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Plutarch c. 46-50–-c. 120

(Full name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus) Greek biographer, essayist, and philosopher.

Plutarch wrote the influential classic Parallel Lives (c. late first century-early second century), the standard by which biographies were judged for many centuries. In this work, biographies of forty-six important military men and politicians are linked...

(The entire section contains 106334 words.)

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Plutarch c. 46-50–-c. 120

(Full name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus) Greek biographer, essayist, and philosopher.

Plutarch wrote the influential classic Parallel Lives (c. late first century-early second century), the standard by which biographies were judged for many centuries. In this work, biographies of forty-six important military men and politicians are linked into twenty-three pairs, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman whose biographies parallel each other in various ways. Plutarch's overriding interest was in character, and although there is much of historical importance in the work, historical detail is present only when it is necessary to illustrate the personality of the man in question. In describing men of virtue, Plutarch hoped to inspire others to greatness; he also included biographies of several individuals who serve as negative examples. Translated from its original Greek into French in the sixteenth century and thereafter into English, Parallel Lives was used as a source by William Shakespeare for his Roman plays, most notably The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Plutarch also wrote numerous treatises and essays as well as philosophical dialogues in which he cast himself as the chief speaker; many of these works are collected under the title Moralia (c. late first century-early second century). Plutarch has been called the first great modern writer for his penetrating insight into human nature and his ability to render the essence of his biographical subjects, and his engaging, elegant style has earned him both critical and popular acclaim.

Biographical Information

No contemporary biography of Plutarch exists and relatively little is known of his life. Born sometime between the years 46 and 50, he was the son of the biographer Aristobulus and lived in the small Greek town of Chaerona, in Boeotia. Explaining why he stayed in Chaerona for most of his life, he joked that it was so small that he did not want to make it smaller by leaving it. He was educated in rhetoric, mathematics, and ethics in Athens in 66-67; one of his teachers was the philosopher Ammonius. He never mastered Latin, so his writings are in Attic Greek. Plutarch is known to have traveled in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. He lived in Rome sometime before the year 90 and lectured there on philosophy. After he returned to his hometown, where he served as chief magistrate, he became a priest of the Oracle at Delphi, a position he held for the rest of his life. His reputation allowed him to found a school in which he presided over discussions and took part in debates on philosophy and ethics. Some of these talks were recorded by attendees and are included in the Moralia. He is believed to have died around the year 120.

Major Works

Parallel Lives was written over a period of many years and no exact dates can be ascertained for the composition of its parts. It was well received by the Emperor Trajan, who ordered many copies made by scribes, thus helping to ensure the manuscript's survival through the centuries. Parallel Lives was rediscovered during the Renaissance and became widely popular. Jacques Amyot translated it into French in 1559 and Sir Thomas North worked from Amyot's edition to make an English translation in 1579. North's translation was liberally employed by Shakespeare in his Roman plays, with large parts of it appearing in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra with little modification. Shakespeare also borrowed numerous names from Plutarch for characters in other plays. As an indication of Plutarch's importance and popularity, in 1683 John Dryden and others compiled a new English translation of Parallel Lives from the original Greek. Plutarch's writings collected as the Moralia consist of essays, treatises, dialogues, and letters. Among the most important works included are Roman Questions, Greek Questions, Political Precepts, Daemon of Socrates, On the Failure of Oracles, and On Isis and Osiris. The Moralia was also popular during the Renaissance and was translated by Amyot in 1572. An ancient list contains some 227 titles said to have been written by Plutarch; scholars have concluded that the list misses some known works and includes others that are spurious. Although the list may be somewhat inflated, Plutarch's literary output was been demonstrated to be considerable. Scholars are also grateful that in his works Plutarch quotes generously from ancient manuscripts of which no other trace exists today.

Critical Reception

Critics note that Parallel Lives has suffered at the hands of editors over the centuries: some portraits have disappeared and it is believed that early editors introduced their own “parallel lives” into the work, passing off the additions as Plutarch's. Although some of these short compositions that explain similarities between a pair of subjects may indeed be the work of Plutarch, scholars doubt the legitimacy of the majority of them. George Wyndham has decried the fact that modern editors have often ignored the author's original intentions by doing away with the pairing framework entirely and publishing Plutarch's coupled biographies in isolation from each other—a practice that accounts for the frequently used title of Plutarch's Lives. Critics also point out that modern translations do not adequately convey Plutarch's style and generally recommend older versions as more faithful to the original spirit of the work. Robert Yelverton Tyrrell examines the writers who influenced Plutarch as well as the writers he influenced. Such matters are also taken up by Robert Lamberton, who explores Plutarch's fondness for the dialogue form and traces its development from models by Plato and Heraclides. Tyrrell also explores Plutarch's stated purpose in writing the Parallel Lives: “To decipher the man and his nature.” Roger Kimball and John Oakesmith consider Plutarch's emphasis on the moral character of his subjects. Kimball speculates that Plutarch's focus on morals and values may in part account for his diminished popularity among the general reading public in modern times. Although sometimes overshadowed by the emphasis on Parallel Lives, the Moralia has received considerable critical attention as well. C. P. Jones illuminates the Political Precepts, D. A. Russell analyzes Plutarch's style in the Moralia, and W. M. S. Russell praises the biographical studies in this collection, commenting, “These biographies are full of the touches that bring history to life.”

Principal Works

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Moralia (essays, dialogues, and letters) c. late first century-early second century

Parallel Lives (biography) c. late first century-early second century

Plutarch's Parallel Lives (translated by Thomas North) 1579

Plutarch: Parallel Lives (translated by John Dryden and others) 1683

Plutarch's Lives (translated by John Dryden; revised by Arthur Hugh Clough) 1859

Plutarch's Moralia. 3 vols. (translated by Frank Cole Babbitt) 1927-36

Fall of the Roman Republic (translated by Rex Warner) 1954

The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1960

Makers of Rome: Nine Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1965

Plutarch's Moralia: Table-Talk Books I-IV (translated by H. B. Hoffleit and P. A. Clement) 1969

Moral Essays (translated by Rex Warner) 1971

The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1973

Essays (translated by Robin Waterfield) 1992

Selected Essays and Dialogues (translated by Donald Russell) 1993

Arthur Hugh Clough (essay date 1859)

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SOURCE: Clough, Arthur Hugh. Preface to Plutarch's Lives, Vol. I, pp. xix-xxxvi. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

[In the following introduction to his 1859 edition of Plutarch's Lives, Clough presents a biographical sketch of Plutarch and a summary of his chief weaknesses as a writer.]

The collection so well known as Plutarch's Lives, is neither in form nor in arrangement what its author left behind him.

To the proper work, the Parallel Lives, narrated in a series of books, each containing the accounts of one Greek and one Roman, followed by a comparison, some single lives have been appended, for no reason but that they are also biographies. Otho and Galba belonged, probably, to a series of Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius. Artaxerxes and Aratus the statesman are detached narratives, like others which once, we are told, existed, Hercules, Aristomenes, Hesiod, Pindar, Daiphantus, Crates the cynic, and Aratus the poet.

In the Parallel Lives themselves there are gaps. There was a book containing those of Epaminondas and Scipio the younger. Many of the comparisons are wanting, have either been lost, or were not completed. And the reader will notice for himself that references made here and there in the extant lives show that their original order was different from the present. In the very first page, for example, of the book, in the life of Theseus, mention occurs of the lives of Lycurgus and Numa, as already written.

The plain facts of Plutarch's own life may be given in a very short compass. He was born, probably, in the reign of Claudius, about a.d. 45 or 50. His native place was Chæronea, in Bœotia, where his family had long been settled and was of good standing and local reputation. He studied at Athens under a philosopher named Ammonius. He visited Egypt. Later in life, some time before a.d. 90, he was at Rome “on public business,” a deputation, perhaps, from Chæronea. He continued there long enough to give lectures which attracted attention. Whether he visited Italy once only, or more often, is uncertain.

He was intimate with Sosius Senecio, to all appearances the same who was four times consul. The acquaintance may have sprung up at Rome, where Sosius, a much younger man than himself,1 may have first seen him as a lecturer; or they may have previously known each other in Greece.

To Greece and to Chæronea he returned, and appears to have spent in the little town, which he was loth “to make less by the withdrawal of even one inhabitant,” the remainder of his life. He took part in the public business of the place and the neighbourhood. He was archon in the town, and officiated many years as a priest of Apollo, apparently at Delphi.

He was married, and was the father of at least five children, of whom two sons, at any rate, survived to manhood. His greatest work, his Biographies, and several of his smaller writings, belong to this later period of his life, under the reign of Trajan. Whether he survived to the time of Hadrian is doubtful. If a.d. 45 be taken by way of conjecture for the date of his birth, a.d. 120, Hadrian's fourth year, may be assumed, in like manner, as pretty nearly that of his death. All that is certain is that he lived to be old; that in one of his fictitious dialogues he describes himself as a young man conversing on philosophy with Ammonius in the time of Nero's visit to Greece, a.d. 66-67; and that he was certainly alive and still writing in a.d. 106, the winter which Trajan, after building his bridge over the Danube, passed in Dacia. “We are told,” he says, in his Inquiry into the Principle of Cold, “by those who are now wintering with the Emperor on the Danube, that the freezing of water will crush boats to pieces.”

To this bare outline of certainties, several names and circumstances may be added from his writings; on which indeed alone we can safely rely for the very outline itself. There are a few allusions and anecdotes in the Lives, and from his miscellaneous compositions, his Essays, Lectures, Dialogues, Table-Talk, etc., the imagination may furnish itself with a great variety of curious and interesting suggestions.

The name of his great-grandfather, Nicarchus, is incidentally recorded in the life of Antony. “My great-grandfather used,” he says, “to tell, how in Antony's last war the whole of the citizens of Chæronea were put in requisition to bring down corn to the coast of the gulf of Corinth, each man carrying a certain load, and soldiers standing by to urge them on with the lash.” One such journey was made, and they had measured out their burdens for the second, when news arrived of the defeat at Actium.2 Lamprias, his grandfather, is also mentioned in the same life. Philotas, the physician, had told him an anecdote illustrating the luxuriousness of Antony's life in Egypt. His father is more than once spoken of in the minor works, but never mentioned by his name.

The name of Ammonius, his teacher and preceptor at Athens, occurs repeatedly in the minor works, and is once specially mentioned in the Lives; a descendant of Themistocles had studied with Plutarch under Ammonius. We find it mentioned that he three times held the office, once so momentous in the world's history, of strategus at Athens.3 This, like that of the Bœotarchs in Bœotia, continued under the Empire to be intrusted to native citizens, and judging from what is said in the little treatise of Political Precepts, was one of the more important places under the Roman provincial governor.

“Once,” Plutarch tells us, “our teacher, Ammonius, observing at his afternoon lecture that some of his auditors had been indulging too freely at breakfast, gave directions, in our presence, for chastisement to be administered to his own son, because, he said, the young man has declined to take his breakfast unless he has sour wine with it, fixing his eyes at the same time on the offending members of the class.”

The following anecdote appears to belong to some period a little later than that of his studies at Athens. “I remember, when I myself was still a young man, I was sent in company with another on a deputation to the proconsul; my colleague, it so happened, was unable to proceed, and I saw the proconsul and performed the commission alone. Upon my return when I was about to lay down my office, and to give an account of its discharge, my father got up in the assembly and bade me privately to take care not to say I went, but we went, nor I said, but we said, and in the whole narration to give my companion his share.”

Of his stay in Italy, his visit to or residence in Rome, we know little beyond the statement which he gives us in the life of Demosthenes, that public business and visitors who came to see him on subjects of philosophy, took up so much of his time that he learned, at that time, but little of the Latin language. He must have travelled about, for he saw the bust or statue of Marius at Ravenna, as he informs us in the beginning of Marius's life. He undertook, he tells us in his essay on Brotherly Affection, the office, whilst he was in Rome, of arbitrating between two brothers, one of whom was considered to be a lover of philosophy. “But he had,” he says, “in reality, no legitimate title to the name either of brother or of philosopher. When I told him I should expect from him the behaviour of a philosopher towards one, who was, first of all, an ordinary person making no such profession, and, in the second place, a brother, as for the first point, replied he, it may be well enough, but I don't attach any great importance to the fact of two people having come from the same pair of bodies;” an impious piece of free-thinking which met, of course, with Plutarch's indignant rebuke and reprobation.

A more remarkable anecdote is related in his discourse on Inquisitiveness. Among other precepts for avoiding or curing the fault, “We should habituate ourselves,” he says, “when letters are brought to us, not to open them instantly and in a hurry, not to bite the strings in two, as many people will, if they do not succeed at once with their fingers; when a messenger comes, not to run to meet him; not to jump up, when a friend says he has something new to tell us; rather, if he has some good or useful advice to give us. Once when I was lecturing at Rome, Rusticus, whom Domitian afterwards, out of jealousy of his reputation, put to death, was one of my hearers; and while I was going on, a soldier came in and brought him a letter from the Emperor. And when every one was silent, and I stopped in order to let him read the letter, he declined to do so, and put it aside until I had finished and the audience withdrew; an example of serious and dignified behaviour which excited much admiration.”

L. Junius Arulenus Rusticus, the friend of Pliny and Tacitus, glorified among the Stoic martyrs whose names are written in the life of Agricola, was in youth the ardent disciple of Thrasea Pætus; and when Pætus was destined by Nero for death, and the Senate was prepared to pass the decree for his condemnation, Rusticus, in the fervour of his feelings, was eager to interpose the veto still attaching in form to the office, which he happened then to hold, of tribune, and was scarcely withheld by his master from a demonstration which would but have added him, before his time, to the catalogue of victims. After performing, in the civil wars ensuing on the death of Nero, the duties of prætor, he published in Domitian's time a life of Thrasea, as did Senecio one of Helvidius, and Tacitus, probably himself, that of Agricola: the bold language of which insured his death. Among the teachers who afterwards gave instruction to the youthful Marcus Aurelius, we read the name of an Arulenus Rusticus, probably his grandson, united with that of Sextus of Chæronea, Plutarch's nephew, “who taught me,” says the virtuous Emperor, “by his own example, the just and wise habits he recommended,” and to whose door, in late life, he was still seen to go, still desirous, as he said, to be a learner.

It does not, of course, follow from the terms in which the story is related, that the incident occurred in Domitian's time, and that it was to Domitian's letter that Plutarch's discourse was preferred. But that Plutarch was at Rome in or after Domitian's reign, seems to be fairly inferred from the language in which he speaks of the absurd magnificence of Domitian's palaces and other imperial buildings.

His two brothers, Timon and Lamprias, are frequently mentioned in his Essays and Dialogues. They, also, appear to have been pupils of Ammonius. In the treatise on Affection between Brothers, after various examples of the strength of this feeling, occurs the following passage: “And for myself,” he says, “that among the many favours for which I have to thank the kindness of fortune, my brother Timon's affection to me is one, past and present, that may be put in the balance against all the rest, is what every one that has so much as met with us must be aware of, and our friends, of course, know well.”

His wife was Timoxena, the daughter of Alexion. The circumstances of his domestic life receive their best illustration from his letter addressed to this wife, on the loss of their one daughter, born to them, it would appear, late in life, long after her brothers. “Plutarch to his wife, greeting. The messengers you sent to announce our child's death, apparently missed the road to Athens. I was told about my daughter on reaching Tanagra. Everything relating to the funeral I suppose to have been already performed; my desire is that all these arrangements may have been so made, as will now and in the future be most consoling to yourself. If there is anything which you have wished to do and have omitted, awaiting my opinion, and think would be a relief to you, it shall be attended to, apart from all excess and superstition, which no one would like less than yourself. Only, my wife, let me hope, that you will maintain both me and yourself within the reasonable limits of grief. What our loss really amounts to, I know and estimate for myself. But should I find your distress excessive, my trouble on your account will be greater than on that of our loss. I am not a ‘stock or stone,’ as you, my partner in the care of our numerous children, every one of whom we have ourselves brought up at home, can testify. And this child, a daughter, born to your wishes after four sons, and affording me the opportunity of recording your name, I am well aware was a special object of affection.”

The sweet temper and the pretty ways of the child, he proceeds to say, make the privation peculiarly painful. “Yet why,” he says, “should we forget the reasonings we have often addressed to others, and regard our present pain as obliterating and effacing our former joys?” Those who had been present had spoken to him in terms of admiration of the calmness and simplicity of her behaviour. The funeral had been devoid of any useless and idle sumptuosity, and her own house of all display of extravagant lamentation. This was indeed no wonder to him, who knew how much her plain and unluxurious living had surprised his philosophical friends and visitors, and who well remembered her composure under the previous loss of the eldest of her children, and again, “when our beautiful Charon left us.” “I recollect,” he says, “that some acquaintance from abroad were coming up with me from the sea when the tidings of the child's decease were brought, and they followed with our other friends to the house; but the perfect order and tranquillity they found there made them believe, as I afterwards was informed they had related, that nothing had happened, and that the previous intelligence had been a mistake.”

The Consolation (so the letter is named) closes with expressions of belief in the immortality of each human soul; in which the parents are sustained and fortified by the tradition of their ancestors, and the revelations to which they had both been admitted, conveyed in the mystic Dionysian ceremonies.

There is a phrase in the letter which might be taken to imply that, at the time of his domestic misfortune, Plutarch and Timoxena were already grandparents. The marriage of their son Autobulus is the occasion of one of the dinner parties recorded in the Symposiac Questions; and in one of the dialogues there is a distinct allusion to Autobulus's son. Plutarch inscribes the little treatise in explanation of the Timæus to his two sons, Autobulus and Plutarch. They must certainly have been grown-up men, to have anything to do with so difficult a subject. In his Inquiry as to the Way in which the Young should read the Poets, “It is not easy,” he says, addressing Marcus Sedatus, “to restrain altogether from such reading young people of the age of my Soclarus and your Cleander.” But whether Soclarus was a son, or a grandson, or some more distant relative, or, which is possible, a pupil, does not appear. Eurydice, to whom and to Pollianus, her newly espoused husband, he addresses his Marriage Precepts, seems to be spoken of as a recent inmate of his house; but it cannot be inferred that she was a daughter, nor does it seem likely that the little Timoxena's place was ever filled up.4

The office of Archon, which Plutarch held in his native municipality, was probably only an annual one; but very likely he served it more than once. He seems to have busied himself about all the little matters of the town, and to have made it a point to undertake the humblest duties. After relating the story of Epaminondas giving dignity to the office of Chief Scavenger, “And I, too, for that matter,” he says, “am often a jest to my neighbours, when they see me, as they frequently do, in public, occupied on very similar duties; but the story told about Antisthenes comes to my assistance. When some one expressed surprise at his carrying home some picked fish from market in his own hands, It is, he answered, for myself. Conversely, when I am reproached with standing by and watching while tiles are measured out, and stone and mortar brought up, This service, I say, is not for myself, it is for my country.”

In the little essay on the question, Whether an Old Man should continue in Public Life, written in the form of an exhortation of Euphanes, an ancient and distinguished member of the Areopagus at Athens, and of the Amphictyonic council, not to relinquish his duties, “Let there be no severance,” he says, “in our long companionship, and let neither the one nor the other of us forsake the life that was our choice.” And, alluding to his own functions as priest of Apollo at Delphi, “You know,” he adds in another place, “that I have served the Pythian God for many pythiads5 past, yet you would not now tell me, you have taken part enough in the sacrifices, processions, and dances, and it is high time, Plutarch, now you are an old man, to lay aside your garland, and retire as superannuated from the oracle.

Even in these, the comparatively few, more positive and matter-of-fact passages of allusion and anecdote, there is enough to bring up something of a picture of a happy domestic life, half academic, half municipal, passed among affectionate relatives and well-known friends, inclining most to literary and moral studies, yet not cut off from the duties and avocations of the citizen. We cannot, of course, to go yet further, accept the scenery of the fictitious Dialogues as historical; yet there is much of it which may be taken as, so to say, pictorially just; and there is, probably, a good deal here and there that is literally true to the fact. The Symposiac, or After-Dinner Questions, collected in nine books, and dedicated to Sosius Senecio, were discussed, we are told, many of them, in the company of Sosius himself, both at Rome and in Greece, as, for example, when he was with them at the marriage festivities of Autobulus. Lamprias and Timon, the author's brothers, are frequent speakers, each with a distinctly traced character, in these conversations; the father, and the elder Lamprias, the grandfather, both take an occasional, and the latter a lively part; there is one whole book in which Ammonius predominates; the scene is now at Delphi, and now at Athens, sometimes perhaps, but rarely, at Rome, sometimes at the celebrations of the Games. Plutarch, in his priestly capacity, gives an entertainment in honour of a poetic victor at the Pythia, there is an Isthmian dinner at Corinth, and an Olympian party at Elis. As an adopted Athenian citizen of the Leontid tribe, he attends the celebration of the success of his friend, the philosophic poet Serapion. The dramatis personæ of the various little pieces form a company, when put together, of more than eighty names, philosophers, rhetoricians, and grammarians, several physicians, Euthydemus his colleague in the priesthood, Alexion his father-in-law, and four or five other connections by marriage, Favorinus the philosopher of Arles in Provence, afterwards favoured by Hadrian, to whom he dedicates one of his treatises, and who in return wrote an essay called Plutarchus, on the Academic Philosophy. Serapion entertains them in a garden on the banks of the Cephisus. They dine with a friendly physician on the heights of Hyampolis, and meet in a party at the baths of Ædepsus. The questions are of the most miscellaneous description, grave sometimes, and moral, grammatical and antiquarian, and often festive and humorous. In what sense does Plato say that God uses geometry? Why do we hear better by night than by day? Why are dreams least true in autumn? Which existed first, the hen or the egg? Which of Venus's hands did Diomed wound? Lamprias, the grandfather, finds fault with his son, Plutarch's father, for inviting too many guests to the parties given “when we came home from Alexandria.” Ammonius, in office as general at Athens, gives a dinner to the young men who had distinguished themselves at a trial of skill in grammar, rhetoric, geometry, and poetry; and anecdotes are told on the occasion of verses aptly or inaptly quoted.

Of the other minor works, some look a good deal like lectures delivered at Rome, and afterwards published with little dedications prefixed. We have a disquisition on the Advantages we can derive from our Enemies, addressed to Cornelius Pulcher, a discourse On Fate, to Piso, and On Brotherly Affection, to Nigrinus and Quintus. Many, however, are dialogues and conversations, with a good deal of the same varied scenery and exuberant detail which embellish the Table-Talk.

In a conversation which he had been present at, “long ago, when Nero was staying in Greece,” between Ammonius and some other friends, the meaning of the strange inscription at Delphi, the two letters EI, is debated. A visitor is conducted by some of Plutarch's friends over the sacred buildings at Delphi, and in the intervals between the somewhat tedious speeches of the professional guides, who showed the sights, a discussion takes place On the Nature of the Oracles. “It happened a little before the Pythian games in the time of Callistratus, there met us at Delphi two travellers, from the extremities of the world, Demetrius, the grammarian, on his way home to Tarsus from Britain, and Cleombrotus the Lacedæmonian, just returned from a journey he had made for his pleasure and instruction in Upper Egypt, and far out into the Erythræan Sea.” The question somehow or other occurs, and the dialogue, Of the Cessation of Oracles, ensues; one passage of which is the famous story of the voice that proclaimed the death of the great Pan. Autobulus is talking with Soclarus, the companion of his son, about an encomium which they had heard on hunting; the best praise they can give it is, that it diverts into a less objectionable course the passion which finds one vent in seeing the contests of gladiators. Up come presently a large party of young men, lovers of hunting and fishing, and the question of the Superior Sagacity of Land or of Water Animals is formally pleaded by two selected orators. Stories are told of elephants; and Aristotimus, the advocate of the land animals, relates a sight (of the dog imitating in a play the effects of poison) which he himself, he says, saw in Rome, and which was so perfectly acted as to cause emotion in the spectators, the Emperor included; the aged Vespasian himself being present, in the theatre of Marcellus. It reads very much as if Plutarch, and not Aristotimus, had been the eye-witness.6

Autobulus occurs again in the Dialogue on Love. At the request of his friend Flavianus, he repeats a long conversation, attended with curious incidents, in which his father had taken part on Mount Helicon, “once long ago, before we were born, when he brought our mother, after the dispute and variance which had arisen between their parents, that she might offer a sacrifice to Love at the feast held at Thespiæ.”

The variance alluded to must clearly have been a fact. And, in general, though these playful fictions or semi-fictions, which form the machinery of the dialogues, are not indeed to be accepted in a literal way, they possess an authenticity which we cannot venture to attribute to the professedly historical statements about their author, given in later writers. Suidas, the lexicographer, repeats a mere romance when he tells us that Trajan gave him the dignity of consul, and issued orders that none of the magistrates in Illyria should do anything without consulting him. Syncellus, the Byzantine historian, under the record of one of the first years of Hadrian's reign, is equally or even more extravagant, relating that Plutarch, the philosopher of Chæronea, was in his old age appointed by the emperor to the office of governor of Greece. Though the period of Trajan and the Antonines was the golden age of philosophers, whose brief persecution under Domitian seems to have won them for a while a sort of spiritual supremacy, similar to that which, after Diocletian, was wrested from them by the ministers of the new religion, still these assertions are on the face of them entirely incredible.

There is a letter, indeed, given among Plutarch's printed works, in which a collection of Sayings of Kings and Commanders is dedicated to Trajan; and though much doubt is entertained, it is not at all improbable that it is Plutarch's own writing. There is nothing remarkable in its contents, and it is most noticeable for the contrast in tone which it presents to another letter, undoubtedly spurious, first published in Latin by John of Salisbury, which is a very preceptorial lecture to Trajan, his pupil, by Plutarch, his supposed former teacher.

A list of Plutarch's works, including many of which nothing remains, is also given by Suidas, as made by Lamprias, Plutarch's son; and a little prefatory letter to a friend, whom he had known in Asia, and who had written to ask for the information, is prefixed to the catalogue. The catalogue itself may be correct enough, but the name of Lamprias occurs nowhere in all Plutarch's extant works as that of one of his sons; and it cannot but be suspected that this family name was adopted, and this letter to the nameless friend in Asia composed, by some grammarian long after, who desired to give interest to an ordinary list of the author's extant writings.

In reading Plutarch, the following points should be remembered. He is a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories, which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.

The time itself is a second point; that of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian; the commencement of the best and happiest age of the great Roman imperial period. The social system, spreading over all the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, of which Greece and Italy were the centres, and to which the East and the furthest known West were brought into relation, had then reached its highest mark of advance and consummation. The laws of Rome and the philosophy of Greece were powerful from the Tigris to the British islands. It was the last great era of Greek and Roman literature. Epictetus was teaching in Greek the virtues which Marcus Aurelius was to illustrate as emperor. Dio Chrysostom and Arrian were recalling the memory of the most famous Attic rhetoricians and historians, and while Plutarch wrote in Chæronea, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Martial, and Juvenal were writing at Rome. It may be said too, perhaps, not untruly, that the Latin, the metropolitan writers, less faithfully represent the general spirit and character of the time than what came from the pen of a simple Bœotian provincial, writing in a more universal language, and unwarped by the strong local reminiscences of the old home of the Senate and the Republic. Tacitus and Juvenal have more, perhaps, of the “antique Roman” than of the citizen of the great Mediterranean Empire. The evils of the imperial government, as felt in the capital city, are depicted in the Roman prose and verse more vividly and more vehemently than suits a general representation of the state of the imperial world, even under the rule of Domitian himself.

It is, at any rate, the serener aspect and the better era that the life and writings of Plutarch reflect. His language is that of a man happy in himself and in what is around him. His natural cheerfulness is undiminished, his easy and joyous simplicity is unimpaired, his satisfactions are not saddened or imbittered by any overpowering recollections of years passed under the immediate present terrors of imperial wickedness. Though he also could remember Nero, and had been a man when Domitian was an emperor, the utmost we can say is, that he shows, perhaps, the instructed happiness of one who had lived into good times out of evil, and that the very vigour of his content proves that its roots were fixed amongst circumstances not too indulgent or favourable.

Much has been said of Plutarch's inaccuracy; and it cannot be denied that he is careless about numbers, and occasionally contradicts his own statements. A greater fault, perhaps, is his passion for anecdote; he cannot forbear from repeating stories, the improbability of which he is the first to recognise; which, nevertheless, by mere repetition, leave unjust impressions. He is unfair in this way to Demosthenes and to Pericles, against the latter of whom, however, he doubtless inherited the prejudices which Plato handed down to the philosophers.

It is true, also, that his unhistorical treatment of the subjects of his biography makes him often unsatisfactory and imperfect in the portraits he draws. Much, of course, in the public lives of statesmen can find its only explanation in their political position; and of this Plutarch often knows and thinks little. So far as the researches of modern historians have succeeded in really recovering a knowledge of relations of this sort, so far, undoubtedly, these biographies stand in need of their correction. Yet in the uncertainty which must attend all modern restorations, it is agreeable, and surely, also, profitable, to recur to portraits drawn ere new thoughts and views had occupied the civilised world, without reference to such disputable grounds of judgment, simply upon the broad principles of the ancient moral code of right and wrong.

Making some little deductions in cases such as those that have been mentioned, allowing for a little over-love of story, and for some considerable quasi-religious hostility to the democratic leaders who excited the scorn of Plato, if we bear in mind, also, that in narratives like that of Theseus, he himself confesses his inability to disengage fact from fable, it may be said that in Plutarch's Lives the readers of all ages will find instructive and faithful biographies of the great men of Greece and Rome. Or, at any rate, if in Plutarch's time it was too late to think of really faithful biographies, we have here the faithful record of the historical tradition of his age. This is what, in the second century of our era, Greeks and Romans loved to believe about their warriors and statesmen of the past. As a picture, at least, of the best Greek and Roman moral views and moral judgments, as a presentation of the results of Greek and Roman moral thought, delivered not under the pressure of calamity, but as they existed in ordinary times, and actuated plain-living people in country places in their daily life, Plutarch's writings are of indisputable value; and it may be said, also, that Plutarch's character, as depicted in them, possesses a natural charm of pleasantness and amiability which it is not easy to match among all extant classical authors.

The present translation is a revision of that published at the end of the seventeenth century, with a life of Plutarch written by Dryden, whose name, it was presumed, would throw some reflected lustre on the humbler workmen who performed, better or worse, the more serious labour. There is, of course, a great inequality in their work. But the translation by Langhorne, for which, in the middle of the last century, the older volumes were discarded, is so inferior in liveliness, and is in fact so dull and heavy a book that, in default of an entirely new translation, some advantage, it is hoped, may be gained by the revival here attempted. It would not have been needed, had Mr. Long not limited the series which he published, with very useful notes, in Mr. Knight's Shilling Library, to the lives connected with the Civil Wars of Rome.

Dryden's Life of Plutarch is, like many of Dryden's writings, hasty yet well written, inaccurate but agreeable to read; that by Dacier, printed in the last volume of his French translations, is, in many respects, very good. The materials for both were collected, and the references accumulated, by Rualdus, in his laborious Life appended to the old Paris folios of 1624. But everything that is of any value is given in the articles in Fabricius's Bibliotheca Græca, and, with the most recent additions, in Pauly's German Cyclopædia. Much that is useful is found, as might be expected, in Clinton's Fasti Romani.

The fault which runs through all the earlier biographies, from that of Rualdus downward, is the assumption, wholly untenable, that Plutarch passed many years, as many, perhaps, as forty, at Rome. The entire character of his life is of course altered by such an impression. It is, therefore, not worth while reprinting here the life originally prefixed by Dryden to the translations which, with more or less of alteration, follow in the present volumes. One or two characteristic extracts may be sufficient. The first may throw some light on a subject which to modern readers is a little obscure. Dryden is wrong in one or two less important points, but his general view of the dæmonic belief which pervades Plutarch's writings is tolerably to the purpose.

“We can only trace the rest of his opinions from his philosophy, which we have said in the general to be Platonic, though it cannot also be denied that there was a tincture in it of the Electic7 sect, which was begun by Potamon under the empire of Augustus, and which selected from all the other sects what seemed most probable in their opinions, not adhering singularly to any of them, nor rejecting everything. I will only touch his belief of spirits. In his two Treatises of Oracles, the one concerning the Reason of their Cessation, the other inquiring Why they were not given in Verse as in former times, he seems to assert the Pythagorean doctrine of Transmigration of Souls. We have formerly shown that he owned the unity of a Godhead; whom, according to his attributes, he calls by several names, as Jupiter from his almighty power, Apollo from his wisdom, and so of the rest; but under him he places those beings whom he styles Genii or Dæmons, of a middle nature, between divine and human; for he thinks it absurd that there should be no mean between the two extremes of an immortal and a mortal being; that there cannot be in nature so vast a flaw, without some intermedial kind of life, partaking of them both. As, therefore, we find the intercourse between the soul and body to be made by the animal spirits, so between divinity and humanity there is this species of dæmons. Who,8 having first been men, and followed the strict rules of virtue, have purged off the grossness and feculency of their earthly being, are exalted into these genii; and are from thence either raised higher into an ethereal life, if they still continue virtuous, or tumbled down again into mortal bodies, and sinking into flesh after they have lost that purity which constituted their glorious being. And this sort of Genii are those who, as our author imagines, presided over oracles; spirits which have so much of their terrestrial principles remaining in them as to be subject to passions and inclinations; usually beneficent, sometimes malevolent to mankind, according as they refine themselves, or gather dross, and are declining into mortal bodies. The cessation, or rather the decrease of oracles (for some of them were still remaining in Plutarch's time), he attributes either to the death of those dæmons, as appears by the story of the Egyptian Thamus, who was commanded to declare that the great god Pan was dead, or to their forsaking of those places where they formerly gave out their oracles, from whence they were driven by stronger Genii into banishment for a certain revolution of ages. Of this last nature were the war of the giants against the gods, the dispossession of Saturn by Jupiter, the banishment of Apollo from heaven, the fall of Vulcan, and many others; all which, according to our author, were the battles of these Genii or Dæmons amongst themselves. But supposing, as Plutarch evidently does, that these spirits administered, under the Supreme Being, the affairs of men, taking care of the virtuous, punishing the bad, and sometimes communicating with the best, as, particularly, the Genius of Socrates always warned him of approaching dangers, and taught him to avoid them, I cannot but wonder that every one who has hitherto written Plutarch's Life, and particularly Rualdus, the most knowing of them all, should so confidently affirm that these oracles were given by bad spirits, according to Plutarch. As Christians, indeed, we may think them so; but that Plutarch so thought is a most apparent falsehood. 'Tis enough to convince a reasonable man, that our author in his old age (and that then he doted not, we may see by the treatise he has written, That old men ought to have the management of public affairs), I say that then he initiated himself in the sacred rites of Delphos, and died, for ought we know, Apollo's priest. Now it is not to be imagined that he thought the God he served a Cacodæmon, or, as we call him, a devil. Nothing could be further from the opinion and practice of this holy philosopher than so gross an impiety. The story of the Pythias, or priestess of Apollo, which he relates immediately before the ending of that treatise, concerning the Cessation of Oracles, confirms my assertion rather than shakes it; for 'tis there delivered, ‘That going with great reluctation into the sacred place to be inspired, she came out foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breast heaving, her voice undistinguishable and shrill, as if she had an earthquake within her, labouring for vent; and, in short, that thus tormented with the god, whom she was not able to support, she died distracted in a few days after. For he had said before that the divineress ought to have no perturbations of mind or impure passions at the time when she was to consult the oracle, and if she had, she was no more fit to be inspired than an instrument untuned to render an harmonious sound.’ And he gives us to suspect, by what he says at the close of this relation, ‘That this Pythias had not lived chastely for some time before it; so that her death appears more like a punishment inflicted for loose living, by some holy Power, than the mere malignancy of a Spirit delighted naturally in mischief.’ There is another observation which indeed comes nearer to their purpose, which I will digress so far as to relate, because it somewhat appertains to our own country. ‘There are many islands,’ says he, ‘which lie scattering about Britain, after the manner of our Sporades; they are unpeopled, and some of them are called the Islands of the Heroes, or the Genii.’ One Demetrius was sent by the emperor (who by computation of the time must either be Caligula or Claudius9) to discover those parts, and arriving at one of the islands next adjoining to the before mentioned, which was inhabited by some few Britons (but those held sacred and inviolable by all their countrymen), immediately after his arrival, the air grew black and troubled, strange apparitions were seen, the winds raised a tempest, and fiery spouts or whirlwinds appeared dancing towards the earth. When these prodigies were ceased, the islanders informed him that some one of the aerial beings, superior to our nature, then ceased to live. For as a taper, while yet burning, affords a pleasant, harmless light, but is noisome and offensive when extinguished, so those heroes shine benignly on us and do us good, but at their death turn all things topsy-turvy, raise up tempests, and infect the air with pestilential vapours. By those holy and inviolable men, there is no question but he means our Druids, who were nearest to the Pythagoreans of any sect; and this opinion of the Genii might probably be one of theirs. Yet it proves not that all dæmons were thus malicious, only those who were to be condemned hereafter into human bodies, for their misdemeanours in their aerial being. But 'tis time to leave a subject so very fanciful, and so little reasonable as this. I am apt to imagine the natural vapours, arising in the cave where the temple afterwards was built, might work upon the spirits of those who entered the holy place, as they did on the shepherd Coretas, who first found it out by accident, and incline them to enthusiasm and prophetic madness; that as the strength of those vapours diminished (which were generally in caverns, as that of Mopsus, of Trophonius, and this of Delphos), so the inspiration decreased by the same measures; that they happened to be stronger when they killed the Pythias, who being conscious of this, was so unwilling to enter; that the oracles ceased to be given in verse when poets ceased to be the priests, and that the Genius of Socrates (whom he confessed never to have seen, but only to have heard inwardly, and unperceived by others) was no more than the strength of his imagination; or, to speak in the language of a Christian Platonist, his guardian angel.”

The concluding passage of the life may serve as a conclusion to this prefatory essay. It is as follows: “And now, with the usual vanity of Dutch prefacers, I could load our author with the praises and commemorations of writers; for both ancient and modern have made honourable mention of him. But to cumber pages with this kind of stuff were to raise a distrust in common readers that Plutarch wants them. Rualdus, indeed, has collected ample testimonies of them; but I will only recite the names of some, and refer you to him for the particular quotations. He reckons Gellius, Eusebius, Himerius the Sophister, Eunapius, Cyrillus of Alexandria, Theodoret, Agathias, Photius and Xiphilin, patriarchs of Constantinople, Johannes Sarisberiensis, the famous Petrarch, Petrus Victorius, and Justus Lipsius.

“But Theodorus Gaza, a man learned in the Latin tongue, and a great restorer of the Greek, who lived above two hundred years ago, deserves to have his suffrage set down in words at length; for the rest have only commended Plutarch more than any single author, but he has extolled him above all together.

“'Tis said that, having this extravagant question put to him by a friend, that if learning must suffer a general shipwreck, and he had only his choice left him of preserving one author, who should be the man he would preserve, he answered, Plutarch; and probably might give this reason, that in saving him, he should secure the best collection of them all.

“The epigram of Agathias deserves also to be remembered. This author flourished about the year five hundred, in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The verses are extant in the Anthologia, and with the translation of them I will conclude the praises of our author; having first admonished you, that they are supposed to be written on a statue erected by the Romans to his memory.

“‘Chæronean Plutarch, to thy deathless praise
Does martial Rome this grateful statue raise,
Because both Greece and she thy fame have shared,
(Their heroes written, and their lives compared).
But thou thyself couldst never write thy own;
Their lives have parallels, but thine has none.’”


  1. Unless the expression “my sons your companions” ought to be taken as a piece of pleasantry.

  2. There appears, however, to be no sure reason for saying that Plutarch himself remembered seeing his great-grandfather, and hearing him tell the story.

  3. This may throw some doubt on the statement (with which, however, it is perhaps not absolutely incompatible) made by the Byzantine historian Eunapius that “Ammonius, the teacher of the divine Plutarch, was an Egyptian.”

    Plutarch was certainly skilled in all the wisdom of the Græco-Egyptians; see his treatise addressed to the learned lady Clea, on Isis and Osiris; but he may, for anything we know, have stayed long and studied much at Alexandria.

  4. That he had more than two sons who grew up, at any rate, to youth, appears from a passage where he speaks of his younger sons having stayed too long at the theatre, and being, in consequence, too late at supper.

  5. Periods of four years elapsing between the celebrations of the Pythian games, like the Olympiads for the Olympic games.

  6. Something also of a personal remembrance of Vespasian's unrelentingly severe temper may be thought to appear in the story, related in the Dialogue on Love, of the Gaulish rebel Sabinus, and his wife Eponina, mentioned by Tacitus in his Histories, who, after living in an underground concealment several years, were discovered and put to death. Two sons were born to them in their hiding-place, “one of whom,” says Plutarch, “was here with us in Delphi only a little while ago,” and he is disposed, he adds, “to attribute the subsequent extinction of the race of Vespasian to divine displeasure at this cruel and unfeeling act.”

  7. He means the Eclectic as it is more usually called.

  8. He means, I believe, Those who; apparently the word and should be omitted in line 25, before sinking into flesh.

  9. Undoubtedly much later.

George Wyndham (essay date 1895)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36050

SOURCE: Wyndham, George. “North's Plutarch.” In Essays in Romantic Literature, edited by Charles Whibley, pp. 117-235. London: Macmillan and Co., 1919.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1895, Wyndham explains that Jacques Amyot's translation of Plutarch was the source for Sir Thomas North's translation, which in turn was used by Shakespeare in his Roman plays.]


Plutarch was born at the little Theban town of Chæronea, somewhere about 50 a.d. The date of his birth marks no epoch in history; and the place of it, even then, was remembered only as the field of three bygone battles. The name Chæronea, cropping up in conversation at Rome, for the birthplace of a distinguished Greek lecturer, must have sounded strangely familiar in the ears of the educated Romans whom he taught, even as the name of Dreux, or of Tewkesbury, sounds strangely familiar in our own. But apart from such chance encounters, few can have been aware of its municipal existence; and this same contrast, between the importance and the renown of Plutarch's birthplace, held in the case of his country also. The Bœotian plain—once ‘the scaffold of Mars where he held his games’1—was but a lonely sheepwalk; even as all Greece, once a Europe of several States, was but one, and perhaps the poorest, among the many provinces of the Empire. Born at such a time and in such a place, Plutarch was still a patriot, a student of politics and a scholar, and was therefore bound by every tie of sentiment and learning to the ancient memories of his native land. Sometimes he brooded over her altered fortunes. Bœotia ‘heretofore of old time resounded and rung again with Oracles’; but now all the land that from sea to sea had echoed the clash of arms and the cadence of oratory was ‘mute or altogether desolate and forlorn’: … ‘hardly able’ he goes on, ‘to make three thousand men for the wars, which are now no more in number than one city in times past, to wit: Megara, set forth and sent to the battle of Platæa.’2 At Athens, though Sulla had long since cut down the woods of the Academy, there were still philosophers; and there were merchants again at Corinth, rebuilded by Julius Cæsar. But Athens, even, and a century before, could furnish only three ships for the succour of Pompey; while elsewhere, the cities of Greece had dwindled to villages, and the villages had vanished. ‘The stately and sumptuous buildings which Pericles made to be built in the cittie of Athens’ were still standing after four hundred years, untouched by Time, but they were the sole remaining evidence of dignity. So that Plutarch, when he set himself to write to Greek worthies, found his material selected to his hand. Greek rhetoricians, himself among them, might lecture in every city of the South; but of Greek soldiers and statesmen there was not one in a land left empty and silent, save for the statues of gods and the renown of great men. The cradle of war and statecraft was become a memory dear to him, and ever evoked by his personal contact with the triumphs of Rome. From this contrast flowed his inspiration for the Parallel Lives: his desire, as a man, to draw the noble Grecians, long since dead, a little nearer to the noonday of the living; his delight, as an artist, in setting the noble Romans whose names were in every mouth, a little further into the twilight of a more ancient romance. By placing them side by side, he gave back to the Greeks that touch which they had lost with the living in the death of Greece, and to the Romans that distinction from everyday life which they were fast beginning to lose. Then and ever since, an imaginative effort was needed to restore to Greece those trivialities of daily life which, in other countries, an imaginative effort is needed to destroy; and hence her hold on the imagination of every age. Plutarch, considering his country, found her a solitude. Yet for him the desert air was vibrant with a rumour of the mighty dead. Their memories loomed heroic and tremendous through the dimness of the past; and he carried them with him when he went to Rome, partly on a political errand, and partly to deliver Greek lectures.

In Juvenal's ‘Greek city’ he needed, and indeed he had, small Latin. ‘I had no leisure to study and exercise the Latin tongue, as well for the great business I had then to do, as also to satisfy them that came to learn philosophy of me’: thus, looking back from Chæronea, does he write in his preface to the Demosthenes and Cicero, adding that he ‘understood not matters so much by words, as he came to understand words by common experience and knowledge he had in things.’ We gather that he wrote many, if not all, of the Lives at his birthplace, the ‘poor little town’ to which he returned: ‘remaining there willingly lest it should become less.’ But it was in Flavian Rome, in the ‘great and famous city thoroughly inhabited’ and containing ‘plenty of all sort of books,’ that, ‘having taken upon him to write a history into which he must thrust many strange things unknown to his country,’ he gathered his materials ‘out of divers books and authorities,’ or picked them up, as a part of ‘common experience and knowledge,’ in familiar converse with the cultured of his day. I have quoted thus, for the light the passage throws on the nature of his researches in Rome, although the word ‘history’ may mislead. For his purpose was not to write histories, even of individuals. He tells us so himself. ‘I will only desire the reader,’ he writes in his preface to the Alexander and Cæsar, ‘not to blame me though I do not declare all things at large … for they must remember that my intent is not to write histories but only lives. For the noblest deeds,’ he goes on, ‘do not always shew man's virtues and vices, but oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men's natural dispositions and manners appear more plainly than the famous battles won, wherein are slain ten thousand men.’ ‘As painters do take the resemblance of the face and favour of the countenance,’ making ‘no accompt of other parts of the body,’ so he, too, asks for ‘leave to seek out the signs and tokens of the mind only.’ That was his ambition: to paint a gallery of portraits; to focus his vision on the spiritual face of his every subject, and for every Greek to hang a Roman at his side. To compass it he set himself deliberately, as an artist, unconscious of any intention other than the choice of good subjects and, his choice once made, the rejection from each of all but the particular and the significant. He stood before men's souls to study ‘the singularity each possessed,’3 as Velasquez in a later age before men's bodies; and, even as his method was allied, so was his measure of accomplishment not less.

