Defending Alexander?: Plutarch’s Biography and its Purpose

The aims of the modern historian were not necessarily shared by the ancient.  Values change and the modern emphasis on objectivity and impartiality—which in itself is an impartial desire—was for many Roman historians replaced by an emphasis on morality and character.  For Plutarch, who considered himself a biographer and not a historian at all, this was particularly true.  As he famously wrote, “I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them ….[1]”  Plutarch may have meant this as indicative of his Lives as a whole, or perhaps just this particular example.[2]  Either way, Plutarch was interested in the morality of Alexander, and in examining whether his morality was a driving force behind his success.  As Barton said, “Plutarch’s lives are linked to an explicit moral programme: of improvement by impressing on his readers the importance of political arête, excellence.[3]”  In painting his portrait of Alexander, Plutarch clearly had decided that Alexander’s character was, for the most part, praiseworthy.  It may not be possible to say with certainty that Plutarch, writing in late 1st and early 2nd century CE, was defending Alexander against this tradition.  Plutarch’s rendition was not pure apology,—he did in fact record some of Alexander’s ignoble deeds—but he did chose to portray Alexander in a largely a positive light.   Considering that he was certainly aware of the vulgate tradition and that many of the previous works had a far more negative stance, it is very likely it seems likely that he was, to some degree, consciously defending Alexander.

Plutarch plotting.

The vulgate tradition, for all that it is considered the “bad” perspective, remains Hellenic-centric and does not truly defile the memory of Alexander.  There is an emphasis on his debauchery and of the alienation and murder of some of his men, but the slaughtering of thousands of barbarians[4] and razing of cities is not nearly as emphasized as one might expect from what is considered the negative tradition.  Nonetheless, the extant sources do show that by the first and second century CE Alexander had become at best a controversial figure.  A look at some of more prominent critiques of Alexander should help to establish the tradition that Plutarch broke from with his interpretation.

Many of the writers that preceded Plutarch had been critical of the Macedonian King, and Plutarch’s portrait broke with recent tradition.  Diodorus Siculus, Curtuis Rufus, and possibly Trogus, working at least partially with the tradition of Cleitarchus[5], certainly portrayed Alexander in a largely negative light.

Not this negative though

Cleitarchus, who may have been reacting to Callisthenes’ official version, is credited with beginning the Vulgate tradition.  He may not have been held in high regard by the later historians and rhetoricians,[6] but his influence was undeniable.  Diodorus, writing in the first century BCE, was not a mere compiler as has been suggested, but his Biblotecha Historia—especially book 17—is rife with inconsistencies and falsehoods.  Trogus, from the little that can be glimpsed via Justin, likely wrote during the reign of Augustus, may have been a good historian but he must be judged through the filter of his epitomater and he suffers greatly from Justin’s distortions.  Curtius Rufus, who likely wrote in the first century CE under Claudius, seems to be a more discerning historian, but suffers from the Roman affliction of overemphasizing morality and his work is, like Plutarch’s, more literary than historical.  These works differ in content and quality, of course, but share a similar view of Alexander.  He is portrayed as cruel and also lucky—Justin suggests the Battle of Issus was not won because of his strategy but due to a fortuitous chance of the battlefield[7], and attributes the victory at the Siege of Tyre to a mysterious, unnamed act of treachery.[8]              Justin also provides examples of Alexander’s ruthlessness[9], claims he bribed the priests of Zeus-Ammon to proclaim his divinity,[10] and as being a malignant threat to his army and supporters[11]  Finally, Cleitus’s death is portrayed to show Alexander in as bad a light as possible.[12]  Curtius states a similar opinion—that Alexander was overwhelmed by good fortune.[13]

Another, even more disparaging, perspective was held by the Stoics, as shown in the works of Seneca the Younger and his protégé Lucan.  Seneca scorned Alexander as a tyrant of the worst sort,[14] on a par with Cyrus and Cambyses.[15]  Seneca repeats his attacks on Alexander in various works, notably in the De Clementia 1.25.1, De Beneficiis 1.13.1, 2.16.1, 5.6.1,and Epistle 119.  Seneca’s nephew Lucan, for his part, portrays Alexander in a highly negative way as well.[16]  Though not a Stoic, Livy’s famed digression provides an earlier, equally disapproving assessment of Alexander as well.[17]

