On Plutarch’s Lives of Alcibiades and Coriolanus

In recently reading Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, I was inspired to revisit his chief source material, Plutarch’s Lives, a collection of biographical vignettes in which Plutarch endeavors to compare the lives of remarkable Greeks and Romans with an eye toward their moral qualities. In this case, Plutarch contrasts the life of Alcibiades (a Greek) with Coriolanus (a Roman), and surprisingly he seems to conclude that Coriolanus possesses greater moral qualities than Alcibiades. In many other cases, the Greeks were shown to be superior than the Romans according to Plutarch. At any rate, I decided to analyze both biographies in an effort to see what Shakespeare might have been considering when crafting his tragedy of Coriolanus.  

We begin, as Plutarch did, with Alcibiades –the notorious celebrity, politician, and tactician of ancient Athens. By rumor, Alcibiades descended from Eurysaces, the son of the Homeric hero Ajax. His father gained great honor by fitting a galley for the battle at Artemisium and was killed at the Battle of Coronea while fighting the Boetians. After his father’s death, Alcibiades was taken in by none other than Pericles and his wife Ariphon, who became his guardians.

In youth, Alcibiades was publicly viewed as just another mischievous, unruly, frivolous golden-haired child of Athens –a pompous, wayward child who was nevertheless charismatic and physically attractive. Plutarch says: “It is not, perhaps, material to say anything of the beauty of Alcibiades, only that it bloomed with him in all the ages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and, in the peculiar character becoming to each of these periods, gave him, in every one of them, a grace and a charm” (258).

It was said that Alcibiades had a lisp, which is attested to by several sources aside from Plutarch, but it was a apparently a unique and endearing physical trait. It only added to his charisma. Alcibiades fought at the Battle of Potidaea, where he bunked with and stood alongside Socrates. In fact, Socrates once rescued Alcibiades from near-death, but owing to Alcibiades’s station and popularity, he was given the honor by the people.  

Plutarch offers a brief anecdote wherein, as a young man, Alcibiades boxed the ear of Hipponicus, father of Callias, unprovoked for which Alcibiades received condemnation by a great many people. In apology, he presented his naked body to be scourged by Hipponicus at his home the next day, instead Hipponicus offered his daughter in marriage to Alcibiades. However, she quickly grew exasperated with Alcibiades’s flamboyant and luxurious ways. He entertained so many courtesans and strangers alike using gold and silver owned by the commonwealth) that his otherwise “dutiful wife” departed and resided at her brother’s house until she was summoned to defend her desire for a divorce, but Alcibiades arrived and forcibly carried her home through the market. Plutarch notes this was somewhat more customary in their day.

Alcibiades was remarkably eloquent –his silver tongue never failed to find the right words for every crowd. As such, he was born for politics, and his early confidantes were Nicias and Phaex, though Alcibiades’s pride was so expansive that he regarded himself as best among his friends. Plutarch says, “among the many strong passions of his real character, the one most prevailing of all was his ambition and desire of superiority” (259). Realizing that this high-born young man was vulnerable to flattery and manipulation, Socrates took Alcibiades under his wing as a student. Plutarch notes that Socrates had a tempering effect on Alcibiades’s spiritedness, their relationship pushed away many other admirers and flatterers. “But those who endeavored to corrupt Alcibiades took advantage chiefly of his vanity and ambition, and thrust him unseasonably to undertake great enterprises, persuading him that as soon as he began to concern himself in public affairs, he would not only obscure the rest of the generals and statesmen, but outdo the authority and the reputation which Pericles himself had gained in Greece. But in the same manner as iron which is softened by the fire grows hard with the cold and all its parts are closed again, so, as often as Socrates observed Alcibiades to be misled by luxury or pride, he reduced and corrected him by his addresses, and made him humble and modest, by showing him in how many things he was deficient, and how very far from perfection in virtue” (269).

All of his love of the finer things in life earned Alcibiades a reputation among the people of Athens: “But with all these words and deeds, and with all this sagacity and eloquence, he intermingled exorbitant luxury and wantonness, in his eating and drinking and dissolute living; wore long purple robes like a woman, which dragged after him as he went through the market-place,; caused the planks of his galley to be cut away, that so he might lie the softer, his bednot being placed on boards, but hanging upon girths. His shield, again, which was richly gilded, had not the usual ensigns of the Athenians, but a Cupid, holding a thunderbolt in his hand, was painted upon it. The sight of all this made the people of good repute in the city feel disgust and abhorrence, and apprehension also, at his free living, and his contempt of law, as things monstrous in themselves, and indicating designs of usurpation. Aristophanes has well expressed the people’s feelings towards him— ‘They love, and hate, and cannot do without him.’ The truth is, his liberalities, his public shows, and other munificence to the people, which were such as nothing could exceed, the glory of his ancestors, the force of his eloquence, the grace of his person, his strength of body, joined with his great courage and knowledge in military affairs, prevailed upon the Athenians to endure patiently his excesses, to indulge many things to him, and according to their habit, to give the softest names to his faults, attributing them to youth and good nature” (269).

