“Character is destiny.” This saying, often attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, sums up the outlook of the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, who sought to show how character shaped the destinies of both individuals and the state.
Plutarch, however, was not a true historian in the modern sense, but a moralist concerned to portray the distinctively Roman virtues. His subjects--especially Rome’s builders, such as Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, and Cato the Elder--illustrate his themes of Roman valor and tenacity. Conversely, he suggests that it was the character of men such as Sulla and Antony that destroyed the Republic.
Plutarch’s gauges of character include one’s conduct in war, in politics, and in love. Thus Caesar, though power-mad, is praised for his mercy toward conquered enemies. The use of money was another important index of character; Plutarch disapproves of Antony for seizing others’ property to indulge his spendthrift ways. (He also scorns Antony, the skilled strategist, for tolerating Cleopatra’s ill-advised military decisions.)
Some of Plutarch’s judgments may surprise modern readers. We condemn Brutus as a traitor for murdering his dear friend Caesar; to Plutarch, however, this was a noble act of self-sacrifice to preserve the Republic.
Another strong theme of Plutarch not found in modern historical writing is the way “Heaven” and “fate” influence important state decisions. Sometimes character seems to...
Customarily, in the Parallel Lives, the parallel pairs are accompanied by an introduction. Within these stand whatever dedicatory or prefatory statements that Plutarch wished to make. Many provide clues not only to the specific point of the given pair but also to the general theory of bioi (“lives”) under which Plutarch worked. He clearly distinguished “lives” from “researches,” which meant, as he put it in the “Alexander,” that the most brilliant exploits often tell readers nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall, or of marshaling great armies, or laying siege to cities.
Since these introductions are typically found with the Greek “life” that was written first, an edition or a reading focusing exclusively upon the Roman half of the pair may well lose the sense that Plutarch intended. That must be said since it is common to look at subgroupings of Parallel Lives to obtain from these quasi-biographical essays information of a historical nature. That is especially the case in instances in which a period of time or a personality is otherwise poorly covered because of the loss of sources from which Plutarch worked.
It is appropriate to consider not only Plutarch’s knowledge of Roman sources but also his apparently rather poor knowledge of the Latin language. Nevertheless, much can be gained by reading all the lives appropriate to the end of the Roman republic. The lives of “Caius Marius,” “Sulla,” “Crassus,” “Lucullus,” “Pompeius,” “Cicero,” “Julius Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Brutus,”...
The collection that is today known simply as Plutarch’s Lives is derived from the Parallel Lives, a work in which Plutarch presented a large number of biographies (of which forty-six survive), alternating the lives of eminent Greeks with comparable lives of eminent Romans. A number of shorter essays compared the lives accorded biographical treatment. The collection as it survives includes some biographies written independent of the Parallel Lives, such as the biographies of Otho, Galba, Artaxerxes, and Aratus.
Plutarch considered the lives of famous men important for their moral implications, and his treatment shows his concern to apply the ethics of Aristotle to the judgment of those whose lives he reports. His treatment is more personal than political; like the biographer Suetonius, whose De vita Caesarum (c. 120 c.e.; History of the Twelve Caesars, 1606) lacks the moral emphasis of Plutarch’s work, Plutarch was interested in great figures as human beings liable to the errors and inevitable temptations that confront all human beings. Also, like Suetonius, Plutarch delights in anecdote and uses various tales concerning the Greeks and Romans partly for their intrinsic interest and partly to suit his moral intention.
Although there are inaccuracies in the Lives, the charm and liveliness of Plutarch’s style give the biographies a convincing appeal that more than compensates for errors in fact. In any case, all history is the result of attempts to make intelligible statements about a past that must be reconstructed from the perspectives of the writers. If one says that in the Lives readers see the famous Greeks and Romans only as they appeared to Plutarch, then one must say of any history or biography that it is the past only as it appeared to the work’s author. The conclusion might be that since biographies are sensible only relative to their authors, the character and the ability of the authors are of paramount importance. If the Lives are judged in this manner, then again Plutarch emerges as an excellent historian, for his work expresses the active concerns of a sensitive, conscientious, and educated Greek writer.
The comparisons that Plutarch makes between his Greeks and Romans have sometimes been dismissed as of minor historical importance. The error behind such judgment is that of regarding the comparisons as only biographical and historical. Plutarch’s comparisons are attempts not only to recover the past but also to judge. In the comparisons a moralist is at work, and whatever the truth of the biographies, in the comparisons readers come close to the truth about the moral climate of Plutarch’s day. Another way of putting this is to say that in his biographical essays Plutarch defines men of the past, but in the comparisons he defines himself and the men of his age.
Thus, in comparing Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, with Theseus, the Athenian hero of Greek mythology, Plutarch first considers which of the two was the more valiant and the more aggressive for a worthy cause. The decision is given to Theseus, who voluntarily sought out the oppressors of Greece—Sciron, Sinnis, Procrustes, and Corynetes—and who offered himself as part of the tribute to Crete. Plutarch then finds both heroes wanting. “Both Theseus and Romulus were by nature meant for governors,” he writes, “yet neither lived up to the true character of a king, but fell off, and ran, the one into popularity, the other into tyranny, falling both into the same fault...