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Plutarch's Crassus And Caesar

Plutarch presented history through biographical stories of the people that were important and influential during the time period he wished to address. However, after having read some of his work, one realizes that Plutarch inserts his own personal opinion and views of the people at hand into the factual documentation of their lives. For example, in The Life of Crassus, Plutarch expresses a general dislike and negative view of the man, but in The Life of Caesar he portrays the life through a lens of praise. It also seems that he uses his opinions of the people that he writes about to subtly extend moral lessons to the reader. What follows is a further isolation of Plutarch’s opinions and lessons from within The Lives of Crassus and Caesar. “Certainly the Romans say that in the case of Crassus many virtues were obscured by one vice, namely avarice; and it did seem that he had only one vice, since it was such a predominant one that other evil propensities which he may have had were scarcely noticeable.” Beginning the Life of Crassus with this statement, Plutarch starts the reader off with a negative feeling of who Crassus was. This statement is very strong because it not only points out Crassus’s largest shortcoming, but also implies that it was so prevalent that it outweighed all his virtues as well as his other faults. One can read between the lines and in order to see that Plutarch did not favor Crassus. If Plutarch had wanted to, he could have conveyed the same information about Crassus’s faults in a much gentler manner. He wants the reader to see how horrible greed is and that it has the ability to destroy people no matter how wonderful their other characteristics may be. Plutarch did make an effort to show the reader Crassus’s virtues as well. As well as greedy, he also portrayed Crassus as a kind man who was a talented speaker, good politician, and willing to help the people of Rome: It must be admitted, however, that Crassus was eager to show kindness and hospitality. …. He became one of the best speakers in Rome, and by care and application, was able to surpass those who were more highly gifted by nature. …. often when Pompey and Cicero and Caesar were reluctant to speak, he undertook the whole management of the case himself, thereby gaining an advantage over them in popularity, since people thought of him as a man willing to take trouble to help others. In fact, this readiness to help others in their time of need was his one saving grace was instrumental in his retention of power in Rome. He often threw lavish parities, lent people money willingly, and was always eager to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed his assistance in court. Crassus also always treated everyone in a warm and courteous manner no matter his or her wealth, power, or station in society. For these reasons, the people truly liked him. In Rome, such popularity was the handmaiden of power. Plutarch does not leave Crassus’s virtues untainted. He makes sure to point out that greed often overcame and interfered with the good things that Crassus did, to further support his belief that greed is such a terrible thing that it overpowers everything else: … and he used to lend money to his friends without interest; but when the time came for repayment, he was quite relentless about demanding it back from the borrower, so that his readiness to lend often proved more burdensome than the payment of heavy interest would have been. One of the things that made Crassus popular was his kindness and willingness to help others. However, even this he could not do whole-heartedly because of his underlying greediness, which kept him from being a truly giving person. Plutarch gives the reader a sense that the things that made Crassus popular were simply illusions that were created, for the public, to benefit his own aspirations. Along this line of thought, Plutarch shows the reader that even though Crassus was very popular, he was not consistently in the good graces of the people as he was often feared by the public: As a politician Crassus was singularly inconsistent, neither a steadfast friend nor an implacable enemy. Where his self-interest was involved he found no difficulty in breaking off an attachment or in making up a quarrel. …. He was strong because he was popular and because he was feared – particularly because he was feared. It is shown time and time again by Plutarch that Crassus was an extremely greedy man and his virtues were often overcome by gluttony. This is a lesson to the reader that those who are avaricious can never truly be good. In the case of Crassus, a new passion, in addition to his old weakness of avarice, began to show itself. The glorious exploits of Caesar made Crassus also long for trophies and triumphs. … This passion of his gave him no rest or peace until it ended in an inglorious death and a national disaster. As Crassus’s life went on his greed grew into a greater and more destructive form. He was now not only greedy, but also power and glory hungry. Plutarch uses this as a lesson of what not to do, and makes a strong claim that this manifestation of greed is what ultimately brings Crassus to his death. Because of his pursuit for military glory, Crassus loses his sense and makes rash decisions that were not in the best interests of Rome or the soldiers that he was leading. All he could think about was winning more battles and conquering more territory. He was so focused on this that he disregarded all reason, ignoring the well thought out advice of