FORTEANA FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD COMPILED BY BARRY BALDWIN
223: GENERALLY SPEAKING
“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.