Parallel Lives by Plutarch

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Parallel Lives Summary

Parallel Lives is a collection of biographies about great men and leaders from Greece and Rome. There are twenty-two pairs of biographies in total with only four not existing today: they include Themistocles v. Camillus, Pyrrhus v. Marius, Alexander v. Caesar, and Phocion v. Cato the Younger. The author compares the lives of leaders from both the Greeks and the Romans to show how similar they were. He hoped that the comparisons would lead to mutual respect between the two empires that were both influential at the time. As a result, most of the biographies are filled with moral teachings. This book can still be used by anyone intending to run for public office today since the same ethical principles apply to modern leaders.


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“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 manifest these influences.

Plutarch paired each of his Roman biographies with that of a Greek whose life or character he thought comparable. Many modern translators, however, separate the biographies into two distinct sections, one for Greek and one for Roman.

In a sense, the first historical novelist, Plutarch, shared with his readers an interest in individual personality that has given his LIVES an enduring popularity.


Barrow, R. H. Plutarch and His Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967. A comprehensive introduction for the beginner to Plutarch’s life, times, and works. Contains two chapters on the Lives, in which they are examined primarily in terms of their purpose, digressions, and historical sources.

Gossage, A. J. “Plutarch.” In Latin Biography, edited by T. A. Dorey. New York: Basic Books, 1967. An excellent concise introduction to the Lives. Includes discussion of their influence on English writers of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Valuable endnotes list passages that illustrate Plutarch’s biographical methods.

Plutarch. Shakespeare’s Plutarch. Edited by T. J. B. Spencer. New York: Penguin Books, 1964. An edition, with introduction, of Thomas North’s 1579 translation of the four Lives from which the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare drew the plots of his Roman tragedies. Abundant quotation of parallel passages from the plays. Invaluable for an understanding of Shakespeare’s literary debt to Plutarch.

Russell, D. A. Plutarch. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. An introduction to Plutarch’s thought and writings from a literary perspective; for the general reader. In the three chapters devoted to the Lives, that of Alcibiades receives the greatest emphasis.

Wardman, Alan. Plutarch’s Lives . Berkeley: University of...

(The entire section is 1,375 words.)