Monday, December 3, 2012


Christopher Pelling, Plutarch Caesar: Translated with Introduction and Commentary. Clarendon Ancient History Series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xix, 519. ISBN 9780199608355. $55.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Brad L. Cook, University of Mississippi (

Version at BMCR home site


While some of us crane our necks looking for Plutarch in the recent parade of companions to ancient authors, topics, and eras (two are in the queue, rumor has it), a profoundly rich book has arrived in this new addition to the Clarendon Ancient History Series. The English translation is the foundation (52 pp.) for which there are 373 data- filled pages of commentary. An excellent, succinct companion to the whole of Plutarch and all the Lives is found in the seventy-six page introduction, with emphasis of course on Caesar. Behind this invaluable introduction and the whole of the commentary stands not just Pelling's 1988 commentary on Plutarch's Antony and his numerous articles on Plutarch (many reprinted with updating annotations in his 2002 Plutarch and History, itself a companion to much of Plutarch). Yet, however much this book is about Plutarch and his Caesar, Pelling has packed much, much more into his commentary. He compares all the ancient textual sources about Caesar, everything historical, chronological, archaeological, etc., and he discusses the methods and motives of the authors of all the texts considered and of the actor and author Caesar himself, incorporating throughout all the ancient references as well as bibliography from the nineteenth century to the just-printed new edition of the OCD (and beyond); and, when Caesar's end draws nigh, Pelling integrates into the commentary the insight of an author who, like Plutarch, knew well how to fashion a dramatic narrative: Shakespeare. In short, this book should be subtitled "A Companion to the Study of Caesar," and advertised to everyone whose reading and research, especially historical, touch upon Caesar, upon his age, or upon any source on Caesar.

The introduction (1–76) to this commentary is the most recent overview of Plutarch and his Caesar and, more broadly, of the research for and the creation of all the Parallel Lives and especially of Plutarch's set of late-Republican Lives. And since, as it is said, and rightly so, Christopher Pelling is one of the best scholars working on Plutarch these days, this is now the most insightful, balanced, and bibliographically packed concise starting point for the study of Plutarch. From the broadest definition—"'Genre' is a slippery concept, and it is especially slippery when we talk of ancient biography" (13)—through Plutarch's general habits, "Plutarch and the Caesars" (1–13), to the design of this Life, and "Plutarch and Roman Politics" (58–64), Pelling quotes, cites, and/or footnotes all the well-known Plutarchan passages and the relevant scholarship. Pelling's eye is always on the flexibility of Plutarch's art and how the design of a Life depends on the life. For Caesar Pelling shows that what we might expect of Plutarch is not here: "the moral voice is strangely muted" (19). Pelling highlights this strangeness here and traces it through the commentary with constant comparison to parallel versions of events in Plutarch (and in every other surviving historical source, as a veritable companion to Caesar should). Pelling's explanation is that "the manner of the Life reflects the manner of Caesar himself" (24). Much, then, in this introduction and throughout the commentary is about Caesar's history as well as how Plutarch revised, omitted, misunderstood, conflated, compressed (see "Remoulding the Material," 56–8), left things "nicely ambiguous" (398), deserved credit "for perceptiveness as well as literary craft" (393), and was "historically wild but artistically powerful" (263).

The translation (77–128) aims at clarity. Anyone searching for a mirror of Plutarch's often delightfully, or frustratingly, dense hypotactic style will not need to worry about that here. Pelling divides up the long Greek sentences into shorter, contemporary English ones. A number of his short, punchy sentences stand out, in fact, to form an epitome of Plutarch's text: "1.4, Then he thought about killing him. 2.7, Caesar decided to ignore him. 4.4, In Rome Caesar's support grew. 5.5, This too brought him goodwill. 6.6, The senate gathered to discuss it. 7.1, But Caesar would not be put off. 7.4, Then the votes were cast. 8.2, The men were handed over for execution. 8.6, That impressed Cato. 10.9, That seemed paradoxical. 14.3, With those words he leapt out to the people.15.4, Caesar's achievements outdo them all. 24.3, They all but took the camp by storm. 24.6, But Caesar outsmarted them. 24.6, His strategy was to win contempt. 28.4, There were pretexts at hand. 28.5, Where would all this crazy turbulence end? 32.5, They call it the Rubicon. 34.3, The sight of the city was most pitiful. 35.2, Pompey withdrew before his advance. 35.7 War is not the time for free speech. 37.2, Then the senate appointed Caesar dictator. 37.6, 'What's the purpose of it all?' 39.8, Caesar was now in despair. 44.1, Caesar was delighted. 47.6, Livy firmly attests the truth of this. 49.10, Caesar himself set out for Syria. 50.1, Then he travelled on through Asia. 51.2, He was met by popular disapproval. 53.5, That, at least, is one version of that battle. 56.7, This was Caesar's final war. 64.1, Then Decimus Brutus Albinus intervened. 69.6, It happened like this. 69.14, Yet he did not die fighting. 69.14, So he met his death." Four of these short sentences are Plutarch's, thus Pelling is simply expanding a stylistic feature found already, occasionally, in Plutarch's Greek. If this penchant imposes too much modern English prose style onto this ancient text, students will certainly appreciate it, and these staccato sentences often draw attention to the point that Pelling sees as prominent.