This, then, was the backdrop when Plutarch chose to write.[18]  He used many sources, 24 he himself cited[19]. While Plutarch does seem to have relied on Cleitarchus as one of his many sources,[20] it is clear that he did not appropriate the historian’s bias along with his facts.  It is not certain he was deliberately defending Alexander against Cleitarchus and Vulgates[21], there are times that he does indeed seem to be doing just that.  Plutarch wrote of the Battle of Issus: “Fortune certainly presented Alexander with the ideal terrain for the battle, but it was his own generalship which did most to win the victory.”[22]  This may have been a response to the Vulgate claim that Alexander’s luck was responsible for his victories.  Perhaps the only certainty is that a debate concerning Issus only mentioning terrain and Alexander’s generalship as possible factors in the outcome leaves excludes too many aspects—for instance, Persian dissension, Alexander’s own generals, or Philip’s über-weapon the sarissa—to claim accuracy.  Likewise, chapter 28 seems to be at least a partial attempt to refute the Stoic charge that Alexander’s belief in his own divinity was a sign of his delusions of grandeur.

Plutarch does descend—at times—into something close to apology.  His claims that Alexander never slept only with Barsine before his marriage to Roxanne[23] seems an anachronistic attempt of Plutarch’s morality thrust upon his subject.  Worse still is the claim that:

Alexander was also more moderate in his drinking than was generally supposed.  The impression that he was a heavy drinker arose because when he had nothing else to do, he liked to linger over each cup, but in fact he was usually talking rather than drinking: he enjoyed talking rather than drinking….[24]

These tendencies are coupled with attempts to justify Alexander’s megalomania[25] and, related the tale of Alexander lighting his servant with naptha and nearly burning him alive[26] with nary a comment on the underlying cruelty.  He is certain that

“Alexander was by nature exceptionally generous and became even more so as his wealth increased.”[27]  In the struggle between Alexander’s ambitions and his soldiers desire to return home, Plutarch portrays the soldiery as ungrateful: “They found his expeditions and campaigns an intolerable burden, and little by little went so far as to abuse and find fault with the king.”[28]  He later describes their actions as full of “baseness and ingratitude.”[29] The overall picture is of a great man, whose occasional flaws detract neither from his achievements or his morality.  His tendency was to emphasize Alexander’s successes—as opposed to Arrian, for instance, who for obvious reasons stressed Ptolemy’s contributions.

The statement that Plutarch is not a completely trustworthy source is obviously a truism.  The Greek biographer at times at times relied on dubious sources, such as the ephemerides that he felt trumped all other sources.[30]  His versions of the battles are atrocious: Hamilton notes that “It is safe to say that we could not understand any of the battles from Plutarch’s narrative.”[31]  Because of his well-documented methodology, Plutarch was able to choose stories completely at his whim.  If an anecdote was not to his liking, or did not fit into his argument, it would be easy to leave it out as not fitting his criteria.   This was shown most famously when accepts the tradition that Solon met Croesus despite the fact that it was temporally impossible.[32]  In Alexander, the examples of Philip the Acarnanian’s supposed poisoning attempt[33], the so-called plotting of Philotas[34], and the Page’s Consipiracy[35] are “significant for Plutarch’s view of the development of his [Alexander’s] character…his actions are almost always direct and open.”[36]  His aims were not what a modern historian—or even biographer—would prefer.  Life of Alexander does not address many of the questions raised by the other sources but instead “with the question whether Alexander’s achievements were due more to good fortune or to his own character” (Barrow 121).

This results partially from the difference between biography and history, but this does not provide a complete explanation of Plutarch’s deficiencies.  Hamilton complains that even as a biography of Alexander the Life is inadequate,” noting that battles, future plans, and overall administration are glossed over or left out entirely.[37]  Plutarch was not, however, interested in the workings of the Alexandrian government or detailed battle tactics.  His biography examined Alexander’s character and morality, and though he found Alexander succumbed at times to anger and pride, the ultimate assessment was that Alexander was worthy of the praise heaped upon him.  Plutarch’s comments about biography are perhaps over-emphasized.[38]  Just as Curtius’ work should not be dismissed because of the famous dictum plura transcribe quam credo, Plutarch’s Life has historical value despite his assertion that he was not, in fact, writing history.