But the Parallel Lives shows something different from this purpose, is something more than a gallery of portraits hung in pairs. Plutarch stands by his profession. His immediate concern is with neither history nor politics, but with the ‘disposition and manners’ of the great. He chooses his man, and then he paints his picture, with a master's choice of the essential. And yet, inasmuch as he chooses every subject as a matter of course on political grounds—as he sees all men in the State—it follows that his gallery is found, for all his avowed intention, to consist of political portraits alone. Thirteen, indeed, of his sitters belong not only to history but also to one chapter of history—a chapter short, dramatic, bloody, and distinctly political. This was the chance. When Plutarch, the lecturer, dropped into Roman society fresh from the contemplation of Greece ‘depopulate and dispeopled,’ he found its members spending their ample leisure in academic debate. After more than a hundred years they were still discussing the protagonists in that greatest of political dramas which, ‘for a sumptuous conclusion to a stately tragedy,’ had ushered in the empire of the world. Predisposed by contrast of origin and affinity of taste, he threw himself keenly into their pastime, and he gives, by the way, some minute references to points at issue. For instance, when Pompey and the Senate had deserted Italy at Cæsar's approach, a stern-chase of ships and swords had swept round three continents, and thereon had followed a campaign of words and pens at Rome. In that campaign the chief attack and reply had been Cicero's Cato and Cæsar's Anticaton; and these, he tells us,4 had ‘favourers unto his day, some defending the one for the love they bare Cæsar, and others allowing the other for Cato's sake.’ We gather that he and his Roman friends argued of these matters over the dinner-table and in the lecture-halls, even as men argue to-day of the actors in the French Revolution. Now, to glance at the ‘Table of the Noble Grecians and Romanes’ is to see how profoundly this atmosphere affected his selection of Roman lives. For, excluding the legendary founders and defenders, with the Emperors Galba and Otho (whose lives are interpolations from elsewhere), we find that thirteen of the nineteen left were party chiefs in the constitutional struggles which ended on the fields of Pharsalia and Philippi. The effect on the general cast of the Lives has been so momentous that a whole quarter covers only the political action which these thirteen politicians crowded into less than one hundred years. The society of idlers, which received Plutarch at Rome, was still debating the ideals for which these thirteen men had fought and died; it was therefore inevitable that, in seeking for foreign parallels, he should have found almost as many as he needed among the actors in that single drama. As it was, he chose for his greater portraitures all the chief actors, and a whole army of subsidiary characters for his groups in the middle distance: as Saturninus and Cinna from one act, Clodius and Curio from another. Nothing is wanting. You have the prologue of the Gracchi, the epilogue of Antony, and between the play from the triumph of Marius to Brutus in his despair: ‘looking up to the firmament that was full of stars,’ and ‘sighing’ over a cause lost for ever. And yet it remains true that Plutarch did not make this selection from—or rather this clean sweep of—the politicians of a certain epoch in order to illustrate that epoch's history, still less to criticise any theory of constitutional government. The remaining Romans, howbeit engaged in several issues, and the Greeks, though gathered from many ages and many cities, are all politicians, or, being orators and captains, are still in the same way chosen each for his influence on the fortunes of a State. But they were not consciously chosen to illustrate history or to discuss politics. Thanks, not to a point of view peculiar to Plutarch but to an instinct pervading the world in which he lived, to a prepossession then so universal that he is never conscious of its influence on his aim, they are all public men. For himself, he was painting individual character; and he sought it among men bearing a personal stamp. But he never sought it in a private person or a comedian; nor even in a poet or a master of the Fine Arts. To look for distinction in such a quarter never occurred to him; could never, I may say, have entered his head. He cannot conceive that any young ‘gentleman nobly born’ should so much as wish to be Phidias or Polycletus or Anacreon;5 and this from no vulgar contempt for the making of beautiful things, nor any mean reverence for noble birth, but because, over and above the making of beautiful things, there are deeds that are better worth the doing, and because men of noble birth are freer than others to choose what deeds they will set themselves to do. Why, then, he seems to ask, should they seek any service less noble than the service of their countrymen? why pursue any ambition less exalted than the salvation of their State? For his part, he will prefer Lycurgus before Plato; for, while the one ‘stablished and left behind him’ a constitution, the other left behind him only ‘words and written books.’6 His preference seems a strange one now; but it deserves to be noted the more nearly for its strangeness. At any rate, it was the preference of a patriot and a republican, whose country had sunk to a simple province under an alien emperor, and it governed the whole range of Plutarch's choice.

This result has been rendered the more conspicuous by another cause, springing at first from an accident, but in its application influenced by the political quality of Plutarch's material. Lost sight of and scattered in the Dark Ages, the Parallel Lives were recovered and rearranged at the revival of learning. But just as a gallery of historical portraits, being dispersed and re-collected, will in all probability be hung after some chronological scheme, so have the lives been shuffled anew under the influence of their political extraction, in such a sort as to change not only the complexion but also the structure of Plutarch's design. They form no longer a gallery of political portraits, hung in pairs for contrast's sake: they are grouped with intelligible reference to the history of Athens and of Rome. We know from Plutarch's own statements that he had no hand in their present arrangement. He was engrossed in depicting the characters of great men, and he wrote and dedicated each pair of lives to Socius Senecio, or another, as an independent ‘book,’ ‘treaty,’ or ‘volume.’ It is clear from many passages that he gathered these ‘volumes’ together without reference to their political bearing on each other. The Pericles and Fabius Maximus, which is now the Fifth ‘book,’ was originally the Tenth; and the change has apparently been made to bring Pericles, so far as the Greeks are concerned, within the consecutive history of Athens: just as the Demosthenes and Cicero, once the Fifth, is now by much removed so that Cicero may fall into place among the actors of the Roman drama. So, too, the Theseus, now standing First, as the founder of Athens, was written after the Demosthenes, now set well-nigh at the end of the series. And on the same grounds, evidently, to the Marius and the Pompey, written respectively after the Cæsar and the Brutus, there have been given such positions as were dictated by the development of the drama. The fact is, Plutarch's materials, being all political, have settled of themselves, and have been sorted in accordance with their political nature: until his work, pieced together by humanists and rearranged by translators, bears within it some such traces of a new symmetry, imperfect yet complex, as we detect in the stratification of crystalline rocks. Little has been added in North's first edition to the substance of Plutarch's book;7 but its structure and, as I hope to show, some of its colour and surface are the product, not only of the one mind which created it, but of the many who have preserved it, and of the ages it has outworn. The mere changes in the order of the ‘books’ have neither increased nor diminished their contents; but by evolving, as they do, a more or less symmetrical juxtaposition of certain elements, they have discovered the extent to which the work is permeated by those elements. As the quartz dispersed through a rock strikes the eye, when it is crystallised, from the angles of its spar; so the amount of Plutarch's political teaching, which might have escaped notice when it was scattered through independent books, now flashes out from the grouping together of the Athenians who made and unmade Athens, and of the Romans who fought for and against the Republican Constitution of Rome. For the Parallel Lives are now disposed in a rough chronological order; in so far, at least, as this has been possible where the members of each pair belong severally to nations whose histories mingle for the first time, when the activity of the one ceases and the activity of the other begins. In earlier days they had but dim intimations of each other's fortunes: as when, in the Camillus, ‘the rumour ran to Greece incontinently that Rome was taken’; and it is only in the Philopœmen and Flaminius that their fates are trained into a single channel. So that, rather, there are balance and opposition between the two halves of the whole: the latter portion being governed by the grouping in dramatic sequence of the thirteen Romans who took part in the constitutional drama of Rome; whereas the earlier is as it were polarised about the history of Athens. Considering the governing lives in each case, and disregarding their accidental companions, you will find that in both the whole pageant is displayed. There are excursions, but in the latter half we live at Rome; in the earlier we are taken to Athens: there to be spectators of her rise, her glory, and her fall. We listen to the prologue in the Solon; and in the Themistocles, the Pericles, the Alcibiades, we contemplate the three acts of the tragedy. The tragedy of Athens, the drama of Rome: these are the historic poles of the Parallel Lives; while, about half-way between, in the book of Philopœmen and Flaminius, is the historic hinge, at the fusion of Greek with Roman story. For Philopœmen and Flaminius were contemporaries: the one a Greek whom ‘Greece did love passingly well as the last valiant man she brought forth in her age’; the other, a Roman whom she loved also, Plutarch tells us, because, in founding the suzerainty of Rome, he founded it on the broad stone of honour. In this book the balance of sustained interest shifts, and after it the Lives are governed to the end by the development of the single Roman drama. We may say to the end: since Plutarch may truly be said to end with the suicide of Brutus. The Aratus, though of vivid and, with the Sylla, of unique interest—for both are based on autobiographies8—belongs, it is thought, to another book.9 This, I have already said, is true of the Galba and the Otho, dissevered as they are by the obvious division of a continuous narrative; and of the Artaxerxes, which, of course, has nothing to do among the Greek and Roman lives; while the Hannibal and Scipio (major), included by North, is not even Plutarch. These lives, then, were added, no doubt, to complete the defect of those that had been lost; as, for instance, the Metellus promised by Plutarch in his Marius, and the book of Epaminondas and Scipio (minor), which we know him to have written, on the authority of his son.

If, then, ignoring these accretions, we study the physiognomy of the Parallel Lives as revealed in the Table, the national tragedy of Athens and the constitutional drama of Rome are seen to stand out in consecutive presentment from its earlier and latter portions. Each is at once apparent, because each has been reconstituted for us. But the fact that such reconstitution has been possible—proving, as it does, how complete was the unsuspected influence of Plutarch's political temperament over his conscious selection of great men—puts us in the way of tracing this influence over his every preference. It gives a key to one great chamber in his mind, and a clue which we can follow through the windings of his book. It makes plain the fact that every one of his heroes achieved, or attempted, one of four political services which a man may render to his fellows. Their life-work consisted (1) in founding States; (2) in defending them from foreign invasion; (3) in extending their dominion; or (4) in leading political parties within their confines. All are, therefore, men who made history, considered each one in relation to his State. In dealing, for instance, with Demosthenes and Cicero, Plutarch ‘will not confer their works and writings of eloquence,’ but ‘their acts and deeds in the government of the commonwealth.’ In this manner, also, does he deal even with his ‘founders,’ who can scarce be called men, being but figures of legend and dream. Yet they too were evolved under the spell of political prepossession in the nations which conceived their legends; and the floating, shifting appearances, the ‘mist and hum’ of them, are compacted by a writer in whom that prepossession was strongly present. That such airy creatures should figure at all as historical statesmen, having something of natural movement and bulk, in itself attests beyond all else to this habit of Plutarch's mind. Having ‘set forth the lives of Lycurgus (which established the law of the Lacedaemonians), and of King Numa Pompilius,’ he thought he ‘might go a little further to the life of Romulus,’ and ‘resolved to match him which did set up the noble and famous city of Athens, with him which founded the glorious and invincible city of Rome.’ He is dealing, as he says, with matter ‘full of suspicion and doubt, being delivered us by poets and tragedy makers, sometimes without truth and likelihood, and always without certainty.’ He is dealing, indeed, with shadows; but they are shadows projected backward upon the mists about their origin by two nations which were above all things political; and he lends them a further semblance of consistency and perspective, by regarding them from a political point of view in the light of a later political experience. His Theseus and his Romulus are, indeed, a tissue woven out of folk-lore and the faint memories of a savage prime: you shall find in them traces of forgotten customs; marriage by capture,10 for instance, and much else that is frankly beyond belief; things which, he says, ‘peradventure will please the reader better for their strangeness and curiosity, than offend or mislike him for their falsehood.’ But his Lycurgus, saving the political glosses, and his Pompilius are likewise all of legend and romance: of the days ‘when the Aventine was not inhabited, nor enclosed within the walls of Rome, but was full of springs and shadowed groves,’ the haunt of Picus and Faunus, and of ‘Lady Silence’; yet he contrives to cast a political reflection over even this noiseless dreamland of folk-lore. Lycurgus and Theseus, in the manner of their deaths, present vague images of the fate which in truth befell the most of their historic parallels. Lycurgus kills himself, not because his constitution for Sparta is in danger, but lest any should seek to change it; and the bones of Theseus, the Athenian, murdered by his ungrateful countrymen, are magically discovered, and are brought back to Athens ‘with great joye, with processions and goodly sacrifices, as if Theseus himself had been alive, and had returned into the city again.’ As we read, we seem to be dreaming of Cato's death at Utica; and of Alcibiades' return, when the people who had banished him to the ruin of their country ‘clustred all to him only and … put garlands of flowers upon his head.’

The relation of the Lives in the three other categories to the political temper of Plutarch and his age is more obvious, if less significant of that temper and its prevalence in every region of thought. Of the Romans, Publicola and Coriolanus belong also to romance. But both were captains in the first legendary wars waged by Rome for supremacy in Italy; and the lives of both are charged with the hues of party politics. Publicola is painted as the aristocrat who, by patient loyalty to the Constitution, lives down the suspicions of the populace; Coriolanus, as a type of caste at once noble for its courage and lamentable for its indomitable pride. Passing, after these four, out of fable into history, there remain six Romans besides the thirteen involved in the culminating drama. Three of these, Furius Camillus, Marcellus, and Quintus Fabius Maximus, were the heroes of Rome's successful resistance to foreign invasion, and two, T. Q. Flaminius and Paulus Æmilius, the heroes of her equally successful foreign and colonial policy; while one only, Marcus Cato, is chosen as a constitutional politician from the few untroubled years between the assurance of empire abroad and the constitutional collapse at home. Turning from Italy to Greece, we find, again, that after the two legendary founders and Solon, the more or less historical contriver of the Athenian constitution, the remainder Greeks without exception fall under one or more of the three other categories: they beat back invasion, or they sought to extend a suzerainty, or they led political parties in pursuit of political ideals. Swayed by his political temperament, Plutarch exhibits men of a like stamp engaged in like issues. But, in passing from his public men of Italy to his public men of Greece, we may note that, while the issues which call forth the political energies of the two nations are the same, a difference merely in the order of event works up the same characters and the same situations into another play with another and a more complicated plot. Rome had practically secured the headship of the Italian States some years before the First Punic War. Her suzerainty was, therefore, an accomplished fact, frequently challenged but never defeated, before the Italian races were called upon to face any foe capable of absorbing their country. But in Greece, neither before nor after the Persian invasion did any one State ever become permanently supreme. So that, whereas, in Italy, the issue of internal wars and jealousies was decided long before the danger of foreign domination had to be met; in Greece, overshadowed in turn by the Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman, that issue was never decided at all. It follows that the history of Italy is the history of Rome, and not of the Latins or of the Samnites; but that the history of Greece is, at first, the history of Athens, of Sparta, and of Thebes in rivalry with one another, and, at last, of Macedon and Rome brooding over leagues and confederacies between the lesser islands and States. The Roman drama is single. The City State becomes supreme in Italy; rolls back wave after wave of Gauls and Carthaginians and Teutons; extends her dominion to the ends of the earth; and then, suddenly, finds her Constitution shattered by the strain of world-wide empire. Plutarch gives the actors in all these scenes; but it is in the last, which is the most essentially political, that he crowds his stage with the living, and, afterwards, cumbers it with the dead. The Greek drama is complex, and affords no such opportunity for scenic concentration. Even the first and simplest issue, of repelling an invader, is made intricate at every step by the jealousy between Sparta and Athens. Plutarch tells twice over11 that Themistocles, the Athenian, who had led the allies to victory at Salamis, proposed to burn their fleets at anchor so soon as the danger was overpassed: for by this means Athens might seize the supremacy of the sea. The story need not be true: that it should ever have been conceived proves in what spirit the Greek States went into alliance, even in face of Persia. The lives of two other Athenians, Cimon and Aristides, complete Plutarch's picture of the Persian War; and after that war he can never group his Greeks on any single stage. Each of them seeks, indeed, to extend the influence of his State, or to further his political opinions; but in the tangle of combinations resulting from their efforts one feature remains unchanged among many changes. Through all the fighting and the scheming it is ever Greek against Greek. The history is a kaleidoscope, but the pieces are the same. That is the tragedy of Greece: the ceaseless duel of the few with the many, with a complication of racial rivalries between independent City States. There is no climax of development, there is no sudden failure of the heart; but an agony of spasm twitches at every nerve in the body in turn. Extinction follows extinction of political power in one State after, and at the hands of, another; and in the end there is a total eclipse of national life under the shadow of Rome.

It is customary to date the political death of Greece from the battle at Chæronea, in which the Macedonians overthrew the allied armies of Athens and Thebes. But to Plutarch, who had a better, because a nearer, point of view, the perennial virulence of race and opinion, which constituted so much of the political life of Greece, went after Chæronea as merrily as before. The combatants, whose sky was but clouded by the empire of Alexander, fought on into the night of Roman rule; and, when they relented, it was even then, according to Plutarch, only from sheer exhaustion. Explaining the lull in these rivalries during the old age of Philopœmen, he writes that ‘like as the force and strength of sickness declineth, as the natural strength of the sickly body impaireth, envy of quarrel and war surceased as their power diminished.’ Of these Greeks, other than the founders and the heroes of the Persian War, six were leaders in the rivalry, first, between Athens and Sparta and, then, between Sparta and Thebes. Of these, three were Athenians—Pericles, Nicias, and Alcibiades; two were Spartans—Lysander and Agesilaus; one was Pelopidas the Theban. These six lives complete Plutarch's picture of the Peloponnesian War. Then, still keeping to Greeks proper, he indulges in an excursion to Syracuse in the lives of Dion and Timoleon. Later, in the lives of Demosthenes and Phocion, you feel the cloud of the Macedonian Empire gathering over Greece. And, lastly, while Rome and Macedon fight over her head for the substance of dominion and political reform, two kings of Sparta, Agis and Cleomenes, and two generals of the Achæan League, Aratus and Philopœmen, are found still thwarting each other for the shadow. Plutarch shows four others, not properly to be called Greeks: the Macedonians, Alexander and Demetrius, Pyrrhus the Molossian, and Eumenes, born a Greek of Cardia, but a Macedonian by his career. These four come on the stage as an interlude between the rivalries of the Peloponnesian War and the last futilities of the Achæan League. Alexander for a time obliterates all lesser lights; and in the lives of the other three we watch the flashing train of his successors. All are shining figures, all are crowned, all are the greatest adventurers of the world; and tumbling out of one kingdom into another, they do battle in glorious mellays for cities and diadems and Queens.

Taking a clue from the late reconstitution of the most moving scenes at Athens and Rome, I follow it through the Parallel Lives, and I sketch the political framework it discovers. Into that framework, which co-extends with Plutarch's original conception, I can fit every life in North's first edition, from the Theseus to the Aratus. I could not overlook so palpable and so significant a result of Plutarch's political temperament; and I must note it because it has been overlooked, and even obscured, in later editions of Amyot and North. Amyot's first and second editions, of 1559 and 1565, both end with the Otho, which, although it does not belong to the Parallel Lives, was at least Plutarch. But to Amyot's third, of 1567, there were added the Annibal and the Scipion (major), first fabricated for the Latin translation of 1470 by Donato Acciaiuoli and translated into French by Charles de l'Escluse, or de la Sluce, as North prefers to call him. These two lives North received into his first edition: together with a comparison by Simon Goulard Senlisien, an industrious gentleman who, as ‘S. G. S.,’ supplied him with further material at a later date.12 For indeed, once begun in the first Latin translation, this process of completing Plutarch knew no bounds for more than two hundred years. The Spanish historian, Antonio de Guevara, had perpetrated a decade of emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, and eight more, and these, too, were translated into French by Antoine Allègre, and duly appended to the Amyot of 1567 by its publisher Vascosan. All was fish that came to Vascosan's net. The indefatigable S. G. S. concocted lives of Augustus and Seneca; translated biographies from Cornelius Nepos; and, with an excellent turn for symmetry, supplied unaided all the Comparisons which are not to be found in Plutarch. The Chæronean either wrote them, and they were lost; or, possibly, he paused before the scaling of Cæsar and Alexander, content with the perfection he had achieved. But S. G. S. knew no such embarrassment; and Amyot's publisher of 1583 accepted his contributions, as before, in the lump. North in his third edition of 1603 is a little, but only a little, more fastidious: he rejects all the Comparisons except, oddly enough, that between Cæsar and Alexander; but on the other hand, he accepts from S. G. S. the lives of ‘worthy chieftains’ and ‘famous philosophers’13 who—and this is a point—were not, as all Plutarch's exemplars were before everything, public men. Later, the international compliment was returned. The Abbé Bellenger translated into French eight lives—of Æneas, Tullus Hostilius, and so forth—concocted in English by Thomas Rowe; and these in their turn were duly added, first to Dacier's Plutarch in 1734, and afterwards to the Amyot of 1783: an edition you are not surprised to see filling a small bookcase. Celebrities of all sorts were recruited, simply for their fame, from every age, and from every field of performance—Plato, Aristotle, Philip, even Charlemagne!14 And the process of obscuring Plutarch's method did not end with the interjection of spurious stuff. Men cut down the genuine Lives to convenient lengths, for summaries and ‘treasuries.’ The undefeated S. G. S. covered the margin of one edition after another with reflections tending to edification. He and his kind epitomised Plutarch's matter and pointed his moral, grinding them to the dust of a classical dictionary and the ashes of a copybook headline. All these editions and epitomes and maxims, being none of Plutarch's, should not, of course, in reason have darkened his restriction on the choice of great men. Yet by their number and their vogue, they have so darkened it; and the more easily, for that Plutarch, as I have shown, says nothing of the limit he observed. Beneath these additions the political framework of the Lives lay buried for centuries; and even after they had been discarded by later translators, it was still shrouded in the mist they had exhaled. Banish the additions and their atmosphere—fit only for puritans and pedants—and once more the political framework emerges in all its significance and in all its breadth.

From this effect we cannot choose but turn to the causa causans—the mind that achieved it. We want to know the political philosophy of a writer who, being a student of human character, yet held it unworthy his study save in public men. And the curiosity will, as I think, be sharpened rather than rebated by the reflection that many of his commentators have, none the less, denied him any political insight at all.15 Their paradox plucks us by the sleeve. From a soil thus impregnated with the salt of political instinct one would have looked in the harvest for some savour of political truth; yet one is told that the Lives, fruitful of all besides, are barren of this. For my part, I must believe that Plutarch's commentators have been led to a false conclusion along one of two paths: either they have listened too innocently to his avowed intention of portraying only character, and have been confirmed in their error by the indiscriminate additions to his work; or, perceiving his exclusive choice of politicians, they have still declined to recognise political wisdom in an unexpected shape. In a work which is constituted, albeit without intention, upon lines thus definitely political, one might have looked for many direct pronouncements of political opinion. Yet in that expectation one is deceived—as I think, happily. For Plutarch's methods, at least in respect of politics and war, are not those of analysis or of argument, but of pageant and of drama, with actors living and moving against a background of processions that move and live. With all the world for his stage, he shakes off the habit of the lecture-hall, and it is only now and again that, stepping before the curtain, he will speak a prologue in a preface, or turn chorus to comment a space upon the play. Mostly he is absorbed in presenting his heroes as they fought and as they fell; in unfolding, in scene after scene, his theatrum of stirring life and majestical death. I cannot deny his many digressions on matters religious, moral, philosophical, and social; and it may be that their very number, accentuating the paucity of his political pronouncements, has emphasised the view with which I cannot concur. Doubtless they are there; nor can I believe that any would wish them away. It is interesting to hear the Pythagorean view of the solar system;16 and it is charming to be told the gossip about Aspasia17 and Dionysius18 after his fall. In the Pericles, for instance, Plutarch pauses at the first mention of Aspasia's name: ‘thinking it no great digression of our storie,’ to tell you ‘by the way what manner of woman she was.’ So he tells you what manner, and, after the telling, excuses himself once more; since, as he says, it came ‘in my minde: and me thought I should have dealt hardly, if I should have left it unwritten.’ Who will resent such compassion? Who so immersed in affairs as to die in willing ignorance of the broken man who seemed to be a ‘starke nideotte,’ with a turn for low life and repartee? Plutarch carries all before him when he says: ‘methinks these things I have intermingled concerning Dionysius, are not impertinent to the description of our Lives, neither are they troublesome nor unprofitable to the hearers, unless they have other hasty business to let or trouble them.’ He is irresistible in this vein, which, by its lightness, leads one to believe that some of the lives, like some modern essays, were first delivered before popular audiences, and then collected with others conceived in a graver key. There are many such digressions. But, just because his heroes are all politicians, of long political pronouncements there are few: even as of comments on the art of war you shall find scarce one, for the reason that strategy and tactics are made plain on a hundred fields. His politicians and captains speak and fight for themselves. It is for his readers, if they choose, to gather political wisdom from (say) his lives of the aforesaid thirteen Romans; even, as, an they will, they may deduce from the Themistocles or the Pompey the completeness of his grasp upon the latest theories on the command of the sea.

Yet there are exceptions, though rare ones, to his rule; and in questioning the political bent of his mind we are not left to inference alone. In the Lycurgus, for instance, where the actor is but a walking shadow, Plutarch must needs deal with the system associated with Lycurgus's name: so in this life we have the theory of politics which Plutarch favoured, whereas in the Pericles we have the practice of a consummate politician. From the Lycurgus, then, we are able to gauge the personal equation (so to say) of the mind which, in the Pericles, must have coloured that mind's presentment of political action and debate. Plutarch, like Plato before him, is a frank admirer of the laws which Lycurgus is said to have framed. He delights in that ‘perfectest manner of a commonwealth,’ which made the city of Lycurgus ‘the chiefest of the world, in glory and honour of government, by the space of five hundred years.’ He tells of the lawgiver's journey from Crete to Asia, to compare the ‘policy of those of Crete (being then very straight and severe) with the superfluities and vanities of Ionia’; and you may gather from the context that the one appears to the historian ‘whole and healthful,’ the others ‘sick and diseased.’ He seems also to approve Lycurgus's indiscriminate contempt for all ‘superfluous and unprofitable sciences’; for the devices of ‘licorous cooks to cram themselves in corners,’ of ‘rhetoricians who teach eloquence and the cunning cast of lying,’ of goldsmiths and fortune-tellers and panders. Again, it is with satisfaction that he paints his picture of Lycurgus returning ‘home one day out of the fields … laughing’ as he ‘saw the number of sheaves in shocks together and no one shock bigger than another’; all Laconia being ‘as it were an inheritance of many brethren, who had newly made partition together.’ But if Plutarch approves the suppression of luxury and the equal distribution of wealth as ideals, he does not approve the equal distribution of power. He is in favour of constitutional republics and opposed to hereditary monarchies; though he will tolerate even these in countries where they already exist.19 But he is for republics and against monarchies only that the man ‘born to rule’ may have authority: such a man, for instance, as Lycurgus, ‘born to rule, to command, and to give orders, as having in him a certain natural grace and power to draw men willingly to obey him.’ In any State, he postulates, on the one hand, an enduring Constitution and a strong Senate of proved men; on the other, a populace with equal political rights of electing to the Senate and of sanctioning the laws that Senate may propose. Yet these in themselves are but preliminary conditions of liberty and order. Besides, for the preservation of a State there are needed rulers few and fit, armed with enough authority and having courage enough to wield it. It is essential that the few, who are fit, shall direct and govern the many, who are not. If authority be impaired, whether by incompetence in the few or through jealousy in the many, then must disaster follow. Now, many who hold this view are prone, when disaster does follow, to blame the folly of the many rather than the unfitness of the few. But Plutarch is distinguished in this: that, holding the view as firmly as any have held it—now preaching the gospel of authority and now exhibiting its proof at every turn—he yet imputes the blame of failure, almost always, to incompetence or to cowardice in the few. ‘He that directeth well must needs be well obeyed. For like as the art of a good rider is to make his horse gentle and ready at commandment, even so the chiefest point belonging to a prince is to teach his people to obey.’ I take these words from the Lycurgus. They set forth Plutarch's chief political doctrine; and the statement of fact is pointed with his favourite image. That the horse (or the many) should play the antic at will, is to him plainly absurd: the horse must be ridden, and the many must be directed and controlled. Yet, if the riding, or the governing, prove a failure, Plutarch's quarrel is with the ruler and the horseman, not with the people or the mount. For he knows well that ‘a ragged colt oftimes proves a good horse, specially if he be well ridden and broken as he should be.’20 This is but one of his innumerable allusions to horse-breaking and hunting: as, for instance, in the Paulus Æmilius, he includes ‘riders of horses and hunts of Greece’ among painters and gravers of images, grammarians, and rhetoricians, as the proper Greek tutors for completing the education of a Roman moving with the times. And no one who takes note of these allusions can doubt that, as one of a chivalrous and sporting race, he was qualified to deal with images drawn from the manège and the chase. As little can any one who follows his political drama miss the application of these images. Sometimes, indeed, his constant theme and his favourite image almost seem fused: as when he describes the natural grace of his Cæsar, ‘so excellent a rider of horse from his youth, that holding his hands behind him, he would galop his horse upon the spur’; a governor so ever at one with those he governed, that he directed even his charger by an inflexion of his will rather than of his body. This need of authority and the obligation on the few to maintain it—by a ‘natural grace,’ springing, on the one hand, from courage combined with forbearance; and leading, on the other, to harmony between the rulers and the ruled—is the text which, given out in the Lycurgus, is illustrated throughout the Parallel Lives.

I have said that, apart from the Lycurgus, Plutarch's political pronouncements are to be found mostly in the prefaces to certain ‘books’ and in scattered comments on such action as he displays. And of all these ‘books’ the Pericles and Fabius Maximus is, perhaps, the richest in pronouncements, in both its preface and its body, all bearing on his theory of authority and on its maintenance by ‘natural grace.’ A ‘harmony’ is to be aimed at; but a harmony in the Dorian mode. Pericles is commended because in later life ‘he was wont … not so easily to grant to all the people's wills and desires, no more than as it were to contrary winds.’ In Plutarch's eyes he did well when ‘he altered his over-gentle and popular manner of government … as too delicate and effeminate an harmony of music, and did convert it into an imperious government, or rather a kingly authority.’ He has nothing but praise for the independence and fortitude by which Pericles achieved Cæsar's policy of uniting within himself all the yearly offices of the State, ‘not for a little while, nor in a gear (fashion) of favour,’ but for ‘forty years together.’ He compares him to the captain of a ship ‘not hearkening to the passengers' fearful cries and pitiful tears,’ and holds him up for an example, since he ‘neither would be persuaded by his friends' earnest requests and entreaties, neither cared for his enemies' threats and accusations against him, nor yet reckoned of all their foolish scoffing songs they sung of him in the city.’ So, too, in the same book, when Plutarch comes to portray Fabius Maximus, he gives us that great man's view: that ‘to be afeared of the wagging of every straw, or to regard every common prating, is not the part of a worthy man of charge, but rather of a base-minded person, to seek to please those whom he ought to command and govern, because they are but fools.’ (Thus does blunt Sir Thomas render Amyot's polite, but equally sound, ‘parce qu'ils ne sont pas sages.’) But the independence and the endurance necessary in a ruler are not to be accompanied by irritation or contempt. While ‘to flatter the common people’ is at best effeminate,’ and at worst ‘the broad high-way of them that practise tyranny,’21 still, ‘he is less to be blamed that seeketh to please and gratify his common people than he that despiseth and disdaineth them’; for here is no harmony at all, but discord. The words last quoted are from the Comparison between Alcibiades and Coriolanus, two heroes out of tune with their countrymen, whose courage and independence were made thereby of no avail. But in the Pericles and Fabius Maximus Plutarch shows us heroes after his own heart, and in his preface to their lives he insists more explicitly than elsewhere on the need of not only courage and independence but also forbearance and goodwill; since without these, their complements, the other virtues, are sterile. Pericles and Fabius, being at least as proud and brave as Alcibiades and Coriolanus, ‘for that they would patiently bear the follies of their people and companions that were in charge of government with them, were marvellous profitable members for their country.’ He returns to this theory of harmony in his preface to the Phocion and Cato. In every instance he assumes as beyond dispute, that the few must govern, working an obedience in the many; but they are to work it by a ‘natural grace’ of adaptation to the needs and natures they command. In this very book he blames Cato of Utica, not for the ‘ancient simplicity’ of his manner, which ‘was indeed praiseworthy,’ but, simply because it was ‘not the convenientest, nor the fittest’ for him; for that ‘it answered nor respected not the use and manners of his time.’

How comes it to pass that Plutarch's heroes, being thus prone to compromise, yet fight and die, often at their own hands, for the ideals they uphold? The question is a fair one, and the answer reveals a profound difference between the theory and the practice of politics approved by the ancient world and the theory and the practice of politics approved in the England of to-day. ‘The good and ill,’ says Plutarch, ‘do nothing differ but in mean and mediocrity.’ We might therefore expect in his heroes a reluctance to sacrifice all for a difference of degree; and especially might we suppose that, after deciding an equipoise so nice as that between ‘authority and lenity,’ his governors would stake little on their decision. But in a world of adjustment and doubt they are all for compromise in theory, while in action they are extreme. They are ready in spite, almost because, of that doubt, to seal with their blood such certainty as they can attain. His statesmen, inasmuch as they do respect ‘the use and manners’ of their time, endure all things while they live, and at last die quietly, not for an abstract idea or a sublime emotion, but for the compromise of their day: though they know it for a compromise, and foresee its inevitable destruction. They have no enthusiasm, and no ecstasy. Uninspired from without, and self-gathered within, they live their lives, or lay them down, for the use and wont of their country. In reading their history an Englishman cannot but be struck by the double contrast between these tendencies of theory and action and the tendencies of theory and action finding favour in England now. Ever extreme in theory, we are all for compromise in fact; proud on the one score of our sincerity, on the other of our common sense. We are fanatics, who yet decline to persecute, still less to suffer, for our faith. And this temperance of behaviour, following hard on the violent utterance of belief, is apt to show something irrational and tame. The actor stands charged, often unjustly, with a lack of both logic and courage. The Greeks, on the other hand, who found ‘truth in a union of opposites and the aim of life in its struggle,’22 and the Romans, who aped their philosophy and outdid their deeds, are not, in Plutarch's pages, open to this disparagement. They live or die for their faiths as they found them, and so appear less extravagant and more brave. The temper is illustrated again and again by the manner in which they observe his doctrine, that rulers must maintain their authority, and at the same time ‘bear the follies of their people and companions that are in charge of government with them.’ To read the Pericles or the Pompeius, the Julius Cæsar or the Cato, is to feel that a soldier may as well complain of bullets in a battle as a statesman of stupidity in his colleagues. These are constants of the problem. Only on such terms are fighting and ruling to be had. So, too, with ‘the people’: with the many, that is, who have least chance of understanding the game, least voice in its conduct, least stake in its success. If these forget all but yesterday's service, if they look only for to-morrow's reward, the hero is not therefore to complain. This short-lived memory and this short-sighted imagination are constants also. They are regular fences in the course he has set himself to achieve. He must clear them if he can, and fall if he cannot; but he must never complain. They are conditions of success, not excuses for failure; and to name them is to be ridiculous. The Plutarchian hero never does name them. He is obstinate, but not querulous. He cares only for the State; he insists on saving it in his own way; he kills himself, if other counsels prevail. But he never complains, and he offers no explanations. Living, he prefers action before argument; dying, he chooses drama rather than defence. While he has hope, he acts like a great man; and when hope ceases, he dies like a great actor. He and his fellows seek for some compromise between authority and lenity, and, having found it, they maintain it to the end. They are wise in taking thought, and sublime in taking action: whereas now, we are courageous in our theories, but exceeding cautious in our practice. Yet who among modern politicians will say that Plutarch's men were in the wrong? Who, hoarse with shouting against the cataract of circumstance, will dare reprove the dumb-show of their lives and deaths?

I have shown from the Lycurgus, from the prefaces to the Pericles and the Phocion, and from scattered comments elsewhere, that Plutarch has something to say upon politics which, whether we agree with him or not, is at least worthy our attention. There is yet an occasion of one other kind—which he takes, I think, only twice—for speaking his own mind upon politics. After the conclusion of a long series of events, ending, for instance, in the rule of Rome over Greece, or in the substitution of the Empire for the Republic, he assembles these conclusions, at first sight to him unreasonable and unjust, and seeks to interpret them in the light of divine wisdom and justice. Now, he was nearer than we are to the two great sequences I have denoted, by seventeen centuries: he lived, we may say, in a world which they had created anew. And whereas he took in all political questions a general interest so keen that it has coloured the whole of a work not immediately addressed to politics, in these two sequences his interest was particular and personal: in the first because of his patriotism, and in the second because of his familiar converse with the best in Rome. We are happy, then, in the judgment of such a critic on the two greatest political dramas enacted in the ancient world. The human—I might say the pathetic—interest of the treatment accorded by the patriotic Greek to the growth of Roman dominion and its final extension over the Hellenistic East, will absorb the attention of many. But it offers, besides, as I think, although this has been questioned, much of political wisdom. In any case, on the one count or upon the other, I feel bound to indicate the passages in which he comments on these facts. We are not in doubt as to his general views on Imperial aggression and a ‘forward policy.’ After noting that the Romans forsook the peaceful precepts of Numa, and ‘filled all Italy with murder and blood,’ he imagines one saying: ‘But hath not Rome excelled still, and prevailed more and more in chivalry?’ And he replies:23 ‘This question requireth a long answer, and especially unto such men as place felicity in riches, in possessing and in the greatness of empire, rather than in quiet safety, peace and concord of a common weal.’ For his part he thought with Lycurgus,24 that a city should not seek to command many; but that ‘the felicity of a city, as of a private man, consisted chiefly in the exercise of virtue, and the unity of the inhabitants thereof, and that the citizens should be nobly minded (Amyot: francs de cueurs), content with their own, and temperate in their doings (attrempez en tous leurs faicts), that thereby they might maintain and keep themselves long in safety.’ But, holding this general opinion, and biassed into the bargain by his patriotism, he cannot relate the stories of Aratus and Philopœmen on the one hand, or of Flaminius and Lucullus on the other, without accepting the conclusion that the rule of Rome was at last necessary for the rational and just government of the world; and, therefore, was inevitably ordained by the Divine wisdom. Rome ‘increased and grew strong by arms and continual wars, like as piles driven into the ground, which the more they are rammed in the further they enter and stick the faster.25 For it was by obedience and self-restraint, by a ‘yielding unto reason and virtue’ that the ‘Romans came to command all other and to make themselves the mightiest people of the world.’26 In Greece he finds nothing of this obedience and this self-restraint; nothing but rivalry between leaders and jealousy between States. Cleomenes, the Spartan king, Aratus and Philopœmen, both leaders of the Achæan League, are among the last of his Greek heroes. He lingers over them lovingly; yet it is Aratus who, in jealousy of Cleomenes, brings Antigonus and his Macedonians into Greece; and it is Flaminius, the Roman, who expels them. In this act some modern critics have seen only one of many cloaks for a policy of calculated aggression, but it is well to remember for what it is worth that Plutarch, the Greek patriot, saw in it simply the act of a ‘just and courteous gentleman,’ and that, according to him, the ‘only cause of the utter destruction of Greece’ must be sought earlier: when Aratus preferred the Macedonians before allowing Cleomenes a first place in the Achæan League. In the Cimon and Lucullus, even after Greece became a Roman province, he shows the same rivalries on a smaller scale. The ‘book’ opens with a story which, with a few changes, mostly of names, might be set in the Ireland of a hundred years ago. One Damon, an antique Rory of the Hills, after just provocation, collects a band of moonlighters who, with blackened faces, set upon and murder a Roman captain. The town council of Chæronea condemns Damon and his companions to death, in proof of its own innocence, and is murdered for its pains. At last Damon himself is enticed into a bathhouse, and killed. Then the Orchomenians, ‘being near neighbours unto the Chæroneans, and therefore their enemies,’ hire an ‘informer’ to accuse all the Chæroneans of complicity in the original murder; and it is only the just testimony of the Roman general, Lucullus, who chances to be marching by, which saves the town from punishment. An image is set up to Lucullus which Plutarch has seen; and even to his day ‘terrible voices and cries’ are heard by the neighbours from behind the walled-up door of the bathhouse, in which Damon had died. He knows the whole story from his childhood, and knows that in this small matter Lucullus showed the same justice and courtesy which Flaminius had displayed in a great one. For it is only the strong who can be just; and therefore to the strong there falls in the end, without appeal, the reward, or the penalty, of doing justice throughout the world. That seems to be Plutarch's ‘long answer’ to those who question the justice of the Roman Empire. He gives it most fully in the life of Flaminius, taking, as I have said, a rare occasion in order to comment on the conclusion of a long series of events. First, he sums up the results achieved by the noble Greeks, many of whose lives he has written. ‘For Agesilaus,’ he writes, ‘Lysander, Nicias, Alcibiades, and all other the famous captains of former times, had very good skill to lead an army, and to winne the battle, as well by sea as by land, but to turn their victories to any honourable benefit, or true honour among men, they could never skill of it’; especially as, apart from the Persian War, ‘all the other wars and the battles of Greece that were made fell out against themselves, and did ever bring them unto bondage: and all the tokens of triumph which ever were set up for the same was to their shame and loss.’ Having summed up the tragedy of Greece in these words, he turns to the Roman rule, and ‘The good deeds of the Romans and of Titus Quintus Flaminius,’ he says, ‘unto the Grecians, did not only reap this benefit unto them, in recompense that they were praised and honoured of all the world; but they were cause also of increasing their dominions and empire over all nations.’ So that ‘peoples and cities … procured them to come, and did put themselves into their hands’; and ‘kings and princes also (which were oppressed by other more mighty than themselves) had no other refuge but to put themselves under their protection, by reason whereof in a very short time … all the world came to submit themselves under the protection of their empire.’

In the same way, he, a republican, acquiesced in the necessity for Cæsar. Having told the story of Brutus, the last of the thirteen Romans, he falls on the other of my two occasions, and ‘Cæsar's power and government,’ he writes, ‘when it came to be established, did indeed much hurt at his first entrie and beginning unto those that did resist him: but afterwards there never followed any tyrannical nor cruel act, but contrarily, it seemed that he was a merciful Physician whom God had ordained of special grace to be Governor of the Empire of Rome, and to set all things again at quiet stay, the which required the counsel and authority of an absolute Prince.’ That is his epilogue to the longest and the mightiest drama in all history; and in it we have for once the judgment of a playwright on the ethics of his play. Yet so great a dramatist was Plutarch that even his epilogue has not saved him from the fate of his peers. While some, with our wise King James i., blame him for injustice to Cæsar,27 yet others find him a niggard in his worship of Brutus and Cato. The fact is, each of his heroes is for the moment of such flesh and blood as to compel the pity of him that reads; for each is in turn the brother of all men, in their hope and in their despair. If, then, the actor chances to be Brutus and the reader King James, Plutarch is damned for a rebel; but again, if the reader be a republican, when Servilia's lover wraps him in his cloak and falls, why, then is Plutarch but the friend of a tyrant. Thus by the excellence of his art he forces us to argue that his creatures must reign in his affection as surely as for a moment they can seize upon our own. Take an early hero of the popular party—take Caius Gracchus. We know him even to his trick of vehement speech; and, knowing him so intimately, we cannot but mourn over that parting from his wife, when he left her to meet death, and she, ‘reaching after him to take him by the gown, fell to the ground and lay flatlings there a great while, speaking never a word.’ Cato, again, that hero of the other side, lives to be forbidding for his affectation; yet who but remembers the clever boy making orations full of ‘witt and vehemence,’ with a ‘certaine gravetie’ which ‘delighted his hearers and made them laugh, it did so please them’? One harks back to the precocious youngster, once the hope of the winning party, when Cato, left alone in Utica, the last soul true to a lost cause, asks the dissemblers of his sword if they ‘think to keep an old man alive by force?’ He takes kindly thought for the safety of his friends, reads the Phœdo, and dozes fitfully through the night, and behold! you are in the room with a great man dying. You feel with him that chill disillusion of the dawn, when ‘the little birds began to chirp’; you share in the creeping horror of his servants, listening outside the door; and when they give a ‘shriek for fear’ at the ‘noise of his fall, overthrowing a little table of geometry hard by his bed,’ it is almost a relief to know that the recovered sword has done its work. And who can help loving Pompey, with his ‘curtesie in conversation; so that there was never man that requested anything with less ill will than he, nor that more willingly did pleasure unto any man when he was requested. For he gave without disdain and took with great honour’? ‘The cast and soft moving of his eyes … had a certain resemblance of the statues and images of King Alexander.’ Even ‘Flora the curtisan’—Villon's ‘Flora la belle Romaine’—pined away for love of him when he turned her over to a friend. He is all compact of courage and easy despair: now setting sail in a tempest, for ‘it is necessity, I must go, but not to live’; and again, at Pharsalia, at the first reverse ‘forgetting that he was Pompey the Great,’ and leaving the field to walk silently away. And that last scene of all: when on a desolate shore a single ‘infranchised bondman’ who had ‘remained ever’ by the murdered hero, ‘sought upon the sands and found at the length a piece of an old fisher's boat enough to serve to burn his naked body with’; and so a veteran who had been with him in his old wars happens upon the afflicting scene; and you hear him hail the other lonely figure: ‘O friend, what art thou that preparest the funerals of Pompey the Great? … Thou shalt not have all this honour alone … to bury the only and most famous Captain of the Romans!’

