Use dragons to keep wolves under control, and you eventually have to reward them. And then, they do what they want.”

That’s the inherent danger of taking the route of the ‘lesser evil.’  We start with the presumption that it is a small thing, and easily manageable.  And if it can rid us of a more pressing, more destructive assailant, we’ll be happy to accept it.  But feed it for too long, and it too will consume us.

Such is the difficult problem Rome faced in the conflict between Pompey and Julius Caesar.  Caesar’s eventual defeat of Pompey offered a short reprieve amidst a long series of Civil Wars, after which the Roman people granted Caesar a permanent dictatorship (though he was not yet emperor).

Rome’s finest historian, Plutarch, remarks:  “However, the Romans bowed their heads before Caesar’s good fortune and accepted the bridle.  Since autocracy was, from their point of view, a pleasant change after civil war and turmoil, they proclaimed him dictator for life.”

But this would have disastrous consequences for Rome.  When Caesar was assassinated only four years later, the Romans divided power again, leading to the reignition of the Civil Wars.  By the end of them, Rome had been a military state for so long that the Senate had virtually no authority, paving the way for Caesar Augustus to become the functional emperor.

Like all history, drawing a straight line between their time and ours is impossible.  But the story of the fall of the Roman Republic (and the rise of the Empire) is a stark reminder of the intrinsic dangers of adopting the lesser of two evils.  And for that, it is worth reflecting about.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Elliot Ravenwood February 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    I like the post, Matt.

    Due to forces beyond my control, however, I am compelled to be snooty and quibble with the designation of Plutarch as Rome’s Finest Historian.

    I quite admire Plutarch’s writings. But there is the small matter that Plutarch wrote no histories of Rome.

    And saying that a Greek biographer and moralist outranks the historical skill or value of writers like Livy, Sallust, Suetonius, Tacitus, and even Caesar himself requires some explanation.


    1. Elliot,

      I’m starting to respond to comments…..and I appreciate yours a bunch.

      Obviously, there’s a certain philosophy of history at work here in my claim. I actually think that the biographies are histories, and qualify as such (despite his moralizing). But it’s also a line that I’m not too invested in and I’ll yield to your historical judgement on.


  2. Matt,

    I don’t think a comments section is this best place for me to wade into the “what counts as history” debate. However, I’ll just point out two things that make me disinclined to consider Plutarch as a real historian. (And for the record again, I love Plutarch!)

    First, Plutarch is quite removed from the Greek figures (and most of the Roman ones) that he is writing about. His “history” is therefore largely derivative, based on other real historical writings.

    Tacitus and Thucydides, on the other hand, write as contemporaries or very near contemporaries to the events in question. Plutarch was writing over a century after the deaths of the Ceasar, Cicero, Crassus generation; only two of the 40 lives were contemporaries.

    Second, Plutarch unapologetically imposes a philosophical meaning and structure on his history. God knows historians do this enough without trying too, so where possible we try to let the content dictate the meaning, not vice versa. Or, at least we pretend to do that.


    1. Elliot,

      Does that mean that no historians of ancient antiquity around today? Or Mark Noll is not a historian of early American religious history? :)



  3. Yeah, I thought you’d come back with something like that. But there is a difference between a) having many good primary sources available and using them to say something new (ala Noll), and b) having a few poor primary sources and either saying something derivative or imposing your philosophical framework on them (ala Plutarch). As an ancient historian, if you weren’t there, or couldn’t talk to someone who was, you don’t rate well.

    Note that I’m criticizing merely the historical content of Plutarch’s work as derivative; his moral and philosophical content based on his history is excellent.


    1. I love the fact that you set me up, only to knock me over. Brutal, Ravenwood. Simply brutal.

      At any rate, I’d say that I didn’t get into the question of Plutarch’s sources, and since I don’t have much invested here, I defer to your better judgment.


  4. Elliot Ravenwood February 26, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Ever gracious in victory and defeat, Matt. I will now rest on these (very tiny) laurels for the rest of today.


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