I had a history teacher in college say something to the effect of, “Plutarch wrote a series of histories about famous Romans and Greeks. These are called ‘Plutarch’s Lives’. It might be better to call them ‘Plutarch’s Lies’.” It got a nerdy chuckle from most of us, and I never really delved into Plutarch after that.
After my adventures with Herodotus last year, I decided some more ancient histories could make a good read. I ran into Plutarch’s name quite a bit, and since I had recently finished watching the HBO series “Rome” it seemed like reading some of Plutarch’s Roman lives would fit the bill.
I settled on the penguin classics version called “Makers of Rome”. This covers nine lives spanning from the legendary (and possibly mythical) general Coriolanus up to Mark Antony, the infamous lover of Queen Cleopatra. I also got to read about Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaiu Gracchus, Sertorius, and Brutus. For those of you who could care less about all these guys with “us” at the end of there names – hold on, there is a point.
First thing, the introduction pointed out that Shakespeare used Plutarch’s lives to create three plays: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Now I’d never heard of a play about Coriolanus, but like most people I had to read Julius Caesar back in high school. I remembered that the play was more about Brutus than Caesar, and reading the Life of Brutus makes it all fall into place.
The really interesting part comes with Mark Antony. The Penguin edition includes an Appendix all about this particular life. It not only points out all the changes that Plutarch made to the history, but also pointed out the changes that Shakespeare made on top of that.
Now, I should clear something up here. Plutarch never set out to write history. His goal in writing these lives was to create a biography of these famous people to prove a point. Most of the time these were ethical ideals that the famous figure would be measured against – sometimes acting as an ideal example, other times failing to make the grade. In either case, Plutarch would sometimes warp history to fit the needs of his biography. So really Plutarch should read, “Based on a true story.”
Shakespeare makes some dramatic changes as well. Most of this has to do with shortening the time in which the story takes place, but there are other historical differences. However, since he is basing his play on Plutarch’s version of events, his version of Antony comes across a bit different from the historical version of the man.
And this was the version of Mark Antony that appeared in HBO’s “Rome”. It was interesting to see how long the image of an impulsive and completely manipulated Antony has prevailed. Even Cleopatra fares on the poor side of things. She is usually shown as a woman who is driven by her base desires and impulses. These end up causing her and Antony misfortune. But modern historians find that Cleopatra was far from the impulsive woman she is usually portrayed as.
This all tells me that writers have been messing with history since the time of Plutarch (and even before if you take a look at Herodotus). It also tells me that the evolution of a story can take many forms, twisting and turning through time. Each new author adding their new take on the old tale. Does that make all us storyteller liars?
It reminds me of a Mystery Science Theater episode called, “I Accuse My Parents”. The movie revolves around a young man who lies about his parents to his friends and classmates. His parents are drunk good for nothings, but according to Jimmy, they are wonderful caregivers. Jimmy’s lies pile up and up and up. At one point in the movie one of the robots quips, “He’s a gifted storyteller”. And that actually got me thinking. Are all storytellers liars?
Have you read Plutarch? What did you think of his work? How about Shakespeare’s take on historical events? If you are a writer or storyteller, do you consider yourself a liar?
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