Plutarch, the Ideal of a "Good Man"

Plutarch, a Greek author who lived in the first century AD, wrote many biographies about famous Greek and Roman men. He focused primarily on men he considered virtuous and upstanding citizens, or if they happened to fit his ideal for the "good man." Plutarch relates the lives of various men to show how these men exemplify virtuous behavior. Often, though, a life will have elements that contradict strongly with the original reasons Plutarch supposedly wrote about the individual. The question of why begs to be asked in this situation. Why did Plutarch include damaging information in the lives of his virtuous men? There is a simple answer to this question, if one first analyzes what Plutarch believed to be virtuous, and then look at how he describes the non-virtuous actions in the lives of these so called virtuous men.

Plutarch tends to focus on the military actions, religious observances, and the public image of his subjects. In the life of Romulus, Plutarch describes the kidnapping and rape of the Sabine women as "a design purely of forming alliance with their neighbors by the greatest and surest bonds" (Plutarch, 35). Apparently, the fact that the fathers of these women would not see this act as an attempt to formulate an alliance did not occur to Romulus, if indeed an alliance is what Romulus was trying to achieve. Plutarch conveniently steps over the inherent wrong in kidnapping and raping the entire female population of a culture. The rape of the Sabine women, since it was not done "wantonly," was a virtuous act that encouraged the growth and expansion of Rome (Plutarch, 35).

If military action seems to be a quality of virtue, then the presence of Numa Pompilius among these other lives seems out of place. Numa preferred the solitude and quiet of the country where he had retreated from the bustle of the city after the death of his wife. He strongly resisted the notion of becoming a king to the Romans whom he considered a violent and warlike people. Plutarch creates dialogue for Numa in which he replies to the absurd notion of being king:

"I should but be?a laughing-stock, while I should go about to inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence and war, to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king" (Plutarch, 85).

Numa derides the Roman lust for war and conquest, a quality Plutarch later applauds in the life of Marcellus. In fact, Plutarch states that Marcellus was "by natural inclinations addicted to war," but Plutarch also states the Marcellus was "strong of body, valiant of hand?[and] modest and obliging" (Plutarch, 408). Both men are written about as exemplifying the qualities that Plutarch believes a "good man" should have. Numa desires peace and frightens the populace into peace through omens and religious means. Marcellus desires war and bullies the people into allowing him to go to war numerous times. Either the contradiction is in Plutarch, or it is because Rome developed and changed between the time of Numa and the time of Marcellus.

Numa is known for his religious fervor, so the inclusion of it in his biography is not startling. The oddity is why Plutarch includes religious fervor in the lives of military men. There are lives in which one would expect to see religious observances being honored, like Romulus. After reading the life of Romulus, the cup of militarism (near barbarism) was overflowing, as was the cup of public image, but religion was left wanting. The life of Romulus leaves one seriously questioning the man?s religious beliefs. His brother, Remus, saw a flock of birds, and, after he told everyone, Romulus claimed that he saw more birds. This leaves one feeling rather skeptical about the outcome and Romulus? morals. Plutarch could have written the life of Romulus to make it seem that Romulus was respectful of the Gods and Goddesses wishes. Since Plutarch did not rewrite the story of Romulus to include a sense of respect for the Gods, it stands to reason that Plutarch did not believe that to be an important aspect of this life. In the life of Romulus, religion did not play an important role in making him a "good man," yet in the life of Numa it was necessary.

If the qualities of a "good man" can be found through religious observance, military victory, and public appearance, what are the qualities of a "good woman" or can there be a "good" woman? In the life of Coriolanus, women won the victory over Coriolanus and the Volscians. A woman went to the temple of Jupiter and was gifted with the knowledge of how to defeat the army of the Volscians. A group of women who went out to meet with the Volscians, and spoke eloquently with their leader Coriolanus to stop the impending attack on Rome. Coriolanus was banished from Rome on spurious charges, and then betrayed Rome by joining with the Volscians to do war upon them. Coriolanus has his life told by Plutarch in a book that is concerned with the lives of "good men," and yet he seems to have been anything but a "good man." Prior to describing the feat of these courageous women, Plutarch spends nearly a page and a half describing the precedent for divine intervention! Can women only do astonishing things if a deity is involved and guiding their steps? This is not what Plutarch says. If one looks closely at the passage in question (Plutarch, 316), one can see that Plutarch actually says that the pathways for such an action must be present in a person for the Gods to act through them. Plutarch makes a clear statement that "goodness" is not absolutely excluded from women. This is clear because they have to have the "goodness" pathways open for the Gods to intervene through them.

Plutarch never openly commends women in his lives, though in every life there is at least one female who handles affairs nobly. In the life of Romulus, there are the Sabine women, in particular Hersilia, who stop the battle between the Romans and the Sabines. In the life of Numa Pompilius, there was both Numa?s wife and, supposedly, the Goddess Egeria. Numa retired to the countryside after the death of his wife, probably out of sadness, and the Goddess Egeria is said to have given him divine wisdom. In the life of Poplicola, Valerius (also known as Poplicola) left his wife to guard a witness to treason. There is even a probability that the single statue of a woman on horseback was a statue of Valeria, the daughter of Valerius. In the life of Fabius, the sister of one of his soldiers helps to convince her lover, the commander of Hannibal?s garrison at Tarentum. She helped to convince her lover that he should deliver the town to Fabius without a pitched battle. The love of a woman can move men to do powerful things. In the life of Coriolanus, the woman was his mother. She raised him without the aid of a man, but she raised him to be a "good man." His is also one of the few lives with few, if any, contradictions. In the life of Aemilius Paulus, his daughters were the virtuous women who were content with their lives and their husbands, even though their father had been consul twice and they lived rather poorly. In the life of Marcellus, there is reference to the oracle at Delphi who was usually female. He is also said to have a statue in the temple of Minerva. While there are few women mentioned in his life, those that are mentioned are important in their near deification (in particular Octavia, sister of Caesar Augustus). This situation is similar to the life of Camillus where there are again few references to women except deities. This can be explained by the religious fervor of Camillus making this exclusion clearly a portrait of higher feminine influence. In the life of Marcus Cato, there is a single noble woman that fulfills his idea of what a "good" wife and mother should be. He claims to have married her because she was more noble than rich. Cato was so pompous about the appropriate behaviors that it is odd that he later married a woman so much younger and not even close in stature to him in the social hierarchy.

Plutarch has obviously included non-virtuous actions in the relations of these "virtuous" men?s lives because they involved virtuous women. He was working against the constraints of a society that believed women to be inferior and illogical. He uses the lives of his virtuous men to implant ideas about the virtues and "goodness" that women should emulate and those actions and behaviors women should not emulate. Clearly, Plutarch was writing for a much larger audience than the noble and "good" men in ancient Greece and Rome knew.

Written by Mary A. Cornwell
CFXS Director



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