There is sorcery in Plutarch's presentments of these politicians, which may either blind to the import of the drama they enact, or beguile into thinking that he sympathises by turns with the ideal of every leader he portrays. But behind the glamour of their living and the glory of their death, a relentless progression of political causes and effects conducts inevitably to Cæsar's personal rule. In no other book do we see so full an image of a nation's life, because in no other is the author so little concerned to prove the truth of any one theory, or the nobility of any one sentiment. He is detached—indeed, absorbed—in another purpose. He exhibits his thirteen vivid personalities, holding, mostly by birth, to one of two historic parties, and inheriting with those parties certain traditional aspirations and beliefs; yet by showing men as they are, he contrives to show that truth and nobility belong to many divergent beliefs and to many conflicting aspirations. Doubtless he has his own view, his rooted abhorrence to the rule of one man; and this persuasion inclines him now to the Popular Party in its opposition to Sulla, and again to the Senate in its opposition to Cæsar. But still, by the sheer force of his realism, he drives home, as no other writer has ever done, the great truth that theories and sentiments are in politics no more than flags and tuckets in a battle: that in fighting and in government it is, after all, the fighting and the governing which must somehow or another be achieved. And, since in this world governing there must be, the question at any moment is: What are the possible conditions of government? In the latter days of the Republic it appears from the Lives that two sets of causes had led to a monstrous development of individuals, in whose shadow all lower men must wither away. So Sertorius sails for the ‘Fortunate Islands’; Cato is juggled to Cyprus; Cicero is banished; while Lucullus, out-metalled by Pompey on his own side, ‘lay still and took his pleasure, and would no more meddle with the commonwealth,’ and the unspeakable Bibulus ‘kept him close in his ‘house for eight months’ space, and only sent out bills.’ At last you have the Triumvirate; and then, with Crassus killed, the two protagonists face to face: ‘whose names the strange and far nations understood before the name of Romans, so great were their victories.’ Given the Roman dominion and two parties with the traditions of Marius and Sulla behind them, there was nothing for it but that one or other should prove its competence to rule; and no other way of achieving this than finding the man and giving him the power. The Marians found Cæsar, and in him a man who could find power for himself. The political heirs of Sulla found Cato and Brutus, and Lucullus and Pompey; but none of these was Cæsar, and, such as they were, the Senate played them off the one against the other. Bemused with theories and sentiments, they neither saw the necessity, nor seized the means, of governing a world that cried aloud for government. In Plutarch you watch the play; and, whatever you may think of the actors—of Crassus or Cato, Pompey or Cæsar—of the non-actors you can think nothing. Bibulus, with his ‘bills,’ and the Senate, which bade Pompey disband his troops, stand for ever as types of formal incompetence. Plutarch shows that it is wiser and more righteous to win the game by accepting the rules, even if sometimes you must strain and break them, than to leave the table because you dislike the rules. Instead of quarrelling with the rules and losing the game, the Senate should have won the game, and then have changed the rules. This Cæsar did, as Plutarch the republican allows, to the saving of his country and the lasting profit of mankind. Doubtless he shows the argument in action, and points the moral only in an epilogue. But living, as we do, after the politicians of so many ages and so many parties have laid competing claims to the glory of his chiefs, this is our gain. Brutus and Cato, heroes of the Renaissance and gods of liberty a hundred years ago, we are told by eminent historians, were selfish oligarchs: bunglers who, having failed to feed the city or to flush the drains, wrote ‘sulky letters’28 about the one man who could do these things, and govern the world into the bargain. Between these views it skills not to decide. It is enough to take up the Lives and to rejoice that Plutarch, writing one hundred and fifty years after the foundering of the Republic, dwelt rather on its heroes who are for ever glorious than on its theories which were for ever shamed.

In his book are three complete plays: the brief tragedy of Athens—that land of ‘honey and hemlock,’ offering her cup of sweet and deadly elements to the dreamers of every age; with the drama of the merging of Greece in the dominion of Rome and the drama of the overthrow of the Roman Republic. And the upshot of all three is that the playwright insists on the culture of the individual for the sake of the State. The political teacher behind the political dramatist inculcates, no theory of politics but, an attitude towards life. Good is the child of custom and conflict, not the reward of individual research; so he shows you life as one battle in which the armies are ordered States. Every man, therefore, must needs be a citizen, and every citizen a soldier in the ranks. For this service, life being a battle, he must cultivate the soldier's virtues of courage and courtesy. The word is North's, and smacks something more of chivalry than Amyot's humanité; yet both may be taken to point Plutarch's moral, not only that victory is impossible without kindness between comrades, and intolerable without forbearance between foes, but also, that in every age of man's progress to perfection through strife these qualities must be developed to a larger growth measured by the moral needs of war between nations and parties. He insists again and again on this need of courtesy in a world wherein all men are in duty bound to hold opposite opinions, for which they must in honour live and die. For this his Sertorius, his Lucullus, and his Mummius, sketched in a passing allusion, are chiefly memorable; while of Cæsar he writes that ‘amongst other honours’ his enemies gave him ‘he rightly deserved this, that they should build him a Temple of Clemency.’ Cæsar, lighting from his horse to embrace Cicero, the arch-instigator of the opposition he had overthrown, and walking with him ‘a great way a-foot’; or Demetrius, who, the Athenians having defaulted, gathers them into the theatre, and then, when they expect a massacre, forgives them in a speech—these are but two exemplars of a style which Plutarch ever praises. And if his standard of courtesy in victory be high, not lower is his standard of courage in defeat. Demonsthenes is condemned for that ‘he took his banishment unmanly,’ while Phocion, his rival, is made glorious for his irony in death: paying, when the stock ran out, for his own hemlock, ‘sith a man cannot die at Athens for nothing.’ In defeat Plutarch's heroes sometimes doubted if life were worth living; but they never doubted there were things in life worth dying for. Even Demosthenes is redeemed in his eyes because, at the last, ‘sith the god Neptune denied him the benefit of his sanctuary, he betook him to a greater, and that was Death.’ So often does Plutarch applaud the act of suicide, and so scornfully does he revile those who, like the last king of Macedon, forwent their opportunity, that we might easily misconceive his ethics. But ‘when a man will willingly kill himself, he must not do it to be rid of pains and labour, but it must have an honourable respect and action. For, to live or die for his own respect, that cannot but be dishonourable. … And therefore I am of opinion that we should not yet cast off the hope we have to serve our country in time to come; but when all hope faileth us, then we may easily make ourselves away when we list.’ Thus, after Selasia, the last of the kings of Sparta, who recalled the saying of Lycurgus: that, with ‘great personages … the end of their life should be no more idle and unprofitable then the rest of their life before.’ And this is the pith of Plutarch's political matter: that men may not with honour live unto themselves, but must rather live and die in respect to the State.


Side by side, and in equal honour, with Plutarch the dramatist of politics there should stand, I think—not Plutarch the moralist but—Plutarch the unrivalled painter of men. Much has been written, and rightly written, of his perennial influence upon human character and human conduct; yet outside the ethics of citizenship he insisted on little that is not now a platitude. The interest of his morals springs from their likeness to our own; the wonder of his portraitures must ever be new and strange. Indeed, we may speak of his art much as he writes, through North, of the ‘stately and sumptuous buildings’ which Pericles ‘gave to be built in the cittie of Athens.’ For ‘it looketh at this daye as if it were but newly done and finished, there is such a certaine kynde of florishing freshnes in it, which letteth that the injurie of time cannot impaire the sight thereof: as if every one of those foresaid workes had some living spirite in it, to make it seeme young and freshe: and a soul that lived ever, which kept them in good continuing state.’ Yet despite this ‘florishing freshnes’ the painter has been slighted for the preacher, and for this preference of the ethical before the æsthetic element in the Lives, and of both before their political quality, Plutarch has mostly himself to thank. Just as he masks a political framework under a professed devotion to the study of individual souls, so, when he comes to the study of these souls, he puts you off by declaring a moral aim in language that may easily mislead. ‘When first I began these lives,’ he writes in the Paulus Æmilius, ‘my intent was to profit other: but since, continuing and going on, I have much profited myself by looking into these histories, as if I looked into a glasse, to frame and facion my life, to the moold and patterne of these vertuous noble men, and doe as it were lodge them with me, one after another.’ And again, ‘by keeping allwayes in minde the acts of the most noble, vertuous and best geven men of former age … I doe teache and prepare my selfe to shake of and banishe from me, all lewde and dishonest condition, if by chaunce the companie and conversation of them whose companie I keepe … doe acquaint me with some unhappie or ungratious touche.’ Now, as matter of fact, he does not keep always in mind these, and these only. Doubtless his aim was moral; yet assuredly he never did pursue it by denoting none save the virtuous acts of the ‘most noble, vertuous, and best geven men.’ On the contrary, his practice is to record their every act of significance, whether good or bad. I admit that he does this ever with a most happy and most gracious touch; for his ‘first study’ is to write a good man's ‘vertues at large,’ and if ‘certaine faultes’ be there, ‘to pass them over lightly of reverent shame to the mere frayelty of man's nature.29 He lays the ruin of his country at the door of Aratus alone; but ‘this,’ he adds, ‘that we have written of Aratus … is not so much to accuse him as to make us see the frayelty and weakness of man's nature: the which, though it have never so excellent vertues, cannot yet bring forth such perfit frute, but that it hath ever some mayme and blemishe.’30 That is his wont in portraying the ill deeds of the virtuous; and, for their opposites, ‘as I hope,’ he writes in the preface to the Demetrius and Antonius, ‘it shall not be reprehended in me if amongst the rest I put in one or two paier of suche, as living in great place and accompt, have increased their fame with infamy.’ ‘Phisicke,’ he submits in defence of such a choice, ‘dealeth with diseases, musicke with discordes, to thend to remove them, and worke their contraries, and the great Ladies of all other artes (Amyot: les plus parfaittes sciences de toutes), Temperaunce, Justice, and Wisdom, doe not onely consider honestie, uprightness and profit: but examine withall, the nature and effects of lewdness, corruption and damage’; for ‘innocencie,’ he goes on, ‘which vaunteth her want of experience in undue practices: men call simplicitie (Amyot: une bestise) and ignoraunce of things that be necessary and good to be knowen.’ His, then, is a moral standpoint; and yet it is one from which he is impelled to study—(and that as closely as the keenest apostle of ‘art for art’)—all matters having truth and significance; whether they be evil or good. For the sake of what is good, he will neither distort truth nor disfigure beauty. Rather, by the exercise of a fine selection, he will create a harmony between the three; so that, embracing everything except the trivial, his art reflects the world as it shows in the sight of sane and healthy-hearted men.

His method naturally differs from the method of some modern historians; but his canon of evidence, too lax for their purpose, is admirably suited to his own. For instance, in telling of Solon's meeting with Crœsus, he will not reject so famous an history on chronological grounds: because, in the first place, no two are agreed about chronology, and in the second, the story is ‘very agreeable to Solon's manners and nature.’ That is his chief canon; and though the results he attains by it are in no wise doubt-proof, they yield a truer, because a completer, image than do the lean and defective outlines determined by excluding all but contemporary evidence. These outlines belong rather to the science of anthropometry than to the art of portraiture; and Plutarch the painter refuses such restraints. His imagination having taken the imprint of his hero, he will supplement it from impressions left in report and legend, so long, at any rate, as they tally with his own ideal. Nor is there better cause for rejecting such impressions than there is for rejecting the fossils of primeval reptiles whose carnal economy has perished. Given those fossils and a knowledge of morphology, the palæontologist will refashion the dragons of the prime; and in the same way Plutarch, out of tradition and his knowledge of mankind, paints you the true Themistocles. His, indeed, is the surer warrant, since there have been no such changes in human nature as science shows in animal design; so that the method is safe so long as a nation's legends have not been crushed out of shape by the superincumbent layers of a conquering race. Moreover, Plutarch makes no wanton use of his imagination: give him contemporary evidence, and he abides by it, rejecting all besides. In his account of Alexander's death, having the court journal before him, he repudiates later embellishments: ‘for all these were thought to be written by some, for lyes and fables, because they would have made the ende of this great tragedie lamentable and pitifull.’

His results are, of course, unequal. He cannot always revive the past, nor quicken the dead anew. Who can? His gallery includes some pieces done on a faded convention, faint in colour and angular in line, mere pretexts for a parade of legendary names: with certain sketches, as those of Cimon and Aristides, which are hack-work turned out to complete a pair. But first and last there stand out six or seven realisations of living men, set in an atmosphere, charged with a vivid intensity of expression, and striking you in much the same way as the sight of a few people scattered through a big room strikes you when you enter unawares. And when you have done staring at these, you will note a half-dozen more which are scarce less vigorously detached. Plutarch's first masterpiece is the Themistocles, and there is never a touch in it but tells. Even as you watch him at work, you are conscious, leaping out from beneath his hand, of the ambitious boy, ‘sodainely taken with desire of glorie,’ who, from his first entry into public life, ‘stoode at pyke with the greatest and mightiest personnes.’ But you soon forget the artist in his creation. You have eyes for nothing but Themistocles himself: now walking with his father by the seashore; now, after Marathon ‘a very young man many times solitary alone devising with himself’—in this way passing his boyhood, for ‘Miltiades victory would not let him sleep.’ Then the ambitious boy develops into the political artist; rivals Aristides, as Fox rivalled Pitt; and is found loving his art for its own sake, above his country, above his ambition even, wrapt as he is, through good fortune and ill, in the expert's delight in his own accomplishment. Knowing what all men should do, and swaying every several man to do it, he controls both individuals and nations with the inspired prescience of a master conducting his own symphony. He has all the devices at his fingers' ends. In the streets he will ‘speake to every citizen by his name, no man telling him their names’; and in the council he will manage even Eurybiades, with that ‘Strike an thou wilt, so thou wilt heare me,’ which has been one of the world's words since its utterance. Now with ‘pleasaunt conceits and answers,’ now—with a large poetic appeal—‘pointing’ his countrymen ‘the waye unto the sea’; this day, deceiving his friends, the next overawing his enemies; with effrontery or chicane, with good-fellowship or reserve; but ever with infinite dexterity, a courage that never falters, and a patience that never wearies: he keeps the shuttle of his thought quick-flying through the web of intrigue. And all for the fun of weaving! Till, at the last, a banished man, being commanded by his Persian master to fight against Greece, ‘he tooke a wise resolution with himselfe, to make suche an ende of his life, as the fame thereof deserved.’ After sacrificing to the gods, and feasting his friends, he drank poison, ‘and so ended his dayes in the cittie of Magnesia, ‘after he had lived threescore and five yeres, and the most parte of them allwayes in office and great charge.’ Plutarch produces this notable piece, not by comment and analysis but, simply by setting down his sitter's acts and words. It is in the same way that he paints his Alcibiades, with his beauty and his lisp: ‘the grace of his eloquence, the strength and valiantness of his bodie … his wisdom and experience in marshall affayres’; and again, with his insolence and criminal folly to the women who loved him as to the nations he betrayed. He fought, like the Cid, now for and now against his own. But ‘he had such pleasaunt comely devises with him that no man was of so sullen a nature, but he left him merrie, nor so churlishe, but he would make him gentle.’ And when he died, they felt that their country died with him; for they had some little poore hope left that they were not altogether cast away so long as Alcibiades lived.’

In the first rank of Plutarch's masterpieces come, with these two, the Marius, the Cato, the Alexander, the Demetrius, the Antonius, and the Pompey. Modern writers have again and again repainted some of these portraits; but their colour has all been borrowed from Plutarch. These heroes live for all time in the Parallel Lives. There you shall learn the fashion of their faces, and the tricks of their speech; their seat on horseback and the cut of their clothes; with every tone and every gesture, all the charms and all the foibles that made them the men they were. Marcus Cato is what we call a ‘character.’ He hated doctors and, no doubt, schoolmasters; for did he not educate his own son, writing for him ‘goodly histories, in great letters with his oune hande’? He taught the boy grammar and law, ‘to throw a dart, to play at the sword, to vawt, to ride a horse, and to handle all sortes of weapons, … to fight with fistes, to abide colde and heate, and to swimme over a swift runninge river.’ A ‘new man’ from a little village, his ideal was Manlius Curius sitting ‘by the fyer's side seething of perseneapes,’ and he tried to educate everybody on the same lines. Being Censor, he would proceed by way of imprisonment; but at all times he was ready to instruct with apophthegms and ‘wise sayings,’ and ‘he would taunte a marvelous fatte man’ thus: ‘See, sayd he, what good can such a body do to the commonwealth, that from his chine to his coddepece is nothing but belly?’ This is but one of many ‘wise sayings’ reported of him, whereby ‘we may the easilier conjecture his maners and nature.’31 Even the Alexander seems a new thing still; so clear is the colouring, so vigorous and expressive the pose. ‘Naturally,’ you read, ‘he had a very fayre white colour, mingled also with red,’ and ‘his body had so sweete a smell of itself, that all the apparell he wore next unto his body took thereof a passing delightful savor, as if it had been perfumed.’ This was his idea of a holiday: ‘After he was up in the morning, first of all he would doe sacrifice to the goddes, and then would goe to diner, passing awaie all the rest of the daye, in hunting, writing something, taking up some quarrell between soldiers, or els in studying. If he went any journey of no hastie busines, he would exercise himselfe by the waie as he went, shooting in his bowe, or learning to get up or out of his charret sodenly, as it ranne. Oftentimes also for his pastime he would hunt the foxe, or ketch birdes, as appeareth in his booke of remembrances for everie daie. Then when he came to his lodging, he would enter into his bath and rubbe and nointe himselfe: and would aske his pantelers and carvers if his supper were ready. He would ever suppe late, and was very curious to see, that every man at his bourde were a like served, and would sit longe at the table, bycause he ever loved to talke.’ But take him at his work of leading others to the uttermost parts of the earth. Being parched with thirst, in the desert, ‘he tooke the helmet with water, and perceiving that the men of armes that were about him, and had followed him, did thrust out their neckes to look upon this water, he gave the water back againe unto them that had geven it him, and thanked them but drank none of it. For, said he, if I drink alone all these men here will faint.’ What a touch! And what wonder if his men ‘beganne to spurre their horses, saying that they were not wearie nor athirst, nor did think themselves mortall, so long as they had such a king’! There is more of self-restraint in Plutarch's portrait than appears in later copies. Alexander passes by the ladies of Persia ‘without any sparke of affection towardes them … preferring the beautie of his continencie, before their swete faire faces.’ But he was ever lavish of valour, loving ‘his honour more then his kingdome or his life’; and it is with a ‘marvelous faier white plume’ in his helmet that he plunges first into the river at Granicus, and single-handed engages the army on the further bank. Centuries later at Ivry, Henri-Quatre, who learned Plutarch at his mother's knee, forgot neither the feather nor the act. But the dead Alexander never lacked understudies. All the kings, his successors, ‘did but counterfeate’ him ‘in his purple garments, and in numbers of souldiers and gardes about their persones, and in a certaine facion and bowing of their neckes a little, and in uttering his speech with a high voyce.’ One of them is Demetrius the Fort-gainer,’ with ‘his wit and manners … that were both fearefull and pleasaunt unto men that frequented him’; his ‘sweete countenance … and incomparable majestie’; ‘more wantonly geven to follow any lust and pleasure than any king that ever was; yet alwayes very careful and diligent in dispatching matters of importance.’ A leader of forlorn hopes and lewd masquerades, juggling with kingdoms as a mountebank with knives; the lover of innumerable queens and the taker of a thousand towns; in his defeat, ‘not like unto a king, but like a common player when the play is done’; drinking himself to death for that he found ‘it was that maner of life he had long desired’—this Poliorcetes, I say, has furnished Plutarch with the matter for yet another masterpiece, which indeed is one of the greater feats in romantic realism.

Of the Antonius with his ‘Asiatic phrase,’ it is enough to say that it is Shakespeare's Antony; and at the Pompey I have already glanced. The Cæsar is only less wonderful than these because the man is lost in the leader. Julius travels so fast, that you catch but glimpses as he races in his litter through the night; ever dictating to his secretaries, and writing by the way. But now and again you see him plainly—‘leane, white and soft-skinned, and often subject to head-ache’; filling his soldiers with awe, not at his valiantnesse at putting himself at every instant in such manifest danger, since they knew 'twas his greedy desire of honor that set him a fire’ … but because he ‘continued all labour and hardnesse more than his bodie could beare.’ A strange ruler of the world, this epileptic, ‘fighting always with his disease’! He amazes friends and enemies by the swiftness of his movements, while Pompey journeys as in state from land to land. Pompey was of plebeian extraction, Julius was born into one of the sixteen surviving patrician gentes; yet Julius burns with the blasting heat of a new man's endeavour, Pompey as with the banked fires of hereditary self-esteem. And through all the commotion and the coil he is still mindful of the day of his youth ‘when he had been acquainted with Servilia, who was extreamilie in love with him. And because Brutus was boorne in that time when their love was hottest he persuaded himself that he begat him.’32 What of anguish does this not add to the sweep of the gesture wherewith the hero covered his face from the pedant's sword! With the Cæsar may stand the Marius, and the Sylla: Sulla the lucky man, felix, Epaphroditus, beloved of all women and the victor in every fight, who ‘when he was in his chiefest authoritie would commonly eate and drinke with the most impudent jeasters and scoffers, and all such rake helles, as made profession of counterfeate mirth.’ He laughed his way to complete political success; he was fortunate even in the weather for his funeral; and, as he epitaphed himself, ‘no man did ever passe him, neither in doing good to his friends, nor in doing mischief to his enemies.’ Plutarch's Lucullus, being young and ambitious, marches further into the unknown East than any Roman had ventured. He fords the river on foot with the countless hosts of Tigranes on the farther shore, ‘himselfe the foremost man,’ and marches ‘directly towardes his enemy, armed with an “anima” of steele, made with scalloppe shelles, shining like the sunne.’ He urges on through summer and winter, till the rivers are ‘congealed with ice,’ so that no man can ‘passe over by forde: for they did no sooner enter but the ise brake and cut the vaines and sinews of the horse legges.’ His men murmur, but he presses on: till ‘the country being full of trees, woddes and forestes,’ they are ‘through wet with the snow that fell upon them,’ and at last they mutiny and flatly refuse to take another step into the unknown. This is a Lucullus we forget. Plutarch gives the other one as well, and the two together make for him ‘an auncient comedy,’ the beginning whereof is tedious, but the latter end—with its ‘feasts and bankets,’ ‘masks and mummeries,’ and ‘dauncing with torches,’ its ‘fine built chambers and high raised turrets to gaze a farre, environed about with conduits of water’; its superlative cook, too, and its ‘library ever open to all comers’—is a matter to rejoice the heart of man. Crassus and Cicero complete his group of second-bests: Cicero ‘dogge leane,’ and ‘a little eater,’ ‘so earnest and vehement in his oration that he mounted still with his voyce into the highest tunes: insomuch that men were affrayed it would one day put him in hazard of his life.’ Here I may pause to note that Plutarch's references to public speaking are all observed. He writes from experience, and you might compile a manual of the art from him. Well did he know the danger of fluent earnestness. His Caius Gracchus ‘had a servant … who, with an instrument of musicke he had … ever stoode behind him; and when he perceived his Maister's voyce was a little too lowde, and that through choller he exceeded his ordinary speache, he played a soft stoppe behind him, at the sonde whereof Caius immediately fell from his extreamitie and easilie came to himself againe.’ Thus, too, his Demosthenes and Cicero sets forth full instructions for removing every other blemish of delivery.33

The painter of incident is scarce less great than the painter of men. Plutarch's picture of Cicero is completed by a presentment of his death, in which the artist's imagination rises to its full height. Hunted down by Antony's sworders, the orator is overtaken at night in a by-lane; he stretches out his head from the litter to look his murderers in the face; and ‘his head and his beard being all white, and his face leane and wrinckled, for the extreame sorrowes he had taken, divers of them that were by held their handes before their eyes, whilest Herennius did cruelly murder him.’ Then the head was set up by Antony ‘over the pulpit for orations,’ and ‘this was a fearefull and horrible sight unto the Romanes, who thought they saw not Ciceroes face, but an image of Antonius life and dispositions’ (Amyot: une image de l'âme et de la nature d'Antonius). This gift, at times almost appalling, of imaginative presentment, is the distinctive note of Plutarch's art. He uses it freely in his backgrounds, which are animated as are those in certain pictures of a bygone mode; so that behind his heroes armies engage, fleets are sunk, towns are sacked, and citadels escaladed. Sometimes his effect is produced by a rare restraint. In the Alcibiades, for instance, he tells how the Sicilian expedition was mooted which was to ruin both the hero and his country; and, as Carlyle might have done, at the corner of every street he shows you the groups of young men bragging of victory, and drawing plans of Syracuse in the dust. Sometimes the touch of terror is more immediate. Take his description of the Teutons from the Marius. Their voices were ‘wonderful both straunge and beastly’; so Marius kept his men close till they should grow accustomed to such dreadful foes. Meanwhile the Teutons ‘were passing by his campe six dayes continually together’: ‘they came raking by,’ and ‘marching all together in good array; making a noyse with their harness all after one sorte, they oft rehearsed their own name, Ambrons, Ambrons, Ambrons’; and the Romans watched them, listening to the monotonous, unhuman call. Here and elsewhere Plutarch conveys, with a peculiar magic, the sense of great bodies of men and of the movements thereof. Now and then he secures his end by reporting a word or two from those that are spying upon others from afar. This is how he gives the space and silence that precede a battle. Tigranes, with his innumerable host, is watching Lucullus and the Romans, far away on the farther shore of the river. ‘They seemed but a handful,’ and kept ‘following the streame to meete with some forde. … Tigranes thought they had marched away, and called for Taxiles, and sayd unto him, laughing: “Dost thou see, Taxiles, those goodly Roman legyons, whom thou praisest to be men so invincible, how they flie away now?” Taxiles answered the king againe: “I would your good fortune (O king) might work some miracle this day: for doubtless it were a straunge thing that the Romanes should flie. They are not wont to wear their brave cotes and furniture uppon their armour, when they meane onely but to marche in the fieldes: neither do they carie their shieldes and targets uncased, nor their burganets bare on their heades, as they do at this present, having throwen away their leather cases and coveringes. But out of doubt, this goodly furniture we see so bright and glittering in our faces, is a manifest sign that they intend to fight, and that they marche towards us.” Taxiles had no sooner spoken these wordes, but Lucullus, in the view of his enemies, made his ensign bearer to turne sodainely that carried the first Eagle, and the bands tooke their places to passe the river in order of battell.’ The proportion of the two armies, and the space between; the sun flashing on the distant shields; the long suspense; the king's laugh breaking the silence, which yet grows tenser, till suddenly the Romans wheel into line: in truth, they have been few between Plutarch and Tolstoi to give the scale and perspective of battles by observing such proportion in their art! Here Lucullus and a handful of Romans, like Clive and his Englishmen, overthrew a nation in arms; elsewhere Plutarch gives the other chance, and renders with touches equally subtle and direct the deepening nightmare of Crassus' march into the desert. He tells of the Parthian ‘kettle drommes, hollow within,’ and hung about with ‘little bells and copper rings,’ with which ‘they all made a noise everywhere together, and it is like a dead sounde.’ Does it not recall the Aztec wardrums on the Noche Triste? Intent, too, on creating his impression of terror, this rare artist proceeds from the sense of hearing to the sense of sight. ‘The Romanes being put in feare with this dead sounde, the Parthians straight threw the clothes and coverings from them that hid their armour, and then showed their bright helmets and curaces of Margian tempered steele, that glared like fire; and their horses barbed with steele and copper.’ They canter round and round the wretched enemy, shooting their shafts as they go; and the ammunition never fails, for camels come up ‘loden with quivers full of arrowes.’ The Romans are shot through one by one; and when Crassus ‘prayed and besought them to charge … they showed him their handes fast nailed to their targets with arrowes, and their feete likewise shot thorow and nailed to the ground: so as they could neither flie, nor yet defende themselves.’ Thus they died, one before the other, ‘a cruell lingring death, crying out for anguish and paine they felt’; and ‘turning and tormenting themselves upon the sande, they broke the arrowes sticking in them.’ The realism of it! And the pathos of Crassus' speech, when his son's head is shown to him, which ‘killed the Romanes hartes’! ‘The grief and sorrow of this losse (my fellowes),’ said he, ‘is no man's but mine, mine only; but the noble successe and honor of Rome remaineth still invincible, so long as you are yet living.’ After these two pictures of confidence and defeat I should like to give that one of the Romans after Pydna, where Paulus Æmilius was thought to have lost his son. It is a wonderful resurrection of departed life. There are the groups round the camp-fires; the sudden clustering of torches towards the one dark and silent tent; and then the busy lights crossing and recrossing, and scattering over the field. You hear first the droning songs of the tired and happy soldiers; then silence; then cries of anxiety and mournful echoes; then, of a sudden, comes the reappearance, ‘all bloudied with new bloude like the swift-running grey hound fleshed with the bloude of the hare,’ of him, the missing youth, ‘that Scipio which afterwards destroyed both the citties of Carthage and Numantium.’

It is hard to analyse the art, for the means employed are of the simplest; yet it is certain that they do recall to such as have known, and that they must suggest to others who have not, those sights and sounds and sensations which combine into a special enchantment about the time of the fall of darkness upon bodies of men who have drunk excitement and borne toil together in the day. How intense, too, the flash of imagination with which the coming Africanus is projected on the canvas! And the book abounds in such lightning impressions. Thus, Hannibal cracks a soldier's joke before Cannæ; he pitches the quip into his host, like a pebble into the pond; and the broken stillness ripples away down all the ranks in widening rings of laughter.34 Sometimes the sketch is even slighter, and is yet convincing: as when the elder Scipio, being attacked by Cato for his extravagant administration, declares his ‘intent to go to the wars with full sayles.’ These are not chance effects but masterstrokes of imagination; yet that imagination, vivid and vivifying as it is, never leads Plutarch to attempt the impossible. He remains the supreme artist, and is content with suggesting—what is incapable of representation—that sense of the portentous, the overpowering, which is apparent immediately before, or immediately behind, some notable conjunction. Alexander sounds the charge which is to change the fortunes of the world, and Arbela is rendered in a few lines. But up till the instant of his sounding it, you are told of his every act. Plutarch, proceeding as leisurely as his hero, creates suspense out of delay. You are told that Alexander slept soundly far into the morning, and that he was called three times. You are told how carefully he dressed, and of each article of armour and apparel he put on: his ‘Sicilian cassocke,’ his ‘brigandine of many foldes of canvas,’ ‘his head peece bright as silver,’ and ‘his coller sute like to the same all set full of precious stones.’ The battle has begun between the outposts, and he is still riding down the lines on a hack: ‘to spare Bucephal, because he was then somewhat olde.’ He mounted the great horse ‘always at the last moment; and as soone as he was gotten up on his backe, the trumpet sounded, and he gave charge.’ To-day it is made to seem as if that moment would never come; but at the last all things being ready, ‘he tooke his launce in his left hande and, holding up his right hande unto heaven, besought the goddes … that if it were true, he was begotten of Jupiter, it would please them that day to helpe him and to incorage the Græcians. The sooth-sayer Aristander was then a-horsebacke hard by Alexander apparelled all in white, and a croune of gold on his head, who shewed Alexander when he made his prayer, an Eagle flying over his head, and pointing directly towards his enemies. This marvellously encouraged all the armie that saw it, and with this joy, the men of armes of Alexander's side, encouraging one another, did set spurres to their horse to charge upon the enemies.’ Until the heroic instant you are compelled to note the hero's every deliberate movement. He and the little group of gleaming figures about him are the merest specks in the plain before the Macedonian army, itself but a handful in comparison to the embattled nations in front. The art is perfect in these flash-pictures of great moments in time: in the Athenians map-drawing in the dust, in the Romans watching the Ambrons raking by, in Tigranes' laugh, in Hannibal's joke, in Alexander's supreme gesture; and how instant in each the imaginative suggestion of dragging hours before rapid and irreparable events! Equally potent are the effects which Plutarch contrives by revealing all the consequences of a disaster in some swift, far-reaching glimpse. Thus, when Cæsar crossed the Rubicon, ‘Rome itself was filled up with the flowing repaire of all the people who came thither like droves of cattell.’ And thus does Sparta receive the news of her annihilation:—‘At that time there was by chance a common feast day in the citie … when as the messenger arrived that brought the news of the battell lost at Leuctres. The Ephori knowing then that the rumor ranne all about; that they were all undone, and how they had lost the signorie and commaundement over all Grece: would not suffer them for all this to breake off their daunce in the Theater, nor the citie in anything to chaunge the forme of their feast, but sent unto the parentes to everie man's house, to let them understande the names of them that were slaine at the battell, they themselves remaining still in the Theater to see the daunces and sportes continued, to judge who carried the best games away. The next morning when everie man knew the number of them that were slaine, and of those also that escaped: the parentes and frendes of them that were dead, met in the market place, looking cheerfully of the matter, and one of them embraced another. On thother side the parentes of them that scaped, kept their houses with their wives, as folk that mourned. … The mothers of them, that kept their sonnes which came from the battell, were sad and sorrowfull, and spake not a word. Contrairily, the mothers of them that were slaine, went friendly to visite one another, to rejoyce together.35 There is no word of the fight. As Thackeray gives you Waterloo in a picture of Brussels, so Plutarch gives you Leuctra, and with more of beauty and pathos, in a picture of Sparta. Of the Roman defeat at Cannæ there is a full and wonderful account; but what an effective touch is added with ‘the Consul Terentius Varro returning backe to Rome, with the shame of his extreame misfortune and overthrowe, that he durste not looke upon any man: the Senate notwithstanding, and all the people following them, went to the gates of the cittie to meete him, and dyd honourably receyve him’!

In these passages Plutarch, following the course of Greek tragedy, and keeping the action off the stage, gives the reverberation and not the shock of fate; but in many others the stark reality of his painting is its own sufficient charm. He abounds in unfamiliar aspects of familiar places: places he invests with (as it were) the magic born of a wandering son's return. Here is his Athens in her decrepitude. ‘The poore citie of Athens which had escaped from so many warres, tyrannies and civil dissensions,’ is now besieged by Sulla without, and oppressed by the tyrant Aristion within; and in his presentment of her condition there is, surely, a foreshadowing of those dark ages when historic sites became the scenes of new tragedies that were merely brutal and insignificant. At Athens ‘men were driven for famine to eate feverfew that grew about the castell’; also, they ‘caused old shoes and old oyle potes to be sodden to deliver some savor unto that which they did eate.’ Meanwhile ‘the tyrant himselfe did nothing all day long but cramme in meat, drinke dronke, daunce, maske, scoff and flowte at the enemies (suffering the holy lampe of Minerva to go out for lack of oyle).’ Is there not a grimness of irony about this picture of the drunken and sinister buffoon sitting camped in the Acropolis, like a toad in a ruined temple, ‘magnifying the dedes of Theseus and insulting the priestes’? At last the Roman enters the city about midnight ‘with a wonderfull fearefull order, making a marvellous noise with a number of hornes and sounding of trompets, and all his army with him in order of battell, crying, “To the sack, to the sack: Kill, kill.”’36 A companion picture is that of a Syracuse Thucydides never knew.37 Archimedes is her sole defence; and thanks to him, the Roman ships are ‘taken up with certaine engines fastened within one contrary to an other, which made them turne in the ayer like a whirlegigge, and so cast them upon the rockes by the towne walles, and splitted them all to fitters, to the great spoyle and murder of the persons that were within them.’ Elsewhere the Mediterranean pirates, polite as our own highwaymen, are found inviting noble Romans to walk the plank;38 for Plutarch never misses a romantic touch. Some of his strongest realisations are of moments when fate hangs by a hair: as that breathless and desperate predicament of Aratus and his men on their ladders against the walls of Sicyon; with the ‘curste curres’ that would not cease from barking; the captain of the watch ‘visiting the soldiers with a little bell’; ‘the number of torches and a great noyse of men that followed him’; the great greyhound kept in a little tower, which began to answer the curs at large ‘with a soft girning: but when they came by the tower where he lay, he barked out alowde, that all the place thereabouts rang of his barking’; the ladders shaking and bowing ‘by reason of the weight of the men, unless they did come up fayer and softly one after another,’ till at last, ‘the cocks began to crowe, and the country folke that brought things to the market to sell, began to come apace to the towne out of every quarter.’39 Later in the same life you have the escalading of the Acrocorinthus: when Aratus and the storming party, with their shoes off, being lost on the slopes, ‘sodainely, even as it had been by miracle, the moone appearing through the clowdes, brought them to that part of the wall where they should be, and straight the moone was shadowed againe’; so they cut down the watch, but one man escaped, and ‘the trompets forthwith sounded the alarom … all the citie was in an uprore, the streets were straight full of people running up and downe, and of lights in every corner.’ Plutarch's management of light, I should remark, is always astonishingly real; he never leaves the sun or the moon out of his picture, nor the incidence of clouds and of the dust of battle. Thus varied his sunshine leaps and wavers on distant armour, or glares at hand from Margian steel; or his moonlight glints on a spear, and fades as the wrack races athwart the sky.

It is all the work of an incomparable painter; there is any amount of it in the Parallel Lives;40 and, like his portraits and his landscapes,41 it has an æsthetic value which sets it far in front of his moral reflections. For value depends, in part, on supply; and of this kind of art there is less in literature than there is of ethical disquisition. Moreover, in the Parallel Lives the proportions are reversed, and the volume of Plutarch's painting is very much greater than the volume of Plutarch's moralities. And in addition to volume, there is charm. His pictures have kept their ‘flourishing freshness’ untarnished through the ages; whereas his moral sayings, being sound, have long since been accepted, and, as I said, are grown stale. His morality is ours; but he had an unique opportunity for depicting the politics, the personalities, and the activity of a world which had passed away. A little earlier, and he might have laboured like Thucydides, but only at a part of it. A little later, and much would have perished which he has set down and saved. He paints it as a whole, and on that account is sometimes slighted for a compiler of legends; yet he had the advantage of personal contact with those legends while they were still alive; and again and again, as you read, this contact strikes with a pleasant shock. To illustrate his argument he will refer, by the way, to the statue of Themistocles in the Temple of Artemis; to the effigies of Lucullus at Chæronea; to the buildings of Pericles in their divinely protracted youth. The house of Phocion at Melita, and the ‘cellar’ in which Demosthenes practised his oratory, were ‘whole even to my time.’ The descendants of the soldier who slew Epaminondas are, ‘to this day,’ known and distinguished by the name ‘machœriones.’42 On the battlefield of Chæronea ‘there was an olde oke seene in my time which the country men commonly called Alexander's oke, bicause his tent or pavilion was fastened to it.’43 His grandfather Nicarchus had told him how the defeat of Antony relieved his natal city from a requisition for corn.44 From his other grandfather, Lamprias, he heard of a physician, his friend, who, ‘being a young man desirous to see things,’ went over Cleopatra's kitchen with one of Antony's cooks; and there, among ‘a world of diversities of meates,’ encountered with the ‘eight wild boares, rosted whole,’ which have passed bodily into Shakespeare. This contact was rarely immediate; but it was personal, and it is therefore quickening. At its touch a dead world lived again for Plutarch, and by his art that dead world lives for us; so that in the Lives, as in no other book, all antiquity, alike in detail and in expanse, lies open and revealed to us, ‘flat as to an eagle's eye.’ We may study it closely, and see it whole; and to do so is to dispossess the mind of many illusions fostered by books of a narrower scope. Juvenal, the satirist, and Petronius, the arbiter of a mode, do not even pretend to show forth the whole of life; yet from their works, and from others of a like purview, men have constructed a fanciful world of unbounded cruelty and immitigable lust. This same disproportion between premise and conclusion runs through the writing of many moderns: just as from the decoration of a single chamber at Pompeii there have been evoked whole cities, each in the image of a honeycomb whose cells are lupanaria. Even so some archæologist of the future might take up an obscene gurgoyle, and transfigure Christianity to its image! This antiquity of cruelty and lust has been evolved for censure by these, and by those for praise; yet if Plutarch be not the most colossal, taking, and ingenious among the world's liars, we cannot choose but hold that it never existed. For, apart from the coil of politics and the clamour and romance of adventure, his book discovers us the religious and the home lives of old-time Italy and Greece; and we find them not dissimilar from our own. We see them, it is true, with the eyes of a kindly and a moderate man. Yet he was no apologist, with a case to plead; and if we may be sure that he was never uncharitable, we may be equally sure that he extenuated nothing. He censures freely conduct which, according to the extreme theory of ancient immorality, should scarce have excited his surprise; and he alludes, by the way, in a score of places, to a loving-kindness, extending even to slaves and animals, of which, according to the same theory, he could have known nothing, since its very existence is denied. The State was more than it is now; but you cannot glean that the Family was less, even in Sparta. Shakespeare took from Plutarch the love of Coriolanus for his mother, and found in it a sufficient motive for his play. But Veturia45 is by no means the only beloved mother in the Lives, nor is Coriolanus the only adoring son. Epaminondas thought himself ‘most happy and blessed’ because his father and mother had lived to see the victory he won;46 and Sertorius, making overtures for peace, said he had ‘rather be counted the meanest citizen in Rome, than being a banished man to be called Emperor of the world,’ and the ‘chiefest cause … was the tender love he bare unto his mother.’47 When Antipater submitted to Alexander certain well-founded accusations against Olympia's misgovernment: ‘“Loe,” said he, “Antipater knoweth not, that one teare of the mothers eye will wipe out tenne thousande such letters.”’48 In face of the parting between Cratesiclea and her son Cleomenes, one may doubt if in Sparta itself the love between mother and son was more than dissembled; for, on the eve of his sailing, ‘she took Cleomenes aside into the temple of Neptune and imbracinge and kissinge him; perceivinge that his harte yerned for sorrowe of her departure, she sayed unto him: “O kinge of Lacedæmon, lette no man see for shame when we come out of the temple, that we have wept and dishonoured Sparta.”’ Indeed, the national love of Spartans for all children born to Sparta seems to have been eked out by the fonder and the less indifferent affection of each parent for his own. If in battle Henri-Quatre played Alexander, in the nursery his model was Agesilaus, ‘who loved his children deerely: and would play with them in his home when they were little ones, and ride upon a little cocke horse or a reede, as a horseback.’49 Paulus Æmilius being ‘appointed to make warre upon King Perseus, all the people dyd honorably companie him home unto his house, where a little girl (a daughter of his) called Tertia, being yet an infant, came weeping unto her father. He, making muche of her, asked her why she wept. The poore girl answered, colling him about the necke, and kissing him:—“Alas, father, wot you what? our Perseus is dead.” She ment by it a litle whelpe so called, which was her playe fellowe.’ Plutarch had lost his own daughter, and he wrote a letter of consolation to his wife, which Montaigne gave to his wife when she was stricken with the same sorrow: ‘bien marry,’ as he says, ‘de quoy la fortune vous a rendu ce present si propre.’50 In the Lives he is ever most tender towards children, acknowledging the mere possibility of their loss for an ever-abiding terror. ‘Nowe,’ he writes in the Solon, ‘we must not arme ourselves with poverty against the grief of losse of goodes; neither with lack of affection against the losse of our friendes; neither with want of mariage against the death of children; but we must be armed with reason against misfortune.’ Over and over again you come upon proof of the love and the compassion children had. At the triumph of the same Æmilius, through three days of such magnificence as Mantegna has displayed, the eyes of Rome were all for Perseus' children: ‘when they sawe the poore little infants, that they knewe not the change of their hard fortune … for the compassion they had of them, almost let the father passe without looking upon him.’ Of Æmilius' own sons, one had died five days before, and the other three days survived, that triumph for which the father had been given four hundred golden diadems by the cities of Greece. But he pronounced their funeral orations himself ‘in face of the whole cittie … not like a discomforted man, but like one rather that dyd comforte his sorrowfull countrymen for his mischance. He told them … he ever feared Fortune, mistrusting her change and inconstancy, and specially in the last warre.’ But Rome had won; and all was well, ‘saving that Perseus yet, conquered as he is, hath this comforte left him: to see his children living, and that the conqueror Æmylius hath lost his.’ This love between children and parents might be expected in any picture of any society; yet it is conspicuous in the Parallel Lives as it is not, I believe, in any reconstruction of the Plutarchian world. Note, too, the passionate devotion between brothers, displayed even by Cato of Utica,51 to the scandal of other Stoics; and note everywhere the loyal comradeship between husbands and wives. To Plutarch wedlock is so sacred that he is fierce in denouncing a certain political marriage as being ‘cruell and tyrannicall, fitter for Sylla's time, rather than agreable to Pompey's nature.’52 Perhaps the commonest view of antique morality is that which accepts a family not unlike the family we know, but at the same time denies the ancients all consideration for their domestic animals and slaves. This tendency, it is thought, is a product of Christianity; and the example of the elder Cato is sometimes quoted in proof of the view. But in Plutarch's Cato, the Roman's habit of selling his worn-out slaves is given for an oddity, for the exceptional practice of an eccentric old man; and Plutarch takes the occasion to expound his own feeling. ‘There is no reason,’ he writes, ‘to use livinge and sensible thinges as we would use an old shooe or a ragge: to cast it out upon the dongehill when we have worn it and it can serve us no longer. For if it were for no respect els but to use us alwayes to humanitie, we must ever showe ourselves kinde and gentle, even in such small poyntes of pitie. And as for me, I coulde never finde in my heart to sell my drawt oxe that hadde ploughed my land a long time, bicause he coulde plowe no longer for age.’ Here we have a higher standard of humanity than obtains in living England, and it is a mistake to suppose, as some have done, that it was peculiar to Plutarch. On the contrary, his book is alive with illustrations of the same consideration for domestic pets and beasts of service. A mule employed in building a temple at Athens, used to ‘come of herselfe to the place of labour’: a docility, ‘which the people liked so well in the poore beast, that they appointed she shoulde be kept whilest she lived, at the charge of the town.’ How many corporations, I wonder, would lay a like load on the rates to-day? In a score of passages is evidence of the belief that ‘gentleness goeth farther than justice.’53 When the Athenians depart from Attica, the most heartrending picture is of the animals they leave deserted on the sea-coast. ‘There was besides a certen pittie that made men's harts to yerne, when they saw the poore doggs, beasts, and cattell ronne up and doune bleating, mouing, and howling out alowde after their masters in token of sorrow when they dyd imbark.’ Xantippus' dog, ‘that swam after them to Salamis and dyed presently,’ is there interred; and ‘they saye at this daye the place called the Doggs Grave is the very place where he was buried.’54 With like honour the mares of Cimon, who was fond of racing, are buried at his side. Indeed, the ancients, far from being callous, were, as some would now think, over-sentimental about their horses and dogs. Having no slaves of our own, it is easy for us to denounce slave-owning. But this is noteworthy: that while Plutarch, the ancient, in dealing with the revolt of Spartacus and his fellow-slaves, speaks only of ‘the wickedness of their master,’ and pities their hard lot, North, the modern, dubs them ‘rebellious rascalls,55 without a word of warrant either in the nearer French or in the remoter Greek.

