Sunday, October 25, 2009

Plutarch: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar

Plutarch compares the lives of two great men from antiquity, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Alexander (356–323 BC) was a Macedonian who is best known for his generalship and the spreading of Greek culture far to the east. In defeating the Persian king Darius III, Alexander created one of the largest land empires ever to have existed. As a brilliant tactician, Alexander's military achievements are often the standard to which all other military leaders are compared.

Plutarch describes Alexander as having a strong personality, huge ambitions and being highly energetic. He seemed to be continually pushing himself, which may explain how Alexander did so much in his short life, dying from sickness at the age of 32 in Persia. His greatest faults may have been his overdeveloped ego, a sense of megalomania and a penchant for alcohol.

Julius Caesar (100-42 BC) was a man of many talents who transformed Rome from a republic into an empire. Plutarch describes in detail how Caesar could be both a superb military commander and a shrewd politician.

What I found interesting about Plutarch's biography was how much of it reminded me of Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar". I realize old Will did not have many sources to use for his plays, but I was surprised to see lines being lifted right out of Plutarch's work, although Caesar does not say Et tu, Brute? when Brutus stabs him.

In comparing these men from antiquity we can see they were both excellent military commanders who defeated armies several times the size of their own forces. Caesar fought battles in distant Britain, while Alexander travelled all the way to the gates of India. Both men also played a significant role in government, founding cities and designing civil works projects. Caesar and Alexander had great ambitions and repeatedly pushed themselves and their men to their physical limits. In battle they were courageous, implacable warriors, but they were also magnanimous to their defeated enemies.

They did have significant differences, especially in their political lives. Alexander was a king who dealt with little dissent, while Caesar fought a civil war and became an emperor. Alexander died very young from illness while Caesar was assassinated at the age of 56. A young Caesar once lamented that Alexander had conquered a kingdom by his age, while he had done nothing notable. Alexander did not develop a strong enough political structure and his empire fractured after his death, while Caesar's Roman Empire continued to flourish after he was killed.

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