Tag Archives: Lives of Nobles

We Of The Unpleasant Curiosity

 He was so much in love that he was unable to tear himself away from her, but since we hear that she was in love with him too, perhaps this was also a factor. (270)  – Plutarch, Roman Lives (Pompey)

IMG_0395I tried mightily to understand that sentence. Without success. It seems to me that Plutarch, as a mere afterthought or maybe it was  an act of condescension, suddenly decided  that perhaps it does make a difference to a man if the woman he loves loves him back. How gracious. Still, he leaves room- he can only commit himself to say “perhaps this was also a factor.” Well, don’t go out on a limb there, Man! Plutarch is never at ease discussing matters of the heart. How annoying it must have been for him to have had to acknowledge the relentless ubiquity of romantic subplots, or heaven forbid, plots!  His disapproval of Pompey’s overdeveloped interest in love is clear well before this quote appears, but it’s just such a bizarre thing to say. It makes me wonder a few things about Plutarch rather than question what I take to be a perfectly sensible and worthy interest for any man or woman to have. Between Pompey and Caesar (where I will be leaving the Noble Lives) there are more than the usual references to the various women in their lives, despite Plutarch’s efforts to downplay such frivolity, these men (more so, Pompey) were very much lovers as well as warriors.

Within the first few pages Plutarch relates a bit about the courtesan Flora. I was immediately put on guard as I love the account Lucretius gives of their famed affair, and I am sorry to say Plutarch rather bungles it. He dryly describes their love and some gossip surrounding it, but important details are conflicting (who left bite marks on whom?). And more importantly, the story is bled of all passion and fun. Plutarch would rather look for some reasonable explanation of Pompey’s seemingly busy and overwhelmingly satisfying love life. Speaking of one of the early wives (Caesar’s daughter Julia):

In all likelihood the love she bore her husband was inspired by his self restraint, since he never had any extra-marital affairs (270).

Yes, because there is no other reason why a woman might love a man. Geesh, Plutarch,  a little therapy might be in order. What kind of relationships did Plutarch have that led him to believe that that is the most a woman should aspire to or be inspired by? Given his opinion of women, I suppose he had very little hope of experiencing what came so easily to the charming Pompey.  When Pompey marries Cornelia, Plutarch allows that she is beautiful, talented and intelligent but then stupidly adds:

She also combined these qualities with a character that was free from the unpleasant curiosity which these intellectual interests tend to inflict on young women (273).

Hrmph. Now I’m starting to get irritated. But maybe that’s my problem. I too have been inflicted with unpleasant curiosity, and with no Pompey of my own to sooth my nerves I haven’t the verve to sustain the indulgent relativity that reading Plutarch has required of me.

*Oxford World’s Classics, Plutarch, Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch Part One: Lives, Noble or Not
Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

Lives (Noble, or Not)

This narrative […] is suspected by some, because of its dramatic and fictitious appearance; but it would not wholly be disbelieved, if men would remember what a poet fortune sometimes shows herself
-Plutarch, Everybody’s Plutarch (21) Romulus

IMG_0816I am beginning  a potentially long term relationship with Plutarch, even the abridged versions demand commitment. The other day this thought traipsed through my head- “I have to go buy a bra and then I’ll read more Plutarch.” I had to pause a moment to take in the unique ridiculousness of that sentence. In the end I didn’t get a bra- it would only bring me pleasure and there was a small rug for about the same money that would bring my children untold pleasure to sit upon as they served almost two years in a house full of animals that made proximity to the floor an extremely negative experience. But, I digress.

Herodotus says, that, requiring money of those of the island of Andros, [Themistocles] told them that he had brought with him two goddesses, Persuasion and Force; and they answered him that they had also two great goddesses, which prohibited them from giving him any money, Poverty and Impossibility. – (121) Themistocles

Those goddesses sure do get around. Boy, I miss Herodotus, but, Plutarch knows a hilarious retort when he sees one. His reports on the lives of noble Greeks and Romans are fascinating because he spends much more time, then seems to be the norm for the time, discussing the personalities, ideas, and feelings that may have contributed to the “nobleness” of these men. Of course there are no noble women, if you’re a woman and you can get yourself upgraded from harlot to mistress- consider that a boon. Actually, scratch that, if you find yourself a mistress instead of a harlot, thank Salon. Plutarch tells us that Salon is the founding father of what psychologists now refer to as “re-framing.”

[Salon] was afterwards asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he relied, “The best they could receive.” The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation. (74) Salon

“Softening the badness.” I quite like that. Salon seemed to be thoroughly  smart and articulate. He was a humanitarian that sought to codify good sense and a quality of life that is, sadly, enviable to this day. And he believed in love. He forbade dowries, and “would not have marriage contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children.” (78)

“Strike if you will, but hear.” (113) Themistocles

An interesting point considering many an argument has been made, (and countered on this blog) claiming “romantic love” is a more recent invention. But I never gloat.

It is shocking (I even feel embarrassed on behalf of these ancient writers and “nobles”) to have such prolific histories told with nary a mention of half the population, but this may be why there is even a quasi legitimate claim on the idea that romantic love is for the weaker sex, domestic life of no interest, daily dealings devoid of true insight. In absentia, the onus for proof, rather than being on common experience and common sense, is boiled down to written proofs- a bar that leaves women and illiterate cultures fighting to prove their worth.

But an internal battle between a bra and rug which is rife with all the dimensions of real life- finances, sexuality, maternal urges, hierarchy of needs, materialism, and utilitarianism are eternal battles wage by all. Okay, fine, maybe just me. Then again, when I told a friend of mine that I was simultaneously contemplating Plutarch and bras, he sent me this quote:

“The brassiere is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”- Plutarch

And this is why Plutarch remains so readable, he does actually touch upon the personal, even if it is with the barest whisper, he takes history out of the strictly martial arena and speaks to what really makes a man noble- his passion and his humanity.

AEsop, who wrote the fables[…] gave [Salon] this advice: “Salon, let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable.” “Nay, rather,” replied Salon, “either short or reasonable.” (86) Salon

*Everybody’s Plutarch Arranged and Edited for the Modern Reader by Raymond T. Bond, Dryden’s translation, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough

Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown