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“The PM [Churchill] said ev­ery prospec­tive of­fi­cer should fol­low Gen­eral Gor­don’s ad­vice and read Plutarch’s

Lives” – John Colville, The Fringes of Power (2002), p273.

In cause here is his biography of Quin­tus Ser­to­rius (126-72 BC). Hardly a house­hold name today. But he was in the Ibe­rian cam­paign of Napoleon (him­self an avid reader of Plutarch from boy­hood), thanks to Wil­liam Wordsworth, who in both his Pre­lude and Span­ish Guer­ril­las in­voked his name in praise of the Span­ish re­sis­tance lead­ers against Bon­a­parte.

The poet had clearly been read­ing Plutarch’s Life, char­ac­terised by Martin Mur­phy, ‘To the For­tu­nate Isles: Ser­to­rius and his leg­end, from Plutarch to Wordsworth,’ TLS, 26 March 2014, as “The near­est thing to an ad­ven­ture book for boys ever writ­ten by a Greek or Ro­man writer, a com­bi­na­tion of TE Lawrence and Richard Han­nay.”

Ser­to­rius has at­tracted vi­o­lently op­po­site ver­dicts from his­to­ri­ans. The mighty Theodor Momm­sen (1882) hailed him as “One of the great­est men, if not the very great­est man that Rome had hith­erto pro­duced – a man who un­der more for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances would per­haps have be­come the re­gen­er­a­tor of his coun­try.” Un­der Momm­sen’s tow­er­ing in­flu­ence, Adolf Schul­ten pub­lished a pan­e­gyric ( Ser­to­rius, 1926). Vi­o­lent op­po­si­tion be­gan with H Berve, ‘Ser­to­rius’, Her­mes 64 (1929), 97-106, damn­ing him as a treach­er­ous rene­gade. The pen­du­lum even­tu­ally swung back, thanks to Philip Spann’s Quin­tus Ser­to­rius

and the Legacy of Sulla (1987), and CF Kon­rad’s Com­men­tary (1994).

Plutarch him­self kicks off some­what in Boys’ Own style with a se­ries of co­in­ci­dences from the past, e.g. the two At­tises both killed by wild boars and the two Ac­tæons both torn apart by dogs, plus the re­flec­tion that the most war­like and crafty of gen­er­als – Philip, Antigonus, Han­ni­bal – were all one-eyed, Ser­to­rius qual­i­fy­ing by los­ing an eye in com­bat.

Ser­to­rius’s mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal ca­reers were em­broiled in the civil war be­tween Mar­ius and Sulla, ex­tend­ing to eastern of­fen­sives against Mithri­dates. He fought var­i­ous bat­tles both in Italy and North Africa, but Spain (hence Wordsworth’s evo­ca­tion in Napoleon’s Ibe­rian con­text) was his main the­atre.

De­spite win­ning early fame in a dar­ing spy mis­sion against tribal en­e­mies and be­ing awarded the Grass Crown for brav­ery – Ro­man equiv­a­lent to the VC, awarded (Pliny, Nat­u­ral His­tory, bk22 ch4 para3) only nine times – Ser­to­rius was se­duced by some sailors’ ac­counts of the Ca­nary Is­lands as Homer’s For­tu­nate Isles (again echoed in Wordsworth) into a de­sire to re­tire there to a care­free life.

No such luck. But he did find an ex­otic link with the past at Tingis, Libya, namely the tomb of An­tæus the fa­mous mythic wrestler, con­tain­ing a body 60 cu­bits long – the “dumb­founded” Ser­to­rius had it re­buried with sac­ri­fi­cial hon­ours.

An­other more use­ful ro­man­ti­cism came his way in Spain. He was pre­sented by a com­moner with a faun of un­usual colour – pure white – which he rep­re­sented to the cred­u­lous lo­cals as pos­sess­ing a direct link to the god­dess Diana, who sup­plied him with vi­tal mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence. This was swal­lowed whole, earn­ing him a pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing, the an­i­mal be­com­ing a faun in the en­e­mies’ flesh. Martin Mur­phy plau­si­bly sug­gests that this crea­ture may have in­spired Wordsworth’s The White Doe of Ryl­stone.

His rep­u­ta­tion was re­dou­bled in the city of Osca, where he es­tab­lished a school for the lo­cal bar­bar­ian qual­ity’s sons, pro­vid­ing pur­ple to­gas as the uni­forms. To con­cil­i­ate the adult Spa­niards to Ro­man ways, he also es­tab­lished a lo­cal Se­nate of 300. Later on, though, this all turned sour in a re­volt, as pun­ish­ment for which Ser­to­rius killed a num­ber of his school’s pupils and sold the rest into slav­ery.

Hailed as ‘The New Han­ni­bal’, Ser­to­rius showed him­self as tricky as the Pu­nic leader when he de­feated a lo­cal army by pil­ing up a mound of loose ashy soil and hav­ing the strong pre­vail­ing winds blow it back into the en­emy’s faces, blind­ing and chok­ing them – an earthy char­ac­ter in­deed.

Ser­to­rius’s suc­cesses nat­u­rally in­curred the jeal­ousy of other Ro­man of­fi­cers, above all Mar­cus Per­penna Vento, who started plot­ting to liq­ui­date him, tak­ing fel­low-of­fi­cer Man­lius as co-con­spir­a­tor. Man­lius, how­ever, told his boyfriend about the scheme. The lat­ter promptly told an­other of his lovers, Au­fid­ius, al­ready privy to the plot and roused by this – he de­spised Man­lius – urged Per­penna to ex­pe­dite the deed. Ser­to­rius was tricked into ac­cept­ing a din­ner in­vi­ta­tion by Per­penna. In def­er­ence to his moral pro­bity, his hosts usu­ally kept the pro­ceed­ings re­spectable. But Per­penna’s other guests, feign­ing drunk­en­ness, tried to up­set Ser­to­rius by “in­dulging in ob­scene lan­guage and com­mit­ting many in­de­cent acts”. Ser­to­rius did not rise to the bait, merely ly­ing back and ig­nor­ing them. Fi­nally, Per­penna let drop a wine glass, its clat­ter the sig­nal, and Ser­to­rius was hacked to death by couch-mate An­to­nius and many oth­ers.

Per­penna soon got his come-up­pance. Hav­ing at­tacked Pom­pey (the fu­ture ‘Great’), a fi­asco re­sult­ing in his cap­ture, he sought to in­gra­ti­ate him­self by pro­duc­ing doc­u­ments sup­pos­edly show­ing Ser­to­rius to have been har­bour­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary designs. Pom­pey took the pa­pers and with­out a glance made a bon­fire of them and im­me­di­ately ex­e­cuted Per­penna. The only sur­vivor of the plot against Ser­to­rius was Au­fid­ius who “Ei­ther be­cause peo­ple did not recog­nise him or ig­nored him, lived to old age in a bar­bar­ian vil­lage, des­ti­tute and de­spised” – clas­sic Plutarchean moral­is­ing fi­nale.

In his Ser­to­rius (1662), Corneille makes his hero say: “Rome n’est plus dans Rome: elle est toute où je suis” – Rome is no longer in Rome; she is wher­ever I am. Martin Mur­phy ends his es­say with the nifty idea that this, mu­tatis mu­tan­dis, would have been the ideal quo­ta­tion for Gen­eral de Gaulle in his wartime Lon­don ex­ile – cer­tainly a nice bit of Gaul blather.

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