liberality, and his bestowal of favours upon friends and soldiers’.

(5) When the crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head, Curio, with money provided by Caesar, got Antony elected tribune of the plebs in 50 BC [following straight on from Curio’s own term]. During the crisis Antony played a key role at crucial moments. In January 49 he read out Caesar’s letter to the senate with his proposals for a compromise. It was he who suggested the further compromise that both Caesar and Pompey lay down their arms simultaneously, but this proposal was rejected by the consuls and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus (not the same Lentulus as the one involved in the conspiracy) expelled Antony from the Senate building by force and threats.

Which is why Antony changed into the clothes of a slave and headed to Caesar’s camp by the river Rubicon, there to brief him that all compromise was impossible. (Pompey 58, Caesar 30) It was the hounding of Antony in his capacity as tribune which made it possible for Caesar to dress up his motivation for invading Italy as being in part to restore the rights of the tribunes i.e. to dress up personal ambition in lofty rhetoric about rights and customs. [See the opening chapters of Caesar’s Civil War.]

(6) It was this which allowed Cicero to write, in his Philippics against Antony, that he was the prime cause of the civil war, which is, of course, silly, and Plutarch goes on to say so, and to explain that Caesar was not a man to do anything on a whim. No:

that which led [Caesar] to war against all mankind, as it had led Alexander before him, and Cyrus of old, was an insatiable love of power and a mad desire to be first and greatest.

Not a fan, then.

After Caesar crossed into Italy and drove Pompey across the Adriatic to Macedonia, he lacked the ships to follow and so turned around and headed to Spain to quell the Pompeian legions there, leaving Rome to Lepidus, who was praetor, and Italy and the troops to Antony, in his capacity as tribune of the people.

Antony curried favour with the troops by living with them and sharing their exercises and making generous gifts of money, but he was impatient with administering justice and gained a reputation for sleeping with other men’s wives. In other words, he did a lot of damage to Caesar’s cause.

(7) Nonetheless Caesar was right to put his faith in him as a general. Early in 48, having crushed Spain, Caesar has marched his army all the way back into Italy and rustled up the ships to transport them across the Adriatic. He was besieging Pompey’s army at Dyrrhachium in the Balkans with limited forces and sent word for Antony to send reinforcements. And Antony did a very good job by embarking 20,000 men and escaping the blockade of Brundisium being carried out by Lucius Scribonius Libo. He sailed them down the Macedonian coast in a storm but managed to find a safe port and so brought his forces safely to Caesar – the forces with which Caesar was to win the decisive Battle of Pharsalus later that summer.

(8) Antony distinguished himself at two engagements, where he stood and rallied fleeing troops, and Caesar gave him the decisive command of the left wing at the Battle of Pharsalus. [This is skipped over here because Plutarch describes it at length in his life of Pompey, chapters 68 to 73]. After Caesar won and had himself appointed dictator, he set off in pursuit of Pompey to Egypt, but made Antony his Master of Horse and sent him back to Rome. This post was second only to dictator and when the dictator was absent, as Caesar was, Antony was effectively in complete control.

(9) But while Caesar is away Antony shocked Rome with his loose living, his drunkenness, his heavy expenditures, his debauches with women, his spending the days in sleep or wandering about with an aching head, or attending the nuptial feasts of mimes and jesters. He has a falling out with Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who he thought had had an affair with his wife, so he drove the latter from his house. When Dolabella proposed a law for the abolition of debts and sought to enact it by force and seized the Roman Forum, Antony responded by unleashing his soldiers upon the assembled masses, killing hundreds. – The civil war had taught them nothing. Political street violence wouldn’t go away (at least not until the arrival of the ultimate strong man).

(10) When Caesar returned to Rome he disapproved of Antony’s actions, pardoned Dolabella and chose Lepidus rather than Antony to be his co-consul the next year. (Antony, in fact, was stripped of all official positions and received no appointments for the year 46 or 45 BC.)

Anthony took to wife Fulvia, the widow of both the demagogue Clodius and the hellraiser Curio, who was a tough woman and determined to reform him. Plutarch waspishly claims that Cleopatra owed her a debt because Fulvia house-trained Antony and made him ready to be ruled by a woman. [Before you get too impressed, remember this is the woman who delighted in seeing the severed head and hands of Cicero, executed in December 43 and sparked a full blown war with Octavian in 41.]

An anecdote: Antony goes to meet Caesar on  his return from Spain, but then news breaks that Caesar is dead. So Antony made his way back to Rome disguised as a slave (an echo or repeat of his flight from Rome at the start of 49) and in disguise gained admittance to his own house claiming to be a slave with a message. He hands it to Fulvia who tearfully begs for news about her beloved Antony, at which point he drops his disguise and embraces her.

(11) When Caesar returned from victory in Rome, from all the men who went to meet him it was Antony he honoured and had accompany him in his ‘car’ back to the capital. Plutarch continues the idea of rivalry with Dolabella, claiming Caesar wanted to hand over power to him but Antony vehemently opposed it. Plutarch repeats the story about Caesar being warned about Antony and Dolabella and replying that it wasn’t these fat men who worried him, it was the pale and thin ones, indicating Brutus and Cassius. [Told less convincingly than in the lives of Caesar (62) or Brutus (8).]

(12) A repeat of the story of how Antony was taking part in the annual festival of the Lupercalia and ran with a diadem to the rostra where Caesar was sitting, had his fellow athletes lift him up and place the diadem on Caesar’s head. Some applauded but when Caesar pushed it away the whole crowd applauded. This happened several times before Caesar stood in displeasure, pulled the toga from his throat and said anyone who wanted could strike him there and then. It’s an odd story, isn’t it, with a folk legend aptness but also a deep implausibility. And the related anecdote that unknown hands hung wreaths  on the heads of Caesar’s statues, which were then torn down by the tribunes. All this is told better in Caesar 61.

(13) The conspirators discuss inviting Antony to join. Trebonius shared a tent with Antony as they both accompanied Caesar back to Rome, hinted at the idea and Antony firmly refused. At which they switched round to considering killing Antony along with Caesar – a neat illustration of the way that, once you’ve crossed the line into deciding you need to kill people to get rid of the ‘tyrant’ and the ‘dictator’, it quickly becomes a list. In fact, Brutus is held up as the man of principle who insists that nobody else is harmed. Fearing Antony’s popularity and position, they nonetheless arrange for some of their number to engage Antony outside the senate hall so he is not present when the deed is done.

(14) In this account the actual assassination of Caesar takes up one short sentence. Fair enough; it is described in great and dramatic detail in the life of Caesar [chapters 63 to 69]. Anthony flees into hiding but when he realises the conspirators are harming no-one else but are holed up on the Capitol, he comes out of hiding, gives his son to them as a hostage guaranteeing safe passage, and then entertains the assassins to dinner. In the senate he proposes an act of amnesty and a distribution of provinces among Brutus and Cassius and their partisans.

In the immediate aftermath Antony was widely thought to have acted with immense wisdom to calm the risk of civil war.  But everything changed when he made the official funeral address over Caesar’s body.

At the close of his speech shook on high the garments of the dead, all bloody and tattered by the swords as they were, called those who had wrought such work villains and murderers, and inspired his hearers with such rage that they heaped together benches and tables and burned Caesar’s body in the forum, and then, snatching the blazing faggots from the pyre, ran to the houses of the assassins and assaulted them.

This one act split the city, terrified the assassins into fleeing and, in effect, restarted the civil war.

(15) The assassins fled Rome. Caesar’s wife gave Antony his fortune to dispense with and all his papers. Antony implemented Caesar’s wishes but went further, appointing magistrates who suited him, acting increasingly autocratically.

(16) Octavian It was at this point that 18-year-old Octavian arrived in Rome, a son of Caesar’s niece. When Octavian asked for the money Caesar had left him, in order to distribute the payment of 75 drachmas which Caesar had enjoined, Antony ridiculed the boy for being a mere stripling, and also blocked his attempt to become a tribune. But Octavian allied with Cicero and others of the anti-Caesar party and Antony began to fear him, so held a summit conference, gave into his demands, and was reconciled. Briefly. For then Antony learned Octavian was touring the country drumming up old soldiers and recruiting an army.

(17) Cicero was the most powerful man in Rome and got the senate to declare Antony a public enemy while he was out of the city conducting a siege. Plutarch says this drove Antony and his army out of Italy and over the Alps and they suffered hardships and starvation, but this brought out the best in him, as adversity always did, and the soldiers admired him for sharing their privations.

(18) When Antony’s army came close to camp near to Lepidus‘s the latter, who owed Antony many favours, surprised him by being reluctant to acknowledge him. He came to Lepidus’s campy dishevelled and unshaven and won the sympathy of the troops. Many of Lepidus’s soldiers implored him to usurp their commander and take over but Antony insisted Lepidus be treated with respect and when their armies united he did so. This inspired Munatius Plancus also to join him so that he crossed the Alps into Italy with 17 legions of infantry and 10,000 horse.

(19) Octavian had realised he couldn’t treat with Cicero because the latter was a man of principle, so realised he had to come to an accommodation with Antony. So Octavian, Antony and Lepidus met on an island where ‘they divided up the whole empire among themselves as though it were an ancestral inheritance’. The Second Triumvirate. They all wanted to get rid of political enemies but agreeing a list presented great difficulties. Octavian gave up Cicero to Antony, Antony gave up Lucius Caesar (Antony’s uncle) to Octavian, Lepidus gave up Paulus his brother. ‘Nothing, in my opinion, could be more savage or cruel than this exchange.’

