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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124

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...

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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.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

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,” and “Antony” have so much in common by interplay with one another that Plutarch’s treatment becomes significant precisely in the minute amount of distinctive, if not contradictory, data about these several individuals that he provided.

The order of Plutarch’s composition remains in dispute, but it is possible to distinguish four subgroups on the basis of the purposes that underlay the writing. Plutarch had begun “at the request of his friends,” continued “for his own satisfaction,” turned to examples “whose career may serve as a warning,” and concluded the whole with those “of the founding fathers and legislators of Greece and Rome.” Whether for others or “his own satisfaction,” the choices made illustrate that sense in which figures from the past can be “object-lessons in a particular virtue” for persons of the present.

The absence of any life of a woman, like the absence of any woman from the “Table Talk,” should be noted. Truly none constituted the primary focus of Plutarch’s work, though the “Consolation to His Wife” has received remark. From the Moralia could be added “Gamika parangelmata” (“Advice to Bride and Groom”), the “pithy remarks” attributed to Spartan women in “Apothegmata Lakonika” (“Sayings of Spartans”), but especially the “Gunaikon aretai” (“Bravery of Women”). Plutarch lived within a world with its own notions of sexual status. Yet that fact should not ignore the role given to women, nor the particular and peculiar virtues assigned to women within the literary lives of the men. The example of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi brothers, illustrates well the contrasting point. In the same context, emphasis must be placed upon Plutarch’s assumption that education itself, the very purpose of all of his essays in Moralia, as well as in Parallel Lives, was exclusively the prerogative of that wealthy and leisured minority “able to attend the lectures of philosophers” or to share with Plutarch in his kind of lifestyle.

The use of a Greek with a Roman was meant to educate both peoples regarding the values inherent within the other. The frequent presence of a synkrisis (comparison) was intended to find whether or not those values were present in the “lives” of the persons chosen. The use of introductions to the Parallel Lives adds to these stylistic devices. All contribute to an understanding of not only Plutarch’s intentions in the writing of this kind of “moral essay” but also how his result was of such potent literary force. Throughout subsequent history, he was read with intensity as providing models for men in different eras and under divergent political manifestations. The Parallel Lives are indeed examples within the “ethics” of political philosophy.

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