Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Plutarch's Alexander the Great

Plutarch's Parallel Lives

Plutarch's objectives as an ancient is to write lives not histories. Plutarch makes a telling point in distinguishing between histories and lives and also states that glorious exploits are not clear as to virtue and vice in men,as to the discoveries of virtue and vice. Matters of less moment, for example a jest, are more revealing. Portrait painters may well reveal the souls of men than historians of great and epic battles.They are more exact in the "lines and features of the face" delineated than the historians paint them. The ancients conceive of great men as birthed from the gods or supernaturally as a matter of course and somewhat "normal".Alexander's descent is so determined:

  • Alexander's descent from Hercules by Caranus

  • and from Aeacus by Neaoptolemus on his mother's side

  • Philip when quite young fell in love with Olympias in Samothrace

  • and was initiated in their religious rites while there.

  • Philip married her with the consent of her brother Arymbas as her parents had died.

  • Olympias dreamed the night before the consummation of their marriage as dreams and portents to the ancients were often signs and messages from the "higher " or other worlds.

  • A thunderbolt fell on her body and a great fire kindled. The flames divided, disbursed and were distinguished.

  • Philip also dreamed that his wife was sealed up with a seal likened to a lion.

  • The diviners interpreted this to look narrowly to his wife.

  • Aristander interpreted the dream as the queen was with boy child to attain to the courage of a lion. A serpent was found lying by Olympias which abated Philip's passion for her.

  • Did he think of her as an enchantress or thought she had commerce with some god?

  • In Samothrace women were said to be extremely addicted to the Orphic rites and wild worship of Bacchus and imitated Edonian and Thracian women on"about Mount Haemus".

  • The dancing ceremonies Olympias performed were with barbaric dread and had great tame serpents about her.

  • The men looked with terror on these dances.

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of
Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions
affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology
forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated
parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance
of it.
It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but
And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest
discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an
expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations,
than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles
whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and
features of the face in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of
the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks
and indications of the souls of men,
and while I endeavor by these to portray
their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be
treated of by others.
It is agreed on by all hands, that on the father's side, Alexander descended from Hercules by Caranus, and from Aeacus by Neoptolemus on the mother's side. His father Philip, being in Samothrace, when he was quite young, fell in love there with Olympias, in company with whom he was initiated in the religious ceremonies of the country, and her father and mother being both dead, soon after, with the consent of her brother Arymbas, he married her. The night before the consummation of their marriage, she dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. And Philip some time after he was married, dreamt that he sealed up his wife's body with a seal, whose impression, as he fancied, was the figure of a lion. Some of the diviners interpreted this as a warning to Philip to look narrowly to his wife; but Aristander of Telmessus, considering how unusual it was to seal up anything that was empty, assured him the meaning of his dream was, that the queen was with child of a boy, who would one day prove as stout and courageous as a lion. Once, moreover, a serpent was found lying by Olympias as she slept, which more than anything else, it is said, abated Philip's passion for her; and whether he feared her as an enchantress, or thought she had commerce with some god, and so looked on himself as excluded, he was ever after less fond of her conversation. Others say, that the women of this country having always been extremely addicted to the enthusiastic Orphic rites, and the wild worship of Bacchus, (upon which account they were called Clodones, and Mimallones,) imitated in many things the practices of the Edonian and Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom the word threskeuein, seems to have been derived, as a special term for superfluous and over-curious forms of adoration; and that Olympias, zealously affecting these fanatical and enthusiastic inspirations, to perform them with more barbaric dread, was wont in the dances proper to these ceremonies to have great tame serpents about her, which sometimes creeping out of the ivy and the mystic fans, sometimes winding themselves about the sacred spears, and the women's chaplets, made a spectacle which the men could not look upon without terror.

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