Call the Show 800-520-1234
LIVE: Mon-Fri, 6-9AM, ET
Hugh Hewitt Book Club
Call 800-520-1234 email Email Hugh
Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Dr. Larry Arnn on Alexander And Julius Caesar

Email Email Print

HH: It’s that time of the week for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Once a week, I am joined by the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn, or one of his colleagues there in a conversation about the great canon, the canon of the West. And we began in January with the Iliad, and today, we are in the penultimate week of Plutarch’s lives, talking about Alexander and Caesar. And many of you have come to love these weeks, but only one more. We can’t do the entire book, merely tastes of various parts of it. Dr. Arnn, if I were to say to you that come up with the ten people who have most influenced where we are today in the West, my list begins with Alexander and Caesar, would include Jesus and Constantine and Luther, Napoleon and Lincoln, Lenin, Churchill, and either Oppenheimer or Teller, I’m not sure which one really created the Bomb. Pretty basic list, right? But no matter what list you come up with, Alexander and Caesar have to be on it, don’t they?

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s staggering what they did, and the structure of the world, and the preeminence of the West in it, at least up to the present day, has to be founded on things that they did.

HH: Alexander lived from 356BC to 323BC, a mere 33 years, Julius Caesar from 100-44BC, a mere 56. Long lives were not given to either of them, but they got an extraordinary amount accomplished. And who of the two were greater, do you think?

LA: Oh, that’s hard to say, isn’t it? I think, both of them had very important failings, but Caesar had the art of rule. Well, they both did. It’s very hard to say, isn’t it? I mean, we should talk about that, but who’s greater? I don’t know, pick one.

HH: All right, let’s begin by going through some of the, before we get to the comparison of what they did, for the benefit of people who do not know who they are because they’re Steelers fans or some other such thing, Alexander was the son of a king, which carries with it, of course, certain disabilities.

LA: Yeah, Philip II of Macedon was actually the person who united Greece into a single form, force, and he conquered the Greek cities, and they had, Greece had changed. After the Persian wars and then in the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was in the ascendant for a time, but both Sparta and Athens were very different. And they were weaker than they had been. And what Philip did, and what Alexander perfected, was they developed a principle of unity of rule that had been absent in the Greek city-states, and they perfected the Greek military operations to a state that they had never been in. They took what Thebes had done to conquer Sparta, they made the phalanxes very deep at certain points, not anymore eight men, but thirty or sixty. And they changed the weapons they used so that the pikes were longer. And then they introduced heavy cavalry, which was a shocking force. Alexander himself rode in the companion cavalry. So they took the military art to places it had not been before. And they had ideas of governance that prefaced the Roman idea of governance, which was you can be an equal and an ally in a larger federation. And we’ll be at the top of it, and if you mess with us, we’ve got the strongest military on Earth and we’ll come get you. But if you cooperate, life doesn’t have to be so bad.

HH: Yeah, things go well for you, and they go better for us, but they go well for you. Now President U.S. Grant once said of biographies he did not care for them much, because they did not tell you much of the child, and that it was in the child that you would see the man. And Plutarch does, but Plutarch says he does not write histories, he writes lives. So he gives us some details about young Alexander, three which stand out. One, that he grieved that his father was conquering everyone, second, there would be nothing left for him. Second, that Bucephalus, his horse, the taming of this amazing beast, and third, that he had had an extraordinary tutor.

LA: Yeah, here’s the place for a comparison. The young Alexander did simply amazing things, one of them with his horse. They were going to destroy this great horse that he rode to conquests across the world. And Alexander, young man watching, figured out what was wrong with the horse. He was afraid of his own shadow, literally. And Alexander pointed him toward the sun, and got on him, and conquered him and befriended him. And his father, Philip, a very tough man, was amazingly, was amazed by this, and began to give Alexander more sway. One of the things he did was he got Aristotle to come and tutor him. And Aristotle, by Plutarch’s account, got enormous benefits from this. What Philip did was he restored the town of Stageira, which is where Aristotle grew up, where his home was. He had destroyed the village and depopulated it. And he repopulated it, and gave it wealth and means of prosperity, and made it a leading city in the Macedonian empire.

HH: Isn’t it interesting how he bought off Aristotle?

LA: Yeah.

HH: He didn’t get it for himself.