It is, indeed, far easier to pick up points of resemblance than to discover material differences between the social life depicted by Plutarch and our own; and the likeness extends even to those half-shades of feeling and illogical sentiment which often seem peculiar to a generation. To turn from contemporary life to the Parallel Lives is to find everywhere the same natural but inconsequent deference to birth amid democratic institutions;56 the same belief that women have recently won a freedom unknown to their grandmothers; the same self-satisfaction in new developments of culture; the same despair over the effects of culture on a pristine morality. There are even irresistible appeals to the good old days. Numa, for instance, ‘enured women to speak little by forbidding them to speak at all except in the presence of their husbands,’ and with such success, that a woman ‘chauncing one daye to pleade her cause in persone before the judges, the Senate hearing of it, did send immediately unto the oracle of Apollo, to know what that did prognosticate to the cittie.’57 Here was a beginning; and the rest soon followed. Just as Greek historians had branded the first murderers and parricides by name, even so ‘the Romanes doe note … that the wife of one Pinarius, called Thalœa, was the first which ever brauled or quarrelled with her mother-in-law.’58 That was in the days of Tarquin. By Pompey's time—though he, indeed, was fortunate in a wife unspoiled by her many accomplishments—the revolution is complete. His Cornelia ‘could play well on the harpe, was skilfull in musicke and geometrie, and tooke great pleasure also in philosophie, and not vainly without some profit’; yet was she ‘very modest and sober in behaviour, without brauling and foolish curiosity, which commonly young women have, that are indued with such singular giftes.’ Such a woman was the product of the Greek culture, and for that Plutarch has nothing but praise.59 It was first introduced, he tells you, after the siege of Syracuse; for Marcellus it was who brought in ‘fineness and curious tables,’ ‘pictures and statues,’ to supplant the existing ‘monuments of victories’: things in themselves ‘not pleasant, but rather fearfull sightes to look upon, farre unfit for feminine eyes.’60 In all this there is little that differs from the life we know: you have the same facts and the same reflexions—especially the same reflexions. For our own age is akin to the age of Plutarch, in so far as both are certain centuries in rear of an influx of Hellenic ideas. Those ideas reconquered the West in the fifteenth century; and since this second invasion the results of the first have been repeated in many directions. Certain phases, indeed, of thought and feeling in Plutarch's age are re-echoed to-day still more distinctly than in the world of his Renaissance translators. For in remoteness from the point of first contact with Greek influence, and in the tarnish of disillusion which must inevitably discolour any prolonged development, this century of ours is more nearly allied to Plutarch's than the sixteenth was, with its young hope and unbounded enthusiasm. The older activity reminds you of the times which Plutarch painted; the modern temper, of the times in which he wrote.

But in the frail rope which the mind of man is ever weaving, that he may cling to something in the void of his ignorance, there is one strand which runs through all the Plutarchian centuries; which persists in his own age and on into the age of his early translators; but which in England has been fretted almost through. Nobody can read the Parallel Lives without remarking the signal change which has fallen upon man's attitude towards the supernatural. Everywhere in Plutarch, by way of both narrative and comment, you find a confirmed belief in omens, portents, and ghosts: not a pious opinion, but a conviction bulking huge in everyday thought, and exerting a constant influence on the ordinary conduct of life. Death and disaster, good fortune and victory, never come without forewarning. Before great Cæsar fell there were ‘fires in the element … spirites running up and downe in the nighte’ and ‘solitary birdes to be seene at noone dayes sittinge in the great market-place.’61 Nor only before a great event, but also after it, occur these sympathetic perturbations in the other world: ‘the night being come, such things fell out, as maye be looked for after so terrible a battle.’62 The wood quaked, and a voice cried out of heaven! Allied to and alongside of this belief in an Unseen in touch with the living world at every hour of the day-time and night, you have the solemn practice of obscure rites and the habitual observance of customs half-insignificant. Some of these are graceful; others embarrassing. The divination, for instance, of the Spartan Ephors must often, at least in August and November, have shaken public confidence in the State; for they ‘did sit downe in some open place, and beheld the stars in the element, to see if they saw any starre shoote from one place to another,’ and ‘if they did, then they accused their king.63 To us, this giving of the grotesque and the terrible in the same breath, without distinction or comment, is strangely incongruous. Sulla's bloody entry into Rome was doubly foreshadowed: there was the antic disposition of certain rats, which first gnawed ‘some juells of golde in a church,’ and then, being trapped by the ‘sexton,’ ate up their young; and again, ‘when there was no cloude to be seen in the element at all, men heard such a sharp sound of a trompet, as they were almost out of their wits at so great a noise.’64 No scientific explanation, even if one were forthcoming, could suffice to lull suspicion in a pious mind. Æmilius understood as well as any the cause of the moon's eclipse: ‘nevertheless, he being a godly devout man, so soon as he perceyved the moone had recovered her former brightness againe, he sacrificed eleven calves.’65 To add to the inconvenience of this habit of mind, there were more unlucky days in the year than holidays in the mediæval calendar. It was such a day that marred the prospect of Alcibiades' return: for ‘there were some that misliked very much the time of his landing: saying it was very unluckie and unfortunate. For the very day of his returne, fell out by chaunce on the feast which they call Plynteria, as you would saye, the washing day.’66 Such feasts, with their half-meaningless customs, accompanied the belief in portents and ghosts and the ordinary forms of ritual, being but another fruit of the same intellectual habit. Some of them seem absurd anachronisms in the Rome of Julius Cæsar. At the Lupercal, for instance, even in Cæsar's day, as every one knows from Shakespeare, young men of good family still ran naked through the streets, touching brides at the request of their husbands.67 Again, on the feast of the goddess Matuta, ‘they cause a chamber mayde to enter into her temple, and there they boxe her about the eares. Then they put her out of the temple, and do embrace their brothers' children rather than their own.’68 There is no end to these customs: customs which are as it were costumes of the mind, partly devised to cover its nakedness, and partly expressed in fancy. Plutarch tries sometimes to explain their origin; but he can only hazard a guess. Nobody remembers what they mean. They are, rather, a picturesque means of asserting that there really is an undercurrent of meaning in the world.

Beyond and above these mummeries, now so strange, in a loftier range of Plutarch's thought is much that is familiar and near. Of some miracles he writes almost as an apologist. It is said that ‘images … have been heard to sighe: that they have turned: and that they have made certen signes with their eyes.’ These reports ‘are not,’ he adds, ‘incredible, nor lightly to be condemned. But for such matters it is daungerous to give too much credit to them, as also to discredit them too much, by reason of the weaknes of man's nature, which hath no certen boundes, nor can rule itself, but ronneth sometimes to vanitie and superstition, and otherwhile also despiseth and condemneth holy and divine matters.’69 On such points of belief, as on the immediate inspiration of individuals, ‘the waye is open and large’:70 each must decide for himself, remembering that religion is the mean between superstition and impiety. On the other hand, never once does Plutarch admit a doubt of the Divine Government of the world. He approves his Alexander's saying: ‘that God generally was father to all mortall men.’71 And in a magnificent passage of North's English which might almost have come out of the book of Common Prayer, he upholds the view of Pythagoras: ‘who thought that God was neither sensible nor mortall, but invisible, incorruptible and only intelligible.’72


In substance, then, the book stands alone. Its good fortune has been also unexampled. By a chance this singular image of the ancient world has been happy beyond others in the manner of its transmission to our time. To quote a Quarterly Reviewer:73 ‘There is no other case of an ancient writer—whether Greek or Latin—becoming as well known in translations as he was in the classical world, or as great modern writers are in the modern one’; and for this chance we have to thank one man, Jaques Amyot. But for his version we should have received none from North; and without these two, Plutarch must have remained sealed to all but Greek scholars. For the Daciers and the Langhornes could never have conquered in right of their own impoverished prose. They palmed it off on a public still dazzled by the fame wherewith their forerunners had illuminated the Lives; and when these were ousted from recollection, their own fate became a simple matter of time.

The son of a butcher,74 or a draper,75 Jaques Amyot was born at Melun in 1513, and was sent as a boy by his parents to study at Paris. You find him there at fifteen, at Cardinal Lemoine's college, and two years later following the lectures of Thusan and Danès. For the University, still hide-bound in scholastic philosophy, was nothing to his purpose of mastering Greek. It was hard in those years, even for the rich, to find books in Greek character,76 and Amyot must live on the loaves his mother sent him by the river barges, and wait for a pittance on his fellow-students. Yet he toiled on with romantic enthusiasm, reading by the firelight for lack of candles; till at last he knew all they could teach him, and left Paris to become a tutor at Bourges. There, thanks to Marguerite de Navarre,77 he obtained a chair in the University, whence he lectured twice a day on Greek and Latin letters during twelve years. It was in these years that he began his great work as a translator: completing in all probability the Æthiopian History,78 and the more famous Daphnis and Chloe.79 But, at the instance of Marguerite's brother, François i., he also began the Lives, receiving by way of incentive the Abbacy of Bellozane;80 and to prosecute this purpose, soon after the king's death, he made a scholar's pilgrimage to Italy. In the Library of St. Mark at Venice he rediscovered the Lives of Diodorus Siculus;81 in the Library of the Vatican a more perfect MS. of the Æthiopian History. But search as he might during his two years' stay at Rome, he could never recover the missing lives of Plutarch. He laboured on the text, but those which l'injurie du temps nous avoit enviées,82 were gone past retrieving. On his return the scholar became a courtier, in the castles of the Loire, and something of a diplomat; for he acted as the emissary of Henri ii. at the Council of Trent, playing an inconspicuous part grossly exaggerated by De Thou. In 1554 he was appointed tutor to the young princes who were to rule as Charles ix. and Henri iii. In 1559 he published the Lives; the next year, on the accession of his elder pupil, he was made Grand Almoner of France; and in 1570 he became Bishop of Auxerre. In 1572 he published the Morals; but this book, like the Franciade, published in the same year, fell comparatively dead. The halcyon days of scholars and poets ended with the St. Bartholomew; and thenceforward the darkness deepened over these two and all the brilliant company which had gathered round Catherine and Diane de Poictiers. In 1588 the full fury of the Catholic League fell upon Amyot, for standing by his king after the murder of the Guise. His diocese revolted at the instigation of Claude Trahy, a truculent monk; and the last works he published are his Apology and Griefs des Plaintes. In August 1589 he wrote to the Duc de Nivernais: ‘Je suis le plus affligé, destruit et ruiné pauvre prebstre qui, comme je crois, soit en France’; in 1591 he was divested of his dignities;83 and in 1593 he died. His long life reflects the changing features of his time. In youth he was a scholar accused of scepticism, in old age a divine attacked for heresy, and for some pleasant years between, a courtier pacing with poets and painters the long galleries of Amboise and Chenonceaux: as we may think, well within earshot of those wide bay-windows where the daughters of France ‘entourées de leurs gouvernantes et filles d'honneur, s'edifioient grandement aux beaux dits des Grecs et des Romains, rememoriez par le doulx Plutarchus.’84

He was, then, a scholar touched with the wonder of a time which saw, as in Angelo's Last Judgment, the great works of antiquity lifting their limbs from the entombing dust of oblivion; and he was a courtier behind the scenes in a great age of political adventure. Was he also an accurate translator? According to De Thou, he rendered his original ‘majore elegantiâ quam fide’; according to Meziriac,85 he was guilty of two thousand blunders.86 The verdict was agreeable to the presumption of the seventeenth century, and was, of course, confirmed by the eighteenth; but it has been revised. Given the impossibility of finding single equivalents in the young speech of the Renaissance, for the literary and philosophic connotations of a language laboured during six hundred years; and given the practice of choosing without comment the most plausible sense of a corrupted passage, the better opinion seems to be that Amyot lost little in truth, and gained everything in charm. ‘It is surprising,’ says Mr. Long,87 and his word shall be the last, ‘to find how correct this old French translation generally is.’ The question of style is of deeper importance. Upon this Ste.-Beuve acutely remarks88 that the subtlety of Plutarch, as of Augustine, and the artless good-nature of Amyot belong each to its age; and, further, are more apparent to us than real in their authors. We may say, indeed, without extravagance, that the youth of Amyot's style, modifying the age of Plutarch's, achieves a mean in full and natural harmony with Plutarch's matter. In Amyot's own opinion, so great a work must appeal to all men of judgment ‘en quelque style qu'il soit mis, pourveu qu'il s'entende’;89 yet his preoccupation on this point was punctilious. He found in Plutarch a ‘scabreuse aspérité’—‘épineuse et ferrée’ are Montaigne's epithets—yet set himself ‘à représenter aucunement et à adumbrer la forme de style et manière de parler d'iceluy’:90 apologising to any who on that account should find his language less ‘coulant’ than of yore. But Amyot was no pedant; he would render his original, not ape him; he would write French, and not rack it. He borrowed at need from Greek and Italian, but he was loyal to his own tongue. ‘Nous prendrons,’ said he—and the canon is unimpeachable—‘les mots qui sont les plus propres pour signifier la chose dont nous voulons parler, ceux qui nous sembleront plus doux, qui sonneront le mieux à l'oreille, qui seront coutumièrement en la bouche des bien parlants, qui seront bons françois et non étrangers.’ To render late Greek into early French is not easy; so he takes his time. Not a word is there save to further his conquest of Plutarch's meaning; but all his words are marshalled in open order, and they pace at leisure. For his own great reward Montaigne wrote: ‘Je donne la palme avecque raison, ce me semble, a Jaques Amyot, sur tous nos escripvains François’; and he remains the earliest classic accepted by the French Academy. But for our delight he found Plutarch a language which could be translated into Elizabethan English.

If Amyot was the right man for Plutarch, North was the right man for Amyot. He was born the second and youngest son of Edward, first Baron North, about the year 1535, and educated, in all probability, at Peterhouse, Cambridge.91 His father was one of those remarkable men of law who, through all the ranging political and religious vicissitudes under Henry vii., Henry viii., Edward vi., Queen Jane, Mary, and Elizabeth—so disastrous to the older nobility—ever contrived to make terms with the winning side; until, dying in 1564, a peer of the realm and Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, he was buried in Kirtling Church, where his monumental inscription may still be read in the chancel. His son Thomas was also entered a student at Lincoln's Inn (1557), but he soon preferred letters before law. He was generally, Leicester wrote to Burghley, ‘a very honest gentleman, and hath many good things in him, which are drowned only by poverty.’ In particular, we are told by his great-nephew, the fourth Baron, he was ‘a man of courage,’ and in the days of the Armada we find him taking command, as Captain, of three hundred men of Ely. Fourteen years before (in 1574) he had accompanied his brother Roger, the second Baron, in his Embassy-Extraordinary to Henri iii.: a mission of interest to us, as it cannot but have encountered him with Amyot, and may have determined him to translate the Lives. He was already an author. In December 1557 he had published, with a dedication to Queen Mary, his translation of Guevara's Libro Aureo,92 a Spanish adaptation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; and in 1570 The Morall Philosophie of Doni … ‘a worke first compiled in the Indian tongue.’93 For the rest, his immortal service to English letters brought him little wealth, but much consideration from his neighbours, his kinsmen, and his sovereign. In 1568 he was presented with the freedom of the city of Cambridge. In 1576 his brother gave him the ‘lease of a house and household stuff.’ He was knighted about 1591; he received the Commission of the Peace in Cambridgeshire in 1592; in 1601 he got a pension of £40 from the Queen, duly acknowledged in his dedication of the lives added to the Plutarch of 1603. He died, it is likely, before this edition saw the light: a valiant and courteous gentleman, and the earliest master of great English prose.

He also thought the Lives a book ‘meete to be set forth in English.’94 Truly: but in what English? He writes of a Muse ‘called Tacita,95 as ye would saye, ladye Silence.’ Should we? Turning to a modern translation, I find ‘Tacita, which means silent or dumb.’ The glory has clearly departed: but before seeking it again in North's unrivalled language, I must ask of him, as I have asked of Amyot, Was he an accurate translator? I do not believe there are a score of passages throughout his 1175 folio pages96 in which he impairs the sense of his original. And most of these are the merest slips, arising from the necessity imposed on him of breaking up Amyot's prolonged periods, and his subsequent failure in the attribution of relatives and qualifications. They are not of the slightest consequence, if the reader, on finding an obscurity, will rely on the general sense of the passage rather than on the rules of syntax; and of such obscurities I will boldly say that there are not ten in the whole book. Very rarely he mistakes a word—as ‘real’ for ‘royal’—and very rarely a phrase. For instance, in the Pericles he writes: ‘At the beginning there was but a little secret grudge only between these two factions, as an artificial flower set in the blade of a sworde,’ which stands for ‘comme une feuille superficielle en une lame de fer.’ In the Solon he writes: ‘his familier friendes above all rebuked him, saying he was to be accompted no better than a beast,’ for ‘qu'il seroit bien beste.’ Some of his blunders lend power to Amyot and Plutarch both: as in that fine passage of the Publicola, wherein the conspirators' ‘great and horrible othe, drinking the blood of a man and shaking hands in his bowels,’ stands for ‘touchant des mains aux entrailles.’ There is one such error of unique interest. It stands in Shakespeare that

          ‘in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey's statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Cæsar fell’;

and we read in North, ‘against the base, whereupon Pompey's image stoode, which ranne all of a goare bloude’; but Amyot simply writes, ‘qui en fust toute ensanglantée.’ The blunder has enriched the world: that is, if it was truly a blunder, and not a touch of genius. For North will sometimes, though very rarely of set purpose, magnify with a word, or transfigure a sentence. ‘Le deluge,’ for example, is always ‘Noe's flood’; and in one celebrated passage he bowdlerises without shame, turning Flora's parting caress to Pompey into a ‘sweete quippe or pleasant taunte.’97 Such are the discrepancies which can by any stretch be called blunders; and the sum of them is insignificant in a work which echoes its original not only in sense but also in rhythm and form. North had the Greek text, or perhaps a Latin translation, before him. In the Sertorius he speaks of ‘Gaule Narbonensis,’ with nothing but ‘Languedoc’ in Amyot; in the Pompey he gives the Greek, unquoted by Amyot, for ‘let the dye be cast’; in dealing with Demosthenes' quinsy, he attempts an awkward pun, which Amyot has disdained; and in the Cicero he gives in Greek character the original for Latin terms of philosophy, whereas Amyot does not. These are the only indications I have found of his having looked beyond the French. But on Amyot he set a grip which had its bearing on the development of Tudor prose. It may even be that, in tracing this development, we have looked too exclusively to Italian, Spanish, and classical sources. Sidney read North's book; Shakespeare rifled it; and seven editions98 were published, within the hundred years which saw the new birth of English prose and its glorious fulfilment. In acknowledging our debt, have we not unduly neglected the Bishop of Auxerre? Sentence for sentence and rhythm for rhythm, in all the great passages North's style is essentially Amyot's.99 There are differences, of course, which catch the eye, and have, therefore, as I think, attracted undue attention, the more naturally since they are all in North's favour. His vigorous diction puts stuff into the text: he stitches it with sturdy locutions, he tags it with Elizabethan braveries. But the woof and the design are still Amyot's; and the two versions may be studied most conveniently abreast.

In neither writer is the verse of any account. Indeed, when North comes to an incident of the Gymnopaedia—‘the which Sophocles doth easily declare by these verses:

‘The song which you shall sing shall be the sonnet sayde
By Hermony lusty lasse, that strong and sturdy mayde;
Which trust her peticote about her middle short
And set to show her naked hippes in frank and friendly sort’—

you feel that the reference to Sophocles is not only remote but also grotesque. It is very different with their prose. And first, is North's version—the translation of a translation—by much removed from Plutarch? In a sense, yes. It is even truer of North than of Amyot, that he offers Plutarch neither to philosophers nor to grammarians, but to all who would understand life and human nature.100 But for these, and for all lovers of language, Plutarch loses little in Amyot, saving in the matter of literary allusion; and Amyot loses nothing in North, save for the presence of a score of whims and obscurities. On the other hand, we recapture in North an English equivalent for those ‘gasconisms’ which Montaigne retained in French, but which Amyot rejected from it. The Plutarchian hues are never lost—they are but doubly refracted; and by each refraction they are broadened in surface and deepened in tone. The sunlight of his sense is sometimes subdued by a light mist, or is caught in the fantastic outline of a little cloud. But the general effect is touched with a deeper solemnity and a more splendid iridescence; even where the vapours lie thickest, the red rays throb through.

But the proof of the pudding is the eating. Let us take a passage at random, and compare the sixteenth century renderings with the cold perversions of a later age. For example, Amyot writes101 that Pythagoras ‘apprivoisa une aigle, qu'il feit descendre et venir a luy par certaines voix, ainsi comme elle volait en l'air dessus sa teste’; in North this eagle is ‘so tame and gentle, that she would stoupe, and come down to him by certaine voyaces, as she flewe in the ayer over his head’; while in an accurate modern Pythagoras merely ‘tamed an eagle and made it alight on him.’ The earlier creature flies like a bird of Jove, but the later comes down like a brick. The Langhornes' eagle is still more precipitate, their Pythagoras still more peremptory. ‘That philosopher,’ as they naturally call the Greek, ‘had so far tamed an eagle that by pronouncing certain words he could stop it in its flight, or bring it down.’ Perhaps I may finish at once with the Langhornes by referring to their description of Cleopatra on the Cydnus. They open that pageant, made glorious for ever by Amyot, North, and Shakespeare, in these terms: ‘Though she had received many pressing letters of invitation from Antony and his friends, … she by no means took the most expeditious mode of travelling.’ Thus the Langhornes; and they denounce the translation called Dryden's102 for ‘tame and tedious, without elegance, spirit, or precision’! Now, it was a colossal impertinence to put out the Lives among the Greeklings of Grub Street, in order to ‘complete the whole in a year’; but it must be noted that, after North's, this103 is still the only version that can be read without impatience. Dryden's hacks were not artists, but neither were they prigs: the vocabulary was not yet a charnel of decayed metaphor; and if they missed the rapture of sixteenth-century rhythm, they had not bleached the colour, carded the texture, and ironed the surface of their language to the well-glazed insignificance of the later eighteenth century. Their Plutarch is no longer wrapped in the royal robes of Amyot and North; but he is spared the cheap though formal tailoring of Dacier and the Langhornes. In our own time there have been translations by scholars: they are useful as cribs, but they do not pretend to charm. Here, for instance, is North's funeral of Philopœmen: ‘The souldiers were all crowned with garlandes of Laurell in token of victory, not withstanding the teares ranne downe their cheekes in token of sorrowe, and they led their enemies prisoners shackled and chained. The funeral pot in which were Philipœmenes ashes, was so covered with garlands of flowers, nosegaies, and laces that it could scant be seene or discerned.’ And here is the crib: ‘There one might see men crowned with garlands but weeping at the same time, and leading along his enemies in chains. The urn itself, which was scarcely to be seen for the garlands and ribbons with which it was covered,’ etc. Here, too, is North's Demetrius: ‘He took pleasure of Lamia, as a man would have delight to heare one tell tales, when he hath nothing else to doe, or is desirous to sleep: but indeede when he was to make any preparation for warre, he had not then ivey at his dart's end, nor had his helmet perfumed, nor came not out of ladies closets, pricked and princt to go to battell: but he let all dauncing and sporting alone, and became as the poet Euripides saith,

‘The souldier of Mars, cruell and bloodie.’

And here is the crib: ‘He only dedicated the superfluity of his leisure to enjoyment, and used his Lamia, like the mythical nightmare, only when he was half asleep or at play. When he was preparing for war, no ivy wreathed his spear, no perfume scented his helmet, nor did he go from his bedchamber to battle covered with finery.’ ‘Dedicated the superfluity of his leisure!’ At such a jewel the Langhornes must have turned in envy in their graves! But, apart from style, modern scholars have a fetish which they worship to the ruin of any literary claim. Amyot and North have been ridiculed for writing, in accordance with their method, of nuns and churches, and not of vestals and temples. Yet the opposite extreme is far more fatiguing. Where is the sense of putting ‘chalkaspides’ in the text and ‘soldiers who had shields of brass’ in the notes? Is it not really less distracting to read, as in North, of soldiers ‘marching with their copper targets’? So, too, with the Parthian kettle-drums. It is an injury to write ‘hollow instruments’ in so splendid a passage; and an insult to add in a note ‘the context seems to show that a drum is meant.’ Of course! And ‘kettle-drums’ is a perfect equivalent for ῥόπτρα, ‘made of skin, and hollow, which they stretch round brass sounders.’ But if these things are done in England, you may know what to expect of Germany. In the picture of Cato's suicide there is one supreme touch, rendered by Plutarch ἤδη δ' ὄρνιθεs eδον; by Amyot les petits oyseaux commençoient desja à chanter; by North, the little birds began to chirpe. But Kaltwasser turns the little birds into crowing cocks; and maintains his position by a learned argument. It was still, says he, in the night, and other fowls are silent until dawn.104 If the style of the eighteenth century be tedious, the scholarship of the nineteenth is intolerable. The truth is that in the sixteenth alone could the Lives be fitly translated. For there were passages, as of the arming of Greece, in the Philopœmen, which could only be rendered in an age still accustomed to armour. Any modern rendering, be it by writer or by don, must needs be archaistically mediæval or pedantically antique.

Turning, then, to Amyot and North, the strangest thing to note, and the most important, is that the English, although without a touch of foreign idiom, is modelled closely upon the French. Some explanation of this similarity in form may be found in the nature of the matter. The narration, as opposed to the analysis, of action; the propounding, as opposed to the proof, of philosophy—these are readily conveyed from one language into another, and Joshua and Ecclesiastes are good reading in most versions of the Bible. But North is closer to Amyot than any two versions of the Bible are to each other. The French runs into the English five times out of six, and in all the great passages, not only word for word but almost cadence for cadence. There is a trick of redundancy in Tudor prose that makes for emphasis and melody. We account it English, and find it abounding in our Bible. It is wholly alien from modern French prose—wholly alien, too, from French prose of the seventeenth century. Indeed, I would go further, and say that it is largely characteristic of Amyot the writer, and not of the age in which he wrote. You do not find it, for instance, in the prose of Joachim du Bellay.105 But now take North's account of the execution before Brutus of his two eldest sons;106 ‘which,’ you read, ‘was such a pitieful sight to all people, that they could not find it in their hearts to beholde it, but turned themselves another waye, bicause they would not see it.’ That effective repetition is word for word in the French: ‘qu'ilz n'avoient pas le cueur de les regarder, ains se tournoient d'un austre costé pour n'en rien veoir.’ But, apart from redundancy, the closeness is at all times remarkable. Consider the phrase: ‘but to go on quietly and joyfully at the sound of these pipes to hazard themselves even to death.’107 You would swear it original, but here is the French: ‘ains aller posement et joyeusement au son des instruments, se hazarder au peril de la mort.’ The same effect is produced by the same rhythm. Or, take the burial of unchaste vestals:108 when the muffled litter passes, the people ‘follow it mourningly with heavy looks and speake never a word’; ‘avec une chère basse, et morne sans mot dire’; and so on, in identical rhythm, to the end of that magnificent passage. I will give one longer example, from the return of Alcibiades. You read in North: ‘Those that could come near him dyd welcome and imbrace him: but all the people wholly followed him: And some that came to him put garlands of flowers upon his head: and those that could not come neare him, sawe him afarre off, and the olde folkes dyd poynte him out to the younger sorte.’ And in Amyot: ‘Ceulx qui en pouvoient approcher le saluoient et l'embrassoient, mais tous l'accompagnoient; et y en avoient aucuns qui s'approchans de luy, luy mettoient des chappeaux de fleurs sur la teste et ceulx qui n'en pouvoient approcher, le regardoient de loing, et les vieux le monstroient aux jeunes.’ Here is the very manner of the Authorised Version: flowing but not prolix, full but not turgid. Is it, then, fanciful to suggest that Amyot's style, evolved from the inherent difficulty of his task, was accepted by North for its beauty, and used by the translators of the Bible for its fitness to an undertaking hard for similar reasons and in a similar way? Amyot piles up his epithets, and links one varied cadence to another: yet his volume is not of extravagant utterance, but of extreme research. He was endeavouring to render late Greek into French of the Renaissance; and so he sought for perfect expression not—as to-day—in one word but in the resultant of many. And this very volume of utterance, however legitimate, imposed the necessity of rhythm. His innumerable words, if they were not to weary, must be strung on a wire of undulating gold. North copied this cadence, and gave a storehouse of expression to the writers of his time. It seems to me, therefore, not rash to trace, through North, to Amyot one rivulet of the many that fell into the mighty stream of rhythm flowing through the classic version of the English Bible.

But North and Amyot are not men of one trick: they can be terse and antithetical when they will. You read that Themistocles advanced the honour of the Athenians, making them ‘to overcome their enemies by force, and their friends and allies with liberality’; in Amyot: ‘Vaincre leurs ennemies en prouesse, et leurs alliez et amis en bonté’! North can play this tune as well as any: e.g., ‘If they,’ Plutarch's heroes, ‘have done this for heathen Kings, what should we doe for Christian Princes? If they have done this for glorye, what shoulde we doe for religion? If they have done this without hope of heaven, what should we doe that looke for immortalitie?’109 But he can play other tunes too. Much is now written of the development of the sentence; and no doubt since the decadence advances have been made. Yet, in the main, they are to recover a territory wilfully abandoned. In North and Amyot there are sentences of infinite device—sentences numerous and harmonic beyond the dreams of Addison and Swift. I will give some examples. Amyot: ‘S'éblouissant à regarder une telle splendeur, et se perdant à sonder un tel abysme.’ That is fine enough, but North beats it: ‘Dazeled at the beholding of such brightnesse, and confounded at the gaging of so bottomlesse a deepe.’110 Amyot: ‘Ne plus ne moins que si c'eust esté quelque doulce haleine d'un vent salubre et gracieu qui leur eust soufflé du costé de Rome pour les rafreshir.’ And North: ‘As if some gentle ayer had breathed on them by some gracious and healthfull wind, blowen from Rome to refresh them.’111 No translation could be closer; yet in the first example North's English is stronger than the French, and in the second it flows, like the air, with a more ineffable ease. Take, again, the account of the miracle witnessed during the battle of Salamis. Here is Amyot: ‘que l'on ouit une haulte voix et grande clameur par toute la plaine Thrasiene jusques à la mer, comme s'il y eust eu grand nombre d'hommes qui ensemble eussent à haulte voix chanté le sacre cantique de Iacchus, et sembloit que de la multitude de ceulx qui chantoient il se levast petit à petit une nuée en l'air, laquelle partant de la terre venoit à fondre et tumber sur les galeres en la mer.’ And here is North: ‘that a lowde voyce was heard through all the plaine of Thriasia unto the sea, as if there had bene a number of men together, that had songe out alowde, the holy songe of Iacchus. And it seemed by litle and litle that there rose a clowde in the ayer from those which sange: that left the land, and came and lighted on the gallyes in the sea.’ I have put into italics so much of Amyot as North renders word for word. His fidelity is beyond praise; but the combination of such fidelity with perfect and musical expression is no less than a miracle of artistry. North, in this passage as elsewhere, not only writes more beautiful English: he gives, also, a description of greater completeness and clarity than you will find in any later version of Plutarch. The elemental drama transfigures his prose; but every fact is realised, every sensuous impression is set down, and set down in its order. So much may be said, too, of Amyot; but in his rendering you are aware of the words and the construction—in fact, of the author. In North's there is but the pageant of the sky; there is never a restless sound to disturb the illusion; the cadence is sublimated of all save a delicate alliteration, tracing its airy rhythm to the ear. The work is full of such effects, some of simple melody, and others of more than contrapuntal involution; for he commands his English as a skilled organist his organ, knowing the multitude of its resources, and drawing at need upon them all. Listen to his rendering of Pericles' sorrow for his son: ‘Neither saw they him weepe at any time nor mourne at the funeralles of any of his kinsmen or friendes, but at the death of Paralus, his younger and lawful begotten sonne: for, the losse of him alone dyd only melt his harte. Yet he dyd strive to showe his naturall constancie, and to keepe his accustomed modestie. But as he woulde have put a garland of flowers upon his head, sorrowe dyd so pierce his harte when he sawe his face, that then he burst out in teares and cryed amaine; which they never saw him doe before all the dayes of his life.’ Yes, the pathos of the earth is within his compass; but he can also attain to the sublimity of heaven: ‘The everlasting seate, which trembleth not, and is not driven nor moved with windes, neither is darkened with clowdes, but is allwayes bright and cleare, and at all times shyning with a pure bright light, as being the only habitation and mansion place of the eternall God, only happy and immortall.’112

These two passages from the last movement of the Pericles can only be spoken of in North's own language: they are ‘as stoppes and soundes of the soul played upon with the fine fingered hand of a conning master.’113 Yet they are modelled on Amyot's French. It seems scarce credible; and indeed, if the mould be the same, the metal has been transmuted. You feel that much has been added to the form so faithfully followed; that you are listening to an English master of essentially English prose. For these passages are in the tradition of our tongue: the first gives an echo of Malory's stately pathos, and the second an earnest of our Apocalypse. In building up these palaces of music North has followed the lines of Amyot's construction; but his melody in the first is sweeter, his harmony in the second peals out with a loftier rapture.

I have dwelt upon the close relation of North's style to Amyot's, because it is the rule, and because it has a bearing on the development of Tudor prose. This rule of likeness seems to me worthier of note than any exceptions; both for the strangeness and the importance. But, of course, there are exceptions: there are traits, of attitude and of expression, personal to North the man and the writer. He has a national leaning towards the sturdy and the bluff. In a sonnet written some twenty years earlier, Du Bellay, giving every nation a particular epithet, labels our forefathers for ‘les Anglais mutins.’ The epithet is chosen by an enemy; but there was ever in the English temper, above all, in the roaring days of great Elizabeth, a certain jovial frowardness, by far removed both from impertinence and from bluster, which inclined us, as we should put it, to stand no nonsense from anybody. This national characteristic is strongly marked in North. For him Spartacus and his slaves are ‘rebellious rascals.’ When Themistocles boasts of being able to make a small city great, though he cannot, indeed, tune a viol or play of the psalterion, Amyot calls his words ‘un peu haultaines et odieuses’: they are repugnant to the cultured prelate, and he gives a full equivalent for the censure of Plutarch, the cultured Greek.114 But North will not away with this censure of a bluff retort: having his bias, he deliberately betrays his original, making Themistocles answer ‘with great and stout words.’ There is also in North's character a strain of kindness, almost of softness, towards women and children and the pathetic side of life. In the wonderful passage describing the living burial of unchaste vestals,115 where almost every other word is literally translated, North turns ‘la criminelle’ into ‘the seely offendour’: as it were with a gracious reminiscence of Chaucer's ‘ne me ne list this seely woman chide.’ And in the Solon, where a quaint injunction is given for preserving love in wedlock, Amyot writes that so courteous a custom, being observed by a husband towards his wife, ‘garde que les courages et vouluntez ne s'alienent de tout poinct les uns des autres.’ (The phrase is rendered in a modern version ‘preventing their leading to actual quarrel.’) But North lifts the matter above the level of laughter or puritanical reproach: it ‘keepeth,’ as he writes, ‘love and good will waking, that it die not utterly between them.’ The beauty and gentleness of these words, in so strange a context, are, you feel, inspired by chivalry and a deep reverence for women. These two strains in North's character find vent in his expression; but they never lead him far from the French. There is an insistence, but no more, on all things gentle and brave; and this insistence goes but to further a tendency already in Amyot. For in that age the language of gentlemen received a like impress in both countries from their common standards of courage and courtesy; and among gentlemen, Amyot and North seem to have been drawn yet closer to each other by a common kinship with the brave and gentle soul of Plutarch. These two qualities which are notable in Plutarch and Amyot in all such passages, lead in North to a distinct exaggeration of phrase, though ever in the direction of their true intent. He makes grim things grimmer, and sweet things more sweet. So that the double translation from the Greek gives the effect of a series of contours traced the one above the other, and ever increasing the curve of the lowest outline.

But North, being no sentimentalist, finds occasion for fifty stout words against one soft saying. The stark vigour of his diction is, indeed, its most particular sign. The profit to the Greeks of a preliminary fight before Salamis is thus declared by Amyot: it proved ‘que la grande multitude des vaisseaux, ny la pompe et magnificence des parements d'iceulx, ny les cris superbes et chants de victoire des Barbares, ne servent de rien à l'encontre de ceulx qui ont le cueur de joindre de près, et combattre à coups de main leur ennemy, et qu'il ne fault point faire compte de tout cela, ains aller droit affronter les hommes et s'attacher hardiment à eulx.’ North follows closely for a time, but in the last sentence he lets out his language to the needs of a maxim so pertinent to a countryman of Drake. The Greeks saw, says he, ‘that it was not the great multitude of shippes, nor the pomp and sumptuous setting out of the same, nor the prowde barbarous showts and songes of victory that could stand them to purpose, against noble hartes and valliant minded souldiers, that durst grapple with them, and come to hand strokes with their enemies: and that they should make no reckoning of all that bravery and bragges, but should sticke to it like men, and laye it on the jacks of them.’ The knight who was to captain his three hundred men in the Armada year, has the pull here over the bishop; and on occasion he has always such language at command. ‘Les autres qui estoient demourez à Rome’ instead of marching to the war116 are ‘the home-tarriers and house-doves’: upbraided elsewhere117 because they ‘never went from the smoke of the chimney nor carried away any blowes in the field.’ When Philopœmen, wounded with a dart that ‘pierced both thighes through and through, that the iron was seene on either side,’ saw ‘the fight terrible,’ and that it ‘woulde soon be ended,’ you read in Amyot ‘qu'il perdoit patience de despit,’ but in North that ‘it spited him to the guttes, he would so faine have bene among them.’ The phrase is born of sympathy and conviction. North, too, has a fine impatience of fools. Hannibal, discovering the error of his guides, ‘les feit pendre’ in Amyot; in North he ‘roundely trussed them up and honge them by the neckes.’118 And he is not sparing in his censure of ill-livers. Phœa, you read in the Theseus, ‘was surnamed a sowe for her beastly brutishe behaviour, and wicked life.’ He can be choleric as well as kindly, and never minces his words.

Apart from those expressions which spring from the idiosyncrasy of his temperament, North's style shares to the full in the general glory of Elizabethan prose. You read of ‘fretised seelings,’119 of words that ‘dulce and soften the hardened harts of the multitude’;120 of the Athenians ‘being set on a jolitie to see themselves strong.’ Heads are ‘passhed in peces,’ and men ‘ashamed to cast their honour at their heeles’ (Amyot: ‘d'abandonner leur gloire’). Themistocles' father shows him the ‘shipwracks and ribbes (Amyot: ‘les corps’) of olde gallyes cast here and there.’ You have, ‘pluck out of his head the worm of ambition’121 for ‘oster de sa fantasie l'ambition’; and Cæsar on the night before his death hears Calpurnia, ‘being fast asleep, weepe and sigh, and put forth many fumbling lamentable speeches.’ But in particular, North is richer than even his immediate followers in homespun images and proverbial locutions. Men who succeed, ‘bear the bell’;122 ‘tenter la fortune le premier’ is ‘to breake the ise of this enterprise.’123 Coriolanus by his pride ‘stirred coales emong the people.’ The Spartans who thwarted Themistocles ‘dyd sit on his skirtes’; and the Athenians fear Pericles because in voice and manner ‘he was Pisistratus up and downe.’ The Veians let fall their ‘peacockes bravery’;124 and a man when pleased is ‘as merry as a pye.’125 Raw recruits are ‘fresh-water souldiers.’ A turncoat carries ‘two faces in one hoode’;126 and the Carthaginians, being outwitted, ‘are ready to eate their fingers for spyte.’ The last locution occurs also in North's Morall Philosophie of 1570: he habitually used such expressions, and yet others which are truly proverbs, common to many languages. For instance, he writes in the Camillus, ‘these words made Brennus mad as a March Hare that out went his blade’; in Cato Utican ‘to set all at six and seven’; in Solon ‘so sweete it is to rule the roste’; in Pelopidas ‘to hold their noses to the gryndstone’; in Cicero, with even greater incongruity, of his wife Terentia ‘wearing her husbandes breeches.’ In the Alcibiades, the Athenians ‘upon his persuasion, built castles in the ayer’; and this last has been referred to Sidney's Apologie; but the first known edition of the Apologie is dated 1595, and it is supposed to have been written about 1581; North has it not only in the Lives (1579), but in his Morall Philosophie of 1570.127 To North, too, we may perhaps attribute some of the popularity in England of engaging jingles. ‘Pritle pratle’ and ‘topsie turvie’ occur both in the Lives and the Morall Philosophie. And in the Lives you have also ‘spicke and spanne newe’;128 with ‘hurly burly’ and ‘pel mel,’ adopted by Shakespeare in Macbeth and Richard III. Since North takes the last from Amyot and explains it—‘fled into the camp pel mel or hand over heade’—and since it is of French derivation—pelle-mesle = ‘to mix with a shovel’—it is possible that the phrase is here used for the first time.

Gathered together, these peculiarities of style seem many; and yet in truth they are few. They are the merest accidents in a great stream of rhythm. That stream flows steadily and superbly through a channel of another man's digging. For North's style is Amyot's, divided into shorter periods, strengthened with racy locutions, and decked with Elizabethan tags. In English such division was necessary: the rhythm, else, of the weightier language had gained such momentum as to escape control. But even so North's English is neither cramped nor pruned: it is still unfettered by antithesis and prodigal of display. His periods, though shorter than Amyot's, in themselves are leisurely and long. There is room in them for fine words and lofty phrases; and these go bragging by, the one following a space after the other, like cars in an endless pageant. The movement of his procession rolls on: yet he halts it at pleasure, to soften sorrow with a gracious saying, or to set a flourish on the bravery of his theme.


The earliest tribute to the language of Amyot and North was the highest that has ever been, or can ever be, paid; both for its own character and the authority of those who gave it. For Montaigne, the greatest literary genius in France during the sixteenth century, wrote thus of Amyot: ‘Nous estions perdus, si ce livre ne nous eust tires du bourbier: sa mercy, nous osons a cette heure parler et escrire’;129 and Shakespeare, the first poet of all time, borrowed three plays almost wholly from North. I do not speak of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen, for each of which a little has been gleaned from North's Theseus; nor of the Timon of Athens, although here the debt is larger.130 The wit of Apemantus, the Apologue of the Fig-tree, and the two variants of Timon's epitaph, are all in North. Indeed, it was the ‘rich conceit’ of Timon's tomb by the sea-shore which touched Shakespeare's imagination, as it had touched Antony's; so that some of the restricted passion of North's Antonius, which bursts into showers of meteoric splendour in the Fourth and Fifth Acts of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, beats too, in the last lines of his Timon, with a rhythm as of billows:

                                                                                          ‘yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven.’

But in Antony and Cleopatra, as in Coriolanus and in Julius Cæsar, Shakespeare's obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays. ‘Of the incident,’ Trench has said, ‘there is almost nothing which he does not owe to Plutarch, even as continually he owes the very wording to Sir Thomas North’;131 and he follows up this judgment with so detailed an analysis of the Julius Cæsar that I shall not attempt to labour the same ground. As regards the Coriolanus, it was noted, even by Pope, ‘that the whole history is exactly followed, and many of the principal speeches exactly copied, from the life of Coriolanus in Plutarch.’ This exactitude, apart from its intrinsic interest, may sometimes assist in restoring a defective passage. One such piece there is in ii. iii. 231 of the Cambridge Shakespeare, 1865:

‘The noble house o' the Marcians, from whence came
That Ancus Marcius, Numa's daughter's son,
Who, after great Hostilius, here was king;
Of the same house Publius and Quintus were,
That our best water brought by conduits hither.’

The Folios here read:

‘And Nobly nam'd, so twice being Censor,
Was his great Ancestor.’

It is evident that, after ‘hither,’ a line has been lost, and Rowe, Pope, Delius, and others have tried their best to recapture it. Pope, knowing of Shakespeare's debt and founding his emendation on North, could suggest nothing better than ‘And Censorinus, darling of the people’; while Delius, still more strangely, stumbled, as I must think, on the right reading, but for the inadequate reason that ‘darling of the people’ does not sound like Shakespeare. I have given in italics the words taken from North: and, applying the same method to the line suggested by Delius, you read: ‘And Censorinus that was so surnamed,’ then, in the next line, by merely shifting a comma, you read on: ‘And nobly named so, twice being Censor.’ Had Delius pointed out that he got his line simply by following Shakespeare's practice of taking so many of North's words, in their order, as would fall into blank verse, his emendation must surely have been accepted, since it involves no change in the subsequent lines of the Folios; whereas the Cambridge Shakespeare breaks one line into two, and achieves but an awkward result:

‘And [Censorinus] nobly named so,
Twice being [by the people chosen] censor.’

The closeness of Shakespeare's rendering, indicated by this use of italics, is not particular to this passage, but is universal throughout the play. Sometimes he gives a conscious turn to North's unconscious humour; as when, in the Parable of the Belly and the Members, North writes, ‘And so the bellie, all this notwithstanding laughed at their follie’; and Shakespeare writes in i. i., ‘For, look you, I may make the belly smile As well as speak.’ At others his fidelity leads him into an anachronism. North writes of Coriolanus that ‘he was even such another, as Cato would have a souldier and a captaine to be: not only terrible and fierce to laye aboute him, but to make the enemie afeard with the sound of his voyce and grimness of his countenance.’ And Shakespeare, with a frank disregard for chronology, gives the speech, Cato and all, to Titus Lartius (i. iv. 57):

                                                                                          ‘Thou wast a soldier
Even to Cato's wish, not fierce and terrible
Only in strokes; but with thy grim looks and
The thunder-like percussion of thy sounds,
Thou mad'st thine enemies shake.’

But perhaps the most curious evidence of the degree to which Shakespeare steeped himself in North is to be found in passages where he borrowed North's diction and applied it to new purposes. For instance, in North ‘a goodly horse with a capparison’ is offered to Coriolanus; in Shakespeare, at the same juncture, Lartius says of him:

                                                                                ‘O General,
Here is the steed, we the caparison.’

Shakespeare, that is, not only copies North's picture, he also uses North's palette. Throughout the play he takes the incidents, the images, and the very words of North. You read in North: ‘More over he sayed they nourished against themselves, the naughty seede and cockle of insolencie and sedition, which had been sowed and scattered abroade amongst the people.’ And in Shakespeare, iii. i. 69:

‘In soothing them we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd and scatter'd.’

Of course it is not argued that Shakespeare has not contributed much of incalculable worth: the point is that he found a vast deal which he needed not to change. When Shakespeare adds, iv. vii. 33:

                                        ‘I think he 'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature,’

he is turning prose into poetry. When he creates the character of Menenius Agrippa from North's allusion to ‘certaine of the plesauntest olde men,’ he is turning narrative into drama, as he is, too, in his development of Volumnia, from a couple of references and one immortal speech. But these additions and developments can in no way minimise the fact that he takes from North that speech, and the two others which are the pivots of the play, as they stand. There is the one in which Coriolanus discovers himself to Aufidius. I take it from the Cambridge Shakespeare, and print the actual borrowings in italics (iv. v. 53):

(Unmuffling)                                                                      If, Tullus,
Not yet thou knowest me, and, seeing me, dost not
Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me to name myself. …
My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done
To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces,
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname, Coriolanus: the painful service,
The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country, are requited
But with that surname; a good memory,
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me: only that name remains;
The cruelty and envy of the people,
Permitted by our dastard nobles, who
Have all forsook me, hath devour'd the rest;
And suffer'd me by the voice of slaves to be
Whoop'd out of Rome. Now, this extremity
Hath brought me to thy hearth: not out of hope—
Mistake me not—to save my life, for if
I had fear'd death, of all men i' the world
I would have voided thee; but in mere spite
To be full quit of those my banishers,
Stand I before thee here. Then if thou hast
A heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge
Thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims
Of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight,
And make my misery serve thy turn: so use it
That my revengeful services may prove
As benefits to thee; for I will fight
Against my canker'd country with the spleen
Of all the under fiends. But if so be
Thou darest not this and that to prove more fortunes
Thou 'rt tired, then, in a word, I also am
Longer to live most weary.’

