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)

Synopis

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.

Thoughts

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.


Roman reviews

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his core interest to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. These can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s throughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men,  the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of  life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors, and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknownRoman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, is about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard working families, planning carefully for the future. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of his novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or  political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nailbiting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find much of the hype and hysteria pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

It is easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Republic for decades and eventually led to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 3

Reflections

Rarely have I read so many wrong-headed, misleading and bad arguments collected together in one place as in Cicero’s book, On the nature of the gods. The overall impression is to make you think ‘philosophy’ is a cover-all term for playground squabbling rather than an activity for adults. At one point Cotta says that the task of philosophy is to clear away bad thinking and error in order to get to ‘the truth’ but this text demonstrates the exact opposite. It is like stirring up a pond with a stick till you have completely muddied and confused the waters.

The handful of axioms which all the characters base all their arguments on are null and void.

Argument from consensus

All the protagonists claim that gods must exist because all human beings have an innate sense of gods or a God. Well a) no they don’t and b), even if they did, mjust because everyone believes something (for example, witches must be burned) doesn’t make it true or socially useful. Fail.

Argument from design

The Argument from Design is invoked repeatedly throughout the book (on pages 129 159, 160 to 164, 167, 170, 172 and many more). Velleius, Balbus and Cotta all look up at the regular movements of the stars, are impressed by tides of the oceans, or admire the beauty of all manner of animals – and proclaim that all this order and pattern must prove the existence of a rational designer and, in the Stoics’ case, an ongoing divine and rational providence moving all things in order and harmony.

Unfortunately, the Argument from Design was destroyed in its abstract philosophical form by David Hume in the 1770s and in its application to all living things, by Charles Darwin in the 1850s. So instead of being impressed and converted by its frequent repetition, I became more vexed and irritated.

Relying on the Argument from Design is as false as the way all the characters in the text assume that the earth is at the centre of the solar system and the sun revolves around it (p.165) which proves that the earth is the centre of the universe, and that human beings are the centre of the earth, and therefore that we must share our nature with the Master Creator.

Anthropocentrism

All of these arguments are aspects of mankind’s incorrigible anthropoventrism and inescapable narcissism, and all of them are null and void.

‘The providence of God’ (p.175) is simply a phrase people like Cicero’s characters and many millions of others for well over 2,000 years have used to describe the laws of astronomy, geography and biology which they observe in action but which were completely ignorant of.

The reality that we, in the West at any rate, currently inhabit is that:

  • the structure, patterns, rules and laws governing the universe, galaxy, solar system and so on are all adequately explained by modern cosmology
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing the non-organic aspect of the earth are explained by geology and geography
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing all organic life forms are explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, as immeasurably deepened by the discovery of DNA in the 1950s and the rise of supercomputing power in the last few decades

Nobody who wants to know ‘the truth’ about these matters needs to read this book which, rather than any kind of guide to any kind of ‘truth’ should be regarded as a cabinet of curiosities. Educate yourself about the facts of life. Literally.

Too binary thinking

The fundamental mistake all Cicero’s characters make is to adopt a binary opposition between chance and design. What astronomy and biology have taught us is, to put it simply, that it’s a lot more complicated than that. The universe we see and inhabit is not the product of completely random ‘chance’ in the simple-minded sense; it is the product of a huge array of rules which govern matter of all kinds, at a host of levels, under all kinds of situations, many of which we still don’t understand (quantum physics).

But the existence of these complex rules doesn’t require a designer or intelligence or maker or divine providence to have made them. They just are the rules under which matter operates. That two atoms of hydrogen bond to one of oxygen to make water doesn’t require a divine intelligence to make happen. It is a property of certain chemicals. The periodic table of elements crystallises out as the universe cools after the Big Bang. Chemical elements behave in certain ways according to their valencies and electrochemical characteristics.

The same goes for other ‘concepts’ the ancients throw around like pieces of Lego, such as ‘free will’ and ‘providence’. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, but most of us can be pretty sure the basic rules of physics and chemistry and biology will continue to apply. It doesn’t require a God to underpin every moment of every atom and cell in the universe at all moments. The rule of physics and chemistry and biology suffice.

One David Attenborough documentary contains more factual information than all the ‘wisdom’ of the ancients.

Atheism as a minority belief

It is clear that the majority of people around the world are still religious, some very much so – fundamentalists in the US, Catholics in Latin America, evangelicals in Africa, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and 1.2 billion Hindus. Easily the majority of humans currently alive believe in some kind of god.

So the arguments I put forward, above, only apply to a minority of the world’s population, mostly in the western, post-industrial societies. Still, in ‘my’ minority culture of white western atheists, our worldview is determined by Newton and Einstein, Darwin, Watson and Crick and tens of thousands of astronomers and biologists since.

Live and let live

Although I personally believe all forms of theism are factually incorrect, I have no great beef about them and am not driven to waste vast amounts of energy trying to disprove them à la Richard Dawkins. Why? Because people quite obviously need them. The lives of human beings are short and scary. We all die in various forms of pain or fear. We see all around us evidence of a vast universe which doesn’t give a damn whether we live or die, are blissfully happy or existing in misery and pain. Therefore it makes psychological sense for many many people to have space in their minds for powers or spirits or gods or a God who they can imagine protecting them and looking after them and their families.

Even for people who are doing well in life, it makes psychological sense to be aware that life is fragile, fortune is fickle and it might all come crashing down at any moment. Therefore it makes sense to give thanks to someone, to something, to nature or god, to something outside yourself, for the blessings you are conscious of enjoying.

As Freud said in one of his letters, he was painfully aware that he  couldn’t give most of his patients what they were, at bottom, all searching for: consolation. Religion can.

Narrow atheism à la Richard Dawkins may be factually correct but Dawkins’s obvious failing is to be completely oblivious to human psychology, which is why he comes over as an inflexible robot and makes so few converts, while managing to antagonise religious believers of all flavours.

When your child is born or your parent dies, when you are anxious about your health or stressed about work or where the next meal is going to come from – then we all need psychological strategies to help us cope. And thousands of years of cultural evolution mean that the world’s religions have accumulated huge numbers of psychological strategies, along with rites and rituals and ceremonies and beliefs for coping and making sense of life and the thousand ills we are prey to.

So my view is that anything which helps people to get through life and make sense of it is to be respected. The fact that we can prove that this or that aspect of it is factually wrong (wrong like the Christian evangelicals who reject Darwin or fossils) is missing the point. Most of us aren’t coolly analytical logic machines to begin with. Most of us need help. Humans are, after all, wildly irrational.

In a thousand shapes and forms religions provide a conceptual structure and cultural traditions and psychological aids which help billions of people cope and make sense of and endure and even enjoy life. It would be pointless, and narrow minded, of me to quibble with that.

Summary

This books was interesting in shedding light on Cicero’s broad knowledge, his ambitions to bring Greek philosophy to the Latin world, and so helping me understand his importance not only in his own time but as a preserver or conduit of ancient learning through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. But as an examination of the actual subject it purports to tackle, it felt to me almost completely worthless.


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Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties

Method

The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.

Mess

All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.


Related links

Roman reviews

Letters of Cicero edited and translated by L.P. Wilkinson (1966)

This is an old book (published in 1966) containing 196 pages of Cicero’s most interesting letters, selected and translated by L.P. Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly but conveys the key facts: Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC and rose to high office in Rome. Having studied philosophy and oratory in Greece, he went on to become the premiere lawyers and orator of his time. He then rose through the set series of official posts or magistracies (the cursus honorem), attaining the post of consul in 63 BC, aged 43. It was towards the end of that year that he had to deal with the notorious Cataline conspiracy.

After a brief exile in 58, to flee his political enemies, in the later 50s he played a key role in trying to effect a compromise between the partisans of Caesar and Pompey. In 51 he was sent to serve as governor of the province of Cilicia in the south of modern-day Turkey, a post he filled with conspicuous rectitude. But it meant he was absent from Rome as the great political crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head.

When civil war broke out in January 49, Cicero agonised about choosing a side and eventually plumped for Pompey, still hoping the latter could become the leader who could restore what Cicero optimistically called the ‘harmony of the orders’, and so followed Pompey and his army when they crossed the Adriatic to Greece. After Caesar decisively defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Cicero returned to Rome, where he reluctantly acquiesced in the dictatorship of Caesar.

It is from this period of withdrawal from political life that date most of his written works, including books about oratory, law, the ideal republic, on the duties of the citizen, the nature of the gods and many more.

After the assassination of Caesar in March 44, Cicero threw himself behind the cause of the dictator’s 18-year-old great-nephew, Octavian, in opposition to the crude and brutal Mark Antony, against whom he wrote several vitriolic diatribes. This proved to be a miscalculation, for only a year later Octavian made peace with Antony to form the Second Triumvirate (along with Lepidus), the three partners drew up lists of political enemies to be ‘proscribed’, and Antony put Cicero at the top of his list of opponents to be killed. And so he was.

Cicero’s correspondence

Cicero’s correspondence is ample but slow to get going. There’s nothing from his youth or young manhood i.e. the 90s, 80s or 70s BC. The first letter dates from 68 BC but between that date and 65 there are only eleven letters. There’s nothing from his early career as a lawyer or his campaign to be elected consul. The latter is a particular shame as his consulship, in the year 63, coincided with the conspiracy of the senator Catiline to overthrow the state, which Cicero was instrumental in uncovering. Cicero was instrumental in rounding up the ringleaders (in Rome; Catiline himself remained at large in Italy) and then took the lead, after a fiery debate in the senate, in executing them. (See Sallust’s Catiline Conspiracy and Plutarch’s Life of Cicero.)

Cicero’s correspondence doesn’t become continuous until the year after his consulship, in 62 BC. But from that year until July 43 (when Cicero was executed on the orders of Mark Anthony) more than 900 letters survive, about 835 by him and 90 addressed to him. Of his own letters, half (416) were addressed to his friend, financial adviser, and publisher, Titus Pomponius Atticus, who he describes as:

my constant ally in public affairs, my confidant in private, my partner in every conversation and project.

He wrote so many letters to Atticus because the latter had (very wisely) withdrawn from Rome altogether to live in Athens. In fact ‘Atticus’ is a nickname referring to Pomponius’s preference for Greek culture. Cicero’s other 419 letters are to a wide range of friends, acquaintances and relatives, some 94 named individuals in all.

It is important to note that Cicero and Atticus were not only friends of long standing (possibly they went to school together) but had the further tie that Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, was married to Atticus’s sister, Pomponia – although it was an unhappy marriage, something Cicero refers to in some of his letters.

Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly, generalising about how loveable Cicero is and so on, fondly indulgent of his narcissism as most other commentators are. Wilkinson is much better in the short linking passages which precede each batch of letters, generally only a couple of paragraphs long but in which he briefly explains the historical context of each batch and what we know of the events Cicero is describing, from other sources. These linking passages are concise and fascinating.

In the moment

Cicero’s letters are so interesting for two reasons. I suppose the obvious one is that he was a central, or central-ish, figure in the high politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. I found it dazzling that he writes letters to, and receives replies from, all the key players – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus and Octavian.

But he could have done this and the letters still be boring. The real secret of their appeal is Cicero’s immense and eloquent involvement in the politics of his time and because his letters plunge you into the moment. All the histories of late republican Rome which I’ve read, ancient or modern, are written with the benefit of hindsight i.e. they often mix up events with their consequences, giving a sense that events were fore-ordained, fated to happen and are a foregone conclusion, regarding them as done and dusted and fodder for thematic analysis.

Wilkinson’s brief introductions, by contrast, give you a snappy resumé of events up to the moment when the next batch of letters start, and then plunge you into the present of the letters in which none of the characters know what is going to happen next.

And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand. (from To a writer on his birthday by W.H. Auden)

As we read the letters, we are living in the dangerous present, alongside Cicero, sympathising with his efforts to figure out what the hell to do, given the immense press of fast-moving events. As the letters progress, they become more and more dramatic and immersive, and genuinely gripping, as gripping as any thriller.

Political parties?

One thing which surprised me in Wilkinson’s introduction is how confidently he talks about political parties with a capital P – the People’s Party, the Senate Party, the Knights Party. Obviously these were not political parties in the modern sense. All the authorities emphasise this. Instead they were loose and flexible affiliations, generally clustered around powerful individuals, because that was the structure of Roman society at large. The Roman ruling class was based on the notion of rich patrons who were surrounded by a host of ‘clients’, who benefited from their largesse and in return offered services. It was a subtle, complicated, ever-changing flux of relationships – personal, familial, military and political.

Given all this, I was surprised to read Wilkinson very much using the language of ‘parties’ and surprised at how acutely it shed light on events which had been more personalised in other accounts. All the accounts I’ve read tend to focus on individuals and their rivalries and hatreds, for example between Marius and Sulla. But Wilkinson recasts this in terms of ‘parties’.

Thus he sees the rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla as not only a fierce personal and professional rivalry (which it undoubtedly was) but as a struggle between the People’s Party of the former and the Senatorial Party of the latter. He explains how Gnaeus Pompey at first appeared to follow in Sulla’s footsteps but, during the 70s, left the Sullan cause and helped pass a series of laws which rolled back all the laws Sulla put in place at the end of the 80s to try and bolster the power of the senate.

Alongside Pompey, was Marcus Licinius Crassus (born 115 BC, so 9 years older than Cicero) the richest man in Rome, who Wilkinson puts at the head of the Equites or Knights, the class of often very rich businessmen who sat, as it were, just beneath the senate in terms of power and prestige.

And coming up on the outside was the young, but poor, and extremely ambitious Julius Caesar, born in 100 BC and so 6 years younger than both Pompey and Cicero. By temperament, and family ties (his aunt had been Marius’s wife) Caesar was the rising star of the People’s Party.

Pompey sponsored a bill which removed control of the juries in trials from the Senate and gave a third of juries to the Equites, thus securing the support of the Knightly Party. And then, after being awarded enormous powers to rid Rome of the pirate scourge 67 BC, Pompey won such overwhelming popularity with the People that he was given huge powers to go east and deal with the ongoing problem of King Mithradates VI of Pontus in 66.

When you see Crassus, Pompey and Caesar as not only extremely ambitious individuals, but as representatives of interest groups or ‘parties’, it makes even more sense that in 60 BC Caesar persuaded the other two to join him in an informal pact to manipulate elections and laws and award each other official positions which suited their interests – the first triumvirate.

Cicero’s initial hopes for Pompey

Wilkinson begins his collection with a letter from Cicero to Pompey, written in 62, the year after Cicero’s consulship (when, as he never stopped reminding people, he claimed to have more or less single-handed saved Rome from overthrow by Catiline and his conspirators).

At this point, before the triumvirate was set up, Cicero was still hero-worshipping Pompey and hoping that he would become an enlightened leader and centre of a circle of intellectuals (such as himself). More importantly that Pompey could straddle the interest groups of the different parties (senate, knights and people) and so effect what Cicero called ‘the harmony of the orders’ i.e. put an end to the continual conflict between the different ‘parties’ and reconcile them to work together for the good of Rome.

Pompey had dramatically demonstrated his dedication to the constitution when, upon returning to Italy from his triumphs in the East, he didn’t march on Rome as Marius and Sulla had done, but simply disbanded his army and returned as a private citizen at the beck of the senate. Good man.

(This first letter establishes a recurring theme of the correspondence which is Cicero’s enormous sense of his own importance. Cicero never loses an opportunity to brag at length how the whole world recognises how he single-handedly saved the state during the Cataline crisis.)

Thus, in this first letter, he expects that, despite his (Pompey’s) recent letter to him (Cicero) being restrained and distant, nonetheless, once he arrives in Rome and learns what a hero Cicero is, he (Pompey) will be all the readier to allow Cicero to consort with him in private and in politics. ‘Once you realise how heroically I saved Rome you will want to hang out with me’.

Timeline of Cicero’s letters

63 BC

Cicero serves as consul. November to December the Catiline conspiracy. After a debate in the Senate a vote was taken choosing to execute the known conspirators and, as a result, Cicero promptly led five of them to Rome’s gaol where they were garrotted without a trial. This prompt but rash action, in a moment of national crisis, was to haunt Cicero for the rest of his life and be used against him by his enemies who claimed it was illegal and itself deserving the death penalty. It was the threat of prosecution for it which sent Cicero into self-imposed exile in March 58. And it helps explain the boastfulness when you realise every time he mentioned it he was also in part exonerating himself, building up his defence with everyone he spoke to or wrote to.

62

First letter to Pompey insisting he ought to take him (Cicero) seriously as the man who saved Rome the year before.

61

January: Long gossipy letter to Atticus mentioned the scandalous affair of Publius Clodius Pulcher impersonating a woman to enter Caesar’s house during a women-only religious ceremony. Bitchy remarks about Pompey. June: Cicero describes the trial of Clodius in colourful terms. Cicero intervened to demolish Clodius’s alibi, thus making a mortal enemy who terrified him into exile three years later. From mid-61 to 58 Cicero missed the help of his brother, Quintus Cicero, who went to serve as governor of Asia Minor.

60

January: Cicero complains to Atticus about not having anyone to trust. June: another letter about Clodius’s ongoing intrigues. He was rumoured to have had incestuous affair with his sister, Clodia, who features in the poetry of Catullus as his beloved ‘Lesbia’. Clodia was married to that year’s consul, Metellus. Cicero says she’s a disgrace and he ‘hates’ her.

Julius Caesar invited Cicero to join with him, Crassus and Pompey in what would become known as the Triumvirate. Cicero declined out of loyalty to the constitution.

59

Julius Caesar takes up office for a year as consul. He brings in a Land Bill for the settlement of his servicemen. He ignored the opposition of the senate and vetos by the tribunes i.e. a clear indication that the triumvirate were going to ignore constitutional checks. Next, the tax collectors got a remission of one third on the price they’d paid to collect taxes in the East, to please their representative, Crassus. As his reward for organising all this, the other two arranged for Caesar to be made governor for 5 years of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyrium and Transalpine Gaul. Caesar also married his young daughter, Julia, to Pompey, in order to cement their political bond. She was 17 and Pompey was 47, but in fact he became devoted to her.

Summer: Cicero writes to Atticus telling him the actions of the triumvirate have created a climate of fear, disgust and universal despair at the loss of political freedoms and the state of ‘general servility’. Cicero tells Atticus how at the gladiatorial shows and the theatre Pompey is hissed and booed. Caesar offers Cicero a job as one of the 20 Land Commissioners deciding which land should be assigned to ex-soldiers, but Cicero realises it’s a trap i.e. will associate him with the regime and lose him the support of ‘loyalists’.

