Ancient Historians

Feb 2019
7
IMPERIVM ROMANVM
#21
That's a very interesting observation. Not to diminish your statement at all, but do other historians echo this?

I can't speak to Tacitus, but I think it's a fair assessment for Plutarch. He provides more information about individuals, but tends to bend the big picture to get his point across.
Tacitus lived and wrote his works in the period of the late Roman Empire, and sadly, reading his works we feel the atmosphere of decay that came after Augustus egoistically left Tiberius as his heir.

As of Plutarch, he doesn't tell lies in his "Lives" at all, if I understand you all right and this is what you mean by saying he "tends to bend the big picture". The only except we can have is his biography of Lycurgus. Bertrand Russell (History of Western Phylosophy, vol. 1, Chapter 12) says that the epoch of Sparta's greatness was as far away from Plutarch as was Columbus from the 20th century, so Plutach tells a lot of wrong things about Sparta and Lycurgus. As an example, he doesn't accept the fact that the terrifying law which let the Spartans kill the helots every time they feel like was created by no one but Lycurgus. That's the only biography Plutarch got almost all wrong. On the other hand, he was truly a genius historian who had big influence on the subsequent epochs and heroes, including Napoleon, Disraeli, the classic French literature masters and the founders of the USA, who loved Plutarch and were inspired by him a lot.
 
#22
Tacitus lived and wrote his works in the period of the late Roman Empire, and sadly, reading his works we feel the atmosphere of decay that came after Augustus egoistically left Tiberius as his heir.

As of Plutarch, he doesn't tell lies in his "Lives" at all, if I understand you all right and this is what you mean by saying he "tends to bend the big picture". The only except we can have is his biography of Lycurgus. Bertrand Russell (History of Western Phylosophy, vol. 1, Chapter 12) says that the epoch of Sparta's greatness was as far away from Plutarch as was Columbus from the 20th century, so Plutach tells a lot of wrong things about Sparta and Lycurgus. As an example, he doesn't accept the fact that the terrifying law which let the Spartans kill the helots every time they feel like was created by no one but Lycurgus. That's the only biography Plutarch got almost all wrong. On the other hand, he was truly a genius historian who had big influence on the subsequent epochs and heroes, including Napoleon, Disraeli, the classic French literature masters and the founders of the USA, who loved Plutarch and were inspired by him a lot.
You're rather overestimating the reliability of Plutarch. He wrote his lives with the intention of producing a 'moral to the story'. Thus, his lives of Alcibiades, Pyrrhus and Marius comment on unbridled ambition. I'm sure Salaminia will elaborate on how he twists the truth in his Life of Pyrrhus if you're interested. He also euhemerizes myths into history in his lives of Theseus and Romulus (and no doubt in his now-missing Life of Heracles). This is not to say that Plutarch was unreliable, but there are more reliable sources. Thus, when scholars study the Second Punic War, they give Polybius' testimony preference over Plutarch's lives of Fabius and Marcellus.

As for Tacitus, he certainly was unhappy about how the first century AD turned out, but how much the negativity within his account reflected the actual state of the empire is another question. Traditionally speaking, he was writing at the beginning of the High Empire, the age of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
 
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Feb 2019
7
IMPERIVM ROMANVM
#23
You're rather overestimating the reliability of Plutarch. He wrote his lives with the intention of producing a 'moral to the story'. Thus, his lives of Alcibiades, Pyrrhus and Marius comment on unbridled ambition. I'm sure Salaminia will elaborate on how he twists the truth in his Life of Pyrrhus if you're interested. He also euhemerizes myths into history in his lives of Theseus and Romulus (and no doubt in his now-missing Life of Heracles). This is not to say that Plutarch was unreliable, but there are more reliable sources. Thus, when scholars study the Second Punic War, they give Polybius' testimony preference over Plutarch's lives of Fabius and Marcellus.

As for Tacitus, he certainly was unhappy about how the first century AD turned out, but how much the negativity within his account reflected the actual state of the empire is another question. Traditionally speaking, he was writing at the beginning of the High Empire, the age of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
I see nothing wrong about writing historical biographies - and what biographies! - with a unique moral for each one of them. At this point Plutarch was a true master of his craft, for he could write his precious works with completely philosophical comments, with the most accurate details. He looked at the times he wrote about from the height of his own era, so he could write about them all in his own special way. As for your statement about Theseus and Romulus being myths, I'd like to say that both of them were real historical persons, real heroes whose acts of bravery must inspire the young generation of any epoch. Theseus is considered a real person by modern scientists thanks to archaeological researches, as well as Romulus. Here's an article about a tomb of Romulus found under the ruins of the Roman Forum.
 
#24
I see nothing wrong about writing historical biographies - and what biographies! - with a unique moral for each one of them. At this point Plutarch was a true master of his craft, for he could write his precious works with completely philosophical comments, with the most accurate details. He looked at the times he wrote about from the height of his own era, so he could write about them all in his own special way. As for your statement about Theseus and Romulus being myths, I'd like to say that both of them were real historical persons, real heroes whose acts of bravery must inspire the young generation of any epoch. Theseus is considered a real person by modern scientists thanks to archaeological researches, as well as Romulus. Here's an article about a tomb of Romulus found under the ruins of the Roman Forum.
There are a number of Italian archaeologists and their acolytes who are obsessed with trying to prove the existence of Romulus, thus the Forum 'find', but there is no reliable evidence for Romulus' historicity, nor that of Theseus. One might conjecture that real people inspired the myths, but this is only conjecture. If they were real, and it's a big 'if', it is extremely unlikely that Plutarch's lives bear much resemblance to their actual lives. Rather, most scholars consider Plutarch to be euhemerizing myths into history. After all, Plutarch was writing in a time when it would have been impossible to reliably uncover anything about their lives, if they did live that is. Rome did not even record their history until the late 3rd Century BC. There are scholars of Early Rome who will not assert the historicity of any of Rome's kings (e.g. Christopher Smith at St Andrews).

