BMCR 2008.09.44

Themes, Character, and Politics in Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus: The Construction of a Roman Aristocrat. Historia Einzelschriften 201

, Themes, character, and politics in Plutarch's Life of Lucullus : the construction of a Roman aristocrat. Historia. Einzelschriften, Heft 201. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2008. 206 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9783515091244. €52.00.

Tröster’s study of Lucullus sets out to question the traditional image of Lucullus as the paradigmatic conservative Roman aristocrat, too old-fashioned for the Late Republic, by examining the literary evidence against what we know about the historical context in which Lucullus lived. In doing so, Tröster employs Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus — arguably the most influential of Lucullus’ portraits — as a central starting point for exploring his subject, then applies historical, literary, and, in some cases, archaeological evidence to determine which traditions surrounding Lucullus are likely to have been derived from propaganda and rhetorical and thematic elements, and which have more credible, factual foundations.

This book is not for those unfamiliar with Lucullus or the Late Republic; Tröster’s study assumes familiarity with Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus, and abundant knowledge of Sulla, Pompey, and the Late Republic. There is little historical description as Tröster devotes almost the entire work to specific evidence and argumentation.

In addition to setting forth his argument, Tröster uses the Introduction (Chapter 1) to present, succinctly and excellently, a summary of Plutarchan and Lucullan scholarship, the importance of the parallel Life of Cimon to the Life of Lucullus, the state of Late Republican Roman politics, and a short list of Plutarch’s source material. Tröster acknowledges the fuzzy line that exists in Plutarch’s Lives between history and biography (15) and explains that his “enquiry is committed to gaining historical insights from the investigation of a particular Life…rather than to exploring its meaning as a piece of didactic writing” (16). In doing so, he employs the Life in a manner quite contrary to the hallmark Plutarchists such as Timothy Duff and Christopher Pelling, among many others, who have primarily researched the Lives in order to illuminate moral and philosophical questions. Though Tröster admits that he relies on Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus more than most other scholars have, he insists that “political context of the themes and problems to be investigated is at the heart of the present enquiry” (13). Thus, for each theme Tröster discusses, he examines Plutarch’s conceptions of Lucullus within the political atmosphere of the Late Republic.

The study discusses Lucullus’ relationship to five major themes of Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus : Hellenism, τρυφή (luxury), Roman Politics, Military Leadership, and Roman Foreign Relations. Tröster’s thematic study provides, as he notes, a “reading complementary to the familiar chronological framework of analysis,” which allows him “to highlight the links between interrelated concepts and ideas that tend to be separated in more conventional accounts” (10). Since Tröster’s study is concerned more with deconstructing previous stereotypes about Lucullus, his method here works well. Though within the individual sections there is necessarily some chronological organization, the overlap of themes throughout the book (particularly chapters 4 and 5) underscores the usefulness of Tröster’s thematic approach. His method in this regard is hardly new to Plutarchan scholars, though it may be disappointing for those seeking a new, diachronic biography.

In the second chapter, Tröster discusses Lucullus’ Hellenism, an aspect of the statesman in Plutarch’s portrayal that has been considered a key element by Simon Swain.1 Like Swain, Tröster argues that Lucullus’ Hellenism was “key to Lucullus’ moral outlook” but adds that it was also “one of the driving forces between his private and public activities” (27). Importantly, Tröster argues against Swain’s contention that the connection between Lucullus and Hellenism was “adventitious” (33, 46). Tröster lists abundant evidence from Plutarch as well as Appian and Cicero that Lucullus was enamored of and especially kind towards Greeks: When Lucullus takes a Greek city, Plutarch names such events as “liberations”; furthermore, Lucullus’ actions towards Cyrene recall the words of Plato — always a virtuous trait where Plutarch is concerned. Still, Tröster admits that the theme of Hellenism present in the Life is, to some extent, untruthfully overwrought: Tigranes and Mithridates are depicted as anti-Hellenic, most likely contrary to the truth (39). Plutarch also likely over-states Lucullus’ philosophical competence, and Tröster cites evidence from Cicero’s letters that seems to challenge Plutarch’s view of Lucullus’ philosophical expertise (31). Importantly, Tröster places Lucullus’ Hellenism in context, noting that “Greekness” tended to help the Roman statesman despite its immoral connections with luxury in the Roman mind and may have been a method of self-promotion. Thus, though Plutarch portrays Lucullus as a true and honest lover of Hellenism, Tröster warns us against this simplistic view, seeing Lucullus’ Hellenism as more of a standard, aristocratic method of self-image as well as, potentially, a useful strategy in the East, as he argues later (Chapter 6).