The second, which is Volumnia's (v. iii. 94), is too long for quotation. It opens thus:

‘Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment
And state of bodies would bewray what life
We have led since thy exile. Think with thyself
How more unfortunate than all living women
Are we come hither’;

and here, to illustrate Shakespeare's method of rhythmical condensation, is the corresponding passage in North. ‘If we helde our peace (my sonne) and determined not to speake, the state of our poore bodies, and present sight of our raiment, would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home, since thy exile and abode abroad. But thinke now with thyself, howe much more unfortunately, then all the women livinge we are come hether.’ I have indicated by italics the words that are common to both, but even so, I can by no means show the sum of Shakespeare's debt, or so much as hint at the peculiar glory of Sir Thomas's prose. There is no mere question of borrowed language; for North and Shakespeare have each his own excellence, of prose and of verse. Shakespeare has taken over North's vocabulary, and that is much; but it is more that behind that vocabulary he should have found such an intensity of passion as would fill the sails of the highest drama. North has every one of Shakespeare's most powerful effects in his version of the speech: ‘Trust unto it, thou shalt no soner marche forward to assault thy countrie, but thy foote shall treade upon thy mothers wombe, that brought thee first into this world’; ‘Doest thou take it honourable for a nobleman to remember the wrongs and injuries done him’; ‘Thou hast not hitherto shewed thy poore mother any courtesy’: these belong to North, and they are the motors of Shakespeare's emotion. The two speeches, dressed, the one in perfect prose, the other in perfect verse, are both essentially the same under their faintly yet magically varied raiment. The dramatic tension, the main argument, the turns of pleading, even the pause and renewal of entreaty, all are in North, and are expressed by the same spoken words and the same gap of silence. In the blank verse a shorter cadence is disengaged from the ampler movement of prose; here and there, too, a line is added. ‘To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o' the air,’ could only have been written by an Elizabethan dramatist; even as

‘When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has clucked thee to the wars, and safely home,’

could only have been written by Shakespeare. The one is extravagant, the other beautiful; but the power and the pathos are complete without them, for these reside in the substance and the texture of the mother's entreaty, which are wholly North's. It is just to add that, saving for some crucial touches, as in the substitution of ‘womb’ for ‘corps,’ they belong also to Amyot. To the mother's immortal entreaty there follows the son's immortal reply: the third great speech of Shakespeare's play. It runs in Amyot: ‘“O mère, que m'as tu fait?” et en luy serrant estroittement la main droitte: “Ha,” dit-il, “mère, tu as vaincu une victoire heureuse pour ton païs, mais bien malheureuse et mortelle pour ton filz: car je m'en revois vaincu, par toi seule.”’ In North: ‘“Oh mother, what have you done to me?” And holding her hard by the right hand, “Oh mother,” sayed he, “you have wonne a happy victorie for your countrie, but mortall and unhappy for your sonne; for I see myself vanquished by you alone.”’ North accepts the precious jewel from Amyot, without loss of emotion or addition of phrase: he repeats the desolate question, the singultus of repeated apostrophe, the closing note of unparalleled doom. Shakespeare, too, accepts them in turn from North; and one is sorry that even he should have added a word.

What, it may be asked, led Shakespeare, amid all the power and magnificence of North's Plutarch, to select his Coriolanus, his Julius Cæsar, and his Antonius? The answer, I think, must be that in Volumnia, Calpurnia and Portia, and Cleopatra, he found woman in her three-fold relation to man, of mother, wife, and mistress. I have passed over Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar; but I may end by tracing in his Antony the golden tradition he accepted from Amyot and North. It is impossible to do this in detail, for throughout the first three acts all the colour and the incident, throughout the last two all the incident and the passion, are taken by Shakespeare from North, and by North from Amyot. Enobarbus's speech (ii. ii. 194), depicting the pageant of Cleopatra's voyage up the Cydnus to meet Antony, is but North's ‘The manner how he fell in love with her was this.’ Cleopatra's barge with its poop of gold and purple sails, and its oars of silver, which ‘kept stroke, after the sound of the musicke of flutes’; her own person in her pavilion, cloth of gold of tissue, even as Venus is pictured; her pretty boys on each side of her, like Cupids, with their fans; her gentlewomen like the Nereides, steering the helm and handling the tackle; the ‘wonderful passing sweete savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharfe-side’; all down to Antony ‘left post alone in the market-place in his Imperiall seate,’ are translated bodily from the one book to the other, with but a little added ornament of Elizabethan fancy. Shakespeare, indeed, is saturated with North's language and possessed by his passion. He is haunted by the story as North has told it, so that he even fails to eliminate matters which either are nothing to his purpose or are not susceptible of dramatic presentment: as in i. ii. of the Folios, where you find Lamprias, Plutarch's grandfather, and his authority for many details of Antony's career, making an otiose entry as Lamprius, among the characters who have something to say. Everywhere are touches whose colour must remain comparatively pale unless they glow again for us as, doubtless, they glowed for Shakespeare, with hues reflected from the passages in North that shone in his memory. For instance, when his Antony says (i. i. 53):

‘To-night we 'll wander through the streets and note
The qualities of people,’

you need to know from North that ‘sometime also when he would goe up and downe the citie disguised like a slave in the night, and would peere into poore men's windowes and their shops, and scold and brawl with them within the house; Cleopatra would be also in a chamber-maides array, and amble up and down the streets with him’; for the fantastic rowdyism of this Imperial masquerading is all but lost in Shakespeare's hurried allusion. During his first three Acts Shakespeare merely paints the man and the woman who are to suffer and die in his two others; and for these portraits he has scraped together all his colour from the many such passages as are scattered through the earlier and longer portion of North's Antonius. Antony's Spartan endurance in bygone days, sketched in Cæsar's speech (i. iv. 59)—

                                                                                ‘Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at: thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge;
Yea, like a stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brousedst. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on’—

is thus originated by North: ‘It was a wonderful example to the souldiers, to see Antonius that was brought up in all fineness and superfluity, so easily to drink puddle water, and to eate wild fruits and rootes: and moreover, it is reported that even as they passed the Alpes, they did eate the barks of trees, and such beasts as never man tasted their flesh before.’ For his revels in Alexandria, Shakespeare has taken ‘the eight wild boars roasted whole’ (ii. ii. 183); for Cleopatra's disports, the diver who ‘did hang a salt fish on his hook’ (ii. v. 17). In iii. iii. the dialogue with the Soothsayer, with every particular of Antony's Demon overmatched by Cæsar's, and of his ill luck with Cæsar at dice, cocking, and quails; in iii. x. the galley's name, Antoniad; and in iii. vi. Cæsar's account of the coronation on a ‘tribunal silver'd,’ and of Cleopatra's ‘giving audience’ in the habiliment of the Goddess Isis, are other such colour patches. And this, which is true of colour, is true also of incident in the first three Acts. The scene near Misenum in ii. vi., with the light talk between Pompey and Antony, is hardly intelligible apart from North: ‘Whereupon Antonius asked him (Sextus Pompeius), “And where shall we sup?” “There,” sayd Pompey; and showed him his admiral galley … “that,” said he, “is my father's house they have left me.” He spake it to taunt Antonius because he had his father's house.’ On the galley in the next scene, the offer of Menas, ‘Let me cut the cable,’ and Pompey's reply ‘Ah, this thou shouldst have done and not have spoke on't!’ may be read almost textually in North: ‘“Shall I cut the gables of the ankers?” Pompey having paused a while upon it, at length answered him: “thou shouldst have done it and never told it me.”’ In iii. vii. the old soldier's appeal to Antony not to fight by sea, with all his arguments; in ii. xi. Antony's offer to his friends of a ship laden with gold; in iii. xii. his request to Cæsar that he may live at Athens; in iii. xiii. the whipping of Thyreus, with Cleopatra's announcement, when Antony is pacified, that ‘Since my lord Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra—’132 all these incidents are compiled from the many earlier pages of North's Antonius. But in the Fourth Act Shakespeare changes his method: he has no more need to gather and arrange. Rather the concentrated passion, born of, and contained in, North's serried narrative, expands in his verse—nay, explodes from it—into those flashes of immortal speech which have given the Fourth Act of Antony and Cleopatra its place apart even in Shakespeare. Of all that may be said of North's Plutarch, this perhaps is of deepest significance: that every dramatic incident in Shakespeare's Fourth Act is contained in two, and in his Fifth Act, in one and a half folio pages of the Antonius. Let me rehearse the incidents. The Fourth Act opens with Antony's renewed challenge to Cæsar, and is somewhat marred by Shakespeare's too faithful following of an error in North's translation.

                                        ‘Let the old ruffian know
I have many other ways to die’

is taken from North; but North has mistaken Amyot, who correctly renders Plutarch's version of the repartee, that ‘he (Antony) has many other ways to die’: (‘Cesar luy feit response, qu'il avoit beaucoup d'autre moiens de mourir que celuy là.’) In North, this second challenge comes after (1) the sally in which Antony drove Cæsar's horsemen back to their camp (iv. vii.); (2) the passage in which he ‘sweetly kissed Cleopatra, armed as he was,’ and commended to her a wounded soldier (iv. viii.); (3) the subsequent defection of that soldier, which Shakespeare, harking back to the earlier defection of Domitius, described by North before Actium, develops into Enobarbus's defection and Antony's magnanimity (iv. v.), with Enobarbus's repentance and death (iv. vi. and ix.). In North, hard after the challenge follows the supper at which Antony made his followers weep (iv. ii.) and the mysterious music portending the departure of Hercules (iv. iii.). The latter passage is so full of awe that I cannot choose but quote. ‘Furthermore,’ says North, ‘the self same night within little of midnight, when all the citie was quiet, full of feare, and sorrowe, thinking what would be the issue and end of this warre: it is said that sodainly they heard a marvelous sweete harmonie of sundrie sortes of instruments of musicke, with the crie of a multitude of people, as they had beene dauncing, and had song as they use in Bacchus feastes, with movinges and turninges after the manner of the satyres, and it seemed that this daunce went through the city unto the gate that opened to the enemies, and that all the troupe that made this noise they heard went out of the city at that gate. Now, such as in reason sought the interpretation of this wonder, thought that it was the god unto whom Antonius bare singular devotion to counterfeate and resemble him, that did forsake them.’133 The incident is hardly susceptible of dramatic representation, but Shakespeare, as it were spellbound by his material, must even try his hand at a miracle. Follows, in North, the treachery of Cleopatra's troops; Antony's accusation of Cleopatra (iv. x. xi. and xii.); Cleopatra's flight to the monument and the false message of her death (iv. xiii.); Antony's dialogue with Eros, the suicide of Eros, and the attempt of Antony (iv. xiv.); and the death of Antony (iv. xv.). Every incident in Shakespeare's Act is contained in these two pages of North; and not only the incidents but the very passion of the speeches. ‘O Cleopatra,’ says Antonius, ‘it grieveth me not that I have lost thy companie, for I will not be long from thee; but I am sorry, that having bene so great a captaine and emperour, I am in deede condemned to be judged of less corage and noble minde then a woman.’ Or take, again, the merciless realism of Cleopatra's straining to draw Antony up into the monument:—‘Notwithstanding Cleopatra would not open the gates, but came to the high windowes, and cast out certaine chaines and ropes, in the which Antony was trussed: and Cleopatra her oune selfe, with two women only, which she had suffered to come with her into these monuments, trised Antonius up. They that were present to behold it, said they never saw so pitiefull a sight. For they plucked poore Antonius all bloody as he was, and drawing on with pangs of death, who holding up his hands to Cleopatra, raised up him selfe as well as he could. It was a hard thing for these women to do, to lift him up: but Cleopatra stooping downe with her head, putting to all her strength to her uttermost power, did lift him up with much adoe, and never let goe her hold, with the helpe of the women beneath that bad her be of good corage, and were as sorie to see her labour so, as she her selfe. So when she had gotten him in after that sorte, and layed him on a bed: she rent her garments upon him, clapping her breast, and scratching her face and stomake. Then she dried up his blood that berayed his face, and called him her Lord, her husband, and Emperor, forgetting her miserie and calamitie, for the pitie and compassion she took of him.’ In all this splendour North is Amyot, and Amyot is Plutarch, while Plutarch is but the reporter of events within the recollection of men he had seen living; so that Shakespeare's Fourth Act is based on old-world realism made dynamic by North's incomparable prose. Then come Antony's call for wine and his last speech, which Shakespeare has taken with scarce a change: ‘And for himself, that she should not lament nor sorrowe for the miserable chaunge of his fortune at the end of his dayes: but rather that she should thinke him the more fortunate, for the former triumphe and honors he had received, considering that while he lived he was the noblest and greatest prince of the world, and that now he was overcome not cowardly, but valiantly, a Romane by another Romane.’ In Shakespeare:

                                                                      ‘Please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I liv'd: the greatest prince o' the world,
The noblest: and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman, a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquished.’

To the end of the play the poet's fidelity is as close; and North's achievement in narrative prose is only less signal than Shakespeare's in dramatic verse. Every characteristic touch, even to Cleopatra's outburst against Seleucus, is in North. Indeed, in the Fifth Act I venture to say that Shakespeare has not transcended his original. There is in North a speech of Cleopatra at the tomb of Antony, which can ill be spared; since it is only indicated in Shakespeare (v. ii. 303) by a brief apostrophe—

                                                            ‘O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Cæsar ass

which is often confused with the context addressed to the asp. In North you read: ‘She was carried to the place where his tombe was, and there falling downe on her knees, imbracing the tombe with her women, the teares running doune her cheekes, she began to speake in this sorte: “O my deare Lord Antonius, not long sithence I buried thee here, being a free woman: and now I offer unto thee the funerall sprinklinges and oblations, being a captive and prisoner, and yet I am forbidden and kept from tearing and murdering this captive body of mine with blowes, which they carefully gard and keepe, only to triumphe of thee: looke therefore henceforth for no other honors, oferinges, nor sacrifices from me, for these are the last which Cleopatra can geve thee, sith nowe they carie her away. Whilest we lived together nothing could sever our companies: but now at our death, I feare me they will make us chaunge our countries. For as thou being a Romane, hast been buried in Ægypt: even so wretched creature I, an Ægyptian, shall be buried in Italie, which shall be all the good that I have received of thy contrie. If therefore the Gods where thou art now have any power and authoritie, sith our gods here have forsaken us: suffer not thy true friend and lover to be caried away alive, that in me, they triumphe of thee: but receive me with thee, and let me be buried in one selfe tombe with thee. For though my griefes and miseries be infinite, yet none hath grieved me more, nor that I could lesse beare withall: then this small time, which I had been driven to live alone without thee.”’ Her prayer is granted. The countryman comes in with his figs; and then, ‘Her death was very sodaine. For those whom Cæsar sent unto her ran thither in all hast possible, and found the souldiers standing at the gate, mistrusting nothing, nor understanding of her death. But when they opened the dores, they found Cleopatra starke dead, layed upon a bed of gold, attired and araied in her royall robes, and one of her two women, which was called Iras, dead at her feete; and her other woman called Charmion halfe dead, and trembling, trimming the Diademe which Cleopatra ware upon her head. One of the souldiers seeing her, angrily sayd unto her: “Is that well done, Charmion?” “Verie well,” sayd she againe, “and meet for a Princes discended from the race of so many noble kings.” She sayd no more, but fell doune dead hard by the bed.’

I doubt if there are many pages which may rank with these last of North's Antonius in the prose of any language. They are the golden crown of his Plutarch, but their fellows are all a royal vesture wrapping a kingly body. For the Parallel Lives is a book most sovereign in its dominion over the minds of great men in every age. Henri iv., in a loveletter, written between battles, to his young wife, Marie de Médicis, speaks of it as no other such hero has spoken of any other volume, amid such dire surroundings and in so dear a context. But if it has armed men of action, it has urged men of letters. Macaulay claimed it for his ‘forte … to give a life after the manner of Plutarch,’ and he tells us that, between the writing of two pages, when for weeks a solitary at his task, he would ‘ramble five or six hours over rocks and through copsewood with Plutarch.’ Of good English prose there is much, but of the world's greatest books in great English prose there are not many. Here is one, worthy to stand with Malory's Morte Darthur on either side the English Bible.


  1. Αρεωs ὀρχήsτραν. (Marcellus, 21.) This contrast has been noted by R. C. Trench, D.D., in his Plutarch. Five Lectures, 1874. An admirable volume full of suggestion.

  2. Plutarch's Morals. Philemon Holland, 1657, p. 1078, in a letter addressed to Terentius Priscus, ‘On oracles that have ceased to give answers.’

  3. Paulus Æmilius.

  4. Cæsar.

  5. Preface to Pericles.

  6. Lycurgus.

  7. In North's edition of 1579 all is Plutarch, through Amyot, excepting the Annibal and the Scipio African, which were manufactured by Donato Acciaiuoli for the Latin translation of the Lives published at Rome by Campani in 1470.

  8. Freeman, Methods of Historic Study, p. 168. Mahaffy, Life and Thought.

  9. A. H. Clough, Plutarch's Lives. 1883.

  10. The marriage of Pirithous, p. 62, and the ravishment of the Sabines, 85.

  11. In the Themistocles and in the Aristides.

  12. Professor Skeat, in his Shakespeare's Plutarch, leaves the attribution of these initials in doubt. They have been taken by many French editors of Amyot to stand for B. de Girard, Sieur du Haillan, but M. de Blignières shows in his Essai sur Amyot, p. 184, that they stood for Simon Goulard, the translator of Seneca.

  13. Letter of dedication to Queen Elizabeth. Ed. 1631, p. 1108.

  14. Fabricated also by Acciaiuoli for Campani's Latin edition of 1470, and attributed to Plutarch by an erudite calling himself Viscellius. Amyot himself fabricated the lives of Epaminondas and Scipio (minor) at the request of Marguerite of Savoye, but never published them as Plutarch.

  15. Plutarch. Five Lectures, p. 89. Paul-Louis Courier and many others have written to the same effect, questioning Plutarch's accuracy and insight. On the question of accuracy, I am content to quote Ste.-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, vi. 333: ‘Quand on a fait la part du rhéteur et du prêtre d'Apollon en lui, il reste une bien plus large part encore, ce me semble, au collecteur attentif et consciencieux des moindres traditions sur les grands hommes, au peintre abondant et curieux de la nature humaine’: and to refer to Freeman, Methods of Historical Study, pp. 167, 168, 184.

  16. Numa Pompilius: marred in North by a mistranslation. In the original it approximates to the Copernican rather than to the Ptolemaic theory.

  17. Pericles.

  18. Timoleon.

  19. Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius.

  20. Themistocles.

  21. Furius Camillus.

  22. The Moral Ideal, Julia Wedgwood, p. 82.

  23. Comparison of Lycurgus with Numa Pompilius.

  24. Lycurgus.

  25. Numa Pompilius.

  26. Paulus Æmilius.

  27. In his interview with Casaubon. See Ste.-Beuve: Causeries du Lundi, xiv. 402.

  28. Mommsen: he uses the phrase of Cicero.

  29. Preface to the Cimon and Lucullus.

  30. Agis and Cleomenes.

  31. Plutarch's Cato is accepted bodily by Mommsen for a typical ‘Roman burgess.’ History of Rome, vol. ii. pp. 429-432.

  32. Brutus.

  33. See also his account of the several manners of Cleon and Pericles.

  34. Fabius Maximus.

  35. Agesilaus.

  36. Sylla.

  37. Marcellus.

  38. Pompey.

  39. Aratus.

  40. See the rousing of Greece in the Philopœmen; the declaration of liberty in the Flaminius; the squadron of the Lacedæmonians at Platæa in the Aristides; the glimpse of Philip at Chæronea gazing at the ‘Holy Band of Thebans all dead on the grounde’ in the Pelopidas; the first ride of Alexander on Bucephalus in the Alexander; the Macedonians at Pydna in the Paulus Æmilius.

  41. See the country of the Cimbri in the Marius, and the campaigns of Lucullus and Crassus.

  42. Agesilaus.

  43. Alexander.

  44. Antonius.

  45. Shakespeare's Volumnia.

  46. Coriolanus.

  47. Sertorius.

  48. Alexander.

  49. Agesilaus.

  50. Cruserius, who translated the Lives into Latin (1561), by a strange coincidence, mourned his daughter's loss and found consolation in his task.

  51. Cato Utican.

  52. Pompey.

  53. Cato.

  54. Themistocles.

  55. Crassus.

  56. See Themistocles as the rival of Cimon.

  57. Comparison of Numa Pompilius with Lycurgus.

  58. Comparison of Numa Pompilius with Lycurgus.

  59. See his defence of it in Cicero, his attack on Cato for opposing it, and passim.

  60. Marcellus.

  61. Julius Cæsar.

  62. Publicola.

  63. Agis and Cleomenes.

  64. Sylla.

  65. Paulus Æmilius.

  66. Alcibiades.

  67. Julius Cæsar.

  68. Furius Camillus.

  69. Furius Camillus.

  70. Numa Pompilius.

  71. Alexander. Cf. Plutarch's Morals, Phil. Holland, 1657: the eighth book of Symposiaques; the first question, p. 628.

  72. In the Brutus North credits its hero with a declaration of belief in another life. But this is a mistranslation of Amyot's French. We know, however, with what passionate conviction Plutarch held this belief in ‘a better place, and a happier condition,’ from the conclusion of his ‘consolatory letter, sent unto his own wife, as touching the death of her and his daughter.’—Morals, Phil. Holland, 1657, p. 442.

  73. Vol. cx., No. 220, p. 459, Oct. 1861. Apparently Archbishop Trench.

  74. Brantôme.

  75. Blignières. According to another, parentibus honestis magis quam copiosis.

  76. Before 1530 only a few Homeric Hymns and some essays of Plutarch had been published.

  77. The Marguerite of The Heptameron.

  78. Published in 1547 with an interesting passage in the proem: ‘Et n'avoit ce livre jamais esté imprimé, sinon depuis que la librairie du roi Matthias Corvin fut saccagée, au quel sac il se trouva un soldat allemant qui mit la main dessus pour ce qu'il le vit richement estofé, et le vendit à celuy qui depuys le fit imprimer en Allemaigne.’

  79. Published without his name as late as 1559. As tutor to the young princes he seems to have entertained a certain scruple, which even led him to suppress one passage in his translation.

  80. 1546. The last benefice bestowed by François.

  81. Of which he translated and published seven in 1554.

  82. Amyot: Aux Lecteurs.

  83. Grand Almoner and Librarian of the Royal Library.

  84. Brantôme.

  85. Who undertook to translate Plutarch, but failed to do so.

  86. Discours de la Traduction, 1635 (cf. Blignières, p. 435).

  87. Plutarch's Lives; Aubrey Stewart, M.A., and the late George Long, M.A., 1880, vol. i. p. xvii.

  88. Causeries du Lundi, iv. 469.

  89. Dedication to Henri ii.

  90. Aux Lecteurs.

  91. See Dictionary of National Biography, which gives fuller information than I have found elsewhere.

  92. Subsequent editions, 1568, 1582, 1619.

  93. Second edition, 1601. Reprinted as The Fables of Bidpai, with an Introduction by Joseph Jacobs, 1888.

  94. Dedication to Elizabeth.

  95. In the Numa.

  96. The first edition of 1559, compared by me with Amyot's second edition of 1565. I had not the third, of 1567, from which North translated; but on several points I have referred to the copy in the British Museum.

  97. Greek ἀδήκτωs: Lat., Ed. Princeps (1470), ‘sine morsu.’ Long has another reading and translation, but most will agree that Amyot's is not a blunder but an emendation.

  98. 1579; 1595; 1603; 1612; 1631; 1657; 1676.

  99. Cf. for instance, in the Antonius, Cleopatra on the Cydnus; the death of Antonius; and the death of Cleopatra.

  100. Gustave Lanson, La littérature française (1894), p. 223.

  101. Numa Pompilius.

  102. Corrected and revised by A. H. Clough, 1883.

  103. Dryden, in his dedication to the Duke of Ormonde (1683), spoke of North as ungrammatical and ungraceful. The version he signed was ‘executed by several hands’; but with his name on the title-page it displaced North's, which is now for the first time since republished.

  104. See Plutarch's Lives: Stewart and Long, iii. 572.

  105. Deffense et illustration de la Langue françoise.

  106. Publicola.

  107. Lycurgus.

  108. Numa.

  109. Dedication to Elizabeth.

  110. Amyot: Aux Lecteurs.

  111. Numa.

  112. Amyot: ‘Comme estant telle habitation et convenable à la nature souverainement heureuse et immortelle.’

  113. Pericles.

  114. The Greek epithet is rendered by the word arrogant in Clough's revised Dryden, and by the word vulgar in Mr. Stewart's translation.

  115. Numa.

  116. Coriolanus.

  117. Fabius Maximus.

  118. Fabius Maximus.

  119. Lycurgus.

  120. Publicola.

  121. Solon.

  122. The old prize for a racehorse.

  123. Publicola.

  124. Camillus.

  125. Ibid.

  126. Timoleon.

  127. Fables of Bidpai, 1888, p. 11.

  128. Paulus Æmilius; in a gorgeous description of the Macedonian phalanx, from spick = a spike, and span = a splinter.

  129. Essais, ii. iv.

  130. It is founded on one passage in the Alcibiades and another in the Antony.

  131. Plutarch. Five Lectures, p. 66.

  132. One of North's mistranslations: she kept Antony's birthday, not her own.

  133. Translated word for word from Amyot. Any one who cares to pursue this tradition of beauty still further towards its sources will find that in the Antonius Amyot was in turn the debtor of Leonardus Aretinus, who did the life into Latin for the editio princeps (1470) of Campani.

John Oakesmith (essay date 1902)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8042

SOURCE: Oakesmith, John. “Chapter X.” In The Religion of Plutarch: A Pagan Creed of Apostolic Times, pp. 201-29. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902.

[In the following essay, Oakesmith discusses inconsistencies in Plutarch's religious and theological views and identifies some aspects of his beliefs that could be described as Christian.]

We have endeavoured in the preceding pages [in John Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch] to ascertain, from Plutarch's own account of his views, the principles, the method and the character of his Religion; to learn in what manner he conceives the supernatural world and its relation to the human mind and to human interests; to discover and illustrate the processes by which these results are attained; to note their philosophic bearing and tendency; and to exemplify their application in the sphere of practical ethics. We have seen how clearly he recognizes the existence, and demonstrates the attributes, of a Supreme Being, and have observed how he raises the humility of mankind nearer to the Majesty of the Highest by admitting the activities of an intermediate and mediatory race of supernatural beings, whose mingled nature allies them equally to God and Man, and forms a channel of communication between human wants and divine benevolence. These are the two fundamental truths of the religion of Plutarch. The whole of his exegesis, in whatsoever direction operating, whether examining the doctrines of Philosophy, the legends of popular Myth, or the traditions embodied in ceremonial observances, is involved with a recognition of this twofold conception as the essential characteristic of a religious attitude of mind. Those, indeed, who have emphasized too exclusively that element in Plutarch's Religion which he owes to Philosophy, have concluded that his religious beliefs were purely Monotheistic: just as a misunderstanding of his Dæmonology has resulted in the assertion that he was trammelled in the meshes of a superstitious Polytheism.1 It could, if necessary, be plausibly argued, against those who have maintained this latter view, that the elaboration of the belief in Dæmons, and the multiplication of the functions of these lesser divine beings, are factors which tend to emphasize the unity and purity of the Supreme God; and that Plutarch's Monotheism is no more destroyed by the recognition of a Dæmonic Race than is the Catholic Trinity overthrown by the Church's acceptance of the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius “the Areopagite,” with its thrice-repeated triplets of Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim; Powers, Dominions, Mights; Angels, Archangels, Principalities. But, in the first place, Plutarch does not keep his Religion and his Philosophy in separate mental compartments: they are fused into one operation in his thought; and we should adopt a false method of interpretation were we to separate the result as expounded in his writings. Further, we should obtain a totally misleading view of Plutarch's teaching were we to insist that he was fully conscious of all the conclusions that by a strict use of logic could conceivably be deduced from his tenets. An examination of the opinions and beliefs which he states that he actually maintained leads inevitably to the conviction that his Dæmonology was as sincere as his Theology. There can, we think, be no doubt that his reverence for the national tradition gave him as real a belief in the polytheistic activities of the Dæmons as his love of Philosophy gave him in the Unity, Perfection and Eternity of the Deity. The strength of this belief was increased by his recognition of the important part it might play, in one direction by solving perplexities and removing stumbling-blocks from the national tradition, in another by responding to that eternal craving of humanity for a god-man, a mediator, which had already begun to receive a purer, a simpler, and a more perfect satisfaction. The conscious expression, therefore, which Plutarch gives in his writings to the belief in Dæmons, we are bound to accept as corresponding with a conviction actually existing in his mind, quite as much as we admit the sincerity of his reiterated belief in a Supreme and Universal Deity.

But it is one of the most interesting aspects of Plutarch's Theology—not the less interesting, perhaps, because it has a certain inconsistency with other parts of his Religion—that, even were we to confine our investigations to the philosophic elements of his idea of the Divine Nature: even if we could totally exclude from consideration all the functions which he ascribes to the Dæmonic character: we should still find ourselves face to face with a God different, in one of the qualities now regarded as essential to a complete conception of Deity, from any of the theological representations current in the schools of Greek Philosophy. The essential basis of all these representations is the God of Plato, partly regarded as the creative Demiurgus of the “Timæus;” partly as the World-Soul, that “blessed god” produced by the operation of the Creator's “Intelligence”; and partly as that ultimate ideal Unity, the final abstraction reached by a supreme effort of dialectic subtlety. The last of these three conceptions is essentially and truly that of Plato; it is the native and unalloyed product of Dialectic, owing naught of its existence to the illustrative or ironical use of Myth, out of which the other two conceptions spring. The element of personality is totally absent from this conception,2 nor did the Stoics introduce this element into their adoption of the Soul of the Universe as Deity.3 But Plutarch's God is a personal God. The God of the De Sera Numinis Vindicta approaches nearer to the Christian conception of God as a Father than the Deity as conceived by any Faith which has not been permeated by Christian feeling, and the God of the De Superstitione presents the same characteristics as the God of the De Sera Numinis Vindicta. Plutarch's feeling of the intimate relation existing between the Divine Knowledge and the secret weaknesses and sins, and the feeble strivings after virtue in the human heart, does not require an elaborate and contentious process of ratiocination before we can discern its presence. It is the basis of his finest arguments, and the inspiration of his most earnest and fruitful teachings. This weakness of Plutarch on the side of Metaphysics, this revolt of his nature against the coldness and distance of the Deity of the Platonic Dialectic, constitutes his strength as a religious and moral teacher. This inconsistency makes him the type of certain modern theologians who will expound to a formal Congregation the Eternity, Self-Existence, Necessity, and Unity of God the First Cause, while in their private devotions their hearts and their lips turn naturally to the simple and touching petitions of “Our Father, which art in Heaven;” or, while composing a sermon in which the particular attributes of the Persons of the Trinity and their mutual relationships are defined and enumerated with more than scholastic precision, will turn and teach their children to pray to God as the “gentle Jesus.” In a similar manner, there is the Plutarch of the De E apud Delphos, the Plutarch of the De Sera Numinis Vindicta, and the Plutarch of the Dæmonology. He contributes his share to the discussions of philosophic theologians; he depicts God in direct spiritual relationship with his human children; and he describes the Dæmons as aiding mankind in their internal struggles towards perfection of moral character. He will allow neither Reason nor Emotion to run away with him; he is as far removed from the dialectic severities of Plato, as he is from the superstitious beliefs and practices of the later Platonists. He has no special and peculiar message either to the theologian in the pulpit, or to the child at its mother's knee. He appeals to humanity at large; to the people who have work to do, and who want to get it done with honesty and dignity; to students, teachers, politicians, members of a busy society; to people who are liable to all the temptations, and capable of all the virtues, which naturally arise in the ordinary life of highly civilized communities. He analyses and illustrates such common vices as anger, avarice, envy, hate, flattery;4 he penetrates and exposes such ordinary failings as garrulity, gaucherie, personal extravagance, and interfering curiosity.5 His sympathetic pen, as of one who knows the value of such things, depicts with rare charm the loveliness of friendship, and of affection for brother, child, and wife; while he applies a more religious consolation to those who are suffering under the bitterness of exile, the sadness of bereavement by death.6 To connect Plutarch's Religion with his Ethics at all these points of contact would carry us beyond the natural limits of our present aim.7 As an illustration of his method as operating in this direction, we may recall how intimately Plutarch's conception of the Divine Nature is interwoven with his ethical aim in face of so serious a moral evil as Superstition. We may also add that he is consistent with himself in constructing no scientifically accurate system of Ethics any more than he maintains a dialectically impeccable scheme of Theology. He criticizes the ethical results attained by various Schools of Philosophy, and selects from this one and that one such elements as promise to give greater clearness and strength to his own convictions.8 He quotes Plato and Aristotle to show that Reason and Passion are both necessary elements in the production of practical virtue. Superior power as Reason is in the constitution of man, she cannot act by herself towards the accomplishment of her own virtuous aims. Although he refuses to agree with Aristotle that all Virtue is a mean between two extremes, since the virtue of Intelligence as employed, for example, in the contemplation of a mathematical problem, being an activity of the pure and dispassionate part of the soul, needs no admixture of the unreasoning element to make it effective; he yet insists that the virtues of practical life demand for their realization the instrumental agency of the passions, and are thus, in effect, a mean, correcting excess or defect of either of the co-operating agencies.9 Referring to a favourite illustration, he maintains that the passions are not to be uprooted and destroyed as Lycurgus uprooted and destroyed the vineyards of Thracia, but are to be treated with the fostering gentleness of a god who would prune the wild, trim the rank, and carefully cultivate the healthy and productive portions of the plant.10 If we wish to avoid drunkenness we need not throw our wine away; we must temper it with water. In like manner, Reason will not act “by harsh and obstinate methods, but by gentle means, which convey persuasion and secure submission more effectively than any sort of compulsion.”11 It is quite in harmony with this essentially practical view of life that he holds that Virtue can be taught, and that it is through the persuasion, and by the guidance, of Reason and Philosophy that a happy life can be secured, inasmuch as their efforts are directed at counterbalancing the exaggerated picture which passion draws of all the circumstances of life, whether they are fortunate or the reverse.12 It is this principle which he applies to the discussion of topics of practical morality, as he applies it to the discussion of questions of Religion. The practice of the virtues based upon this principle is most vividly exhibited in his Symposiacs, a work which is of considerable value for the light it throws upon the family and private habits of the Græco-Roman empire of that age, but which is chiefly interesting because it shows to what an extent the simple and humane moralities of Epicureanism had permeated Society, and brought a calm and gentle happiness in their train.

It may be admitted that the positive additions made by Plutarch to the intellectual and moral wealth of his age were small and unimportant. He made no great discoveries in any of the great branches of philosophical activity which had so long been the special pride and prerogative of the Hellenic Race. There was not a tendency of Greek Philosophy with whose history and results he was not familiarly acquainted; there was not a School from which he did not borrow something for introduction into the texture of his own thought. It is in this sense that he is, as he has been called, an Eclectic; but his teaching surrounds his appropriated thoughts with none of the weakness so often attaching to great and original utterances when torn out of the systems in which they were originally embodied. Nor was his Eclecticism that spurious Eclecticism of the later Platonists, which imagined it had harmonized discordant systems when it had tied them together with the withes of an artificial classification. Plutarch's Eclecticism was unified by the Ethical aim which constantly inspired his choice, and gave to old sayings of philosophers, old lines of verse, old notions of the people, a new and richer significance in his application of them to the uses of practical life. Thus, if Plutarch did not add to the gathered wealth of Hellas, he taught his countrymen new ways of passing their ancient acquisitions into the currency. There are periods in the intellectual and moral progress of humanity when the world is exhausted with the accumulation of its riches; when its appetite for acquisition is satiated; when it needs to find what its possessions are, and how best they can be put to their legitimate uses. At these periods the cultivation of a mental attitude is of greater service to humanity than the accumulation of mental stores. Plutarch came at such a period in the history of the Hellenic race; and we, who are once again beginning to recognize that the end of education should not be the mere accumulation of facts, but rather the strengthening of the intellect and the formation of the character, can properly estimate the value of the work accomplished by one who, on the side of intellect, inculcated the necessity of sympathetically watching for signs of a rational basis in beliefs however primâ facie strange and abhorrent, and on the side of character, that a man could become virtuous by learning what his faults were, and endeavouring to check them by practice and habit. In him Religion and Philosophy went hand in hand, operating on the same body of truth, and directing their energies to the realization of the same end. That rational influence which we saw working in the sphere of early Roman Religion: which subsequently gave Roman Morality a source of inspiration in Greek Philosophy: which associated Greek Religion and Greek Philosophy as factors in Ethics, until the latter became the predominating power: this influence had its final classical expression in Plutarch and in the other thinkers and workers of his epoch and that immediately succeeding, in Seneca, in Dion, in Marcus Aurelius. These men avoided extravagance in Religion, as they avoided it in their philosophical studies and in the practical affairs of life. They are the last legitimate outcome of the Greek spirit in Pagan times. Plutarch collected the wisdom, and fixed the emotions, of Antiquity, in a manner which the best men of many Christian ages have found efficacious for goodness. In his own more immediate age his spirit predominated for a century, and was then absorbed to form a thin vein of common sense in that mingled mass of Oriental mystery and Hellenic metaphysics which was known as Neo-Platonism.13

Neo-Platonism, which claimed to represent the perfect harmony of Religion and Philosophy, substantiated its claim by annihilating the historic foundations of both, and by thus compelling Christianity to dispense with the accumulated wisdom of ages in its reorganization of human relationships with the eternal. In Plutarch's teaching, each element of the combination was at once assisted and restrained by the other, and the fusion was natural and effective. In Neo-Platonism, Reason, the principle of Philosophy, and Emotion, the inspiration of Religion, were each carried to an impossible extent of extravagance; and it was only the existence of the two elements in the minds of a few strenuous and original characters, who were assisted in their attempts at unity by the refinements of an ultra-Platonic Dialectic, which secured even the appearance of harmony between the discrepant conceptions which they borrowed from various differing and even mutually hostile schools. Even in Plato the conspicuousness of the Ethical element compensates to some extent for the abstractness of his conception of the Deity. But Neo-Platonism forced the idealism of Plato to a more extravagant metaphysic; and, although upon Dialectics the rational part of their doctrine was nominally based, the abstractness of its processes lent itself to mysticism as effectively as the purely religious element which lost itself in the vagaries of Oriental rapture, and debased itself by its miraculous methods of intercourse with the spiritual world. Reason, in the pursuit of the One, was attenuated to Mathematics. Mathematics, having arrived at the conception of the One, and finding it without any qualities, gave way to the raptures of the “perfect vision.”

How far this twofold extravagance was due to the personality of the founders of the new System, and how far to its express object of rivalling Christianity, is a doubtful problem. Maximus was a Tyrian; Numenius came from Apamea in Syria; Ammonius Saccas, the first great Neo-Platonist, was of Alexandria. Plotinus came from Lycopolis in Egypt, and was perhaps a Copt; Porphyry and Iamblichus were Syrians. Plutarch, as Bishop Theodoret said, was a Hellene of the Hellenes.14 But the necessity of competing with the rising Faith doubtless operated very strongly in developing the mystical tendencies always tacitly inherent in Platonism, and proclaimed by the Neo-Platonists at the very commencement. This rivalry emphasized that out-Platonizing of Plato which culminated in the Alexandrian Trinity, and that competition with the Christian miracles which issued in the triple folly of Magic, Theurgy, and Theosophy. Plutarch, knowing that the necessity of confuting an adversary is liable to cause exaggeration and distortion, removed his Epicurean from the scene when he wished to discuss the providential dispensation of human affairs. The circumstances of his time, and the bent of his own character, which inclined him to seek points of agreement rather than to emphasize points of difference, saved him from the prejudices of the odium theologicum. But in the third century Christianity could not be disposed of by contemptuous phrases, or equally contemptuous silence. The Neo-Platonists came into direct contact with the new Religion, both in its literature and in its practice. Ammonius Saccas, the teacher who satisfied all the yearning aspirations of Plotinus, had been a Christian in the days when he was young and carried a porter's knot on the quays.15 Porphyry informs us that he had met Origen, and Socrates, the Church historian, asserts that Porphyry had himself been a Christian. The evidence of Bishop Theodoret, which cannot be accepted as regards Plutarch, may easily be admitted as regards Plotinus.16 Porphyry wrote fifteen books against the Christians, which were publicly burned by Theodosius 200 years later. He demonstrated that the prophecies of Daniel were composed after the event, and in the Third Book of his Collection of Oracles, he devotes a chapter to “the foolishness of the Christians,” and finds a place for Christ in his lowest rank of supernatural beings. Plutarch's thoughts were not disturbed either by anti-Christian polemic, or by the necessity of finding a place for Christ in his spiritual world.

The modifications which these influences wrought in that body of Hellenic wisdom which had been the material of Plutarch's work were most conspicuous in the Theology and Dæmonology of the Neo-Platonists. Plutarch had been content to state the Unity, Eternity, Absoluteness of God. He needed such a conception to make the world intelligible; but he defined his conception with a rare simplicity which satisfies the practical mind as well as meets the essential requirements of Philosophy. But the Neo-Platonist theology refines and subdivides and abstracts to an extent which puzzles and bewilders its most earnest students, and removes God infinitely further from mankind than even the Ideas of Plato are removed. “According to Plotinus, God is Goodness without Love. Man may love God, but God cannot love man.” Even the “Divine Soul,” the third Hypostasis of the Neo-Platonist Trinity, that which lies nearest the comprehension of the common intellect, “is of little intellectual or religious significance in the mind of Plotinus.” Dogmatism would be unbecoming on a subject where Kirchner and Zeller are at variance, and where the French lucidity of Vacherot and Saisset casts little more light than the close and careful analysis of Dr. Bigg.17 But it is necessary to a full understanding of Plutarch's position to consider his relation to his successors as well as to his predecessors, and we are therefore compelled to a brief analysis of the Neo-Platonic Theology and Dæmonology, putting ourselves under more competent guidance than we can ourselves hope to supply. “The Supreme Cause,” says Dr. Bigg, “God, in the proper sense of the word, … embraces in Himself a unity of Three Hypostases. … Hypostasis signifies the underlying cause of the phenomenal manifestation. Hence it can be applied to all three Persons of the Platonic Trinity, while Being could only be used of the second and third.—Each Hypostasis is a person, but a purely intellectual person. All three are one, like three mutually enfolding thoughts, and where one is there is the All in the fullness of its power. All are eternal, but the second is inferior to the first, because ‘begotten,’ and the third to the second, for the same reason.” “God,” says M. Saisset, “is threefold, and yet a whole. The divine nature, conceived as absolutely simple, admits of division; at the pinnacle of the scale soars Unity; beneath it Intelligence, identical with Being, or the Logos; in the third rank, the Universal Soul, or the Spirit. We have not here three gods, but three hypostases of the same God. An Hypostasis is not a substance, it is not an attribute, it is not a mode, it is not a relation. Unity is above Intelligence and Being, it is above Reason; it is incomprehensible and ineffable; without Intelligence itself, it generates Intelligence; it gives birth to Being, and is not itself Being. Intelligence, in its turn, without motion or activity as it is, produces the Soul, which is the principle of activity and motion. God conceived as a perfect type of which the human soul is a copy, the infinite and universal Soul, is the third hypostasis. God conceived as absolute, eternal, simple, motionless Thought, superior to space and time, is the second hypostasis.” But soul and thought and being are terms relative to the human mind. “God is above thought, above Being: He is, therefore, indivisible and inconceivable. He is the One, the Good, grasped by Ecstasy. This is the third hypostasis.” M. Saisset continues: “Such are the three terms which compose this obscure and profound Trinity. Human reason, reason still imperfectly free from the meshes of sense, stops with the conception of the Universal Soul, the active principle of motion; the reason of the Philosophers rises higher, to the Motionless Intelligence, the depository of the essences and types of all things; it is love and ecstasy alone that can carry us to the conception of Absolute Unity.”

Almost the only thing that is easy to understand in the Neo-Platonic theology is its adoption of the conceptions of various schools of Greek Philosophy. This Eclecticism has a superficial resemblance to that of Plutarch: but it is Eclecticism formally enumerating and classifying its results, not harmonizing and unifying them. The third hypostasis is the λόγοs ὁ ἐν τἣ ὕλῃ of the Stoics; the second hypostasis is the Intelligence, the eternal, absolute, and motionless Nου̑s of Aristotle, while the first has striking affinities with the Pythagorean One. But, by a forced process of interpretation, all the three Hypostases are found in Plato. In the “Laws” and the “Phædrus” Plato stopped with the conception of the Third Hypostasis, the World Soul, the origin and cause of movement in the created world, which in the “Timæus” is represented as a creation of the Demiurgus. In the God of the “Banquet” and the “Republic,” who is the source of Being and Intelligence, Plato was anticipating the Second Hypostasis; while in the “Parmenides” he describes the First Hypostasis, that absolute Unity which has no relation with either Being or Reason, or with anything else either actual or conceivable. The placing of these three different conceptions of God in three different compartments of thought, in three different Scales of Existence, is not to unify them: nor is that process made any the more feasible by the invention of the term Emanation, by which the Second Hypostasis proceeds from the First, and the Third from the Second.18 Plutarch's Eclecticism is based upon the needs of the moral life: that of Neo-Platonism was actuated by a desire for formal harmony, and was steeped in a mysticism which operated in drawing the soul away from action to a divine contemplation. The Perfect Vision, the revelation of the First Hypostasis, is the culmination of the soul's progress. The Second and Third Hypostases, being subject to relations and conditions, are susceptible of approach through the Reason; but the First Hypostasis, being unconditioned, cannot be grasped by Reason, which moves in the sphere of conditions and relations. Hence, the Perfect Vision repudiates that Reason of which it is the culmination: “for thought is a kind of movement, but in the Vision is no movement.” In the Revelation of the Perfect Vision, as well as in the formal development of the Trinity, we see the influence of a desire to compete with Christianity.

