Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment,  but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.

Plutarch’s lessons in leadership

I have to begin this post by apologizing to all who follow my blog for not blogging regularly over the last few months. This is especially true of neglecting the timetable I set for my reading and blogging about the 10-year reading plan for the Great Books of the Western World. I do, however, have a good excuse! The vast majority of my time this summer went to writing and revising (and revising [and revising (and etc.)]) my MA thesis on W. E. B. Du Bois’s ideas about education and the application that might be made of them to educating disadvantaged youth in the 21st century. I have (finally) finished the writing and revision process (for the most part) and will be defending my thesis on the evening of August 6, which I am very excited about.

As a result of the strenuous efforts of thesis writing and revision, I have been unable to keep up with the schedule I set for following the 10-year reading plan and blogging about it. According to my estimate, I am about 4 months behind on reading and about 5 months behind on blogging. With that said, one of my goals is to catch up by the end of 2015, and this post is a good place to start. Because my reading of Plutarch’s lives of Lycurgus, Numa, Alexander, and Caesar was stretched over such a long period and because I am so far behind, I will not get especially deep into analysis and criticism. Instead, I want to offer just a few thoughts.

First, the theme I am just now beginning to pick up on for this year is one of leadership. “What does the ideal leader look like?,” seems to be one of the primary questions that is being asked. Of course, as a leader is first and foremost a role model, there is also the theme of “what does the ideal person look like?” Each of the four great men whose biographies we read in “March” were men who were simultaneously great and flawed. Caesar’s ambition is perhaps the most famous and obvious of the flaws of these four leaders, but one might also point to Alexander’s vainglory, Numa’s shortsightedness, and Lycurgus’s harshness, for example, as the flaws which eventually led to the dissolution of their respective peoples’ independence.

As a teacher, these are lessons I take to heart. For 190 days out of the year I have to stand in front of almost 100 students and throughout the school days am seen by hundreds more. Even “off-duty,” so to speak, and even with the size of Savannah, I frequently run into my students while out and about. Every mistake I make is, in a sense, an action that will become acceptable in their eyes. Every flaw I have has the potential to replicate itself through their respect for me and their following of the example that I role model. I’m no Alexander or Caesar, obviously, but I am a leader whose decisions have serious ramifications for the lives of those whom I teach, not to mention my own three young children.

As a husband and a father, I also see a great deal to learn from this month’s readings. As the head of my household and the leader of my family, the example that I set, the rules I enforce and the reasons why and how I enforce them, the care that I show, will all determine the course that my family will take. Arrogance, pride, shortsightedness, cruelty, impatience, and so on will each bring about their fruits within only a generation, as well each of their virtuous opposites.

It will be interesting to see whether and how this theme continues to be discussed and played out as we continue the readings this year. There are some very interesting examples of leaders, both magnificently great and tragically flawed, which we will see in this year’s coming readings. We move next to the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, two biblical texts which trace the great leaders of the Christian tradition, beginning with the Lord Himself and moving to the Apostles, including especially Peter and Paul. I hope to finish this reading and have my blog post about these up by mid-August so that we can then move on to arguably the greatest medieval figure of the Christian tradition, St. Augustine.

If you have been keeping up with the readings or have read these biographies of Plutarch in the past, please leave a comment and let me know what you think! Do you see the same theme in this year’s readings? What lessons on leadership do you see in Plutarch and the other readings we’ve covered so far?

Augustus Caesar: The First Roman Emperor (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.9)

After the death of Julius Caesar, Caesar’s nephew Octavian rushed back to Rome. Octavian, who was 19 years old, had been away at school when his great-uncle was assassinated. Caesar had adopted Octavian as his son and left most of his wealth to Octavian in his will. Octavian knew that he had to make some fast and wise decisions in order to inherit his great-uncle’s power as well. There were two groups he knew he especially needed on his side in order to become powerful in Rome, the plebeians and the soldiers.

Immediately upon returning to Rome and receiving his inheritance, Octavian threw a large party for all of the plebeians of Rome. Using the money he had inherited from Caesar, Octavian bought enough food and drinks to last for ten days. He gave them out to the people of Rome. He also paid to have gladiator contests and other entertainment provided for the people during that time. The plebeians began to love him for his generosity in throwing a 10 day long party for them.

Octavian also vowed to punish those who had killed Caesar. Caesar’s soldiers, who were very angry that their leader had been murdered, were very happy about this. When the army found out that Caesar had appointed Octavian as his heir, the soldiers pledged their loyalty to Octavian.

The following year, 43 BC, with the army and the plebeians both on his side, Octavian demanded to be made a consul. The Senate agreed and allowed him to rule alongside two other men. The three consuls, however, quickly began to fight against each other. Octavian was able to defeat both of his rivals and become sole ruler of Rome. As he acquired more power for himself, however, he was careful not to make the same mistake his great-uncle had. He knew that if he demanded to be made king the Senate would try to kill him too.