It was not long before the wrath of envy took hold, and Alcibiades privately turned against some of his friends amidst the ongoing Peloponnesian War. In particular, Alcibiades resented his compatriot Nicias who negotiated a temporary peace –indeed, it was commonly said in Greece at the time that Pericles started the war but Nicias ended it (it was known as the “Peace of Nicias”). Plutarch describes how this popular praise of Nicias actually drove Alcibiades to keep the war going, by at once betraying a delegation of Lacedemonians and also creating a new confederacy of allies among the Argives, Eleans, and the people of Mantinea. He committed many acts considered noble by the people –like siring a child with an enslaved Melian woman only to elect to educate the boy properly, yet he was also the principal cause of the horrific slaughter of the inhabitants of the isle of Melos (the Melian Siege which is memorably by Thucydides in the “Melian Dialogue” section of his History). It was what we might call today a genocide. Melos was a neutral island, refusing to bow to either Sparta or Athens in the Pelopponesian War, however the Athenians slaughtered every adult man on the island and sold all the women and children into slavery. The island was then populated by Athenians and it came under the pruview of the Athenian Empire. This hideous power play gave credence to Thucydides claim that “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

At any rate, the multitudes in Athens were pleased by Alcibiades –his charisma and supreme confidence gave hope to the people– however the elder people were wry, they saw Alcibiades as a tyrannical, tempestuous child. Now, the Athenians had long set their eye on Sicily, even during the life of Pericles, but they did not attempt an invasion until after Pericles’s death. Under the pretense of aiding Athenian confederates in Sicily, Alcibiades roused the people with elaborate speeches that inflamed the heights of his desires to conquer Sicily, and then onto other lands like Carthage and Libya, thereby expanding Athens to become master of Italy and the Peloponnesus (in Thucydides’s History, Alcibiades propounds the political theory that Athens must continue to expand and conquer foreign nations or else face decline and eventual conquest themselves). While Nicias urged caution with respect to Sicily, in the end Alcibiades prevailed by invigorating the hearts of young men, invoking colorful imagery of all the wondrous sights and noble adventures they would find abroad. Nicias was thus reluctantly persuaded to support the mission. However, unlucky omens began to appear just before the fleet was to set sail –it was the evening of the feast of Adonis (“The Adonia”) in which the women of the city honored the death of the god Adonis (the lover of Aphrodite and Persephone) by displaying images of dead men and singing lamentations and funeral songs. However, when the Athenians awoke the following morning, the Statues of Hermes all had their faces mutilated and disfigured causing widespread panic across the city (the Hermai were statues with a head and phallus carved into stone. They were thought to bring good luck and honored Hermes, herald of the gods). It was later said by some that the desecration of the Hermai was actually the work of Athens’s enemies, like the Corinthians, who hoped to delay the invasion of Sicily to protect their allies, the Syracusans (this was Xenophon’s theory). However, the people of Athens thought it was likely caused by a group of rowdy debauched youth. A leading demagogue named Androcles perpetuated a rumor that the desecration of the Hermai was caused by Alcibiades and a group of other young men who profaned the sacred by drunkenly mocking the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries (the famous secret religious rites in honor of the cult of Demeter and Persephone). Despite being irate at these claims, the people of Athens elected for Alcibiades to leave immediately for Sicily and then face trial upon return –it was a charge Alcibiades swiftly rejected but nevertheless he was compelled to depart in order to abide by custom. He was outfitted with 140 galleys, 5,100 men and 3,100 archers aaccording to Plutarch. They quickly took the city of Catana while back in Athens conspiracies continued to swirl and the people voted to lock up many friends of Alcibiades supposedly involved in the profaning of the mysteries (Socrates himself would later be swept up in this tempest some sixteen years later). Alcibiades was then immediately ordered to return to Athens. The assembly announced a penalty of death for Alcibiades (in response he simply replied “I will make them feel that I am alive”).

Alcibiades fled from Thurii to the Peloponnesus staying at Argos before ultimately defecting to Sparta. He then offered information to Sparta which crushed the Athenian forces in Sicily, he also helped Sparta renew their war against the city of Athens by fortifying Decelea which reduced and wasted Athenian trade, forcing the city to acquire all of its goods from aboard.

Notably, in Sparta Alcibiades quickly won the praise of the Lacedaemonians by quickly adopting their customs and habits –wearing his hair cut lose, bathing in cold water, eating coarse meals, dining on black broth (you would never know he was raised among the cooks and perfumers and soft purple robes of Athens). “For he had, as it was observed, this peculiar talent and artifice for gaining men’s affections, that he could at once comply with and really embrace and enter into their habits and ways of life, and change faster than the chameleon” (275). He could adopt his mannerisms to all sorts of people, good or bad, including both their virtues and vices. In Sparta, he was devoted to Athletic exercises, he lived frugally, and behaved with a reserved temperament; in Ionia he was luxurious, gay, and indolent; in Thrace he was always drinking; in Thessaly he was ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tisaphernes (or sometimes listed as “Tissaphernes”) the Persian satrap, he exceeded the Persians in magnificence and pomp.

