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The Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus
Translated by John Dryden
Having described all their actions that seem to deserve commemoration,
their military ones, we may say, incline the balance very decidedly
upon neither side. They both, in pretty equal measure, displayed on
numerous occasions the daring and courage of the soldier, and the
skill and foresight of the general; unless, indeed, the fact that
Alcibiades was victorious and successful in many contests both by
sea and land, ought to gain him the title of a more complete commander.
That so long as they remained and held command in their respective
countries they eminently sustained, and when they were driven into
exile yet more eminently damaged, the fortunes of those countries,
is common to both. 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 oligarchical haughtiness
which Marcius, on the other hand, displayed in his, were the abhorrence
of the Roman 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
Marcius, according to our common conceptions of his character, was
undoubtedly simple and straightforward; Alcibiades, unscrupulous as
a public man, and false. He is more especially blamed for the dishonourable
and treacherous way in which, as Thucydides relates, he imposed upon
the Lacedaemonian ambassadors, and disturbed the continuance of the
peace. Yet this policy, which engaged the city again in war, nevertheless
placed it in a powerful and formidable position, by the accession,
which Alcibiades obtained for it, of the alliance of Argos and Mantinea.
And Coriolanus also, Dionysius relates, used unfair means to excite
war between the Romans and the Volscians, in the false report which
he spread about the visitors at the Games; and the motive of this
action seems to make it the worse of the two; since it was not done,
like the other, out of ordinary political jealousy, strife, and competition.
Simply to gratify anger from which, as Ion says, no one ever yet got
any return, he threw whole districts of Italy into confusion, and
sacrificed to his passion against his country numerous innocent cities.
It is true, indeed, that Alcibiades also, by his resentment, was the
occasion of great disasters to his country, but he relented as soon
as he found their feelings to be changed; and after he was driven
out a second time, so far from taking pleasure in the errors and inadvertencies
of their commanders, or being indifferent to the danger they were
thus incurring, he did the very thing that Aristides is so highly
commended for doing to Themistocles; he came to the generals who were
his enemies, and pointed out to them what they ought to do. Coriolanus,
on the other hand, first of all attacked the whole body of his countrymen,
though only one portion of them had done him any wrong, while the
other, the better and nobler portion, had actually suffered, as well
as sympathized, with him. And, secondly, by the obduracy with which
he resisted numerous embassies and supplications, addressed in propitiation
of his single anger and offence, he showed that it had been to destroy
and overthrow, not to recover and regain his country, that he had
excited bitter and implacable hostilities against it. There is, indeed,
one distinction that may be drawn. Alcibiades, it may be said, was
not safe among the Spartans, and had the inducements at once of fear
and of hatred to lead him again to Athens; whereas Marcius could not
honourably have left the Volscians, when they were behaving so well
to him: he, in the command of their forces and the enjoyment of their
entire confidence, was in a very different position from Alcibiades,
whom the Lacedaemonians did not so much wish to adopt into their service,
as to use and then abandon. Driven about from house to house in the
city, and from general to general in the camp, the latter had no resort
but to place himself in the hands of Tisaphernes; unless, indeed,
we are to suppose that his object in courting favour with him was
to avert the entire destruction of his native city, whither he wished
himself to return.
As regards money, Alcibiades, we are told, was often guilty of procuring
it by accepting bribes, and spent it ill in luxury and dissipation.
Coriolanus declined to receive it, even when pressed upon him by his
commanders as an honour; and one great reason for the odium he incurred
with the populace in the discussions about their debts was, that he
trampled upon the poor, not for money's sake, but out of pride and
Antipater, in a letter written upon the death of Aristotle the philosopher,
observes, "Amongst his other gifts he had that of persuasiveness;"
and the absence of this in the character of Marcius made all his great
actions and noble qualities unacceptable to those whom they benefited:
pride, and self-will, the consort, as Plato calls it, of solitude,
made him insufferable. With the skill which Alcibiades, on the contrary,
possessed to treat every one in the way most agreeable to him, we
cannot wonder that all his successes were attended with the most exuberant
favour and honour; his very errors, at times, being accompanied by
something of grace and felicity. And so in spite of great and frequent
hurt that he had done the city, he was repeatedly appointed to office
and command; while Coriolanus stood in vain for a place which his
great services had made his due. The one, in spite of the harm he
occasioned, could not make himself hated, nor the other, with all
the admiration he attracted, succeeded in being beloved by his countrymen.
Coriolanus, moreover, it should be said, did not as a general obtain
any successes for his country, but only for his enemies against his
country. Alcibiades was often of service to Athens, both as a soldier
and as a commander. So long as he was personally present, he had the
perfect mastery of his political adversaries; calumny only succeeded
in his absence. Coriolanus was condemned in person at Rome; and in
like manner killed by the Volscians, not indeed with any right or
justice, yet not without some pretext occasioned by his own acts;
since, after rejecting all conditions of peace in public, in private
he yielded to the solicitations of the women and, without establishing
peace, threw up the favourable chances of war. He ought, before retiring,
to have obtained the consent of those who had placed their trust in
him; if indeed he considered their claims on him to be the strongest.
Or, if we say that he did not care about the Volscians, but merely
had prosecuted the war, which he now abandoned, for the satisfaction
of his own resentment, then the noble thing would have been, not to
spare his country for his mother's sake, but his mother in and with
his country; since both his mother and his wife were part and parcel
of that endangered country. After harshly repelling public supplications,
the entreaties of ambassadors, and the prayers of priests, to concede
all as a private favour to his mother was less an honour to her than
a dishonour to the city which thus escaped, in spite, it would seem,
of its own demerits through the intercession of a single woman. Such
a grace could, indeed, seem merely invidious, ungracious, and unreasonable
in the eyes of both parties; he retreated without listening to the
persuasions of his opponents or asking the consent of his friends.
The origin of all lay in his unsociable, supercilious, and self-willed
disposition, which, in all cases, is offensive to most people; and
when combined with a passion for distinction passes into absolute
savageness and mercilessness. Men decline to ask favours of the people,
professing not to need any honours from them; and then are indignant
if they do not obtain them. Metellus, Aristides, and Epaminondas certainly
did not beg favours of the multitude; but that was because they, in
real truth, did not value the gifts which a popular body can either
confer or refuse; and when they were more than once driven into exile,
rejected at elections, and condemned in courts of justice, they showed
no resentment at the ill-humour of their fellow-citizens, but were
willing and contented to return and be reconciled when the feeling
altered and they were wished for. 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 from an overweening appetite
to have it.
Alcibiades never professed to deny that it was pleasant to him to
be honoured, and distasteful to him to be overlooked; and, accordingly,
he always tried to place himself upon good terms with all that he
met; Coriolanus's pride forbade him to pay attentions to those who
could have promoted his advancement, and yet his love of distinction
made him feel hurt and angry when he was disregarded. Such are the
faulty parts of his character, which in all other respects was a noble
one. For his temperance, continence, and probity he claims to be compared
with the best and purest of the Greeks; not in any sort or kind with
Alcibiades, the least scrupulous and most entirely and most entirely
careless of human beings in all these points.
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