(20) Plutarch has it that the soldiers demanded additional tokens of their alliance so Octavian married Clodia, a daughter of Antony’s wife Fulvia. As a result of these agreements, 300 men were proscribed and put to death, including Cicero. [Wikipedia has 2,000 Roman knights and one third of the senate.] Antony ordered his head and right hand be cut off, the one he had used to write his savage criticisms of Antony with, and nailed to the rostra in the forum [Cicero 48]. In the Gallic Wars Caesar remarked on the Gauls’ ‘barbaric’ practice of sticking the heads of defeated enemies on poles around their camps. How is this different? What could be more savage and barbarian?

(21) Antony emerges as the most powerful of the triumvirate but makes himself very unpopular for his dissolute living. And because he had bought up the house of Pompey [only recently and tragically dead] and the people were upset to see it closed against commanders, magistrates and ambassadors and filled instead with mimes, jugglers and drunken flatterers.

The triumvirate not only sold the properties of those they slew, but brought false charges against their wives and heirs in order to confiscate their belongings. They instituted new taxes, and plundered the  treasure deposited with the Vestal Virgins.

Then Octavian and Antony led their armies into Macedonia against Brutus and Cassius, leaving Rome in charge of Lepidus.

(22) This short chapter deals with the campaign of Octavian and Antony in Greece against Brutus and Cassius, describing but not mentioning by name the crucial two battles at Philippi in October 42, mainly to bring out how it was Antony who was victorious while Octavian was sick in his tent and his forces lost their part of the battle. [Brutus and Cassius’s campaigns in Greece, the long buildup to the battle, the battle and its aftermath are described in great detail in Plutarch’s life of Brutus, taking up the final third of the text, chapters 38 to 53, which is why he skimps it here.] In Plutarch’s account Cassius commits suicide after the first battle, Brutus after the second.

In the negotiations of the triumvirate it was Antony who insisted that Cicero was killed. In revenge Brutus ordered Hortensius to execute Antony’s own brother, Caius. In revenge, Antony had Hortensius executed on his family tomb. Thus the logic of civil wars.

(23) After the battle Octavian, still sick, returns to Rome, while Antony remains in Greece, raising money and enjoying himself, gaining a reputation as a philhellene, listening to learned debates, attending games, giving money to Athens.

(24) In 41 Antony left Lucius Censorinus in charge of Greece and he and his army crossed into Asia meaning the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of what is now Turkey. Here he was greeted as conqueror, lavished with gifts and women and lapsed into his former lifestyle of debauchery. His tax gatherers milked the territory till a brave local politician complained that they had already given Antony 200,000 talents, now he was demanding more. Which gave him pause.

For Antony was simple and slow, quick to forgive, lavish of gifts, but easily flattered and deceived by his subordinates.

(25) Enter Cleopatra who:

roused and drove to frenzy many of the passions that were still hidden and quiescent in him, and dissipated and destroyed whatever good and saving qualities still offered resistance.

Antony sends to her to attend him in Cilicia to explain her support for Cassius. Antony’s messenger, Dellius, on meeting her immediately realises his boss will be enslaved by such a lustrous woman, now at the peak of her beauty [born in 69 BC, in 41 she was 28].

(26) Cleopatra first meets Antony by sailing down the river Cydnus to his camp. This inspires the single most gorgeous description in Plutarch who says she sailed up:

the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.

Antony asked her to come meet him but Cleopatra refused and told him to come meet her. And he obeyed.

(27) A chapter on the character of Cleopatra, tactfully observing that she was no necessarily the most beautiful of women, but she had an ineffable charm and wove a magic every time she spoke.

(28) Instead of preparing for war against the Parthians, Antony sank into oriental sloth, went to Alexandria with Cleopatra and spent his time in feasting and drinking. Plutarch includes a very rare snippet of autobiography which hints at the personal sources of information for his biographies.

Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria at the time, studying his profession, and that having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded by him (young man that he was) to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. Accordingly, he was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: “The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and this an instant of time reduces. For it might happen that Antony would ask for supper immediately, and after a little while, perhaps, would postpone it and call for a cup of wine, or engage in conversation with some one. Wherefore,” he said, “not one, but many suppers are arranged; for the precise time is hard to hit.” This tale, then, Philotas used to tell; and he said also that as time went on he became one of the medical attendants of Antony’s oldest son, whom he had of Fulvia, and that he usually supped with him at his house in company with the rest of his comrades, when the young man did not sup with his father. Accordingly, on one occasion, as a physician was making too bold and giving much annoyance to them as they supped, Philotas stopped his mouth with some such sophism as the: “To the patient who is somewhat feverish cold water must be given; but everyone who has a fever is somewhat feverish; therefore to everyone who has a fever cold water should be given.” The fellow was confounded and put to silence, whereat Antony’s son was delighted and said with a laugh: “All this I bestow upon thee, Philotas,” pointing to a table covered with a great many large beakers. Philotas acknowledged his good intentions, but was far from supposing that a boy so young had the power to give away so much. After a little while, however, one of the slaves brought the beakers to him in a sack, and bade him put his seal upon it. And when Philotas protested and was afraid to take them, “You miserable man,” said the fellow, “why hesitate? Don’t you know that the giver is the son of Antony, and that he has the right to bestow so many golden vessels? However, take my advice and exchange them all with us for money; since perchance the boy’s father might miss some of the vessels, which are of ancient workmanship and highly valued for their art.” Such details, then, my grandfather used to tell me, Philotas would recount at every opportunity.

(29) Astonishingly, Antony liked to dress up as a slave and go round the streets of Alexandria, looking through people’s doors and mocking them. And Cleopatra accompanied him in these merry jaunts! She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms. The Alexandrians said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.

He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover’s skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it the following day. So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming onto his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Cleopatra said: “Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”

(30) Eventually the real world intruded on these larks. His wife and brother had become enemies of Octavian and been forced to flee Italy. Meanwhile, Labienus, Caesar’s best lieutenant in Gaul, who had gone over to Pompey and then escaped East after Pharsalus, was leading a Parthian army into Asia. Antony set off to engage Labienus but received messages from Fulvia.

[Fulvia had become involved in a full-blown conflict with Octavian which is known as Fulvia’s civil war or the Perusine war, because it ended up with Octavian besieging the forces of Fulvia and Antony’s younger brother, Lucius Antonius, in the Italian town of Perusia, modern Perugia.]

Plutarch has Antony changing direction to meet her but she died en route to meet him. [Wikipedia, by contrast, says Octavian took Perusia but spared both Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, sending the latter into exile at Sicyone near Corinth where she promptly died of disease.] Either way, when Antony arrived in Rome, he was able to restore friendship with Octavian by blaming any dissension on his headstrong wife.

The triumvirs divided up the empire, making the Ionian sea a boundary, assigning the East to Antony and the West to Caesar and giving Africa to Lepidus. They then arranged either to be consuls themselves or arranged for their friends and allies to have senior offices. So the Republic was in effect dead.

(31) In order to cement their alliance, Antony married Octavian’s half sister, Octavia, who was recently widowed. The senate passed a law allowing her to marry in less than the legal requirement of 10 months mourning. It’s one among many examples of the way the laws and the senate operated on a micro level to adjust things for fellow members of the small Roman elite.

(32) Pompey’s son Sextus Pompeius inherited command of his big fleet. Antony and Octavian meet him at Misenum, where they make peace [August 39]. As he is entertaining them on his flagship, a senior officer of Sextus’s whispers in his ear that they could cut their ropes, set sail, execute them, and Sextus would become ruler of the Roman world. But Sextus chooses integrity and rejects the idea.

(33) Antony sends Antony sent Publius Ventidius Bassus on ahead into Asia to oppose the Parthians while he has himself made Pontifex Maximus, as Julius had been. The partnership between Octavian and Antony functioned but Antony consistently came off worse in all their deals, even when things were decided (improbably enough) by throwing dice or cockfights (!). A soothsayer tells Antony to avoid Octavian.

Antony leaves Rome for Greece taking Octavia who has borne him a daughter. In Athens he learns that Ventidius had conquered the Parthians in battle [of the Cilician Gates] and slain Labienus [39 BC]. Antony takes part in traditional Athenian games.

(34) A more detailed description of Publius Ventidius’s successes against the Parthians which go some way to redeeming the disastrous defeat of Crassus in 53 BC. in 40 BC the Parthians invaded Syria led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes. Ventidius met Pacorus’ huge army [in the Battle of Cyrrhestica] where he inflicted an overwhelming defeat in which Pacorus was killed [38 BC].

Ventidius doesn’t pursue them into their own land as he is worried about Antony’s jealousy, and when Antony arrived with an army, he takes over Ventidius’s siege of Antiochus of Commagené in the city of Samosata, which in fact goes very badly, leaving Antony chagrined. He sends Ventidius back to Rome for a triumph.

Plutarch makes a general point that other generals flourished under Antony or that he was more successful in campaigns conducted by those under him, namely: Ventidius against the Parthians, Sossius in Syria, and Canidius who conquered , who was left by the Armenians.

(35) Tensions had been building between Octavian and Antony who sailed for Italy with 200 ships but sent his wife on ahead of him, and when Octavia met Octavian she pleaded with him not to make her a widow, and so the two imperators were reconciled again, for the time being…

So they ate and conferred in peace, then Octavian gave Antony two legions to pursue his wars in the East while Octavian set off to quell remaining Pompeians in Sicily. Antony left Octavia and his children with Octavian.

(36) But in Asia Antony fell back into his old infatuation with Cleopatra. In October 41 he called her to attend him in Cilicia and made her a gift of ‘Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus and a large part of Cilicia…and.. the balsam-producing part of Judaea and all that part of Arabia Nabataea which slopes toward the outer sea’. Antony set up or removed monarchs, punished nations and ruled like an eastern potentate. He acknowledged his children by Cleopatra, and granted her numerous honours. In 40 she bore him two children. All this scandalised conservative Roman opinion.

