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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692

Plutarch understood his main literary activity was to involve the education of men. He clearly stood within the intellectual tradition of Greek philosophy. This philosophical base had been defined as consisting of three concerns upon which the divergent “philosophizers” focused: nature, morals, and rationality itself, so that there were three...

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Plutarch understood his main literary activity was to involve the education of men. He clearly stood within the intellectual tradition of Greek philosophy. This philosophical base had been defined as consisting of three concerns upon which the divergent “philosophizers” focused: nature, morals, and rationality itself, so that there were three corresponding kinds of philosophy: natural, moral, and logical. It was with the moral or ethical that Plutarch principally dealt, though by no means to the exclusion of the others. His essays “Aetia physica” (“Causes of Natural Phenomena”) and “Peri tou emphainomenou prosopou toi kukloi tes selenes” (“Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon”) reveal attention to topics within natural philosophy. On the latter, the early modern astronomer, Johannes Kepler, composed a Latin translation with commentary of significance to the development of seventeenth century science.

The various essays in the collection now called Moralia were composed generally before those in the collection called Parallel Lives. Richard Chenevix Trench, archbishop of Dublin, writing on Plutarch in 1873, noted that the Moralia, in contrast to the Parallel Lives, speak “of the points of view, moral and religious, from which he contemplated not this man’s life or the other’s, but the whole life of men.” Thus, the two collections are complementary: Parallel Lives being concerned with “what the ancient world had accomplished in the world of action” and Moralia with what it “had accomplished in the world of thought.”

It can also be noted that few of Plutarch’s writings are individually of any great length, though the overall corpus is quite extensive. Of the seventy-eight essays included in the Moralia, the average length is less than seven thousand words, with but twenty-six of them exceeding that number, and with only the “Table Talk” being of a substance approaching ten times the average length. By comparison, Parallel Lives, while not a single discrete entity, is a composite work of some 518,504 words. Of its fifty “lives,” the average length is a little more than ten thousand words, with two, the “Pompeius” and the “Alexander,” each exceeding twenty thousand. If the pairings of “parallel” lives are considered, then all the pairs exceed twelve thousand words, and the most extensive, “Alexander with Julius Caesar,” is more than thirty-seven thousand, with two others, “Agesilaus with Pompeius” and “Demetrius with Antonius,” more than thirty thousand words.

The fifty surviving biographies in Parallel Lives were not the only ones written, nor do the first written appear among the survivors. Plutarch, by his own references, began with “Augustus” Caesar, evidently pursuing examples in isolation before he turned to his famed pairing. Among the caesars, these individuated examples included “Tiberius,” “Gaius,” “Caligula,” “Claudius,” “Nero,” and “Vitellius”—none of which is known. The idea was not unlike that of the somewhat younger Latin author, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, whose De vita Caesarum (c.120 c.e.; The History of Twelve Caesars, 1606; best known as Lives of the Twelve Caesars), written after the death of Domitian, alone provides an example from classical antiquity of imperial biographies from this transitional period in Roman history. While it is not quite clear about how many of the caesars Plutarch wrote, only the individuated examples of the poorly known “Galba” and “Otho” still exist. A comparison of the corresponding examples written by Suetonius show Plutarch’s to be longer. Yet one learns little from Plutarch’s biography of Otho, since his “life” is the shortest written. Otherwise, there are preserved examples only of “Aratus,” a political and military figure from the Greek city-state of Sicyon, involved in the third century struggles against Macedon; and “Artaxerxes” II, one of the Persian kings.

Even the oldest of the pairs, the Greek “Epaminondas” with the Roman “Scipio Africanus,” does not survive. That is unfortunate, for not only was Epaminondas the person most admired by Plutarch, but the absence of the text prevents the reader from seeing how Plutarch came upon the rather novel idea of pairing lives. The descriptive usage, “parallel lives,” is Plutarch’s own indication of his self-consciousness in having created a unique form.

With the exception of the four independent lives, the other forty-six are in parallel pairs. In one instance, two Greeks were paired with two Romans: the kings of Sparta, “Agis” IV and “Cleomenes” III with the two Gracchi brothers, “Tiberius and Gaius,” both reforming dictators in the later and declining period of the Roman republic. Otherwise, each of the Parallel Lives juxtaposes one Roman with one Greek figure of renown. Plutarch normally wrote the Greek life first and then sought a Roman personality wherein the educational lesson intended by the former might find genuine comparison in the latter. While Plutarch ranged widely chronologically for his Romans—from the founder, Romulus, to the caesars—for his Greeks he took a broader Hellenistic view that permitted him to consider ten Athenians, five Spartans, two Thebans, two Macedonians, and one each from Sicily, Cardia, Corinth, Megalopolis, and Epirus, but over a shorter period of time.

Many of the twenty-one examples thus created admirably perform the intended function or at least did so in Plutarch’s own mind. Modern critics have frequently found fault, usually from some perspective not reflecting Plutarch’s own notions of virtue. He defined virtue as an art, making close analogy of the writer of “lives” to the painter of portraits. In contrast to virtue was kakia, too often mistranslated as “vice,” since it could imply “badness” of character, whereas for Plutarch it was simply the absence of virtue, as in the cases of the paired “Demetrius” and “Mark Antony.”

Parallel Lives

First published: Bioi paralleloi, c. 105-115 c.e. (English translation, 1579)

Type of work: Biographical essays

The Parallel Lives, written as moral influences upon the reader, illustrate diverse virtues through the medium of pairing a famous Greek personality with a correspondingly famous Roman personality.

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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