The first thing [Alexander] did in Persia was pay the womenfolk their money, in accordance with the custom by which whenever Persian kings arrive in the country they give some gold to every woman there. This explains why some of them apparently did not go there very often.
–Plutarch, Roman Lives (Alexander, 374)
I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. I was at work, but I couldn’t help myself. One of my jobs is the type in which I can read without getting in trouble. I finished the, ironically, rather long “life” of Alexander and was a little depressed to discover that I hadn’t even done away with an hour of my five hour shift. A patron came in and asked me a question regarding the show that is currently being shown in the gallery and then he asked me what I was reading. I paused. “Plutarch,” I finally admitted. “Well, somebody should be,” he laughed and walked away. I tried to imagine poor Alexander’s reaction to the disinterest he (mostly) inspires, and I felt bad for him. He really tried very hard. A smart and honorable fellow, perhaps a slave to his ambition, but he wasn’t a scoundrel, and really, at a certain point isn’t that all that matters?
Darius was already on his way down from Susa, with his confidence boosted not just by the size of his army [..], but also by a dream which the Magi had interpreted in a manner designed to please him rather than to accord with probability (327).
I was planning to someday have a staff of Magi to interpret my dreams in a pleasing way, but even I can learn from history- accord with probability– I must remember that. It would make an excellent mantra, and as Darius would surely attest- save a lot of pain. Plutarch would have been the man to do justice to the noble life of Darius had he a Persian section of Noble Lives, but even still, as he often does, when he is ostensibly talking about one noble man, he can’t help but go on at length about that noble man’s most worthy foe. By Plutarch’s own measure, that sense of decency makes Plutarch himself something of a noble man.
And he used to say that there was nothing better than sleep and sex for reminding him that he was not a god (332).
Now I’ve never confused myself with a god, but I think I will agree with Alexander that there are not many better things than sleep and sex to remind you of your body. If perfectly sated both activities transport one away from their body, but in their unrealized incarnations there can be no mistaking of one’s mortal state whilst tired or pining. But besides such winning bon mots as that, the question of why anyone should read Plutarch is legitimate. After all, I have no reason other than fun and interest to slog through some of the many nobel lives of Plutarch’s opinion. But I suppose that is the very thing. Plutarch is fun. And he is interesting. Alexander is a fabulous character and the sheer storytelling virtuosity that Plutarch excels in makes it compelling reading. The passage in which Plutarch describes Alexander facing down the gossip of his friend’s supposed betrayal is so marvelous I had to stare out into space for a bit to revel in it. After receiving “news” that Philip (of Acarnania) is planning to poison him, Alexander says nothing; Philip comes to him with a potion to cure him of a minor illness, (but only after overcoming the fear of wrath and retribution should Alexander’s health worsen by his care) Alexander hands Philip the incriminating letter of accusation:
The ensuing scene was wonderful and worthy of the stage: one of them was reading the letter and the other drinking the potion, and they both looked at each other, but not with the same significance” (328)
What faith in friendship. What wonderful stuff mankind can be made of. This is why one reads Plutarch. Aristotle’s rules of writing: discovery, peripety, and suffering are all on display in the lives of these mostly extraordinary men. The seeds of history: lessons can be learned, bon mots can be savored, models of nobility can be aspired to, and – good storytelling is good storytelling. Period.
*excerpts from Plutarch Greek Lives published by Oxford World’s Classics translated by Robin Waterfield