LA: No, he didn’t. He didn’t, and Aristotle would, you know, it was a great act of justice, that. And it’s very interesting about Alexander that there’s correspondence between Alexander and Aristotle cited in Plutarch. And Alexander is jealous at one point, because the argument was in the letter that the ethical and moral things that Aristotle had to teach could be written down. But the highest philosophic and metaphysical things could only be conveyed orally to the initiates, to the real students. And Aristotle, some of them, some of the notes were published. And Alexander was indignant about that. And that’s, there’s a plausibility in that, because many of the works that we have of Aristotle that survive, many of which incidentally come to us through the Arab world, seem to be notes on lectures and classes. And so that means that Alexander was deep into it with Aristotle, and prided himself on being so.

HH: What do you make of the proposition that Aristotle, that Alexander put forward, that the important stuff shouldn’t be written down, because A) you might have to disagree with that only for the purposes of appearing to disagree with it. But for the moment, tell us what you think.

LA: Yeah, well, there’s this school of thought in the study of political philosophy especially that political philosophy is subject to political pressures. And so those who write it have to write it carefully. You know, Socrates was killed. Aristotle himself had to flee in order to keep from being executed from Athens. And so there is this structure in it that some things are hidden in the way that they’re written. And only people who can really read and give themselves to it with real devotion can penetrate the real meaning. And that part of it seems plausible to me. But that also undercuts the argument in Alexander that the mere writing of it down would give it all away. I mean, go read Aristotle’s Metaphysics and see if you find it light work. It’s beautiful work and wonderful work, but it’s not light work.

HH: There is another wonderful anecdote from early in Alexander’s life. He comes to Corinth, and he finds Diogenes there, who’s lying on the ground. And when he saw so much company near him, Diogenes raised himself a little and vouchsafed to look upon Alexander. And when he kindly asked him whether he wanted anything, Alexander to Diogenes, he said yes, said he. I would have you stand from between me and the sun.

LA: Yeah, don’t…I’m out here to bake. Don’t get in the way of the sun. And see, right through, especially the one about Alexander, but also about Caesar in Plutarch, right through, there are amazing testimonials of the place of wisdom in respect in these Greek societies and Roman, because when Philip dies, and Philip is Alexander’s father, dies, Alexander’s been in controversy with him, because Philip had married two other women, and the rumors twice occurred that he was going to have another heir, and Alexander wouldn’t get to succeed. Well, first of all, we now know of Alexander he was the kind of guy who was going to succeed no matter what. But they’d been in controversy. And as soon as Philip died, Alexander went up to the north and conquered some places that were in rebellion, because they saw opportunity. And behind them, Thebes, which was the conqueror of Sparta, a very resolute people, they went into rebellion. And Alexander went down there and besieged the city, and said look, I need you to deliver me the two guys who led this thing, and I’ll deal with them, and the rest of you can be equals and at peace. And they refused. And Alexander took the city, and he killed or enslaved about 40,000 people. And I’ll tell you who he exempted after the break.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, Alexander takes Thebes…

LA: Thebes…

HH: …and kills 40,000. Who does he exempt?

LA: He exempts known friends, priests, and the family of the poet, Pindar. And you know, that means, you know, there’s a melee going on. And it’s like when Jericho fell and the prostitute was spared. There had to be some sign. There had to be orders that troops could know to spare the right people. And this poet was on the list. And so the thing is these Greeks and Romans, they were very interested in the virtue of wisdom, and those who had the reputation for it, and of beauty like the poets. That’s a kind of a humility or a bowing to greatness of them that in our little way, we who do these Hillsdale Dialogues and our listeners, we emulate that.

HH: There was another, here is another emulation. When conquering Darius, the Persian, he inherits, Alexander does, a casket, a box, a beautiful, jeweled safe of a point. And he goes around and says what does everyone want to put in it? And at the end, he says I would put the Iliad in it. And that is, it’s nice. But at the same time, people that are listening now will be surprised, perhaps, to learn that the story of the Gordian Knot comes from this. So he’s also quite the direct man.

LA: That’s very much. He’s, his conquests are staggering, and his, you know, I’m going to ask Kyle and Duane, our trusted friends who help us, to put a map on the Hugh Hewitt website for these dialogues, because there’s a map of Alexander’s marches. And it is staggering. It is amazing, because first of all, to set off with about fifty or sixty thousand men, and some of them sailors and some of them on the land, and horses, they went across to Turkey, and across Turkey, and down the Middle East, and back up and across Iraq and Iran, and then down into Africa, all the way down through Palestine and all that, all the way across to, what, I’m looking at the map, 30% of the way across North Africa, back across the desert, taking Egypt, back up all the way, then, back through Iraq, Iran, and to India.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And all over India up to the Ganges.

HH: And indeed into Afghanistan.

LA: Oh, amazing, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And you know, they didn’t take much with them. They didn’t have food, and they didn’t have water, and they hardly had any money.