58

The Triumvirate arrange for the patrician Clodius to be adopted into a plebeian family so he could be elected as one of the ten tribunes of the plebs. Clodius introduced laws which benefited them all. Caesar encouraged him to persecute Cicero because the triumvirs feared his continued opposition to them jeopardised their programme.

Thus it was that Clodius was encouraged to propose a law threatening exile to anyone who executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero, having executed members of the Catiline conspiracy four years previously without a formal trial, was the clear target of this proposal. After senators and colleagues failed to offer him the assurances he needed, Cicero wisely departed Italy for Greece. A few days later Clodius put forward another bill formally exiling Cicero and confiscating his property. Cicero’s house on the Palatine Hill was destroyed by Clodius’ supporters, as were his villas in Tusculum and Formiae. On the ruins of the Rome house Clodius had a temple dedicated to Libertas built.

The more dangerous, because principles and unbending, opponent of the triumvirs, Cato, was, via another of Clodius’s proposals, sent as governor to Cyprus to get him out of the way.

[What strikes the casual reader of both the general background and Cicero’s letters is how immensely personalised this all was. It’s as if ‘the state’ only consisted of half a dozen people who make and break friendships like schoolboys in a playground.]

April: a letter to Atticus from Brindisi saying he’d love to come to Athens. A sad and moving letter to his wife, Terentia, who he calls the ‘best and most devoted of wives’. She has stayed behind in Rome to see their houses confiscated etc. Practical arrangements about what to do with their large staff of slaves now they have no house. Love to his wife and daughter (married to Piso) and little son, Marcus.

 57

Caesar has gone to Gaul to take up what would turn into 8 years of successful campaigning (see Caesar’s Gallic Wars). Having created a leader of street gangs and proposer of strident laws in Publius Clodius Pulcher, Pompey found him impossible to control, and begins to lobby for Cicero’s return. Clodius’s gangs riot but Pompey helped set up a rival and opposing gang leader, Titus Annius Milo, and got him elected tribune of the plebs, who proposed a law repealing Cicero’s exile. The start of a five year period of unpredictable street battles between the rival gangs and supporters. For example, on 23 January 57, when Clodius tried to use a force of gladiators to block a move to recall Cicero from exile, Milo arrested Clodius’ gladiators. Milo was subsequently attacked by Clodius’ gangs. Milo attempted to prosecute Clodius for instigating this violence but was unsuccessful. The warfare between Milo and Clodius’s gangs became a feature of Roman life. But meanwhile, with the support of Pompey and that year’s consul, Lenthulus Spinther, Cicero’s exile – which he had spent mostly in Salonika – was ended.

September: letter to Atticus rejoicing at being back in Rome. Far more than that, it celebrates in hyperbolic terms what Cicero describes as widespread celebrations of his return, so that at every city and town he was feted by cheering crowds, received delegations of civic worthies etc. Cheering crowds at the gates of Rome, in the forum, on the Capitol. He is immediately back in the buzz of political life and makes a speech in support of a motion to award Pompey control of the corn supply, seeing as there’s a shortage. Fascinating detail of the way the consuls proposed the law giving Pompey control of the corn supply throughout the empire for 5 years, but then Messius introduced an amendment giving Pompey a fleet and army and complete authority over regional governors. Superpowers. This is evidence for the case that the Republic collapsed not because of a handful of ambitious men, but because it was no longer up to administering such a huge area. Anyway, he also hints that all is not well in his household, first hint of deteriorating relationship with Terentia.

November: description of how a mob led by Clodius knocked down Cicero’s half-rebuilt house then incited them to set fire to Cicero’s brother’s house and then ran amok through the city promising to free slaves who joined them. He describes how on 11 November he and his entourage were proceeding along the Sacred Way when Clodius’s gang appeared and produced stones, clubs and swords so that Cicero et al were forced to take refuge in a friend’s house and barricade themselves in.

Clodius is a one-man evidence for the argument that the collapse of law and order in Rome set the scene for the end of the republic. Cicero describes feeling resentfully jealous of Milo and his complete lack of scruples, Milo openly saying he will murder Clodius if he can (though it would be four more riotous years till he did).

56

February: Letter to his brother Quintus describing the attempted trial of Milo. When Pompey attempted to speak for him, Clodius’s gang erupted in shouts and catcalling, then a near riot broke out and Cicero fled. In the following days there was a meeting of the senate, proposals that the riots amounted to sedition. Cato made a violent speech against Pompey who then stands and makes a measured reply. Cicero makes the shrewdest comment on Cato that I’ve read:

from the highest principles he sometimes does the state harm (p.39)

Pompey confides in Cicero that there is a conspiracy against his (Pompey’s) life. He thinks Crassus is encouraging Cato’s attacks while continuing to fund Clodius’s gangs. Cicero allies himself with Milo and the constitutionalists.

April: a sweet letter to Atticus asking him to send some of his slaves or servants who are expert at book management to help restore his library.

In April 56 Cicero made a career-changing mistake. He still thought he could break up the Triumvirate with a view to restoring traditional senatorial rule. The strategy he chose was to launch an attack on Caesar’s Land Bill, which sequestered land to give to his war veterans. But it had the opposite effect, for Pompey supported Caesar’s measure. Indeed it led to the entrenching of triumvirate power when Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and 120 senators to a meeting at Lucca in his province of Cisalpine Gaul, where the pacts behind the Triumvirate were reconfirmed. They agreed that Caesar’s command in Gaul was to be extended by a further five years, that Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for 55, the former with responsibility for Italy and Spain, but remaining in Italy to keep an eye on Rome while the latter went hunting for glory against the Parthian Empire in the East. He had for some years been complaining about the spinelessness of the ‘nobles’, especially when they failed to stand up to Clodius about his exile. Now his patience snapped and he washed his hands of the senatorial party (‘had they not led me on, then ratted and thrown me over…I must finish with them’), made his peace with the Triumvirate (‘let me endeavour to make friends with those that have power’) and retired from politics, concentrating on his writing (p.55).

May: The famous letter to the historian Lucius Lucceius unashamedly sucking up to him and suggesting he write an historical account of the Catiline conspiracy giving pride of place, of course, to Cicero’s heroic achievements in saving the state! Interestingly, he describes in detail his conviction that a mere chronicle of events is boring; what brings it alive is describing the vicissitudes of fortune, the rise, setbacks and triumphs of individuals. This is interesting in itself but indicates the gulf between the ancient and modern world: what interests us is analysis which is undertaken on the basis of a whole range of modern theories, economic, sociological, political, Marxist along with various schools of psychology. By contrast with the web of sophisticated interpretative theories which modern readers and commentators have at their fingertips, the ancients had just one: Fortune and its impact on the rise and fall of great men.

May: letter to Atticus bemoaning his situation whereby if he speaks out about what is right in politics, he is thought mad; if he agrees with the triumvirate, he is thought servile; if he says nothing, he feels crushed and helpless.

May: letters to Lentulus Spinther who, as consul in 57, supported Cicero’s return from exile and is now governor of Cilicia. Cicero describes how the triumvirate have succeeded in gaining their goals beyond their wildest dreams and how he is being realistic and attaching himself to Pompey. He laments that he once looked forward, after a lifetime of service, to giving independent advice in the Senate. But now that vision and world have disappeared. There is now only a choice between ‘humbly agreeing or disagreeing to no purpose.’ ‘The whole essence of the Senate, law courts and the State in general has changed’ (p.61).

55

Cicero sent his brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, to join Caesar in Gaul. Caesar repelled an incursion by two Germanic tribes and then made his first expedition to Britain. In November Crassus departed Rome to sail to Asia (Turkey) with a view to heading on to Syria to raise the forces for his ill-fated campaign against the Parthian Empire.

April: letter to Atticus from his country house in Cuma where he laments his impotence in politics but:

The more I am robbed of my relish for material pleasures by the thought of the political situation, the more comfort and recreation I find in literature. (p.61)

September: long letter to Marcus Marius giving descriptions of a festival which the former missed and Cicero says he would have hated, describing the bad plays, terrible acting and excessive props; the grimness of the gladiator games and animal hunts, with a word for how the killing of the elephants elicited not pleasure but horror.

54

Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, took part in Caesar’s second expedition to Britain, which is referred to in Cicero’s letters to him. Julius Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died, aged just 22, leaving her husband, Pompey, bereft. She had provided an important link between the two men and from this point they began to drift apart. Caesar tried to re-secure Pompey’s support by offering him his great-niece in marriage, but Pompey declined.

Spring: an uneasily sycophantic letter to Julius Caesar recommending a friend and colleague Gaius Trebatius Testa for service in Caesar’s army in Gaul.

June: letter to his brother Quintus Cicero. These letters reveal an effort by Cicero to really ingratiate himself with Caesar, to seek his friendship and approval. He regrets being slow to cultivate Caesar’s friendship and promises his brother he will now speed up. These letters with their record of who he’s recommending to who for what position or post, with whose support or opposition, take us into the network of friendships, family and professional and political obligations, alliances, rivalries and enmities which characterised Rome.

September: a famous letter to his brother describing the building works being done to the latter’s villa at Arce and problems with the builder, Diphilus.

October: fascinating letter to his brother describing progress on his book on politics, The Republic. He had cast it in nine books in the form of discussions between Scipio Africanus and his literary circle in the 120s BC. However, when he had it read out at his house in Tusculum in the presence of (the 32-year-old) Gaius Sallustius Crispus, the latter said it would have much more power if it was set in the present day and had Cicero himself as a speaker. This shook his confidence in his conception and he’s now reconsidering.

December: letter to Gaius Trebatius Testa who, as we saw, Cicero recommended to Caesar to be his legal counsel.

53

In June 53 Marcus Crassus was killed leading Roman legions against the Parthian Empire at the Battle of Carrhae in Syria. (See the description in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.) The Triumvirate was thus ended and became a duumvirate, with an uneasy peace between Caesar and Pompey lasting for the next four years. Milo made a bid for one of the consulships for 52 while Clodius was standing for the praetorship. Milo had won popular support by staging extravagant games and enjoyed the support of the Optimates but Pompey supported Clodius. Milo and Clodius’s supporters clashed in the streets leading to such a breakdown of order that the elections were declared void.

52

In January 52 Milo and Clodius and their respective entourages met by chance on a provincial road outside Rome and a scuffle turned into a fight during which Clodius was wounded then killed. Clodius’s followers brought his body back to Rome and laid it in the Senate House which, after more rioting, they set fire to and burned down. As a result the Senate elected Pompey as sole consul for that year to restore order. Cicero was pleased that the man who had him exiled was now dead and, when Milo was brought to trial for murder, defended him in a speech which became famous, Pro Milone. True to the spirit of the times, though, Clodius’s supporters made such a racket and surrounded the proceedings in such number that Cicero was intimidated into delivering the speech poorly and it couldn’t be heard (though he took care to have it published soon after). Milo was convicted and sent into exile at Massilia.

Caesar was granted permission to stand for the consulship in his absence, being far away on campaign in Gaul – but a powerful party in the Senate wanted him both stripped of his command in Gaul and prevented from holding office back in Rome. Marcellus specified the date 1 March 50 for when Caesar should be relieved of his role. This was to become the crux which sparked the civil war.

51

May: letter to Atticus complaining about the behaviour of his sister, Pomponia, to her husband i.e. Cicero’s brother, Quintus. ‘I never saw anything so polite as my brother or as rude as your sister’ (p.71).

Before he left for Cilicia Cicero secured Marcus Caelius Rufus, a clever unprincipled young man, to be his eyes and ears in Rome (see section, below).

May: first of Caelius’s letters explaining that he has sub-contracted writing out a really thorough account of all the acts of the senate and the assemblies, plus all stories, rumours, jokes and gossips, to another hand. This is just an accompanying letter with highlights.

June: letter to Atticus en route to Cilica, stopping over at Athens. He has behaved well and prevented his staff using their privileges to requisition or spend excessively. But oh he is not looking forward to this governorship.

June: letter to Gaius Memmius who was the dedicatee of Lucretius’s famous poem On the nature of the universe. It’s in fact a boring letter about the preservation of a building once belonging to Epicurus.

July: a suite of letters telling Atticus about the journey by boat from Athens via various islands to Epidaurus.

August: Caelius writes with news of the debate about the end of Caesar’s command in Gaul.

Cicero writes to Atticus saying his governorship commenced on his arrival in Laodicea on 31 July and he is bored to death. He describes the state of the province of Cilicia, which has been mulcted by his predecessor and Roman tax collectors: on all sides he hears complaints about the amounts demanded and the brutality of his predecessor as governor, Appius Claudius Pulcher, in punishing anyone who objected. As the natives have realised, Cicero is determined to be fair, they flock to him in adulation.

[It’s worth pausing a moment over this Appius Claudius Pulcher (97 to 49) because he’s such a good example of the way family ties were vital in understanding the minutiae of Roman politics and society. Appius Claudius Pulcher was head of the senior line of the most powerful family of the patrician Claudii. The Claudii were one of the five leading families (gentes maiores or ‘Greater Clans’) which had dominated Roman social and political life from the earliest years of the republic. He was also the elder brother of Publius Clodius Pulcher the rabble rouser who was responsible for driving Cicero into exile in 58. In the summer 55 Appius married his younger daughter to Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus Pompeius (born c.79 BC), thus ensuring his election to the consulate for the following year. He served as consul in 54, along with Cato’s brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Then he was proconsul for Cilicia for two years, 53 to 51, when Cicero took over. Elected censor in 50 with Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (cos.58), Appius was promptly prosecuted for electoral bribery by Cicero’s new son-in-law Publius Cornelius Dolabella. At some stage he had married his other daughter to Marcus Junius Brutus and so Brutus now came to his defence, along with the famous advocate, Quintus Hortensius, and he was acquitted. It’s important to note that Cicero was very cautious and politic both in his letters to Appius and in any comments about him because he knew he would need Appius’s support to be voted the triumph he so dearly hoped for. Thus the byzantine personal relationships of Roman society and politics.]

Letter to Appius laying out how friendly and positive Cicero has been, and reproaching Appius for refusing to meet him, moving to the furthers part of the province and taking the cohorts with him.

There’s a running thread in letters of Caelius to Cicero asking for panthers for the games which, as aedile, he is charged with arranging. Where are my panthers? Just give the orders for them to be captured. Caelius has sent people to arrange their transport back to Rome.

October: Caelius writes to tell Cicero the latest developments in Rome on the issue of whether Caesar can stand for consul in his absence. Caesar wants to do this is so he can pass straight from being commander of the army in Gaul to being consul without a break. If there is a break and he returns to Rome as a private citizen, he knows that his enemies have compiled a list of his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul and will immediately prosecute him, with the very real risk that he will be sent into exile and stripped of citizenship, thus ending his career.

November: letter to Caelius. It always comes as a surprise to realise how military these men are. Thus Cicero gives a detailed account of the military affairs of his province, his various campaigns against enemy peoples and the fact that his writing this letter from a Roman army which he is supervising in the siege of Pindenissus, on Mount Amanus (which he was to take after 57 days). This was the military campaign upon which Cicero was later to base his (repeated) request for a triumph to be held in his honour.

50

Caelius writes to tell Cicero that Appius is being impeached for corruption during his governorship of Cilicia, but that Pompey (whose son is married to Appius’s daughter) is actively supporting him. [Later that year, in August, Cicero learns that his daughter, Tullia, fairly recently widowed, has married Publius Cornelius Dolabella. This placed Cicero in an awkward position because this same Dolabella led the prosecution of Appius for corruption at the same time as Cicero was trying to cosy up to him (Appius).]

February: a long letter to Atticus demonstrating in great detail Cicero’s attempts to be fair to natives in the case of the Roman moneylender Marcus Scaptius who was insisting on repayment of a debt from the people of Salamis on Cyprus at a rate of 48% compound interest. Cicero calls off the moneylenders soldiers, who had been threatening the Salaminians, and remits the interest to 12%.

May: a letter from Cato explaining why he proposed a vote of thanksgiving to Cicero in the Senate to recognise his good governance of Cilicia (p.94).

At the end of July Cicero’s governorship expired, he packed his bags and left Cilicia. But he didn’t reach Italy till November and Rome till January 49. During the second half of the year the political situation in Rome darkened. Various factions were lobbying for Caesar to return from Gaul and surrender his command, some in order that he could take up the consulship, some that he be arrested, or other types of legalistic intervention. The point being that everyone agreed that Caesar’s return would trigger some great crisis.

August: In a series of letters, Caelius gives a running commentary, explaining that the crux is that Pompey insists Caesar cannot take up his consulship until he has given up his army; but Caesar refuses to give up his army because only with it does he feel safe. Caesar has suggested that both he and Pompey give up their armies at the same time, but Pompey refuses. Impasse (pp.97 and 100).

October: Cicero writes to Atticus that he has received letters asking for his support from both Pompey and Caesar. The former he assesses as doing the right thing by the constitution, but the latter has incomparably the stronger army. So what should he do?

A comic note is introduced in the fact that, as the republic slides towards civil war, Cicero’s main concern is fussing to Atticus about lobbying the senate to be awarded a triumph for his campaigns in Cilicia.

Some of the letters describe the moment when Gaius Scribonius Curio went over to active support of Caesar, having been paid an enormous bribe to do so. Curio had been elected tribune and promptly used his veto to block any attempt to recall Caesar or separate him from his army. On 1 December 50 he proposed yet again that Pompey and Caesar lay down their arms simultaneously but it was vetoed by other tribunes. Instead Pompey accepted command of the army in Italy, just as Caesar was heading over the Alps with the army of Gaul. On the day his term of office expired (10 December) Curio went straight to Caesar at Ravenna and urged him to march on Rome. Caesar had his loyal supporter Mark Antony lined up to step into Curio’s shoes as tribune and continue supporting him.

December: At Pompeii Cicero met Pompey who was friendly and supportive of his request for a triumph. Pompey tells him his estrangement from Caesar is complete. In his last letter before civil war breaks out, Cicero laments that they should all have resisted Caesar before he was powerful. Now he is too powerful. But he equally laments that there is no obvious patriotic party in Rome, just different interest groups none of which have the Republic, as such, at heart.