The clarity of Pelling's translation is frequently marked by a certain brilliance, e.g., Caes. 6.3, "they would allow him to play the revolutionary in this tomfool way" (δίδωσι παίζειν τοιαῦτα καὶ καινοτομεῖν); Caes. 14.3, "With those words he leapt out (ἐξεπήδησε) to the people"; Caes. 20.2, "... and he used it as a base for his demagogy" (ἐνταῦθα καθήμενος ἐδημαγώγει); Caes. 28.5, "Where would all this crazy turbulence end?" (ἐκ τοσαύτης παραφροσύνης καὶ τοσούτου κλύδωνος ἐκπεσεῖται τὰ πράγματα); Caes. 44.12, "The blow was so powerful that the point pierced through the head and came out by the occipital bone (τὸ ἰνίον)"; Caes. 48.4, "this was his greatest and most delicious (ἥδιστον) reward of victory, the chance to save one man after another (τινὰς ἀεὶ) who had fought against him." There was one passage, however, dynamic but not literal, that I would question: "I see that exaggerated hairstyle, and the way he parts (κνώμενον) it with a single finger" (Caes. 4.9). Can the middle of κνάω (κνῆσθαι/κνᾶσθαι) work thus, and is it physically possible even for Caesar, or Pompey (Pomp. 48.7), to part his hair, no matter how much or how little hair, with only one finger?

In the commentary historical matters abound, as is appropriate for the series. Pick any activity or event in Caesar's life, whether included in Plutarch's Life or not, and you will find a densely packed presentation of the ancient evidence and modern discussion: any step in the cursus honorum, the topography or body count of any battle, the dates, order, and agenda of meetings of the Senate, the Catilinarian conspiracy (160–171), Caesar's first consulship in 59 B.C. (192–203), the crossing of the Rubicon (312–19), etc. I offer as an example of Pelling's attention to historical detail (and his humor) the note on Caes. 66.7, "Casca struck first, with a blow by the side of the neck...": "the left, according to Nic. Dam. 89. If Casca was standing behind C., perhaps he was left- handed. The blow slipped past the neck and hit the chest, App. 2.117.492. At Brut. 17.4 Pelling specifies the 'shoulder' twice rather than the 'neck': in Caesar the neck matters more (§6 n.). Wiseman 212 suggests that Casca was aiming for the heart, but the throat is just as effective a way of killing" (481). This is informative and witty. But after the deserved chuckle, make sure, if you are dipping into the commentary and not reading it straight through, to go back to §6 n., and from there back to earlier notes, so you can, at every turn, follow how Pelling manages to keep always one eye on the historical matter and another on Plutarch's narrative art.

Eight maps are included, marked clearly with all that is relevant to Caesar's far-reaching career, from Britain to Egypt. The layout of the text has been done with care, especially the commentary, with lemmata marked in bold and with chapter and section numbers at the top of the page. There is an index of names (503–15), and a short but very useful general index (516–19; see, e.g., "debt," "imagery," and "numbers"). In a commentary so rich in citations, ancient and modern, it is surely impossible to avoid at least a few slips. I noticed that the reference to Caes. 9.10 at the middle of p. 170 (and seven lines later) should be to 10.10 (and the same on p. 331). For modern references, the year (2002/3) is missing in Jeffrey Beneker's article cited on p. 24 n. 52; "Stevens 28" on p. 288 n. 13 needs to be between 169–208 (184 is my estimate). Only one slip in the English caught my eye: in the middle of p. 174, "removed by office by senatorial decree" should be "... from office ..."

In closing, mention should be made of the very opening of Pelling's preface where he speaks ominously (cf. Caes. 11.5–6?) of his book as forty years in the making and, thus, "a terrible warning for any young scholar" (v). I would rather call it an awful, that is awe-filling, exemplar of how decades of excellent scholarship have produced a book that will be in use for many decades, and generations, to come.

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