When King Agis of Sparta departed with his army aboard, Alcibiades reportedly sired a son with his wife. She did not deny it and was passionate for him, but Alcibiades merely stated that he slept with the Queen to sire a future king of the Lacedemonians (though his son Leotychides was later cut out from the line of succession). Needless to say, from here King Agis despised Alcibiades, even while he had won over the favor of the people and served as a skilled tactician in the war, however a conspiracy arose to kill him so Alcibiades fled once again, this time to the King of Persia’s satrap where he once again earned the love and respect of the Persians. However, fearing the collapse of Athens and the shadow of Greece falling under the control of Sparta, Alcibiades sent a secret message to the generals of Athens overseeing the Athenian fleet housed at Samos –he pleaded with the Athenian aristocrats to regain control of the city so that the people could not commit Alcibiades to death again. Thus came a new tyrannical-oligarchic rule of the “Five Thousand” (or Four Hundred) in Athens, a hideously brutal regime under which many people were put to death if they did not submit. Athens then spoke with one united voice, begging Alcibiades to return to restore order. He was given generalship of the army, but rather than returning empty-handed, he endeavored to bring glory to Athens. He received intelligence that Spartan admiral Mindarus was sailing into the Hellespont and then surprised the admiral and won a string of great victories for Athens. When he returned to Tisaphernes in Persia, however, Alcibiades was betrayed and imprisoned. After thirty days, Alcibiades managed to escape by horse and boat in order to rouse the Athenian army once more –finally he had come full circle back among the soldiers of his native city.  

He eventually returned to Athens full of pride after winning numerous military conquests in the Peloponnesian War. He sailed into the harbor packed to the brim with countless soils and riches on the feast day of the goddess Minerva. He was welcomed as a man of the people, celebrated as the city’s long-lost hero, but older people still feared that Alcibiades intended to usurp the sovereign power of the city, so he was soon sent off to battle again.

“Certainly, if ever a man was ruined by his own glory, it was Alcibiades. For his continual success had produced such an idea of his courage and conduct, that if he failed in anything he undertook, it was imputed to his neglect, and no one would believe it was through want of power. For they thought nothing was too hard for him, if he went about it in good earnest” (287).  

Later in the war, Alcibiades was forced to secure funding for the effort and he left the army in the care of his generals, however back in Athens Thrasybulus, the Athenian general, roused the passions of the people against Alcibiades once again and, fearing the worst, Alcibiades raised a mercenary army and departed. The Athenian generals, meanwhile, failed to heed Alcibiades’s advice and they were surprised by Spartan general Lysander who decimated the Athenian fleet and invaded the city of Athens, leveling much of the city and burning every ship he could find. This led Alcibiades to further live in dread of the Lacedaemonians. If Athens fell, then what would stop King Agis of Sparta from exacting vengeance on Alcibiades? Under Spartan influence, came the rule of the thirty despots in Athens appointed by Lysander. Alcibiades departed the region for the court of Phrygia (in present-day Turkey). But so long as Alcibiades lived, he remained a threat to the rule of the thirty tyrants in Athens, since the Athenian people continued to hold out hope that Alcibiades would return and deliver them. Thus, it was determined by Lysander and the Spartans that Alcibiades must be killed. Assassins were sent to the small village where Alcibiades was dwelling with his mistress Timandra. They set fire to his house and killed him with arrows when he attempted to burst forth naked. It was the demise of a great Athenian celebrity and tactician –a man filled with magnanimity, pride, and impatience of dishonor in the classical Homeric sense, but who also possessed the peculiar talent of guile and flattery which allowed him to be welcomed wherever he went.

The life of Alcibiades is contrasted with Caius Marcius, later known as Coriolanus, a mighty Roman warrior who descended from the patrician house of Marcii in Rome, a lineage which produced many notable men of the city according to Plutarch. Cato later praised Marcius for his strength of hand and stroke as well as his booming voice and a visage that inspired terror.

“But Caius Marcius, of whom I now write, being left an orphan, and brought up under the widowhood of his mother, has shown us by experience, that, although the early loss of a father may be attended with other disadvantages, yet it can hinder none from being either virtuous or eminent in the world, and that it has no true obstacle to true goodness and excellence; however bad men may be pleased to lay the blame of their corruptions upon that misfortune and the neglect of them in the minority. Nor is he less an evidence to the truth of their opinion who conceive that a generous and worthy nature without discipline, like a rich soil without culture, is apt with its better fruits to produce also much that is bad and faulty. While the force and vigour of his soul, and persevering constancy in all he undertook, led him successfully into many noble achievements, yet, on the other side, also, by indulging the vehemence of his passion, and through an obstinate reluctance to yield or accommodate his humors and sentiments to those of a people about him, he rendered himself incapable of acting and associating with others. Those who saw with admiration how proof his nature was against all the softness of pleasure, the hardships of service, and the allurements of gain, while allowing to that universal firmness of the respective names of temperance, fortitude, and justice, yet in the life of the citizen and the statesman, could not choose but be disgusted at the severity and ruggedness of his deportment, and with his overbearing, haughty, and imperious temper. Education and study, and the favours of the muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submit to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes” (291).

It was an age where military achievement was most respected in Rome (indeed the Latin word for virtue is synonymous with valour). As such, Marcius was given an inexhaustible training from a young age. He remained close with his mother Volumnia all his life, indeed even after marrying and having children, he still continued to live with his mother.