In chapter 3, Tröster turns to perhaps the most famous aspect of Lucullus, his association with τρυφή, or luxury. Despite the rhetorical tradition that depicts Lucullus as an exemplum luxuriae (66), Tröster argues that many of these accusations reek of propaganda and rhetorical themes, especially the term Xerxes togatus promoted by Pompey (60-61) and the assertions that Lucullus owned luxurious estates and was a lover of piscinarii (62-63). Tröster refers the reader to the objections of Thomas Hillman,2 who states that there are several contradictions concerning Lucullus’ famous withdrawal from politics in Plutarch’s Life. Most noteworthy among these is Plutarch’s statement that Lucullus abandoned political ambitions after returning to Rome in 66 while awaiting his triumph in 63, but then the biographer relates several instances of political maneuvering up to 59. Tröster concedes that a second ‘retirement’ may have occurred after 59, but the discrepancy noted above rightly raises eyebrows. Lastly, Tröster introduces some archaeological evidence that seems to disprove the allegedly absurd size of Lucullus’ buildings as well as to show that the horti Lucullani, which Plutarch so maligns ( Luc. 39.2), were constructed well after Lucullus’ death. In conclusion, Tröster stresses that the claim of Lucullan luxury must not be taken literally and that it was not as preposterous as has been made out in the sources.

Chapters 4 and 5 are closely interrelated, as Tröster discusses Lucullus’ allegedly failed relationships with both the common people of Rome (chapter 4) and the military (chapter 5). Tröster here questions the views of historians such as Erich Gruen and Theodor Mommsen, who have labeled Lucullus as “haughty” and “unpopular” (77-78). However, Tröster convincingly shows that the evidence on Lucullus’ relationship to the citizens and military is complex and nearly irreconcilable. As Tröster notes, much of the evidence for Lucullus’ troubles with the demos is set up as thematic contrasts: e.g., Lucullus is an aristocratic “Sullan” but Cethegus is a populist demagogue (83).3 Such a schism is typical of Plutarch (and ancient historiography in general).4 Tröster also persuasively argues against the belief that Lucullus’ career was dependent on the so-called “Sullan faction,” contending that everyone had to be a kind of Sullan to survive the dictator’s reign (84) and that Lucullus’ political career should not be credited too much to his attachment to the aristocratic class. Furthermore, Tröster notes that Lucullus was a popular speaker, was sufficiently popular among the multitude at the beginning of his career and missed after his death (99-100). According to Tröster, Plutarch’s Lucullus suffers setbacks not only because of his relationship with the multitude, but also because of his conflicts with fellow aristocrats (104). In sum, Tröster argues that Lucullus was a flexible politician, one who used “a variety of techniques in order to improve his standing with the public and promote his personal goals” (104). Tröster concludes this chapter by stating that Lucullus’ image has been tainted by the rather schematic representation of the statesman as depicted by Plutarch. He once more opposes the accepted view of Lucullus as a steadfast “optimate,” and emphasizes that Lucullus’ career was directed by a combination of factors: “personal ambition, aristocratic competition, and regular communication with the multitude” (104, emphasis my own).

In Chapter 5, then, as Tröster excellently illustrates, countless contradictions once more arise when one examines Lucullus’ relationship with the common soldier. Plutarch relates how Lucullus was a stern but not over-strict disciplinarian (106), and contrasts the general’s gentleness with the brutality and greed of the soldiers. Despite these unworthy traits of the soldiery, Plutarch admits — a view corroborated by other ancient sources — that the soldiers’ eventual mutiny and the subsequent need for Lucullus’ replacement was at least partially to be blamed on the general himself, who lacked the ability to keep his men content ( Luc. 33.1-2). Tröster once again, as in the previous three chapters, urges the reader to remember the political and propagandistic aspects to these presentations of Lucullus (115). Of all the chapters, Tröster’s conclusion is least satisfying here. He admits that Lucullus likely had trouble with the common soldier, but that the sources are misleading (124). Unfortunately, though Tröster shows that Lucullus was a moderate disciplinarian and gave his troops plenty of money (yet not as much as Pompey would later bestow), it seems there is little evidence available to dispute the sources’ claims that Lucullus became strongly disliked. Still, Tröster states that Lucullus’ relationship with the troops, as with his relationship to the Roman multitude, “should be viewed as part of a complex and unstable pattern of success and failure” (125). This conclusion does little more than ask the reader not to accept Plutarch’s (and by extension, his contemporaries’) portrayals too readily, and fails, to some extent, to answer why such a characteristic should be so universally assigned to Lucullus.