This ecstatic contemplation of the highest conception of their Theology exhibited a mysticism which had a more degrading side, one which is specially conspicuous in the Neo Platonist Dæmonology. There also the Mysticism is in combination with refinements of logical definition. Plotinus takes the floating conceptions of Dæmonology and makes them submit to a rigid classification in formal harmony with the tripartite character of the Divine Nature. Divine Powers he divides into three classes. The first Power is that which dwells in the world of Ideas, apart from the perception of man and in close touch with the Divine Intelligence. The next is the race of visible Gods, the Stars, Nature, Earth: the third is that of the Dæmons. The Dæmons are again subdivided into three ranks: Gods, Loves, and Dæmons. Porphyry insists on a similar classification. In one of the oracles collected by him and preserved by Eusebius, the beings of the Dæmonic hierarchy are classified with equal strictness, but with greater simplicity than that shown by Plotinus. His highest rank corresponds with that of his Master. The second rank corresponds with Plotinus' third class, but does not here undergo a tripartite subdivision. His third class, unlike the first, which moves in the presence of God, is far away from communion with Him, and corresponds with the created and visible gods in the second class of Plotinus. He is not always faithful to this simplicity. In the third book of his “De Philosophia ex Oraculis” he admits another class of Dæmons called Heroes, admitting Christ to their number. Elsewhere he divides the Dæmons into archangels, angels, and dæmons. Proclus will have six ranks: and Dionysius the Areopagite, who classified this Dæmonlore for the Christian Church, will have nine. We can equally discern here the operation of that spurious Eclecticism which fits its thefts into the clamps of a preconceived system. The simple notion of Beings intermediate between God and Man, breaking the distance between the two by participating in the Divine and Human nature, is rendered absurd and impossible by its compulsory harmonizing with the demand of the Alexandrine Trinity. Plotinus thought he had made Aristotle agree with Plato, but the harmony was of the same character as that secured between Christianity and Neo-Platonism by making the Christian God-man a Neo-Platonist Dæmon. The Ideas of Plato, the νόηsιs τη̑s νοήsεωs of Aristotle, and the World Soul of the Stoics: how easy to reconcile these different conceptions of the Deity, if they are placed in different spheres of thought, and connected by the mysterious process of Emanation! The Neo-Platonist school was damned by its fatal proclivity for trinities. There were three kinds of gods, three kinds of dæmons, and three methods of approach to the supernatural world. These three methods were of course systematic, almost scientific, constructions. Before Porphyry there were Magic (γοητεία) and Theosophy (θεοsοϕία). That philosopher introduced a third and middle term Theurgy (θεουργία). Theosophy was the process by which the philosopher attained the Perfect Vision, arrived at the consummation of ἔνωsιs. Magic was the process by which the evil Dæmons, whom Porphyry puts under the dominion of Serapis and Hecate, were approached. The object of Theurgy was communion with the good Dæmons. Aided by Oriental fervour, we know the absurdities which these systems developed in the world of practice. But the development of these sciences on the theoretical side was enough to drag them down with their own weight. In Proclus the practical and the theoretic sides of Neo-Platonism are both driven to a culmination which passes the intelligence of humanity. “From the Incommunicable One spring—one knows not how—a host of Henads. Each has the character of absolute being, yet each has distinctive qualities. The Henads run down in long lines; the Intelligible are followed by the Intellectual, these by the Overworldly, these again by the Inworldly. From the Intelligible springs the family of Being, from the Intellectual that of Intelligence, from the Overworldly that of Soul, from the Inworldly that of Nature. These principal ‘chains’ are mainly like brooks falling into one river; that which has a body may also have a soul and an intelligence; but they subdivide as they go down, there are different kinds of intelligences and different kinds of souls dependent on them, so that the river is perpetually branching off into other rivers. Yet, further, the principal chains have to be multiplied by the number of Henads, for each chain is a family depending on a God, and exhibiting throughout the characteristic of that God. It includes not only Angels, Heroes, Demons, and human beings, but stones, plants, animals, which bear the signature of the deity, and have sacramental virtues with respect to him.”

If Proclus believed all this, we can understand his being a victim to the grossest superstition, both in belief and in practice. In the life of Proclus, second Aristotle as he was, we see the natural culmination of that excess of Reason and that exaggeration of Emotion which had marked the Neo-Platonic attitude from the beginning. When Justinian closed the School of Athens in the Sixth Century its professors, the last representatives of Neo-Platonism, were being hunted down as practitioners of magic of the meanest description. The “De Superstitione” of Plutarch marked a stage in the history of the human mind which the Neo-Platonists left behind, and which the European world has only just attained again after centuries of horrible crimes born of a sincere belief in witchcraft.19

It is a natural subject of speculation to those who are interested in the history of this period, how far the character of modern civilization would have been modified, had not the free and tolerant traditions of Greece been clamped into the systematized absurdities of Neo-Platonism. The struggle for social and political ascendancy reacted also upon the liberal and gentle spirit of the Man of Nazareth, whose teachings were thus embedded in a theological formalism which robbed them of half their meaning and all their inspiration. Christianity fought the enemy with its own weapons, and the scientific terminology of the Neo-Platonists gave definiteness to the Christian conception of the Trinity and the celestial hierarchy, while the whole system of Dæmonology, which has played so sinister a part in modern civilization, was to be found entire in the works of Porphyry and Proclus. It has even been asserted that the chief merit of the Neo-Platonist school lay in the fact that it prepared the educated circles of Pagan Society for the acceptance of the Gospel, and laid the foundations for the construction of Christian Theology.20 But it is conceivable that had Christianity come face to face with the calm rationalism and gentle piety of Pagan Religion and Philosophy as they appear in Plutarch, more of the spirit, if less of the form, of the old tradition might have passed into the teachings of the new Faith. We should, perhaps, then have been spared the martyrdom of Christians at the hands of Christians, the Inquisition, and the whole terrible consequences of the Odium Theologicum. Plutarch suggested a frame of mind rather than inculcated a body of dogma, and in that he resembled the founder of Christianity a great deal more than the most honoured theologians of the Church have done. But Paganism girt on its armour in direct hostility to the new Creed, and from these clenched antagonisms sprang that accentuation of points of difference which broke the continuity of civilization, and separated the modern from the classical world by a chasm which the efforts of four centuries have not succeeded in bridging over.21 Is it not possible that Paganism, which out of the multitude of separate gods had evolved the idea of the One Pure and Perfect Deity, might also, out of the many-sided activities of the half-human, half-divine Dæmons, have arrived at the belief in a single mediatory power, and, with a perception unblinded by polemic bitterness, have been prepared to merge this conception in the Divine Man of the Catholic Church?22

But though the spirit of Plutarch was not destined in this way to pass directly on to the believer in Christianity, the time was to come when, among the best and purest adherents of that faith, his teachings would be regarded as efficacious for the sincerest goodness. “The works of Jeremy Taylor,” says Archbishop Trench, “contain no less than two hundred and fifty-six allusions or direct references made by him to the writings of Plutarch.” But direct indebtedness of this kind does not necessarily imply similarity of spirit, and fortunately the mental attitude of Plutarch is one which appears essential to human progress, and does not depend upon the continuity of a tradition. “Plutarch,” wrote Emerson, “will be perpetually rediscovered from time to time as long as books last.”23 He will be perpetually rediscovered because there will be a perpetually recurring necessity to look at life from his point of view. But he will be perpetually rediscovered because he is perpetually allowed to disappear. There will always be those among the disciples of Religion and the followers of Science who maintain that there can be no truce, no toleration between the two, and the history of the human race will be formulated into an indictment against the Superstition of the one, and the most terrible anathemas of the Church will be fulminated against the Atheism of the other. Meanwhile those who take a middle course and recognize the “immortal vitality of Philosophy and the eternal necessity of Religion,”24 and would leave the individual mind to select its appropriate support from the dogmas of the one or the discoveries of the other, without dressing Philosophy in the fantastic garb of Religion, as the Neo-Platonists did, or turning Religion into a matter of rules and regulations as the Clerical Rationalists of the Eighteenth Century did, will be regarded by the extremists as traitors at once to the cause of progress and the cause of morality, and will be placed among the—

                                        “Anime triste di coloro
Che visser senza infamia, e senza lodo.
Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
Degli Angeli, che non furon ribelli
Nè fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sè foro.”(25)

But so long as human nature is composite: so long as it is compelled to feel an interest in the home joys of earth, and is endowed with an imagination which soars beyond the actual realities of life to the possibilities that lie beyond its limits: so long will the spirit which dominated Plutarch operate in inducing men “to borrow Reason from Philosophy, making it their Mystagogue to Religion:” so long will it be recognized that the most subtle Dialectic and the most spiritualized rapture are dangerous at once to Reason and Religion unless they are brought into contact with the necessities of daily life, and made to subserve the ends of practical goodness in the sphere of man's natural and immediate interests. This recognition of Ethics as the dominating end of all Thought and Emotion will lead men on that firm path of reasonable happiness which, in Plutarch's own favourite expression, lies midway between the headlong precipice of Atheism and the engulfing quagmire of Superstition.


  1. A very slight acquaintance with Plutarch's writings will serve to dispose of the charge of Atheism brought against him by Zimmerman, the professor of Theology in the Gymnasium of Zurich:—Credo equidem Plutarchum inter eos fuisse qui cum Cicerone crediderint eos qui dant philosophiæ operam non arbitrari Deos esse.—It is true that Zimmerman supports his case by quoting the pseudo-Plutarchean De Placitis (Idem de providentia non minus male loquitur quam ipsi Epicurei), and seems himself afraid to accept the conclusion of his own demonstrations:—Atheum eum fuisse non credo, sed quomodo asserere potuerit Superstitione Atheismum tolerabiliorem esse, simul tamen eos, quos atheos fuisse minime probare potuit, Superstitioni autem inimicissimos, omnem malorum mundum intulisse, consociare nequeo.—But the learned author is too intent on exculpating Noster Euhemerus from Plutarch's “injustice” to have justice to spare for Plutarch himself.—(J. J. Zimmerman, Epistola ad Nonnen). Gréard quotes other authors of this charge against Plutarch (p. 269).—We cannot allow this opportunity to pass of protesting against the attitude of those who assumed, even in the Nineteenth Century, that it was a sign either of moral depravity, or mental incapacity, in Plutarch not to have been a believer in the Christian faith. Even Archbishop Trench, who admits, concerning such writers as our author, that “many were by them enabled to live their lives after a far higher and nobler fashion than else they would have attained,” cannot rid himself of the notion that had Plutarch actively opposed Christianity he would have committed an offence which our generosity might have pardoned, though our justice must recognize that it needed pardon. “Plutarch himself may be entirely acquitted of any conscious attempt to fight against that truth which was higher than any which he had” (p. 13).—“I have already mentioned that, through no fault of his own, he stood removed from all the immediate influences of the Christian Church” (p. 89). But suppose the facts to have been just the opposite of those indicated in the words we have italicized, it would involve the loss of all sense of historical perspective to draw the conclusion which would clearly have been drawn by Trench himself. The use of similar language by Prof. Mahaffy has already been noted. (Pref. p. xii.) The position assumed by writers who maintain this view, is one quite inappropriate for historical discussion, and its natural expression, if it must be expressed at all, is through the medium of such poetical aspirations as that breathed in the epigram of John, the Metropolitan of Euchaita:—

    “If any Pagans, Lord, Thy grace shall save
    From wrath divine, this boon I humbly crave,
    Plato and Plutarch save: Thine was the cause
    Their speech supported: Thine, too, were the laws
    Their hearts obeyed; and if their eyes were blind
    To recognize Thee Lord of human kind,
    Needs only that Thy gift of grace be shown
    To bring them, and bring all men, to the Throne.”
  2. Dr. Martineau (Types of Ethical Theory, vol. i. p. 91) thinks that “we must go a little further than Zeller, who decides that Plato usually conceived of God as if personal, yet was restrained by a doctrine inconsistent with such conception from approaching it closely or setting it deliberately on any scientific ground,” and devotes several closely-reasoned pages to show that, although there was no room for a personal god in Plato's philosophy, Plato himself was in distinct opposition to his own views as systematically expounded in his writings. “We may regard him as fully aware of the conditions of the problem, and, though unable to solve it without lesion of his dialectic, yet deliberately pronouncing judgment on the side of his religious feeling.” But pace tantorum virorum it will be admitted that the personality of God is not very evident in Plato when those who understand him best can only maintain that it is not essentially interwoven with his philosophy, having only an indirect and accidental existence which is not possible “without lesion of his dialectic.”

  3. “Abstractedly, the theology of the Stoics appears as a materialistic pantheism; God is represented as a fire, and the world as a mode of God.” (Grant, The Ethics of Aristotle, vol. i. p. 265.) In the famous “hymn of Cleanthes,” preserved, like so many other of the great wonders of classical literature, by Stobæus, Grant sees an emphatic recognition of the personality of God, but it is equally natural to regard the hymn as a more detailed expression of that necessity of submitting to Destiny—of living in accordance with nature—which Cleanthes enounces in that other famous fragment which Epictetus would have us hold ready to hand in all the circumstances of life:—

    “Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
    The way that I am bid by you to go:
    To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
    I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.”

    —Epictetus, Encheir. lii. (Long's translation.) Epictetus, indeed, and Seneca, late comers in the history of Stoicism, have undoubtedly attained to a clear recognition of the personality of God.

  4. See the “De cohibenda ira,” “de cupiditate divitiarum,” “de invidia et odio,” “de adulatore et amico.

  5. De garrulitate,” “de vitioso pudore,” “de vitando aere alieno,” “de curiositate.

  6. De amicorum multitudine,” and “de adulatore et amico”; “de fraterno amore,” “de amore prolis”; “conjugalia præcepta,” “de exilio,” “consolatio ad uxorem,” “consolatio ad Apollonium.” (“I can easily believe,” says Emerson, “that an anxious soul may find in Plutarch's ‘Letter to his Wife Timoxena,’ a more sweet and reassuring argument on the immortality than in the Phædo of Plato.”)

  7. Zeller says that “the most characteristic mark of the Plutarchian Ethics is their connexion with religion.”—(Greek Philosophy, translated by Alleyne and Abbott.)

  8. De Virtute Morali, 440 E.

  9. 444 C, D. (Cf. 451.)

  10. 444 D. Cf. Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat, 15 E.

  11. 445 C.

  12. An virtus doceri possit,” “de virtute et vitio,” 101, C, D.

  13. Trench follows Zeller in regarding Plutarch as a forerunner of the Neo-Platonists:—“Plutarch was a Platonist, with an oriental tinge, and thus a forerunner of the new Platonists, who ever regarded him with the highest honour. Their proper founder, indeed, he, more than any other man, deserves to be called, though clear of many of the unhealthy excesses into which, at a later date, many of them ran” (Trench, p. 90). We hope our pages have done something towards putting Plutarch in a different light from that which surrounds him here. As a matter of fact, did the “new Platonists regard him ever with the highest honour?” The testimony of Eunapius we have already quoted (p. 67, note). Himerius is equally laudatory. “Plutarch, who is the source of all the instruction you convey.”—Eclogæ, vii. 4. “I weep for one who, I fondly hoped, would be gifted with speech excelling Minucianus in force, Nicagoras in stateliness, Plutarch in sweetness” (Orat. xliii. 21—Monody on his son's death). But this is rather late in the history of Neo-Platonism. What about Plotinus, and Porphyry, and Proclus? Trench gives no references in proof of his statement, and we have been unable to find any.

  14. Theodoretus: De Oraculis, 951.—“Plutarch of Chæronea, a man who was not Hebrew, but Greek—Greek by birth and in language, and enslaved to Greek ideas.” Cf. Mommsen: The Provinces, from Cæsar to Diocletian, Lib. viii. cap. vii.—“In this Chæronean the contrast between the Hellenes and the Hellenized found expression; such a type of Greek life was not possible in Smyrna or in Antioch; it belonged to the soil like the honey of Hymettus. There were men enough of more powerful talents and of deeper natures, but hardly any second author has known how, in so happy a measure, to reconcile himself serenely to necessity, and how to impress upon his writings the stamp of his tranquillity of spirit, and of his blessedness of life.”

  15. Dr. Bigg calls him a renegade, as the Church has called Julian an apostate. A comment of M. Martha's on this uncharitable practice is worthy of frequent repetition:—“Ainsi donc, que l'on donne à Julien tous les noms qu'il plaira, qu'on l'appelle insensé, fanatique, mais qu'on cesse de lui infliger durement ce nom d'apostat, de peur qu'un historien, trop touché de ses malheurs, ne s'avise un jour de prouver que l'apostasie était excusable.” (“Un chrétien devenu païen”—Etudes Morales.)

  16. See note, p. 45.

  17. Though having also carefully studied both Zeller and Vacherot (Zeller: Die Philosophie der Griechen, vol. iii.; Vacherot: Histoire critique de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie), we have specially used for the purposes of the text the close analysis of the various aspects of Neo-Platonism presented by Dr. Bigg in his “Neo-Platonism,” and the interesting account given by M. Saisset in his article “De l'Ecole d'Alexandrie,” written for the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” of September, 1844, as a review of Jules Simon's work on the Alexandrian School.—For the Neo-Platonist Dæmonology we have largely consulted Wolff.

  18. “In so far as the Deity is the original force, it must create everything. But as it is raised above everything in its nature, and needs nothing external, it cannot communicate itself substantially to another, nor make the creation of another its object. Creation cannot, as with the Stoics, be regarded as the communication of the Divine Nature, as a partial transference of it into the derivative creature; nor can it be conceived as an act of will. But Plotinus cannot succeed in uniting these determinations in a clear and consistent conception. He has recourse, therefore, to metaphors.”—Zeller.

  19. “In the year 1722, a Sheriff-depute of Sutherland, Captain David Ross, of Littledean, took it upon him to pronounce the last sentence of death for witchcraft which was ever passed in Scotland. The victim was an insane old woman who had so little idea of her situation as to rejoice at the sight of the fire which was destined to consume her.”—Sir W. Scott: “Demonology and Witchcraft,” cap. 9.

  20. See Volkmann, vol. i. cap. i.

  21. Cf. M. Martha, “Un chrétien devenu païen,” in his Études Morales: “La philosophie prit tout à coup des allures mystiques et inspirées, elle entoura de savantes ténèbres la claire mythologie compromise par sa clarté; à ses explications symboliques elle mêla les pratiques mystérieuses des cultes orientaux, à sa théologie subtile et confuse les redoutables secrets de la magie: elle eut ses initiations clandestines et terribles, ses enthousiasmes extatiques, ses vertus nouvelles souvent empruntées au christianisme, ses bonnes œuvres, ses miracles même. En un mot, elle devint la théurgie, cet art sublime et suspect qui prétend pouvoir évoquer Dieu sur la terre et dans les âmes. Le christianisme rencontrait donc non plus un culte suranné, facile à renverser, mais une religion vivante, puisant son énergie dans sa défaite, défendu par des fanatiques savants dont le sombre ferveur et l'éloquence illuminée étaient capables d'entraîner aussi une armée de prosélytes.

  22. As it was, the later Neo-Platonists had to content themselves with Apollonius of Tyana, instead of Jesus Christ.—“Apollonius of Tyana, who was no longer a mere philosopher, but a being half-human, half-divine” (Eunapius, op. cit.).

  23. See Emerson's “Introduction” to Goodwin's translation of the “Morals.”

  24. Saisset, op. cit.

  25. Dante: Inferno, Canto iii.

Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (essay date 1909)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8104

SOURCE: Tyrrell, Robert Yelverton. “Plutarch.” In Essays on Greek Literature, pp. 171-200. London: Macmillan and Co., 1909.

[In the following essay, Tyrrell explores the qualities of the Lives that make it a literary classic.]

‘And would they take the poor boy's life for the like o' that?’ ‘Bedad they would, if he had as many lives as Plutarch.’ This little dialogue was overheard not long ago in an Irish county. It may, perhaps, fitly introduce the present paper, as showing what a world-wide fame has been won by Plutarch's Lives. It will be observed that the phrase Plutarch's Lives, coming down to the peasantry from a distant and obscure tradition of the Hedge-Schoolmaster, had lost its meaning for them, and Plutarch had become not the author but the possessor of many lives. Mr. Strachan Davidson in his ‘Cicero’ couples the Lives with the philosophical works of Cicero, as having exercised the greatest and most constant influence on subsequent literature; and when we remember Shakespeare's large indebtedness to North's Plutarch, we must admit that the Dean of Balliol has not accorded to the Lives an unduly high place among epoch-making works.

But though Plutarch has exercised so great an influence on literature, we know very little about his life, and that little chiefly gleaned from his own writings. The chief of biographers has had no biographer. The legends which have gathered round him, such as the tradition that he was made consul by Trajan, have no historical basis. He was born a Boeotian, in that crass atmosphere of which Juvenal speaks as the very home and centre of dulness, though it produced Pindar, perhaps the most truly ‘inspired’ of all poets ancient or modern. His native place was Chaeronea, the town which commanded the Boeotian plain, and which so often provided a field for contending hosts to meet and put the destinies of Hellas to ‘battle's brute arbitrament. As Belgium in modern history has earned the name of ‘the cockpit’ of Europe, so Chaeronea (as Plutarch tells us) was called more pleasantly by Epaminodas ‘Mars' ballroom,’ so often did it invite the states of Greece to the carnival of war. His birth may be placed about 50 a.d. He studied at Athens, visited Alexandria, and must have spent some time in Asia Minor. Rome, ‘beautiful Rome,’ as he calls it, was visited by him at least twice, probably oftener. He delivered lectures there in the Greek tongue, and many of his treatises, as they have come down to us, seem to have been little more than expanded notes of these lectures. He could not have lectured in Latin,—a language of which he had very little knowledge, only enabling him to take in the general meaning of a sentence which he could not have construed word by word. His knowledge of Latin literature is very small, extending only to histories and memoirs essential for his Lives. To Virgil he never refers, nor to Ovid, whose ‘Fasti’ would have been so useful to him for his Roman Questions. His only reference to Latin poetry is one to Horace. It is in his life of Lucullus, where he tells the story to which Horace refers in his ‘Epistles.’1 According to Horace, Lucullus, being asked if he could supply a hundred purple cloaks for a certain scenic representation, said that he thought he had some, and would see. After a while he sent back a message that he found he had some five thousand, of which the ‘entrepreneur’ might have as many as he wanted. Horace adds the reflection, ‘it is a poor establishment in which there is not much gear of which the owner knows nothing and in which the thief finds his account.’ Plutarch seems to have read the passage. The way in which he tells the anecdote is this: ‘When the “entrepreneur” said he wanted a hundred, Lucullus told him to take twice as many; on which the poet Flaccus made the comment that a man is not really rich unless he has more property that is overlooked and unsuspected than that which is seen and recognized.’ The comment, however, is more like that of a man who had been told that Horace had used the incident to point a moral than of one who had read the actual words of the poet. However, the passage is interesting as showing that the great Gibbon nodded when he said that between Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Libanius,—between the century before Christ and the fourth century after,—there is not in the whole of Greek literature a single allusion to Horace or Virgil. Plutarch was equally ignorant of the prose literature of Rome, including the philosophical works of Cicero which, as we have seen, contest with the Lives the dominion of the intellect of posterity. The two passages in Plutarch's life of Cicero which seem to show some knowledge of Cicero's philosophical works, are more likely to have come from Tiro's ‘Life of Cicero.’ When asked which of the speeches of Demosthenes he admired the most, Cicero replied, the longest.2 Again, Plutarch quotes the remark of Cicero when Caesar ordered the restoration of the statues of Pompey which had been thrown down, ‘he is erecting the statues of Pompey, but he is planting his own.’

It is an interesting observation of the late Dr. Richard Chenevix Trench, Archbishop of Dublin, in his admirable lectures on Plutarch,3 delivered in Dublin thirty-six years ago, that Plutarch never broke a lance against the truth which was higher than any which he had ever heard, the truth which in two centuries was to dominate the world. He knew nothing of Christianity. Even such passing notices as we have in Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, and Epictetus are sought in vain in Plutarch. If we are right, and we cannot be far wrong, in placing his birth about 50 a.d., long before he began to write, St. Peter and St. Paul had fulfilled their mission. All around him there were flourishing Christian churches, but he knew nothing of them. If he had ever heard of the perverse superstition, as Pliny calls it, he confounded it with Judaism, of which he knew little and only the least attractive side. ‘He can tell us how the Jewish high priest was clothed,’ writes Dr. Mahaffy in his excellent study of Plutarch in ‘The Greek World under Roman Sway’ (p. 321), ‘but as to Jewish dogmas he manifests the grossest ignorance.’ When, however, he warns the wife not to allow religious cults foreign to her husband to creep into the house, he is, in the opinion of Dr. Mahaffy, pointing ‘at Christianity, as well as at those Oriental cults which we know to have done domestic mischief in those days.’4

The later years of a tranquil and happy life he spent in his native town of Chaeronea, a small and insignificant place of which he says in his life of Demosthenes,—in one of those few and precious ‘asides’ which throw a rare and fitful ray of light on his private life,—that it was so small that he did not like to make it smaller by leaving it. Have we here a passage read and remembered by Juvenal5 when he speaks of a man repairing to Cumae as about to present the Sibyl with one additional citizen, an appreciable addition to a population so limited? But while he made Chaeronea his headquarters he took excursions into various parts of Greece, and felt a pride in making himself acquainted with her historical and antiquarian monuments. It is in his Symposiaca or Table Talk that we see most of the man himself and the society of his time. One of his chief friends was Mestrius Florus, a man of consular rank and an ardent antiquarian. With him Plutarch visited the battlefield of Bebriacum where the army of Otho was overthrown. He records an occasion on which the Emperor Vespasian ‘scored off’ the man of learning in a manner characteristic in all ages of the personage when brought to book by a scholar. Mestrius Florus had corrected the emperor for his mispronunciation of the word for a wagon. He had called it plostra not plaustra. The emperor accepted the correction, but next day greeted the scholar as Flaurus not Florus. Now Flaurus in Greek means ‘worthless’ (ϕλαυ̑ροs). Human nature is ever the same. The boor in high place loves to have a jest at the expense of the poor scholar, and the world laughs at the triumph of material success over mental endowments. The questions raised at these symposiaca were often small and trivial, as, for instance, why is A the first letter of the alphabet, whether the hen or the egg came first, which hand of Venus Diomede wounded. Here, again, is it not possible that we have evidence of some knowledge of Plutarch on the part of Juvenal? One recalls the passage6 where Juvenal laughs at the minute and trivial inquiries which engaged the cognoscenti of his day: who was the nurse of Aeneas, the step-mother of Anchemolus, what age did Acestes attain and how many flasks of Sicilian wine he gave to his Phrygian guests. The symposiaca are a wonderful source of information about the social life of the first century of the Christian era, and they have not been drawn upon as much as they deserve. Further, they show the character of Plutarch in a very amiable light, which will be further illustrated when we come to consider his nature and gifts from other points of view.

We have seen,—and shall see even more clearly when we come to estimate Shakespeare's debt to Pluturch,—that the Parallel Lives have on them the seal of immortality. Before dwelling on their greatness it may be well to dispose of what is much the most trifling part of the inquiry, namely, the respects in which they fall short of perfection. First of all, Plutarch was a Greek. He was enamoured of Hellas, as Pericles said that every Athenian ought to be of Athens; and he loved his birthplace. He hated those who belittled,—even those who did not love and worship,—Greece, nay even Chaeronea. In a strange passage in the De sera Numinis Vindicta (The Deferred Retribution of Heaven), perhaps the most interesting of his moral essays, he depicts Nero as suffering the tortures of Hell, his soul being studded with red-hot nails. But he adds that this torment is presently to be remitted, and that Nero (in recognition of his musical tastes) is to be transformed into a marsh frog to make, we suppose, ‘the punishment fit the crime.’ This mitigation of sentence is represented as being due to his treatment of Greece: ‘Some recognition from Heaven was due to the fact that he emancipated Greece, the best and most pious of the peoples subject to Rome.’ His extraordinary treatise, On the Malignity of Herodotus (if really authentic), probably had its rise from the fact that Herodotus has recorded some ignoble facts in Theban history. Yet what single writer has done more than Herodotus to paint in unfading colours the grand tableau of the struggle of the West against the East? Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis live in his pages; but so does the Theban Medism, and Plutarch cannot bear to be reminded of the blot on the Boeotian escutcheon. Yet surely it was erased by Epaminondas, and Pindar could contemplate it without a blush. But Plutarch lived in a time when Greece was politically a nullity, though she was still able to give laws in literature, rhetoric, and art. We have seen that he despised, or at least neglected, the great literature which Rome had borrowed from her vassal; he also was somewhat blind to the solid qualities of Roman worthies, their steadfastness, their devotion to their country, their abnegation of self,—qualities conspicuously absent in the far more brilliant Greek men of affairs, such as Themistocles, Alcibiades, and (as some would say) Demosthenes. It is interesting to observe that when he has to seek a Roman parallel for a person so characteristically Greek as Alcibiades, he is obliged to have recourse to the semi-mythical Coriolanus, and the parallel hardly extends beyond the fact that each bore arms against his country. It is said that he is disposed to favour the Greek against the Latin hero. On this subject we would ask leave to quote an eloquent passage (abridged) from Dean Merivale's History of the Romans under the Empire:—

Plutarch's Parallel Lives are eminently philosophy teaching by example. There is no work, perhaps, of antiquity that Christian parents can put so securely into the hands of their children. The author's object was to draw a fair and friendly comparison between the Greeks and the Romans, between the conquered and the conquerors, the spoiled and the spoilers, the slaves and the masters, between men whom other censors would have delighted to contrast as the spiritual Hellene and the brutal Italian, or, again, as the cringing Graeculus and the lofty Romulides. Yet throughout this long series of lives, this glittering array of virtues and vices, there is no word, I think, of subservience or flattery, of humiliation or triumph, to mark the position of the writer in the face of his Roman rulers. Whether we consider the book as addressed to the Greeks or the Romans, the absence of any such indications of feeling is undoubtedly remarkable. To me it seems most honourable both to the one people and to the other.7

The question is certainly one on which there is no room for a charge of undue bias. But, be it observed, even if the charge of favouring the Greeks were true it would reflect great credit on Plutarch that in an age of assentation and servility he chose the nobler part and refused to avail himself of an obvious means of recommending himself to the emperors and the great families of Rome. It is true, indeed, that Plutarch was a born biographer, and as such he was no historian. His lives, for instance, of the Gracchi present them to us as living beings, but the times in which they lived must be reconstructed by us from other sources. The revolution which marked that epoch had for him no existence. A crucial instance of his lack of political insight is to be found in the rapture with which he records the proclamation of the liberty of Greece at the Isthmian games by Flamininus. He seems to believe that ‘liberty,’ given as that was, is really liberty and not the most degrading form of servitude, chains the more humiliating because they are gilded, and because they bind their wearers under the semblance of ornaments. But though the political outlook of the Lives is but limited, their ethical aspect is invaluable. His own account of his aim may well be quoted from his ‘Paulus Aemilius,’ in the words of Sir Thomas North's translation, which must ever have such a deep interest for every English-speaking race, as being the material out of which Shakespeare wrought his magnificent panorama of the Roman republic:—

When I first began to write these Lives my intent was to profit others; but since continuing and going on I have much profited myself by looking into these histories as if I looked into a glass to frame and fashion my life to the mould and pattern of these virtuous noblemen. For, running over their manners in this sort and seeking also to describe their lives, methinks I am still conversant and familiar with them, and do, as it were, lodge them with me, one after another. I do teach and prepare myself to shake off and banish from me all lewd and dishonest conditions, if by chance the company and conversation of them whose company I keep,—and must of necessity haunt,—do acquaint me with some unhappy or ungracious touch.

What is the great secret of the popularity of the Lives, which has made them, in the words of Madame Roland, ‘the pasture of great souls,’ which has led Montaigne to call them a breviary, and which has recommended the sage of Chaeronea to minds so diverse as those of Jeremy Taylor, Bayle, Dryden, Bossuet, Molière, and Montaigne? A very noble tribute, too, is paid to them by Amyot, the author of the sixteenth century French translation of the Lives, whose version North Englished, and who, therefore, at second hand has fed the lamp of our great poet's inspiration:—

‘The dullest man in the world on reading or hearing read such a master must bend his head in humility and do obeisance to Truth herself, who can make herself so well heard in the mouth of a poor pagan.’8 It is his clear appreciation of the difference between history and biography, his vivid psychological portraiture, which gives to every anecdote, however apparently trivial, a deep significance. Every anecdote illustrates some characteristic trait, or puts in a strong light some striking fact. Witness the anecdote of the girl who, during a gladiator's show, plucked off a thread from the toga of Sulla that she might get a bit of his luck; the mother who, learning from her husband that he had betrothed their daughter, said angrily, ‘you have been very hasty unless, of course, it is to Tiberius Gracchus’; the refusal of Cato, aged five, to acknowledge the right of the Italians to the franchise, though in the grasp of a big Marsian who held him out of the window by the neck and threatened to drop him if he did not give in. Beside many pithy sentences which have made their way into all the histories, there is still a rich harvest to be gleaned. What could be better than the reply of Sulla to the application for a military command made by Crassus whose family had suffered in the Marian massacre, ‘I will give the command, but I can give you as support only the ghosts of your father and your brother’; or than Caesar's summing up of his military position at a critical moment in the words, ‘first I must deal with the army that has no general, then with the general who has no army.’ Plutarch is keenly conscious of the psychological value of the anecdote and sometimes expressly claims it. In his life of Alexander he tells us that he omits many things of the greatest importance because ‘the noblest deeds do not always show virtues and vices; but oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport, make men's natural dispositions and manners appear more plain than famous battles won, wherein are slain ten thousand men.’ Plutarch's object is ‘to decipher the man and his nature,’ as he says in the beginning of his ‘Nicias,’ when he confesses that he has lightly passed over many things that Thucydides has told. He certainly neglects the background, giving the life without the times, even to the detriment of the decipherment of nature (as sometimes we cannot help feeling); but when he has succeeded so wonderfully, who shall dare to speak of a flaw in his method? Who will lift up his voice against a plan which has given us such a number of delightful anecdotes, some of which are often attributed to authors much posterior to Plutarch? It is to him we owe the phrase ‘to call a spade a spade’; he it is who has told us that when the Olynthian politicians complained to Philip that they were called traitors in Macedon because they had betrayed their city, the king replied, ‘We Macedonians are a rude folk; we call a spade a spade.’ The same king on another occasion was silenced by a retort also recorded by Plutarch. He was arguing without any special knowledge with a musician on a question touching the musical art, when the latter closed the discussion with the words, ‘God forbid your Majesty should know as much about these things as a mere artist like myself.’ An answer recorded by him as given by Alexander the Great is interesting because Seneca9 calls it utterly foolish though he admits that it sounds spirited and princely. Spirited and princely it certainly sounds to us. A humble friend asked him for some help towards a dowry for his daughter. Alexander gave him fifty talents. This seemed to the applicant to be far too much, and he desired that the gift should be greatly reduced. ‘But,’ said the king ‘though such a sum might be enough for you to receive, it would not be enough for me to give.’ One is reminded of the indignation of another kingly-minded man, Julius Caesar, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom. ‘Make it fifty,’ said Caesar, ‘you do not know my value, such a small ransom would be an insult.’ This story, illustrating so well the soaring spirit of the great Roman, we owe to Plutarch, as well as Alexander's neat remark about his vicegerent, Antipater. A friend called attention to the plain apparel of Antipater, and commended his modesty and humility. ‘Yes,’ said Alexander, ‘his outer man is plain, but his spirit is always “en grande tenue.”’10 Very subtle, too, is the ‘mot’ ascribed by him to the wise man, Chilon, who, when some one boasted to him that he had not an enemy, put to him the significant question, ‘Have you a friend?’ Some of his happy anecdotes, happy as apt illustrations of character, have already been quoted. Others would be well worthy of record if space permitted. So would some of his grand tableaux, such as those in which he depicts the defeat and death of Crassus, who went deliberately to meet his doom because ‘it will be better to have it said that a Roman general was deceived by the enemy than abandoned by his own men.’ Very impressive and picturesque is his description of the last hours of Cato in Utica, that great soul to whom Mommsen refers as the fool who spoke the epilogue in the drama of the fall of the Roman republic. If Cato was a fool in any sense, it was not in the vein of Touchstone and Parolles, caustic but genial critics of life. It was in the way of Don Quixote—a noble way, which Mommsen was unable to understand. Yet he was no Don Quixote either. It was not against windmills that he tilted, though it was against objects equally impervious to his lance. The death of Pompey was called by Chateaubriand ‘le plus beau morceau du Plutarque,’ and has been reproduced by every historian of Rome.

We would here put before our readers a scene or two in which Plutarch's treatment of the theme may be compared with that of a brother artist, and it will be seen that Plutarch does not suffer by the comparison. The suicide of Otho is described both by Tacitus11 and by Plutarch,12 and the two have evidently used the same authorities. Here is the Tacitean account taken from Church and Brodribb:—

Towards evening he quenched his thirst with a draught. Two daggers were brought to him. He tried the edge of both, and then put one under his head. After satisfying himself that his friends had set out, he passed a tranquil night, and it is even said that he slept. At dawn he fell with his breast upon the steel. Hearing a groan from the dying man his freedmen and slaves came in. They found but one wound. His funeral was hastily performed. He had made this the subject of earnest entreaties, anxious that his head might not be cut off and subjected to indignities. The Boeotian cohorts carried his body with praises and tears, covering his wound and his hands with kisses. Some of the soldiers killed themselves near the funeral pile, not moved by remorse or fear, but by the desire to emulate his glory and by affection for their prince.

Plutarch's account of the same scene has all the dignity of Tacitus, and has preserved besides, in the dying emperor's concern for his friends and his freedmen, some pathetic touches which the Tacitean narrative lacks:—

‘Towards evening he was athirst and drank a little water. Then he carefully examined the edge of two daggers which were beside him, and laid aside one, placing the other under his arm. … He spent the rest of the night in repose so unbroken that his chamberlains were astonished at the soundness of his sleep. In the morning he summoned a freedman who had assisted him in the division of his property among his friends, and, learning from him that each of them had received what he desired, said, “go, then, and show yourself to the troops, if you do not want to meet a violent death at their hands as having helped to cause my death.” When the man left, he held the dagger, point upwards, in both hands and threw himself down on it. The pain wrung from him only one groan, which was the first notice the household had of his tragic end. When the slaves lifted up the dead body and exposed it to the public view, the whole camp and city were filled with lamentations. The soldiers burst noisily into the house, and in the excess of their grief cursed their negligence in not keeping a close watch on their emperor and thus baffling his noble self-immolation in their behalf. Though the enemy were hard by, not one of the soldiers would leave the corse. Without even removing their armour, they made a pyre, and carried the dead emperor out. Those who succeeded in outstripping the others in the race for the honour of bearing the bier were proud men. The less fortunate contented themselves with throwing themselves on the corse and kissing the wound. Others clasped the dead hands, and others, who could not get near, prostrated themselves in adoration. Some, after applying the torch to the pyre, slew themselves, not, so far as is known, through gratitude for benefits received, or through fear of the vengeance of the conqueror. No, never was king or tyrant animated by a love of power so prodigious or so passionate as was their craving to be servants to Otho and to do his bidding. Even after his death regret for his loss never left them, but endured in undying hatred of Vitellius.’

It is hard to account for this extraordinary enthusiasm for the effeminate Otho, who, according to Juvenal, plastered his face with bread poultices and carried his mirror with him to the battlefield.13 He must have had some trait which appealed strongly to the soldiery. One recalls a somewhat similar case during the Boer war.

It is no small triumph to come with advantage out of a comparison with Tacitus. We have not space here to set beside each other the Plutarchean and Thucydidean narratives of the last days of Nicias, but a reader of Thucydides14 and of Plutarch15 will find, we think, in the former, fine as it is, nothing so touching as the last words of Plutarch's twenty-sixth chapter:—

While all were weeping and wailing in their terror and agony of mind, Nicias, sick though he was, seldom broke down. When he did, it was plain that he was not thinking of himself, but of the ignominious issue of the expedition and the collapse of the soaring ambition of Athens. What struck people most was the injustice of his fate,—a feeling that was aggravated when they remembered how he had argued and pleaded against the disastrous invasion of Sicily. Indeed, in some their trust in Providence experienced a severe shock, when they saw a man of such eminence, of such unimpeachable life and exemplary piety, involved in the same ruin with the most degraded and abandoned of the rank and file.

But let us no more compare Plutarch with the artists of the ancient world. Let us hasten to his crowning triumph, to the fact that the Master Mind of all time, the Artist of Artists, not only drew from him the materials for his amazing pictures of the ancient world, but sometimes transferred to his plays whole scenes from the Lives with scarcely a phrase or a word altered or modified. Had Plutarch never written his Lives, or had they not been translated by some sympathetic mind like Sir Thomas North's, it is very unlikely that the world would ever have had Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra. The whole play of Julius Caesar is to be found in Plutarch, and often the very wording of North's version is adopted unaltered; oftener, however, a happy touch is dwelt on and developed,—the lines deepened or the colour heightened. A good example of the latter mode of dealing with the materials is afforded by Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, perhaps the finest specimen in literature of the orator's art and its influence on an urban multitude. Here is the fine passage16 in Plutarch which Shakespeare's art has immortalized:—

To conclude his oration he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murtherers.

We all know the grand passage in ‘Julius Caesar’:—

‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time Caesar ever put it on;
'T was on a summer's evening in his tent:
That day he overcame the Nervii.
Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb'd,
And, as he pluck'd his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,
As rushing out of doors to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock'd or no.
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.’(17)

The final words in the passage of Plutarch about ‘calling them murtherers’ find their poetic consecration in

‘O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers.’

Here we have the original Greek passage treated with great freedom and, perhaps, in one place a little spoiled by one of those conceits which were so dear to the Elizabethan age, and which even Shakespeare could not resist. Throughout the play of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ the correspondence with Plutarch is modified by the fact that Antony, as he was and as Plutarch portrayed him, would not have made a hero of tragedy. The coarse ruffian and debauchee is refined by Shakespeare into the victim of the spells of an eastern enchantress, a Ulysses in the toils of Circe or Calypso, but one who is sober and wise enough to recognize that he has lost the world for a woman, even though he count it well lost, one who is able to sum up his ruined career in the pathetic words, ‘I have lost my way in the world.’

But in this play there is one perfect example of the confidence with which the ‘myriad-minded’ Englishman was content to put himself into the hands of the simple Boeotian, borrowing from him every artistic touch, and adding only the dramatic framework. Greece took captive her proud Roman conqueror, but never had she a greater triumph over posterity than when a Greek wrote a scene on which not even a Shakespeare could make an improvement.

The final scene of Cleopatra's life is thus told by Plutarch (North's version):—

‘Her death was very sudden, for those whom Caesar sent to her ran hither in all haste possible, and found the soldiers standing at the gate, mistrusting nothing, nor understanding of her death. But when they had opened the doors, they found Cleopatra stark dead, laid upon a bed of gold, attired and arrayed in her royal robes, and one of her two women which was called Iras dead at her feet, and her other woman (called Charmian) half dead and trembling, trimming the diadem which Cleopatra wore upon her head. One of the soldiers, seeing her, angrily said unto her “Is that well done, Charmian?” “Very well,” said she again, “and meet for a princess descended from the race of so many noble Kings.” She said no more, but fell down dead hard by the bed.’

Here is Shakespeare's version accepting every artistic touch and adding practically nothing except the dramatic form and metrical garb.

                                                  ‘Enter the Guard rushing in.
FIRST Guard.
Where is the Queen?
                                                                      Speak softly, wake her not.
FIRST Guard.
Caesar hath sent—
                                                                                Too slow a messenger.
                                                                                                    [Applies an asp.]
O, come apace, despatch! I partly feel thee.
FIRST Guard.
Approach, ho! All's not well: Caesar's beguil'd.
SEC. Guard.
There's Dolabella sent from Caesar: call him.
FIRST Guard.
What work is here? Charmian, is this well
It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.
Ah, soldier.                                                                                [Dies.]
                                                                                          Reënter Dolabella.
How goes it here?
SEC. Guard.
                                                                                All dead.
                                                                                                                                  Caesar, thy thoughts
Touch their effects in this: thyself art coming
To see perform'd the dreaded act which thou
So sought'st to hinder.
                                        [Within.] A way there, a way for Caesar!
                    Reënter Caesar and all his train marching.
O, Sir, you are too sure an augurer,
That you did fear is done.
                                                                                                                        Bravest at the last,
She levell'd at our purposes, and, being royal,
Took her own way. The manner of their deaths?
I do not see them bleed.
                                                                                          Who was last with them?
FIRST Guard.
A simple countryman that brought her figs:
This was his basket.
                                                                                Poison'd, then.
FIRST Guard.
                                                                                                                                                      O, Caesar,
This Charmian lived but now; she stood and spake:
I found her trimming up the diadem
On her dead mistress; tremblingly she stood
And on the sudden dropp'd.’(18)

Such is the tale as told by Plutarch, and such is the scene as dramatized by Shakespeare. Even the soldier's indignant question,—probably resting upon some basis of tradition, for who would have imagined such words from a soldier?—and Charmian's splendid reply are hardly modified. Shakespeare takes here and there words, phrases, even speeches, as by royal right from various writers. But we do not elsewhere find so large and beautiful a picture transferred with every detail to his enduring canvas. In this proud boast Plutarch has no rivals.

Shakespeare is seen at his worst when he puts Holinshed into blank verse, but he rises to his noblest heights in some of his adaptations of Plutarch. It was in his power of realizing a character or scene already sketched in outline, that his consummate genius lay.

The Coriolanus not only adopts whole speeches from North's Plutarch, but is penetrated throughout with the diction and thought of that work. The first sentence of the Life is reproduced almost verbally in Coriolanus, ii. 3, 244 f. ‘Coriolanus,’ iii. 1, 69 f.,

‘In soothing them we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition’

has its origin in North's ‘They nourished against themselves the naughty seed and cockle of insolence and sedition.’ Sometimes Shakespeare apologizes for an extravagance of fancy or diction in North, as, for instance, where North has ‘And so the belly, all this notwithstanding, laughed at their folly and said.’ Shakespeare makes Menenius justify the figure:—

                                                                                          ‘With a kind of smile
Which ne'er came from the lungs, but even thus—
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak—it tauntingly replied.’

