Comparison of the Lives of Alexander and Caesar in the Manner of Plutarch.

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005

¶ Of the illustrious descent of Alexander and of Caesar. [1] Caius the dictator was descended from the illustrious patrician family of the Caesars of the Julian clan which traced its orgins to Aeneas the founder of the Roman race. Nor was the fame of the Caesars entirely in the past, for Caius Marius was the husband of Julia, the sister of the father of that Caius Julius Caesar we now compare with Alexander the Great. There was nothing mean or base in Alexander's descent either, for his father Philip was of the Macedonian royal house and his mother Olympias was a noble lady with a fine mind and an ambition for her son that he should surpass all others in this age. Virgil and the other poets are better equipped that I to expound on Caesar's descent from the goddess Venus. We likewise leave to the realm of legend the genealogical table that would have Olympias descended of Aeacus the son of Jupiter and the nymph Aegina. As for the tale that Jupiter, not Philip was the true father of Alexander, Olympias having conversation with the immortal, I say that with the gods all things are possible, but some things are exceeding unlikely and should perhaps be regarded for what they are --propaganda. Not that Alexander need embroider the cloth of his life, for the plain truth is remarkable enough without the addition of improbable prodigies.
¶ Both conquerors enjoyed the benefits of excellent education and gave early evidence of later greatness. [2] Alexander received the best possible tutelage under the greatest philosophers of his age, including Aristotle. Caesar likewise ornamented his native intelligence and drive for conquest with the best education available in the classical world. Alexander studied Homer's Iliad (in an edition with Aristotles' annotation) to learn the art of war –even sleeping with a copy of the poem under his pillow while campaigning. From his reading the Greek dramatists –Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus– he took an education in psychology that served him well when he turned to leading men. The good beginning that Alexander made in philosophy he however overthrew when out of mistrust he rejected the good counsel of Callisthenes, listening rather to the flatter Anaxarchus [Alexander, 52-53]. Caesar while campaigning passed every leisure hour between engagements in either reading or writing. He disciplined himself to be able to dictate letters from on horseback, and to give directions to two who took notes at the same time [Caesar, 17]. His commentaries survive as a testament to the intelligence, focus, and determination of that exceptional man. In that regard, communication, or more specifically writing, we must give the edge to the Roman, for Alexander, while he wrote many memorable letters to friends (unfortunately all since lost), he did not master the art of matching the pen to the sword as did Caesar. Caesar's dispatches from the front told people at home of his victories in Spain and Gaul and, by propogating the myth of the conqueror, made straight the path for Caesar to conquer the City of Rome and the hearts of the Roman people.

Caesar and Alexander equally gave early evidence of their later greatness. Caesar as a youth defying Sulla and displaying such haughy confidence in dealing with his pirate captors and Alexander taming Bucephalus and receiving the Persian ambassadors while he was yet very young are exceptional examples of early signs of greatness. And while we have no warrant to say that a Caesar or an Alexander knows in his youth what he will become, we can be pretty sure that he knows he is different from other men.

¶ Alexander modelled himself on Hercules, Achilles, and Cyrus; Caesar on Alexander. [3] Of all the comparisons there is something singular about this pairing, for Plutarch records no one else so affected by the life of the man he emulated as was Caesar who wept when reading the life of Alexander. Caesar also learnt from the successes and failures of his illustrious uncle Marius. Alexander is remarkable for the wide net he cast when seeking models to emulate. Hercules and Achilles he could have known of only through poetry and legend. And Alexander's third model, Cyrus, not only lived two centuries early, but he was a barbarian.
¶ Of their conquests and characters. [4] As regards the extent of their conquests, we must give the honor to Alexander who expanded Macedonian control over three continents and brought to its end the great Persian Empire. Moreover, Alexander's Hellenistic world empire was without precedent, conceived solely in his own incomparable mind, while Caesar had Alexander's life as a model and a dream of a world-empire. Howebeit, we must also recognize that Caesar accomplished his conquests while answering always to the Senate and the People of Rome, being constantly at work managing the domestic political reception of his conquests whilst in the midst of campaigning in distant lands. In this regard Caesar may be said to have overcame greater obstacles than Alexander, for that one let his innate audacity lead him into rather rash campaigns or battles while Caesar despite his lightning speed never was rash.

Caesar was always generous toward his friends and associates even to the point of saving the life of his enemies, such as Brutus whom, after he tried to destroy Caesar at the battle of Pharsalia, Caesar spared with fateful consequences. Such was the character of Caesar, while Alexander, believing his own propaganda about being divine and inordinately given to suspicion fell out with and destroyed old friends such as Parmenio and good advisors such as Callisthenes. This rash violence in punishing, as also seen when he ignobly put to the sword the defenders of an Indian city after they had surrendered under assurances of truce, was perhaps the only breach in the wall of good conduct erected in Alexander's character. He certainly conducted himself as being utterly imperiousness to fleshly temptations of food, pleasure, or money, seeming driven on by only the glory and fame of conquest.

¶ Of the destruction of Caesar at the hands of envious lesser men. [5] That Caesar should be envied by the senate and finally destroyed by Cassius, Brutus, and the rest merely proves that great men will be the target of the consuming envy of lesser men and, if not able to manage them, be consumed in that conflagration. Many authors have noted this, among them the translators of the Authorized (King James) Version of Scripture who note in the preface: "The highest personages have been calumniated...we shall find many the like examples... The first Roman emperor [C. Caesar, Plutarch] did never do a more pleasing deed to the learned, nor more profitable to posterity, for conserving the record of times in true supputation, than when he corrected the calendar, and ordered the year according to the course of the sun; and yet this was imputed to him for novelty, and arrogancy, and procured to him great obloquy." And so we understand that, "the readiest way to be the most illustrious person on earth, is to kill him who was already so," [Alexander, 55], and that those who cannot kill you will, out of envy at least try to tear you down. To Alexander we must grant the distinction that almost alone among Plutarch's biographical subjects, he was never seriously hindered in his plans by the envy of others. Those who would scheme against Alexander were either ineffective or were quickly found out and dispatched by Alexander. Indeed, Alexander is also of a minority in Plutarch's Lives as one who succumbed not to violence and force but to the frailty of our fleshly frame, dying of natural causes while at the height of his successes.

Here Ends the Comparison of the Lives of Alexander and Caesar.


Plutarch, Life of Alexander.

__________, Life of Caesar.