Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallel Stories, One Lesson

Plutarch’s great compilation of brief biographies, the Parallel Lives, as it is sometimes called, proceeds usually by telling the story of one Greek and then the story of one Roman, followed by a comparison. I almost always encounter the Roman half of the pair with some familiarity, but most of the Greeks I know nothing about apart from Plutarch’s contribution. Why is this? Movies and television both create and reflect our culture’s (somewhat) common knowledge of such characters as Cato, Pompey, Cicero, Marc Antony, and Brutus. And of course everyone knows about Julius Caesar. But what average American knows Lysander, Nicias, Agesilaus, Phocion, or Cleomenes? Why is this? I don’t have an answer. But in general, when we think ancient Greece, we think of the mythology, while Rome still stands vividly in our imaginations as a solidly historical culture.

Unlike most of the entries, Plutarch’s rendition of the life of Tiberius Gracchus focuses on just one story. As a tribune, Tiberius tries to pass a bill dividing conquered land among many of the poorer citizens of Rome, necessarily taking some of it away from the richest families. But he is opposed by another tribune, Octavius, who has fallen under the control of the upper crust. Any tribune can veto any proposal. So, trying to serve the plebeians, Tiberius has Octavius deposed. But ironically, the people turn against him for violating the sacredness of the office. In the end, Tiberius finds himself in the middle of an agitated crowd in the Forum and puts his hand on his head as a signal to his friends out of the range of hearing that he needs protection. But others mistake the gesture as a request for a crown, and Romans saw kings as the most dangerous of all possible threats. Tiberius doesn’t leave that crowded Forum alive.

Poor Tiberius! He tried to do the right thing and lost the support of the very people he tried to serve. Just a few pages earlier, in the life of Agis, a Greek reformer whose story parallels that of Tiberius very well, Plutarch offers a general lesson concerning popular leaders. Those who seek public office, he says, merely run after vain popularity, become slaves of the people they seek to lead, produce unnatural actions, and usually acquire a degree of madness in thinking that whatever is glorious is good, instead of understanding that what is good is also truly glorious. He doesn’t apply this lesson pointedly to Tiberius Gracchus, though. Did Plutarch think him a little mad? Did he think Tiberius pushed for reform only for the empty glory of popularity? Maybe. But he certainly praises Tiberius’ courage and even temper. And these qualities form the heart of a yet more general lesson, perhaps the thesis of Plutarch’s whole biographical project: “In political animosities, a noble nature and a temperate education stay and compose the mind” and “avail to conquer any affliction.” And “though fortune . . . may defeat the efforts of virtue to avert misfortunes, it cannot, when we incur them, prevent our bearing them reasonably.”

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