We add two passages showing how closely Shakespeare adhered to the text of North. Here is the passage on which he built the speech of Coriolanus at the house of Tullus Aufidius, the general of the Volscians:—

‘I am Caius Marcius, who hath done to thyself particularly and to all the Volsces generally great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny for my surname of Coriolanus that I bear. For I never had any other benefit or recompense of the true and painful service I have done and the extreme dangers I have been in but this only surname; a good memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldest bear me. Indeed, the name only remaineth with me; for the rest the envy and cruelty of the people of Rome have taken from me by the sufferance of the dastardly nobility and magistrates who have forsaken me and let me be banished by the people. This extremity hath now driven me to come as a poor suitor, to take thy chimney-hearth, not of any hope I have to save my life thereby: for if I had feared death I would not have come hither to put myself in hazard: but pricked forward with desire to be revenged of them that have thus banished me; which now I do begin in putting my person into the hands of their enemies. Wherefore, if thou hast any heart to be wreaked of the injuries thy enemies have done thee, speed thee now, and let my misery serve thy turn, and so use it as my services may be a benefit to the Volsces: promising thee that I will fight with better good will for all you than I did when I was against you, knowing that they fight more valiantly who know the force of the enemy than such as have never proved it. And if it be so that thou dare not, and that thou art weary to prove fortune any more, then am I also weary to live any longer. And it were no wisdom in thee to save the life of him who hath been heretofore thy mortal enemy, and whose service now can nothing help nor pleasure thee.’19

Compare the following passage from North's Plutarch with Shakespeare's Coriolanus, v. 3, 94 f.

If we held our peace, my son, and determined not to speak, the state of our poor bodies and present sight of our raiment would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home since thy exile and abode abroad; but think now with thyself how much more unfortunate than all the women living we are come hither, considering that the sight which should be most pleasant to all other to behold, spiteful fortune had made most fearful to us, making myself to see my son, and my daughter here her husband, besieging the walls of his native country: so as that which is the only comfort to all other in their adversity and misery, to pray unto the gods and to call to them for aid, is the only thing which plungeth us into most deep perplexity. For we cannot, alas! both together pray for victory to our country and for safety of thy life also; but a world of grievous curses, yea more than any mortal enemy can heap upon us, are forcibly wrapt up in our prayers. … Moreover, my son, thou hast sorely taken of thy country, exacting grievous payments upon them in revenge of the injuries offered thee; besides, thou hast not hitherto showed thy poor mother any courtesy. And, therefore, it is not only honest, but due unto me, that without compulsion I should obtain my so just and reasonable request of thee.

The scene in Coriolanus, v. 3, where Volumnia employs the child Marcius to work upon his father has a pathetic touch not in Plutarch:—

                                                                                          ‘Speak thou, boy,
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
Than can our reasons.’

Minor loans from North's Plutarch will be recognized in Timon of Athens compared with Plutarch's Antonius, 38, and Alcibiades, 4; and in Midsummer Night's Dream, ii. 1, 75-80, where Shakespeare takes the name Perigenia from Plutarch's Theseus, 1, Ariadne from ib. 3, Aegle from ib. 4, and Antiopa and Hippolyta from ib. 8. Indeed, almost all the foreign names in Shakespeare come from Plutarch. The strange name Caphis in Timon is found in Plutarch's Sulla. Hannibal, in Measure for Measure, ii. 1, no doubt comes from Plutarch, and so does the story of Alexander and Clitus, alluded to in Henry V. iv. 7, 41. In Julius Caesar, iv. 3, 178, ‘Cicero being one,’ looks very like a reminiscence of Plutarch, Brutus, 20, ‘and among that number Cicero was one.’ ‘Et tu Brute’ appears in Julius Caesar, iii. 1, 77, but not in Plutarch.

As a psychologist Plutarch might be compared advantageously with Seneca, but the latter is theoretical while the former is practical. Plutarch thoroughly understands human character, observes it with great intelligence, and describes it luminously; but he observes as a man, not as a metaphysician, to borrow a shrewd observation from Emerson. He sounds the depths and scales the heights of the great problems of existence, but, like Tennyson's shepherd, he loves not the heights,

                                                                                ‘Nor cares to walk
With Death and morning on the silver horns.’

Like Love, Plutarch is ‘of the valley’ and ‘by the happy threshold.’ ‘He has a taste,’ writes Emerson, ‘for common life. He knows the farm, the forge, the kitchen, and every kitchen utensil.’ He revels in ‘the little murmur of the burg’ of Chaeronea, but he is far from mistaking it for ‘the great wave that rolls around the world.’ It would be pleasant to follow Plutarch into his private life, to sketch the Greek village of the first century after Christ, to examine his views on love, and on marriage, which he makes a very prosaic relation, enlivened only by the excursions and alarums of the mother-in-law, who even at that early period of the world's history had begun to make herself felt. But all this would afford material enough for another essay. We will now make a few observations on a couple of the best and most suggestive of his moral treatises, that on Superstition, called by Wyttenback ‘liber vere Plutarcheus,’ and that on the ‘Delays in Divine Justice,’ concluding with some general remarks on Plutarch's method and style.

The moralists of the ancient world, Seneca, Persius, Juvenal, Lucian, have been bitter satirists. Even Persius, when he describes himself (far from accurately) as a laugher (cachinno) adds ‘with an angry spleen.’ But Plutarch is never bitter, never applies even the light lash of Horace, under which Persius says his victims smiled. He pities the sufferers from the plague of superstition, and tries to alleviate their miseries and excuse their weakness. Superstition is not so great an error as atheism, but it entails more suffering. He compares the atheist to the man who is colour blind. The atheist lacks a great source of happiness, but he never had it and does not know what it is. The man who is stone deaf does not suffer like him whose want of ear turns harmonies into discords. The superstitious man sees in every little ‘contretemps’ of every-day life a clear sign of the anger of Heaven and its determination to punish him. Even sleep is turned into a source of terror. ‘Reversing the pleasing remark of Pythagoras that we are made better by coming into the presence of the gods, he feels as if the temples which he enters were full of serpents.’ He puts God in a worse light than the atheist. ‘For my part,’ says Plutarch, ‘I would rather have a man say of me “there is no such person as Plutarch” than “Plutarch is unreasonable, passionate, vindictive, a man who, if you left him out of a supper party through inadvertence, or had not time to pay him a visit, would slander you and even ruin you.”’ In fine, while the atheist says ‘there is no God,’ the superstitious man says ‘I would there were not.’ The wise man he describes as standing ‘on sound solid ground between the bogs of superstition and the quagmires of atheism.’

The treatise on the Delays of Divine Justice is full of profound remarks, among which one finds a complete recognition of heredity, and the devolution on the children of the sins of the father. The remark of Cotton is anticipated, which we cannot accurately quote in English, but of which we happen to recollect the late Benjamin Hall Kennedy's happy rendering in an elegiac couplet:—

‘Justitia gaudere Deum sic collige: poenas
                    Qui meruere timent, qui timuere luunt.’

The treatise is an attempt to lead an age, prone to deny God, or disfigure Him, back to the god of Plato. Plutarch has no doubt of the immortality of the soul. ‘Miserable man,’ he exclaims, ‘is he who shuts the gates of another life. He is like a man who, overtaken by a storm at sea, would say to his fellow voyagers “we have no pilot to steer or star to guide us. But what matter? We shall soon be dashed against the rocks or engulfed in the abyss.”’ But a complete treatment of this delightful treatise would lead us into a discussion about the religion of the first century of the Christian era.

Niebuhr, to the great injury of his reputation for literary or psychological insight, called the Lives a collection of silly anecdotes, and others have accused Plutarch of not duly weighing his authorities. But the charge cannot be sustained. For instance, he warns his readers of the chronological difficulties which beset the story of the interview between Solon and Croesus; but that does not seem to him a sufficient reason for suppressing a tale so instructive and so natural. Besides, we find him expressly weighing rival authorities, as in the forty-sixth chapter of his Alexander, where he recites the evidence for and against Alexander's relations with the Amazonian queen, and decides against the story. In a similar spirit, in ‘Lysander,’ he rejects the tale of a characteristic correspondence between Lysander and the Ephors, who, receiving from him the despatch, ‘Athens is taken,’ said, ‘taken would have been quite sufficient.’ Plutarch's comment is, in effect, that the anecdote is ben trovato, but that there is no positive evidence for its truth. It is suspiciously like other tales illustrating the Spartan love of laconic speech. In like manner in Themistocles, 25, he rejects a statement of Stesimbrotus, quoting against him Theophrastus and Thucydides; and in many other places we find him exercising the same caution.

The style of Plutarch has been almost universally admired, but there have been dissentients. Johnson found it cramped, and Boissonade described it as a mosaic, apparently because he makes his style fit his theme, and according to its requirements employs the language of the historian, the poet, the naturalist, and the metaphysician. Chateaubriand said he was ‘un agréable imposteur en tours naïfs,’ and another French critic has said that he owes to his French translator, Amyot, any charm that he possesses. But M. Gréard, in his excellent work on Plutarch's Morals, puts the case in its true light. Plutarch had a real candour and geniality of spirit. His cultivation of rhetoric modified these qualities, but was very far from eradicating them. ‘How is it,’ remarked a French statesman, ‘that French boys of ten are so charmingly clever, and French youths of twenty-four so intolerably stupid? It is the effect of education, I suppose.’ But education did not debauch the style of Plutarch. It left it as simple as his life. Of course we do not find in him the naïveté of primitive literature, but still less are we met by the artificial simplicity of periods of literary decadence. The ‘tours naïfs’ of Plutarch are leaps of a mind which lets itself out, not the taught somersaults of the gymnasium. He does not seek for his effects, they drop from him, as the jewels dropped from the lips of the good princess in the fairy tale. Plutarch was an enormously wide reader, but it cannot be said of him, as it can be said of many learned men, that he put out the fire by heaping on the coals. He obeys the Horatian precept:—

                                                  ‘Si vis me flere, dolendum est
Primum ipsi tibi,’

and when he is warmed by his theme he never allows his readers to be cold.


  1. i. 6, 40-46.

  2. Cic. xxiv.

  3. ‘Plutarch,’ four lectures, 1873.

  4. Ib. 328.

  5. Juv. iii. 3, Unum civem donare Sibyllae.

  6. vii. 234-236.

  7. Ch. lxvi.

  8. ‘Le plus sourd du monde lisant ou oyant un tel maistre est constraint de baisser le front et donner gloire à la Vérité se faisant si bien ouyr en la bouche d'un pauvre payen.’

  9. Animosa vox videtur et regia cum sit stultissima, ‘De Beneficiis,’ ii. 16.

  10. Τὰ δe ἣνδον ὁλοπόρϕυροs.

  11. ‘Hist.’ ii. 49.

  12. ‘Otho,’ xvii.

  13. Speculum civilis sarcina belli, ‘Sat.’ ii. 103.

  14. vii. 86.

  15. ‘Nicias,’ xxvi.-xxviii.

  16. ‘Ant.’ 14.

  17. iii. 2, 174-185.

  18. ‘Ant. and Cleop.’ v. 2, 323-347.

  19. ‘Cor.’ iv. 5, 65 f.

C. P. Jones (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6398

SOURCE: Jones, C. P. “The Political Treatises.” In Plutarch and Rome, pp. 110-21. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Plutarch's views on Greek and Roman relations.]

Plutarch's political treatises, above all the Political Precepts, have a special place among his works. Besides expounding his answers to problems of his time, the reign of Trajan,1 they are primary documents for an understanding of the relationship between Greece and Rome.

The general outline of that relationship is clear and well known. From the first establishment of their power in the East, the Romans had used the traditional unit of Greek political life, the city, as an instrument of domination. To ensure loyalty and stability, they needed agents whose interests were close to their own. It was inevitable that they should turn to the upper classes of the cities, the landowners and merchants who themselves stood to gain from settled conditions. In time, Roman influence brought about constitutional changes that perpetuated the power of the wealthy and excluded lesser citizens from the guidance of affairs. Democracies in name, the subject cities became in fact local aristocracies.2

It has already been seen that Plutarch himself was born into this upper class and that his Greek friends were of the same type as himself.3 It is primarily for these, and not for the consuls and proconsuls of his acquaintance, that the political treatises are intended. The Political Precepts are addressed to a wealthy aristocrat of Sardis called Menemachus,4 and the complementary work on old men in politics to an Athenian called Euphanes, a holder of high office in his city.5 The Political Precepts found an assiduous reader in another of Plutarch's friends, Cornelius Pulcher, at once a noble of Epidaurus and an influential Roman knight.6

Since Plutarch's treatises are intended for the use of his own class, that class is central to his political thought. Characteristically, he is less concerned with the abstract merits of different constitutions than with the guidance of conduct.7 Hence the treatises contain no systematic discussion of political structures, though it is not difficult to trace the underlying presuppositions.

There is no question of the inherent right of the upper class to rule. Menemachus' high birth is the cause and the justification of his desire to become a public figure, since he is one of those whom the divine purpose has set above the common run.8 These are the ‘first men’, the ‘politicians’ of the city:9 placed in their charge, like a suspicious and refractory animal that needs to be guarded for its own good, is the people.10

Plutarch's comparison is instructive. While the populace could not participate in government directly, it retained the brute power of weight and force. Though Plutarch scarcely mentions the traditional assembly,11 it is clear that the people could make its demands felt by various means, acclamations for or against its politicians, clamours for a show or a distribution.12 Hence there was still need for the arts of persuasion and for courage in the face of public pressure.13

The belief that politics was the natural calling of the privileged found confirmation in their behaviour. Other works of Plutarch besides the political treatises show the intensity of civic life. One of his essays is largely devoted to the art of resisting lobbyists: another advises the ambitious politician against ruining himself by his generosity.14 This intensity of political life underlies the problems with which Plutarch is concerned. Without it, the cities could not exist: the competition between the wealthy provided the populace with magistrates, buildings, entertainment, often cash and food.15 But the same rivalry was fertile in disaster. Jealousy was the cities' greatest bane: private quarrels might easily flare up, sometimes leading to open faction and provoking inevitable intervention from above.16 This inflammability was itself a consequence of the political system. The people, constantly eyeing its leaders for signs of collusion or disagreement, could be used by the unscrupulous as an instrument of public pressure. A politician who had won its favour with benefactions might set it on his enemies.17 There was only one way for the system to survive: those in politics must realize their common interest, and not allow themselves to be divided by hatred and jealousy. Concord, the preservation of unity in the ruling class, is the essence of Plutarch's message.18

The main part of his political treatises is devoted to the management of the city. That is natural, since it was the city, always needing the politician's care and attention,19 that took most of his energy. But ruling was only a part of his task: he had also to act correctly as a subject. Those he governed were also subordinate to Roman proconsuls and procurators. This was not the Greece or the Asia of the past. The magistrate must not be dazzled by his insignia into forgetting the symbols of Rome's power before him, the tribunal and the senatorial shoes. Just as actors put all their passion and skill into the contest without ignoring the prompter, so the politician must not exceed the limits of power laid down by Rome.20

Again, Plutarch's metaphor is eloquent. The upper classes had to earn their licence to govern by maintaining order and harmony: they must not mistake the shadow of power for the reality. A slip, and the offender could be humbled by a mere edict of the proconsul, if not banished or executed.21 Maintaining relations with Rome required no less prudence than control of the mob.

As was natural for a man who had many friends at Rome and mixed easily with Roman officials, Plutarch advises the politician always to have a friend among the most influential men in the capital.22 The Romans were eager to promote the political aims of their friends, and with their goodwill a Greek could bring benefits to his less favoured compatriots. In return, the politician was to keep the people quiet and his city blameless before Rome.23

While the Romans wanted to control, they did not want to oppress: oppression was tiresome and unnecessary, as long as the ruling class played their part.24 As a friend of Romans, Plutarch knew that they also had an interest in stability and order. It is therefore with complete consistency that he advises Greeks both to have friends at court and not to debase themselves before Rome. Some politicians, by referring every matter to the decision of the Romans, brought on them the reproach of oppression and made them masters more than they wished to be.25 Here again the underlying trouble was dissension in the ruling class. Rather than yield to their rivals, political foes preferred to put all the city's affairs into foreign hands. Instead it was the politician's duty to keep internal conflicts inside and not resort to external arbitration.26 The consequence of such folly was at best an unnecessary weakening of civic institutions, at worst war with an invincible adversary. Though rebellion against Rome is not a prospect on which Plutarch cares to dwell, it remained a real one. That is the meaning of his advice to politicians not to make the mob puffed up with talk of Marathon, Eurymedon, and Plataea.27 There was no need for him to make explicit the contrast between victories won long ago over the might of Persia and the hopelessness of war with Rome.

The doctrine expounded in the political treatises is a consistent and practical one: it had to be, since they were solicited and employed by the author's contemporaries as practical handbooks. But it is not only the concreteness of his advice that shows Plutarch to be concerned with real issues. An abundance of material, literary and documentary, shows the aptness of his advice to his own time.

First, his terminology. Plutarch's political language closely resembles that of the men of his age who served their cities as secretaries, drafting the decrees and testimonials that survive on papyrus and stone. For a good reason: these officials were from the same educated class as Plutarch himself.28 For them and for Plutarch the Roman authorities are ‘the leaders’,29 their friends in the cities ‘the first men’,30 ‘the politicians’.31 Public gifts are ‘munificences’,32 their recompense ‘honours’ and ‘testimonials’.33 Plutarch's canon of political virtues is that of his time, ‘mildness’,34 ‘purity’,35 ‘abstinence’,36 ‘decorum’,37 ‘gravity’,38 ‘reasonableness’,39 ‘trustworthiness’.40 Just as for Plutarch the exercise of these virtues incites others to imitation, so inscriptions regularly honour benefactors for the example they set to others.41 Similarly, when Plutarch lists as the greatest benefits that a city can enjoy ‘peace, freedom, abundance, populousness, concord’, his words are echoed by inscriptions that celebrate the terms of local magistrates as times of ‘peace, lawfulness, abundance, concord’.42

Since Plutarch's political terminology is that of his time, it is not surprising that the institutions that he presupposes can also be illustrated by contemporary evidence. The embassies to proconsuls and emperors that recur in his treatises appear also in scores of texts; several such ambassadors pride themselves, like Plutarch's ideal politician, for having used their influence with the Romans to benefit their cities.43 Plutarch mentions as a characteristic object of such a mission a treaty of concord with another city: such treaties are frequently attested in the high empire, one of them between Plutarch's two cities of Chaeronea and Delphi.44 The intervention of Roman governors in local affairs is no less familiar: thus at Corinth a proconsul approves the sale of public land to a benefactor of the city.45 Within the cities, documents reveal the prevalence of many of the practices that Plutarch deplores. Thus the gladiatorial shows that he so often mentions with disapproval are illustrated by hundreds of inscriptions;46 similarly, when he advises the politician to refuse gifts of statues and pictures, and to be content with a more modest reward, he appears to be setting a standard not usually reached by his contemporaries.47

Another item reveals Plutarch in opposition to a trend of his time. Urging Menemachus to use his Roman friends for the benefit of Sardis, he remarks disparagingly on those Greeks who desert their cities and instead use their influence to become administrators of imperial property and managers of provincial finance.48 Elsewhere he observes that many of the most respectable and influential live abroad, escaping the trouble, the distractions, and the bother which their native cities cause.49 In a third passage, he is more explicit: men from Chios, Galatia, and Bithynia are not content with influence among their own citizens, but yearn to climb ever higher in office at Rome, until they are appointed consules ordinarii.50 Plutarch was observing a momentous transformation in his own society. The same Greeks whom the Romans had supported in their cities now found their local responsibilities tedious and insufficient. Some became knights and senators at Rome. Others, cultivated men, took up residence in cities where their arts would be more highly appreciated than in their own. Still others merely abstained from public office. The first of these notable absentees is an exact contemporary of Plutarch, Dio of Prusa. Soon Plutarch's friend Favorinus of Arelate was to be compelled by Hadrian to serve his native province.51

The fact that the emperors had to intervene to check this tendency again shows Plutarch's attunement to Roman wishes. There is nothing anti-Roman in his advising Greeks not to hunt for positions in the Roman administration. He saw rightly that there was no shortage of such careerists: the shortage that was soon to become a crisis was of Greeks who were willing to stay and serve their cities, as he himself had.

A final indication that Plutarch is concerned with real problems is provided by the addressee of the Political Precepts. Faction, which receives such emphasis in the treatise, appears to have been endemic in Menemachus' city, Sardis. At some time before Plutarch wrote, Sardis had been plunged into armed conflict with Rome by the enmity of two of its citizens, Pardalas and Tyrrhenus, of whom Pardalas was subsequently executed.52 It is possible that the same troubles are referred to in letters attributed to the wizard Apollonius of Tyana, which show that the dissension involved every segment of the population and was exacerbated by strife between exotically named Orders.53 That strife was recurrent in Sardis is indicated by Plutarch's treatise on exile, addressed to a rich man who had been banished from there. Though unnamed, he may well be the same Menemachus, a victim of the very ambition that Plutarch's Political Precepts had warned him against.54

Plutarch is not delineating an ideal republic or legislating for an imaginary city: he writes for his contemporaries, even if they found his standards uncomfortable or antique. His advice may be brought into conjunction with that given by other Greeks of his period. None of these comes closer to him than Dio of Prusa. A large number of Dio's surviving speeches are addressed, at the same time as Plutarch's treatises, to cities of the Greek East.55 Like Plutarch, Dio's primary concern is with the establishment of concord, though in a wider application: peace not only between rival politicians but between rival cities. Both draw on a common stock of arguments and illustrations. These were no longer the days of ancient Greece:56 power belonged to others, before whom the eastern cities were as children.57 Greeks who struggled for mastery over one another were scrambling for trifles and bringing disgrace upon themselves.58 It was better to acquiesce in the peace that Roman power had established through the world.59

Plutarch and Dio both understood what Rome wanted. Just as Plutarch urges the Greeks not to make the Romans masters more than they wish to be, so Dio advises his hearers that the Romans prefer free men rather than slaves for subjects.60 The cities should not ask higher approval for their every decision, acting like patients afraid to move without their doctors' advice.61 Plutarch exhorts politicians to keep Rome out of local disputes and instead to yield to one another: Dio urges the people of Prusa not to take their complaints to the proconsul but to settle them without interference, and tells quarrelling cities to arbitrate their own disagreements and to make as many concessions as possible.62 Another famous speaker of the period, Polemo, is praised by his biographer for the same policy: he benefited the Smyrnaeans by preventing their lawsuits from being taken outside the city.63 Like Plutarch, Dio and Polemo were the friends of emperors and consulars.64 All three knew that Rome's interest coincided with that of their own class.

The similarity between Dio and Plutarch is more, however, than the similarity of two educated Greeks drawing on a common source of platitudes. Both are responding to the particular exigencies of their time. In the contemporary opinion of the biographer Suetonius, the reign of Domitian had been a time of unusual honesty and justice in the government of the provinces, and was followed by a sharp decline.65 The abundant evidence for provincial maladministration and unrest under Trajan is partly an accident of survival: it was also a period of literary abundance. But while circumstances like those attested under Trajan had prevailed for centuries of Roman rule, not all was as it had been. Senators sitting in judgement on their peers felt freer than they had under Domitian to overlook the misdemeanours of accused proconsuls; and the burdens imposed by a new era of foreign warfare will have exacerbated discord in the tributary cities.66 It is therefore no coincidence that two Greeks honoured by Trajan preached concord to the eastern cities in such similar terms. Nor is it surprising that the younger Pliny, sent by Trajan to establish tranquillity in Bithynia,67 should have found practices so similar to those that vexed Plutarch: extravagant distributions, jealousy between politicians, wasteful embassies and buildings, citizens who ruined themselves by their munificence or tried to escape public burdens altogether.68

No emperor or proconsul could disapprove the lessons that Plutarch was concerned to inculcate: friendly relations with Rome, avoidance of discord, gentle but firm control of the populace. But questions remain. Is there an undertone of resignation in Plutarch's advice? As an admirer of the Greek past, does he reveal a muted yearning for his country's ancient freedoms? Is it his aim to preserve the remnant of that freedom against the encroachment of Roman power?69

The answer to these questions can begin with Plutarch's view of freedom. As a student of the past, he has an evident admiration for Flamininus as the liberator of Greece, and considers Nero's liberation of the Greeks his one redeeming act.70 Since Vespasian had annulled Nero's grant, it might appear to follow that Plutarch regarded the freedom of Greece as dead. In fact, he observes in the Political Precepts that the cities enjoy as much freedom as ‘those in power’ allow, and more would perhaps not be good: when he talks of the ‘liberty’ permitted to the city magistrates, he clearly refers to this same limited freedom.71 Plutarch's notion of freedom resists precise definition; in the world he knew, the term denoted everything from the condition of not being a slave to the various grades of privilege accorded by Rome to subject cities.72 So far from regretting the absence of freedom, Plutarch welcomes the restrictions imposed on the mob by Rome: as a member of a class whose position depended on external support, he had no reason to welcome the removal of Roman control.73

Another sign of muted resignation might be seen in the examples that he uses to illustrate his political lessons, since they are drawn with a few exceptions from times long past, above all from the history of Greece before Alexander.74 That is no reason, however, to infer that Plutarch's spiritual home was in classical Greece. These examples are used because Plutarch shared the general belief in the practical utility of history. If he thought that the distant past was more productive of great men than more recent times, that was another conviction that he shared with many others.75

It might yet be maintained that, whatever Plutarch's attitude to freedom or the past, the policy towards Rome that he recommended was politely negative. Rome, on this view, was gradually stifling the vitality of the cities by an encroaching paternalism, and Plutarch was concerned that the Greeks should not provoke their masters into taking away the last vestiges of freedom.76

Certainly Plutarch urges the Greeks not to throw away their remaining liberties. But he himself lays the blame, not on Roman paternalism, but on the quarrelling Greeks who resorted to outside arbitration in order not to yield among themselves.77 If Rome now intervened more in the affairs of the cities, that may have been the consequence less of pressure from without than of collapse from within. Moreover, what appears at first glance a novelty of the age, officials sent to inspect the accounts of free or tributary cities, does not mark a radical change in policy. When the evidence permits a glimpse into conditions under the republic and early empire, it often reveals the same involvement of Roman authority in local affairs, even in those of free cities.78 Although the title of corrector given to these officials may have been new, like other innovations it merely formalized an older practice.

The interests of Rome and of the Greek upper classes were convergent, if only the Greeks would use their freedom discreetly. Plutarch had no cause to look regretfully to the past, or to protect Greek institutions against a foreign power. His object is to see the vitality of the cities preserved not in spite of, but in accordance with, the wishes of Rome.79


  1. For the date of the praec. ger. reip. and the an seni sit ger. resp. C. P. Jones, JRS 56 (1966), 72-3.

  2. Cf. p. 43, n. 25 above [in C. P. Jones, Plutarch and Rome], and references there.

  3. Above, p. 10.

  4. Praec. ger. reip. 798 A-B, cf. Stein, RE 15 (1931), 837-8, no. 5. Note the Menemachus on a coin of Sardis, perhaps of Attalid date: Mionnet, Description des médailles antiques, Suppl. 7, 414, no. 443, cf. B. V. Head, BMC Lydia, p. xcviii.

  5. An seni sit ger. resp. 783 B, cf. Ziegler, RE 21 (1951), 674. On Euphanes' ὲπιsταsία of the Areopagus, see D. J. Geagan, The Athenian Constitution after Sulla, Hesperia Suppl. Vol. 12 (1967), 54, 58-9. Probably connected with the Flavius Euphanes attested as archon in 123/4, Inscr. Délos 2536, lines 17-18 (on the date, P. Graindor, Athènes sous Hadrien [1934], 25), cf. Graindor, Chronologie des archontes athéniens sous l'Empire, Mémoires de l'Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres, VIII. 2 (1922), 126; also with the deceased landowner of the same name, IG 2/32. 2776, B II, lines 212-13.

  6. De cap. ex inim. util. 86 C-D. On Pulcher, see above, pp. 45-6.

  7. The de tribus reip. gen. 826 A-827 C, is of doubtful authenticity.

  8. Praec. ger. reip. 798 B, 823 E-F.

  9. οἱ πρω̑τοι: praec. ger. reip. 815 A, quaest. conviv. 679 C; cf. J. H. Oliver, The Ruling Power (1953), 953-8, and below, p. 114. οἱ πολιτευόμενοι: praec. ger. reip. 813 A, and below, p. 114.

  10. Praec. ger. reip. 800 C, 802 D, 814 C (ϕρυάττεsθαι), 821 A, 823 E-F.

  11. An seni sit ger. resp. 794 C, praec. ger. reip. 799 E, 810 D, cf. quaest. conviv. 714 A.

  12. Praec. ger. reip. 817 F-818 E, 819 E-820 F, 821 E-822 C.

  13. Praec. ger. reip. 801 C-804 C, 813 A-C (persuasion), an seni sit ger. resp. 796 B-C, praec. ger. reip. 822 C (resistance).

  14. De vit. pud. especially 533 D, 534 C, F, 535 B-C; de vit. aere al. 830 E. Note the reference to money-lenders from Corinth, Athens, and Patrae (831 A), the three chief commercial centres of southern Greece: G. W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World (1965), 92-6.

  15. A. H. M. Jones, The Greek City (1940), 248-50; Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2 142-50.

  16. An seni sit ger. resp. 787 C (ϕθόνοs), cf. praec. ger. reip. 809 B; praec. ger. reip. 825 A-D (faction), cf. de frat. am. 487 F-488 A.

  17. Praec. ger. reip. 813 A (suspicion), 818 C (injuries to citizens).

  18. ὁμόνοια: praec. ger. reip. 824 D, cf. B. Note that this subject is the last treated in the Political Precepts, as if intended to be the chief lesson of the work.

  19. An seni sit ger. resp. 792 E.

  20. Praec. ger. reip. 813 E. On the interpretation of this passage, see below, Appendix II.

  21. Praec. ger. reip. 824 E (edict), 813 E-F (banishment, execution).

  22. Praec. ger. reip. 814 C. For this use of ἄνω to denote Rome, cf. Arrian, Diss. Epict. 1. 10. 2, ἀναβάs.

  23. Praec. ger. reip. 814 C-E.

  24. Cf. Aristides, Or. 26. 64 K. ϕρουρω̑ν δὲ οὐδὲν δει̑ τὰs ἀκροπόλειs ὲχόντων, ἀλλ' οἱ ὲκαsταχόθεν μέγιsτοι καὶ δυνατώτατοι τὰs ὲαυτω̑ν πατρίδαs ὑμι̑ν ϕυ λάττουsιν.

  25. Praec. ger. reip. 814 E-F. On this passage, cf. James H. Oliver, Hesperia 23 (1954), 163-7, and below, p. 115.

  26. Praec. ger. reip. 815 A-C.

  27. Praec. ger. reip. 814 C. For the equation of Rome with Persia, cf. on ἄνω, p. 113, n. 22 above, and also the literary use of sάτραπαι to denote Roman officials, e.g. Philostr. VS 524, cf. E. L. Bowie, Past & Present 46 (1970), 33, n. 95.

  28. L. Robert, REA 62 (1960), 325-6 = Op. min. sel. 2. 841-2.

  29. οἱ ἡγούμενοι: praec. ger. reip. 814 C, cf. Robert, art. cit. 326-9 = Op. min. sel. 2. 842-5.

  30. οἱ πρω̑τοι: praec. ger. reip. 815 A, and above, p. 111, n. 9. Cf. Robert, Hellenica 13 (1965), 212-13, and also the δεκάπρωτοι and εἰκοsάπρωτοι responsible for collecting taxes: D. Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor (1950), 1. 648, 2. 1516-17, Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2 390-1, 706-7, n. 47.

  31. οἱ πολιτευόμενοι: praec. ger. reip. 813 A, cf. an seni sit ger. resp. 790 D. On the development of the term from this meaning (cf. Syll.3 850, line 15, of A. D. 145) to that of curialis in the late empire, cf. Robert, L'Antiquité classique 35 (1966), 382.

  32. ϕιλοτιμίαι: praec. ger. reip. 822 C. Cf. Robert, Les Gladiateurs dans l'Orient grec (1940), 276-80.

  33. τιμαί, μαρτύριαι: praec. ger. reip. 821 F, ψευδώνυμοι τιμαὶ καὶ ψευδομάρτυρεs. Cf. Robert, Hellenica 3 (1946), 22-3, 13 (1965), 207.

  34. πραότηs: praec. ger. reip. 800 B, 808 D, 809 E, 810 E, 815 A, 819 B, 824 D. Cf. Robert, Hellenica 13 (1965), 223.

  35. καθαριότηs: praec. ger. reip. 800 C, E. Cf. A. Wilhelm, JÖAI 17 (1914), 36, 120; Robert, Hellenica 4 (1948), 38-41.

  36. sωϕροsύνη: praec. ger. reip. 800 F, 807 A, 823 A. Cf. Robert, Hellenica 13 (1965), 222.

  37. κοsμιότηs: praec. ger. reip. 800 F, 817 B. Cf. Robert, op. cit. 222-3.

  38. sεμνότηs: praec. ger. reip. 801 D, 813 C, 823 E. Cf. Robert, op. cit. 222, Revue de philologie 41 (1967), 12, n. 4.

  39. ὲπιείκεια: praec. ger. reip. 821 D. Cf. Robert, Hellenica 13 (1965), 223.

  40. πίsτιs: praec. ger. reip. 805 B, 812 C, 818 B, 821 B-C, 822 F. Cf. Robert, Revue de philologie 1 (1927), 105 = Op. min. sel. 2. 1060. Note how many of the above terms or their cognates recur in the decree of the Lycian κοινόν for the benefactor Opramoas, TAM 2. 905 (IGR 3. 739), col. III, lines 54 ff.: lines 61 (πρω̑τοs), 64 (πολιτευόμενοs), 70, 82, 87 (ϕιλοτίμιαι), 76-7, 83-4, 92-3, 97 (τιμαί), 78, 84, 94 (μαρτύριαι), 81 (sωϕροsύνη), 81 (κοsμιότηs), 80, 86 (sεμνότηs), 74 (ὲπιείκεια).

  41. An seni sit ger. resp. 790 C-791 C, praec. ger. reip. 806 B-F. Cf. e.g. IG 5. 1. 1432, lines 25-6, with the observations of Robert, Annuaire de l'École des Hautes Études, IVe sect. 1968-1969 (1969), 165.

  42. εἰρήνη, ὲλευθερία, εὐετηρία, εὐανδρία, ὁμόνοια, praec. ger. reip. 824 C; εἰρήνη, εὐνομία, εὐετηρία, ὁμόνοια, IG 12. 5. 906. Cf. A. Wilhelm, 'Επιτὐμβιον Swoboda (1927), 340, Robert, Études anatoliennes (1937), 257-8.

  43. Embassies: de exil. 602 C, an seni sit ger. resp. 793 D, praec. ger. reip. 804 E, 805 A, 808 B, 812 E, 815 D, 816 C-D, 819 A. Friendships: praec. ger. reip. 814 C-E. Cf. e.g. 814 C, ὲκ ϕιλίαs ἡγεμονικη̑s … μεγάλα τὰs πατρίδαs ω̑ϕελήsαντεs with Th. Wiegand, Milet 1, 2: Das Rathaus no. 7 b, lines 12-13, ται̑s τω̑ν ἡγουμένων ϕιλίαιs τε καὶ ξενίαιs καταχρώμενοs εἰs τὰ τη̑s πατρίδοs sυμϕέροντα. Robert, REA 62 (1960), 326-9 = Op. min. sel. 2. 842-5; G. W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World (1965), 10-11, 86-7, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), 43-6.

  44. ὁμόνοια: praec. ger. reip. 808 C. Cf. D. Kienast, Jahrbuch für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte 14 (1964), 51-64. Chaeronea and Delphi: Syll.3 816.

  45. Corinth, 8. 3, no. 306, on which see Robert, Hellenica 1 (1940), 47-8 and now REG 79 (1966), 754-5; from the Opramoas dossier again, cf. TAM 2. 905 (IGR 3. 739), col. II line 81, III line 97, IV lines 28, 103. Cf. Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor (1950), 2. 1391-2, n. 61, 1504, n. 29; above, p. 113, n. 25.

  46. Praec. ger. reip. 802 D, 822 C, 823 E, de soll. anim. 959 C-960 A, de esu carn. 997 C. Cf. Robert, Les Gladiateurs dans l'Orient grec (1940), Hellenica 3 (1946), 112-50, 5 (1948), 77-99, 7 (1949), 126-51, 8 (1950), 39-72.

  47. Praec. ger. reip. 820 C-D. However, Plutarch's recommendation that the politician should decline (παραιτει̑sθαι) extravagant honours reflects a common feeling, cf. Opramoas again, TAM 2. 905 (IGR 3. 739), col. VIII, line 100.

  48. Praec. ger. reip. 814 D. For an example of this practice, cf. Fronto's letter to Pius on behalf of Appian, p. 162 van den Hout.

  49. De exil. 605 B-C.

  50. De tranqu. animi 470 C.

  51. Dio: Or. 49. Favorinus: Philostr. VS 490. See now G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), 30-42.

  52. Praec. ger. reip. 813 F, 825 C-D. Several personages of that name are known at Sardis, OGIS 470, ILS 1988, Sardis 7. 1, nos. 22, 91, 122, 127. The idiologus attested in 123 (PIR2 I/J 448) lived too late to be Plutarch's Pardalas.

  53. Epp. Apoll. 38-41, 56, 75-6. Brought into conjunction with Plutarch by Wilamowitz, Hermes 62 (1927), 296 = Kleine Schriften 4 (1962), 451, cf. also Hermes 60 (1925), 310-11 = Kl. Schr. 4 (1962), 398. Note also Rev. 3: 1-6.

  54. De exil. 600 A, 601 B, 604 B. So G. Siefert, Commentationes philologicae Ienenses 6. 1 (1896), 74, n. 1. Note also the banished poet Julius Polyaenus, who may be from Sardis, Anth. Pal. 9. 7 = A. S. F. Gow and D. L. Page, The Greek Anthology: the Garland of Philip (1968), lines 3947-52. Cf. however Gow and Page, op. cit. 2. 465.

  55. Dio Prus. Or. 31-51. The majority of these appear to be later than Dio's return from exile under Nerva: H. von Arnim, Leben und Werke des Dio von Prusa (1898), 314 ff., 435 ff. The possible exceptions are Or. 31 (A. D. Momigliano, JRS 41 [1951], 149-53) and Or. 47; Or. 37 is spurious. Cf. Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2 586-7, n. 18, G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), 110-12.

  56. Praec. ger. reip. 813 E; Dio, Or. 31. 161-2, 43. 4.

  57. Praec. ger. reip. 814 A; Dio, Or. 32. 51. Cf. Aristides, Or. 23. 62 K.

  58. Praec. ger. reip. 814 A, 824 E; Dio, Or. 34. 46, 38. 38.

  59. An seni sit ger. resp. 784 F, praec. ger. reip. 805 A, 824 C; Dio, Or. 31. 162. Cf. Aristides, Or. 23. 54, 63 K.

  60. Praec. ger. reip. 814 F; Dio, Or. 31. 111.

  61. Plutarch ibid.; Dio, Or. 31. 112, cf. 48. 13.

  62. Praec. ger. reip. 815 A-C; Dio, Or. 34. 44, 48. 2, 10.

  63. Philostr. VS 532.

  64. Dio: PIR2 D 93. Polemo: PIR2 A 862. See now G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), 44-5, 111.

  65. Suet. Dom. 8. 2. On the provinces under Domitian, H. W. Pleket, Mnemosyne 14 (1961), 296-315; P. A. Brunt, Historia 10 (1961), 221.

  66. Cf. Brunt, art. cit. 217-20; Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2 355-9.

  67. Pliny, Epp. 10. 117.

  68. Pliny, Epp. 10. 116-17 (distributions), 81 (jealousy), 43-4 (embassies), 17 B-18, 37-40 (buildings), 110. 2 (munificence), 58. 1, 113 (escape): on the text and the significance of 10. 113, cf. G. W. Bowersock, Augustus and the Greek World (1965), 148, n. 3, C. P. Jones, Phoenix 22 (1968), 137-8; against, F. A. Lepper, Gnomon 42 (1970), 570-1.

  69. Thus J. Bleicken sees ‘schmerzliche Resignation’ in Plutarch's advice: ‘die politischen Begriffe Plutarchs gehören der Vergangenheit an; sein Ideal, dem er nachtrauert, ist die alte Freiheit der Stadt’, Nachr. Akad. Wiss. Gött. Phil.-Hist. Kl. 1966, 7, 231-2, cf. 236, 241-2; cf. also D. Nörr, Imperium und Polis in der hohen Prinzipatszeit (1966), 86, on which see now G. W. Bowersock, JRS 58 (1968), 261-2. Bleicken is clearly in error, however, when he attributes to Plutarch the statement that the pax Romana ‘den Staatsmann in Griechenland unnötig mache’, op. cit. 231, cf. 242, n. 37, referring to praec. ger. reip. 824 C: what Plutarch says is that the cities do not need politicians to ensure peace, because war has vanished (the same idea in Aristides, Or. 23. 54 K.).

  70. Flam. 10-11; de sera num. vind. 567 F-568 A.

  71. Praec. ger. reip. 824 C. On the very similar passage in [Julian], Epp. 35 (198, Bidez-Cumont) 408 A and this use of οἱ κρατου̑ντεs, see Br. Keil, Nachr. kön. Ges. Wiss. Gött. Phil.-Hist. Kl. 1913, 1, 12. ὲξουsία: praec. ger. reip. 813 E, 815 A.

  72. Cf. also Dio Prus. Or. 44. 11-12. On similar ambiguities in Tacitus' view of libertas, see Ch. Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome (1950), 160-7.

  73. On the anti-Roman tendencies of the Greek lower classes, cf. Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor (1950), 1. 600; Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2 117, 126, 586-7, n. 18.

  74. Cf. Bleicken, quoted above, p. 119, n. 69. E. L. Bowie, Past & Present 46 (1970), 3-41, appears to class Plutarch among Greeks for whom ‘the contemporary balance of politics was profoundly unsatisfactory’ and who tried to ‘forget the period after Alexander’ (pp. 7, 18).

  75. On historical exempla, F. Millar, JRS 59 (1969), 13. On the belief in effeta natura, A. N. Sherwin-White, A Commentary on Pliny's Letters (1966), 381, discussing Epp. 6. 21. 1.

  76. Thus Nörr, op. cit. 78-9, 113, considers Plutarch's patriotism intensified by the pressure of Rome. Cf. T. Renoirte, LesConseils Politiquesde Plutarque (1951), 44; Bowie, art. cit. 38.

  77. Praec. ger. reip. 815 A. On this passage, James H. Oliver, The Ruling Power (1953), 953-8.

  78. Thus IG 5. 1. 1432, of the second or first century B.C. (cf. Broughton, Magistrates of the Roman Republic 1. 566, n. 9), shows a Roman praetor inspecting the finances of Messene; cf. Cic. ad Att. 6. 2. 5. For Augustus' interference in cities of senatorial provinces, including free ones, G. W. Bowersock, HSCP 68 (1964), 208-9, Augustus and the Greek World (1965), 88. Note also F. Millar, JRS 58 (1968), 223.

  79. Thus, rightly, J. Palm, Rom, Römertum und Imperium in der griechischen Literatur der Kaiser zeit (1959), 36-8.


I. Periodicals etc.

AE: L'Année épigraphique

AJP: American Journal of Philology

BCH: Bulletin de correspondance hellénique

BMC: Catalogue of Coins in the British Museum

CIG: Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum

CIL: Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

CP: Classical Philology

CQ: The Classical Quarterly

FGrHist: F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker

GRBS: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

HA: Historia Augusta

HSCP: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology

IG: Inscriptiones Graecae

IGR: Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes

ILS: H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae

JÖAI: Jahreshefte des österreichischen archäologischen Instituts

JRS: Journal of Roman Studies

LSJ9: Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edn., revised by H. Stuart Jones, 1925-40

McCrum and Woodhead, Documents of the Flavian Emperors: M. McCrum and A. G. Woodhead, Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors A.D. 68-96 (Cambridge, 1961)

OGIS: W. Dittenberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae

Philostr. VS: Philostratus, Vitae Sophistarum

PIR: Prosopographia Imperii Romani

RE: Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft

REA: Revue des études anciennes

REG: Revue des études grecques

REL: Revue des études latines

Rostovtzeff, SEHRE2: M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, 2nd edition revised by P. M. Fraser (Oxford, 1957)

SEG: Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum

Smallwood, Documents of Gaius, Claudius and Nero: E. M. Smallwood, Documents illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge, 1967)

Smallwood, Documents of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian: E. M. Smallwood, Documents illustrating the Principates of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1966)

Syll.3: W. Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, 3rd edition

TAM: Tituli Asiae Minoris

TAPA: Transactions of the American Philological Association

II. Works of Plutarch

The following is a list of the Lives and Moralia of Plutarch to which reference has been made in the following pages, and indicates the abbreviations used. References to the Lives are by the edition of Cl. Lindskog and K. Ziegler, Plutarchi Vitae Parallelae (Leipzig, Teubner, 1914-39; 2nd edition by K. Ziegler, 1957-), to the Moralia by Frankfurt pages, and to the Catalogue of Lamprias and the fragments by the editions of F. H. Sandbach, Plutarchi Moralia 7 (Leipzig, Teubner, 1967), Plutarch's Moralia 15 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Loeb Classical Library, 1969).


Aem(ilius Paullus)












Cato mai(or)

Cato min(or)









Fab(ius) Max(imus)



























Ad princ(ipem) inerud(itum)

Adv(ersus) Col(otem)


An seni sit ger(enda) resp(ublica)

Anim(ine) an corp(oris) aff(ectiones sint peiores)

Consol(atio) ad ux(orem)

De animae procr(eatione) in Tim(aeo)

De cap(ienda) ex inim(icis) util(itate)

De cohib(enda) ira

De curios(itate)

De def(ectu) orac(ulorum)

De E Delph(ico)

De esu carn(ium)

De exil(io)

De fort(una) Alex(andri)

De fort(una) Rom(anorum)

De frat(erno) am(ore)

De garrul(itate)

De glor(ia) Ath(eniensium)

De Herod(oti) malign(itate)

De Is(ide) et Osir(ide)

De laude ips(ius)

De poet(is) aud(iendis)

De primo frigido

De prof(ectibus) in virt(ute)

De Pyth(iae) orac(ulis)

De sera num(inis) vind(icta)

De soll(ertia) anim(alium)

De superstit(ione)

De tranqu(illitate) animi

De tribus reip(ublicae) gen(eribus)

De tuenda san(itate)

De vit(ando) aere al(ieno)

De vit(ioso) pud(ore)

Maxime cum princ(ipibus) phil(osopho esse) diss(erendum)

Mul(ierum) virt(utes)

Non posse suav(iter) vivi (secundum Epicurum)

Praec(epta) coniug(alia)

Praec(epta) ger(endae) reip(ublicae)

Quaest(iones) conviv(ales)

Quaest(iones) Gr(aecae)

Quaest(iones) Plat(onicae)

Quaest(iones) Rom(anae)

Quom(odo) adul(ator) ab amico internosc(atur)

Reg(um) et imp(eratorum) apophth(egmata)


The following is a list of all books (including commentaries), articles, and reviews cited in the foregoing notes. The following are excluded: articles in RE, collections of inscriptions and the like, editions of texts, and handbooks.