49

In early January, Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, proposed to the senate that Caesar be forced to lay down his military command in Gaul. The new tribunes, Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius, tried to use their veto against this but were physically ejected from the Senate. In fear of their lives, they fled Rome and reached Rimini on the north-east coast of Italy on 10 January. On the night of 11 January Caesar led his legions across the little river Rubicon. The significance of this was that the Rubicon formed the border between Cisalpine Gaul, where Caesar legitimately was governor and military commander, and Italy proper, where he was not, and where to lead legions was expressly against the law.

Cicero arrived in Rome after his long, roundabout journey back from Cilicia the next day, on January 12. His letters explode with drama as panic grips Rome and Pompey and his supporters first of all flee Rome to the south-east, then move on to Brundisium which they barricade and fortify, and then depart Italy altogether for north-west Greece.

During these feverish days Cicero sends letters to his faithful freedman and servant, Tyro, with updates on the situation, and to Atticus agonising about what to do. For me what stood out is a sentiment he repeats several times, which is the discovery that ‘on both sides there are people who actually want to fight.’ (p.108) This is the truth that dare not speak its name in liberalism: the college-educated middle class and women want peace; but there is always a significant minority who let themselves get worked up enough to declare peace shameful etc and determine to fight come what may, ‘Death or glory’ etc. Thus the eminently sane, rational and civilised Cicero is bewildered to discover ‘the amazing passion’ which has gripped so many of his acquaintance in Rome.

Very quickly Cicero realises ‘the improvidence and negligence’ of his side, of Pompey, the senate and the consuls, none of whom have made adequate preparations. He realises immediately that it was a fatal mistake for the Pompeians and constitutionalists to abandon Rome.

On 16 February he writes to Pompey himself, saying he is holding the area south of Rome he was tasked with (the senate divided Italy into provinces and assigned governors for the duration of the crisis). But he writes to Atticus fairly certain that Pompey will flee and, sure enough, on 17 March Pompey evacuated his army of 30,000, plus most of the senate, the 2 consuls and tribunes across the Adriatic to Greece. Cicero tells Atticus about a face to face meeting with Caesar who begged him to come to Rome to discuss the issue further. (Persuading Cicero to stay would be a big propaganda coup for Caesar and persuade many other waverers to say and thus validate his regime.)

In April Cicero decided to join Pompey but not because he thought it would save the republic, which he now regards as finished; or because he thought Pompey would win, having displayed such indecision and fear. But in case people think he is ungrateful to the man who helped end his exile.

April: Cicero’s friend Marcus Caelius is on Caesar’s side and writes an impassioned letter warning him not to go over to Pompey, especially at this point when it has become clear Caesar will win. What would be the point?

May: his beloved daughter Tullia had a baby boy, born prematurely. In June he wrote to his wife, Terentia, telling her he is aboard the ship which will take him across the Adriatic to join Pompey, and to go and stay in one of their country houses and so avoid the war areas.

48

During the next few troubled years there are few letters. Having secured the flight of Pompey and his army, Caesar marched all the way to Spain where he defeated all of Pompey’s seven legions and secured the peninsula. In September he returned to Rome and undertook a suite of reforming legislation. In the spring of 48, having built up sufficient fleet, Caesar took his army across the Adriatic and besieged Pompey at Dyrrhachium. Here he suffered a confusing defeat so struck camp and headed east into Greece to relieve pressure on a Caesarian legion facing attack by Pompey’s father-in-law Scipio. Pompey shadowed Caesar and eventually, against his better judgement was persuaded by his camp followers of politicians, to give Caesar battle. He lost the battle of Pharsalus in August 48 and fled to Egypt where he was murdered. Cicero missed Pharsalus having remained ill at a camp on the coast. After the defeat, he opted not to join the hard core Pompeians – Labienus, Cato, Scipio and Pompey’s sons – but returned to Italy where he was grudgingly allowed to stay in Brundisium by Mark Antony who Caesar had appointed his deputy in Rome while he pursued the war in Egypt, Asia and Spain.

November: Cicero writes to Atticus bewailing his fate. How can he secure his return to Rome? He is worried about is family. He doesn’t regret joining Pompey and is upset by his miserable murder.

47

June: To Atticus he says he understands Caesar is in a tight spot in Alexandria. Meanwhile he just wants to be allowed to leave Brundisium, no matter how angry the Caesarians are with him. He is saddened by news of Marcus Caelius Rufus.

Caelius sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey in the civil war, warning Cicero not to align his fortunes with Pompey. In 48 he was rewarded with the office of praetor peregrinus. However, when his proposed program of debt relief was opposed by the senate and he was suspended from office, he joined in a rebellion against Caesar which was quickly crushed and Caelius was killed.

Cicero is troubled by the divorce of his beloved daughter Tullia from Dolabella who turns out to be a swine. If Dolabella divorces her Cicero will get back the dowry he paid for her, which was not inconsiderable.

At the end of 47 Cicero divorced his wife of 30 years, Terentia. He has confirmed that she has been swindling him over money for years, and he is fed up with her bad temper. It’s worth noting she was a true religious believer and devout in her worship of the gods, something Cicero teased her about.

46

After campaigns in Egypt, Asia Minor and Spain, Caesar finally returned to Italy. Here he met with Cicero and formally pardoned him, allowing him to return to Rome. He kept his head down, settled in his country estate at Tusculum, and devoted himself to literature. Many commentators think these among the most momentous years of western civilisation, for in the next three years he produced a series of works which invented philosophical discourse in Latin and popularised to the Romans and, later, for all western civilisation, the ideas of the great Greek philosophers.

In December 47 Caesar crossed to Tunisia to take on the Pompeian forces there. It took till April when he wiped them out at the battle of Thapsus. Cato, the great politician and inflexible moralist, committed suicide at the garrison city of Utica.

Cicero agonises about whether to deliver a eulogy for Cato, who was great but unwise. Any praise will only bring criticism on his head from the Caesarians.

April: letters to Marcus Terentius Varro, the polymath and a prolific author, giving the advice to lie low and study, to live with their books and, if they can no longer advise from the senate, to offer advice from the library and study.

July: five letters to Lucius Papirius Paetus, who has warned him about anti-Cicero gossip in Caesar’s circle, reassuring him that his policy, now that Caesar has triumphed utterly, is to do or say nothing to offend Caesar or his supporters. He discusses the merits of opening a sort of school for student orators, amid jokes about haute cuisine and eating peacocks, the kind of luxury talk Cicero absent from his letters till now. He describes a dinner party with unexpectedly celebrity company (Cytheris, a famous actress) and how, nowadays, deprived of political action and the freedom to speak his mind independently, there’s nothing he enjoys more than dining with friends, addressing his wit to whatever subject crops up and turning grumbling into laughter. In various ways he reformulates the same basic thought: that he is lucky to be alive and that they must obey the powers that be:

What will happen is whatever pleases the powers that be; and power will always be with those that have the arms. We ought therefore to be happy with what we are allowed. (p.139)

[The calendar: throughout 46 and 45 Caesar carried out widespread reforms. The most notable of these was reforming the calendar. Because of the discrepancy between the Roman year of 355 days and the actual solar year of 365.242 days, a large discrepancy had opened up, with the Roman calendar 2 months out of true. Caesar consulted mathematicians and had 67 extra days inserted between November and December 46, gave some of the months extra days to being the total up to 365, and instituted the idea of adding an extra day to the calendar every four years. A reform which survives, in essentials, to this day.]

45

After defeat in north Africa the surviving Pompeians rallies in Spain, under the great survivor Titus Labienus and Pompey’s sons. At the end of 46 Caesar went there with an army and eventually brought them to battle and defeated them at Munda on 17 March 45.

To Cassius he writes a brief letter explaining his new mode of life, explaining that: ‘I am ashamed to be a slave, so I make a show of being busy over other things than politics’ (p.140)

In February his beloved daughter Tullia died, leading to a series of letters from condoling friends, Cicero’s replies, and then his plans to have a permanent shrine built to her.

March: long letter from Servius Sulpicius offering carefully thought through advice on managing his grief. Cicero movingly explains to him that he had lost everything else in life, all his public works and political actions and the law courts, everything, and Tullia was the one good thing left to him and now she is dead.

In all these letters Cicero refers to Caesar rather spookily as ‘he’ by whose patience and generosity they now live, creating the sense of an all-powerful dictator who suffers his subjects to live and a painful sense of having lost his freedom to say and do whatever he wants. Against this backdrop it is striking to have a letter (March) addressed directly to Caesar and recommending to his service a young man named Precilius.

More correspondence with Atticus about buying the land and paying for a mausoleum to be erected to Tullia. Then (May) he has clearly published a eulogy to Cato because he writes about the invective against Cato written by Caesar. He doesn’t give a summary or even any of the arguments, which is irritating because the invective has disappeared, but then Cicero’s letters contain almost nothing about the content of his or anyone else’s writings, a big omission.

May: Atticus seems to have suggested Cicero write a letter to Caesar full of advice but Cicero says he can’t bring himself to; not out of shame, although he is ashamed to be still alive, but because he can’t find anything to say. ‘I would rather he regretted my not writing than disapproved of what I wrote…’

June: a letter to Atticus about some of the philosophical discourses he’s working on and, as usual, he doesn’t discuss the philosophy at all, but just the mechanics of the writing, namely who to dedicate the work to (he is dedicating his dialogue On Aims to Brutus, as Atticus has advised) and swapping round the names of some of the characters who appear in other dialogues, to please figures like Varro, Catulus and Lucullus.

July: this theme continues in a letter he writes to Varro accompanying a copy of his dialogue, the Academica, explaining that he has cast him, Varro, as one of the chief speakers, himself (Cicero) one of the others. As usual there is no indication whatsoever of the content, the subject matter or the actual arguments.

July: he tells Atticus he attended a triumph given to Caesar in Rome, where the dictator’s statue was next to Victory’s. He had been nerving himself to write some kind of official letter of advice to Caesar, such as ought to come from such a distinguished statesman, but seeing this procession put him off.

December: Cicero describes to Atticus that Caesar came and stayed in person at one of his country homes. The throng was immense – he brought 2,000 soldiers! But Caesar was affable and polite, did some administrative work, walked along the seashore, had a bath and at heartily a well prepared meal. They kept off politics and discussed literature so nothing unwise was said and Cicero didn’t offend his guest and so the whole visit passed off without embarrassment. But he wouldn’t like it to happen again.

December: a letter to Manius Curius describing the scandalous incident whereby on the last day of the year, the sitting consul Quintus Maximus died in the morning and, hearing this, Caesar gave the consulship for the remainder of the year i.e. for the afternoon and evening, to a friend Gaius Caninius Rebilus. This allows Cicero to make a few weak jokes, such as: During Caninius’s consulship no-one had lunch. And: Such was Caninius’s vigilance that during his entire consulship he didn’t sleep a wink! But he declares himself sickened by Caesar’s contemptuous, offhand treatment of the great offices of state.

[Personally I find this attitude a little hard to credit and to sympathise with. It would make sense if the republic whose loss Cicero laments had been a Scandiniavian style paradise of social democracy. But even a reading of his letters indicates the political instability sometimes descending to chaos of the previous two decades, from the Catiline conspiracy through to the violent street fighting between Clodius and Milo’s gangs in the late 50s, with politicians routinely attacked in the street and fleeing for their lives. To a very senior political figure like Cicero ‘freedom’ might have a particular meaning, namely that he could speak out and play a role in the senate. But the reader suspects that to many ordinary Romans, peace and stability was more important than ‘freedoms’ none of them enjoyed, and that’s without mentioning the up to 20% of the population who were slaves. Persuasive though Cicero’s self pity can be, this is essentially rich man’s discourse.]

44

Caesar’s assassination on 15 March in a meeting of the senate came as a great shock to Cicero. Although the conspirators ran out of the building waving their bloodsoaked daggers and shouting Cicero’s name (!) he was not approached to join the conspiracy and was, apparently, as surprised as everyone else. There is a gap around the event itself and the first letter we have is from 7 April, 3 weeks later.

[To my surprise he describes the assassins – or liberatores as they liked to style themselves – as ‘heroes’ who have behaved ‘most gloriously and magnificently’. He says the assassination ‘consoles’ him (p.160). At the same time the impression his letters give is of chaos in domestic politics, as the Senate votes to ratify all Caesar’s reforms but at the same time to declare an amnesty for the assassins. He shows the first signs of realising that assassinating the dictator won’t lead to the restoration of the republican constitution, but to a further sequence of civil wars because the republican constitution was irreparably broken. He also describes (albeit sketchily) something other accounts miss, which is the immediate impact of Caesar’s assassination on the empire. Thus war seems to be continuing against Parthia, but to everyone’s surprise there isn’t a widespread uprising in Gaul, whose leaders politely report to the Roman governor, Aurelius, that they will follow his orders. Having read Caesar’s long, gruelling account of his Gallic Wars, I am very surprised there was no uprising in Gaul and would be interested to read an explanation why.]

April: letter to Atticus lamenting the fact that by the second day after the assassination, which happened to fall on the feast of the Liberalia, it was already too late to move decisively to restore the republic, because on that day the Senate met and agreed that all of Caesar’s acts and laws should be confirmed, that his funeral be held in the Forum and his will read in public. Nobody suspected that Mark Antony would seize the opportunity to not only read the will, but show the mob Caesar’s body, and his toga gashed with bloody holes, and so inflame them that they would grab firebrands from the funeral pyre and run off to burn down the houses of the leading conspirators (and Cicero’s house, though he had no part in the conspiracy) with the result that the so-called liberatores (chief among them Brutus and Cassius) would be forced to flee the city they had supposedly liberated.

In April Octavian arrived in Rome, Caesar’s great-nephew who he had adopted as his legal heir. The Caesarians, led by Mark Antony, spurned him so he realised he’d have to worm his way up the ladder using the republicans. And so he curried favour with Cicero, among others.

April: letter to Atticus explaining that Octavian is staying with him and is surrounded by people breathing slaughter against the liberators. Already Cicero has a bad feeling that ‘our side’ will go under. Amazingly, he admits to wishing Caesar were still here because at least he had principles. In his absence Mark Antony is proposing all sorts of corrupt procedures, based on memos fraudulently claimed to have been signed off by Caesar, specifically a request to recall one Sextus Clodius from exile.

He writes in praise of Dolabella who had had a memorial to Caesar which his supporters had erected in the Forum demolished and its constructors thrown off the Tarpeian rock or crucified!

There’s a running thread of concern over his student-aged son Marcus, who is studying philosophy in Athens. Atticus gives reports of him, as does a friend, Trebonius, who looks him up in Athens. This is the same conspirator Trebonius who was tasked with keeping Mark Anthony in conversation outside the building where the other conspirators murdered Caesar.

June: he hears that the Senate will appoint Brutus and Cassius commissioners for supplying Rome with corn from Asia Minor and Sicily. Then he describes to Atticus the scene when he visited Brutus at his place in Anzio and, in front of the latter’s wife and children, was asked whether he, Brutus, should accept the Senate’s commission. He was in the middle of doing so when the impetuous Cassius burst in. Good God, it’s like a movie, it’s like being in the room with Lenin and Stalin arguing, it’s history at first hand. I am surprised to discover that Cicero thought Mark Antony should have been murdered at the same time as Caesar. Now he is emerging as the central political figure, but far more corrupt and tyrannical than Caesar had been. And the liberators who, as we’ve seen, he knows well and meets and advises, they have ‘No plan, no principle, no system’ (p.169).

Almost comically, there is a letter about Cleopatra who Cicero heartily disliked and found insolent and aloof. She had been staying in Rome under Caesar’s protection and fled the city when he was murdered.

There’s a slight oddity which is that the manuscript collections include 2 letters from Brutus and Cassius to Mark Antony. He was consul for 44 and they were praetors so they had to do business, but very uneasily since he had vowed to capture and execute them but had to acquiesce in the Senate’s decision to send them to governorships in Greece. They had asked Cicero whether they should return to Rome, even briefly, before they set out and he strongly advised against it.

August: Cicero tells Atticus he had set sail for Greece when a wind blew him back to Italy and he got messages of a big meeting happening in the Senate and none other than Brutus came to see him on foot. He praised Piso, Caesar’s father in law, who publicly stood up to Antony in the Senate.

Cicero returned to Rome but refused to attend the meeting of the Senate on 1 September when Caesar was officially deified. Antony made a furious speech criticising him for this. Cicero replied with a speech known as the first Philippic, because modelled on the famous speeches of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon. This prompted Antony to a furious invective and triggered Cicero’s second Philippic. This is important because this animus led Antony, the following year, to condemn Cicero to death.

September: Cicero writes to Cassius in Athens telling him Antony is seeking any excuse for a massacre and to have him killed, making it unsafe for him to visit the Senate. So we are right back to the days of street violence and extreme instability of the 50s before Caesar made himself dictator.

November: Cicero tells Atticus he has received a letter from Octavian outlining his plans, which is to bribe ex-servicemen to his cause, which Cicero takes to be opposing Antony, and inviting him to a secret meeting at Capua. Meanwhile Antony is marching 3 legions towards Rome. Cicero asks Atticus what he should do, who he should support, and whether he should leave his rural idyll for Rome as things seem to be coming to a head?

43

In June 46 Antony had passed a decree declaring himself governor of Hither Gaul instead of Decimus Brutus. On November 28 he learned that two of the four legions he had summoned from Macedonia had gone over to Octavian, so he took the other two and marched north to Hither Gaul where he besieged Decimus in Modena. Cicero played an important role in Rome, supporting the two new consuls who took office on 1 January, Hirtius and Pansa, and rallying anti-Antony forces with his Philippics. He based his position on support for Octavian as the least worst option. War was declared on Antony on 2 February.

February: a letter to Trebonius wishing he had not taken Antony aside on the Ides of March but had arranged to have him murdered, too. Now Antony has marched north, Cicero describes his leading role in rallying the Senate and trying to reintroduce Republican practices. He now sees Octavian rallying the ex-servicemen and detaching 2 of Antony’s four legions as preventing the latter instituting a new tyranny.

In the next few months Cicero played a central role, co-ordinating efforts by republicans around the empire. He corresponded with Brutus in the Balkans, Cassius in Syria, Trebonius in Asia Minor, Cornificius in north Africa, Pollio in Spain, Plancus and Lepidus in Transalpine Gaul and Galba and Decimus Brutus in Hither Gaul.

He warns Brutus against mercy. ‘If you are going to be merciful, civil wars will never cease’ (p.185).