37 to 52: the Parthian War

(37) In 38 BC Phraates put his father Hyrodes, king of Parthia, to death, and many nobles fled Parthia. Antony assembles a vast army, including the forces of many vassal kings, against Phraates but Plutarch tells us he mismanaged everything in his haste to win quick victories so he could get back to Cleopatra.

(38) For example, in his haste he left behind a number of state of the art siege engines in Armenia in charge of Statianus and 10,000 men. But this meant that when he laid siege to Phraata, a large city, in which were the wives and children of the king of Media a) the siege dragged on needlessly, but b) Phraates attacked the waggon camp back in Armenia, massacred the soldiers, killed Statianus and destroyed the engines. A calamity.

(39) The Parthians then march up to the besieged city, Antony lifts the siege and marches off, pretending to flee, but then turns and engages the Parthians in perfect battle order. They see them off, attacked first by the cavalry then the infantry and follow the Parthian army for many miles, but are disheartened to see how few of them they’ve killed. Then the Medes in their own camp turn traitor and attack them.

(40) It is a long punitive campaign. Some Parthian soldiers ride alongside Romans and tell them they and their king Phraates respect them, but despise Antony for relying on fear and famine rather than fighting. Eventually Antony decides to break camp and retreat. He is too downhearted to address his men but gets Domitius Ahenobarbus to do it.

(41) A  man of the Mardian race offers to guide the Roman army back, emphasising that they should avoid the open plain and cleave to hilly country. Antony is not sure whether to trust him, till the Mardian offers to be put in chains as he guides them, so they agree. On the third day the Mardian notices a dyke has been cut to pour water across then Roman path and predicts an ambush, giving Antony enough time to prepare his legions and fight it off.

(42) Having cracked the strategy for fighting them off, Antony puts his army in the shape of a hollow square with slingers and cavalry on the outside and succeeds in fighting off the notorious Parthian cavalry for four days. But Antony makes the bad decision of letting Flavius Gallus lead an attack against the Parthians and, when he gets cut off, sending only small detachments to reinforce him which all get massacred. Eventually the entire Roman army wheels round to attack the Parthians, but it was a defeat.

(43) 3,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. Plutarch is typically sentimental, saying Antony went to visit the sick and they all with tears in their eyes assured him they were fine and would be happy so long as great Antony makes it to safety i.e. testament to his popularity.

(44) The Parthians camp near the Roman camp. Antony makes a speech berating those who have fled but asking for any punishment for transgressions to come down on his head so long as his army can be victorious.

(45) The Parthians continue to harry the retreating Romans. The Romans begin to starve and experiment with unknown vegetables. One of these is a herb which drives the eater mad, producing a mad obsession to turn over and move stones, and then death.

(46) Once again some individual Parthians fraternise with Roman soldiers and say their army, too, is exhausted and hungry. But a local named Mithridates came offering advice and showed one of Antony’s lieutenants hills in the distance and told him the entire Parthian host is waiting there to ambush them.

(47) Thus warned that the road through the deserts would leave them exposed, Antony holds a council of advisers and opts to take the path through the mountains, short of water though this would leave them. The Parthians attack their rear while the troops in the van fall on a river and start drinking but the water is salt and poisonous, causing stomach cramps.

(48) The Romans march on, assured by their guide that once they cross the next river the Parthians won’t pursues them. A garbled passage seems to imply that some of the Romans attacked and looted their own baggage train. There is such confusion that Antony calls one of the freedmen in his body-guard, Rhamnus, and tells him that, when he gives the order, he is to run Antony through then cut off his head. Weeping and lamentation from his entourage. But their guide swears the river is close and word comes that the disorder in the rearguard is caused by their own forces, and everyone cheers up.

(49) The Parthians continue to harass their rearguard, raining down arrows till they arrive at The River and cross it at which point the Parthians (supposedly) unstrung their bows and praised their bravery. Would be lovely to hear the Parthian version of all this. Finally they cross the river Araxes into the kingdom of Armenia and drop to the ground and kiss it. Although they promptly fall ill of dropsies and dysenteries.

(50) Antony undertakes a review and discovers 20,000 of his infantry and 4,000 cavalry have perished. (These numbers are always suspiciously round.) More than half from disease, which sounds the right kind of amount from modern accounts of the impact of disease and famine. Plutarch says Antony blamed their defeat on Artavasdes the Armenian who had led back from Media 16,000 horsemen who would have made all the difference in encounters with the mounted Parthian cavalry.

(51) They marched on to the coast at Sidon through snowstorms and lost another 8,000 men. Here Antony was beside himself with impatience to see Cleopatra.

(52) The king of the Medes falls out with the king of the Parthians and sends word to Antony that he is ready to join him on another campaign against the Parthians. This is music to Antony’s ears because it was precisely the  lack of Medean cavalry which he blamed for his previous failure.

(53) In 35 Octavian gave permission to his sister, Antony’s wife, to sail east with a fleet carrying extensive supplies. Antony wrote her telling her to stop at Athens, at which point she realised he wanted her out of the way while he consorted with Cleopatra. And Cleopatra realised her rival wanted to engage in battle. So Cleopatra loses weight and takes to simpering when Antony is there and pining when he’s not, and is backed up by a host of sycophants who tell Antony Octavia only married him as a matter of public policy. And so Antony puts off the war to go to Alexandria to see Cleopatra.

(54) Octavia returns to Rome where she continues to live in her absent husband’s house, raising their children, behaving nobly and honourably, and by doing so helping to highlight Antony’s disreputable behaviour. By contrast Antony dresses up in oriental royal costumes, holds an elaborate ceremony at which he distributes thrones and honours to Cleopatra, and her children, for all the world like an eastern king of kings.

(55) Octavian made sure to keep all these accusations before the senate and people, drip feeding scandal. Antony replies with his own accusations:

  1. Octavian seized Sicily from Pompey but never gave him a share of it
  2. Antony lent Octavian ships which he never gave back
  3. after ejecting their fellow triumvir Lepidus from office and degrading him, Octavian was keeping for himself the army, the territory, and the revenues which had been assigned to Lepidus
  4. Octavian had distributed almost all Italy in allotments, to his own soldiers, and had left nothing for the soldiers of Antony

Octavian replied:

  1. he had deposed Lepidus from office because he was abusing it
  2. he would share whatever he’d won in war with Antony whenever Antony should share Armenia with him
  3. Antony’s soldiers had no claim upon Italy, since they had Media and Persia

Playground squabbles.

(56) Antony gathers a huge naval force of 800 ships of which 200 are Cleopatra’s though he sends her back to Egypt. Cleopatra bribes his advisers to plead her case, that she needs to be by his side. So Antony relents and invites her to Samos where they party to the sound of theatre performances, music, banquets and processions. ‘How will the conquerors celebrate their victories if their preparations for the war are marked by festivals so costly?’

(57) Then on to Athens where there are more festivals and parties and Antony makes a great speech to Cleopatra, ostensibly on behalf of the city. Antony sends word to have Octavia ejected from his house and she leaves with all his children, to the great scandal of the people.

(58) It is 32 BC and Octavian is alarmed at Antony’s preparations for war. He is unpopular because he is enforcing high taxes, a quarter of income for citizens, and eighth for freedmen. If Antony had struck now he might have won the people, but he delayed. Then senior Antony officials who had been hounded out by Cleopatra maliciously told Octavian about Antony’s will. Octavian seized this from the Vestal Virgins and read it out to the senate. The most offensive provision was that he wanted to be buried in Egypt.

A man called Calvisius then made the following charges against Antony:

  1. he had bestowed upon Cleopatra the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes
  2. at a banquet where there were many guests he had stood up and rubbed her feet, in compliance with some agreement  they had made
  3. he consented to have the Ephesians in his presence salute Cleopatra as mistress
  4. many times, while seated on his tribunal and dispensing justice to tetrarchs and kings, he would receive love-billets from her in tablets of onyx or crystal, and read them
  5. and once when Furnius was speaking, the ablest orator in Rome, Cleopatra was carried through the forum on a litter, and Antony, when he saw her, sprang up from his tribunal and forsook the trial and, hanging on to Cleopatra’s litter, escorted her on her way

(59) Cleopatra’s suspicion or jealousy of Antony’s entourage, many of whom she forces to flee.

(60) When Octavian was quite ready a law was passed to wage war on Cleopatra and remove from Antony the power he had handed over to her i.e. reclaim it for the Roman authorities. Octavian claimed Antony had been drugged and bewitched and was under the thumb of Cleopatra’s officials.

Plutarch gives us the usual litany of ill omens he claims occur before every war or battle:

  • Pisaurum, a city colonized by Antony situated near the Adriatic, was swallowed by chasms in the earth
  • from one of the marble statues of Antony near Alba sweat oozed for many days, and though it was wiped away it did not cease
  • in Patrae while Antony was staying there, the Heracleium was destroyed by lightning
  • at Athens the Dionysus in the Battle of the Giants​ was dislodged by the winds and carried down into the theatre
  • the same tempest fell upon the colossal figures of Eumenes and Attalus at Athens, on which the name of Antony had been inscribed and prostrated them
  • the admiral’s ship of Cleopatra was called Antonius; some swallows made their nest under its stern but other swallows attacked these, drove them out and destroyed their nestlings

(61) So war begins between Octavian and Antony. Antony had 500 fighting ships, 100,000 infantry soldiers and 12,000 horsemen and the tribute of all the kings in the east.

(62) But so in thrall is Antony to Cleopatra that he decides to fight the battle at sea, even though they are struggling to fully man their ships. These are high-sided with as many as ten ranks of oars and heavy and slow to manoeuvre. Whereas Octavian’s ships are fully manned and in perfect array. He invites Antony to come and dock at Brundisium and Tarentum and that he’ll withdraw a day’s march to allow Antony to land and arrange his forces perfectly for battle.