At this point in time, the senate of Rome had skewed heavily toward favoring the wealthy over the rest of the city. It found itself at variance with the common people such that the plebians declined to appear for conscription in the city’s wars. When it came up for debate, Marcius spoke vehemently against delivering money to the plebians, suggesting instead that their behavior was akin to open revolt. The people, in protest, went to the place known then as “Holy Mount” along the river Anio and refused to work or fight since they were indebted and famished. The senate then sent its more popular men, like Menenius Agrippa, who reiterated a parable about limbs mutinying against the stomach and the ways in which such a mutiny would harm the larger body politic (Shakespeare faithfully copies this language into his play Coriolanus). In response to the plebians’ needs, a unit of five tribunes was established to give voice to the people and address their grievances. The first two pitched were Junius Brutus and Sicinnius Vellutus (as mentioned by Shakespeare). With the political leverage of the tribunate now at their hands, the plebians agreed to follow Marcius in battle, even as he showed contempt and disgust for them.

Rome was at war with the Volscian nation whose capital city was Corioli. Shakespeare’s play follows closely the account given by Plutarch of how Marcius more or less single-handedly took the city of Corioli (earning him the name “Coriolanus”). He was then appointed consul of Rome amidst some grumbling among the plebians, who were disappointed in his refusal to make the customary appearance of a prospective consul in the forum in a toga alone, with no funic under it. However, he was against bowing to the whims of the people —“For it was well and truly said that the first destroyer of the liberties of a people is he who first gave them bounties and largesses.” (Plutarch claims it was Anytus in Athens who first began offering financial rewards for public judges).

As a result of his obstinance, the people of Rome began to feel envy and indignation for Marcius, his temperamental passions then broke out in response, and the plebians rejected him for consul. This led to a tumultuous fight over grain distribution, and fears over Coriolanus’s usurpation. Amidst an upswell in populist anger and superstitious divinations, Coriolanus is banished from Rome, and he defects to the Volscians, which leads to him marching on Rome in charge of the Volscians. Before he can sack his home city, Coriolanus is persuaded by his wife and mother to cancel the invasion. When he returns to the Volscians empty-handed, a gaggle of conspirators jumps and kills him on the spot. His death, however, is mourned by many of the Volscians as well as the Romans and they are soon brought to heel in several battles and before finally bring defeated by Rome at which point Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus’s mortal enemy, loses his life.

When comparing Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Plutarch mentions that both were highly competent military strategists and commanders, but his opinion is considerably lower for Alcibiades.

“All the sober citizens felt disgust at the petulance, the low flattery, and base seductions which Alcibiades, in his public life, allowed himself to employ with the view of winning the people’s favour; and the ungraciousness, pride, and oligarchic haughtiness which Marcius, on the other hand, displayed in his, were the abhorrence of the Romance populace, Neither of these courses can be called commendable, but a man who ingratiates himself by indulgence and flattery is hardly so censurable as one who, to avoid the appearance of flattering, insults. To seek power by servility to the people is a disgrace, but to maintain it by terror, violence, and oppression is not a disgrace only, but an injustice” (322).

Marcius/Coriolanus was “simple and straightforward” whereas Alcibiades was “unscrupulous as a public man, and false.” Coriolanus served the victories of Rome’s enemies, whereas Alcibiades served both sides in the war, and certainly won incredible victories for Athens while also delivering horrid blows. Both harmed their native cities, but Alcibiades’s deeds arguably contributed to the downfall of Athens, whereas in spite of his defection, Coriolanus ultimately decided against invading Rome, and the Volscians were later conquered by Rome.

“He who least likes courting favour, ought also least to think of resenting neglect; to feel wounded at being refused a distinction can only arise for an overweening appetite to have it” (325)

In summary, Plutarch claims Coriolanus possesses a certain strength and temperance of character, even if his tempestuous pride and arrogance often rears its head from time to time, but Plutarch suggests that he deserves to be compared with the best and purest of the Greeks. However, Plutarch does not mince his words when he says Alcibiades was “the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings in all these points” (325).

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives Vol. I. Random House, Modern Library (Paperback Edition), New York, NY, 1992.      

Book Review: Diamonds Are Forever (1956) by Ian Fleming

“Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent.”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Inspired by news of African diamond smuggling as featured in a 1954 Sunday Times article, Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond novel leads 007 on an undercover adventure through the heart of America in search of an international gang that is running the “richest smuggling operation in the world.” Despite being ostensibly a Cold War spy novel, the Russians and SMERSH are wholly absent. Instead, Bond infiltrates a diamond smuggling operation in order to discover an illegal supply chain stretching from Sierra Leone to the United States.

