Plutarch

Plutarch was a Greco-Roman philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. He lived from about 46 to about 120 AD. He was a prolific writer in all genres: an ancient catalogue attributes no fewer than 227 works to Plutarch, of which 78 have come down to us.

Plutarch is most famous for the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of eminent Greek and Roman leaders. These were arranged in pairs, one Greek and one Roman, in order to compare their lives and achievements and characters. The surviving lives contain 23 pairs of biographies as well as four unpaired single lives = 50 lives in total.

As he explains in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history as such, with the broad sweep of historical events, but with exploring how the characters of famous men influenced their lives and destinies. Hence a lot of room is taken up with gossip and anecdote on the assumption that this often tells you more about a person than their official CV. Plutarch consciously sought to create a portrait of each figure and himself compares his craft to that of a painter.

In his history of the Roman republic, Tom Holland explains that the parallel lives only make sense in the format Plutarch conceived them for, as pairs, and disapproves of the way Penguin Books rearranged the lives, removing them from their pairings and reorganising them by chronological period, to produce volumes of biographies of just Greeks or Romans, thus losing the point of the entire project.

It was on this editorial principle that, in 1958, Penguin published a volume of six lives from the last 70 or so years of the Roman Republic, being Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar and Cicero, entitled Fall of the Roman Republic, translated by the novelist and Classicist Rex Warner (1905 to 1986).

In his very brief introduction to the Penguin edition, Warner justifies the decision by arguing that a) Plutarch’s original pairings of Greeks and Romans often have very little in common and feel ‘artificial’, so that b) translating the original pairings runs the risk of confusing the reader by forcing him or her to jump backwards and forwards between the very different social, economic and historical backgrounds of Greece and Rome. It’s a persuasive argument.

(And to be fair to Penguin they have, in recent years, reconsidered this editorial decision and published some of the lives in pairs, as Plutarch originally intended. The most recent edition of this volume of six Roman lives for the first time includes the brief passages Plutarch wrote comparing the lives of his Greek and Roman exemplars.)

Rex Warner (1905 to 1986)

Born in 1905, Warner went to public school and on to Oxford where he was associated with the Auden group. He wrote poetry, plays and novels, and is best remembered for the eccentric allegorical novel, The Aerodrome (1941), which I reviewed a few years ago.

From 1945 to 1947 he was in Athens as Director of the British Institute and became involved in numerous translations of classical Greek and Latin authors. His 1954 translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War for Penguin Classics sold over a million copies and helped to establish the commercial and cultural viability of Penguin Classics. Warner went on to translate Xenophon, Caesar and this selection of Plutarch’s Roman lives for Penguin.

Bill Thayer

An American named Bill Thayer has created a fabulous website onto which he has transcribed all 50 of Plutarch’s parallel lives (as well as a staggering amount of other ancient literature). They’re all given in the out-of-copyright 1923 Loeb Classical Library edition by Bernadotte Perrin. It includes interesting notes, handy maps, and a very useful list of all Plutarch’s lives in the form of a table.

When I saw this table I realised I wanted to read more than just the 6 lives included in the Penguin volume. I was particularly intrigued by the less well-known characters of Sertorius and Lucullus who had walk-on parts in several of the histories I’ve read. In fact I realised there were no fewer than 11 Plutarch lives from the final century of the Roman Republic which I was curious to read. In chronological order of birth these are as follows. Ones included in the Penguin edition are in bold:

  • Marius (b. 157)
  • Sulla (b. 138)
  • Lucullus (b. 118)
  • Crassus (b. 115)
  • Sertorius (b. 126)
  • Pompey (b. 106)
  • Cicero (b. 106)
  • Caesar (b. 100)
  • Cato the Younger (b. 95)
  • Antony (b. 83)
  • Brutus (b. 85)

Some I read in the Rex Warner Penguin translation, some in the 1923 Loeb classics edition, some swapping between the two. In order to be clear and consistent, references are to the long-established ‘chapter’ numbers which each life is divided into.

Initially I reviewed Marius and Sulla in the form of a summary overview of their lives and careers, taking material from other sources to make them historically accurate but this just ended up making them into  second-rate Wikipedia articles.

I realised it was more useful to stick closely to what Plutarch actually wrote, summarising every one of his short ‘chapters’, and recording the eccentric material he periodically includes – the anecdotes and omens and folk tales and sayings – precisely because that’s the kind of thing which doesn’t appear in  the conventional histories or biographies but sheds most light about h ow the ancients thought about great figures and great events.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus
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