his generals. “But Crassus paid no attention to them or to anyone else who gave any advice other than to press forward.” There are many moral lessons that can be derived from Plutarch’s emphasis on this shortcoming of Crassus. Firstly, one should keep in mind that triumph and glory are not the most important things and that the gift of life is much more important. Crassus should have focuses more on his own well-being, and the well-being of the soldiers more then off his personal conquests. Secondly, no one person knows all the answers to the problems that arise in life. This is why people such as kings and presidents have advisors, so that they have a greater perspective on things. Crassus, in the last days of his life, completely ignored the advice of others, which aided in the event of his death. If he had listened to some of the military advice he had been given, things may have been different. People should never think that they have all the answers and should at least be open minded enough to listen to the thoughts of others. Lastly, people should be thankful for what they have and be aware of what they have and what their strengths are. Crassus was so caught up in what he wasn’t, and who was better then him, that he drove himself to his death while on the mission to attain what others had that he didn’t: The ordinary mind will see in his plight an example of the fickleness of fortune, but to the wise it will seem rather and example of reckless ambition. Because of this he was not content to be first and greatest among many millions; simply from the fact that two men were judged superior to him, he concluded he had nothing at all. Plutarch holds Caesar in a completely different light then Crassus. “Caesar was born to do great things and to seek constantly for distinction,” as Plutarch describes Caesar at one point in his writings. Plutarch only has good opinions of Caesar and seems to use him as an example of how one should be. This starkly contrasts to his presentation of Crassus. Caesar has all the virtues that Crassus has without the faults. Caesar was as good a speaker as Crassus, if not better. “It is said that Caesar’s natural ability as a political speaker was of the highest order, and that he took the greatest pains to cultivate it.” Caesar, like Crassus, was popular with the people as he was overly giving and kind to the public. “In Rome Caesar won a brilliant reputation and great popularity by his eloquence in these trails. …. He was very much in the good graces of the ordinary citizen because of his easy manners and the friendly way in which he mixed with people.” Caesar was not greedy or over ambitious as Crassus was: He was not amassing a great fortune from his wars in order to spend it on his personal pleasures or on any life of self-indulgence, instead he was keeping it, as it were, in trust, a fund open to all for the reward of velour, and his own share in all this wealth was no greater than what he bestowed on his soldiers who deserved it. The fact that Caesar did not share in this fault with Crassus, allowed him to rise above Crassus as well as everyone else. “We shall find that Caesar’s achievements surpass them all.” This only proves Plutarch’s point, regarding the wretchedness and power of greed, more. Due to his moderation, Caesar was able to accomplish a lot more and reach a greater level of power then Crassus did. The soldiers that fought under Caesar had a great respect for him and therefore, were much more loyal and determined in battle. “His ability to secure the affection of his men and to get the best out of them was remarkable.” This was something that Crassus was never able to fully achieve. Caesar took this one step further. Not only did he put himself on the same level as his soldiers, he also did the same with the people that lived in the territories that he occupied. He often shared the spoils of battle with the civilians. “These military successes of his were followed up by equally good work in civilian administration. He established good relations between the various cities.” This greatly aided in the suppression of uprisings and revolts within the territories because the people living there were happy to be part of Rome. This is how Caesar eventually grew to the highest form of power in Rome and became dictator. Nowhere along the way did Plutarch shed a negative light on Caesar. For Plutarch, Caesar was the model Roman. Even though Caesar was hatefully murdered in the end, Plutarch still talks about him favorably, and even goes as far to portray those that murdered him as wrong and bitter. “But that great diving power or genius, which had watched over him and helped him in his life, even after his death remained active as an avenger of his murder, pursuing and tracking down the murderers over every land and sea…” After reading the Life of Crassus and the Life of Caesar carefully, Plutarch’s opinion of these men, and the messages to the reader are plainly seen. He had very contrasting views of Crassus and Caesar, holding one as a model and the other as a negative example. Granted Crassus did have his positive points, but his greed consumed and destroyed him, exemplifying how Plutarch though people should not be. Caesar through moderation, skill, and popularity was able to rise to the top of Rome, personifying Plutarch’s vision of what a ruler and person should be.

Bibliography

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic: Six lives by Plutarch, Translated by Rex Warner (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972)

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