In April there were two battles at Modena. Mark Antony defeated Pansa but was worsted by Hirtius. Octavian defended the camp against Antony’s brother, Lucius. A few days later, Decimus Brutus sallied out from the city and defeated Antony though both consuls were killed. But Antony got away.

April: Cicero writes to Brutus telling him the news, and describing ‘the boy’ Caesar, remarkably mature and shrewd at 19. He hopes that as he matures, he will be guided by Cicero and the republicans. He then swanks that when news of the first victory at Modena was brought, the population of Rome came flocking round his house and carried him, cheering, to the Capitol and set him up on the rostrum.

Antony fled north over the Alps. Lepidus, Brutus’s brother-in-law, went over to him and was declared a public enemy.

June: Pollio, governor of Hispania, writes to explain that he has kept his legions loyal to the Republic, despite the efforts of Antony and his brother to bribe them away.

June: a very shrewd letter from Brutus to Atticus in which he criticises Cicero for recklessly encouraging Octavian. In short: he thinks Cicero, with good intentions, has ended up supporting a man who will turn out to be more of a tyrant than the one they overthrew. Brutus powerfully expresses the belief in the Republican system i.e. no man should be above the law, for which he was famous in his day and ever since.

July: Cicero’s last letter is a long one to Brutus explaining and justifying his policy, the core of which is support for Octavian, justifying the various honours and ovation he got the Senate to award him, on the basis that he is their bulwark against the corruption and tyranny of Antony, and that he, Cicero, can guide and control and moderate a young man of just 19 who likes to call him ‘father’. In all this, he would prove to be terribly wrong.

When the Senate refused to vote Octavian the proposed honours he marched his army back to Rome and demanded one of the consulships left vacant by the deaths at Modena, the other one for a kinsman, Pedius. He revoked the outlawry of Antony and Dolabella, and secured the condemnation of Caesar’s assassins, confirming Brutus in his fears. Having unoutlawed him, Octavian proceeded to meet Antony in November 43 on an island near Bologna and formed the second triumvirate with him and Lepidus. The three then drew up lists of political enemies to be proscribed i.e. murdered. Top of Antony’s list was Cicero. Octavian held out in defence of his ‘father’ for 2 days but gave in on the third. Cicero was tracked down to a country estate and murdered by bounty hunters on 7 December 43.

Wilkinson ends his text not with a summary or conclusion or analysis, but by excerpting the last few chapters of Plutarch’s life of Cicero, describing in the detail his final flight to the country, and his tracking down and decapitation by the assassins. His head and hands were cut off and taken to Rome where Antony had them nailed to the rostrum in the forum as revenge, being the head and hand which wrote the Philippic speeches which so incensed him. A visual image of the barbarity which Cicero fought against all his life but which always lay implicitly within the Roman culture he loved so much and which, in the end, did for him so brutally.

Thoughts

What an extraordinary record these letters are, what an amazing insight into the actual dynamics of power at the highest level, during one of the most intense and fascinating periods of world history. And what an amazing character Cicero emerges as, wise, foolish, passionate, ever-thoughtful, highly literate and educated, an effective administrator and military governor in Cilicia, a fluent and attractive writer and, in the end, tragically deluded by the ‘boy’ Octavian.


Themes

Cicero’s narcissism

As all the other sources I’ve read point out Cicero is hilariously self-obsessed. Quite quickly you get used to him describing how important he is, how he single handedly saved the state during the Catiline Conspiracy, how wherever he goes crowds flock out to see him and call his name. He comes across as a pompous, fuss, narcissistic booby.

As a result it’s hard to take him very seriously as either a politician or philosopher. It beggars belief that this man who frets about his sister-in-law’s behaviour, about the number of statues in his country home, who insists that wherever he goes he is mobbed by crowds calling his name, was seriously invited by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus to join the triumvirate.

Philosophy and writings

As to philosophy, these is none in the letters. He refers to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers by name but only to gossip about meeting them, dining with them and so on. There isn’t a word about The Good Life or The Ideal Citizen or any of the other issues Cicero wrote formal essays about. He mentions that he is working on the texts, such as the six volumes of The Republic, but describes or explains none of the actual ideas.

This is a striking gap or lack. Keats’s letters shed all kinds of light on his poetic theories and practice; Cicero’s letters shed no light at all on the ideas expressed in his essays and dialogues. Possibly this is because they were all secondary, in the sense that he was basically copying out ideas developed by Greeks. He had few if any original ideas of his own and therefore didn’t need to discuss them or work them through with correspondents. He administered his philosophical and political ideas, as a good governor administrates his province.

Atticus

It is sweet and lovely to read Cicero’s many letters to his friend Atticus in which he swears deep friendship and affection. I can see why the correspondence inspired all those humanists of the Renaissance who wrote so many essays about the value of friendship.

Quintus Tullius Cicero

The letters to his brother about a) the latter’s sister, who was married to his best friend Atticus, b) endless building works to the latter’s mansion and c) his service with Caesar in Gaul and on the expedition to the new island of Britain, are fascinating and very human.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Caelius, born in 82 BC was an orator and politician. He is famous for his trial for public violence in March 56 BC when Cicero defended him in the speech Pro Caelio which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of oratory from the ancient world. He is recipient and author of some of the best letters, with Cicero routinely begging him for the latest gossip during his exile in Greece and governorship in faraway Cilicia. There is a comic running thread with Caelius pestering Cicero to supply him with panthers, exotic animals which he wanted for the games he was organising as curule aedile in 50 BC. Cicero refuses, saying paying from public funds for a panther hunt would be against the reputation for good government he is trying to create.

Roman mosaic showing a wild animal hunt in North Africa (third century AD) Musée Archéologique d’Hippone (Algeria)

Tiro

Cicero’s beloved freedman, secretary, amanuensis. After Cicero’s death it was Tiro who edited and published Cicero’s letters to the immense benefit of western civilisation. It’s logical that Robert Harris makes Tiro the narrator of his 2006 novel about Cicero, Imperium.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • The letters of Cicero
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 1
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 2
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 3

Plutarch’s life of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC)

Cicero was what the Romans called a ‘new man’, meaning his family had no history of holding office and so qualifying for the senate. Yet he rose to become one of the most eminent Romans of his time, the leading advocate of his day and a key political player, first in preventing the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the state in 63 BC, and then in the increasingly fraught political atmosphere which led up to the outbreak of civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC.

But more than that, Cicero wrote a huge amount, across a range of genres (speeches, books on philosophy, politics, oratory, political pamphlets) an extraordinary amount of which has survived. As well as his formal publications there survive some 1,000 letters written by or to him, which were edited and published by his beloved freedman and secretary, Tiro, after his death.

The high point of Cicero’s life was the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, a massive co-ordinated conspiracy to overthrow the state in a mix of plebeian revolutionary and military coup. Cicero was responsible for identifying and arresting the ringleaders in Rome, then having them summarily executed.

When civil war came Cicero agonised over which side to choose but thought it his duty to stick with the supporter of traditional values, Pompey, against Caesar who had brought his army of Gaul across the river Rubicon to enter Italy illegally.

In the confused situation after Caesar was assassinated in March 44, Mark Anthony emerged as one of the key players but Cicero thought him completely unsuitable for public office or leadership and so wrote a series of vitriolic articles against him. This was to cost him his life for when Anthony made peace with his main opponent, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, in 43, each of the parties made a list of opponents they wanted ‘liquidated’ and top of Anthony’s list was Cicero. Hired killers were sent to find him and cut off his head. Cicero made a career out of his fine, forceful prose style, but in the end it got him killed.

Warner’s introduction

In the Penguin paperback edition of six Roman biographies, titles The Fall of the Roman Republic, each life is preceded by a short one-page introduction by the translator, Rex Warner. These don’t introduce or focus on the subject i.e. Cicero in this case, so much as frankly assess Plutarch’s shortcomings as a biographer. So in the case of the Life of Cicero Warner points out that Plutarch:

  • makes no attempt to depict the problems facing a novo homo or new man
  • or to explain why Cicero alone of the new men of his generation rose to such giddy heights
  • fails to mention the chief problem facing Cicero upon his election as consul for 63 BC, namely that his candidature had received support from both Pompey (most powerful man in the populares interest) and his opponents among the aristocracy or boni
  • is careless and inaccurate in his account of Cicero’s quarrel with Clodius
  • completely ignores the complex political background of the 50s
  • fails to understand Cicero’s policy after Caesar was assassinated, which was to use the young Octavian to rid the state of Anthony, before dumping him (Octavian) and trying to restore the Republic – a strategy which conspicuously failed

On the plus side Plutarch:

  • had access to Cicero’s own works about his consulship and speeches and letters on the subject, none of which have survived, so his references to them are an invaluable source
  • gives some examples of Cicero’s inability to stop himself making witty quips which often offended people

The life

(1) Cicero’s parents. cicer is Latin for chickpea so some Romans thought his surname absurd but Cicero stated he wanted to make it honourable and famous.

(2) His mother’s nurse had a vision saying he would grow up to be a ‘blessing to Rome’ and as a boy he staggered his peers and other parents with his brilliance. As a teenager and young man he developed a reputation as the best poet in Rome, though this had been eclipsed by Plutarch’s time by the giants who came after him (Virgil, Horace, Ovid et al).

(3) He did a brief stint of military service under Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the Social War but then concentrated on studying with orators and philosophers. A young man named Roscius was angry that his father had been murdered via one of Sulla’s proscriptions and his house cheaply sold off to an ex-slave named Chrysogonus. When he made a fuss Sulla had him charged with murdering his own father. Cicero’s friends persuaded him that representing Roscius in court would kick start his career as a lawyer so he did and Roscius won his case. Cicero, though, was worried about Sulla’s anger and diplomatically went to Greece for two years to study with philosophers and orators (79 to 77 BC).

(4) The philosophers Cicero studied under and doctrines he came to favour, namely the New Academy. He worked hard at public speaking, taking lessons from some of the best practitioners in Greece and Asia (Minor).

(5) After Sulla died (in 78 BC) Cicero returned to Rome (in 77) and almost immediately made an impact as a lawyer and speaker. How painstakingly he studied elocution and delivery. He had a quick wit and turn of phrase but often carried it too far and acquired the reputation of being malicious.

(6) Appointed quaestor to Sicily at a time of grain shortages. Won over the natives for being ‘careful, just, and mild’. He brilliantly defended some young men charged with corruption and cowardice but, on returning to Rome, was disappointed that nobody had heard of this great triumph. ‘his excessive delight in the praise of others and his too passionate desire for glory remained with him until the very end, and very often confounded his saner reasonings.’

(7) He trained himself to remember the names of people and places. He secured the conviction of Verres for corruption in Sicily. Plutarch gives some examples of Cicero’s ready wit:

  • verres is the Roman word for a castrated boar, so when a freedman named Caecilius, who was suspected of Jewish practices, wanted to push aside the Sicilian accusers and denounce Verres himself, Cicero said: “What has a Jew to do with a Verres?”
  • Verres had a son who had the reputation of being little better than a prostitute so that when Cicero was accused by Verres of effeminacy he reploed, “This is the kind of language you should be saving for your son at home”
  • The leading lawyer Hortensius appeared for Verres and received an ivory sphinx as his reward so that when Cicero made an oblique reference to Hortensius and the latter declared that he had no skill in solving riddles, Cicero was able to reply, “Really? Despite having a sphinx in your house.”

(8) The Sicilians remained grateful for his good governance and when Cicero was made aedile (69) sent him so much food and livestock Cicero used it to lower food prices in Rome.

An assessment of Cicero’s many properties, legacies and the dowry he received with his wife. He wasn’t rich and often didn’t take fees for his legal work. He ate lightly and took regular exercise and was always conscious of his health.

(9) He was elected praetor in 66 and heard many law cases. The case of Licinius Macer and Cicero’s wisecrack to Publius Vatinius. His supervision of the case of Caius Manlius, a close supporter of Pompey’s.

(10) Now Plutarch comes to Lucius Sergius Catalina who came to represent the various elements in the city which wanted to overthrow the state. Plutarch echoes Sallust’s claims that Catalina corrupted all those around him with loose living, and that he created a cabal of conspirators by committing a human sacrifice and making them eat the flesh. His lieutenants raised mobs in Etruria and Cisalpine Gaul. Corruption and greed had undermined morale, as had the growing gap between rich and poor. Only a spark was needed to ignite this tinderbox.

It was against this backdrop that both optimates and populares were prevailed on to vote Cicero consul for 63 BC.

(11) In fact Cicero’s election owed a lot to the fact that Cataline himself stood for election and Cicero was a candidate both factions could agree on to keep Cataline out.

(12) Cicero faced a problem straightaway which was agitation by the tribunes of the plebs to set up a committee of ten with extraordinary powers, thus upsetting the constitution. Cicero managed to get this proposal rejected in the senate with some careful speeches. He got the other consul, Gaius Antonius, sent to govern Macedonia, leaving the management of Rome in his hands.

(13) Cicero’s career proved that politicians should use charm and eloquence to promote the good.

(14) Catiline now planned to take matters into his own hands before the return of Pompey from the East. His main supporters were people who had benefited from the disruptive times of Sulla, both nobles and soldiers. They wanted more anarchy and disruption. Catiline allied with Manlius, a soldier under Sulla. Cicero stood in the next consul elections, for 62, but Cicero called him to the senate and cross questioned him in front of everyone about rumours of a conspiracy. Cicero appeared at the hustings wearing armour under his toga and with a heavy bodyguard to alert the people that his life was in danger and this helped Catiline lose the consulship for the second time.

(15) Catiline begins organising his men in Etruria into cohorts and legions. Three of the top men in Rome came for a meeting at Cicero’s house, Marcus Crassus, Marcus Marcellus, and Scipio Metellus. Crassus had received an anonymous letter saying the time of blood was approaching and to flee the city. Cicero convened a meeting of the senate at daybreak and distributed the other letters Crassus had to their intended recipients. They all contained identical details of a plot. When the senate then heard that Manlius was mustering forces in Etruria it passed a law placing management of the city entirely in Cicero’s hands.

(16) Catiline orders conspirators Marcius and Cethegus​ to go to Cicero’s house and murder him. But one of them had told his lover Fulvia all about it and she warned Cicero who wouldn’t give the men admittance. Later that day Cicero convened the senate again and Catiline himself appeared in person to defend himself but no-one would sit near him. When he tried to speak he was shouted down whereupon Cicero ordered him to leave town, which he did with 300 followers and the fasces, symbol of a power he did not rightfully possess. He joined Manlius, they raised standards and had about 20,000 men under arms.

(17) Catiline’s agent in the city was Cornelius Lentulus, of noble birth but low living, who had been expelled from the senate. As well as greed and corruption Lentulus was influenced by prophecies that he would become Rome’s next ruler.

(18) Lentulus wasn’t taking half measures. His plan was to kill all the senators and as many of the other citizens as they could, burn down the city and spare no one except the children of Pompey; these they were to hold hostage pending a reconciliation with Pompey who was said to be on his way back from the East. A night was set for the great conflagration.

Enter two ambassadors from the Gaulish tribe of the Allobroges. The conspirators approached these and played on their grievances and claims of bad government by the Romans. They gave them letters to their senate as from Catiline asking their support in the coming revolution. Plutarch describes how Cicero contrived to seize the ambassadors, the letters and a conspirator sent to accompany them to their country, with the help of the Allobroges themselves.

It is notable that Sallust’s account of this sequence of events is much more clear and logical and persuasive than Plutarch’s, which is vague and confused.

(19) So next morning Cicero assembled the senate again and read out the letters and interrogated the conspirators. Caius Calpurnius Piso backed up the accusations and then report came that a huge cache of weapons had been found at Cethegus’s house. Them, granted immunity, the conspirator accompanying the Allobroges gave them complete details of the conspiracy. Lentulus and the other conspirators were convicted, relieved of their offices and placed under house arrest.

Plutarch then described Cicero leaving the senate, going to the house of a friend and deliberating what punishment to administer. He was reluctant to execute them because of the kindliness of his nature, because he didn’t want to seem to be abusing his power, because many were very well connected. But if he was lenient and let them live, he risked jeopardising the state. Anything less than death would probably only encourage their surviving collaborators.

(20) Cicero’s wife Terentia was supervising an annual religious ceremony at his house and a sign appeared to them:

The altar, it seems, although the fire was already thought to have gone out, sent forth from the ashes and burnt bark upon it a great bright blaze.

Terentia came to Cicero and advised against mercy and for the extreme penalty, as did his brother and a philosopher he consulted.

Next day there was yet another meeting of the senate to debate punishment and all the senators spoke for death until it came to Caesar.

(21) Caesar spoke eloquently for clemency and the prisoners to be imprisoned. Cicero’s friends supported this because it exposed Cicero to less censure. But then Cato the Younger spoke and a) cast suspicion on Caesar and b) angered and inflamed the senate and persuaded them to vote for death.

Sallust’s account of all this is infinitely more interesting, subtle and powerful.

(22) Cicero went with the senate to fetch the conspirators for they had been placed under supervision in various houses. One by one they were fetched, marched through the forum to ‘the prison’ and put to death. At the end of the day Cicero walked through the streets to his house with the people ‘calling him the saviour and founder of his country.’ The lengthy passage in Sallust which describes Catline’s behaviour after the punishment of the conspirators in Rome, his rallying of forces with Manlius and their extended military campaign which ended with losing a battle to the loyalist legions of two generals is all glossed over by Plutarch in a sentence:

For most of those who had flocked to the standard of Catiline, as soon as they learned the fate of Lentulus and Cethegus, deserted him and went away; and Catiline, after a conflict with his remaining forces against Antonius, perished himself and his army with him.

(23) Describes the enmity against Cicero of those who resented his power, most notably Caesar and how they tried to interfere with the oath-taking required at the end of Cicero’s consulship. But how Cato defended him and got the people to declare him Father of the Country.

(24) In subsequent years Cicero made himself unpopular by endlessly going on about Catiline and Lentulus and how he had saved the state. That said, he was generous in his praise of great thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle) and used his influence to protect and promote contemporary philosophers and orators.

(25) Another selection of Cicero’s witty quips, often at the expense of the very powerful. For example:

He gained great applause by an encomium on Marcus Crassus from the rostra, and then a few days afterwards as publicly reviled him, whereupon Crassus said: “What, did you not stand there yourself a day or two ago and praise me?” “Yes” said Cicero, “exercising my eloquence by way of practice on a bad subject.”