Antony replies by challenging Octavian to single combat; then to re-enacting the battle of Pharsalus. But while Antony was lying at anchor off Actium, where now Nicopolis stands, Caesar got the start of him by crossing the Ionian sea and occupying a place in Epirus called Toruné.

(63) Octavian’s fleet engaged Antony’s but Antony boldly had his rowers released and sent up top to look like soldiers and his ships drawn up in battle array so that Octavian was put off and withdrew. Antony sealed off watersources to prevent Octavian’s fleet watering. Domitius defected from Antony to Octavian but Antony generously sent his baggage, servants and friends after him.

Some allied kings defected. Canidius advises Antony to send Cleopatra away and abandon the naval strategy, drawing Octavian onto land where Antony has the bigger force and better track record.

But Cleopatra’s insistence that they fight a naval battle prevailed, even though she was already making preparations to flee. Octavian approves a plan to kidnap Antony as he walked on the shore and it nearly succeeded, they captured the man in front of him but Antony managed to get away.

(64) Antony burns all but 60 of the Egyptian ships and packs these with 20,000 heavy-armed soldiers and 2,000 archers. An old infantry centurion complains to Antony that naval battles are all very well for  Egyptians and Phoenicians but Romans fare best on land.

(65) Four days of rough winds and high seas but on the fifth, 2 September 31 BC the Battle of Actium took place. Antony exhorts his men and tells the captains to keep the ships in the narrow mouth of the gulf. At first Antony’s ships refused to budge and Octavian thought they were anchored, but then the more impetuous left their line to attack him. Excellent! His ships were smaller and lighter and more nimble and able to surround Anthony’s.

(66) There was little ramming because Antony’s ships were too slow and Octavian didn’t want to risk his. It was as if three or four of Octavian’s ships were laying siege to Antony’s monsters. The battle is in mid flow when Cleopatra’s 60 ships made sail and began to leave right through the battlefield. Abandoning all reason, betraying his soldiers and sailors and allies, as if bewitched, Antony leapt into a five-oared galley and made after her.

(67) He caught up with her and was taken aboard Cleopatra’s ship where he sat with his head in his hands after they’d docked at Taenarum. For three days he didn’t move until her women persuaded him to come ashore and be reconciled with her. The world lost for love.

Some of their friends arrive in heavy transport ships and tell them the fleet is destroyed but they still possess an awesome land force. So Antony wrote to Canidius ordering him to withdraw across Greece into Asia. And he hands over a big transport ship full of the rarest treasure to his friends, telling them to divide it up and make the best of their fortune.

(68) In fact his fleet held out for hours at Actium and was only overcome by a storm, while he abandoned nineteen legions of undefeated men-at‑arms and 12,000 horsemen. Madness. The greatest example in human history of a man who was pussywhipped, meaning: “Totally controlled, domineered, or emasculated by a woman.”

His men held out for seven days expecting Antony to return at any moment, but he didn’t and after their commander Canidius ran away in the night, they handed themselves over to Octavian. Octavian sails on to Greece where he redistributes the grain which Antony had stripped from them for his forces. And here again a second unusually direct bit of reminiscence by Plutarch:

My great-grandfather Nicarchus used to tell how all his fellow-citizens were compelled to carry on their shoulders a stipulated measure of wheat down to the sea at Anticyra, and how their pace was quickened by the whip; they had carried one load in this way, he said, the second was already measured out, and they were just about to set forth, when word was brought that Antony had been defeated, and this was the salvation of the city; for immediately the stewards and soldiers of Antony took to flight, and the citizens divided the grain among themselves.

(69) Antony reaches the coast of Libya, sends Cleopatra ahead to Alexandria, and takes to roaming around with just two companions. Plutarch says nothing about Antony’s state of mind but his actions betoken a ghost man, a man who has ruined his cause and his reputation and has nothing to live for. When the general commanding Antony’s forces in Libya defected to Octavian Antony tried to kill himself but is stopped by his friends.

Eventually he sails on to Alexandria where he discovers Cleopatra is engaged in a ridiculous scheme, namely to raise and drag her fleet along the course of the current Suez canal, from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and thus go and colonise somewhere to escape conquest by Octavian. But the Arabs burned her boats and Antony convinced her he still had a land army so she desisted.

And now Antony forsook the city and the society of his friends, and built for himself a dwelling in the sea at Pharos, by throwing a mole out into the water. Here he lived an exile from men, and declared that he was contentedly imitating the life of Timon, since, indeed, his experiences had been like Timon’s; for he himself also had been wronged and treated with ingratitude by his friends, and therefore hated and distrusted all mankind.

(70) A digression on the life and notorious misanthropy of Timon of Athens, clearly a legendary figure by Antony’s time.

(71) Canidius arrives to tell him what finally happened at Actium and the news that all the kings and tetrarchs and whatnot of the Middle East are defecting to Octavian. All he has left is Egypt. At which Antony abandons his depression and goes back into Alexandria where he embarks on a new round of feasting and partying, holding coming of age feasts for his children. Antony and Cleopatra establish a new society which they call Partners in Death. Cleopatra starts collecting rare poisons and experimenting with them on prisoners. the painless ones are too slow but the quick ones are very painful. After lengthy experimentation she settles on the venom of the asp.

(72) They send a petition to Octavian, Cleopatra asking that she be allowed to keep her children, Antony that he may go and live as a private citizen in Athens.

(73) Octavian wrote to Cleopatra that he would treat her well if she would kill or expel Antony. Plutarch shares some typical gossip, telling us that the leader of Octavian’s embassy was one Thyrsus, ‘a man of no mean parts’ who had frequent converse with Cleopatra till it made Antony jealous and he had Thyrsus strung up and flogged then sent back to Octavian. After that Cleopatra went out of her way to suck back up to Antony, celebrating her own birthday very modestly but Antony’s birthday with great splendour. Octavian was called back to Rome by Agrippa.

(74) The war is suspended for winter, but next spring Octavian advanced on two fronts, coming down through Syria and advancing east across Libya. Octavian hears that Cleopatra has built an extravagant tomb into which she has collected all her treasure and sends reassuring messages to her, because he is scared she will kill herself, set light to it and thus deprive him of his loot.

When Octavian is at the outskirts of the city Antony sallies force and fought brilliantly, routing Octavian’s cavalry and driving him back to his camp. Plutarch tells a typically waspish anecdote.

Then, exalted by his victory, he went into the palace, kissed Cleopatra, all armed as he was, and presented to her the one of his soldiers who had fought most spiritedly. Cleopatra gave the man as a reward of valour a golden breastplate and a helmet. The man took them, of course — and in the night deserted to Caesar.

(75) Antony makes Octavian a second offer of single combat. Octavian of course refuses so Antony insists on leading his army into battle. At feast the night before the battle, he tells his friends he will be victorious or die trying, while they all cry.

That night, as usual with Plutarch there are omens. Just the one this time which is that over the city a great music and noise is heard as of a Dionysian festival, but it is heard to move from the city centre towards the gate facing Octavian’s camp and then disappear. It was, people said, the god he had devoted his life to, Dionysius, abandoning him.

(76) On 1 August 30 BC Antony watches his fleet set out to engage Octavian’s but, at the last minute, raise their oars in peace, surrender, and be accepted into Octavian’s fleet. Also his cavalry defects. He fights with his infantry but they are defeated. He withdraws into Alexandria ranting that he has been betrayed by Cleopatra. Scared, Cleopatra retired into her refuge, had the doors locked and barred and messengers sent to Antony telling her he was dead.

Antony goes into his chamber, laments that he has been found wanting in courage to a woman, and orders his man Eros to kill him. Instead Eros kills himself. You just can’t get the staff. So Antony tries to stab himself but makes a hash of it. When he recovers he orders the bystanders to finish him off but they all run away. Until the secretary Diomedes arrives with orders to take Antony to her tomb.

(77) A peculiar scene. Antony is carried to Cleopatra’s tomb but she refuses to unbar the doors to let him in, instead insisting that he is laid on a bier and that she and her serving women haul him up using a rope and pulley system, even though this is extremely difficult for her. When they’ve finally got him inside, Cleopatra rents her clothes and beats her breasts and there’s blood everywhere, but he tells her he’s had a good life and to look out for herself.

(78) Antony dies and his sword is taken by a servant who shows it to Octavian.

When Caesar heard these tidings, he retired within his tent and wept for a man who had been his relation by marriage, his colleague in office and command, and his partner in many undertakings and struggles.

Octavian calls in colleagues and reads out his correspondence with Antony, emphasising how reasonable he had been and how rude Antony’s replies. Then Octavian sends Proculeius to negotiate with Cleopatra, anxious that she will burn her treasure and wanting her to adorn his triumph through Rome.

(79) Proculeius wangles his way into the tomb. He goes back accompanied by Gallus and while Gallus is keeping Cleopatra in conversation by the door, Proculeius uses a ladder to get up to that window, the window they hauled Antony in through, and then down the stairs and to the door and takes Cleopatra by surprise. She tries to stab herself with a small knife but Proculeius is too fast, seizes it, shakes her down to ensure she has no other weapons, then sends her under guard to Octavian.

(80) Now Octavian finally arrives in Alexandria, proceeds to a tribunal erected in the gymnasium. The population prostrate themselves in terror but Octavian says he holds them blameless and won’t punish them. At this crucial moment Plutarch rather spoils the effect by saying Octavian does it at least in part to gratify his companion, Areius the philosopher.

(81) As for the children of Antony, Antyllus, his son by Fulvia, was betrayed by Theodorus his tutor and put to death. Theodorus stole the precious stone the boy wore about his neck but when this was discovered he  was crucified. Cleopatra’s children, together with their attendants, were kept under guard and had generous treatment.