In Chapter 6, Tröster abandons the multitude and soldiery in order to examine Lucullus’ relationship to foreign powers. I found this chapter the most exciting and full of possibilities. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the chapter in which Tröster abandons close readings of Plutarch’s Lucullus. Tröster argues that Lucullus’ behavior in the East in the Mithridatic War anticipated approaches used later by Pompey and Caesar (128). Citing Plutarch, Tröster shows that Lucullus deliberately recruited help from and made friendships with various Eastern leaders and cities, and subsequently earned several complimentary epithets, such as εὐεργέτης, σωτήρ, and πάτρων (133).5 Of course, as Tröster rightly warns the reader, plenty of extortionists and villains received honors from their client states, but he stresses that the number of Lucullus’ honors was “an extraordinary amount” (136). Tröster then contends that Lucullus’ connections to foreign powers were essential to his political influence (142), and that such relationships became instrumental to the increasingly independent generals of the Late Republic. Hence, Tröster asserts, when Pompey supplants Lucullus and takes command of the Mithridatic War, he obliterates Lucullus’ relationships in order to strengthen his own. The fact that Pompey was obsessed with Lucullus’ foreign political ties illustrates how crucial it was for each general to develop his own contacts and friendships.

In the conclusion (Chapter 7) Tröster recounts Plutarch’s reading of Lucullus and reinforces the arguments against the traditional views of Lucullus, stressing that there is no easy evaluation of the statesman (151). Additionally, Tröster warns — most importantly — that Plutarch’s depiction of Lucullus is completely devoid of political context, an old complaint against the biographer.6 Tröster reiterates the common characterizations of Lucullus as the “typical conservative” or even an “anachronism” who did not belong in the dynamic period that would come to be dominated by the likes of Pompey and Caesar. Yet Tröster convincingly argues that these depictions of Lucullus — poor in dealing with the multitude, a man of luxurious Hellenism — are dependent more on the propaganda and accomplishments of his rivals. (History, after all, is written by the victors.) Tröster maintains instead that Lucullus was a dynamic figure whose actions anticipate those of late Republican statesmen like Caesar and Pompey and should not be construed as those of a faceless, conservative Roman aristocrat. Like Caesar and Pompey, Lucullus was a creative, multi-faceted politician and general who not coincidentally rose to the highest office in Rome, essentially defeated the formerly invincible Mithridates, and, for all intents and purposes, had a tremendously successful political career in a very volatile period.

There is little with which to disagree in Tröster’s study. His methods are sound, his evidence convincing, and I find myself agreeing with his conclusions. Still, Tröster’s study is far more successful in tearing down old images of Lucullus than in constructing a new one. Tröster essentially argues that Lucullus is a creative, flexible leader, representative of the Late Republic, but I never quite get a picture of what that means. This result is somewhat intentional. Tröster states that his study, based on contextual considerations as it is, “tends to minimise the individual aspects of Lucullus’ career, thus effectively merging him into a mass of unrecognisable aristocrats who all share the same qualities and objectives” (156). Thus, we get little sense of how different Lucullus the politician was from his more famous rivals, such as Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. But we also get little sense of what made Lucullus more famous and important than so many other senators and former consuls of Late Republican Rome. If Lucullus was not a Cicero or Caesar, surely he was also not his colleague M. Aurelius Cotta. Despite this relatively minor criticism, I believe that Tröster has written a very well-researched book that adroitly argues for a more nuanced and far more interesting portrait of Lucullus. All future study of the man needs to start from Tröster’s work.

The book is meticulously edited, though the publisher employs an inconsistent reference method. When the reader is referred to a different author’s work, Tröster uses page numbers; but when referring to his own study, Tröster directs the reader via chapter number and footnotes.


1. Swain, Simon. “Plutarch’s Characterization of Lucullus,” in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie (1992), 135: 307-316.

2. Hillman, Thomas C. “When Did Lucullus Retire?” in Historia 42 (1993), 211-228.

3. On Plutarch’s schematic division between Senate and multitude, see Christopher Pelling, “Plutarch and Roman Politics,” in I.S. Moxon et al. (edd.): Past Perspectives. Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing. (Cambridge 1986) (= C. Pelling, Plutarch and History. Oxford, 2002, 207-236).

4. For the most volatile battle between nobility and the multitude, see the Coriolanus.

5. Plutarch’s own reverence for Lucullus 180 years later as the savior of his hometown of Chaeronia ( Cim. 1-2) lends further evidence for the general’s foreign policy.

6. Gomme, A. E., A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Vol I. Oxford, 1945, p. 54.