Plutarch's biographies of 9 important political and military leaders give the reader an in depth insight into the workings of the Roman Empire. It is a gloomy picture of a world dominated by the wealthy patricians at home and by Roman generals and their foot folk at large.
Rome's democratic system consisted of two parties: the patricians (the wealthy aristocrats and landowners) represented by the consuls and the plebeians represented by the tribunes. However, the tribunes had to be unanimous. If one defected to the other party, the patricians controlled completely the political scene.
`Coriolanus' was a staunch defender of the ancient aristocratic laws.
`Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus' were tribunes of the plebs. The former proposed agrarian (land distribution) and the latter political (shunting the aristocratic Senate) reforms. The former was clubbed to death and the latter decapitated by the patricians.
A dictatorship, assuming all (life and death) powers, was heavily opposed by `Brutus'.
A very important and stabilizing factor in Roman life was religion (`Fabius Maximus': `fix people's thoughts upon religious matters to strengthen their confidence'). The augurs occupied a cardinal function, being sometimes pressed to pronounce inauspicious omens (`Marcellus'). One respected oracular instruction imposed the burying alive of a Greek and a Gaul man and woman. For the author this was absolutely not superstition. Plutarch was in no way a Lucretius.
Another important civil servant was the censor (`Cato the Elder"), who had the right to inquire into the lives and manners of all citizens.
At large, Rome was first on the defensive during the Punic wars (`Fabius Maximus' and `Marcellus'). But later, it went on an offensive spree, conquering the whole Mediterranean world. The vanquished cities and their inhabitants were partly offered as salary to their soldiers. The generals, like `Sertorius', pocketed enormous wealth in land, precious metals and slaves. With their big armies, they plotted and fought among themselves to grab as much power as possible within the empire.
A most appalling new low was reached with the agreement between the triumvirate `Mark Antony' - Lepidus - Octavius to put to death 300 senators and 2000 equites in order to seize their possessions and fill the war coffers of the triumvirs: `I can conceive of nothing more savage or vindictive than their trafficking in blood.'
Plutarch's dramatic presentation of the creation and barbarous functioning of the first world empire is an essential read for all those interested in the history of mankind.