Read COMPARISON OF LYSANDER AND SULLA of Plutarch's Lives‚ Volume II, free online book, by Aubrey Stewart & George Long, on

Now that we have completed the second of these mens lives, let us proceed to compare them with one another. Both rose to greatness by their own exertions, though it was the peculiar glory of Lysander that all his commands were bestowed upon him by his countrymen of their own free will and by their deliberate choice, and that he never opposed their wishes or acted in opposition to the laws of his country. Now,

“In revolutions, villains rise to fame,”

and at Rome, at the period of which we are treating, the people were utterly corrupt and degraded, and frequently changed their masters. We need not wonder at Sulla’s becoming supreme in Rome when such men as Glaucia and Saturninus drove the Metelli into exile, when the sons of consuls were butchered in the senate-house, when silver and gold purchased soldiers and arms, and laws were enacted by men who silenced their opponents by fire and the sword. I cannot blame a man who rises to power at such a time as this, but I cannot regard it as any proof of his being the best man in the state, if the state itself be in such a condition of disorder. Now Lysander was sent out to undertake the most important commands at a time when Sparta was well and orderly governed, and proved himself the greatest of all the foremost men of his age, the best man of the best regulated state. For this reason Lysander, though he often laid down his office, was always re-elected by his countrymen, for the renown of his abilities naturally pointed him out as the fittest man to command: whereas Sulla, after being once elected to lead an army, remained the chief man in Rome for ten years, calling himself sometimes consul and sometimes dictator, but always remaining a mere military despot.

II. We have related an attempt of Lysander to subvert the constitution of Sparta; but he proceeded by a much more moderate and law-abiding means than Sulla, for he meant to gain his point by persuasion, not by armed force; and besides this he did not intend to destroy the constitution utterly, but merely to reform the succession to the throne. And it does not seem contrary to justice, that he who is best among his peers should govern a city, which ruled in Greece by virtue, not by nobility of blood.

A huntsman tries to obtain a good hound, and a horseman a good horse, but does not trouble himself with their offspring, for the offspring of his horse might turn out to be a mule. Just so in politics, the important point is, what sort of man a ruler is, not from what family he is descended. Even the Spartans in some cases dethroned their kings, because they were not king-like but worthless men. If then vice be disgraceful even in the nobly born, it follows that virtue does not depend upon birth, but is honoured for itself.

The crimes of Lysander were committed for, those of Sulla against, his friends. Indeed, what Lysander did wrong was done chiefly on behalf of his friends, as, in order to establish them securely in their various despotic governments, he caused many of their political opponents to be put to death. Sulla, on the other hand, reduced the army of Pompeius and the fleet which he himself had given to Dolabella to command, merely to gratify his private spite. When Lucretius Ofella sued for the consulship as the reward of many great exploits, he ordered him to be put to death before his face, and thus made all men fear and hate him by his barbarous treatment of his most intimate friends.

III. Their several esteem for pleasure and for riches prove still more clearly that Lysander was born to command men; Sulla to tyrannize over them. The former, although he rose to such an unparalleled height of power never was betrayed by it into any acts of insolent caprice, and there never was a man to whom the well-known proverb

“Lions at home, but foxes in the field,”

was less applicable, Sulla, on the other hand, did not allow his poverty when young or his years when old to hinder him in the pursuit of pleasure, but he enacted laws to regulate the marriages and morals of his countrymen, and indulged his own amorous propensities in spite of them, as we read in Sallust’s history. In consequence of his vices, Rome was so drained of money that he was driven to the expedient of allowing the allied cities to purchase their independence by payment, and that, too, although he was daily proscribing the richest men and selling their property by public auction. Yet he wasted money without limit upon his courtiers. What bounds can we imagine he would set to his generosity when in his cups, seeing that once, when a great estate was being sold by public auction, he ordered the auctioneer to knock it down to a friend of his own for a mere nominal sum, and when some one else made a higher bid, and the auctioneer called out the additional sum offered, Sulla flew into a passion and exclaimed: “My friends, I am very hardly used if I may not dispose of my own plunder as I please.” Now Lysander sent home to his countrymen even what he had himself received as presents together with the rest of the spoils. Yet I do not approve of him for so doing: for he did as much harm to Sparta by bestowing that money upon it as Sulla did harm to Rome by the money which he took from it: but I mention it as proving how little he cared for money. Each acted strangely towards his fellow-countrymen. Sulla regulated and improved the morals of Rome, although he himself was wasteful and licentious. Lysander filled his countrymen with the passions from which he himself was free. Thus the former was worse than the laws which he himself enacted, while the latter rendered his countrymen worse than himself, as he taught the Spartans to covet what he had learned to despise. So much for their political conduct.