(26) Plutarch shares another dozen or so examples of Cicero’s witty sharp retorts causing offence and creating enemies, not least Crassus on the eve of the latter setting out for Syria (November 55). Jokes comparing people to slaves or for being ugly or dissolute. Funny but wounding, and creating many enemies.

(27) More examples:

When Faustus, the son of the Sulla (who was dictator at Rome and placarded many people for death) got into debt, squandered much of his substance, and placarded his household goods for sale, Cicero said he liked this placarding better than his father’s.

(28) The story of young Publius Clodius Pulcher dressing himself up as a woman in order to get into the house of Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, during the women-only religious ceremony in order to seduce her. Clodius got lost in the big house, was spotted by a maid who alerted all the women of the house who barricaded the doors against him. Caesar divorced Pompeia and had an action for sacrilege brought against Clodius.

(29) Cicero gave evidence Clodius at least in part because of his wife’s enmity towards Clodius’s sister who she thought had designs on Cicero. But he was a bad man. Witnesses came forward to claim Clodius had had sex with all three of his sisters. Despite all this Clodius was acquitted due to extensive bribery.

It was about this affair that Caesar made his famous quote that he didn’t divorce his wife because he believed her guilty of adultery, but because ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.’

(30) Having escape conviction, Clodius was elected tribune of the plebs in 58. It never ceases to amaze me how a) very small a pool of educated nobles there appeared to be, so that the same names go round and round offices and positions, in these narratives and b) how often they took each other to court, and c) how even obvious crooks with terrible reputations got elected. The other thing is how like a school playground ancient Rome seems to have been, with everyone currying favour with everyone else, and wanting to be in everyone else’s gang, and telling takes and bullying and bribing each other.

Clodius set about making himself popular by passing laws in the people’s interests, had large provinces allotted to the consuls, organised the poor into political clubs, and formed a big bodyguard of armed slaves.

Plutarch states that the three most powerful men in Rome at this time were Crassus, Caesar and Pompey (without mentioning anything about the triumvirate; does this indicate it was a label given by later historians?).

Plutarch’s account is incorrect in many details. For example, he says that Cicero lobbied for a post with Caesar setting out for Gaul but was talked out of it by Clodius who suddenly came onto him as his new best friend. Warner says Caesar offered him the post and Cicero rejected it. Plutarch says the rejection made Caesar cross and he turned against Cicero and also persuaded Pompey against him. See what I mean by the politics of the school playground. And now Cicero began to be vulnerable to his behaviour during the Catiline conspiracy in that he had eminent Roman nobles put to death without a formal trial.

Cicero puts on modest clothes, grows his hair and went about the streets as a supplicant of the people but Clodius now had control of street gangs and got them to catcall Cicero and pelt him with mud and stones.

(31) Although the senate and many young people supported Cicero, Clodius surrounded the senate house and menaced the senators and it began to look like Cicero would have to flee to protect himself. Cicero appealed to Pompey who he had helped at numerous points in the past; but Plutarch says Pompey was now married to Caesar’s daughter and so took his side and avoided Cicero (again Plutarch fails to mention the triumvirate).

Cicero consulted with many friends who gave conflicting advice, but in the end he decided to leave the city and set out one night on foot planning to head for Sicily.

(32) As soon as it was confirmed he had fled Clodius had a law passed formalising Cicero’s exile. Many people helped him on his journey but Plutarch mentions two Sicilians who had benefited from his help in the past who now spurned him, particularly the praetor of Sicily, Gaius Virgilius, who told him not to come there.

So he crossed Italy to Brundisium on the Adriatic coast and set sail for Albania and so on into Greece. Cicero became depressed in exile, contradicting all his claims to be a Stoic philosopher, and Plutarch makes a well-phrased point:

Public opinion has the strange power of being able, as it were, to erase from a man’s character the lines formed there by reason and study; and, by force of habit and association, it can impress the passions and feelings of the mob on those who engage in politics, unless one is very much on one’s guard and makes up one’s mind that in dealing with what is outside oneself one will be concerned only with the practical problems themselves and not with the passions that arise out of them.

(33) In his absence Clodius burned down his villas and his house in Rome and erected on the site a Temple to Liberty. He tried to auction the properties but no-one would buy them. When Clodius then turned his ire on Pompey, the latter had a change of heart and regretted acquiescing in Cicero’s flight. The senate went on strike and refused to ratify legislation. Street violence escalated till tribunes were wounded in the forum and Cicero’s brother was wounded (57 BC).

Another tribune, Titus Annius Milo decided to stand up to Clodius and brought forward legislation to have him prosecuted. Pompey occupied the city with troops and drove Clodius out then summoned the citizens to vote on letting Cicero return. It was carried unanimously, the senate wrote to thank all the cities which had offered Cicero hospitality and decreed his houses in Rome and the country should be rebuilt at public expense.

This is the behaviour of children, isn’t it? No adequate reason is given for all these changes of attitude among ‘the people’ – and what of Pompey’s ignoble and inconstant shilly-shallying?

After 16 months exile Cicero returned in triumph, crowds turned out to welcome him, in Rome even Crassus turned out, at the bidding of his son Publius who was a big fan.

(34) Soon as Clodius was out of town Cicero went to the capitol with a crowd and tore down and destroyed the tablets which recorded Clodius’s laws. Which caused controversy.

(35) With casual abruptness Plutarch then tells us that Clodius was killed by Milo (18 January 52 BC) or more precisely by his entourage in an affray on a road outside Rome. Milo was promptly charged with murder and hired Cicero to be his defence attorney but Plutarch goes on at great length about how nervous Cicero was, giving other examples of his timidity, specially as Pompey provided soldiers to surround and protect the court so as to prevent intimidation by Clodius’s gangs. Milo was convicted and went into exile in Massilia.

(36) In 53 BC, after the death of Publius Crassus in Parthia, Cicero was elected augur (proposed by Pompey and the lawyer Horntensius).

In 51 he was appointed governor to the province of Cilicia and went with great reluctance, because he thought it was his duty. He ruled with great fairness, reducing crushing interest rates, overseeing trials fairly, his home open to all petitioners. Plutarch describes the correspondence with young Marcus Caelius Rufus who asked him to send panthers to take part in games he was organising and Cicero’s reply that there were no panthers in Cilicia, letters which, amazingly, we can still read. After a year he returned to find Rome in the distemper which augured civil war.

(37) As Warner says, Plutarch gives no explanation at all of either the triumvirate, how it was set up and ruled throughout the 50s, nor of its collapse after Crassus’s death in Parthia in 53 and Pompey’s wife’s death in 54, and the growing sense that the two most powerful men, Pompey and Caesar, were engaged in a rivalry to the death.

Instead Plutarch leaps straight into Cicero’s efforts to mediate between both men who he knew well. Very casually and superficially the narrative suddenly leaps to Cesar invading Italy and Pompey precipitately fleeing Rome (49 BC). Plutarch relies heavily on Cicero’s letters as he cites the ones in which he begs Atticus for advice on what to do and then admits it (‘So much for the evidence of the letters.’). Cicero is insulted when Caesar writes to him through an intermediary rather than directly.

(38) Eventually Cicero abandons Italy and sails to join Pompey. He meets Cato who promptly tells him he has made a mistake and ought to have stayed in Italy without taking sides and made himself useful whatever the outcome. Good point. Cicero made himself unpopular by openly saying he regretted coming, criticising Pompey’s strategy and making his usual tactless remarks. As above, Plutarch then gives half a dozen examples of Pompey’s witty barbs.

(39) After Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus (9 August 48) Cato, who had control of the fleet, offered command to Cicero  as an ex-consul. But Cicero turned it down and refused to have anything more to do with the cause, something that made Pompey’s son and friends threaten his life.

Cicero sailed to Brundisium and waited there for Caesar to finish other operations and land there. Then with great trepidation he went to see him. To his relief Caesar welcomed him, walked and talked with him and treated him as an honoured guest, praising his eloquence and writings. a) Caesar comes over as an attractive character b) he was also a writer and so maybe appreciated Cicero’s specialness.

He gives an account of Cicero giving a speech defending some associate of Caesar’s and moving so skilfully from emotion to emotion that Caesar’s body literally trembled and he dropped his papers. And the modern read asks themselves: Can anything like that possibly ever have happened or is it an almost fairy tale level of simple-mindedness.

(40) Plutarch describes the way that, after Caesar assumed power, Cicero dropped politics and the law and devoted himself to philosophy and writing, translating works of politics, ethics and philosophy, translating Greek terms into Latin for the first time. He stuck to his country estate at Tusculum, only rarely visiting Rome. He praised Caesar as required.

(41) Plutarch tells us Cicero planned to write a history of Rome but never found time. He divorced Terentia in 46 BC claiming she didn’t support him in his exile and didn’t look after their daughter. But critics mocked the way he promptly married a young woman named Publilia and claimed it was because she was rich and Cicero needed to pay off his debts. Then in 45 his beloved daughter Tullia died young. He was prostrate with grief.

(42) Plutarch mentions Cicero’s Philippics against Anthony in passing and skates even more lightly over the assassination of Caesar, simply saying Cicero had no part in it. Days after the killing Anthony addressed the senate arguing to preserve the peace and Cicero followed with a long eloquent speech arguing for an amnesty. But when the people saw Caesar’s body carried through the forum and saw his blood-stained toga and listened to Anthony’s speech they went mad with rage and seized torches and attacked the houses of the conspirators who had, sagely, already fled.

(43) Anthony began to fear Cicero was once again becoming a power in the state. He was tempted to accompany the new governor of Syria but the consuls pleaded with him to stay in Rome and support the state. He said he’d retire to Athens till they came into office and set off in July 44.

But then news came of a shift in the situation with the arrival in Rome of young Octavian, adopted heir of Caesar, in April 44. This prompted Anthony to shift his strategy, deciding to seek the support of the senate. Cicero was suddenly invited back and returned accompanied by cheering crowds etc (is this taken from his own self-serving letters?). But when Anthony invited him to a meeting Cicero, scared, refused to go, which threw Anthony into a fury.

(44) Then middlemen brought Octavian to Cicero and they negotiated a deal: Cicero would use his influence and powers of oratory on Octavian’s behalf and Octavian would use his money and soldiers to protect Cicero. Characteristically, instead of political analysis, Plutarch takes half a page to tell us that Cicero had a dream foretelling the next ruler of Rome in which he saw young Octavian very vividly, and met him as a boy and teenager and always took care to be polite. Well, if remotely true, that care now bore fruit.

(45) Cicero’s friendliness with Octavian was criticised by Marcus Junius Brutus, who thought it was self-serving. Warner adds a note repeating his idea that Cicero’s plan was to use Octavian to rid the state of Anthony, then replace Octavian himself.

Plutarch says Cicero’s power reached its height. He had Anthony expelled from Rome then sent the two consuls to fight him. Octavian persuaded the senate to award him the power and insignia of a lictor. Octavian defeated Anthony at the battle of Mutina 21 April 43 at which the two consuls were killed and their armies joined his. Now he was the most powerful man in Rome and the senate feared for the old constitution. So Octavian shrewdly met with Cicero and asked him to arrange for them both to be elected consuls, then he would submit to his older colleague. Who was using who?

(46) But as soon as Octavian was elected ‘suffect’ consul i.e. completing the time of a consul who had been killed, on 19 August 43, he paid no further attention to Cicero who realised he had been used. Instead Octavian went into alliance with Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and divided up the government as though it were a piece of property. They drew up a list of 200 men who needed to be executed and Cicero’s name was on it. Anthony refused to join the alliance unless Cicero was killed and Lepidus backed him. The idea was each would sacrifice someone close and dear to them. On the third day Octavian gave in and agreed to Cicero’s murder. Homo homini lupus est.

(47) Cicero was at his country estate with his brother when he heard the news. They set out immediately for the coast with a view to joining Brutus in Macedonia. Plutarch wrings the scene for all the emotion he can, with the brothers frequently stopping their litters to condole each other in floods of tears etc. Eventually Quintus decided he had to return home because he had set out with no money. A few days later he was betrayed by his servants and murdered.

Cicero was carried to Astura where he found a ship which carried him down the coast but then he landed and began to head back to Rome, uncertain and afraid. He contemplated going to Octavian’s house and committing suicide on the hearthstone so as to draw down a curse on it, but then decided to return to the sea and go to Caieta where he had a villa.

Characteristically Plutarch intensifies the mood by describing an ill omen when a flight of crows rose up into the air and flew towards Cicero’s boat as it was being rowed ashore. But he made it to his villa in safety.

(48) The murderers had arrived. They found the villa and broke the doors down only to be told by one of Cicero’s servants that he had left by a secret path which wound down to the sea. The centurions intercepted his litter and Cicero with dignity stretched out his neck allowing them to murder him. At Anthony’s orders they cut off his head and the hands which had written the virulent addresses against Anthony known as the Philippics (and which Plutarch has told us absolutely nothing about).

(49) The head and hands were carried to Anthony in Rome who was organising an election. He cried out ‘let there be an end to proscriptions’, then had them nailed over the ships’ battering rams which adorned the Rostrum in the forum.

Gruesome

For some reason Plutarch, here, right at the tragic end of this great Roman figure, bolts on a macabre anecdote which trumps the Cicero hands and head one. He claims that the servant who told the centurions about Cicero’s getaway path was caught and handed over to Cicero’s bother’s wife (Pomponia) who forced him to cut off his own flesh bit by bit and roast it, and then to eat it!

This, indeed, is what some of the historians say; but Cicero’s own freedman, Tiro, makes no mention at all of the treachery of Philologus.

So why does Plutarch? Don’t you think the inclusion of this gruesome anecdote, which isn’t even accepted by the best witness, tells us everything you need to know about Plutarch’s audience, around 100 AD? I.e. its appetite for the gruesome and the macabre, along with melodramatic omens, prophecies and dreams, trumps any interest in responsible analysis and interpretation.

That said, the last two sentences reveal a taste for the sentimental which resonates to this day:

I learn that Caesar, a long time after this, paid a visit to one of his daughter’s sons; and the boy, since he had in his hands a book of Cicero’s, was terrified and sought to hide it in his gown; but Caesar saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”

Moreover, as soon as he had finally defeated Antony,​ and when he was himself consul, he chose Cicero’s son as his colleague in the office, and it was in his consulship that the senate took down the statues of Antony, made void the other honours that had been paid him, and decreed besides that no Antony should have the name of Marcus. Thus the heavenly powers devolved upon the family of Cicero the final steps in the punishment of Antony.

Rex Warner’s introduction to the Penguin edition emphasises and implicitly praises Plutarch’s commitment to artistry, to creating biographies as carefully crafted as paintings. OK. But the obvious consequence, which Warner, to be fair, points out, is that: a) many of these ‘effects’ pandered to the debased taste of 1st century imperial Romans and b) led Plutarch to focus on the sensational and sentimental aspects of his subject matter while skating over or omitting important historical, political and social issues which we’d desperately like to know more about.


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Plutarch’s life of Pompey

Pompey always maintained that simplicity in his habits which cost him no great effort; for he was naturally temperate and orderly in his desires. (18)

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 to 48 BC)

This is one of the longest lives, with 80 chapters. Pompey the Great was a boy wonder general, who racked up a series of military victories, both in Rome’s civil wars and against external enemies. He was awarded unprecedented military power to fight the pirates and then prosecute the war in Parthia in the 60s BC, with the result that a growing number of critics began to think him a threat to the state.

In 60 BC Pompey entered into an uneasy alliance with the two other most powerful men in Rome, Julius Caesar (who had himself been awarded extraordinary and extended powers to fight his long war in Gaul) and Marcus Crassus (the richest man in Rome) in order to bribe and strong-arm their way to successive consulships and continually renewed generalships. It was called the triumvirate.

In the later 50s the triumvirate collapsed because a) Crassus was killed on campaign in Parthia and b) Caesar’s beloved daughter, Julia, who he had given to Pompey, died young, thus breaking the family tie between them. It left Pompey and Caesar as the two most powerful men in the state, both with devoted armies behind them, eyeing each other nervously. When his political opponents in Rome tried to end Caesar’s command in Gaul he marched with his army into Italy in 49 BC, triggering a civil war against Pompey and the army of Italy, which lasted from 49 to 45, ending with complete victory for Caesar. But by this stage Pompey was already dead, having been murdered in Egypt, fleeing from a military defeat in Greece, at which point the Pompey part of the story ends.

The life

(1) Contrasts the extreme unpopularity of the father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 to 87), hated by his soldiers for his greed and cruelty, with the tremendous popularity of the son. Plutarch says the son was persuasive, trustworthy and tactful. Now all of this contrasts strongly with the portrait of Pompey given in the Life of Crassus, where he is made to be tactless, clumsy and anti-social. This raises the strong possibility that the characters Plutarch paints are not historically accurate or even consistent across his own biographies, but that Plutarch changes and rearranges them in the context of each life to make each life more dramatic. Artistic licence. Plutarch did warn us hat he feels more like a painter than a historian.

(2) He had a boyish youthful grace which people found attractive leading many to nickname him Alexander, after the boy wonder conqueror. Many rumours of his love affairs, for example the story of Flora the old courtesan who boasted that she never left his company without bitemarks.

(3) How young Pompey quelled an attempt by mutinous troops to murder his father and then talked round the troops.

(4) On his father’s death in 87 Pompey was put on trial for misappropriation of public funds but defended himself ably and was acquitted, in fact the judge in the case, Antistius, offered him his daughter in marriage.

(5) Plutarch associates Pompey directly with Cinna‘s death, saying that Pompey went into hiding but people thought Cinna had ordered him killed, so soldiers rose up against Cinna and a centurion pursued and killed him. 84 BC. By contrast the history books say Cinna was murdered by his own troops who mutinied rather than be sent across the Adriatic to fight Sulla in Greece.

(6) Gnaeus Papirius Carbo replaced Cinna as ruler of Rome, and Pompey, not yet 23, raised an army against him in the provinces and marched to Rome to support Sulla.

(7) Pompey defeated in quick succession the forces of Carinas, Cloelius, and Brutus, then persuaded the army of Scipio the consul to come over to him, then defeated a force sent by Carbo himself. Wunderkind.

(8) When Sulla’s army approaches Pompey ensures his looks smart and Sulla greets him at Imperator and later showed great marks of respect. When Sulla wanted to send Pompey to Gaul to help Metellus, Pompey very tactfully said he didn’t want to tread on the older man’s toes but would go if requested. He was requested, he did go and performed great feats.