As for his other biographies, they do make for fun and meaningful reads, and Plutarch did consult sources, but 'the most accurate details' is an exaggeration. Take the example of his Life of Pyrrhus. He claims that Pyrrhus sliced a Mamertine warrior clean down the middle of his body, splitting him in two. If I'm remembering correctly, he narrates that Pyrrhus single-handedly slaughtered the Spartan vanguard, or he at least claims something very close to that effect. As in, Pyrrhus alone did this. The Spartan story must be false, and the Mamertine story seems like it must be false as well. I suspect that this is Pyrrhic propaganda that presented the king as if he was Alexander 2.0. Plutarch includes the stories in his biography, perhaps because they enhance the drama of his broader story.

Salaminia has pointed out to me the fact that Plutarch also plays with time in his biography of Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus is kicked out of Macedon and immediately redirects his attention to Italy. However, the gap between these two events was actually several years. Plutarch implies otherwise, and he does so because he wishes to emphasize just how attention-deficit Pyrrhus was in his campaigns. This is one of the main themes of his biography. Plutarch emphasizes this theme to the point of exaggeration.

From what I remember, his account of Pyrrhus' Pyrrhic victory at Ausculum also leaves much to be desired. Only by combining the testimony of Plutarch and Diodorus do we get a clear idea of what actually happened.
 
Nov 2011
944
The Bluff
#25
[QUOTE="DiocletianIsBetterThanYou, post: 3101159, member: 54571" I'm sure Salaminia will elaborate on how he twists the truth in his Life of Pyrrhus if you're interested. He also euhemerizes myths into history in his lives of Theseus and Romulus (and no doubt in his now-missing Life of Heracles). [/QUOTE]

Perhaps later today if time permits, though you've done a good job I see. Theseus and Romulus belong with Lykurgos: more myth than reality.
 
Nov 2011
944
The Bluff
#26
DiocletianIsBetterThanYou has made a decent fist of showcasing Plutarch's style. I would add only a few things. Plutarch was not writing history but biography as he himself says. Further, he paired his subjects on the basis of what he saw as similar subjects/personalities. Given that, Plutarch first wrote to the purpose of showing these similarities in nature between his pairs and that has implications for the material he chose to use or ignore and how it was presented. Plutarch, for example, is not necessarily interested in relating battles or political machinations if such do not suit his theme and purpose. In his Eumenes, Plutarch breathes not one word of the battle of Paraitakene but regales us with a marvellous story of Eumenes' illness and how he won over his restless troops. This suits his notion of the wily, tricky Eumenes. We do, though, get full box and dice on Gabiene. Not because of the battle per se but because what it illustrates: his fall at the hands of the Argyraspides and the machinations of Peukestas. Not to mention that marvellous vignette below in my signature.

Another literary device is chronological compression. For Plutarch, chronology is subordinated to theme and so his narrative is not always in any strict chronological order. Compressing events gives a false sense of time and DiocletianIsBetterThanYou has pointed out the fact that near three years passed between Pyyrhos losing Macedonia and setting off for Tarentum. Reading Plutarch those events are contiguous and this plays to the impulsive nature theme of his subject. I mentioned on the Spartan Women thread that I also believe similar has happened in the Kimon. There are clearly two summons to Athens for aid from Sparta and a reading of Plutarch would suggest the second came near as soon as the first expedition arrived home. If several historians are correct, and I believe they are, that two earthquakes may be involved (468 & 464), then these have been compressed as well.

Plutarch is interested in character and moral themes. His material is chosen to illustrate these themes. So we have Pyrrhos never happy with what he has and always looking for more. His impulsivity and glory hounding distracts him and will be the end of him and so it is. DiocletianIsBetterThanYou Has mentioned the Mamertime cut in half and Pyrrhos' attack on the Spartan vanguard chasing him. I largely agree with him though, to me, it seems a reworked version of the Mamertime's demise which Plutarch found in one of his many sources. The reason for his rage (his son's death) also rings hollow as I believe the far more likely version is that of Justin where he dies assaulting Sparta occasioning Pyyrhos' epithet expressing his surprise that it hadn't happened earlier. For Plutarch, though, including this plays into his theme of impulsivity and recklessness which, eventually, will see him pay the price in Argos.
 
#27
The reason for his rage (his son's death) also rings hollow as I believe the far more likely version is that of Justin where he dies assaulting Sparta occasioning Pyyrhos' epithet expressing his surprise that it hadn't happened earlier. For Plutarch, though, including this plays into his theme of impulsivity and recklessness which, eventually, will see him pay the price in Argos.
I didn't consider that when I wrote my previous reply, but both the Mamertine and Spartan episodes certainly suit the image of an impulsive and reckless Pyrrhus.
 

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