Even Alexander’s harshest critics were not without praise.  Arrian, perhaps Alexander’s least critical chronicler, does not refrain from the occasional negative about his subject.  Plutarch is more balanced than Arrian, though he used his sources selectively, to better try to prove that power corrupted Alexander absolutely.  On the other side, even Justin/Trogus were not without some positive feedback on the Macedonian king.[39]  As Pearson (241) has noted:

The mistake has commonly been made of trying to divide Alexander’s historians into two classes, favourable and unfavourable.  The distinction is a false one… the evidence indicates that they were not particular about the consistency in characterization.

The dichotomy is not, however, entirely false.  The tradition surrounding Plutarch in his lifetime, regardless of when he actually wrote his Lives, was largely negative.  Plutarch broke from this tradition but does not seem to have influenced many to follow in his footsteps.  Perhaps that was not his intent.  Duff (65) comments on this:

The Alexander of Plutarch’s Life is not simply the champion of Greek culture…the ideal philosopher-king, as he is in the speeches On the fortune or virtue of Alexander, nor is he a paradigm of the dangers of drink and despotism as he is in Curtius Rufus and in Stoic writers such as Seneca.

Plutarch had stated in De Alexandri Fortuna his argument that Alexander had achieved his unprecedented success not because of Fortune but despite it.  That theme still exists to some extent in the Life of Alexander but it has become less overt; it becomes a subconscious assertion beneath the larger assessment of Alexander’s character.  His biography is perhaps an antecedent to a modern scholar’s balanced assessment—his subject is neither wholly good nor wholly bad.  Based on the specific arguments Plutarch advances, as well as his overall estimation of Alexander’s character, it is indeed likely that he meant his work, to some degree, to be a defense of his subject.

[1] Plut. Alex 1.1

[2] Duff (21) argues that “Plutarch’s words in the Alexander prologue, then, are tailored specifically to the Life which they introduce” but does not question their applicability to this particular Life.

[3] Barton 49.

[4] For instance, Alexander’s betrayal and subsequent slaughter of the Indian mercenaries in Plut. Alex 59.7.

[5] Hammond argues that both the terminology ‘Vulgate tradition’ and the underlying assumption of Cleitarchus as a common source are erroneous—but does not question that all three are more hostile than either Arrian or Plutarch.

[6] See Pearson’s discussion 212-213 in The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.

[7] Justin Epitome 11.6.15.

[8] Ibid 11.10.14.

[9] Ibid 11.5.1-2.

[10] Ibid 11.11.6.

[11] Ibid 12.5.1.

[12] Ibid 12.6.3.

[13] Curtius Rufus 3.20

[14] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.2.5.

[15] Ibid 7.3.1.

[16] Lucan Bellum Civile 10.20-52.

[17] Livy  Ab Urbe Condita 9.17-19.

[18] Though not all of the aforementioned for certain lived before him, each of them could and indeed seems most likely to have.

[19] A considered analysis of this is provided by Powell’s “The Sources of Plutarch’s Alexander.”

[20] Pearson 218.

[21] Pearson feels that role fell instead to Arrian, whose “work, whether earlier or later than Quintus Curtius, should probably be regarded as a protest against the popularity of Cleitarchus’ unsound history” (218).

[22] Plut. Alex 20.

[23] Plut. Alex 21.

[24] Plut. Alex. 23.

[25] Ibid 28

[26] Ibid 35.

[27] Ibid 39

[28] Ibid 41

[29] Ibid 71.

[30] For a more detailed discussion, see especially Hamilton’s “The Letters in Plutarch’s Alexander” and Samuel’s “Alexander’s ‘Royal Journals.’”

[31] Hamilton xl.

[32] Plut. Sol. 27.

[33] Plut. Alex. 19.

[34] Plut. Alex 48.

[35] Plut. Alex 55.

[36] Mossman 94 in Stadter Plutarch and the Historical Tradition.

[37] Hamilton lxv.

[38] Such as Powell’s  assessment that “Plutarch’s Life of Alexander cannot have been used by Arrian…because a priori a historian of Alexander would not glean his material in scraps from brief and derivative works like the biographies of Plutarch” (Powell 231).

[39] Alexander’s bravery is praised on 11.14.15 as is his choice not to name a successor at 12.15.9-10.


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