Plutarch’s Portrayal of Ancient Leaders

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Americans in the eighteenth century were tired of absoluter rulers. They resented their lack of freedom. As time wore on and the close of the eighteenth century approached, colonists hated being forced to house soldiers and all they wanted was liberty. Plutarch’s Lives, popular reading materials in the colonies, depicted lives of those who lived in Ancient Republics. The colonists saw both the good and the bad of these ancient leaders and began to understand the importance of liberty along with the fragile system that is democracy. They saw each leader through Plutarch’s perspective, as a subject of Augustus Caesar. Plutarch saw what came after the destruction of a Republic and also what went into an effective statesman. He saw how the republics rose but also who and what contributed to their falls.

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In ancient times before campaign rallies, and fancy slogans, a politician’s chief tool was his voice. Effective orators were able to gain traction and sway the people toward their beliefs through persuasive arguments. In order to make a republican government last, a statesman must be selfless, show respect for the law and most importantly put the good of the city over their own self-interest. The absence of one or all of these virtues can cause a republic to crumble, taking liberty with it, and giving way to tyranny. Sparta seemed to have the reputation of a harsh military state and was not considered a democratic state by other city states like Athens.

However, Sparta began to transition from a true monarchy toward a democracy under the leadership of Lycurgus. In traveling to different regimes, he studied their methods of government and combined different aspects of each before applying the methods back at home. A Senate was created, consisting of twenty-eight men who were at least sixty years old, which had “a power equal to the king’s in matters of great consequence”. These men were elected by popular vote. Lycurgus divided the land in an attempt to erase inequality and unite Sparta. Instead of classes, Lycurgus wanted Sparta to be a family. When surveying the new divisions of the city, Lycurgus remarked, “Methinks all Laconia looks like one family estate divided among a number of brothers”. The plans of Lycurgus fostered a city where even the people valued the city over the state, sending their children off to academies at the age of seven. A common practice was also that husbands would allow strong men to sleep with their wives in order to have the strongest children. This selflessness eliminated the fear of corruption with riches for Spartans had no need of luxury goods. Their brittle, heavy iron currency dissuaded traders from stopping in Sparta as they would find no silver or gold. Lycurgus himself was selfless to the end, valuing Sparta above all else. Once he had crafted the laws the way he wanted them, Lycurgus sought the counsel of the Oracle at Delphi. Before he left he made the senate and people of Sparta swear not to change anything until he returned. Once he was informed “that the laws were excellent, and that the people, while it observed them, should live in the height of renown”. Lycurgus decided not to return to Sparta. He starved himself, holding the people to the oath they had made and preserved a democracy which would last five hundred years.

At turning points in societies, it is important that a strong leader is in charge to guide the state through the turmoil. In the time of Camillus, Rome was at a breaking point. It was still working out the kinks of the hundred-year-old republic. The people refused to elect consuls, fearing their power, while the plebeians felt that they were under represented in the government. Instead, Romans elected six military tribunes to rule fearing the power of six less than the power of two. Camillus was elected a tribune four times and appointed a dictator five times, which included absolute power for six months. Camillus respected the law and would not take command without the proper legal jurisdiction. When Rome was in danger of barbarian attacks everyone wanted Camillus “to take command, but he answered, that he would not until they that were in the Capitol should legally appoint him.” He answered the call of Rome several times even when in advanced age. Camillus did not want to be dictator a fifth time but “considering the danger and necessity of his own country,” he took the role once again. But even though he was so old and did not want to continue to serve he still he took the time to oversee the election of consuls. Camillus was the type of leader a healthy Rome can appreciate. He showed great respect for the law and always valued the good of Rome over his own desires.

The deterioration of the republic can be illustrated as a Camillus like figure, Cato, rose to prominence toward the end of the Republic. A sick republic could not value a selfless leader like Camillus or Cato. Early Rome was able to appreciate Camillus, a leader who depended on and protected the law. As the Roman Republic was dying, Cato came to the forefront of politics. Had he existed in the time of Camillus, Cato could have been a great tribune or later a consul. But in a Rome corrupted by riches, there was no place for a simple man, with wise thoughts and a great respect for the law. A leader, like Julius Caesar, who rises to power without the virtues found in great republican statesmen, posed a great threat to a republic. Plutarch writes that “Caesar was born to do great things”. But he never mentions that Caesar was meant to be a good person or to protect the Roman Republic.

Instead Caesar served as a great leader who showed what placing one’s own interests over the interests of the city does to a state. Early on, Caesar is disappointed when he considers, “That Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations and I have in all this time done nothing that is memorable” Caesar shows how much he values his own glory comparing himself to Alexander the Great. His actions in the battlefield and in politics served to build power and seek glory or himself. Rome was only a tool Caesar used to fuel his ambitions. Caesar was known for his mercy but only used it to show his power. Once spared, the person would then owe Caesar his life. They had lost a portion of their freedom to a powerful leader. He was annoyed that he was unable to spare Cato’s life. It would have been a great show of power to spare the life of a political advisory and have Cato answer to him. Using Rome to fuel his own glory, Caesar disregarded the laws. He crossed over the Rubicon with his army, declared himself consul and after many political struggles was eventually made dictator for life. Caesar’s quest for glory and power destroyed the Roman Republic and eventually cost him his life. Similarly, Athens suffered harsh blows by Alcibiades, an arrogant leader who wanted to achieve glory for himself. He turned on Athens, delivering damaging information to the Persians in order to achieve glory for himself.

Plutarch is able to illustrate those selfish leaders who enrich themselves and seek glory for themselves, trample over republican governments. Plutarch’s writings offer both examples and warnings for republican governments. Through his retelling of the lives of brave men who founded lasting republics, he showed the importance of selflessness in leadership. Lycurgus minimized the power of the monarchy creating a Senate. An elderly Camillus answered the call of Rome ignoring his own hopes of retirement in order to serve the city. He was a leader that the people trusted enough with absolute power five times. One of his final and most lasting acts helped Rome to elect new consuls and heal distinctions between Patricians and Plebeians. Camillus’ selflessness and respect for the law allowed the Roman Republic to survive for future generations. Cato, A political figure very much like Camillus is not as valued in a Rome which has lost sight of the value of liberty. Through Plutarch’s portrayal of leaders such as Caesar and Alcibiades we are able to learn that corruption and arrogance can wound and possibly even destroy a republic because the people begin to care more about themselves than the city. Once a people begin to seek their own self-interest over a collective quest for liberty, a democracy is fractured. If a leader like Caesar comes to power and capitalizes on that fractured state, liberty is crushed, and a monarchy is born. Once this happens, “The die is cast,” and a republican government is forever destroyed.

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