Caesarion, who was said to be Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, was sent by his mother, with much treasure, into India, by way of Ethiopia. There Rhodon, another tutor like Theodorus, persuaded him to go back, on the ground that Octavian invited him to take the kingdom. And Octavian had him executed, after his mother died. One way of regarding this is barbaric. But it should be out in the context of the mass proscriptions Octavian enforced in Rome. His rule was characterised by large scale executions.

(82) Octavian allowed Cleopatra to bury Antony with lavish rites. Then she began to starve herself. But Octavian threatened the lives of her children and thus forced her to eke out a miserable existence.

(83) An interview between Octavian and Cleopatra at which she tries to justify her course of action but Octavian refutes her interpretations at every step. When a servant reveals that she is hiding away her jewellery she crossly slaps him and insists to Octavian that she is storing up women’s ornaments in order to send to Octavia and Livia to beg them to intercede for her. And so Octavian went away confident that she wanted to live. But she fooled him.

(84) One of Octavian’s entourage tells Cleopatra that his army is setting off for Syria and will be taking her, so she obtains permission to pour libations at Antony’s tomb one last tie and Plutarch give her a long sentimental speech.

(85) Cleopatra has a bath and then dinner. A man from the country arrives carrying a basket. The suspicious guards tell him to open it and are amazed at the size of the figs it contains. He bids them have a taste if they like so they let him pass. After her meal Cleopatra sends Octavian a written message, then has herself locked in her chamber with her two serving women. When Caesar opens the tablet and reads the message asking for her body to be buried next to Antony’s he knows what has happened and sends messengers to go instantly to prevent her. But they find Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state.

And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: “A fine deed, this, Charmion!” “It is indeed most fine,” she said, “and befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.

(86) Plutarch reports the 4 or 5 different versions of how she was poisoned, whether she stirred up the asp to make it angry, dipped her hand in the basket or took the snake out and applied it to her arm or breast. In Octavian’s triumph an ‘image’ (does this mean a model or effigy) of Cleopatra was included with the snake hanging from her, though Plutarch doesn’t say where exactly on her body.

Octavian was cross but admired her lofty spirit and so let her be buried with full rites next to Antony. Statues of Antony throughout Alexandria were torn down but those of Cleopatra were allowed to remain standing after one of her friends, Archibius, gave Caesar two thousand talents. She was 39, Antony was 55, they had been an item for 15 years.

(87) As in many a Victorian novel, Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up all the loose threads and telling us what happened to all Antony’s children and their descendants. He had seven children by three wives and their marriages and second marriages and intermarriages make for a complicated diagram. One of the two daughters he had by Octavia:

Antonia, famous for her beauty and discretion, was married to Drusus, who was the son of Livia and the step-son of Octavian. From this marriage sprang Germanicus and Claudius, Germanicus dying young but Claudius coming to the throne in the chaos after Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD.

Before Germanicus died he fathered Julia Agrippina, who, at age 13, was married off to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. They had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. 21 years later, with Ehenobarbus dead, Agrippina married the emperor Claudius. And Claudius, having adopted Agrippina’s son, gave him the name of Nero Germanicus. This was the Nero who came to the throne in 54 AD.

So Antony’s ‘blood’, if there is such a thing, ran on into the Julio-Claudian dynasty for several generations.



Plutarch is a fatalist. He believes everything is predestined to happen. Not very often, but at various key moments when central characters try to avert war or settle conflicts or lay high-minded plans, Plutarch is at hand to tell us that an implacable fate controls our ends.

It was destined that everything should come into Caesar’s hands. (55)

A maze of cross-references

The way that the lives refer to each other creates an evermore complex matrix of cross-references, which turn them into a complex meta-narrative, or a multi-stranded history.

Iraq, Iran and the West

At some point, reading about the inexorable opposition of the Parthian Empire to the Romans (i.e. ‘the West’) and learning that the Parthian Empire was roughly cognate with present-day Iraq and Iran – made me think of the never-ending conflict between those places and ‘the West’ in my day.

Modes of death of Plutarch’s eminent Romans

  • Marius (died a natural death aged 71)
  • Sulla (died a natural death aged 60)
  • Lucullus (died a natural death aged 61)
  • Crassus (died killed in battle aged 61)
  • Sertorius (assassinated aged 53)
  • Pompey (murdered aged 57)
  • Caesar (assassinated aged 55)
  • Cato the Younger (suicide aged 49)
  • Brutus (suicide aged 43)
  • Cicero (murdered aged 63)
  • Antony (suicide aged 53)

It’s the opposite of a scientific sample but you notice how the first three died of natural causes, although Marius and Sulla had been mass murderers; somehow there was the space for them to retire, as for lucky Lucullus. But from then onwards all the rest die violent deaths, and the third aspect of trend is the number of suicides. It feels like Rome no longer had room for many of its eminent men. They were no longer just killed in battle or assassinated but removed themselves from a world which no longer had room for the beliefs or values or causes they had supported. In a voodoo kind of way it’s as if the Republic liquidated itself.

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Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

This is one of Plutarch’s longer biographies of eminent Romans, at 73 ‘chapters’ or sections.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger (95 to 46 BC), was a conservative Roman senator in the period of the late Republic. He made a reputation for being a stern, inflexible defender of the strictest interpretation of traditional ‘Roman’ values and a literalistic interpretation of the constitution. As such he was in effect a defender of the optimates party of traditional aristocrats and the senate as a body, against the growing power and political lobbying of the populares party, represented by others in the 80s and 70s but during the 60s and 50s increasingly represented by Julius Caesar. Cato saw Caesar as an over-ambitious autocrat who sought to tear up the traditional constitution and make himself tyrant and king, so he bitterly opposed him at every opportunity.

Ironically, the net effect of his stern speechifying and high-minded opposition to Caesar helped to create the impassible divide which arose between Caesar and Pompey (who he defected to and served during the civil war) and precipitated the civil war which overthrew the republic that he loved. When compromise was required, Cato offered inflexible opposition.

His suicide in north Africa, where he was one of Pompey’s governors, after Caesar had effectively won the province in 46 BC, was, in my opinion, not a noble end to a noble life but epitomised the political cul-de-sac he’d painted himself into. Compromise and mutual respect are the basic requisites for a functioning democracy.

The life

(1) Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger was a great-grandson of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, Cato the Elder and Cato the Wise (234 to 149). The Elder was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization, who was the first to write history in Latin with his Origines, a now lost work on the history of Rome.

Unusually Plutarch gives us something of Cato’s boyhood. Both his parents died leaving him, his sister and brother orphans. They were brought up by a maternal uncle. People noticed he was inflexible, harsh, not given to laughter though occasionally he smiled. He was a slow but steady learner, and Plutarch favours us with some 2,000 year old theory of education (based, apparently, on Aristotle).

(2) When he was 4 the Social War broke out and Pompaedius Silo, a representative of the rebels, visited Cato’s guardian’s house and humorously asked the children for their support. The others childishly agreed but Cato stared inflexibly silently in front of him, even when the visitor held him out the window as if to drop him. He took boyhood games very seriously.

(3) The dictator Sulla liked Cato and his half brother for their father’s sake and Cato’s tutor Sarpedon often took him to visit, till one day the 14-year-old asked why there were so many cries of torture and severed heads (!) carried from Sulla’s house and when his tutor explained everyone was too frightened to intervene, Cato angrily asked for a sword and said he’d rid his country of this scourge.

Cato’s devout attachment to his brother Caepio.

(4) He was made a priest of Apollo and moved out of his guardian’s house. He tried to put into practice Stoic philosophy and lived very plainly. He was a close companion of Antipater the Tyrian, a Stoic philosopher. He believed in a form of justice which was rigid and uncompromising.

(5) When the tribunes wanted to make changes to the Basilica Porcia which his famous ancestor had constructed, Cato was reluctantly drawn into defending it and opposing the move. Everyone commented on the stern maturity of his speech.

He took vigorous exercise, refused to ride a horse or be carried in a chair, exercised in cold or heat. Spartan.

(6) He was surprisingly unabstemious, though, and would stay up through the night, drinking and arguing with philosophers. He dressed so deliberately unostentatiously that it drew attention. When he came into an inheritance he shared it liberally with friends.

(7) He became betrothed to a woman named Lepida who had been dropped by Metellus Scipio but then Metellus changed his mind and wooed and won her which made Cato so furious he eased his mind by writing scathing verses against Metellus. Then he married Atilia, a daughter of Serranus.

(8) During the war of Spartacus (73 to 71 BC) Cato volunteered to serve since his brother was a military tribune. He displayed good discipline, self-control, courage in all emergencies and sagacity. When the commander, Lucius Gellius Publicola (consul in 72) awarded him honours Cato turned them down, saying he’d done nothing special. So he acquired a reputation as being clever and brave, but odd.

(9) In 67 he was appointed military tribune and sent to Macedonia, to serve under Rubrius the praetor. It’s fascinating to learn that he travelled to this post with fifteen slaves, two freedmen, and four friends. He was assigned a legion and won over the men by his unpretentious willingness to join in with all the tasks.

(10) Cato hears a Stoic philosopher named Athenodorus Cordylion, was living at Pergamum, he travelled there to persuade him to return with him to the army camp, which the latter did. Cato was more proud of this achievement than any military conquest.

(11) Cato’s brother fell sick at Aenus in Thrace. He made his way there as quickly as possible but his brother died before he arrived. People were surprised at his excess of grief and the huge amount he spent on the funeral rites, ‘not observing how much tenderness and affection was mingled with the man’s inflexibility and firmness against pleasures, fears, and shameless entreaties.’ In other words, Plutarch likes Cato.