Instead, Octavian made the people of Rome love him more and more by passing laws that made their lives more comfortable. He developed a network of roads made of concrete that allowed people to move easily from one place to another in the lands owned by Rome. He reformed the tax system so that it was more lenient on the poor. He started a police and firefighter system in the city of Rome. By far his most important achievement is the long peace that he brought to Rome. Rome had not gone a single century without a large war since its beginning. Through building a large and well-trained army, Octavian was able to start a 200 year period of peace for the Romans, called the Pax Romana, which means “Roman Peace.” During this time, the Romans fought no major wars and the people of Rome lived without fear of invasion by other nations.

As Octavian did more and more for the people of Rome, his popularity continued to grow. The people wanted to give him more power. Each time it was offered, however, Octavian would reject it at first, saying that he did not want all of that power for himself. When the Senate offered to make him dictator, as they had made his great-uncle before, Octavian instead chose to be called Princeps, which means “First Citizen.” Even without the title, however, Octavian still had all the power of a dictator. He also had one power even his uncle did not have: he had the power to select who would rule Rome after his death. Octavian was also given a new name at this time. He was called Augustus, which means “blessed” and “majestic.” It is for this reason that Augustus is considered by historians to have been the first Roman emperor. He reigned as emperor from 27 BC – 14 AD. His legacy, the Roman Empire, continued for more than a thousand years after his death.


Review Questions

 1. What did Octavian do to make the plebeians of Rome love him?

2. Why did the army love Octavian?

3. What was Octavian’s named changed to in 27 BC?

Primary Source Selection: “Life of Julius Caesar” by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.8)

There was added to these causes of offence his insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And Antony was one of the runners in the sacred race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, he carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and preconcerted. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded. The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison. Moreover, the people followed the tribunes with applause and called them Brutuses, because Brutus was the man who put an end to the royal succession and brought the power into the hands of the senate and people instead of a sole ruler. At this, Caesar was greatly vexed, and deprived Maryllus and Flavius of their office, while in his denunciation of them, although he at the same time insulted the people, he called them repeatedly Brutes and Cymaeans.

Julius Caesar (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.7)

One of the most influential politicians in the history of Rome was Julius Caesar. Caesar was able to gain power for himself through wise leadership, charisma, and cunning. Caesar’s actions changed Rome forever. To this day Caesar is remembered as one of the greatest Roman men.

Julius Caesar was born into a wealthy and powerful patrician family in 100 BC. His family was deeply involved in politics even before Caesar was born. His father was a member of the Senate and his uncle had served as a Consul. From an early age, Caesar’s parents trained him to become a great politician and leader. He was sent to the best schools in Rome, where he learned reading, writing, mathematics, and rhetoric.

Caesar was especially interested in rhetoric because he knew that speaking well was one of the most important parts of being a great leader. He wanted people to listen to him and to agree with him. He wanted to be able to persuade them using his speaking abilities. As a young man, Caesar sought out the best teachers he could find.

Once, while travelling to the home of a great rhetoric teacher on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, the ship Caesar was on was taken over by pirates. The pirates knew from Caesar’s clean and expensive clothing that he was from a wealth family. They decided to kidnap him and demand a ransom from his family. While he was a prisoner of the pirates, Caesar treated them as if they were his prisoners. He ordered them around and yelled at them to serve him. When the pirates laughed at Caesar, he promised that once he was free he would return and show them who was in charge.

After Caesar’s family paid the ransom money, Caesar went back to Rome and asked the Senate to provide him with a small navy. He told them that with enough ships and sailors he could take care of the problem of pirates on the Mediterranean. The Senate decided to let Caesar try to get rid of the pirates. Using the ships and sailors the Senate had given him, Caesar was able to track down the pirates who had kidnapped him. He captured them and had them all put to death. From then on, the Mediterranean Sea was safe for Romans to travel without fear of attacks by pirates.

Because of his excellent leadership abilities, the Senate appointed Caesar as governor of Spain. Once, while he was in Spain as governor, Caesar sat in his home with some friends reading a biography of Alexander the Great. As he read, Caesar began to cry. When his friends asked Caesar why he was crying, he responded, “By the time Alexander was my age he had conquered a great empire and I am only the governor of one province!”

Eventually, Caesar was able to convince the Senate to make him a Consul. Because there were already two Consuls, Caesar became the third Consul. The three Consuls – Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey – were together called the Triumvirate.

