Comparison of Agis and Cleomenes and the Gracchi, 1–5

Plutarch  translated by Bernadotte Perrin

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1Now that I have brought this story of the Gracchi also to an end, it remains for me to take a survey of all four lives in parallel. As for the Gracchi, then, not even those who utterly revile and hate them on other grounds have ventured to deny that of all Romans they were best equipped by nature for the practice of virtue, and enjoyed a rearing and training which were preëminent; 2but Agis and Cleomenes would appear to have had even sturdier natural gifts than theirs, in so far as, though they did not receive a correct training, and were reared in those customs and ways of living by which their elders had long ago been corrupted, they nevertheless made themselves leaders in simplicity and self-restraint. 3And further, the Gracchi, at a time when Rome had her greatest and most splendid repute and an ardour for noble deeds, were prevented by a sense of shame from abandoning what was like an inheritance of virtue from ancestors near and remote; Agis and Cleomenes, on the other hand, though they were sons of fathers who had adopted opposite principles to theirs, and found their country in a wretched plight and full of distempers, did not suffer these things to blunt the edge of their zeal for what was noble. 4Moreover, the chief proof that the Gracchi scorned wealth and were superior to money lies in the fact that they kept themselves clear from unrighteous gains during their official and political life; whereas Agis would have been incensed to receive praise for not taking anything that was another’s, since he freely gave to his fellow citizens his own property, which amounted to six hundred talents in ready money alone, to say nothing of other valuables. How great a baseness, then, would unlawful gain have been held to be by one in whose eyes even the lawful possession of more than another was rapacity?

2Again, the enterprise and boldness of their attempted reforms were certainly very different in magnitude. For in their political activities Caius had in view the construction of roads and the founding of cities, and the boldest of all the projects of the Romans were, in the case of Tiberius the recovery of the public lands, and in that of Caius the reconstitution of the courts of justice by the addition of three hundred men from the equestrian order; 2whereas Agis and Cleomenes in their reforms, considering that the application of trifling and partial remedies and excisions to the disorders of the state was nothing more than cutting off a Hydra’s heads (as Plato says),[1] tried to introduce into the constitution a change which was able to transform and get rid of all evils at once; 3though perhaps it is more in accordance with the truth to say that they banished the change which had wrought all sorts of evils, by bringing back the state to its proper form and establishing it therein. Besides, this also can be said, that the policies of the Gracchi were opposed by the greatest Romans, whereas those which Agis instituted and Cleomenes consummated were based upon the fairest and most imposing precedents, namely, the ancient rhetras or unwritten laws concerning simplicity of life and equality of property, for which Lycurgus was voucher to them, and the Pythian Apollo to Lycurgus.[2] 4But the most important consideration is that through the political activity of the Gracchi Rome made no advance in greatness, whereas, in consequence of the achievements of Cleomenes, within a short time Greece beheld Sparta mistress of the Peloponnesus and carrying on a struggle for the supremacy with those who then had the greatest power, the object of which struggle was to set Greece free from Illyrian and Gaulish troops and array her once more under descendants of Heracles.

3I think, too, that the way in which the men died makes manifest a difference in their high excellence. For the Gracchi fought against their fellow citizens, and then died as they sought to make their escape; but in the case of the Greeks, Agis would not kill a single citizen, and therefore died what one might almost call a voluntary death, and Cleomenes, after setting out to avenge himself for insults and wrongs, found the occasion unfavourable and with a good courage slew himself. 2But again, when we take the opposite view of their relative merits, Agis displayed no deed worthy of a great commander, but was cut off untimely, and with the many honourable victories won by Cleomenes we can compare the capture of the wall at Carthage by Tiberius, which was no trifling deed, and his truce at Numantia, by which twenty thousand Roman soldiers who had no other hope of salvation were spared; and Caius, too, manifested great bravery in military service at home, and great bravery in Sardinia, so that the brothers might have vied successfully with the foremost Roman generals, had they not been cut off untimely.

4In their civic activities, however, Agis would seem to have taken hold of things with too little spirit; he was baffled by Agesilaüs, and broke his promise to the citizens about the re-distribution of lands, and in a word abandoned and left unfinished the designs which he had deliberately formed and announced, owing to a lack of courage due to his youth. Cleomenes, on the contrary, undertook his change of the constitution with too much rashness and violence, killing the ephors in unlawful fashion, when it would have been easier to win them over to his views or remove them by superiority in arms, just as he removed many others from the city. 2For a resort to the knife, except under extremest necessity, is not the mark either of a good physician or statesman, but in both cases shows a lack of skill, and in the case of the statesman there is added both injustice and cruelty. Neither of the Gracchi, however, initiated civil slaughter, and Caius, we are told, would not resort to self-defence even when his life was threatened, but though he was a most brilliant soldier in the field, he showed himself most inactive in civil strife. 3For he went forth from his house unarmed and withdrew when the battle began, and in a word was seen to be more intent upon not doing any harm to others than upon not suffering harm himself. Therefore we must hold that the flight of the brothers was not a mark of cowardice, but of caution. For they were obliged either to yield to their assailants, or, in case they held their ground, to defend themselves actively against harm.

5Again, the greatest of the accusations against Tiberius is that he deposed his colleague from the tribuneship and canvassed for a second tribuneship himself; and as for Caius, the murder of Antyllius was unjustly and falsely attributed to him, for it happened contrary to his wishes and much to his displeasure. But Cleomenes, not to mention again his slaughter of the ephors, set free all the slaves, 2and was king by himself in point of fact, though nominally with another, after he had chosen his brother Eucleidas, a man from the same house, as his colleague; and he persuaded Archidamus, who belonged to the other house and should have been his colleague on the throne, to come back to Sparta from Messene, and upon his death, by not following up the murder, he fixed upon himself the blame for his taking off. 3And yet Lycurgus, whom he professed to imitate, voluntarily surrendered the royal power to Charillus his brother’s son, and because he feared lest, if the young man should die by another’s hand, some blame might attach to himself, he wandered a long time in foreign parts, and would not come back until a son had been born to Charillus who should succeed to his office.[3] However, with Lycurgus no other Greek is worthy to be compared; but that the political measures of Cleomenes were marked by greater innovations and illegalities than those of the Gracchi, is evident. 4And indeed those who are inclined to criticize their characters accuse the two Greeks of having been from the outset over fond of power and strife, and the two Romans of having been by nature immoderately ambitious, though their detractors could bring no other charge against them; nay, it was agreed that they were caught up by the fury of the contest with their opponents and by a passion contrary to their own natural bent, as by blasts of wind, and so let the state drive into extremest danger. 5For what could be more just and honourable than their original design? And they would have succeeded in it, had not the party of the rich, by their violent and partisan attempts to abrogate the agrarian law, involved both of them in fierce struggles, Tiberius through fear for his own life, and Caius in an effort to avenge his brother, who had been slain without justice or senatorial decree and without the concurrence even of a magistrate.

6From what has been said, then, my reader will perceive for himself the difference between these men; but if I am to express my opinion of them individually, I should say that Tiberius led them all in exemplary virtues, that the youthful Agis committed the fewest errors, and that in achievement and courage Caius fell far short of Cleomenes.

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  • [1] Republic, p. 426 e.

  • [2] See the Lycurgus, xiii.

  • [3] See the Lycurgus, iii. 5.