Diamonds Are Forever shares a great deal in common with Live and Let Die. Both novels take place in the shadowy underworld of American crime, and both novels simply ooze with disdain for American culture —“It’s not as if this is Iron Curtain business. America’s a civilized country. More or less” (18); it’s fierce and corrupt but “that’s how it is in America these days” (70). In a travelogue of sorts, Bond travels from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and along the way his heavy-handed disgust for the United States is made blatantly apparent. According to Bond, America is a sleazy land of would-be cowboys, dingy diners offering “jumboburgers” and hot dogs, run-down motels, six-lane freeways, casinos, gangs, crime, drugs, racism, and rampant commercialism. Bond sees Americans as little more than a pack of slack-jawed imbeciles who cannot help themselves but salivate over money and cheap thrills. Appropriately, the book’s title is even borrowed from an American diamond advertisement in Vogue Magazine: “A Diamond is Forever.” As Christopher Hitchens once noted: “the central paradox of the classic Bond stories is that, although superficially devoted to the Anglo-American war against communism, they are full of contempt and resentment for America and Americans.” As such, Bond wants nothing more than to escape from the cultural despair in America –he hopes to return to the greener pastures of England sooner rather than later. However, this renders Diamonds Are Forever not exactly a joyous reading experience –the stakes of the mission are low and Bond seems mostly bored or uninterested in his mission.

At the outset, Bond has just returned from a two-week vacation in France (following the events of Moonraker). M has been approached by higher ups at the Treasury (and the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade) regarding a troubling economic trend. The illegal diamond trade is costing England $2M pounds per year –England’s “Diamond Corporation” appears to be losing a significant chunk of its profits to an American company called “House of Diamonds.” Typically, the legitimate diamond trade in England nets some fifty million pounds so this loss hurts. The problem is not that diamonds are being smuggled per se, but rather that smuggling is economically benefitting the United States at the expense of England. So why isn’t the United States addressing the diamond smuggling racket? According to M, the FBI is simply too busy dealing with domestic gang activity in America to focus on anything else. Furthermore, smuggling actually helps the American economy, so there is little incentive to stop the trade.

At any rate, Bond visits the London office of “House of Diamonds” flanked by Sergeant Dankwaerts, and they discover that the office is headed by an odd little fellow named Rufus B. Saye. Meanwhile, a dentist in Africa has been smuggling diamonds inside people’s teeth to the United States, however Sir Percy Sillitoe (a character based on the real former head of MI5) has been cracking down on smuggling in the region. Nerves are high among smugglers in West Africa as they demand increased pay from the ringleader, a mysterious villain known only as “ABC.”

Bond assumes the persona of “Peter Franks,” a golfer and low-level smuggler (the alias is suggested to Bond by Assistant Commissioner Ronnie Vallance, an old friend from the Moonraker affair). As Peter Franks, Bond travels to New York and meets with a contact at the House of Diamonds named Michael “Shady” Tree (a “red-haired hunchback”). Soon it is revealed that this whole smuggling operation is run by the “Spangled Mob,” a criminal enterprise headed by twin brothers Jack Spang (his alias is revealed to be Rufus B. Saye, the eccentric head of the London office) and his twin brother Seraffimo. Under the purview of both brothers, the Spangled Mob had purchased the House of Diamonds corporation some five years earlier and now they also own the Sure Fire Wire Service, which engages in illegal operations, as well as the Tiara Hotel in Las Vegas, where Seraffimo runs his end of the business (Fleming apparently based the Spang brothers on Jack and Solomon Joel, early 20th century diamond merchants and thoroughbred racehorse breeders). Bond initially scoffs at the idea of the American mob being a serious threat. To him, they are little more than “a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.” However, in time he comes to realize the true extent of their power in America.

At the heart of the novel is a philosophical search for something lasting and enduring, something that survives “forever,” as the title suggests. While many things in life are fleeting, like the flashy distractions Bond finds in Las Vegas, diamonds mined in Africa remain evergreen and beautiful, hence why they drive so many people mad. Indeed, diamonds serve as a metaphor for obsession in the novel: “Now he could understand the passion that diamonds had inspired through the centuries, the almost sexual love they aroused among those who handled them and cut them and traded in them. It was a beauty so pure that it held a kind of truth, a divine authority before which all other material things turned…” (11). In the world of James Bond, only diamonds and death are assured, however there are moments of hope in other unexpected places. In America, amidst a world of vapid consumerism, Bond meets a rare diamond in the rough –Tiffany Case, a jaded woman with a troubled past. She is a 27-year-old American citizen from San Francisco with blonde hair, blue eyes, height 5’6”. As a child, her father abandoned the family in a Tiffany’s with a case (hence the name “Tiffany Case”). Her mother ran a “cat-house” in San Francisco, but she made the mistake of not paying off a local gang, while foolishly placing her faith in bribes to the police department (in Ian Fleming’s America, bribery and criminality rule the day). In response, the gang attacked and savagely destroyed her “cat-house” before brutally gang-raping Tiffany at the age of sixteen. This shockingly vicious memory presents the image of a broken, tortured woman hardened by years of alcoholism, and ensconced in the a-moral criminal underworld of America.   

“She was very beautiful in a devil-may-care way, as if she kept her looks for herself and didn’t mind what men thought of them, and there was an ironical tilt to the finely drawn eyebrows above the wide, level, rather scornful grey eyes that seemed to say, ‘Sure. Come and try. But brother, you’d better be top” (35).

