878: Plutarch’s Lives by Plutarch

by Gerard


878: Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. Translated by John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1969. 389 pp.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 870: Literature of Italic and Latin languages
  • 878: Latin miscellaneous writings

Note: This edition of Plutarch’s Lives, published as part of the Harvard Classics, is not the complete set written by Plutarch. The original collection consisted of 23 pairs of biographies, each containing a Greek and Roman figure, and four unpaired biographies. My version covers Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, Coriolanus, Demosthenes, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Antony. Alcibiades and Coriolanus are paired together as well as Demosthenes and Cicero.

If you want a pretty decent picture of both the everyday lives of Greeks and Roman as well as an overview of ancient, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Plutarch. Writing in the late 1st century, Plutarch is about as close to a contemporary source as one could want. In the Harvard Classics collection of Plutarch’s Lives, we get a cross section of historical figures:

  • Themistocles: Athenian general who saved Greece from the Persians in the 5th century BCE
  • Pericles: Successor to Themistocles who instilled democracy into Athenian politics
  • Alcibiades: Athenian statesman and general
  • Coriolanus: Exiled Roman general who teamed with the Volsci to invade Rome
  • Demosthenes: Greek orator who opposed Macedonian expansion
  • Cicero: Roman politician and orator who revered Demosthenes
  • Julius Caesar: Roman emperor who conquered most of Europe
  • Antony: Roman consul who succeeded Caesar

Each of these men lived interesting, entangled, and boisterous lives. At a time when Western civilization was emerging from the crucible of the Fertile Crescent, each of these subjects sought to direct the future of their worlds. Whether through words or wars, they put in a lot of effort to live lives that they thought were full of dignity, valor, and righteousness.

Plutarch tries to explore the character of each of his subjects, to search for both the good and bad qualities which help to put their actions in some context for the reader. Unfortunately, the writing in this edition is a bit stilted. It’s a 1969 reprint of a 1859 revision of an 1683 translation, so there’s not exactly a lot of modern narrative construction here. All in all, though, the material is very educational and will get you quickly versed in ancient history.