(12) When he completed his military service the men saw Cato off with tears and embraces, which was unusual, On his journey through Asia he was very humble about his entrance to towns, didn’t do it with grand display and intimidate the local magistrates (which, by implication, was the norm).

(13) Plutarch tells the genuinely funny story of Cato entering Antioch in Syria to find a reception of young men in military cloaks or gala gowns and imagining it was for him. But when the city master of ceremonies stepped forward and greeted him it was to ask when Demetrius would be arriving – all this pomp was for him. Even funnier, Demeterius had at one stage been a slave of Pompey’s but Pompey was so in the ascendent that an ex-slave of his drew more of a grand welcome than Cato. Cato’s friends laughed about this all the way to their inn.

(14) When Cato arrived in Ephesus Pompey, who was there, made a big point of going to meet and greet him by hand, and praising his virtue to his face and behind it. But this was all in self interest, for Pompey never attached Cato to his entourage as he did other young men. Anyway, as a result of Pompey’s favour, the towns he subsequently passed through made a special effort to give him honours, though he asked his friends to ensure he didn’t fulfil the prediction of his friend Curio, that he would return from Asia more tamed.

(15) Deiotarus the Galatian repeatedly sends him lavish presents but Cato sends them back. Taking ship for Brundisium, his friends advise the ashes of Caepio should travel by another ship but Cato insisted they go in the same boat as him even though they turned out to have a difficult crossing.

(16) Back in Rome he is elected quaestor in 65 BC though not before making a careful study of the full constitutional roles and responsibilities of the office. Once instated he insisted on utter rectitude and obedience to the rule from his many clerks, who were used to pulling the wool over the eyes of new young officials. Cato sacked a leading clerk for embezzlement which led to a protracted law case.

(17) By his thoroughness Cato raised the office of quaestor to almost eclipse the consulship in dignity. He:

  1. made sure all debts to the public treasury were immediately called in, so that he could then make all the disbursements owed
  2. he weeded out false claims and decrees
  3. the assassins who murdered people on Sulla’s notorious proscription lists for money, and were widely loathed, he called to account, demanded the money back, upbraided them for their filthy acts, at which point many of them were arraigned for murder: for many people this closed the door on the shameful time of Sulla’s dictatorship (82 to 78 BC)

(18) He got to work early and left late. He set the state treasury on its feet. He attended the senate and popular assemblies to make sure slack politicians didn’t make promises of money they couldn’t keep. All in all he showed that the state treasury could be run honourably.

On the last day of office he was being accompanied home by a grateful crowd, when he heard that his boyhood friend Marcellus was trying to register a crooked remission of moneys so Cato turned right round, marched back to the treasury and, in Marcellus’s sight, expunged the application from the tablets, then took Marcellus home with home for dinner. Nothing personal, just inflexible application of the rules.

(19) Having held the quaestorship, Cato is automatically enrolled in the senate. Here he shows the same inflexible devotion to duty, arriving first, leaving last, and making sure he reads all notes and briefing papers, keeping across all details of all policies. Unlike many who drifted into it by accident, Cato

chose a public career as the proper task for a good man, and thought that he ought to be more attentive to the common interests than the bee to its honey. And so he was careful to have the affairs of the provinces and decrees and trials and the most important measures sent to him by his connections and friends in every place.

He soon became a byword for lecturing sternness and honesty. His name began to be of proverbial weight. Plutarch gives examples.

(20) When the time came to vote for tribunes despite his friends urging him to stand, Cato decided against and set off for one of his country estates to study philosophy. But on the way they encountered the entourage of Metellus Nepos on their way into town so Metellus could stand as tribune. At which Cato ordered his people to about turn and hastened back to Rome to contest the tribuneship in order to preserve the freedoms of the state.

(21) When he stood for the tribuneship many thought that, rather than seeking advantages for himself, he was conferring a gift on the role. In 63 he was elected one of the ten tribunes. He promptly lived up to his reputation for rectitude by prosecuting the consults elected that year to serve in the following years, Silanus and Murena, for bribery. It was the custom for the accused to hire a man to tail the prosecutor everywhere to see who he was talking to and what materials he was gathering. Murena’s hired man was soon impressed by Cato’s rectitude and eventually, if he asked Cato whether he was going about business for the trial that day, if Cato said no, he took his word and didn’t tail him.

Cicero was consul in 63 and defended Murena from Cato’s prosecution and got him off but it didn’t affect his respect for Cato’s honesty and he often consulted him, for:

in the tribunal and in the senate he was severe and terrible in his defence of justice, but afterwards his manner towards all men was benevolent and kindly.

(22) Two chapters on the Catiline conspiracy. Plutarch skips over all the details, to the debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero has captured in the city. Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s speech advocating leniency for the conspirators i.e. that they be sent to various cities under house arrest until the conspiracy was completely quenched. Plutarch really comes out as anti-Caesar with these remarks:

Caesar now rose, and since he was a power­ful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state as so much stuff for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.

That’s not how it comes over when you read Sallust’s reconstruction of Caesar’s speech in his account of the Catiline Conspiracy, which is sober and responsible. It also chimes with his lifelong practice of clemency and forgiveness first.

(23) But what Plutarch wants to get to is how many of the senate were swayed by Caesar until Cato stood up to speak and tore into Caesar as himself a traitor supporting traitors:

Caesar, he said, under a popular pretext and with humane words, was trying to subvert the state; he was seeking to frighten the senate in a case where he himself had much to fear; and he might be well content if he should come off guiltless of what had been done and free from suspicion, since he was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity; and yet for men who ought not to have lived or been born even, he was shedding tears and lamenting, although by their deaths they would free the state from great slaughter and perils.

So ferocious and impassioned that the senate voted overwhelmingly for immediate execution and Cicero led them away to the Roman prison and had them garrotted there and then. A rash impetuous act which would come back to haunt him in later years (when he was threatened with prosecution for having murdered these men without due legal process and so was terrified into going into exile in 58 BC).

Plutarch gives us an interesting little piece of social history by telling us that this was the only speech of Cato’s to have been recorded, and this is because Cicero was responsible for instituting the new practice of having a number of secretaries skilled at shorthand to record senate procedures. (Which is the central fact in Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero.)

(24) Another quite funny anecdote. In the middle of Cato’s furious tirade against Caesar he observed a messenger come into the senate and hand Caesar a note, at which point he thunderously pointed this out to the senate and claimed it had something to do with the conspiracy, demanding he read it out. Caesar handed it over to Cato who read it and realised it was an erotic message from none other than his own sister, Servilia, to Caesar, who she was in love with (though he was married). Cato flung it back at Caesar. This is a lovely moment.

Plutarch goes on to state that Cato had bad luck with ‘his’ women: one sister gained a bad reputation for her carryings-on with Caesar, the other thrown out of her husband Lucullus’s house for infidelity, and his own wife Atilia ‘put away’ because of her ‘unseemly behaviour’. So Cato marries a daughter of Philippus, Marcia.

(25) The strange case of Quintus Hortensius, a man of splendid reputation and excellent character, who tries to persuade Cato to farm out to him his daughter who just happens to be married to another man, Bibulus. Why? To bind their families together and increase wise and virtuous offspring. Cato politely refuses. Things then become garbled as Plutarch states that Hortensius then asked for Cato’s wife in marriage. The fact that Cato agreed and that her father agreed, indicate that he had, or was about to, divorce her. Lots of divorces and remarriages among the Roman aristocracy.

(26) So Lentulus and the other conspirators are executed but Plutarch says Caesar continues to stir up unrest among the city’s poor and describes Cato as being wise and good in passing a law to expand the free grain distribution to the poor and landless.

It is 62 BC and Pompey is en route back to Italy from his triumphs in the East. Metellus has taken up the tribuneship and proposes a law asking Pompey to hurry back and protect the city. Cato at first politely declines and asks Metellus to reconsider. But when the latter takes advantage of his meekness, becomes angry and shouty, leaving witnesses with the sense that they’re both bonkers.

(27) The night before the vote the forum was filled with armed strangers and gladiators and servants with strong support from Caesar, who was praetor. That night Cato bravely walks with his friend Minucius Thermus through the throng of armed men to the temple of Castor and Pollux and pushes through the armed gladiators to eventually plonk himself in a chair between Caesar and Metellus who were conversing.

(28) The proposed law is read out but Cato snatches the paper out of Metellus’s hand. When Metellus continues to recite it from memory, Cato puts his hand over his mouth. So Metellus ordered the men at arms to come to his aid and some of the people pelted Cato with sticks and stones. Not a model democracy, was it?

(29) This brawl goes on for some time with Metellus attempting to read his law and some of the people threatening him. In the event Metellus fled from the people to the forum, made a long speech against Cato, and then fled the city altogether heading towards Pompey.

Switching subject, Lucullus had returned triumphant from the East in 66 but had been forced to wait for a triumph by the opposition of Caius Memmius who wanted to suck up to Pompey. Cato opposed this, partly because Lucullus was married to Cato’s sister. The importance of these marriage and family alliances and allegiances is difficult to capture but was a key element in Roman politics.

(30) Pompey as he approached Rome sent asking the senate if they could postpone the consular elections so he could canvass for Piso in person. The senate was inclined to agree but Cato vehemently disapproved. Seeing he was going to be an obstacle, Pompey then sent a message asking for the hand in marriage of Cato’s daughter for him and the other daughter for his son. When they heard this the women in question were delighted to make such high matches but Cato immediately refused and sent back that he wasn’t to be bought with marriage alliances. Plutarch, for once, is critical, and makes the kind of point I’ve made, which is that Cato’s intransigence brought about the very thing he sought to avoid:

However, if we are to judge by the results, it would seem that Cato was wholly wrong in not accepting the marriage connection, instead of allowing Pompey to turn to Caesar and contract a marriage which united the power of the two men, nearly overthrew the Roman state, and destroyed the constitution. None of these things perhaps would have happened, had not Cato been so afraid of the slight transgressions of Pompey as to allow him to commit the greatest of all, and add his power to that of another.

