Plutarch, Greek biographer and essayist, sometimes called the founder of modern biography, chronicled the lives of many of the great and celebrated Greeks and Romans. Born in Chaeronea in Boeotia, Plutarch was educated in Athens and traveled widely. He was the author of some 227 works, including the Moralia, a collection of didactic essays and dialogues on a wide range of topics, and the Parallel Lives, biographies and character studies of soldiers and statesmen among the Greeks and Romans, most in pairs, from the legendary age of Theseus and Romulus down to his own time. Plutarch’s philosophical thinking can be described as an eclectic Platonism, with elements borrowed from many other philosophical traditions. For at least 20 years, Plutarch served as a priest at the temple at Delphi; later in life, he returned to Chaeronea and served as a city official.
Included in Plutarch’s Moralia is the collection of stories, Mulierum Virtutes, known as On the Virtues of Women or The Bravery of Women, that Plutarch composed for his friend Clea, who held high office among the priestesses at Delphi where he himself was a priest. In it, Plutarch relates an epidemic of suicide (said to have occurred in 277 B.C.) among the young women of Miletus, presumably girls around the age of puberty when they were about to be married. The story is repeated by many other classical authors, including Aulus Gellius, who attributes it to another work of Plutarch’s, now lost, called On the Soul. Although the measure may be a later addition, the story is well known for its account of an effective deterrent to suicide: public shame.
In the Lives, Plutarch chronicles the suicide of the Roman statesman Marcus Portius Cato, known as Cato the Younger (95–46 B.C.), during the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. As a leader, Cato developed a reputation for honesty, frugality, and personal integrity, and had gained considerable influence among the Roman people; he was considered a potential political threat by the First Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Marcus Crassus), who sent him to Sicily for two years to try to remove him from politics. Cato sided with Pompey during the civil war in 49 B.C.; he tried to defend Sicily and in the end maintained a hopeless defense against Caesar in the North African city of Utica, near modern Tunis. As Caesar was about to take the city, Cato committed suicide by falling on his sword—though the act proved initially ineffective and the wound was sewn closed by a physician; it was not until he awoke and ripped open the wound that he died.
In this biography of Cato, Plutarch represents him as motivated by two principal reasons, both consonant with Stoic thinking (though Plutarch himself was generally opposed to Stoicism): Cato considers suicide an act of self-control and personal freedom, a way of avoiding the indignity he would suffer at Caesar’s hand; he also sees his suicide as a way of showing the Roman people that they never need to succumb to slavery, even in defeat. This does not mean, however, that Cato urged suicide upon his people too; rather, he remained behind after they sailed as a model of principled resistance. Plutarch’s account also stresses the resoluteness of purpose that he sees as characterizing Cato’s suicide, including Cato’s allowing his family to understand his intentions, his reading of Plato’s Phaedo (twice), his resistance to his son’s paternalism in hiding the sword, and his determination to complete the deed even after its initial failure. Following the suicide, the people of Utica honored Cato, and his reputation for incorruptibility became legendary.
Plutarch’s accounts have had considerable later influence. Shakespeare [q.v.] followed the Lives, which had first been translated into English in 1579, closely in his Roman history plays, sometimes borrowing passages from Plutarch with only minor changes; Plutarch’s work had considerable influence on Shakespeare’s conception of the tragic hero that is evident, for example, in Antony and Cleopatra. And while some later commentators have depicted Cato’s suicide as immoral, many have used it as an example par excellence of courage; even Immanuel Kant [q.v.], in his Lectures on Ethics, says that “appearances are in its favor,” though he hastens to say that it is “the only example which has given the world the opportunity of defending suicide.”
Plutarch’s Moralia: “Bravery of Women,” XI, tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Classical Library, London: William Heinemann, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949, p. 509; Plutarch’s Lives: “Cato the Younger,” LXVIII-LXXIII, tr. Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library: London: William Heinemann, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919, vol. 8, odd-numbered pp. 401-409.
from MORALIA: THE WOMEN OF MILETUS
Once upon a time a dire and strange trouble took possession of the young women in Miletus for some unknown cause. The most popular conjecture was that the air had acquired a distracting and infectious constitution, and that this operated to produce in them an alteration and derangement of mind. At any rate, a yearning for death and an insane impulse toward hanging suddenly fell upon all of them, and many managed to steal away and hang themselves. Arguments and tears of parents and comforting words of friends availed nothing, but they circumvented every device and cunning effort of their watchers in making away with themselves. The malady seemed to be of divine origin and beyond human help, until, on the advice of a man of sense, an ordinance was proposed that the women who hanged themselves should be carried naked through the market-place to their burial. And when this ordinance was passed it not only checked, but stopped completely, the young women from killing themselves. Plainly a high testimony to natural goodness and to virtue is the desire to guard against ill repute, and the fact that the women who had no deterrent sense of shame when facing the most terrible of all things in the world, death and pain, yet could not abide nor bear the thought of disgrace which would come after death.
