A timeless story: Plutarch > Böll > us

Heinrich Böll (click for credits)

Let’s have a few minutes of fun tracing the genealogy of a story to illustrate the concept of archetypes — the Jungian idea that we tell each other the same timeless stories again and again, in infinitely many variations.

(My book is based on that idea: namely, that we see ourselves in the stories of others, whether they lived 2,000 years ago or 2 years ago, or whether they lived at all.)

On pages 140-142 of Hannibal and Me, I tell two versions of a short story. (This is the very end of the chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, which is about the fiendish difficulty of telling ends from means in life and the consequences of getting it wrong, as I hinted in this post for the Harvard Business Review.)

So I end the chapter with this:

A few years ago, one of those chain-letter emails landed in my inbox. It told the story of a fisherman who was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In the chapter, I then go on to tell another, and much, much older version of that story, which I’ll repeat in a minute. But here is what my cousin Bettina realized the other day as she was reading the above passage in my book: The story I was retelling from a chain email in fact derives from a short story by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel-Prize winning giant of postwar German literature.

Böll’s story, written in 1963, was titled:

Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral

I love that sardonic mock-bureaucratic tone. It translates into something like:

Anecdote for the Diminishment of the Work Ethic

Here is the German text, very simply and beautifully written. The Wikipedia page tells me that

The story, with its several adaptions, has been circulated widely on the Internet, and has been quoted in many books and scholarly papers. In one of the most popular versions, the tourist is an American (an MBA from Harvard in some versions), and the fisherman is Mexican.

Clearly, Böll’s story has a timeless kernel. So where might Böll himself have gotten the idea? (And by the way, he may not have realized where he got it, for we usually do not recall what influenced our ideas.)

Well, I think he got it from a story written about 2000 years ago about events more than 300 years before that. The author was Plutarch. The story was about Pyrrhus, the one who gave us “Pyrrhic Victories“.

You can compare it to the original here. But on page 141 of my book, I retell it this way (with anything in quotation marks directly sourced from Plutarch):

Pyrrhus was making preparations to invade Italy and attack Rome when Cineas struck up a conversation.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors,” said Cineas. “If God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“But that’s obvious,” said Pyrrhus. “We will be ‘masters of all Italy’ with all its wealth.”

“And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?” asked Cineas.

“Sicily,” replied Pyrrhus without missing a beat. “A wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained.”

“But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?” asked Cineas.

“God grant us victory and success in that,” answered Pyrrhus, “and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach?” Once we have those, will anybody anywhere “dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus smiled and said, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

“And what hinders us,” said Cineas, “from doing exactly that right now, without going through all these troubles?”

Pyrrhus suddenly looked “troubled” and had no answer. Then he went ahead and invaded Italy anyway — without success.

Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

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The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

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Pyrrhic victories

Heard about my victory?

Heard about my victory?

You’ve heard of Pyrrhic Victories, which are defeats disguised as triumphs–in other words, Kipling-esque impostors of the sort that I will be describing in my book. But do you know why they are called that?

It’s thanks to Pyrrhus, who is well worth five minutes of your time.

Pyrrhus was the ancient world’s equivalent of a dumb jock whom all the girls loved, who bashed the equivalent of Budweiser cans on his forehead and beat up the enemy football team but never quite figured it all out.

Put differently, he was the King of Epirus in northern Greece, and wanted to be like Alexander the Great, who died a couple of generations before him. (Pyrrhus in turn died a generation before Hannibal was born.) He wanted to be a hero and to conquer. Basically, that’s all there was to it. And he was great at it–brave, courageous, strong. Plutarch says that once, when he was thought dead on the battlefield, he just got up and cleft an enemy soldier in two pieces with one blow of his sword.

One day, an opportunity came up: Tarentum, a Greek city in southern Italy that was fighting the Romans, invited Pyrrhus to come over and fight Rome on their behalf. Pyrrhus was thrilled. As he was preparing to leave for Italy with his army and his war elephants (sounds a lot like Hannibal, doesn’t it?), he had a conversation with the wise Cineas. This is one of my favorite exchanges in antiquity. Here is Plutarch’s version:

Cineas: If we beat the Romans, what should we do next?

Pyrrhus: Why, then we’ll be masters of all Italy.

Cineas: “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus: “Sicily.”

Cineas: “But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”

Pyrrhus: “We will use that as the forerunners of greater things” such as Libya and Carthage. Would anybody resist us after that?

Cineas: “None,” for then we can take Macedon and even all of Greece. “And when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus: “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

Cineas: “And what hinders us now, sir,” from doing exactly that?

At this Pyrrhus was nonplussed. But left for Italy anyway!

Next, he had his Pyrrhic victories. He beat the Romans, but each time he lost so many men and gained so little that once, when congratulated on yet another victory, he sighed: “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Eventually, as he was wont, he got distracted. There was another opportunity for glory in Sicily, so he sailed around a bit there and bashed a few heads. You can see on that map what that trip (dare I say his life?) looked like.

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

In any event, Sicily also failed to make him happy, so eventually he made his way back to Greece.

Once home, he kept fighting wars here and there. I mean, it’s a hard habit to kick! His end came as it had to come (irony alert): He was in the middle of some vicious street fighting in a Greek city, when an old woman on a rooftop dropped a tile, which landed on his heroic pate and knocked him dead. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Have you ever been a Pyrrhus in your life? Do you know any Pyrrhuses?
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