(31) Furthermore, Cato blocks Pompey’s wishes for a law distributing land to his veteran soldiers, and then blocks Caesar’s wish, on returning from Spain, to canvass for the consulship whilst remaining outside the city pending a triumph. Cato denied him this, too, by talking for an entire day and so talking the time out. But the effect of this scrupulous defence of principle was to drive Caesar and Pompey together and both to support the unscrupulous agitator Clodius. Again, by his scruples he brought about the thing he most opposed. Lucullus and Cicero are of h is party, but the new triumvirate outpowers them and Caesar is elected consul for 59.

(32) Plutarch describes the street violence encouraged by Cato’s opponents. With the help of this rioting Pompey’s land redistribution bill is passed after all along with an unusual clause compelling all senators to take an oath to uphold it. Inevitably, Cato refused to do this until persuaded into it by Cicero who said it was vanity to hold out against the general will, and that he needed Cato in Rome rather than in exile.

(33) Caesar introduces a law to divide almost all of Campania among the poor and needy. Of course Cato objects and so Caesar has him dragged off to prison. Plutarch alleges that it is by such shameless laws that Caesar curried favour with the people and so got himself awarded governorship of Gaul for five years despite Cato warning the people that they themselves were creating a tyrant.

(34) Caesar’s creature, Clodius, gets Cato sent against his will as governor to Cyprus and Ptolemy of Egypt, very obviously to get him out of the way to the clique can pursue their aims unobstructed. Clodius is particularly hot to hound Cicero out of Rome, something he couldn’t achieve if Cato were there.

(35) En route to the East Cato wrote to Cicero whose enemies were trying to get him banished to submit to the mood of the times. King Ptolemy of Egypt comes to see him and finds Cato full of wisdom, not least in his advice to have nothing to do with the rapacious crooks at Rome (Pompey and Caesar) and return to Alexandria and be reconciled with his people. Ptolemy in fact continues onto Rome but Plutarch has him (improbably) at the door of the first magistrate he visits groaning at his own weakness.

(36) Confusingly (for me at any rate) Plutarch then talks about an apparently different Ptolemy, ‘the Ptolemy in Cyprus’, who poisons himself. Cato hears this at Byzantium where he is supervising a peace (?) before he goes on to Cyprus and organises the auctioning of the king’s belongings. He insists on handling every aspect of this himself and so alienates a lot of his friends.

(37) An extended description of the falling out between Cato and his friend Munatius, who feels himself slighted. In the end they are reconciled with kindness and tears. This is a good example of an anecdote or passage which has nothing to do with politics or history, as such, but demonstrates Plutarch’s primary focus which is an interest in ‘the perception and manifestation of character‘.

(38) When Cato returned from the East he meant to present immaculate accounts of the enormous sum of money he was bringing back (7,000 talents of silver), but his account books were lost in unfortunate accidents which vexed him because he had wanted to display them as models and templates.

(39) Cato arrived back from the East in 56 BC and all Rome turned out to meet him, the senate and the people. Characteristically, Cato sailed right past his reception committee and to the docks, which irritated many. But he made up for it when he paraded the wealth he’d brought back through the forum, and he was awarded an extraordinary praetorship.

(40) In 57 BC Cicero had returned to Rome after an exile of 16 months. He promptly acted controversially by having all the records of Clodius’s acts as tribune destroyed, claiming that Clodius had been improperly elected through bribery. Surprisingly, Cato contradicted Cicero’s speech, saying it had not been illegal for Clodius to move from the patrician to the plebeian class, and arguing that if Clodius’s acts were to be erased so should his, Cato’s, in the East because his appointment was made by Clodius. This public disagreement caused Cicero to break off friendship with Cato for a long time.

(41) Plutarch briskly skips over the conference of the triumvirate at Luca. He calls it:

a conspiracy for the division of the supreme power and the abolition of the constitution.

It was where they agreed to make Crassus and Pompey consuls for the following year. Lucius Domitius is encouraged to put himself forward as a rival but Pompey’s thugs attack him one early morning as he is walking in the Campus Martius, killing a torchbearer and injuring others, including Cato who was with him.

(42) So Pompey and Crassus were voted consuls for 55 BC. But Cato didn’t give up his opposition and stood for praetor so he could oppose them from an official position. Plutarch describes the bribery and tricks Pompey used to prevent Cato’s election but he then gives a big address to the people expressing his fears about a tyranny and is followed home by a big crowd (as so often happens in these anecdotes).

(43) Caius Trebonius proposes a law assigning provinces to the consuls which Cato vehemently opposes, speaking against it at such length from the rostrum that he is dragged from it by his opponents, a fight breaks out, some people are killed (!). When another law is promulgated giving Caesar his command in Gaul, Cato makes a speech directly addressing Pompey saying he is unwittingly creating a burden which will crush him. But Pompey ignored him, trusting in his own power and fortune.

(44) Cato is elected praetor for 54 and tries to introduce a law eradicating bribery. This makes him unpopular with the mob who like being bribed, and he is pelted and jostled in the forum until he claws his way onto the rostrum and makes a principled speech which reduces the mob to silence. He institutes a bill whereby the candidates for election all give a deposit to Cato who then monitors the election and anybody caught cheating forfeits their deposit.

(45) His honesty shames the great men of the state who league against him. Clodius is back in Pompey’s orbit and regularly attacks him for corruption etc. Cato replies that he brought more treasure back from Cyprus by honest means than Pompey did from ravaging the East. Cato said Pompey had no right lending his legions to Caesar in Gaul without consulting the state as if they were his private possessions. And warns that he remains near Rome (i.e. didn’t take his governorship of Spain) in order to manage factions at elections as they were games.

(46) Cato ensures his friend Marcus Favonius is fairly elected aedile, the post which supervised games and entertainments, but Cato actually carries out a lot of the duties. People are amused by the way Cato rewards the players with humble gifts of food and fruit rather than elaborate gold and luxuries. He thought that to sport and entertainment, light and gladsome arrangements were appropriate.

(47) In 52 BC the street fighting of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo’s gangs and others became so extreme that elections to the magistracies were suspended. Opinion crystallised that Pompey needed to intervene with his army to restore order. When this was proposed in the senate to everyone’s surprise Cato supported it, with the simple argument that any government is better than no government at all.

(48) And so Pompey is appointed sole consul, floods the streets with soldiers, puts an end to political violence and safeguards the elections. A benign military dictatorship. He asks Cato to be his adviser. Cato, typically, says when he criticised him before it wasn’t out of personal malice and if he helps him now it won’t be to truckle favour, in both cases it is for the good of the state. He advises him against the retrospective prosecution of officials for winning their places by bribery, arguing that a) it will be difficult to know where to stop and b) it was unfair to punish people according to a law which didn’t exist when they acted.

Cato’s difficulty as a juror in trials where he couldn’t be suborned or bought and so was an unpredictable quality to both prosecution and defence.

(49) All this time Caesar is using the money and power he accumulates in Gaul to buy friends and influence in Rome. Finally it dawns on Pompey that he is becoming a threat. Cato decides to stand for the consulship to try and limit’s Caesar’s ambitions. Cato proposes a law that candidates must canvas in person, and not through middle men who distribute money and bribes, which alienates the populace who like money and bribes. Refusing to employ the common practices of a consul ingratiating himself with the people, he is not elected.

(50) Cicero upbraids Cato because, when the times required a man like him in power, he refused to change his principles and humble himself to stand for election, and so lost the opportunity to help the state. How much should a man compromise his principles in order to win power to enact his principles?

(51) It is reported in Rome that Caesar attacked Germans in Gaul during a truce, and massacred them. A great public celebration is called but Cato declares Caesar should be handed over to the Germans whose trust he breached. Caesar wrote a letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions and execrating Cato at length. But this only gives Cato an opportunity to deliver a long, carefully evidenced indictment of Caesar’s behaviour and ambitions, so that the latter’s friends regret reading out the letter in the first place.

The senate consider it is well to find a replacement for Caesar but Caesar replies that he’ll only do that if Pompey lays down his arms. At which Cato points out that what he prophesied was coming to pass, that overmighty leaders with private armies were dictating to the senate rather than following the instructions of the government.

“Those things are come to pass which I foretold to you, and the man is at last resorting to open compulsion, using the forces which he got by deceiving and cheating the state.”

(52) Plutarch skips over the entire complex web of events which led to the escalating crisis between Caesar and Pompey, the ultimatums, the attempts at mediation, and skips suddenly to Caesar having crossed the Rubicon and occupied the town of Ariminum (January 49 BC). Cato says ‘I told you so’ and recommends that Pompey be supported in opposing Caesar. Pompey acknowledges that Cato was a prophet but fails to raise the armies he told everyone it would be so easy to raise and decides to flee Rome.

At this perilous moment Plutarch pauses to tell us about Cato’s private life, namely that he remarried the Marcia he had divorced and who subsequently married Hortensius, who had died, leaving her free again. Apparently Caesar made much of this in the virulent diatribe he wrote against Cato, claiming the latter in effect farmed his wife out to the wealthy Hortensius so that, when the latter died, he could remarry his wife and come into a fortune. Thus the Roman aristocracy, bickering among themselves.

(53) Cato opts to support Pompey and is sent as Pompeian governor to Sicily. But when he hears that Pompey has fled Italy for Greece he makes the droll remark that:

there was much inconsistency and obscurity in the divine government, since Pompey had been invincible while his course was neither sound nor just, but now, when he wished to save his country and was fighting in defence of liberty, he had been deserted by his good fortune.