In addition to the introduction of Tiffany Case, we are also given the return of Felix Leiter, everyone’s favorite hokey Texan CIA agent (Bond’s counterpart within the CIA as featured in Casino Royale and Live and Let Die). Last we saw of Felix, he had been brutally wounded, bitten by sharks at the conclusion of Live and Let Die. In fact, Bond recalls that Felix was in a “cocoon of dirty bandages on a bloodstained bed in a Florida hotel” (64). As a result, Felix now brandishes a steel hook as his right arm, and a noticeable gimp thanks to a mostly replaced left leg. At this point, Leiter has left the CIA and is working as a private detective for Pinkerton’s, a company in the vein of “The Eye That Never Sleeps.”

As it turns out, James Bond and Felix Leiter are pursuing the same enemy (the Spangled Mob), and this leads them on an odd side-quest to Saratoga Springs, NY for a horse-racing scheme (involving a horse named “Shy Smile” and his jockey Tingaling Bell) as well as a subsequent fiasco in a mud and sulphur bath. For me, these adventures represent a dreary mid-section of the book which is a bit wandering. However, this section does introduce two quirky henchmen –Wint and Kidd. Wint is a chubby sadist who nervously sucks a wart on his thumb (he is deeply fearful of traveling and carries with him a personal tag that identifies his blood type as F). Kidd is white-haired pretty boy nicknamed “Boofy” by his friends. In addition to being partners in crime, they are also gay lovers for some reason. In the film version of Diamonds Are Forever, this pair is portrayed as campy and ridiculous, but in the book they are slightly more fearful assassins.     

When things go awry in New York and Bond is unable to secure his payment from the House of Diamonds, he is sent off to Las Vegas (where upon arrival he curiously stops at an oxygen bar) and he quickly begins gambling inside the “Tiara” where Tiffany Case works as a card dealer, but Bond’s gambling success actually draws the attention of Seraffimo Spang himself. This leads to a tense car chase and shoot-out (Bond is driven around by Felix Leiter’s undercover compatriot Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo) which only ends when Bond is captured and taken to an old western-themed ghost town in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas (it is dubbed “Spectreville,” which is derived from the nearby Specter Mountain Range and which also marks the first time Ian Fleming incorporated the word “spectre” into his writing). Bond is then horribly tortured in a “Brooklyn Stomping” as Wint and Kidd employ the use of cleats to stomp on Bond’s body. During the night, while barely conscious, Bond is awoken and rescued by Tiffany Case. They flee together on an old railway pushcar as Seraffimo pursues them in his luxurious vintage Pullman train (named the “Cannonball”) which only ends in a sudden crash, killing Seraffimo. Bond and Case are then surprisingly saved by Felix Leiter who appears quite literally out of nowhere. When all is said and done, Felix decides to remain behind in Las Vegas, while Bond and Case fly to New York where they board the magnificent Queen Elizabeth as it sets sail en route to London.

Here, the pace of the novel slows considerably. James Bond and Tiffany Case gaze out over the endless sea and enjoy lavish food and drink together. There are some lovely scenes of romance between Bond and Tiffany as they flirt and seemingly fall in love (at one point, Bond rather uncharacteristically admits that he wouldn’t mind settling down and having a child or two, even though he believes marriage is not necessarily about two people being added together, but rather more so about one person being subtracted). Bond feels as if they have “all the time in the world.” After they sleep together, Tiffany Case is suddenly kidnapped by the two Spangled Mob henchmen, Wint and Kidd, who have stowed away aboard the ship. In a rush, Bond discovers the kidnappers’ room which is located directly below his own. He climbs down the wall of the ship and breaks in through their window before shooting them both. While dying, Wint remarks: “Mister. Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent. Nothing is forever except what you did to me.” Bond and Tiffany are then reunited as Bond stages the room to give the appearance of a murder-suicide. Now all that is left is for Bond to visit West Africa and assassinate the other twin brother, Jack Spang, a task which he easily completes in the end. As it turns out Jack Spang was both “Rufus B. Saye” and “ABC” (his alias of “ABC” was partly taken from the French letters for his name “Ah-Bay-Saye” per a cable from headquarters, pp. 213). The diamond-smuggling pipeline, which initially began with Jack Spang (a.k.a. “Rufus B. Saye” or “ABC”) and then proceeded through Michael “Shady” Tree via House of Diamonds only to end in Las Vegas, is now officially destroyed. Like the image of a scorpion in the book’s opening chapter (wherein “greed had won over fear”), the only way to deal with a predator like the House of Diamonds corporation is to crush it. These opening and closing scenes in West Africa really stuck with me. They serve as a nice bookended metaphor for the ways in which greedy diamond smugglers are eventually handled (no thanks to the second-rate American FBI).

There are several minor callbacks to earlier Bond novels in Diamonds Are Forever. Aside from Felix Leiter’s mangled limbs, the scene in which we first meet Tiffany Case (which reads like a scene straight out of Raymond Chandler), Tiffany is scantily clad playing music, but Bond deliberately skips over “La Vie en Rose” due to the painful memories it evokes of Vesper Lynd as portrayed in Casino Royale. Another example of a callback is an early scene at MI6 which features brief cameos of Miss Moneypenny and Loelia Ponsonby (Bond calls her “Lil” even though she does not like the name per Moonraker). These little details offer some delightful continuity between the novels. We also get a bit of background on James Bond’s time in the service (blink and you might miss it in the novel), such as Ronnie Vallance, his old friend from the Moonraker affair, and there is a brief allusion to Bond’s early days in the Service as he apparently traveled widely through Strasbourg into Germany, through Niegoreloye into Russia, over Simplon, and across the Pyrenees.  