Even being a Consul was not good enough for Caesar, however. He wanted to prove himself on the battlefield by expanding Roman power to new territories. In 55 BC, Caesar invaded the island of Britain and tried to conquer it from the fierce barbarian people who lived there. Although Caesar won many battles during his war in Britain, he also lost many. He only wrote home to the people of Rome about his victories, though, and never told them about his defeats. He became known throughout Rome as a great military leader. He was once asked what his strategy in battle was, to which he responded, “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” In Latin this means, “I came. I saw. I conquered.”

In 53 BC, Crassus died in battle, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the two remaining Consuls. Pompey had also become Caesar’s son-in-law by marrying Caesar’s daughter. Caesar thought that his power was secure. The Senate, however, was becoming very afraid of Caesar’s increasing power. They were especially jealous of his popularity among the plebeians. They ordered that Caesar be arrested. Caesar’s own son-in-law and Co-Consul Pompey even decided to take the Senate’s side and arrest Caesar!

When Caesar heard about what was happening back in Rome, he rushed from Britain back to Italy. When he arrived in Italy, he had to make a very important decision. Everything on the Italian peninsula south of a river called the Rubicon was considered the land of the Senate. If he crossed that river and headed toward Rome he would be challenging the Senate to a battle. There would be a civil war in Rome with Caesar’s armies fighting on one side and the armies of the Senate, led by Pompey, on the other. If Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Rome would change forever and there would be no turning back. Caesar decided to cross the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC. He headed for Rome.

Caesar’s well-trained and experienced legion easily made their way to the capital. As they arrived, Pompey fled the city in fear. He went to Egypt, hoping that the Egyptians would help him in his fight against Caesar. The rulers of Egypt were the descendants of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy had taken charge of Egypt and his family had ruled ever since. The two rulers of Egypt at that time, Cleopatra and her brother, also named Ptolemy, were fighting with each other over who would be the only ruler of Egypt. Both of them wanted Caesar, who was now the most powerful man in the world, on their side. Ptolemy thought that he would make Caesar happy by killing Pompey, so he had Pompey’s head cut off and sent back to Caesar as a gift. Ptolemy had made a horrible mistake, though. Although Pompey was Caesar’s political enemy, Pompey was still Caesar’s son-in-law and had been his friend for many years. Caesar was angry at Ptolemy and decided to take over Egypt.

Cleopatra saw this as her chance to get Caesar on her side. Like her ancestors before her, was a very clever ruler. She was also very beautiful. She spoke to Caesar and convinced him to help her get rid of her brother. Caesar agreed and used his armies to fight against Ptolemy. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River during the battle, leaving Cleopatra as ruler of Egypt. Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra and even had a son with her, whom she named Caesarion. When Caesar returned to Rome the next year, Cleopatra went with him.

Caesar returned to Rome, he was greeted by cheering crowds. Even the Senate agreed to give him awards for his great military victories. He was given the title of dictator, meaning that he had all of the powers of a king but not the title. He used his new power to pass laws that reformed taxes and land policies in Rome. He also passed other laws that were helpful to the plebeians. One of the most important laws he passed was a change to the Roman calendar. Until then, the Roman calendar had been based on the cycles of the moon. Caesar decided to make the Roman calendar like the Egyptian calendar and base it on the time it takes for the earth to go around the Sun, which is about 365 days. This is why we have 365 days in a year on our calendar today.

Even all of this power and praise were not enough for Caesar, however. He did not want to just have the powers of a king, but to actually be called a king. He believed that the rulers of other nations and empires would not respect him unless he was a king. The Senate agreed to make him king and told him to come to the Senate building in the morning on March 15, 44 BC to be crowned. March 15 was called the Ides of March by the Romans. It is a date that is still remembered for what happened in the Senate building that day.

When Caesar arrived, the senators began to act strangely toward him. One of them pulled at his cloak, another bowed to him, and finally another senator ran at him with a dagger. Sixty senators and other patricians attacked Caesar. They stabbed him 23 times. They had secretly decided to assassinate him because they believed he had become too powerful and too ambitious. Finally, Caesar slipped and fell. As he lay on the floor bleeding from his many wounds, he looked up and saw one last senator, his best friend and most loyal supporter, a man named Brutus. As Caesar reached out to Brutus, Brutus also pulled out a knife and stabbed Caesar. Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?” In Latin this means, “And you too, Brutus?” Above where Caesar lay dead was a statue of Pompey.


 Review Questions

 1. What was the name of Julius Caesar’s son-in-law?

2. What river did Caesar cross, causing a civil war?

3. What Egyptian queen did Caesar fall in love with?

4. On what date was Caesar assassinated?

5. Who was the last person to stab Caesar?


Vocabulary Words

 Ambition – having or showing a strong desire or determination to be successful

Dictator – a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.

Legion – an army of about 5000 Roman soldiers

Rhetoric – the art of speaking and writing well