BMCR 1994.09.13

1994.09.13, Konrad, Plutarch’s Sertorius

, Plutarch's Sertorius : a historical commentary. Plutarch. Sertorius.. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. lvi, 259 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780807821398. $49.95.

“I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil. I just think it’s wrong.”—George Bush, debate on Oct. 11, 1992.

Emotions run high when the distinction between civis and hostis becomes blurred: witness Jane Fonda, Willy Brandt, Marlene Dietrich, and the presiding figure of this new commentary, Quintus Sertorius. A problematic figure even to his contemporaries, in modern scholarship Sertorius has been by turns romanticized as the leader of a liberation movement and vilified as a traitor to Rome. Philip Spann’s Quintus Sertorius and the Legacy of Sulla (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987) went a long way towards creating a more balanced portrait of the man, better attuned to Roman realities and the accounts found in our sources. Now K.’s commentary shows how much a close reading of Plutarch’s text can lead to an unquestionably more correct appreciation of the man and his times.

In most respects this work follows the model of Philip Stadter’s elegant commentary on Plutarch’s Pericles (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989). At its core is a reprint of Ziegler’s Teubner text of the Life, prefaced by an introduction on Plutarch’s aims, methods and sources, together with a survey of other ancient sources for Sertorius. Each section of the commentary proper begins with a brief description of what Plutarch is doing, adduces comparanda from other Lives, and deduces the function of this particular passage in the Life as a whole. Only when Plutarch’s program has been made patent (or at least probable) does the historian venture to scrutinize the individual details. The work betrays an erudite command of the literature in every pertinent field and a particular joy in all things Iberian. The commentary is rounded out with two much-needed and gratefully appreciated maps and an up-to-date and informative excursus on the peoples then inhabiting the Iberian peninsula. The production, typography, and index are outstanding and the commentary sound: without a doubt this will be the commentary on Sertorius for the foreseeable future.

As one would expect, considering the extremely dissimilar natures of the Pericles and the Sertorius, K.’s approach differs from Stadter’s. Despite the author-based methodology outlined above and K.’s masterful understanding of P. as a literary author and gentleman, K.’s work is an uncompromisingly historical commentary and is so titled. That K.’s focus is primarily on Sertorius and his time is shown by the fact that Attis, Actaion, and Charidemos (the mercenary, RE [5]) all go uncommented upon in the first chapter. To be sure, most points of mythological, geographical, linguistic, and literary interest are explicated well and at length, but this commentary is primarily designed for readers eager to mine the Sertorius as a historical source.

Well and good, but it is precisely those readers who would benefit from features such as a brief history of the text, a discussion of P.’s style, and perhaps a little more paraphrase and translation in the notes. A simple referral to Stadter’s masterful and concise treatment of text and style would have sufficed, if space considerations prevented K. from delving into such matters on his own. K. offers a few readings that differ from Ziegler’s text and it would be helpful to have them all listed on one page. History-oriented readers may find that their responses to the text and commentary engender basic questions as to the manuscripts, Plutarch’s Greek, or even Koine in general and some might not know where to turn for enlightenment.

These are minor details; the glory of the work is in the sound arguments that grace the commentary itself. First the reader is led through a series of arguments for updating and redating much of what we know or think we know about Sertorius’ steps along the cursus honorum. K. has a quite compelling refutation of the common belief that Sertorius’ rhetorical training took place in Rome (36-7) and some choice insights on his early spying missions (45). In some cases, as here, K. refutes Spann’s reconstruction of events, at other times he substantially modifies it, and just as often he accepts it. Based on negative evidence, he makes a very tentative case for a tribunate in 87 (59-62). He dates Sertorius’ praetorship to 85, and his reconstruction of the incident at Suessa is the most plausible that I’ve seen. Throughout K. takes care to avoid rhetorical hyperbole such as “must have been…”, “doubtless…” or “surely this could have been no other than…”, yet nonetheless constructs extremely convincing arguments. K. applies prosopography to good use, being most productive where his skepticism debunks the overstated claims of earlier scholars (see his discussion of the Flacci 85-6). His caution is also salutary in his overall reading of his author: it is refreshing to read someone wise enough to refrain from drawing conclusions based upon what Plutarch doesn’t tell us.

K. believes in isolating and analyzing literary and mythological motifs, but not to the point of denying Realien. The Atlantic Isles were there and Sertorius heard of them: sometimes an island paradise is just an island paradise. K. raises the possibility that instead of P., Poseidonios, or Sallust adapting and inserting pre-existing motifs, Sertorius himself, a known manipulator of superstition, may have worked at creating his own legend. This probably accounts for some episodes, but the following sentences contain more than just infelicitous overstatement: “[T]he ease and skill with which he was to exercise his leadership … indicated a more than superficial understanding of Hispanian, and especially Celto-Hispanian, culture. When he learned of the real islands in the Atlantic, he could hardly have failed to realize their significance in the context of Celtic beliefs” (110). This is a projection of K.’s 20th century anthropological perspective and undercuts the picture of Sertorius that emerges elsewhere in the book. Building upon Spann’s work, K. has Sertorius being invited to lead the Lusitani, as a Roman governor (116-7, referring to Spann 58-62). Spann and K. are in agreement that the Lusitani and Sertorius’ other non-Roman allies had their own motives for remaining in a clearly “Roman” context. The problematic nature of their claim to legitimacy would have forced an extremely Roman discourse and procedure in Sertorius’consilium (see Spann 169-174). Sertorius thereby maintained his political viability, did not renounce his citizenship, and did not inhale any Celtic mythology and leadership tactics. We have no compelling proof that Sertorius’ knowledge of Celtic customs went beyond the smattering of the language P. mentions in chapter 3.3. P. mentions Alcibiades’ ability to adjust to whatever customs prevailed about him, but does not emphasize this aspect of Sertorius. The modern looks at Sertorius and finds T.E. Lawrence, but there is little evidence for this in the Roman mindset and none in Plutarch’s.

To conclude, K.’s commentary is learned, cogent, and thought-provoking. It says much about Sertorius and his times and not a little about Plutarch’s motives and methods.