As to being governor of Sicily, when a Caesarian force arrives under Asinius Pollio, Cato says he doesn’t want to lay waste the province with war and so sails to join Pompey in Greece. Here he made good policy suggestions, namely not to plunder a city that was subject to Rome, and not to put a Roman to death except on the field of battle. This brought to the party of Pompey a good repute, and induced many to join it.

(54) Cato is sent to Asia, whither he is accompanied by his sister, much reformed from her dissolute behaviour, and where he persuades Rhodes to declare for Pompey. At first Pompey is inclined to give Cato command of his huge fleet of some 500 ships, until it is pointed out to him that Pompey is not devoted to his cause but to Rome and that, the minute Caesar was defeated, Cato would be insisting that Pompey surrender his command, too. So he appoints Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus admiral.

But Cato proves an asset. When all the generals give speeches to the men before a big battle at Dyrrhachium, the soldiers listen lethargically, but when Cato addresses them and invokes all the ideas of patriotism and bravery and tells them the gods are watching he rouses them to a true fighting spirit and Pompey wins the battle.

(55) When Pompey marched his army into Thessaly, he left Cato in command of the supplies and men he left at Dyrrhachium, along with fifteen cohorts. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cato offered command of the fleet to Cicero, who refused, saying he wanted to return to Italy. But Pompey’s son, Gnaeus Pompey, was violently against anyone who deserted the cause, and might have killed Cicero had he left. Cato talked him into remaining and so probably saved his life (well, for the time being; nobody’s life is really saved, not forever).

(56) Guessing that Pompey had headed south Cato sailed to Africa with his fleet. In Libya he met Sextus Pompeius and learned of his father’s murder. Ashamed of abandoning men, Cato found himself taking command of the remaining Pompeian forces (reminding us how close, how very close, the military world was to all the Roman ‘statesman’ we read about. It was a totally militarised politics.)

He learns of other Pompeian forces under Juba the king and Attius Varus and resolves to join them. Cato shows all the signs of mourning (for Pompey) walks rather than rides a horse, only lies down to sleep, east sitting down.

(57) Cato tries to resolve the squabbles between the Roman commanders Scipio and Varus, and King Juba of the Numidians. He is punctilious about not taking command because he is only a pro-praetor whereas Scipio is a pro-consul.

(58) Scipio was going to give in to Juba’s request to have the city of Utica razed to the ground and it inhabitants slaughtered but Cato vehemently objected, got himself appointed governor of it to ensure its loyalty to the Pompeians. With his usual administrative flair he turns it into a storehouse for Pompeian forces in Africa. But his advice to Scipio, to play a waiting game and let Caesar tired himself in Africa, is ignored. Scipio mocks Cato locked up safe and secure in a walled city but when Cato offers to take his army to Italy to decoy Caesar back there, Scipio mocks this too. And Cato begins to realise Scipio is a rash and unreliable leader and would probably make himself tyrant, given half a chance.

All of which is grimly confirmed when messengers bring news of the Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 in which Caesar demolished the much bigger army of Juba and Scipio and Varus.

(59) That night the population panics but Cato walks among them calming their fears. When day comes he assembles the 300 or so Roman citizens in the town, businessmen and moneylenders with the senators who had taken refuge there. (It is typical of the kind of insights you glean from these texts, that Plutarch calls these people Cat’s ‘senate’. Did this mean every town and city in a Roman province had its own ‘senate’ made up of the richest Roman inhabitants?)

Cato then makes a speech advising everyone to stay put and not flee, severally. And says it’s their free choice whether to switch to Caesar but he would admire and praise them more if they if they remained true to what he saw not as ‘Pompey’s side’ but the cause of Rome and its laws and traditions.

(60) Cato’s speech inspires the people to elect him their leader and use their goods and weapons and lives as he thinks fit. Someone suggests a law freeing all the slaves but Cato, with typically legalistic precision, says such a law would be illegal, but individual slave-owners can free them and all of military age will be accepted into the army. Both Juba (with the remnants of his army) and Scipio (with his fleet) send messages saying they await Cato’s decision what to do next.

(61) The senators manumitted their slaves but the leading 300 citizens were conflicted and Plutarch gives a paragraph of their thinking and reasoning why they want to hand themselves over to Caesar.

(62) Given these divisions Cato sends back to Juba and Scipio telling them not to come. But when a large number of allied cavalry arrive, Cato and the senators beg them to come inside the city and stay with them.

(63) The horsemen say they will but only if Cato drives out the ‘barbarian’ ‘fickle’ Phoenician people of Utica. Cato says he will consider it. When he returns inside the city the 300 have become bolder and complaining why they are being forced to oppose the undefeatable Caesar, and muttering more and more about the senators being responsible for their danger.

Then he hears that the cavalry force is riding away so grabs a horse and rides after them. They say come with us and be saved. Cato bursts into tears and begs them to come back to Utica if only for one day, to protect the senators.

(64) The cavalry take up positions inside Utica which is now really divided between the senators, who are with Cato, and the 300 businessmen, who want to surrender. Cato has decided to kill himself, since every future he can foresee is one of tyrants in which his beloved Rome is ruined. But he delays in his bid to reconcile the 300 and the senators. The 300 want to send messages to Caesar surrendering and offer prayers. Cato says by all means send messages but prayers are for the defeated and he is not defeated; he is triumphant in spirit, it is Caesar who has admitted his treacherous intent.

(65) As Caesar’s forces approach, Cato tries to keep order in the city, to ensure the senators’ safety, and to prevent the cavalry looting and killing. He tries to unite the people into accepting the treacherous 300, so they stand as one city. He helps those who want to flee embark from the harbour.

(66) Lucius Caesar offers to go as envoy to the great Julius and fall down at his feet to beg for Cato. But Cato says, No, this is his job. Instead they discuss how to save the 300. Then he gathers his son and family round him and takes a bath.

(67) He hosts a big dinner party after which literary and philosophical subjects are discussed, including the so-called ‘paradoxes of the Stoics’ which include the maxim that all good men are free and that the bad are all slaves. A peripatetic philosopher begins to object to this but Cato wades in and argues at length and fiercely for its truth. Only the good, like him, are truly free. The bad, like Caesar, despite all appearances to the contrary, are slaves. From his tone and words everyone realised he intended to kill himself.

(68) He walks with family and friends, embraces them all, and retired to his bedroom. Here he reads Plato on the soul but on glancing around discovers his sword is gone, His son removed it. He orders his slaves to find it, gets angry and hits them when they can’t, eventually his son arrives in floods of tears and Cato remonstrates with him for taking away his means of defence.

(69) He is left with just two friends and asks if they have been set there to talk him out of killing himself.

(70) These two friends burst into tears and leave. Then the sword is sent in, carried by a child. He sets it aside and rereads the Plato twice, then falls asleep. Then wakes up and sends an official, Butas, to check everyone who wanted has safely departed the harbour. His doctor he has bandage the hand he damaged punching his servant. Butas tells him most of those who wanted to depart have left but a strong wind and storm are blowing up.

When Butas has left Cato tries to kill himself but makes a weak blow with the sword and falls to the floor. His slaves and son rush in, weeping. The doctor tries to push his intestines which are spilling out of his abdomen back in, but when he realises what is going on, Cato pushes him away, tears at his own intestines and at the wound to make it bigger, and so dies. How disgusting. How undignified.

So, as with Pompey and Caesar and Cicero, Plutarch really lays on the domestic details in order to work his death scene up into one designed to spark strong emotion. Craftsmanlike, painterly.

(71) In an improbable show of unity which one suspects owes more to Plutarch’s partiality, he has the 300 and the townspeople all uniting in their love of Cato and declaring him the one free man. They dress his body richly, bury it near the sea and erect a statue which stands to this day.

(72) Soon after Caesar arrives at Utica, learns of Cato’s death and utters the famous words:

“”O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.”

But Cato didn’t want to live if it meant living at the whim of (people he thought) tyrants and of simultaneously having the sparing of his life turned into a great credit to Caesar’s reputation. No. He only really had one course of action.

(73) Coda about Cato’s son, who Caesar spared, as was his habit. Initially he became a figure of fun by having an affair with the wife of an eastern king, and Plutarch quotes some maxims or aphorisms made about him. But he ended well, dying fighting at Philippi against Caesar and Antony. His daughter married that Brutus who assassinated Caesar, was part of the conspiracy and died in the cause. And this expired the line of Cato.


Choosing sides

At various points in the reading you realise how difficult it is to know what to do in a society which is falling to bits. It wasn’t really a question of choosing sides because not until the final breakout of civil war were there two sides to pick from. Cato’s career demonstrates that the uttermost probity and honesty only take you so far. In the real world compromise has to be made on a host of occasions. A big example is when Cato surprised everyone by backing Pompey as sole consul in 52. Any government is better than anarchy.

But that, for me, raises the central issue. There are lots of interpretations, lots of scholarly reasons given, for the collapse of the republic, but in my opinion the fundamental one was the collapse of political discourse into street violence. Over the preceding generations it had become acceptable to physically attack your opponents and their supporters in the street. The problem was how to contain this violence, how to contain it within the realm of politics and stop it spreading over into the realm of violence.


Much is made of Cato’s devotion to philosophy, but it can be said of him as of so many other people who study the subject, that in the end they choose the school and philosophy which suits their temperament, which they were always going to choose. He was harsh and inflexible and sought to display little or no feeling, so he was drawn to stoicism which “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Far from teaching ‘truth’, philosophy is like a huge breakfast buffet where you can tuck into whatever you fancy and mix and match at will, change your opinions, decide you fancy a fry-up instead of pastries. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “People do what they want to and then think up reasons to justify their actions later.”

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Roman reviews

The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)


Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.


1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.

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