Plutarch’s Caesar: Why Did He Cry Over Alexander?

So, when Caesar read about Alexander’s life, he burst into tears. Perhaps the more ambitious of us ought to cry with him.

“His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?’”

Like Alexander, Caesar was ambitious from a young age and had every intention of making something of himself. Caesar’s success, like Alexander’s, seems to have come from the proper mixture of boldness, charisma, intelligence, and luck.

Like Alexander, Caesar was bold, right from the beginning. As a young man, he was taken hostage by pirates, who demanded 20 talents for his ransom. He said he could raise fifty and spent the rest of his captivity essentially hanging out with the pirates and joking with them that he would hang and crucify them after he got free.

Well, Caesar’s ransom came, he was released, and he went home. Then he got a flotilla of ships together, hunted down the pirates, and crucified them just as he promised.

Caesar rose from being an adventurous youth to a military commander who had great success in the provinces to become the first Roman emperor. The civil war that he fought with Pompey marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the empire. Plutarch cross references Caesar’s life with the life of Pompey and Brutus, showing us that he is not trying to write a straightforward history, but more of an heuristic biography. 

In his war with Pompey, we see evidence of all of his traits and how they played out. Caesar was bold to make the war in the first place and in his marches and attacks on Pompey’s army. He was charismatic in that his soldiers remained loyal to him in the direst of circumstances, and in the way he forgave Pompey’s officers and soldiers and incorporated them into his own army. He was intelligent in making plans and knowing what tactics to employ against Pompey. He also showed his intelligence in turning a weakness into a strength. Finally, he was lucky in that Pompey’s nerve failed him at critical moments, and his men found sustenance when they needed it most.

Pompey was not an aggressive opponent, and it leads one to wonder what might have happened had he been.  In a battle near Brundisium, Pompey nearly had the best of Caesar’s army.

“Caesar’s affairs were so desperate at that time that when Pompey, either through over-cautiousness or his ill-fortune, did not give the finishing stroke to that great success, but retreated after he had driven the routed enemy within their camp, Caesar, upon seeing his withdrawal, said to his friends, ‘The victory to-day had been on the enemies’ side if they had had a general who knew how to gain it.’”

Looking at Caesar’s intelligence, we can see how he turned weaknesses into strength. For example, we are told that Caesar “was a spare man, had a soft and white skin, was distempered in the head and subject to an epilepsy….” When he was trying to secure his hold on power after the civil war and made a political misstep in the Senate that could have cost him power, he blamed his behavior on the “epilepsy.” This appearance and illness also served him well in winning the loyalty of his soldiers because he bore many of the same hardships and they were ‘astonished’ by his endurance, Plutarch tells us.  This was also an example of how he blended charisma with intelligence to build loyalty among his troops.

 His boldness was evidenced in his work against the pirates and in his military campaigns. He marched into Macedonia with starving troops after his near-defeat by Pompey. There he took Gomphis, a town in Thessaly.

“But after he took Gomphi, a town of Thessaly, he not only found provisions for his army, but physic too. For there they met with plenty of wine, which they took very freely, and heated with this, sporting and reveling on their march in bacchanalian fashion, they shook off the disease, and their whole constitution was relieved and changed into another habit.”

Caesar’s boldness shows up in nonmilitary ways as well. He had plans to divert the Tiber river to create a new channel for merchants who traded with Rome, drain marshes for more arable land, build sea walls on the shore nearest Rome, and remove rocks and shoals at Ostia to make it safe for ships.

While these things did not come to fruition, one of his boldest aims was one of the most long-lasting, affecting everything that came after it. He remade the calendar “in order to rectify the irregularity of time….” That is quite an undertaking, to change time.

“Caesar called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time to settle the point, and out of the systems he had before him formed a new and more exact method of correcting the Calendar, which the Romans use to this say, and seem to succeed better than any nation in avoiding the errors occasioned by the inequality of the cycles.”

 Even with all of his attributes, Caesar still feared pale, skinny guys like himself.

“Nor was Caesar without suspicions of him and said once to his friends, ‘What do you think Cassius is aiming at? I don’t like him, he looks so pale.’ And when it was told to him that Antony and Dolabella were in a plot against him, he said he did not fear such fat, luxurious men, but rather the pale lean fellows meaning Cassius and Brutus.”

 As we all know, Brutus and Cassius murdered Caesar and then later took their own lives in the civil war that resulted. In describing the end of Caesar’s life, it seems Plutarch almost has a ‘be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it’ message. He tells us that Caesar constantly sought glory, even from a young age.

“Caesar died in his fifty-sixth year, not having survived Pompey above four years. That empire and power which he had pursued throughout the whole course of his life with so much hazard, he did at last, with much difficulty compass, but reaped no other fruits from it than the empty name and invidious glory.”

 Next Time: Reading the Bible – The Gospel According to Saint Mathew, The Acts of the Apostles [Hey, these books aren’t in the set!]

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