(9) Sulla realised how valuable Pompey was and, once he was established in power in Rome (82 BC) he and his wife Metella prevail on the young man to divorce Antistia and marry Aemilia, the step-daughter of Sulla, even though she was pregnant with another man’s child. Political marriages. [In the same spirit Sulla tried to make Julius Caesar part with his wife, but Caesar refused and was so scared of reprisals that he went into hiding.] This was cruel on Antistia whose father had been murdered by Marius’s son, Marcus, for being a partisan of Pompey’s and whose mother had killed herself in response. Anyway, fate is fate, and Amelia had barely been installed in Pompey’s house before she died giving birth to the other man’s child.

(10) Once Sulla is secure in power in Rome, Pompey was charged with mopping up outstanding noble survivors. He was harshly judged for his delaying treatment of Carbo, 4 times consul, and but dealt mercifully with Himera and Sthenis. Perpenna was occupying Sicily until Pompey headed that way, at which he abandoned it and headed for Spain (where he was to become a grudging lieutenant to that other Marian exile, Sertorius).

(11) Sulla sends Pompey to Libya to fight Domitius Ahenobarbus. Pompey lands with a large force and defeats Domitius in a rainstorm. He arranges treaties with the cities of Libya and then invades into Numidia. It is said all this took him just 40 days and he was only 24 years old.

(12) Back at his base in Utica Pompey receives a letter from Sulla telling him to send his legions back to Italy which upsets Pompey, but his army threaten to mutiny in order to stay with him. When Pompey returns to Rome the people flock out to see him, who many are already calling Magnus or ‘the Great’ and Sulla thinks it politic to also acclaim Pompey as the great. According to Plutarch Pompey himself was one of the last to use this agnomen.

(14) Pompey asks for a triumph but Sulla refuses, saying he hasn’t even been a praetor yet let alone a consul. This was the context of Pompey allegedly muttering that more people worship the rising than the setting sun which, when he heard it, Sulla was so impressed by Pompey’s sheer cheek that he changed his mind and let Pompey have his triumph (probably in 81 BC). Pompey could easily have been elected to the Senate but it didn’t interest him so he didn’t try.

(15) Sulla resented Pompey’s popularity with the people but rarely let it show. He did, though, remark when Pompey put his name behind Lepidus‘s campaign to be elected consul in 78 BC, that Pompey had ensured that the worst man alive (Lepidus) secured more votes than the best (Catulus). Later that year Sulla died

(16) Lepidus, elected consul in 78, demanded a second consulship for the following year and, when it was refused, raised an army along with the sons of the old Marian cause. Pompey, as so often, was tasked with quelling the rebellion, defeated Lepidus at Cosa and Lepidus withdrew into Sardinia where he died the same year. Many of his supporters escaped to Spain where they joined the Marian rebel, Sertorius.

(17) Having defeated Lepidus, Pompey refused to disband his army but kept it near Rome. Many deprecated this, but it meant he was ready when the Senate ordered him to Spain to deal with the Marian rebel Sertorius. Pompey took over from Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius who was old and, to general surprise, had become addicted to luxury. This was never a problem for Pompey who was naturally moderate in all things.

(18) Pompey’s arrival in Spain rejuvenated the Roman troops. He wins a victory near Valentia.

(19) The big but inconclusive battle at the river Sucro in which he is wounded in the hand. Pompey’s respect for Metellus. The success of Sertorius’s hit and run guerrilla tactics.

(20) In 74, running low on money, Pompey wrote a famous letter to the Senate asking for more resources or saying he’d be forced to march home. LucullusPlutarch’s life of Lucullus was consul and did everything he could to get the money assigned. This was for personal reasons because he wanted to be assigned command of the army heading East to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus (the region along the south coast of the Black sea), and didn’t want Pompey to come home and snaffle this very desirable gig.

In 73 Sertorius was murdered at a dinner party by his resentful lieutenant Perpenna. Perpenna then took to the field against Pompey but had none of his victim’s agility and strategy. Pompey engaged the rebels in plain battle and slaughtered them. Perpenna and other Roman nobles were brought before him, and Pompey had them all executed.

There’s a story that Perpenna offered Pompey Sertorius’s correspondence with lots of leading figures in Rome who had been corresponding with him about overthrowing Sulla in the popular cause – but Pompey didn’t want to revive the civil war which was only just over and so burned the correspondence unread.

(21) Pompey went on to arrange peace in Spain, before returning to Italy in 71. He arrived at the height of the Spartacus rebellion, to the great irritation of Crassus who wanted to finish it off before Pompey took the credit. So Crassus hurried up and arranged a final set piece battle with Spartacus, at which he massacred the insurgents. Yet Pompey still managed to get credit because about 5,000 escaped from the main battle and Pompey engaged with them and slaughtered them. Then wrote a letter to the Senate saying Crassus certainly defeated Spartacus in battle but he, Pompey, scotched the cause once and for all.

There was widespread fear that, not disbanding his army and with so many successes, Pompey might turn into another Sulla. But he didn’t and he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the people, for example supporting the law to have the powers which Sulla had taken away from the people’s tribunes restored to them.

(22) His influence is indicated by the way that Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, only considered putting himself forward for consul if Pompey would back him, which he did. Both men were elected consuls in 70 BC. The story of Pompey appearing in person before the two censors to resign his military command.

(23) However, the pair spent a lot of their consul year at daggers drawn. As the year of their joint office neared its end a man climbed on the public platform they were sharing and said Jupiter had appeared in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t lay down their office till they’d become friends again. So Crassus stepped forward, took Pompey’s hand and praised him to the crowd. Having laid down his office, Pompey was seen less and less in public, and then only surrounded by a crowd to boost his sense of magnificence.

(24) Pirates A digression giving background on the rise of the pirates around the Mediterranean – caused in part because the Romans are devoting their energies to civil wars – till the pirates were said to have 1,000 ships and to have captured 400 cities. Their flaunting their power, wearing fine clothes and decorated ships was offensive. But in more practical terms the pirate plague was driving up prices and causing discontent.

(25) In 67 the tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed a law giving Pompey extraordinary power to crush the pirates, which led to impassioned speeches for and against in the Senate. But it was a very popular idea with the people.

(26) Pompey was awarded the commission divided the Mediterranean into quadrants which he assigned to subordinates tasked with sweeping them clean. In an astonishing 40 days he had routed the pirates and ended the problem in the western Med.

(27) In Rome the consul Piso conspired against Pompey, trying to limit the funding of the project and releasing ship’s crews early, so Pompey interrupted his campaign to anchor at Brindisi, march to Rome and sort things out.

Then he returned to sea, sailing East, with a stopover at Athens. Pompey closed in on the pirates’ bases in Cilicia but then amazed everyone by capturing but then setting free the pirates. He treated all of them leniently.

(28) Finally he tackles the hard core pirates at a headland off Cilicia. Pompey drove them off their boats and into a fortress which he besieged till the pirates, starving, surrendered. In less than 3 months the entire pirate problem had been sorted. He had captured 20,000 prisoners. Rather than punish them, though, Pompey very wisely resettled the pirates and their families in Greece and Asia Minor, in cities which he then granted extra land, figuring that good example, honest work and opportunity would tame them.

(29) Pompey’s dispute with Metellus (relative of the Metellus he fought alongside in Spain) who was fighting the pirates in Crete but whose authority Pompey undermined, taking the side of the pirates. Much criticism.

(30) With the end of the pirate campaign in 66 BC, one of the tribunes of the plebs, Manilius, proposes a law giving Pompey extraordinary power in the East to prosecute the war against Mithridates, taking command away from Lucius Licinius Lucullus. Debate, opposition from the nobles, but passed by the people. Pompey pretends to be vexed by the endless tasks he is given but was in reality pleased.

(31) So Pompey rallies his legions and sails for Asia Minor. Here he marches through the land, leaving nothing undisturbed that Lucullus had done. Eventually the two meet, with their armies, in Galatia. Both sets of lictors have put wreaths on their fasces but after a weary march Pompey’s are faded, so Lucullus’s lictors put their fresh wreaths on Pompey’s lictors’ fasces – which was remembered long afterwards as symbolising how Pompey had come to steal glory from Lucullus who had done all the hard work.

He’s referring to the way Pompey had a track record of arriving at the end of military campaigns and stealing the glory from, for example, Metellus in Spain and Crassus against Spartacus. Lucullus apparently compared Pompey to a lazy carrion-bird, that alights on bodies that others had killed and mocks him for having won a triumph (in 71 BC) for appearing at the end of the 3 year war against Spartacus and wiping out a relatively small number of stragglers. Right place, right time.

The two successful generals try to be civil, but behind each other’s backs, Pompey criticises Lucullus for his greed and looting and Lucullus criticises Pompey for his lust for power.

(32) Pompey’s campaign against Mithridates who shows the same ability to endlessly escape from battles and traps as he did against Lucullus. A battle fought by moonlight where the Romans massacre 10,000 Parthians.

(33) Pompey discovers young Tigranes of Armenia is in rebellion against his father, Tigranes king of kings, so allies and marches with him. The elder Tigranes comes to submit and is going to obeise himself when Pompey raises him up, sits him at his side, says he can retain his kingship and remaining provinces but a) those won by Lucullus will become Roman b) he must pay an indemnity of 6,000 talents, to which Tigranes agrees. Young Tigranes violently disagrees, insults Pompey and is put in chains. Phraates, king of the Parthians, sends an embassy suggesting the Euphrates should be the border between Roman territory and Parthian, and Pompey agrees.

(34) Pompey marches north towards and the Caucasus in search of Mithridates, and is attacked by native peoples, first the Albanians then the Iberians, both of which he thrashes.

(35) Mithridates had headed west and Pompey wanted to follow him but heard that the Albanians had rebelled again so crossed the river Cyrnus with difficulty, then marches across dry land carrying 10,000 waterskins and then crushed the Albanian army consisting of 60,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. As always, with numbers, a healthy dose of scepticism. Rumour that the Amazons fought with the Albanians but no women’s bodies were found. Note on the location and customs of the Amazons who are said to live in the Caucasus.

(36) Pompey sets off for Hyrcania but is driven back by the wild snakes. The kings of the Elymaeans and the Medes sent ambassadors to him, and he wrote them a friendly answer. The Parthian king had burst into Gordyene and was plundering the subjects of Tigranes so Pompey he sent an armed force under Afranius.

Pompey is sent all the concubines of Mithridates but doesn’t keep them, sending them back to their homes. Folk tale of one of the concubines, Stratonice, who was daughter to a very poor old man. When Mithridates took her as a concubine the old man woke up to find his house overflowing with treasure and servants. This Stratonice had been left in charge of one of Mithridates’ fortresses but handed it over to Pompey who, chastely, handed them over to the questors to be sent back to Rome.

(37) In the castle of Caenum Pompey comes across a cache of Mithridates’ correspondence showing, among other things, the people he’d had poisoned, including one of his own sons.

(38) While Mithridates was still alive and at large with a big force, Pompey did what he’d criticised Lucullus for doing and began to administer his provinces, having meetings with kings, issuing edicts and so on.

In his campaigns Pompey had reached some of the limits of the known world. In Spain he had reached the Atlantic (which the ancients thought was the Great Ocean surrounding one unified land mass). In North Africa he had also marched as far as the Outer Sea. In the East he had nearly reached Hyrcania. Now he wanted to march south through Arabia to the Red Sea.

(39) Pompey ordered a blockade of Mithridates in his base in the Bosporus (not the Bosphorus by modern Istanbul, but the area round the Crimea in the north Black Sea) and set off south. He annexed Syria for Rome and then Judaea, and made a prisoner of Aristobulus the king. He acted more and more like a mighty sovereign, dispensing justice to lower kings. He was asked to arbitrate a dispute between the kings of Parthia and Armenia. However many of his associates and lieutenants were grasping and corrupt.

(40) A notable hanger-on of Pompey’s was the Greek would-be philosopher Demetrius, who was impertinent and greedy. He used the treasure he looted in the East to buy big properties in Rome including the ‘gardens of Demetrius’. By contrast Pompey always lived in a very modest house.

(41) Pompey was on his way to deal with the king of Petra when messengers arrive bearing the news that Mithridates is finally dead. He killed himself after the revolt of his son, Pharnaces in 63 BC.

Locked up by his son, Pharnaces, Mithridates has his two young daughters poisoned then asks his bodyguard Bituitus to kill him.

The new king, Pharnaces, writes to Pompey saying he wants peace and sends the corpses of his father and entourage. Pompey is amazed at the splendour of the dead king’s accoutrements, most of which are subsequently stolen.

(42) Pompey winds up his affairs in Asia Minor then heads back to Rome in what turns into a kind of triumphal tour, stopping to be publicly praised in Mytilene, Rhodes and Athens. As he gets closer to Italy he takes more serious the rumours that his wife, Mucia, had been living a wild and debauched life, and so divorced her, winning the enmity of her family.

(43) It’s 63 BC. There is much paranoia in Rome that Pompey is returning to conquer the city as Sulla had done in 82. Crassus flees the city with his children. But on arriving at Brundisium Pompey dismissed his army, telling them to return to their homes, and continued to Rome accompanied only by close friends and entourage. This won him huge popularity and crowds turned out to cheer him in every town. He really was a golden boy (well man – aged 43).

(44) A general was not supposed to enter Rome until his triumph. Pompey asked for a dispensation to help the campaign for consul of M. Pupius Piso but Cato argued against it and it was blocked. Pompey admired Cato and suggested he marry one of Cato’s nieces and have his son marry the other one, but Cato saw through this form of bribery and refused. Nonetheless Pompey spent a fortune bribing the voters to elect Afranius consul in 60.

(45) September 61, Pompey’s awesome triumph which took 2 days. Not only was it awesome in terms of territory conquered, kings defeated and revenue brought in but Pompey’s three triumphs had been one in Africa, one in Europe and one in Asia, as if he had conquered the whole world.

(46) If he had died at this point, Pompey would have gone down as one of the greatest generals in history. Instead he was to get mixed up in politics and the immense reputation he had won would in the end go to empower his rival Julius Caesar.

Lucullus and Cato band against Pompey and, in response, Pompey found himself allying with an unpleasant character, Publius Clodius Pulcher, who dragged his name into the mud and involved him in the shameful exile of Cicero (in 58).

(47) Caesar had returned from Gaul and, seeing that Crassus and Pompey were opponents and he couldn’t ally with one without alienating the other, had the bright idea of allying with both and persuading them to join in a coalition, the triumvirate, to promote all their interests, established at secret meetings in 60. Caesar was elected consul for 59. In the same year to everyone’s surprise Pompey now married Julius Caesar’s young daughter, Julia.

(48) Pompey now organises street gangs to terrorise the opponents of his plan to get land made available for his army veterans. His strongest opponent is Cato’s son-in-law, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. A basket of dung is emptied over his head, his lictors are beaten up. The people are cowed into passing Pompey’s law. In 59 Publius Vatinius as tribune of the plebs proposed the lex Vatinia, which granted Caesar Cisalpine Gaul and IIlyricum for five years. At the instigation of Pompey and Piso the Senate added the province of Transalpine Gaul. The consuls for the following year were to be Piso, the father-in‑law of Caesar, and Gabinius, the most extravagant of Pompey’s flatterers. That is how the triumvirate administered their power.

Of their opponents Bibulus hid in his villa, Lucullus retired from public life altogether but Cato continued haranguing them in the Senate. In fact Pompey was soon seduced by his wife into retiring into private life. Caesar had disappeared off to Gaul so the political agenda was driven by Piso who got Cicero driven into exile (58) and then had Cato sent as governor to Cyprus. (Neither of these events are described in any detail, maybe because they’re dealt with in the respective lives.)

(49) Clodius then turned his scurrilous abuse against Pompey who regretted his acquiescence in Cicero’s exile. When Cicero was recalled he helped steer the passage of a corn law which placed Pompey in absolute control of Rome’s harbours, trading-places, distributions of crops — in a word, navigation and agriculture. Pompey really was the go-to guy to get things fixed.

(50) A brief note on Pompey’s success in sailing to Sicily, Sardinia and Africa to get grain. As usual Plutarch isn’t at all interested in the details but tells an improving story about Pompey’s words of encouragement to the captain of the fleet when a big storm arises as they’re about to set sail.

(51) Plutarch explains how Caesar’s time in Gaul was spent not only fighting the various tribes but in readying his army for civil strife, and in continually sending money and treasure back to Rome to bribe officials and the people to his side. Witness the conference he called at Luca in 66 to bolster the triumvirate which was attended by Pompey, Crassus, 200 men of senatorial rank and 120 proconsuls and praetors. The deal struck was that Caesar would send back enough soldiers to ensure the election of Crassus and Pompey as consuls for the following year on condition they passed a law getting Caesar’s command in Gaul extended.

(52) Cato, now back in Rome, encouraged his brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship of 55 but, true to the triumvirate pact, Pompey organised a gang to attack him and his entourage in the forum, killing his torchbearer and wounding Cato himself as he went to protect Domitius. It’s like the street fighting in Renaissance Italy or, more grimly, in Weimar Germany.

At the expiry of his consulship Crassus set off to be governor of Syria with authority over the entire East. Meanwhile Pompey opened his vast and splendid circus with a series of spectaculars, the one which stuck in everyone’s minds being a battle against elephants which horrified the spectators (including Cicero who records it in a letter).

(53) Pompey was criticised for his uxoriousness i.e. retiring to his villa to enjoy life with his young wife. She was devoted to him, maybe for the simple reason that among Roman men he was remarkably faithful. He was also handsome and had charming manners. Her devotion is demonstrated by the occasion on which a fight broke out in the forum and his toga was splashed with blood. His servants carried it home to be cleaned but when Julia saw it she fainted and miscarried. This sounds like an idealised folk story. Because for the purposes of the narrative she quickly has to be gotten pregnant again and nine months later, miscarry and die (in 54 BC). Pompey was distraught and wanted her buried at a family villa but the people insisted she was buried in the Campus Martius.

Plutarch then skips very quickly over Crassus’s defeat and death in Parthia (presumably because it’s dealt with at such massive length in his life of Crassus) skipping on to the main point which is that these 2 events marked the end of the triumvirate and the unravelling of the working relationship between Caesar and Pompey. He drops into graceful moralising:

So slight a thing is fortune when compared with human nature; for she cannot satisfy its desires, since all that extent of empire and magnitude of wide-stretching domain could not suffice for two men. They had heard and read that the gods​ “divided the universe into three parts, and each got his share of power” and yet they did not think the Roman dominion enough for themselves, who were but two. (53)

Beginning the slide into 25 years of civil war.