Ian Fleming actually conducted fairly extensive research for this novel, much of which ended up in a nonfiction book entitled The Diamond Smugglers (1957). He also took a trip through the United States which inspired many of the events in Diamonds Are Forever –in fact, many characters are named after people he met, like Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo, and even a a car called the “Studillac” makes an appearance in the novel. It is a hybrid Studebaker with a powerful Cadillac engine which was encountered by Fleming when he met a rich American socialite named William Woodward, Jr. In a strange turn of events, William Woodward, Jr. was killed shortly thereafter (perhaps accidentally) by his wife who mistook him for a prowler. Fleming dedicated the novel to Woodward Jr.’s memory.

Diamonds Are Forever is not the best Bond adventure in my view –there are vast stretches in the middle of the book that drag and the whole mission is also a bit confusing. Why would MI6 send one of its top assassins to investigate a diamond smuggling ring in America? Like Live and Let Die before it, Diamonds Are Forever is a bit of a stretch for me and it beggars belief that British intelligence would go to such great lengths over a few million pounds. Nevertheless, Tiffany Case shines as a compelling paramour for Bond, and the return of Felix Leiter is a welcome bit of levity, even if Fleming chooses to portray American culture as, essentially, a vast wasteland filled with vapid, hollow people.   

Fleming, Ian. Diamonds Are Forever. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1956 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.

Click here for my review of the film Diamonds are Forever (1971).

Click here to return to my survey of the James Bond saga.

An Introduction to Plutarch

Often regarded as first among the biographers of antiquity, the details of Plutarch’s life are somewhat opaque. Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus was born in Chaerona, a small town in Boetia (located north-west of Attica along the road between Athens and Delphi). He was likely born at some point during the reign of Claudius (perhaps somewhere around 45-50 AD) to a wealthy and well-connected Greek family within the Roman Empire. Plutarch’s lineage included a line of magistrates. Some of his family members are briefly mentioned in the Lives. His great-grandfather Nicarchus was whipped by Roman soldiers and forced to carry grain to the coast (mentioned in the “Life of Antony”), and his grandfather Lamprias was an eloquent speaker, often under the influence of wine. He studied philosophy under Ammonius in Athens during the reign of Nero when the emperor made his incursion into Greece during the twelfth year of his rule (the sixty-sixth year of the new Christian era). 

By all accounts, Plutarch lived a temperate and contented life –he was a friend of emanant figures in his day. He was a lover of the finer things in life, a lover of animals and a despiser of all things pretentious and haughty. He was a thinker and a writer, and therefore, an elite in ancient culture, writing with an eye toward the literate and high-born patricians. Plutarch and his wife Timoxena may had as many as five children, three of whom likely died in childhood (a common tragedy in those days). A particularly notable Plutarchian letter survives to this day which sought to address his wife’s grief at the loss of their daughter. Plutarch was a worldly man, a cosmopolitan intellectual who traveled widely to places like Egypt, Italy, and Asia Minor. In Rome, he delivered a series of famous lectures on philosophy in Greek and only learned Latin later in life when he retired to his “small town” of Chaerona where he set about to write the “Parallel Lives,” his magnum opus. He also served in a political role as commissioner of sewage and public buildings. Plutarch was appointed Archon of the city as well as a lifetime priest at Delphi. Apparently, he lived to be an old man and died at some point during the reign of Hadrian. His two surviving sons gathered the corpus of Plutarch’s writings, but sadly most of these are lost to us now. The two chief works that have endured today are the Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (or simply the “Lives”) and the Moralia (a collection of Plutarch’s essays on a myriad topics).   

Throughout Plutarch’s writings, he stresses a practical philosophy –he believes people should strive toward harmony with the world and with oneself. Like Plato, Plutarch does not seek flight or retreat from this world. He rejects the Stoic school of thought, but he encourages self-control and rejection of the passions like anger or pity or grief because they lead to bitterness, resentment, and antipathy. Plutarch believes the art of reading is a moral activity, it is an aesthetic experience and therefore the act of imitation, or mimesis, is paramount to understanding good writing and how to be a good person. Thus his great work, the Lives, is less a work of history in the vein of Herodotus or Thucydides, and more an ambitious moral project –an effort to offer ancient biographies which encourage imitation of great and noble deeds. Some lives are exemplary and therefore worthy of imitation (like Lycurgus), while others are not (like Cato). However, Plutarch is rarely explicit in which lives he elevates for readers to imitate –we must discover them for ourselves.     