HH: Our friend, Pressfield, has written two books on Alexander in Afghanistan, which I read at the beginning of the Afghan invasion, and I thought to myself, uh oh, Alexander did not conquer the Taliban. However, jumping ahead in the next life, Caesar, Plutarch writes on Page 209, “We shall find Caesar’s actions to have surpassed them all, for he had not pursued wars in Gaul full ten years when he had taken by storm above 800 towns, subdued 300 states, and of three millions of men, who made up the gross sum of those with whom at several times he engaged, he killed one million and taken captive a second.”

LA: Hard to know about those numbers.

HH: Yeah.

LA: But what is true is that both, and see, we talked about Sulla last week, and he was an amazing conqueror, right? And if you compare him to either Alexander or Caesar, he’s a child.

HH: Yeah, he’s a nothing.

LA: There’s nothing. And for sure, Caesar and Alexander consistently, and without failure, fought enormous battles against multiples of their number, and destroyed them, over and over again.

HH: Never lost. Yeah, never lost.

LA: Never lost.

HH: Like Marlborough, right?

LA: That’s right.

HH: Churchill’s great-great-great-great grandfather, the great architect of the wars against Louis XIV, never quit a battlefield in defeat.

LA: That’s right, and yeah, it’s staggering, and nobody, you know, Napoleon was beaten. Robert E. Lee was beaten.

HH: Yeah. Now there is a couple of things I want to cover. One is he was very generous, munificent is in fact the word Alexander is ascribed to be by Plutarch. But he got drunk a lot. And when he got drunk, he killed his best friend, Cletus, at one point. He was a raging, he had his demons.

LA: Yeah. And not like Sulla, right?

HH: No.

LA: Not that way. His failures of self-control were there, and they were important. And like, he rued and regretted his treatment of Thebes for the rest of his life, and often pined about it. He shouldn’t have been so harsh with them. And he was generally mild and self-restrained, which it’s a recurring theme in Plutarch that the use of power, because all of these are about very powerful and world-changing figures, restraint in the use of power is vital to its success, and of course, that requires self-restraint. That requires the virtues. And so in Alexander and Caesar, when he speaks of the failures of that, they are very important. And it’s also very important that they are exceptions.

HH: You know, it’s buried deep, but you remind me, buried deep in the life of Alexander and Plutarch, is a conversation he has with the gymnosophists of India. And in one of them, he asks how does a person become exceedingly loved? And the answer from the philosopher comes back, he must be very powerful without making himself too much feared.

LA: That’s it. See, and that’s, think how different that is for Machiavelli.

HH: Yeah.

LA: …who is not mentioned in Plutarch. And in Machiavelli’s idea, it is better to be loved than…feared than to be loved. And the examples of the great men, and Plutarch, by the way, I think one of the themes of Plutarch is the great men fail when they abuse their power. Being so good at amassing power, the principle of restraint must be in them. And no one in Plutarch actually completely passes that test.

HH: When Alexander died, his world split apart. When Caesar died, his world got stronger, or the world order that he established got stronger. As we’re about to go to break in a minute, isn’t that the most significant thing? Caesar’s empire became stronger and larger and deeper and wider, and Alexander’s went, it didn’t go to hell, it just went into many, many different hands, and many, many different sub-empires.

LA: Right, and that’s because Rome had ultimately achieved much more in the way of governance, wide and long governance, than Greece did.

HH: And that was a fault of Alexander. He did not much give to governing.

LA: Well, he, there was a brilliance about the way he went about it. He conquered a place, and he had an idea of defending them. And one has to understand that what Caesar, in one way, by the way, Caesar is the destroyer of Rome. We’ll talk about that. But in another way, what Caesar did perfected something that had already been going on for a long time.

HH: When we come back, we turn to Julius Caesar paired with Alexander by Plutarch, not compared. That is missing. It’s just back to back in his book.

— – – –

HH: In the year 100BC, one hundred years before Jesus, Julius Caesar was born. He died 56 years later, assassinated in a famous scene that perhaps many of you have scene reenacted many, many times. And his life was extraordinary, and he succeeded. In the time he came into his youth, in the time of Sulla, the dictator whom we talked about last week, Sullas’ tomb had on it written, “No friend has ever done me a favor, nor enemy an injury that I have not repaid in full.” But he overlooked Caesar. And in fact, Sulla, Larry Arnn, said anyone who does not see in this young boy many Marius, is blind.” He knew right away that this was an extraordinary child.