(54) The issue almost immediately was whether Caesar would lay down his command. Pompey made speeches pointing out how easily he had given up his command after returning from the East. Pompey tried to get his supporters into positions of power but discovered that Caesar had been quietly doing this for some time. Government became gridlocked and as soon as the following year, 53, a tribune suggested Pompey be made dictator. Elections of consuls stalled in 52 and even opponents such as Cato suggested Pompey be made sole consul, as being better than anarchy.

Pompey approached Cato in a private capacity to give advice, but Cato was typically priggish and said he would continue speaking his mind.

(55) Pompey marries Cornelia, widow of Publius Crassus, the son of Crassus who perished along with his father in Parthia. Critics thought it bad taste to be frolicking with garlands at a time of public crisis. He supervised public life effectively, placing soldiers at trials so they could continue without the usual barracking and intimidation. He was blamed for showing partiality in some trials but overall did a good job and was awarded governorship of his provinces for another five years.

(56) Caesar’s supporters said that he, too, deserved reward, and should have his command in Gaul extended. The suggestion was made that he should be allowed to stand for the consulship in his absence. Conservatives like Cato strongly objected, saying he should relinquish his command and return as an ordinary citizen to canvas.

(57) Pompey had a serious illness at Naples. When he recovered there was widespread rejoicing in that city and then in all the towns he passed through on his way back to Rome. Plutarch says this public support gave him a misleading sense of his own power. Back when the triumvirate was formed Pompey had sent two of the legions assigned to him to Gaul with Caesar. Now he asked for them back and they came commanded by Appius who made slighting comments about Caesar’s abilities. Pompey was fooled into thinking he had widespread support and military strength in Italy.

(58) Caesar based himself near to the border with Italy and intervened extensively in Roman politics, in particular bribing key officials in his favour and sending large blocs of soldiers to swing elections in his favour. A tribune made the suggestion that both generals lay down their arms at the same moment and became private citizens, thus not presenting a threat to the other. Opponents said Caesar was a public enemy and should simply relinquish his command, full stop, as he was not more powerful in the state and in no position to make demands of the senate.

(59) Marcellus announces that Caesar is crossing the Alps with ten legions and goes to see Pompey accompanied by the senate to call on him to save the state. But when Pompey tried to levy troops he was surprised at the poor response and reluctance. One reason was that Mark Anthony read out a letter from Caesar in which he suggested that he and Pompey give up their provinces and their armies and submit themselves to the people’s judgement. Cicero proposed a compromise that Caesar give up most but not all of his provinces and retain just 2 legions while he canvassed for a consulship. Arguments. Shouting.

(60) Now news came that Caesar was marching fast into Italy. Caesar pauses at the river Rubicon because it formed the boundary between his allotted province (Cisalpine Gaul) and Italy proper. In Cisalpine Gaul he was official commander and could do as he pleased. But crossing the river was an illegal act, and represented an invasion and subversion of the law.

Caesar took the decision to lead his army across the river and into Italy with the words ‘the die is cast’. The senate immediately asked Pompey to raise the army he had promised to protect Italy, Rome and them – but were horrified to learn that Pompey would struggle to raise a proper army. The legions Caesar had only recently sent back to him were unlikely to march against their former commander.

(61) Pandemonium in Rome, with endless rumour, an outflow of the panicking rich, an influx of refugees, collapse of magistrate authority and Pompey finding it hard to fix on a strategy. He declared a state of civil war, ordered all the senators to follow him, and that evening left the city.

(62) A few days later Caesar arrived in Rome, occupied it, ransacked the treasury for funds with which to pursue Pompey. Caesar wanted Pompey and his army cleared out of Italy before his army from Spain could arrive to reinforce him. Pompey takes his army to Brundisium, occupies and fortifies it then ferries his army ship by ship across to Albania. Caesar arrives but is held at the city walls for nine days while Pompey sailed.

(63) Caesar had sent a friend of Pompey’s, Numerius, to him with free and fair terms. But Pompey had sailed. Without bloodshed Caesar had become master of Rome and Italy. Now he set about and marched all the way to Spain to recruit the armies based there.

(64) Pompey now rallies an enormous army on lad and navy at sea. He inspires the training by taking part himself, aged 58. So many nobles flocked to him that they were able to recreate the senate.

(65) This senate passed a suggestion of Cato’s that no Roman be killed except in actual battle and no Roman cities subjected. This won even more people over to Pompey’s cause.

Meanwhile Caesar also was showing great clemency. After defeating Pompey’s forces in Spain he freely released the commanders and took the soldiers into his own service then marches back to Italy, to Brundisium and crossed to Oricum. He sent an emissary suggesting they lay down their arms, have a conference and become friends as of old. Pompey dismissed it as a trick. Pompey held the coast and dominated supplies. Caesar was hard pressed.

(66) Pompey’s allies pushed him to engage in open battle but Pompey correctly judged that a) Caesar’s army was more battle hardened after years in Gaul but b) they had less supplies – so he planned a war of attrition. Caesar struck camp and marched into Thessaly. Pompey’s supporters were jubilant and behaved as if they’d already won. He was encouraged to cross back to Italy, take total control of it and Rome. But Pompey didn’t want to a) run away again b) abandon his forces in Greece to Caesar c) bring bloodshed into Italy.

(67) So he chose to pursue Caesar, cutting his lines of communication and depriving him of supplies. Plutarch describes Pompey’s suspicions of Cato, who was with him in his camp but who he suspected would demand he lay down his command the second Caesar was defeated. Plutarch paints a grim picture of the politicking and squabbling among the politicians who had accompanied him and spent all their time criticising his plans. It affected his judgement.

(68) Pompey’s army comes out into the plain of Pharsalia. Various of his lieutenants vow not to return to camp until they had routed the enemy. That evening signs and portents are seen in the sky (as they always are). Pompey dreams he is laying tributes in the temple of Venus who was, of course, Caesar’s ancestor. At dawn Caesar was delighted to learn from his scouts that Pompey was preparing for battle.

(69) Pompey had twice as many men as Caesar, 40,000 to 22,000. But Caesar’s army assembled in quiet and confidence whereas Pompey’s were shouting and milling about in their inexperience.

(70) Plutarch takes a chapter to moralise on the pitiful tragic outcome of greed and folly which saw Roman pitted against Roman, family member against family member, when if they had united they could have conquered Scythia, Parthia even India.

(71) The Battle of Pharsalia 9 August 48 BC. Caesar’s troops scatter Pompey’s cavalry with the tactic of pushing their spears up into their faces. Then encircle Pompey’s infantry who panic.

(72) Caesar’s legions triumphed and pushed on into Pompey’s camp. Pompey left the battlefield to sit in his tent in shock, then rallied his men and rode away. 6,000 were killed. Caesar’s men found Pompey’s tents adorned with garlands, dressed for a feast. Such was their inexperience of battle and foolish hopes.

(73) Pompey escaped with a handful of companions. Plutarch paints him as mournfully reviewing the sudden collapse in his fortunes, the first time he’d ever lost a battle. He escaped to the coast and took a fisherman’s boat to a port where he boarded a merchantman. Its captain, Peticius, just happened to have had a dream the night before in which Pompey came imploring. Now he sculls up in a boat with a handful of companions in poor shape. Peticius takes them aboard and offers them a meal.

(74) They sail to Mytilene to take on board Pompey’s wife and son. He sends them a messenger. In best melodramatic tradition the messenger doesn’t say anything but his tears tell the story and Cornelia flings herself on the ground where she lies a long time motionless. Odd that this is the universal attitude of despair in these texts, compared with our modern stock attitude which would be thrashing around and ranting.

Cornelia is given a speech out of a Greek tragedy bewailing her lot, as wife to Publius Crassus, who met a miserable death in Parthia, and now wishing she had killed herself then and not brought bad luck to Pompey.

(75) Pompey is given a stock speech in reply about Fortune and they are only mortals and might rise again. Cornelia sends for her things. The people of Mytilene want to invite Pompey in but he refuses and says the conqueror will come soon enough. More interesting is the little digression in which Pompey was said to have had a conversation with the local philosopher, Cratippus, about Providence. Plutarch slips in the moral of the entire book:

For when Pompey raised questions about Providence, Cratippus might have answered that the state now required a monarchy because it was so badly administered.

The Romans mismanaged their way into a disastrous civil war.

(76) At its next stop the ship is met by some of Pompey’s navy. This has survived intact and he laments the fact that he didn’t make more use of it but allowed himself to be lured into battle far from the sea. He learns Cato rescued many of the soldiers and is shipping them over to Libya. He has been joined by his lieutenants and 60 or so senators. The plan is to recruit more men from the cities. Emissaries are sent out. Pompey and advisers debate where to hole up while they recuperate their forces. Some argue for Libya, some for far-off Parthia. But the strongest voices are for Egypt which is only three days’ sail ,away and where the young king Ptolemy owes his throne to Pompey.

(77) So they sail south to Egypt in a Seleucian trireme from Cyprus, accompanied by warships and merchant ships. When they arrive they discover Ptolemy is at war with his sister Cleopatra. Ptolemy’s advisers hold a conclave on what to do, led by Potheinus the eunuch. Theodotus the rhetorician wins the day by arguing they should kill Pompey thus pleasing Caesar and removing the threat.

(78) Pompey was in a small boat which had approached the shore. Potheinus and Theodotus deputed the task of receiving him to some Roman soldiers who had gravitated to Ptolemy’s court, Achillas, Septimius and Salvius. When the Romans saw a handful of men coming towards them in an ordinary boat, none of the pomp of the pharaoh, they sensed something was wrong. But as the Egyptian boat came up they and the Romans in it hailed them they saw other boats being manned on the shore. To fly would show lack of confidence and trigger attack. So Pompey embraced his wife who was already weeping as if he were dead, and taking a few servants, Philip and Scythe, stepped into the Egyptian boat.

(79) The men in the boat were cold and distant from Pompey. He took out his notebook to practice the speech to Ptolemy in Greek which he had practiced. As they reached the shore Pompey stretched his arm up to be helped to his feet and Septimius ran him through with a sword from behind, then Achillas and Salvius stabbed him, too. Pompey drew his toga over his face and fell.

(80) From the Roman fleet a mighty groan then they set sail and left before the Egyptian fleet could come out. The Egyptians cut off Pompey’s head and threw his body into the sea. His servant Philip waited till they’d left then scavenged along the shore for enough wood to build a pyre. Along comes an old Roman, a veteran, and offers to help, and so these two poor men built and supervised the burning of one of the greatest Romans of all.

Next day a ship carrying Lucius Lentulus comes into view, he lands and sees the pyre and asks Philip about his master’s fate, and delivers a lament as from a tragedy. Then he was captured by the Egyptians and also put to death.

Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up the loose ends. When Caesar landed and was presented with the head of Pompey he was disgusted, when shown his ring he burst into tears. He had Achillas and Potheinus put to death. King Ptolemy was defeated in battle and disappeared into the interior never to be heard of again. The sophist Theodotus fled but many years later, after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus tracked him down in Asia and had him put to death with many tortures. The ashes of Pompey were taken to his widow who buried them at his country house near Alba.


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Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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Plutarch’s life of Lucullus

Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118 to 56)

Summary

Lucullus was a Roman general and politician during the last century of the Roman Republic, closely linked by family ties and military service with the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla both dedicated his memoirs to Lucullus and made him guardian of his son, after his death in 78 BC.

Lucullus’s adult life falls naturally into two parts. During 20 years of military and government service, he conquered a series of eastern kingdoms for Rome, specifically during the Third Mithridatic War (73 to 63 BC). The quality of his generalship impressed everyone and was widely studied by later soldiers.

However, the usual toxic Roman politics meant that, despite his achievements, Lucullus was abruptly relieved of his command and replaced by Pompey in 66 BC, whereupon he returned to Rome with fabulous wealth and devoted the last decade of his life to grandiose building projects and luxury living which shocked and amazed his contemporaries.

The life

He was tall and handsome, a power­ful speaker, and equally able in the forum and the field. (33)

(Chapter 1) Plutarch emphasises that Lucullus came from a very good family and received a very good ‘liberal’ education and was a highly literate man in both Latin and Greek. In a sense his entire public and military career was to turn out to be a detour from his earliest, literary and philosophical interests. to which he was able to return on his retirement.

(2 to 3) Sulla employed Lucullus in the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and then in his campaign against King Mithridates IV in Greece, whence he was sent on an important mission to Egypt to fetch supplies for the Roman army in Greece. He had to run the gauntlet of the enemy blockade but was welcomed in Egypt (87 BC), collected supplies before undergoing a complicated journey back to Greece which involved encountering the enemy fleet, landing at various islands and besieging their cities.

(4) Having fought Mithridates to a draw, Sulla lay a heavy bill of compensation on the cities of Greece and ‘Asia’ i.e. Greece-facing Turkey, but Lucullus won popularity by applying it lightly and fairly. He also managed to be out East when Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BC and so avoided the blood Sulla shed in his vengeful ‘proscriptions’ against the defeated supporters of Gaius Marius.

(5) In 74 Lucullus was elected consul. He wanted to return to the East and so was unhappy to be allotted Cisalpine Gaul as his province. Above everything, he wanted to assure Pompey didn’t return from Spain, where he was engaged in fighting the insurgency of Quintus Sertorius, for he knew Pompey would be assigned to the East. Therefore, when Pompey called for more resources to fight Sertorius in Spain, Lucullus enthusiastically supported him.

(6) The governorship of Cilicia became vacant. The most influential man in Rome at the time was Cethegus and he had taken a noted courtesan Praecia as mistress. Therefore Lucullus paid court to Praecia who influenced Cethegus to get Lucullus command of Cilicia. He used this governorship to resume the war with Mithridates. The only possible rivals were Sulla (dead), Metellus (retired) or Pompey (tied up in Spain).

(7) In 74 BC Lucullus crossed into Asia and took control of the Roman armies there, latterly commanded by Gaius Flavius Fimbria. After a few years of peace, Mithridates had declared war again, not least by playing on the widespread resentment of Roman tax collectors who were still mulcting the cities for the punitive war reparations imposed by Sulla (20,000 talents).

Antique map showing Turkey divided into Roman provinces in the first century BC. Note how ‘Asia’ refers only to western Turkey; Bithynia and Pontus to the south coast of the Black Sea with Amisus, the town which Lucullus besieged and was set afire, on the coast of Pontus. Cilicia, Lucullus’s official governorship, is on the south coast of Turkey opposite Cyprus. And the whole region is bordered on the east by the kingdom of Greater Armenia, ruled over by King Tigranes.

(8) Lucullus’s fellow consul, Marcus Aurelius Cotta a, thinks he can take on Mithridates alone, but is heavily defeated, losing ships and men.

(9) Mithridates marched his army to take Cyzicus, a rich port town on the south coast of the Sea of Marmaria, surrounding it by land and blockading it by sea. Lucullus followed and camped his men around Mithridates’ camps.

The inhabitants of Cyzicus are fortified by a number of supernatural signs and omens (10). Mithridates’ soldiers beginning to suffer from hunger, he took advantage of Lucullus’s brief absence to send many away to Bithynia. But Lucullus took ten cohorts of infantry and his cavalry, set off in pursuit and brought the enemy to battle at the river Rhyndacus. Lucullus won: 6,000 horses and 15,000 men were captured, besides an untold number of beasts of burden. Mithridates hastened to leave by sea, leaving his generals to lead the rest of the land army to safety, but Lucullus attacked them at the river Granicus, capturing a vast number and slaying 20,000. On this campaign, it was said that no fewer than 300,000 camp-followers and fighting men lost their lives (11).

(12) Lucullus entered Cyzicus in triumph but then had a dream in which the goddess Aphrodite told him some of Mithridates’ ships were nearby at Lemnos, so Lucullus embarked his navy, caught the enemy ships, some at sea, and some drawn up on the shore, and defeated them.

(13) Mithridates escaped by ship to Pontus despite a large storm which wrecked much of his fleet and forced him to switch from a heavy merchant ship to a light brigantine. The storm was said to be owing to the wrath of Artemis of Priapus against the men of Pontus who had plundered her shrine and pulled down her image.

(14) Lucullus pursues Mithridates into Bithynia i.e. northern Turkey. His troops criticised him from dawdling but Lucullus is given a speech saying he actively wanted to give Mithridates enough time to recruit a new army because otherwise the Romans risked forcing Mithridates either a) into the Caucasus, a labyrinth of mountains it would be impossible to flush him out of or b) worse, into the arms of Tigranes the Great of Armenia, who happened to be Mithridates’ son-in-law.

(15) In 72 BC Lucullus brings Mithridates to battle at Cabira. Mithridates wins and puts the Romans to flight. Daunted at fighting further, Lucullus finds some local Greeks who guide his army into a mountain redoubt. But some Roman stragglers got into a fight with Mithridates troops over a stag, the forces on both sides increasing till the Romans fled. At which point Lucullus refused to engage in a full scale battle, but led a small force down which rallied his fugitives, made them turn and see of Mithridates’ men, before escorting them back to the camp. But here they were assigned the traditional punishment of runaways, namely to dig a 12 foot ditch in just their tunics.

(16) A Dandarian prince named Olthacus persuades Mithridates to let him go on an assassination mission against Lucullus, and he made his way to the Roman camp with marks of disgrace, as though shamed and outcast by the king. After a probation period, Lucullus admitted this prince to his table and councils. But on the big morning when Olthacus tried to gain entrance to Lucullus’s tent the latter happened to be asleep and his chamberlain wouldn’t give entrance to Olthacus, who rode back to Mithridates in frustration.

(17) Two separate Roman legates are sent to requisition grain. When Mithridates’ forces attacked them, both times the king came off worst. He decided to move camp but the soldiers rebelled and murdered Dorylaüs the general and Hermaeus the priest. Nonetheless, Mithridates moved his army but was nearly caught when Romans gave chase, until a mule came between them and the king, which was bearing gold, so the soldiers stopped to loot the treasure and let the king get away.

