“Ideas shape the course of history,” said John Maynard Keynes. In our case, history shaped the plays of William Shakespeare, who based many of his dramas directly from Plutarch’s Lives. We go back to ancient history to see not only the ideas that shaped history, but the attitudes and mentalities of the world the Apostle Paul lived and died in. Thanks to Plutarch, one of the earliest biographers in the West, we learn of the epic stories of Alcibiades and Coriolanus who lived around the 5th century B.C.
Born into a wealthy and influential Athenian family, Alcibiades was a gifted orator, becoming a general at the earliest age allowed: thirty. Though he had much to praise, he also had major flaws in his personality and character. In the eyes of the public, Alcibiades was ungracious, haughty, proud, dishonest, and an unprincipled seducer. Before heading off to war, he desecrated the Greek gods and was sentenced to death. He escaped, only to flee to Sparta, Athens’ enemy. There, with his gift of persuasiveness, he gave to Sparta Athenian secrets. He ended up becoming a Spartan general only to turn against Athens.
The ending for Alcibiades was no surprise, due to his conniving manipulation and debauchery. Assassins were sent to kill him and did so by setting fire to his house and then slaying him with arrows. As Francis Bacon once said, “The zeal which begins with hypocrisy must conclude in treachery at first it deceives, at last it betrays.”
In contrast, Caius Marcius, whose name later changed to Coriolanus after a military victory, was a simple and straightforward man. He was hard working and passionate about the vigor of valor and virtue. Coriolanus could be summed up as a military man whose temper did not bide well with finicky citizens or statesmen. He was a man of action and his military record proved him to be one of the best generals of the Roman army. Yet, he had a huge soft spot for his mother!
His military accomplishments brought him home successful and famous. Following the Roman-Volscian War, there was a grain shortage. The government acquired grain and Coriolanus advised that the grain should be withheld from the populous until they reversed a political condition that was for the people. This threw Coriolanus out of favor with the masses and envious Senate and they eventually exiled him.
Without a home to call his own, Coriolanus went to the Volscians. There, Coriolanus made a deal with them that he would be the general of the Volscian army and defeat the Romans. The Volscians accepted his offer and Coriolanus was on the brink of overtaking Rome when his mother came outside the city the walls and pleaded with him, eventually saying that she would be the first dead body he would step over before going into the city. Her plea to his integrity was successful and Coriolanus instructed his troops to depart.
Back in Antium, an assembly met to determine Coriolanus’ fate. There, he was assassinated before his trial and no sooner did he die then the Volscians felt their need of him. Rome eventually came and conquered them.
Plutarch gives us an ancient look on what “temperments” were noble and virtuous. His juxtapositioning Alcibiades and Coriolanus is helpful even today. From his point of view, these two generals were quite similar in their conquests. They were both hailed as daring, courageous, and showed their skill as military leaders. Both were exiled or sentenced to death by their country, and in turn, wreaked havoc on their former native lands. Plutarch takes a turn and analyzes these two men and makes the judgment that Alcibiades was “the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings…” Of Coriolanus, Plutarch commends him for his “temperance, continence, and probity” and compared him to the best of the all the Greeks.
In a culture where virtues are not championed, it is refreshing to know that at one point in ancient history, it was noble to be courageous and a man of valor.
H.G. Wells once observed that, “Human history in essence is the history of ideas.” While the essence of history may be ideas, these ideas are played out in real life attitudes and actions.
Looking closer at the ancients and how they acted and behaved is quite telling and beneficial. Thanks to Plutarch, Paul’s contemporary, we have a window to better understand the world of the early Christian church.
For Further Discussion:
Reviving Plutarch’s Lives from the Imaginative Conservative