Additionally, Plutarch is hardly a nostalgic simpleton nor is he a mere hero worshiper, although he can be somewhat loose with the truth on occasion. His series of intimate portraits are derived from letters, rumors, anecdotes, and dialogues –all more commonly acceptable forms of authority in his day. Each biography contrasts the life of a Roman man with the life of a Greek man (purportedly demonstrating the superiority of the latter). Plutarch does not write about politics and war on a grand scale, but rather he describes an individual’s moral character and offers it up for scrutiny. An account of a particular life is a different form of story-telling from either a Platonic dialogue or an Aristotelian treatise, it offers anecdotes. Plutarch is a moralist, and as such, he believes the question of historia (or “inquiry”) is subordinate to the pursuit of moral character. The Lives is a work of instruction. It forces us to ask, amidst the rise and fall of empires throughout history, who are the men who truly lived well?

In Plutarch, we are given the image of a blissful man –an intellectual scholar and a friend to many, a pleasant fellow perhaps residing on a vast country villa in a rural region of Greece under the Roman Empire, prior to the overwhelming dominance of the Christian revolution. His domestic tranquility was matched only by his love of learning. Appropriately, many of the Lives are addressed to one of Plutarch’s closest friends, Quintus Sosius Senecio, honorary consul who served alongside Roman Emperor Trajan. While the facticity of Plutarch’s biographies will forever exist beyond the veil, Plutarch nevertheless supersedes other ancient biographers, like Diogenes Laertius, in revealing certain deeper truths about human nature. The impoverishment of the biographic format still allows for a courageous pursuit of philosophic inquiry. In reading the Lives, it becomes apparent that Plutarch is a devotee of Plato and Aristotle. He looks fondly back to the Greeks for strength and admiration. The intended order of Plutarch’s Lives remains somewhat ambiguous, but the Lives, themselves, remain one of the most authoritative windows into antiquity –indeed Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Rousseau all found refuge and inspiration within the Lives of Plutarch.

For this reading I used the John Dryden translation of Plutarch’s Lives with revisions by Arthur Hugh Clough.  

On John Alvis’s “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered”

In John Alvis’s essay entitled “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered” he wrestles with the extent to which Coriolanus represents the “Magnanimous Man” as discussed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Alvis notes that “Caius Martius Coriolanus has proved the most belittled of Shakespeare’s tragic creations,” and he wonders why would Shakespeare would construct a tragedy around this “truculent, austere, and half-repellent Roman warrior.” Coriolanus is an odd choice for a tragic hero since he lacks the nuance of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Lear. However, he does share kinship with the “classical ideal of the superlatively honorable man” as developed by Aristotle in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, or the great-souled man, in all of his grandeur as well as his many limitations.

Alvis dismisses criticisms of Coriolanus by both Shaw and Bradley. He then runs through some of the stronger arguments for those who defend Coriolanus as Shakespeare’s example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, like Rodney Poisson whose essay essentially argues that “the shoddy and second rate… inherit the earth precisely because the magnanimous man cannot be shifty or ruthless, and that noble anger is helpless against the calculation of the base.” In other words, Poisson argues that Coriolanus does indeed represent Aristotle’s archetype, but that he is prevented from full expression of his being by the Plebians. Whereas R.W. Battenhouse suggests that Coriolanus actually develops Christian predilections intended to demonstrate the limitations of the pagan ethic, perhaps best exemplified in the Christian paragon of womanly virtue in the character of Virgilia.

After sufficiently examining these two positions, Alvis takes a closer look at Aristotle’s original claims regarding magnanimity:

“Aristotle says the great-souled man can be distinguished from the pusillanimous by the greatness of his claims… He is undeniably greater than anyone else in his city, yet we have seen that he is also something less than the great-souled man of Aristotle in as much as his claims exceed his just deserts. A more decisive difference between the character exhibited by Coriolanus and that of the magnanimous man comes to sight when we appreciate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Coriolanus’ dependency upon the opinions of others.”

Since Coriolanus does not meet all of Aristotle’s criteria for magnanimity, Alvis lays out his chief argument as follows: “Coriolanus’s tragedy resides precisely in his failure to encompass the elusive ideal of the Ethics. As I see it, the play does enforce the relevance of the Aristotelian measure, though not, as Battenhouse says, in order to criticize it nor, as Poisson believes, in order to show Coriolanus in admirable conformity with it. Rather, I think Shakespeare intends us to understand his protagonist as a tragically defective imitation of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. His actions quite frequently recall those ascribed to the Aristotelian model, but his character and fate suggest an imperfect, and typically Roman, misunderstanding of what it means to be great-souled.”

Coriolanus is merely an “imitation” as evidenced when he is contrasted with Achilles. Both heroes believe they are self-sufficient and they do not depend on others for praise (at least on the surface). However, Achilles becomes ennobled by his tragic realization of Patroclus’s death as well as Priam’s appeal to his superiority. Achilles’s short life ends as he finally detaches himself from others. However, Coriolanus does not experience any such transformation –he ends right where he began, reminiscing about his solo victory over the city of Corioles before his life is ended in a traitorous conspiracy. Does he ever receive the fame he desires? Alvis answers, “He knows no other end for his virtue than the rewards of renown.” Rather than providing an example of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, instead Coriolanus shows the tension between great-souledness and the sheer use of power when exercised to enforce admiration.

Alvis, John “Coriolanus and Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man Reconsidered.” Interpretation Journal, September 1978, Vol. 7, No. 3.

John Alvis was a renowned scholar and professor at the University of Dallas. He tragically died in 2019.