(18) The Romans liberated some of Mithridates’ hostages and many women including one of Mithridates’ sisters, Nyssa. The other two sisters, along with two of his wives, had been sequestered in faraway Pharnacia and Mithridates now ordered his eunuch, Bacchides, to go there and murder them. There follows a florid, sensationalist account of how they died:

  • Monimé fastened her diadem round her neck and tried to hang herself but it broke in two so she offered her throat to Bacchides to cut it.
  • Berenicé from Chios shared a cup of poison with her mother which killed the mother but wasn’t enough for Berenicé who was such a long time that Bacchides, who was in a hurry, had her strangled.
  • Of Mithridates’ two unmarried sisters, one drank off her poison with many abusive imprecations on her brother but the other, Statira, drank it off without saying a word.

(19) Lucullus comes to the town of Amisus and, once his troops break into part of it, the rest is set aflame by its governor, Callimachus to prevent their possession. Lucullus orders his men to put out the fires but they disobey him and ransack the town while it burns to the ground, reducing Lucullus to tears of frustration. Interestingly, he is quoted as saying he wanted to be like Fortunate Sulla who successfully ordered his troops to put out the fires they’d started as they entered Athens in 86 BC, but had ended up with the reputation of Mummius, who burned Corinth to the ground in 146 BC.

(20) With a lull in the fighting Lucullus set out to reform the cities of ‘Asia’ (i.e. western Turkey), specifically lightening the yoke of debt – a massive 20,000 talents – which Sulla had imposed on them which had caused all kinds of misery and social dislocation. Unscrupulous debt collectors or publicani by manipulating interest rates, had inflated this to 120,000 talents! So Lucullus passed some practical laws, reducing interest rates to 1%, forbidding the total interest to exceed the initial loan, and punishing lenders who added interest to the loan. Within four years all debts in the province had been paid off and justice restored, despite the lobbying of the publicani back in Rome.

(21) Mithridates takes refuge at the court of King Tigranes of Armenia whose pomp and tribute kings are described. Appius Clodius is sent as ambassador to demand the handing over of Mithridates, but Tigranes is irritated that Lucullus’s letter only refers to him as king instead of King of kings, and he refuses.

(22) In fact Tigranes had been keeping Mithridates in an outlying region of his kingdom. Now he summoned him. Tigranes inadvertently lets slip that one of Mithridates’ ambassadors to him, Metrodorus, had once candidly advised Tigranes not to send Mithridates the reinforcements the latter required. As a result Mithridates has Metrodorus killed and Tigranes regrets his words.

Plutarch slips in a reference to Amphicrates, the rhetorician, who was exiled from Athens and attached himself to Cleopatra, the daughter of Mithridates and wife of Tigranes, but speedily fell into disfavour, and, being excluded from intercourse with Greeks, starved himself to death.

(23) Lucullus restored the liberties of many Greek cities and blessed them with festivals and contests. As a result many celebrated festivals which they called Lucullea. But then he was summoned back to war and and laid siege to Sinopé, or rather, to the Cilicians who were occupying it. He took it and slaughtered 8,000 Cilicians.

Now Lucullus learns that Tigranes has allied with Mithridates and intends to invade Cilicia and advance on Asia. Lucullus wonders why Tigranes chose to do this now, when Mithridates is weak, rather than when he was at the peak of  his powers.

(24) When Machares, the son of Mithridates, who held the Bosporus, sends Lucullus a crown valued at a thousand pieces of gold, begging to be included in the list of Rome’s friends and allies, Lucullus realises the war in the West is over. But he insists on taking the fight to his enemies in what Plutarch calls the ‘second war’ (starting 69 BC) and marches his very reluctant army all across Turkey and Syria to the Euphrates whose waters, at full flood when he arrived, miraculously lowered themselves overnight so the army could cross. He forces his army on across the Tigris and so into the territory of Tigranes.

(25) Tigranes sends a force against Lucullus led by Mithrobarzanes. It comes across Lucullus’s army as it was still making camp so Lucullus sent Sextilius sent at the head of sixteen hundred horsemen and about as many light and heavy infantry to engage Mithrobarzanes, who the Romans defeat and kill. Tigranes abandons Tigranocerta, that great city which he had built, and withdraws beyond the Taurus  river but Murena, pressing hard on his heels, captured his baggage train and killed many of his Armenians.

(26) Lucullus commenced a siege of Tigranocerta, which was full of Greeks and other exiled peoples who Tigranes had forcibly resettled. Mithridates advised Tigranes not to engage Lucullus but Plutarch gives a long list of allies from the whole region who joined Tigranes and eventually gave him the confidence to attack.

(27) Plutarch lovingly describes the enormous array of the many allies and kings who’ve joined together to make Tigranes’ monster army. When they see Lucullus’s force divide, leaving Murena with 6,000 to maintain the siege while he, Lucullus, with 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, they burst out laughing and compete with each other to mock the Romans and offer to finish them off with just their national cohort. Tigranes is said to have uttered a ‘famous’ quote:

“If they are come as ambassadors, they are too many; if as soldiers, too few.”​

(28) In the event it was a famous Roman victory, Lucullus leading a charge against the heavily armoured  Armenian cavalry who turn to escape but, in doing so, trample over their own infantry and cause such confusion the Romans massacre them. Supposedly over 100,000 enemy infantry perish and all their cavalry to the loss of only a hundred Roman wounded and five killed. Sure.

Plutarch then draws a reflection on Lucullus’s generalship, that he used delay and slowness to wear down Mithridates for years, but in this battle deployed lightning tactics to devastate Tigranes’ army.

(29) Mithridates, assuming that Lucullus would draw the battle out, hadn’t even arrived with the main forces. Now he encountered the survivors straggling back and then Tigranes himself, with whom he condoled.

Then Lucullus completes the siege of Tigranocerta, thoroughly looting its treasures and handing out a dividend to all his soldiers. He freed actors who had been abducted by Tigranes and got them to perform in plays celebrating his victory, and sent all the Greeks inside the city who’d been forcibly moved there back to their original cities, thus garnering much gratitude and popularity.

Lucullus then reveres the memory of Zarbienus, king of the Gordyeni, who had sent to offer friendship with Rome but was informed against and murdered, along with his wife and children, by Tigranes. Now Lucullus restored his body to his city and held proper funeral rites and lit the funeral pyre himself.

(30) Lucullus received an embassy from the king of Parthia requesting friendship but then discovered he was parlaying with Mithridates and Tigranes at the same time so decided to march against him. But when he sent for the remainder of his army to join him from Pontus they refused point blank and news of this demoralised the soldiers with Lucullus.

(31) So Lucullus abandoned his plan to attack Parthia and moved against Tigranes again, besieging Artaxata. Plutarch explains that this city was sited and constructed under the supervision of the famous Hannibal after he had fled from Carthage. Tigranes drew up another combined army to stop him but Lucullus crossed the river Arsania and destroyed the royal army.

(32) Lucullus set off in pursuit but the weather became very cold, snow and ice, difficult for horses and the army began to mutiny. So he returned west, descending to a plain where he took a large city named Nsibis.

(33) Lucullus’s luck turned against him. The soldiers had endured two winters in the open rather than occupy cities because Lucullus wanted to keep the friendship of the Greek population. The usual undermining critics in Rome led by Lucius Quintus, one of the praetors, who claimed Lucullus was prolonging the war to enrich himself.

(34) The troops were subverted by Publius Clodius, Luculla’s brother-in-law, who was aggrieved because he’d been overlooked for promotion. Plutarch summarises Clodius’s speeches in which he compared the soldiers’ endless tribulations here in the East, with the nice cushy lifestyle of Pompey’s ex-soldiers from the Spanish war who had, by now, been settled and given citizenship.

(35) In 67 BC a resurgent Mithridates defeated Fimbrius’s army and then the army of Triarius who took him on without waiting for Lucullus. But when Lucullus roused his army to march on Mithridates it rebelled. Lucullus was reduced to going from tent to tent arguing with individual soldiers, but they refused to fight any more. It was all he could to do keep his army together in their summer camp while Tigranes roamed Cappadocia ravaging it at will. In 66 BC the senate appointed Pompey leader of the army in the East with the result that the soldiers refused to obey Lucullus any more while they awaited their new commander.

(36) Pompey and Lucullus met in a village in Galatia, Lucullus aged 52, Pompey aged 40, the latter much the more famous having already won two triumphs. They were polite but didn’t get on, Pompey annulling most of Lucullus’s edicts and allowing him only 1,600 soldiers to take back to Rome.

Plutarch then interjects a two Big Historical Ideas:

  1. If Lucullus had had the magic touch of inspiring love and loyalty in his troops he might have led them against the Parthian Empire which was, at this point, relatively small, and expanded Rome’s borders across Iraq to Iran. But he didn’t and left the border at the Euphrates and the Parthian Empire to grow into a redoubtable enemy.
  2. When he did finally return to Rome and hold a huge triumph (although delayed for nearly three years by his political enemies), the sight of so much wealth and treasure inflamed the Roman imagination so that a man like Marcus Licinius Crassus came to identify the East with one thing only, loot. This inspired Crassus to undertake his ill-fated attack on the Parthian Empire which led to catastrophic Roman defeat at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC and Crassus’s death soon after.

(37) Lucullus returned to Rome to find himself under attack from Gaius Memmius for prolonging the war. He was also prevented for some time from holding a triumph although when he did, it was magnificent and Plutarch describes it in detail.

(38) Lucullus divorced Clodia, who was ‘a licentious and base woman’ and married Servilia, a sister of Marcus Porcius Cato, but she turned out to be just as bad. Lucullus tolerated her immoral behaviour out of respect for Cato but eventually ‘put her away’.

The Senate hoped Lucullus would prove a political champion and oppose the growing dominance of Pompey and his clique but, maybe sensing that the political situation was too rotten, or just reckoning he’d earned retirement, Lucullus took no part in politics. Given the lamentable record of Marius and Sulla before him, you can’t help lauding his decision. Plutarch appears to agree and makes the interesting suggestion that:

a political cycle, too, has a sort of natural termination, and political no less than athletic contests are absurd, after the full vigour of life has departed.

(39) Instead Lucullus devoted the extraordinary wealth he’d amassed to the arts and luxury and fine living. He was a devotee of Latin and Greek literature and he amassed a great library in his villa. He allowed scholars to use his library and he patronised many poets and philosophers and this was imitated by other aristocratic Romans.

Lucullus was a great builder and built magnificent parks and villas, whose designs were very influential. During his campaigns in the East, the retired consul was impressed by the Persian tradition of horticulture. With his vast wealth he built a great park in the centre of Rome, that became known as the ‘Gardens of Lucullus’ and his gardens were important in the development of gardening in Europe.

He was interested in farming and introduced fruits such as the cherry into Rome and also experimented with aquaculture, especially fish ponds. Lucullus became infamous for his feasts and was a great gourmet.

Lucullus’s example inspired many members of the elite to abandon the traditional austere Republican lifestyle and to cultivate the arts, to collect manuscripts, build villas and gardens, a legacy which was to grow under the empire.

(40) His fine dining became legendary. Plutarch gives a quote from Pompey and Cato both satirising Luculla.

(41) These last chapters are taken up with tittle tattle and stories:

Once, when he was dining alone, and a modest repast of one course had been prepared for him, he was angry, and summoned the servant who had the matter in charge. The servant said that he did not suppose, since there were no guests, that he wanted anything very costly. “What sayest thou?” said the master, “dost thou not know that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

Plutarch tells a story about Cicero (a good friend) and Pompey approaching Lucullus in the Forum and asking to be invited to dinner but insisting he serves only what he was going to have anyway. But Lucullus cleverly outwits them by telling his servant which room he wants to eat in and, because he has so many dining rooms and they all have a specific menu and size, the servant immediately knew what was required and so Cicero and Pompey were still staggered by the quality of the meal. Plutarch criticises this gross ostentation, comparing it with a barbarian.

(42) By contrast Plutarch praises Lucullus for assembling a huge library and throwing it open to all, in particular visiting Greek scholars. Lucullus was such a devotee of philosophy that Cicero wrote a summary of the doctrines of the Old Academy (which he favoured) put them into Lucullus’s mouth and titled the treatise Lucullus.

Although Plutarch has said Lucullus retired from political life that doesn’t seem to be strictly true. Thus Lucullus allied with Cato to prevent Pompey’s proposal for a generous distribution of lands to his soldiers, and this was one factor leading Pompey to form the alliance (or, as Plutarch puts it, ‘a conspiracy’) with Crassus and Caesar in 60 BC. Pompey filled the city with his armed soldiery and expelled from the forum the partisans of Cato and Lucullus to get this measure passed. An old man was then produced who swore that he had been hired by Lucullus to assassinate Pompey but nobody believed him and he was soon found dead, probably killed by the very people who put him up to it. Sounds like slippage back towards the bad old days of Marius and Sulla…

(43) All the more reason, then, for Lucullus to retire from increasingly poisonous public life to his library and his gardens. When Cicero was exiled in 58 BC (after a campaign led by Lucullus’s former brother-in-law Publius Clodius Pulcher), Lucullus retired completely. In his last days there were rumours that he lost his mind but Plutarch retails the story that he deteriorated due to drugs administered by his freedman, Callisthenes.

When he died in 56 BC the people lamented and wanted his body to be buried in the Campus Martius where Sulla was buried, but his brother prevailed on them to let the body be buried at Lucullus’s country estate at Tusculum.

Superstitions, prophecies and omens

When Lucullus had come within sight of the enemy and seen with amazement their multitude, he desired to refrain from battle and draw out the time. But Marius, whom Sertorius had sent to Mithridates from Spain with an army, came out to meet him, and challenged him to combat, and so he put his forces in array to fight the issue out. But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all on a sudden, the sky burst asunder, and a huge, flame-like body was seen to fall between the two armies. In shape, it was most like a wine-jar, and in colour, like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated. This marvel, as they say, occurred in Phrygia, at a place called Otryae. (8)

The importance of dreams

All the leaders profiled by Plutarch have meaningful dreams which guide or succour them.

Whenever he had secret intelligence that the enemy had made an incursion into the territory which he commanded, or were trying to bring a city to revolt from him, he would pretend that the doe had conversed with him in his dreams, bidding him hold his forces in readiness. (Sertorius 11)

Lucullus called to mind the advice of Sulla, in his memoirs, which was to think nothing so trustworthy and sure as that which is signified by dreams. (Lucullus 23)


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Plutarch

Plutarch was a Greco-Roman philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. He lived from about 46 to about 120 AD. He was a prolific writer in all genres: an ancient catalogue attributes no fewer than 227 works to Plutarch, of which 78 have come down to us.

Plutarch is most famous for the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of eminent Greek and Roman leaders. These were arranged in pairs, one Greek and one Roman, in order to compare their lives and achievements and characters. The surviving lives contain 23 pairs of biographies as well as four unpaired single lives = 50 lives in total.

As he explains in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history as such, with the broad sweep of historical events, but with exploring how the characters of famous men influenced their lives and destinies. Hence a lot of room is taken up with gossip and anecdote on the assumption that this often tells you more about a person than their official CV. Plutarch consciously sought to create a portrait of each figure and himself compares his craft to that of a painter.

In his history of the Roman republic, Tom Holland explains that the parallel lives only make sense in the format Plutarch conceived them for, as pairs, and disapproves of the way Penguin Books rearranged the lives, removing them from their pairings and reorganising them by chronological period, to produce volumes of biographies of just Greeks or Romans, thus losing the point of the entire project.

It was on this editorial principle that, in 1958, Penguin published a volume of six lives from the last 70 or so years of the Roman Republic, being Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar and Cicero, entitled Fall of the Roman Republic, translated by the novelist and Classicist Rex Warner (1905 to 1986).

In his very brief introduction to the Penguin edition, Warner justifies the decision by arguing that a) Plutarch’s original pairings of Greeks and Romans often have very little in common and feel ‘artificial’, so that b) translating the original pairings runs the risk of confusing the reader by forcing him or her to jump backwards and forwards between the very different social, economic and historical backgrounds of Greece and Rome. It’s a persuasive argument.

(And to be fair to Penguin they have, in recent years, reconsidered this editorial decision and published some of the lives in pairs, as Plutarch originally intended. The most recent edition of this volume of six Roman lives for the first time includes the brief passages Plutarch wrote comparing the lives of his Greek and Roman exemplars.)

Rex Warner (1905 to 1986)

Born in 1905, Warner went to public school and on to Oxford where he was associated with the Auden group. He wrote poetry, plays and novels, and is best remembered for the eccentric allegorical novel, The Aerodrome (1941), which I reviewed a few years ago.

From 1945 to 1947 he was in Athens as Director of the British Institute and became involved in numerous translations of classical Greek and Latin authors. His 1954 translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War for Penguin Classics sold over a million copies and helped to establish the commercial and cultural viability of Penguin Classics. Warner went on to translate Xenophon, Caesar and this selection of Plutarch’s Roman lives for Penguin.

Bill Thayer

An American named Bill Thayer has created a fabulous website onto which he has transcribed all 50 of Plutarch’s parallel lives (as well as a staggering amount of other ancient literature). They’re all given in the out-of-copyright 1923 Loeb Classical Library edition by Bernadotte Perrin. It includes interesting notes, handy maps, and a very useful list of all Plutarch’s lives in the form of a table.

When I saw this table I realised I wanted to read more than just the 6 lives included in the Penguin volume. I was particularly intrigued by the less well-known characters of Sertorius and Lucullus who had walk-on parts in several of the histories I’ve read. In fact I realised there were no fewer than 11 Plutarch lives from the final century of the Roman Republic which I was curious to read. In chronological order of birth these are as follows. Ones included in the Penguin edition are in bold:

  • Marius (b. 157)
  • Sulla (b. 138)
  • Lucullus (b. 118)
  • Crassus (b. 115)
  • Sertorius (b. 126)
  • Pompey (b. 106)
  • Cicero (b. 106)
  • Caesar (b. 100)
  • Cato the Younger (b. 95)
  • Antony (b. 83)
  • Brutus (b. 85)

Some I read in the Rex Warner Penguin translation, some in the 1923 Loeb classics edition, some swapping between the two. In order to be clear and consistent, references are to the long-established ‘chapter’ numbers which each life is divided into.

Initially I reviewed Marius and Sulla in the form of a summary overview of their lives and careers, taking material from other sources to make them historically accurate but this just ended up making them into  second-rate Wikipedia articles.

I realised it was more useful to stick closely to what Plutarch actually wrote, summarising every one of his short ‘chapters’, and recording the eccentric material he periodically includes – the anecdotes and omens and folk tales and sayings – precisely because that’s the kind of thing which doesn’t appear in  the conventional histories or biographies but sheds most light about h ow the ancients thought about great figures and great events.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus
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