LA: That’s right. And that’s right, and see, Caesar was much wiser than Sulla, and a much better man than Sulla. And Caesar was of the company of Marius, whom was a great rival to Sulla. And Caesar, when he was a young man, raised the party of Marius even while Sulla was still around. And there’s a great you know, in the beginning of the story of Alexander, Plutarch says one of his thematic statements about how he writes history, and you refer to it, he wants to tell stories that reveal the character of people, and not necessarily relate all the events. There’s a really great story about Caesar. Caesar, a young man, and I love these young stories about Winston Churchill, too, because you can see what he was like, when he was a young man, Caesar was captured by some pirates. And it’s like that O. Henry story, The Ransom Of Red Chief, if you have read it. It’s about a kidnapping and this little boy, and he’s such a mischief, he takes over the kidnappers, and they bring him back voluntarily. The young Caesar takes over the pirate camp. He leads them. He’s held for weeks. The first thing he does is he refuses to ask for the ransom they want. It’s not enough. And so he has to wait for weeks until a much larger ransom comes. And he leads them in their games, and he regales them with his stories, and they love him. And he’s just awesome. And he’s happy as he can be in his captivity, and he’s the leader. Then the ransom, and they let him go, and he immediately go gets himself some ships, and hunts them down and crucifies every one of them.

HH: Yeah, against the orders.

LA: …which is what he was going to do.

HH: Against the orders of the local governor, he kills them all.

LA: That’s right. The governor, he said they had to be punished, and the governor said well, and the governor understands they’ve got some wealth, he’s going to make something off it, and so Caesar goes, recaptures his own ransom, and everything else they have, and crucifies them, each one, as he had promised to do. But he was so pleasant and happy, they didn’t believe him.

HH: Yeah, so that tells you, and then he goes off, he’s very ambitious. I mean, there’s such an ambition about Caesar. He goes off to the teacher of Cicero, and he learns and becomes one of the greatest orators, if not the greatest orator, of his time.

LA: That’s right, and see, that’s what, another thing that ties to Alexander. He was deeply interested in people of learning, and benefited from them. And my belief, especially if you just rely on Plutarch, my belief about Caesar is that he was attempting to restore almost as much as he was attempting to dominate. And the story of Rome is that you know, in the civil wars that start, really, in earnest with Sulla, and carry on through the final anointing of Augustus Caesar, the great Caesar, you know, much of the Roman aristocracy was killed. And people miss the point that the Senate became cowed and weak so that Caligula could appoint his horse to the Senate. But that didn’t happen lightly. That happened because whole generations of aristocratic families and others were wiped out in these wars. I think Caesar was trying to prevent that. He did large things to prevent it, which is one of the reasons why the noblemen, whom he had left free, especially Brutus, and admired very much, an attempt to restore them to a place in Rome. They were his killers, and he left himself open to that.

HH: It’s also interesting for the audience to know that he went off at one point for ten years to Gaul, to Germany and France to wage war on the barbarians. And it was the rule at the time you could not return to Rome with your armies. You had to stay away for ten years. And he did that, and he conquered all before him. And he was a military genius, much on the same order of Alexander, you know, Plutarch says greater. But to be away for ten years, it’s truly remarkable.

LA: And don’t have the image when you think about either Caesar or Alexander of somebody sitting in a tent or wherever they were sitting, sending out people with orders. These people were fighting. Alexander charged in the middle of the companion cavalry across rivers and up mudslides, against overwhelming enemies, taking the sword cuts themselves, and winning.

HH: As did Caesar, and did so with panache and extraordinary courage.

— – – –

HH: All great men have great friends and great enemies. Caesar had them both. I’m thinking, Larry Arnn, of Winston Churchill and Max Beaverbrook. I just read a couple of weeks ago that Churchill said some people take drugs, I take Max. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful line. Caesar unfortunately made his closest friends the guy who got close to him with the daggers at the end.

LA: That’s right. And see, think of this. When we talk, let’s talk about the failure and of Rome, although its greatness continued for hundreds of years and expanded after Caesar. Caesar never got a chance that Churchill had. Churchill was a servant of the British constitution, and bowed before it repeatedly, and yet had his great career, and stood up for it, right? And that means that he was in a regime where he could, and he did, stand up for the rule of law limiting his own power. What Caesar faced, you know, after Sulla, and after the condition of Rome, the condition that Rome had fallen into, was that if he didn’t conquer, somebody else probably would. And so Rome was not what it had been. And in a political regime, what therefore is for the practice of the virtues of all of the citizens, the widest possible opportunity, because human beings exist to live well, and that requires they have certain independence, and they each make their own contribution. All the best books on management, I pay attention to management, because I have a college to manage. They all say that the key thing is, people have got to be able to do and grow in their jobs. And that means they must carry the goals and principles of the place in their own breast, not in the mind and breast of any one person. Well, Rome had got to a place where it wasn’t doing that.

