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Context for the Evidence: Plutarch’ Life of Cimon

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of April 8, 2003

· PlutarchCimon ·

For a desription of Plutarch generally, and of the nature of his Lives (or Vitae) of famous Greeks and Romans, see the article “Plutarch.”

Plutarch organized his biographical sketches into matched pairs, a famous Roman matched with a famous Greek who seemed, to Plutarch, alike in some fundamental way, either in character or in the course of his life’s events, or (more often) in both. Obviously, this sort of scheme tended to force the author’s hand as he wrote these Vitae, leading them to conform to a scheme established at the outset, even (perhaps) at the expense of historical veracity.

For this reason, it is always worth noting, in the case of any one of Plutarch’s biographies, with whom the writer paired the subject. Knowing for example that Plutarch saw Demosthenes as a Greek parallel to the Roman Cicero, or that Alexander’s life was paired with Caesar’s, can be useful in deciding how to approach these biographies.

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Cim.).
 
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Thrace (in text as “Thracian”).
Thucydides.
Orchomenus.
Chaeronea.

Plutarch’s Life of Cimon (Plut. Cim.), the prominent Athenian of the 5th century BCE, son of Miltiades and Hegesipyle, and grandson of the Thracian king Olorus and cousin of Thucydides the historian (Plut. Cim. 4.1), begins with an anecdote about Plutarch’s home town of Chaeronea during the 1st century BCE (Plut. Cim. 1.1-2.2). It is a sordid tale that features an ongoing rivalry between the cities of Chaeronea and Orchomenus, an orphan, a sexually predatory Roman soldier, and a series of betrayals and murders. All ended as well as could be expected, however, because the Roman Lucius Licinius Lucullus happened to be nearby with a body of troops and provided an honest appraisal of the situation to the governing Roman praetor. This saved Chaeronea from a harsh and unfair judgement.

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Plutarch (Plut. Luc.).
 
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Chaeronea.

The anecdote serves to establish a link between the author, Plutarch from Chaeronea, with Lucullus, the Roman whose biography is matched with Cimon’s (Plut. Luc.). Plutarch describes frankly the nature of this link, and its effect on his biographical treatment of Lucullus:

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Cim.).

“And we, though many generations removed from him, think that his favour extends even down to us who are now living; and since we believe that a portrait, which reveals character and disposition is far more beautiful than one which merely copies form and feature, we shall incorporate this man’s deeds into our parallel lives, and we shall rehearse them truly. The mere mention of them is sufficient favour to show him; and as a return for his truthful testimony he himself surely would not deign to accept a false and garbled narrative of his career. We demand of those who would paint fair and graceful features that, in case of any slight imperfection therein, they shall neither wholly omit it nor yet emphasize it, because the one course makes the portrait ugly and the other unlike its original. In like manner, since it is difficult, nay rather perhaps impossible, to represent a man’s life as stainless and pure, in its fair chapters we must round out the truth into fullest semblance; but those transgressions and follies by which, owing to passion, perhaps, or political compulsion, a man’s career is sullied, we must regard rather as shortcomings in some particular excellence than as the vile products of positive baseness, and we must not all too zealously delineate them in our history, and superfluously too, but treat them as though we were tenderly defending human nature for producing no character which is absolutely good and indisputably set towards virtue.” (Plut. Cim. 2.2-2.5).

So Plutarch’s purpose is to satisfy an inherited debt of gratitude toward Lucullus, and although under that imperative he will be obliged to described unflattering aspects of the man’s life as well as flattering ones, he will present the former as incidental to an otherwise noble and virtuous life. While this statement of purpose would not serve a modern, scholarly biographer, it does honestly reflect Plutarch’s project and allows us, his modern readers, to interpret his writing resonably and critically and to procede to use it as a source for ancient history.

Read about the evidence
Plutarch (Plut. Cim.).
 
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Aethiopia (in text as “Aethiopians”).
Ecbatana (in text as “Medes”).
Armenia (in text as “Armenians”).

Regarding his choice to match Lucullus with Cimon, Plutarch says: “On looking about for some one to compare with Lucullus, we decided that it must be Cimon. Both were men of war, and of brilliant exploits against the Barbarians, and yet they were mild and beneficent statesmen, in that they gave their countries unusual respite from civil strifes, though each one of them set up martial trophies and won victories that were famous. No Hellene before Cimon and no Roman before Lucullus carried his wars into such remote lands, if we leave out of our account the exploits of Heracles and Dionysus, and whatever credible deeds of Perseus against the Aethiopians or Medes and Armenians, or of Jason, have been brought down in the memory of man from those early times to our own. Common also in a way to both their careers was the incompleteness of their campaigns. Each crushed, but neither gave the death blow to his antagonist. But more than all else, the lavish ease which marked their entertainments and hospitalities, as well as the ardour and laxity of their way of living, was conspicuous alike in both. Possibly we may omit still other resemblances, but it will not be hard to gather them directly from our story” (Plut. Cim. 3.1-3).

Here, too, we can see Plutarch’s thesis for these biographies, and to discern that his main motivation is not to set down an exhaustive record of the deeds of Cimon, but to place him in a “historical” context (with includes a large measure of myth) and to establish him as a fitting moral parallel to Lucullus.