IV. In warlike exploits, in brilliancy of generalship, in the number of victories he won, and the greatness of the dangers which he encountered, Sulla is immeasurably the greater. Lysander did indeed twice conquer in a sea-fight, and I will even allow him the credit of having taken Athens; no difficult matter, no doubt, but one which, brought him great glory because of its being so famous a city. In Boeotia and before Haliartus he was perhaps unlucky, yet his conduct in not waiting for the arrival of the great force under Pausanias, which was at Plataea, close by, seems like bad generalship. He would not stay till the main body arrived, but rashly assaulted the city, and fell by an unknown hand in an insignificant skirmish. He did not meet his death facing overwhelming odds, like Kleombrotus at Leuktra, nor yet in the act of rallying his broken forces, or of consummating his victory, as did Cyrus and Epameinondas. All these died as became generals and kings; but Lysander ingloriously flung away his life like any common light infantry soldier, and proved the wisdom of the ancient Spartans, who always avoided the attack of fortified places, where the bravest may fall by the hand of the most worthless man, or even by that of a woman or a child, as Achilles is said to have been slain by Paris at the gates of Troy. Turning now to Sulla, it is not easy to enumerate all the pitched battles he won, the thousands of enemies that he overthrew. He twice took Rome itself by storm, and at Athens he took Peiraeus, not by famine like Lysander, but after a gigantic struggle, at the end of which he drove Archelaus into the sea.

It is important also to consider who were the generals to whom they were opposed. It must have been mere child’s-play to Lysander to defeat Antiochus, the pilot of Alkibiades, and to outwit Philokles, the Athenian mob-orator,

“A knave, whose tongue was sharper than his sword,”

for they were both of them men whom Mithridates would not have thought a match for one of his grooms, or Marius for one of his lictors. Not to mention the rest of the potentates, consuls, praetors and tribunes with whom Sulla had to contend, what Roman was more to be dreaded than Marius? What king more powerful than Mithridates? Who was there in Italy more warlike than Lamponius and Pontius Telesinus? Yet Sulla drove Marius into exile, crushed the power of Mithridates, and put Lamponius and Pontius to death.

V. What, however, to my mind incontestably proves Sulla to have been the greater man of the two, is that, whereas Lysander was always loyally assisted by his countrymen in all his enterprises, Sulla, during his campaign in Boeotia, was a mere exile. His enemies were all-powerful at Rome. They had driven his wife to seek safety in flight, had pulled down his house, and murdered his friends. Yet he fought in his country’s cause against overwhelming numbers, and gained the victory. Afterwards, when Mithridates offered to join him and furnish him with the means of overcoming his private enemies, he showed no sign of weakness, and would not even speak to him or give him his hand until he heard him solemnly renounce all claim to Asia Minor, engage to deliver up his fleet, and to restore Bithynia and Cappadocia to their native sovereigns. Never did Sulla act in a more noble and high-minded manner. He preferred his country’s good to his own private advantage, and, like a well-bred hound, never relaxed his hold till his enemy gave in, and then began to turn his attention to redressing his own private wrongs.

Perhaps their treatment of Athens gives us some insight into their respective characters. Although that city sided with Mithridates and fought to maintain his empire, yet when Sulla had taken it he made it free and independent. Lysander, on the other hand, felt no pity for Athens when she fell from her glorious position as the leading state in Greece, but put an end to her free constitution and established the cruel and lawless government of the Thirty.

We may now conclude our review of their respective lives by observing that while Sulla performed greater achievements, Lysander committed fewer crimes: and that while we assign the palm for moderation and self-denial to the latter, that for courage and generalship be bestowed upon the former.