HH: Right.

LA: And so what was Caesar to do? And you know, we don’t know what his inner motives were. We can’t. But if you judge from his actions, he was serious about the idea of restoring Rome to its dignity and its constitutional order.

HH: We know that, because he repeatedly spared his enemies. He was grieved when Pompey fled him and was executed in Egypt, and he killed his killers. He pardoned Brutus and Cassius, who would eventually assassinate him. And when Cato killed himself rather than be taken captive, the noblest Roman of them all, as I think Shakespeare says, Caesar wept, and he begrudged him that, because he wanted the gory of pardoning him.

LA: That’s it, and because Caesar seemed serious about that. And when Caesar died, then the civil war starts in earnest, and the camp of Caesar and the camp of Pompey, they duke it out. And at one point, the two camps got to make a list of citizens who would, that they compiled their joint list and put them together, and these were the Romans to be killed. Cicero was on the list. Well, Caesar didn’t conspire in things like that. And you know, what does that mean? That means that Caesar’s teacher was one of the casualties of those times, and indirectly of Caesar.

HH: Right. Now there is one aspect that is so different from Churchill, I just thought I’d ask you. Caesar was very, mixed it up with his men. His men loved him. They groused all the time how fast he made them go, but he also would always dine with the common man. And there’s a story about him eating a rather modest dish, and he partook of it without any disgust, and reprimands his friends for finding fault with it, saying for it was enough not to eat what you did not like, but he who reflects on another man’s want to breeding shows he wants it as much himself, which is very similar to the essence of good taste is never to be offended by bad taste, which I always thought Ben Franklin said. But it’s very, he was a populist. He really did have a common touch. I’m not sure Churchill did, that he did have great sympathy for the common man, but he was not one to really give up the stuff that goes with being a member of the class born to rule.

LA: Well, so I think that’s wrong.

HH: I was drinking a Coke when you said that.

LA: (laughing)

HH: A dangerous thing when the knife goes in.

LA: Yeah, first of all, Churchill was the eldest son of the second son of a duke. And it was a dukedom without money. And so Churchill never really had anything in the way of trappings that he didn’t earn. He worked. And he was radically a constitutional democrat all his life, fought wars against the aristocracy. And Churchill’s rhetoric was beautiful, because it was of wide appeal. And most of his periodical writings, all of his periodical writings and his speeches are things that are made to talk to ordinary British folk. And he relied upon them, and cultivated the speaking and writing to them as the staple of his political career.

HH: But he did not hang with them much, Larry Arnn.

LA: Well, when he was in the army, including in the First World War, very much did he.

HH: All right, well, we’ll come back to that. Let me conclude with this. Standing at the Rubicon, Caesar says, variously translated, let fly the dice. And he crosses and brings down the constitutional order. That is itself a constitution-destroying act, and for it, and Alexander never committed one, because he was the constitution. Is it the sin that can be forgiven? Or is it the sin that can’t be forgiven.

LA: Well, I think it means that his life was a failure, but also, to mitigate the sin, you have to remember, he wasn’t the first one to do that. And that means that he had to think somebody else was going to if he didn’t. Maybe if he did, he could be the vehicle of restoration.

HH: But if you do not accomplish that restoration, then you are the failure. And we warn about Caesarism and Napoleonism, right?

LA: Yeah, very much. And you know, there was this one thing in Caesar’s politics. Caesar incurred enormous debts, which he was able to discharge because he was a conqueror, in order to favor the people and do things, a public exhibition, to win their support. And those things were often given them things. That is an element of Caesarism, for sure.

HH: Even in his death, he left a great legacy which allowed Antony, empowered Antony to start the revolt against the assassins.

LA: That’s right, and Anthony was essentially an irresponsible person. Well, by the way, they both took up Antony, and Alexander both took up with somebody named Cleopatra.

HH: As did Caesar, correct?

LA: Right.

HH: When we come back, America, next week, our last week in Plutarch, we end with a very different sort of Roman, Cicero, before we return to the other works. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, thank you.,, or there’s a link at

End of interview.


Listen Commercial FREE  |  On-Demand
Login Join
Book Hugh Hewitt as a speaker for your meeting

Follow Hugh Hewitt

Listen to the show on your amazon echo devices

The Hugh Hewitt Show - Mobile App

Download from App Store Get it on Google play
Friends and Allies of Rome