from PARALLEL LIVES: CATO THE YOUNGER
Thus the supper came to an end, and after walking about with his friends as he usually did after supper, he gave the officers of the watch the proper orders, and then retired to his chamber, but not until he had embraced his son and each of his friends with more than his wonted kindness, and thus awakened anew their suspicions of what was to come. After entering his chamber and lying down, he took up Plato’s dialogue “On the Soul,” and when he had gone through the greater part of the treatise, he looked up above his head, and not seeing his sword hanging there (for his son had taken it away while Cato was still at supper), called a servant and asked him who had taken the weapon. The servant made no answer, and Cato returned to his book; and a little while after, as if in no haste of hurry, but merely looking for his sword, he bade the servant fetch it. But as there was some delay, and no one brought the weapon, he finished reading his book, and this time called his servants one by one and in louder tones demanded his sword. One of them he smote on the mouth with his fist, and bruised his own hand, angrily crying now in loud tones that his son and his servants were betraying him into the hands of the enemy without arms. At last his son ran in weeping, together with his friends, and after embracing him, betook himself to lamentations and entreaties. But Cato, rising to his feet, took on a solemn look, and said: “When and where, without my knowledge, have I been adjudged a madman, that no one instructs or tries to convert me in matters wherein I am thought to have made bad decisions, but I am prevented from using my own judgement, and have my arms taken from me? Why, generous boy, dost thou not also tie thy father’s hands behind his back, that Caesar may find me unable to defend myself when he comes? Surely, to kill myself I have no need of a sword, when I have only to hold my breath a little while, or dash my head against the wall, and death will come.”
As Cato said these words the young man went out sobbing, and all the rest also, except Demetrius and Apollonides. These alone remained, and with these Cato began to talk, now in greater tones. “I suppose,” said he, “that ye also have decided to detain in life by force a man as old as I am, and to sit by him in silence and keep watch of him: or are ye come with the plea that it is neither shameful nor dreadful for Cato, when he has no other way of salvation, to await salvation at the hands of his enemy? Why, then, do ye not speak persuasively and convert me to this doctrine, that we may cast away those good old opinions and arguments which have been part of our very lives, be made wiser through Caesar’s efforts, and therefore be more grateful to him? And yet I, certainly, have come to no resolve, I must be master of the course which I decide to take. And I shall come to a resolve with your aid, as I might say, since I shall reach it with the aid of those doctrines which ye also adopt as philosophers. So go away with a good courage, and bid my son not to try force with his father when he cannot persuade him.”
Without making any reply to this, but bursting into tears, Demetrius and Apollonides slowly withdrew. Then the sword was sent in, carried by a little child, and Cato took it, drew it from its sheath, and examined it. And when he saw that its point was keen and its edge still sharp, he said: “Now I am my own master.” Then he laid down the sword and resumed his book, and he is said to have read it through twice. Afterwards he fell into so deep a sleep that those outside the chamber heard him. But about midnight he called two of his freedmen, Cleanthes the physician, and Butas, who was his chief agent in public matters. Butas he sent down to the sea, to find out whether all had set sail successfully, and bring him word; while to the physician he gave his hand to bandage, since it was inflamed by the blow that he had given the slave. This made everybody more cheerful, since they thought he had a mind to live. In a little while Butas came with tidings that all had set sail except Crassus, who was detained by some business or other, and he too was on the point of embarking; Butas reported also that a heavy storm and a high wind prevailed at sea. On hearing this, Cato groaned with pity for those in peril on the sea, and sent Butas down again, to find out whether anyone had been driven back by the storm and wanted any necessaries, and to report to him.
And now the birds were already beginning to sing, when he fell asleep again for a little while. And when Butas came and told him that the harbours were very quiet, he ordered him to close the door, throwing himself down upon his couch as if he were going to rest there for what still remained of the night. But when Butas had gone out, Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.
Before one would have thought that all in the house could learn of the event, the three hundred were at the door, and a little later the people of Utica had assembled. With one voice they called Cato their saviour and benefactor, the only man who was free, the only one unvanquished. And this they continued to do even when word was brought that Caesar was approaching. But neither fear of the conqueror, nor a desire to flatter him, nor their mutual strife and dissension, could blunt their desire to honour Cato. They decked his body in splendid fashion, gave it an illustrious escort, and buried it near the sea, where a statue of him now stands, sword in hand. Then they turned their thoughts to their own salvation and that of their city.
When Caesar learned from people who came to him that Cato was remaining in Utica and not trying to escape, but that he was sending off the rest, while he himself, his companions, and his son, were fearlessly going up and down, he thought it difficult to discern the purpose of the man, but since he made the greatest account of him, he came on with his army in all haste. When, however, he heard of his death, he said thus much only, as we are told: “O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.” For, in reality, if Cato could have consented to have his life spared by Caesar, he would not be thought to have defiled his own fair fame, but rather to have adorned that of Caesar. However, what would have happened is uncertain; though the milder course is to be conjectured on the part of Caesar.
When Cato died, he was forty-eight years old.