Arnim, H. von. Leben und Werke des Dio von Prusa (Berlin, 1898).

Bleicken, J. ‘Der Preis des Aelius Aristides auf das römische Weltreich’, Nachr. Akad. Wiss. Gött. Phil-Hist. Kl. 1966, 7, 223.

Bowersock, G. W. ‘Eurycles of Sparta’, JRS 51 (1961), 112.

———. ‘Augustus on Aegina’, CQ 14 (1964), 120.

———. ‘C. Marcius Censorinus, Legatus Caesaris’, HSCP 68 (1964), 207.

———. Augustus and the Greek World (Oxford, 1965).

———. Review of D. Nörr, Imperium und Polis in der hohen Prinzipatszeit, JRS 58 (1968), 261.

———. Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1969).

Bowie, E. L. ‘Greeks and their Past in the Second Sophistic’, Past & Present 46 (1970), 3.

Brunt, P. A. ‘The Revolt of Vindex and the Fall of Nero’, Latomus 18 (1959), 531.

———. ‘Charges of Provincial Maladministration under the Early Principate’, Historia 10 (1961), 189.

Geagan, D. J. The Athenian Constitution after Sulla, Hesperia Suppl. Vol. 12 (1967).

Graindor, P. Chronologie des archontes athéniens sous l'Empire, Mémoires de l'Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres VIII. 2 (1922).

———. Athènes sous Hadrien (Cairo, 1934).

Head, B. V. ‘On the Chronological Sequence of the Coins of Boeotia’, Numismatic Chronicle, 3rd ser. 1 (1881), 177.

Jones, A. H. M. The Greek City from Alexander to Justinian (Oxford, 1940).

Jones, C. P. ‘The Teacher of Plutarch’, HSCP 71 (1966), 205.

———. ‘Towards a Chronology of Plutarch's Works’, JRS 56 (1966), 61.

———. ‘Julius Naso and Julius Secundus’, HSCP 72 (1968), 279.

———. ‘A New Commentary on the Letters of Pliny’, review of A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary, Phoenix 22 (1968), 111.

Keil, Br. ‘Ein λόγοs sυsτατικόs’, Nachrichten von der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Phil.-Hist. Kl. 1913, 1.

Kienast, D. ‘Die Homonoiaverträge in der römischen Kaiserzeit’, Jahrbuch für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte 14 (1964), 51.

Lepper, F. A. Review of A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary, Gnomon 42 (1970), 560.

Magie, D. Roman Rule in Asia Minor (Princeton, N.J., 1950), 2 vols.

Millar, F. A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford, 1964).

———. Review of A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary, JRS 58 (1968), 218.

Momigliano, A. D. Review of The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 10, JRS 34 (1944), 109.

———. Review of Ch. Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome, JRS 41 (1951), 146.

Nörr, D. Imperium und Polis in der hohen Prinzipatszeit (Munich, 1966).

Oliver, J. H. The Ruling Power: A Study of the Roman Empire in the Second Century after Christ through the Roman Oration of Aelius Aristides, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n. s. 43, pt. 4 (Philadelphia, Pa., 1953).

———. ‘The Roman Governor's Permission for a Decree of the Polis’, Hesperia 23 (1954), 163.

Palm, J. Rom, Römertum und Imperium in der griechischen Literatur der Kaiserzeit (Lund, 1959).

Pleket, H. W. ‘Domitian, the Senate and the Provinces’, Mnemosyne 14 (1961), 296.

Renoirte, T. LesConseils politiquesde Plutarque (Louvain, 1951).

Robert, L. ‘Études d'épigraphie grecque. III. Décret trouvé à Mylasa’, Revue de philologie 1 (1927), 102 = Opera minora selecta 2 (1969), 1057.

———. ‘Études sur les inscriptions et la topographie de la Grèce Centrale. VI. Décrets d'Akraiphia’, BCH 59 (1935), 438 = Opera minora selecta 1 (1969), 279.

———. Études anatoliennes (Paris, 1937).

———. Les Gladiateurs dans l'Orient grec (Paris, 1940).

———. ‘Un edifice du sanctuaire de l'Isthme dans une inscription de Corinthe’, Hellenica 1 (1940), 43.

———. ‘Épitaphes métriques de médecins à Nicée et à Tithorée’, Hellenica 2 (1946), 103.

———. ‘Ulpia Heraclea’, Hellenica 3 (1946), 5.

———. ‘Monuments de gladiateurs dans l'Orient grec’, Hellenica 3 (1946), 112, 5 (1948), 77, 7 (1949), 126, 8 (1950), 39.

Robert, L. ‘Épigrammes relatives à des gouverneurs’, Hellenica 4 (1948), 35.

———. ‘Inscriptions de la vallée du Haut Caïque’, Hellenica 6 (1948), 80.

———. ‘Hagia Marina en Phocide’, Hellenica 11-12 (1960), 70.

———. ‘Recherches épigraphiques. VII. Décret de la Confédération lycienne à Corinthe’, REA 62 (1960), 324 = Opera minora selecta 2 (1969), 840.

———. D'Aphrodisias à la Lycaonie, Hellenica 13 (1965).

———. ‘Inscriptions d'Aphrodisias. Première partie’, L'Antiquité classique 35 (1966), 377.

———. ‘Inscriptions de l'Antiquité et du Bas-Empire à Corinthe’, review of J. H. Kent, Corinth, Volume VIII, Part III: The Inscriptions 1926-1950, REG 79 (1966), 733.

———. ‘Sur des inscriptions d'Éphèse’, Revue de philologie 41 (1967), 7.

———. ‘Épigraphie grecque et géographie historique du monde hellénique’, Annuaire de l'École pratique des Hautes Études, IVe Section, 1968-1969 (1969), 161.

Rostovtzeff, M. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, 2nd edition revised by P. M. Fraser (Oxford, 1957), 2 vols.

Sherwin-White, A. N. The Roman Citizenship (Oxford, 1939).

———. The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966).

Siefert, G. De aliquot Plutarchi scriptorum moralium compositione atque indole, Commentationes philologicae Ienenses 6. 1 (1896).

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von. ‘Plutarch als Biograph’, Reden und Vorträge 24 (1926), 247.

———. ‘Lesefrüchte. CCXXVIII’, Hermes 62 (1927), 295 = Kleine Schriften 4 (1962), 451.

Wilhelm, A. ‘Urkunden aus Messene’, JÖAI 17 (1914), 1.

———. ‘Inschrift aus Tenos’, 'Επιτύμβιον Heinrich Swoboda dargebracht (Reichenberg, 1927), 336.

Wirszubski, Ch. Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and Early Principate (Cambridge, 1950).

D. A. Russell (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: Russell, D. A. “Language, Style and Form.” In Plutarch, pp. 18-41. London: Duckworth, 1973.

[In the following essay, Russell examines characteristic traits of Plutarch's literary style.]

There are extant forty-eight Lives by Plutarch, all but four of which belong to the series of Greek and Roman ‘parallels’. There are also over seventy short works of miscellaneous content. These are commonly called Moralia, a translation of the Greek ēthika, a title used in the Middle Ages for one considerable group of them concerned with topics in practical ethics. The corpus as we have it is in fact the result of various mediaeval Byzantine efforts at collecting books by Plutarch, culminating in the magnificent manuscripts written under the direction of Maximus Planudes at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century.1 It contains a number of works which are certainly spurious, though some of them are historically of great value and interest; The Education of Children, Fate, Doctrines of the Philosophers, Lives of the Ten Orators, On Music, are all books which we are fortunate to possess. For our knowledge of what was not harvested in the mediaeval collections we depend largely on quotations in later writers like the fourth-century Christian compiler Eusebius and the fifth-century anthologist Stobaeus. There is however another source of information on the titles of lost works, a catalogue supposed to have been compiled by a son of Plutarch called Lamprias.2 There is no other evidence that there ever was any such person, and the list apparently dates from late antiquity, perhaps the fourth century, when Plutarch was much read. It comprises 227 titles, including a number of Lives now lost, and some 130 other lost works. Its arrangement seems haphazard: the Lives come first, then the longer works, then those in single books, but with very little principle of grouping. It omits some genuine books that survive; on the other hand it includes some extant spuria, so that we must conclude that some of the unknowns may be spurious also. It includes in fact (no. 56) Aristotle's Topics, which no one in his right mind can have thought Plutarch's.

Now the attribution of books in antiquity was a chancy business. Galen3 gives a curious account of the fortunes of his own works. He would sometimes give copies to friends, with no name on the title, without intending them to go into circulation. When the owners died, the books fell into the hands of the heirs and came to be regarded as the owners' own compositions. The true authorship being discovered, the copies would come back to Galen for correction. Thus in the conditions of book circulation that prevailed in Plutarch's time and later, it could easily have happened that the contents of a collection of books that had belonged to him or was in the family could be thought to be all his work.

But however much we pare down the list, it remains formidable: some two hundred and fifty biblia. Many later Greeks however, especially philosophers, wrote on this scale; what is unusual with Plutarch is the survival of such a high proportion. The causes of this invite conjecture; the popularity of Plutarch in the Christian Greek world from the fourth century onwards must have been an important factor.

Galen observes in the same context that anyone who was properly trained not only in medicine and philosophy but in grammatikē would know within a few lines if a book was not by him. The trouble was that many would-be philosophers were unable to read properly and had never had a real grammatical training. This is testimony that, even at this late period, individual tricks of Greek style were recognisable by the expert. If we could resurrect a suitably educated second-century Greek, we should no doubt find the same with Plutarch. Indeed, we should not be too diffident about our own senses in this department; disputes about the authorship of works in the corpus do exist, and rightly so, but the obvious homogeneity of Plutarch's characteristic style and presentation have made them few and not too serious. It is no accident that the most doubtful points concern the collections of apophthegmata, which have not been ‘worked up’ stylistically.

The style indeed is very much ‘the man himself’. Plutarch forged and thoroughly controlled a remarkably facile and rich linguistic instrument. Learned and allusive, imaginative and metaphorical, exuberant and abundant, his writing also has qualities which are the reverse of its virtues: it is unequal, uneconomical, a good deal removed from the simplicity we associate—though not always justly—with classical Attic. But it is a mode of expression exactly tuned to his attitudes to the world; in its way, it is a great achievement, and it had very wide and persistent influence on later writers, Christian as well as pagan, modern as well as ancient.

Plutarch and his contemporaries faced a language problem. It is a feature of Greek, as of much Latin, literature that its language diverges widely from that of the author's daily speech. Greek poetry, from its earliest phases, was a linguistic evocation of the archaic or the exotic. By Hellenistic times, poetry could only be written in studied reproductions of archaic dialects. To a less extent, the same is true of prose. Here, the classical age, the fourth century b.c., did indeed develop an Attic style which, mainly because of the importance of forensic oratory, was essentially the vernacular. The history of prose is thereafter one of successive reforms and revivals, aimed generally at maintaining this fourth-century Attic. The greater and more rapid the changes in living speech, the more radical the periodical reform had to be. One such reform, an important one, took place two generations before Plutarch, and is documented in the theory and practice of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who lived for many years at Rome under Augustus. Dionysius rejected all post-Attic prose as bizarre, eccentric or disorganised; his remedy was a better use of the resources of the Attic classics, and especially the orators. This was archaism, but a positive and constructive archaism, which sought to enrich rather than restrict by prescribing models to imitate. It is quite distinct from the later archaism of the second-century Atticists, who compiled lists of words authorised by classical usage, and tried to confine themselves within these limits. Dionysius' work on word-arrangement (sunthesis onomatōn) makes it particularly clear what his essential aims were: he wanted to exploit the versatility and vigour he found in the classics, so as to accommodate the intellectual excitement of pathos and rhetoric, which sophisticated readers now needed, in a disciplined but varied prose.

Plutarch inherited a situation in which this classicising revolution was an important factor. Not that he thought much of Dionysius himself. When he comes to use him as a historical source, in the lives of the early Roman heroes and especially in Coriolanus, he imitates him little and improves on him a good deal.4 Dionysius' friend Caecilius of Caleacte, the opponent answered by the author of On the Sublime, is also no favourite of Plutarch's, who thinks of him as pedantic and pretentious—‘a dolphin on dry land’ for trying to judge Cicero's style.5 Plutarch is of course by profession a philosopher, and it is therefore traditional for him to make fun of the rhetoricians and their juggling with words.6

But he is himself a conscious artist in an elaborate manner, meticulous in his periodic structures, his studied word-patterns, his avoidance of hiatus, his carefully chosen vocabulary, and so on. This should not seem a paradox, either in Plutarch or, for example, in Seneca. Both worked in a tradition which demanded an extraordinarily high level of verbal expertise and sophistication; all they are saying, when they speak as philosophers, is that they claim to put sense first. Again, despite his coolness and silence about it, Plutarch is demonstrably, if unconsciously, a beneficiary of the changes instituted by the Greek Augustans: witness his varied syntax and sophisticated word-order. He writes what we may call a reformed Hellenistic Greek, with very few non-classical features of syntax7 or morphology, enormously enriched by his vast reading. Dionysius himself had not restricted his vocabulary to words found in the Attic classics, but Plutarch is freer and more catholic altogether in his exploitation of the enrichments of style which come in after the close of the classical age. His vocabulary is three times that of Demosthenes, and much of it is poetical or post-Attic. He makes great use of the compound verbs in which Hellenistic Greek found both elegance and clumsiness. He fully shares the Hellenistic penchant for abstracts, even as subjects—in general an unclassical feature. An English schoolboy, asked to translate into Greek the sentence ‘Kindness covers a wider area than justice’ would probably be advised to try a paraphrase in more concrete terms: something like ‘we treat more things kindly than we do justly’. By the usage of classical authors, this is fairly good advice. But the sentence as it stands is a literal translation of Plutarch (Cato 5) and typical enough of him. Sometimes the use of abstracts produces a concise effectiveness of which the language of earlier prose is hardly capable. ‘Meanness tugs at the glutton's finger in the fish-market [i.e. stops him putting his finger up to indicate a bid]; avarice deflects lechery from an expensive whore’ (706b).

The continuance of such features of Hellenistic writing marks Plutarch off from many of his contemporaries and most of his immediate successors, who went much further in their mimēsis of a narrow range of classics, and tended to reject whenever possible words which they could not find in the old writers. Plutarch is firmly enough set in the continuous tradition of Greek writing not to feel the need for this more radical classicism. His linguistic position indeed reflects his thought: the Greek past was alive for him, and its language a living instrument, through every phrase of which the past might be evoked and seen to be continuous with the present. If we think of a writer's language as the roof to shelter his thoughts, Plutarch's was not a museum but an old and much-used house, still eminently fit to be lived in.

Much of the flavour of course evaporates in translation. Plutarch's classic sixteenth-century translators,8 Amyot and his disciples North and Holland, still best convey the richness and elaboration; but they do so at the cost of the control and elevation of tone which prevent the real Plutarch, however long-winded he is, from being garrulous. The weakness and strength of Amyot were correctly judged by Octave Gréard, in one of the most perceptive books on Plutarch ever written.9 Plutarch's style, he says, ‘ne revêt que par instants les formes de la naïveté, mais il en a l'âme. C'est cette âme dont Amyot s'est inspiré dans sa traduction.’ More modern translations generally lose much of the brightness and vigour of the original. The translations in this book can be no exception. Modern English hardly seems to possess the stops that are necessary. The flavour of the loaded and allusive language, the rounded form of the periods, are discernible only in Greek; but the main rhetorical features of presentation, the exempla and imagery, the variety and abundance will perhaps shine dimly through.

Here to begin with is a typical passage of moral advice.

Such10 is the contentment and change of heart that reasoning engenders in every life. When Alexander heard Anaxarchus discourse on the infinite number of worlds, he wept. When his friends asked what was wrong, he replied, ‘Ought one not to weep, if there are infinite worlds and one is not yet master even of one?’ But Crates, with his wallet and his cloak, spent his days in play and laughter as if life were one long holiday.

Agamemnon found it painful to have many subjects:

You will know the son of Atreus, Agamemnon,
whom Zeus thrusts always into trouble, above all other men.(11)

But Diogenes, when he was put up for sale, made fun of the auctioneer by lying down, and refused to get up when ordered, saying with a laugh, ‘Suppose you were selling a fish … ?’

Socrates had a philosophical conversation with his friends in prison. But Phaethon, when he went up to heaven, cried because no one would give him his father's horses and chariot.

So, as the shoe is shaped to the foot and not vice versa, attitudes assimilate lives to themselves. It is not true, as has been said, that habit makes the best life pleasant to those who choose it; in fact, wisdom makes one and the same life both best and pleasantest. Let us therefore purify the spring of contentment that is within us, so that external circumstances may for their part too deal with us as friends and familiars in return for our fair dealing:

With circumstances one must not be angry;
they cannot care. But if the encounterer
handles them right, things will go well with him.(12)

For Plato compared life to a game of dice, in which one has to make the proper throw and use the throw advantageously. Now the throw itself is not in our control; but the appropriate acceptance of events from fortune and the allocation of them to areas in which what is welcome will do most good and what is unwanted least harm to those involved—all this is our concern, if we are wise. People who are unskilled and foolish about life are like invalids who cannot endure heat or cold. They are excited by good fortune, daunted by bad, and disturbed by both—or rather by themselves in both sets of circumstances, and not less in those that are supposed to be good. Theodorus the ‘atheist’ used to say that he offered his arguments with his right hand, but his audience took them with their left. Similarly, the untrained often take Fortune with the left hand, when she offers herself on the right, and so they make fools of themselves. The wise, on the other hand, often acquire something of service and value to themselves out of the most disagreeable events, just as bees derive honey from thyme, which is the driest and sharpest of herbs.


This is a central passage in Plutarch's Quiet of Mind, ‘a treatise,’ as Philemon Holland says, ‘where a man may see the excellent discourses and most sound arguments of moral philosophy’.13 The subject—euthumia, animi tranquillitas—was one that had been much treated from the time of Democritus. The Stoic Panaetius made a particularly significant contribution to the tradition. Plutarch's book in fact is original only in selection and presentation. The passage we are considering makes a single, simple point: that a wise attitude to life produces contentment, whatever our circumstances. Everything else is supporting amplification: a text-book illustration of principles laid down by generations of rhetoricians for the use of examples (paradeigmata) and general thoughts (enthumēmata, gnōmai) to support a proposition.14 First comes a series of paradeigmata in pairs: Alexander contrasted with Crates, Agamemnon with Diogenes, Socrates with Phaethon. In each pair, the difference between the contented and the discontented depends on the presence of reason; in each pair, the philosopher is seen to be the happier. The pairing could be Plutarch's own, except that Socrates and Phaethon appear again as a symbol of wisdom and folly in Exile (607f), and this suggests that this contrast at least is an inherited commonplace.

Two of the exempla, the stories of Anaxarchus and Diogenes, are in the form of anecdotes. In the terminology of the rhetores, they are chreiai. They relate wise and useful remarks by famous characters whose name guarantees the goodness of the lesson. Such anecdotes were gathered in collections even in classical times. Plutarch both used the collections of others and doubtless made his own—whether or not the extant sets of Spartan and other apophthegmata (‘sayings’) are his. The wording of such an anecdote was the free choice of the writer who wished to use it, provided of course that the main point was recognisable. Of these two stories, the one about Anaxarchus is in Valerius Maximus' huge collection, under the heading ‘desire for glory’. His version concludes with an additional point: Alexander, though a man, was not satisfied with the dwelling that suffices for the gods.15 The Diogenes story too occurs elsewhere. It is part of a cycle connected with Diogenes' sale into slavery. In our other source, Diogenes Laertius, it is somewhat different:

Not being allowed to sit down, he said: ‘It doesn't matter; fish are sold in any position.’16

This makes explicit the point which Plutarch's elegant aposiopesis leaves us to see for ourselves.

A second form of authoritative support is the poetical quotation. This device is as old as prose literature, or at least as old as Plato. Collections of suitable passages were made at an early period. In Menander's Shield (407 ff.), it is a comic detail for the clever slave to repeat to himself poetical saws (gnōmai) like

No man is happy in all things he does,


'Tis fortune makes man's world, and not good counsel.

These sayings often recur.17 Besides the dramatists—inevitable in Menander, favourites also with the philosophers—Homer and Theognis are common sources. By Plutarch's time, collections and anthologies were legion. Plutarch will have both used and made such things, as he did with anecdotes; from this source, and also from his own reading, he held ready an enormous store of apt quotations, which do much to enhance the colour and variety of his writing, even if sometimes one can hardly restrain a smile at the appearance of an old favourite. For example, we shall probably never know what tragic poet wrote the line:

Plucking at heart-strings never plucked before.18

Nor can we know its original context: ‘strings’ (chordai) are mentioned once only in extant tragedy, and of a lyre. Our poet doubtless compared the heart to a stringed instrument; the image is banal in English. The line would be a godsend to a philosopher discussing the nature of the soul. Let us suppose that it is through some such intermediary that Plutarch knows it. He uses it in five places: once of anger (456e), once comprehensively of anger, superstition, family quarrels and sex (43e), once of fever (501a) and once of drunkenness (657d); all these seem fairly natural applications of the idea. The fifth occurrence is more curious:

The portico at Olympia is called the Portico of Seven Voices because it produces many echoes from a single cry: and if the slightest word touches Garrulity, she immediately returns an echo,

Plucking at heart-strings never plucked before.


Here the quotation seems simply an intensifier, and perhaps gives a balance with the image that precedes. It is as though Plutarch this time could not think of anything more apt to fill out his sentence.

The lines from Euripides' Bellerophon in our passage from Quiet of Mind are not quite so familiar, but they are also an anthology piece. They recur in the great compilation of Stobaeus,19 which gives us so much of the conventional lore of late antiquity, and Marcus Aurelius (7.38) thought it worth while copying part of the passage into the book of reflections he made for his own use and comfort.

It is not only as direct support that quotations and anecdotes are drawn in. When Plutarch writes in this passage

It is not true, as has been said, that habit makes the best life pleasant …

he is playing a trick which is of great importance in the texture of his writing. He has in mind a Pythagorean saying which he elsewhere approves:20 the good life seems harsh at first, but habit makes even asceticism agreeable. To correct this forms a novel point; reflection on the original saying has stimulated a truer formulation. At the same time, it amounts to a device for introducing the quotation into an argument where it scarcely belongs. This is analogous to Plutarch's frequent use of an image not to point a similarity but to indicate a contrast; in a sense, this helps to make the picture more precise, but it easily turns into a device to cram something else into an already packed passage.

One final point. Allusions apart, the passage, like most of Plutarch, contains a great deal of imagery. Much of this is conventional. The shoe,21 the springs of contentment,22 the throw of the dice,23 the delicate invalid, the bees on the thyme,24 are all symbols with a history of their own. It is typical of Plutarch that they should all be gathered together in such a short space; lavishness with imagery in any reflective or discursive context is one of the most distinctive characteristics of his prose. He seems always to be seeking implied or explicit comparisons between the subject in hand and something else. It all amounts, in a manner of speaking, to innumerable arguments from analogy. Like the authorities and the exempla, the imagery has a rhetorical function in support of the point being made. But it is far too rich and ubiquitous to have no other end. We should I think credit Plutarch with letting his imagery fulfil also a sort of poetic purpose. The neat comparison passes easily into a suggestive symbol, the arresting switch of theme into an imaginative vision.

Indeed, all the methods of support and amplification which this passage illustrates—anecdote, quotation, simile—have a depth and interest in Plutarch which is not easily explained in simple rhetorical terms. He is not really using this apparatus to convince so much as in a sort of imaginative play. He wants to remind the reader all the time of vast areas of philosophical and literary tradition, to provide a great deal of thematic variety, and to give the pleasure of surprise by the ingenuity with which familiar thoughts are turned in unfamiliar ways.

Quiet of Mind is a calm book, in form a letter. It is presented (464e) as a compilation of ‘notes’ (hupomnēmata) sent in response to a request. In it, the strident Cynic preaching is muted into grave reading-matter for the reflective Paccius. This quiet mode is not universal in Plutarch's moralising, though it is very common. We can detect other sorts of occasion and their corresponding styles, in which the same mechanism of allusion and imagery is used to achieve an overall effect of a distinctly different kind.

Sometimes, the tradition of the real sermon, which scholars call the diatr˘ibē,25 is nearer the surface. Do Not Borrow! is a case in point. It is a chaotic but vigorous address, presumably a public lecture. It has an unusual theme, and this has led to the conjecture that there was a topical point to it. ‘Une plaie véritable, l'usure, dévorait Chéronée.’26 Perhaps; but there can be no proof. The speech attracted attention among Plutarch's Christian imitators: St. Basil drew largely on it in his Homily on the Fourteenth Psalm. Packed with imagery, often obscure and confused in its transitions, it is one of those pieces that lend colour to the notion that Plutarch was at one time an over-ambitious and therefore unsuccessful speaker. There is naturally no proof that this little homily is early. What seems iuvenilis ardor may be just genre-colour. But it is a plausible guess.

This is how the piece ends (831b ff.):

Now I must turn to the richer and more delicate, the people who say ‘Shall I then have no slaves, no hearth or home?’ A man sick of the dropsy and swollen might as well say to his doctor ‘Shall I then become thin and empty?’ Why not, if it makes you healthy? It's the same with you. Have no slaves, so as to be no slave yourself. Have no property, so as not to be the property of another.

Listen to the fable about the vultures. One vulture was sick and said he was bringing up guts. ‘What's wrong with that?’ said the other vulture; ‘they're not your guts, they're the corpse's we were tearing up just now.’

Debtors don't sell their own farms and houses, but farms and houses belonging to the creditors they have made their masters according to the law.

‘Yes, but my father left me this farm.’ He also left you your freedom and your status, and you ought to think more about these. Your father made your foot and your hand for you, but if they rot, you pay the man who cuts them off.

Calypso dressed Odysseus ‘in clothing sweetly-scented’,27 breathing flesh divine, a gift in memory of her love: but when he capsized and sank and surfaced with difficulty, the clothes were sodden and heavy, and he stripped and threw them off, and tied a scarf under his naked breast and ‘swam along looking to landward’.28 Once saved, he lacked neither for clothing nor for food. Well? Don't debtors face a storm, when the creditor at last appears and cries ‘Hand over’?

‘So speaking he gathered the clouds and ruffled the sea;
east wind and south and violent west fell on together’,(29)

as debt rolls on top of debt. Swamped, the victim clings to the load that weighs him down, unable to swim to safety; down he goes, pushed to the bottom, sunk without trace, he and the friends who guaranteed him.

Crates the Theban, with no demand or debt upon him, disgusted with management and cares and distractions, abandoned a property worth eight talents, took his cloak and wallet, and fled for refuge to philosophy by way of poverty. Anaxagoras left his land to be grazed by sheep. But this is nothing to Philoxenus the lyricist, who had an allotment of land in a Sicilian colony, a good living and a household of considerable substance, but saw that luxury, soft living and tastelessness were abroad in the land. ‘These blessings,’ he said, ‘shan't ruin me—by God, I'll ruin them!’—and he left his allotment to others and sailed off. Debtors endure demands, taxation, slavery, forced sales—they persevere too, feeding winged Harpies just as Phineus did, that steal and ravage their substance. These buy their corn before it is harvested and market the oil before the olives are picked. ‘I take the wine too,’ he says, ‘at so much’—and he gives an advance on the price, while the bunch hangs on the vine and grows as it waits for Arcturus and the vintage.

Much of this recalls Quiet of Mind: the medical imagery, the Crates anecdote. Much however has a livelier tone. The tradition of popular preaching reveals itself in the range of rhetorical devices. Imagined interruptions, rhetorical questions, direct addresses to the audience, striking word-arrangements (asyndeta for instance) are characteristic. So is a certain vulgar vigour in the imagery: the fable of the vomiting vultures, the parable of paying a man to cut off your hand if it has gone rotten.30 The moralised Homer too falls into the tradition, with its appeal to the one book the half-educated will know. The rapid transitions and vivid word-pictures recall Roman satire, which itself owes much to the traditions of Hellenistic preaching. Horace or Juvenal would not have been ashamed of the ending.

There were also occasions that demanded a grander manner. We possess a group of speeches which are very typically Plutarchan but exhibit yet a third mode: the grandeur of the ceremonial sophistic display. In one of these, The Glory of Athens, he argues a case which is of particular interest in view of some of his general ideas and attitudes. The position to be maintained is that Athenian achievements in practical affairs are greater than in literature. This chimes with a theme which is prominent in the Parallel Lives—the theme that Greece too had a political greatness and could share dominion with Rome as a useful partner. Thoroughly implausible as this thesis is, it had some point in the age of the first Eastern consuls.31 Delivered at Athens in the late first century a.d., the speech would not be so absurd: less absurd anyway than those conventional praises of Marathon which Sulla told the Athenian orators to take home with them.32

The speech is very formal. The poets and generals of Athens come forward in turn. Finally comes the turn of the orators.

Poetry, you may say, is only a game. But a comparison between orators and generals has a certain plausibility. Does not Aeschines humorously represent Demosthenes as saying that he would take out an action on behalf of the Front Bench against the Headquarters? Well: is it right to prefer Hyperides' speech on Plataea to Aristides' proclamation? Or Lysias' speech against the Thirty to the tyrannicide of Thrasybulus and Archinus? Or Aeschines' prosecution of Timarchus for male prostitution to Phocion's expedition in aid of Byzantium, by which he saved allies' sons from becoming victims of the drunken wantonness of the Macedonians? Shall we set Demosthenes' speech on the Crown against the crowns that Conon won for liberating Greece? The finest and most eloquent thing the great orator did in that speech was the oath by those of our ancestors who risked their lives at Marathon. He didn't swear by those who taught lessons to boys in school! These were therefore the people—not an Isocrates or an Antiphon or an Isaeus—whom the city buried at public cost, welcoming home their bodily remains; these were the people whom the orator in this oath treated as gods, whom he swore by—but did not follow! Isocrates said that the men who risked their lives at Marathon fought ‘as though their lives were not their own’,33 and praised their daring and contempt for life in lyrical terms. But what of himself? When he was an old man, so the story goes, someone asked him how he passed the time. ‘Like a man over ninety,’ he said, ‘who thinks death the greatest of evils.’ For he grew old not putting an edge on his sword or sharpening his lance, not polishing a helmet, not soldiering or rowing in the galleys, but sticking together antitheses, parisoses and homoeoptota, smoothing and shaping his periods, as it were, with plane and chisel. How could the man who was afraid to make vowel collide with vowel or utter an isocolon one syllable short fail to be frightened of the noise of arms and the clash of battalions? Miltiades set off for Marathon; next day he fought the battle and returned victorious to the city with his army. Pericles reduced Samos in nine months, and thought himself a finer fellow than Agamemnon who took Troy in the tenth year of siege. And Isocrates took nearly three Olympiads to write the Panegyric! In all that time he fought no campaign, went on no embassy, founded no city, never sailed in command of a fleet. Yet the age produced innumerable wars … and all the time Isocrates was sitting at home, fashioning and refashioning the phrases of a book, for as long as it took Pericles to build the Propylaea and the Parthenon. Yet Cratinus34 ridicules Pericles for being so slow with his works; he says about the middle wall:

advances it with speeches, but the work does not progress.

Just think of the sophistic pedantry that can spend the ninth part of a lifetime on a single speech!


Paradoxical of course that an orator should so denigrate his own profession; but to make a case is not to commit oneself to it, and we need not take this aspect of the speech too seriously. What is characteristically Plutarchan is once again the range and aptness of the examples. Here, his immense reading subserves purely rhetorical purposes. The apt quotation from Aeschines makes an ingenious amplification of the imaginary objection with which the piece begins. The four parallel achievements of orators and generals are neat and artful. No boredom is allowed here: after Hyperides and Lysias comes the longer and more piquant matter of male seduction, and finally the allusion to On the Crown which leads by association to a further point. This is something very traditional: a comment on the famous oath of which we possess Longinus' model analysis.35 Plutarch draws two little lessons: (i) that Demosthenes chose soldiers, not rhetors, to personify the greatness of his country;36 (ii) that he himself did not practise what he preached. The episode leads, through a parallel reference to Marathon, to a much easier target: Isocrates. Plutarch has again a tradition to draw on in the amusing passage that follows:37 Isocrates is the typical study-orator, who took absurdly long periods of time furbishing and re-furbishing his work. The final touch is ingenious and appropriate. The Panegyricus took as long as the Parthenon, and even Pericles (though not in this connection!) was blamed for being slow. Plutarch recalls a piece of antiquarian learning associated with a passage of Old Comedy.38

These three passages show a difference of mode, but a basic similarity of material. The mass of learning, the rich vocabulary, the constant search for analogies and images, the anxiety for frequent thematic change, characterise a manner which genre-differences affect only to a very limited extent. But there are genre-differences. Besides the kinds of speeches and treatises we have illustrated, there are, for example, the books of problēmata on antiquarian and scientific subjects, and the more technical philosophical treatises. In all these, there is less scope for brilliant play of exempla or quotations: the richness and the metaphorical style remain pervasive. The Lives, again, have many of the features of history: yet again and again a twist of argument or a series of anecdotes reveals the same techniques of allusion and illusion. Plutarch, it is true, has l'âme de la naïveté; but in style, he has a sophistication and cunning which make interpretation a continuously exacting task.

The most complex genre he attempted was the dialogue. Here lay his highest literary ambitions.

Philosophical dialogue is one of the great inventions of Greek literature, a proper expression and symbol of free inquiry. It took many forms. Some dialogues, like many of Plato's, consist of a rapid interchange of question and answer. Others are made up of a series of developed speeches giving various answers to the questions proposed; the less plausible answers usually come first, and are refuted in the course of the later speeches. Plutarch's dialogues are of the second kind; he rarely attempts the other. The tradition of this kind of dialogue also did in fact begin with Plato: impressive speeches occur in Ion, Phaedo, Gorgias, Republic, for example; Symposium, Phaedrus, Timaeus and Laws, with their solemnity and pomp, had very great influence on later practitioners. Aristotle, Theophrastus and their Hellenistic successors wrote many elaborate and famous dialogues; what they were like can be glimpsed, if at all, through the extant masters, Cicero and Plutarch.39

Plato's Symposium, an acknowledged masterpiece, has four features which were of special importance for the development of the genre. One is its dinner-setting, an ideally closed and conventional occasion, based on a social event which seems to have changed very little in character, in the circles that matter, between classical Athens and imperial Rome. A second is the device of using reported conversation to distance the event in time, lend credibility to the report, and incidentally involve more persons in the compliment of being included. A third, more conspicuous here than in any other Platonic dialogue, is the accommodation of style to profession and character, as in the speeches of Eryximachus, Aristophanes and Agathon. Finally, Alcibiades' drunken entry adds the interest of event to that of conversation. All these features recur in Plutarch. His ‘Seven Sages’ meet at dinner. In Table Talk the dinner-table is the venue of a whole series of small dialogues. Elaborate play with reported conversation is a puzzling feature of The Face in the Moon. Plutarch has not much stylistic versatility; but he makes the Pythagorean Theanor in Socrates' Sign speak in an appropriately grand manner, and he characterises Pisias and Anthemion in A Book of Love by their words as much as by anything he says about them. In the use of incident, on the other hand, he goes much further than Plato. This was indeed not an innovation: Varro's informative dialogue on farming startles us with the unexpected episode of the sacristan's murder.40 But Socrates' Sign and A Book of Love are particularly striking, with their exciting novel-like settings and interludes. Indeed, the likeness between A Book of Love, where a narrated love-affair forms the background to a philosophical discussion, and, say, the first book of the novelist Achilles Tatius, where the love-affair in the story occasions general discourses by the characters, is remarkably close. In this kind of thing, the dialogue made a contribution to the development of the novel.

Certain of Plutarch's dialogues have historical, not contemporary, settings. The Banquet of the Seven Sages (146b ff.) is set in the Greece of the tyrants. Some have thought it too trivial for Plutarch's hand. One gets the impression of an educational work, addressed to a very young audience, full of instructive and amusing stories. The themes are in fact typically Plutarchan ones: the contribution of Delphi to Greek civilisation, the virtues of the simple life, prophecy, the value of a plain diet. As a myth, it has Herodotus' story of Arion and the dolphin, introduced as a piece of news brought by Periander's brother Gorgos and beautifully told. We know (14e) that Plutarch admired certain Hellenistic dialogues as introductory works for the young; he is here, it would seem, writing one on his own account.

Socrates' Sign (575a) is a more serious affair, though not dissimilar in its variety, and again involving, though on a deeper level, the themes of simplicity of life and the power of divination. This time Plutarch chose a more precise and factual historical setting, the liberation of Thebes from the Spartan occupation in 379 b.c. It was a famous tale of adventure, of which many accounts existed. Plutarch needed it also in Pelopidas, where he tells it more briefly. In the dialogue, there is much more detail, most of it no doubt traditional; he also takes the kind of liberty a Greek dramatist might take, compressing the whole crisis into the events of a single day and night. The dialogue (like the Banquet) is a narrated one: the Theban Caphisias relates it to an Athenian sympathiser at Athens. The principal scene of his story is in the house of Simmias, the disciple known from Plato's Phaedo, now a bedridden elder. Friends are in the habit of assembling here, during the occupation, for philosophical and conspiratorial talk. It is the wintry day when the exiles are to slip into the town from the mountains, and the coup against the occupation forces is to be mounted. Coincidence—an implausibility on which the unity of the dialogue is based—has brought to Thebes at this very time a mysterious stranger, who is reported to have camped near the tomb of the Pythagorean Lysis. The two sets of events thus set in train, one public, the other private and philosophical, are linked by the person of the young Epaminondas, the boy who was to be the greatest of Theban heroes. He plays no active part in the conspiracy, though he knows about it; his inaction needs an apologia. In his relation with the mysterious stranger, who turns out to be a Pythagorean ‘holy man’, a colourful and somewhat pompous figure, he gives proof both of his steadfast integrity and of supernatural guidance, which the wise man recognises. Developments in these two plots punctuate the discussions which occupy the main part of the dialogue; it is the theory contained in these discussions which is obviously the most important part of the whole. The news of the stranger's ritual acts prompts the rationally-inclined Galaxidorus to deliver an attack on superstition. Socrates, he suggests, appealing to Simmias, championed a simple, down-to-earth philosophy.

But what about the ‘divine sign’, so celebrated in Socratic literature? The ensuing conversation consists of the discussion of a series of explanations of this, interrupted from time to time by news of what is going on outside. Was it a sneeze? A voice? The voiceless language of a daimon? This last is Simmias' explanation; it is a theme which Plutarch takes up in a number of other dialogues written about this time. As a Delphic priest and a man of learning, the theology of prophecy was central to his interests. Simmias is made to crown his explanation, in the Platonic manner, by a myth: the story of Timarchus of Chaeronea, who descended into the cave of the near-by oracle of Trophonius and had a vision of heaven and of the destiny and nature of the soul. This splendid story concluded, the Pythagorean adds his ex cathedra word; and the moment for action has come.

So varied a subject naturally requires many variations of style. The myth and Theanor's closing speech have distinct and fascinating forms of grandeur. The narrative too is among the best in Plutarch. It shows qualities not revealed in the arabesques of allusion and analogy: a clear eye for action, a powerful technique of suspense, the natural skill of the born story-teller.

It was late. The wind had risen, and the cold was sharper. Most people had hurried home. We met Damoclidas, Pelopidas and Theopompus [exiles] and took them with us. Others brought in others. They had become separated crossing Cithaeron. The weather enabled them to wrap up and conceal their faces so as to cross the city without apprehension. As some of them passed through the gate, there was lightning on their right, but no thunder. It seemed a good omen of security and glory, signifying a brilliant but safe action.

All forty-eight of us were already indoors, and Theocritus was sacrificing privately in a separate room, when there was a violent beating on the door. Presently someone came to say that two of Archias' servants were knocking at the outer door. They had been sent in haste to Charon, demanded entry, and were angry at the delay in answering. Charon was dumbfounded. He gave orders to open up at once, and himself went to meet these servants with his garland on, as though he had sacrificed and was drinking, and asked them what they wanted. ‘Archias and Philip,’ said one of them, ‘sent us to ask you to come and see them as quickly as possible.’ Charon asked what the urgency was in a summons at such an hour. Was there any new development? ‘We know nothing more,’ said the man; ‘what are we to tell them?’ ‘That I'm coming,’ said Charon, ‘as soon as I've taken off my garland and put on my cloak. If I come with you at this hour, I shall cause a disturbance with some people, because they will think I am being arrested.’ ‘Very well,’ said the man, ‘you do that. We've orders from the governors to the guard in the lower town.’

They thereupon departed, and Charon came back to us and told us. Universal dismay; we thought we must have been betrayed.

However, all agreed that Charon should go and obey the governors' summons.


And so Charon goes, leaving his fifteen-year-old son as a pledge of his loyalty. The conspirators get more and more anxious, and decide to go out and fight, rather than be scraped out like a wasps' nest.

While we were arming and getting ready, Charon returned. Cheerful and smiling, he gave us a look, and told us not to worry. There was no crisis, everything was going according to plan. He told his story.

‘By the time I had answered their call, Archias and Philip were exceedingly drunk. Neither their minds nor their bodies were capable of much. They managed with difficulty to get up and come out to the door. “It's the exiles,” said Archias; “we hear they've got into the town and are in hiding.” “Where?” said I, thoroughly confused, “and who are they supposed to be?” “We don't know,” said Archias; “that's why we've sent for you, in case you've heard anything more definite.”

‘I began to recover from the shock. I reckoned their information could only be a vague rumour … If anyone with knowledge had given information, they could hardly have failed to know the house … So I replied, “I know there were a lot of idle reports around that caused us trouble while Androclides was alive. But I've not heard anything at the moment, Archias. However, I'll look into it, if you like, and if I hear anything worth thinking about, it shan't escape you.”’


Reassured, the conspirators sally forth in two parties.

It was the time people are generally at dinner. The wind had got up stronger, and was blowing snow with it mixed with fine rain. The streets were empty as we passed through them … But our bad luck, that was always evening out the odds between the enemy's ignorance and cowardice and our courage and care, complicating our action from the very beginning with episodes of danger like a play—our bad luck joined us again right at the climax and gave us a sharp and fearsome bout and an unexpected turn.

While Charon, having calmed Archias and Philip, had returned home and was organizing us for the action, a letter arrived from Athens, from the hierophant Archias to our Archias, his friend. This letter, it appears, announced the return and conspiracy of the exiles, the house where they had assembled, and the names of their confederates. But by this time Archias was thoroughly under the effects of his drink, and also excited by the prospect of the women.41 He took the letter, but when the courier said it was about a serious matter, he replied ‘Serious matters to-morrow’, put the letter under his cushion, asked for another cup, and kept sending Phyllidas to the door to see if the ladies were coming.

These prospects kept the party going. Meanwhile, we had arrived and pushed our way past the servants to the dining-room. We stood at the door for a time, taking in the guests. The sight of our garlands and dresses gave the necessary false impression of our visit, and produced silence. Melon was the first to spring forward, hand on sword-hilt. Cabirichus, the archon-by-lot, gripped his arm as he passed and called out, ‘Phyllidas, isn't this Melon?’ Melon shook him off and pulled out his sword. Archias struggled to his feet, but Melon was on top of him and didn't stop striking till he had killed him. Philip was wounded in the neck by Charon, but tried to defend himself with the drinking-cups on the table, until Lysitheus pushed him off the couch on to the ground and killed him … A few of the servants tried to resist, but we killed them. Those who made no fuss we locked up in the dining-room, not wanting them to get out and spread the word of what had happened until we knew whether our comrades had been successful.


The other party, headed by Pelopidas, are at the house of Leontiades.

They told the servant … they had come from Athens with a letter … He gave the message and was told to open up. When he took the bar out and opened the door a little, they all tumbled in, threw the man down and rushed through the courtyard into the bedroom. Leontiades guessed the truth, drew his dagger and prepared to resist. Wicked tyrant that he was, he was a courageous man and strong in the arm. However, he did not think of overturning the lamp and confronting his enemies in the darkness. In the light he could be seen. The moment the door opened, he struck Cephisodorus in the side, and then fell on Pelopidas and shouted for the servants. Samidas and his companions however prevented them from doing anything; they had no stomach for joining issue with distinguished citizens of such superior fighting power. Pelopidas however had a real sword-fight with Leontiades in the narrow doorway of the bedroom. Cephisodorus had fallen in the way and was dying, so that the others could not get in to help. In the end, though, our man, who was wounded in the head, though not seriously, and had given as much as he had received, threw Leontiades and killed him over the still warm body of Cephisodorus, who saw his enemy fall and gave Pelopidas his hand and saluted the others before dying, a happy man.


This is not the end; but the remaining episodes, the murder of Hypatas on the roof and the release of political prisoners from the gaol, add little to the essentials.

These scenes of indoor violence owe much to the Odyssey, on which Plutarch's readers will have been brought up. Much of the detail is of course traditional, and perhaps very little is complete invention. But the choice and arrangement are special to the occasion. Pelopidas (10-11) shows some interesting differences, some of which follow naturally from the difference between Caphisias' narrative and the omniscient historian's. When Charon returns from his alarming interview, he tells only Pelopidas, or Pelopidas and his immediate group, the truth, but makes up another tale for the rest. This would not do for Caphisias: how could he have known? The version in the Life also emphasises Pelopidas' importance, as does its account of the death of Leontiades, which is represented as much the harder prong of the operation. Cephisodorus' dying words are not allowed either; he is quite dead, and Pelopidas fights on his own.

The differences are small but significant. The episode makes a good test for reflection on Plutarch's skills. Its vividness is not commonplace in ancient literature; it reminds us that Plutarch could write, better than most Greeks of his age, with his eye on the object, as well as out of the ready resources of a well-stocked literary memory.


  1. See below, p. 147 [in D. A. Russell, Plutarch].

  2. Conveniently edited and translated by F. H. Sandbach, Loeb Moralia, vol. xv.

  3. On His Own Books, xix, 8 Kühn.

  4. I have discussed this relationship in JRS 53 (1963) 1 ff.

  5. Demosthenes 3.

  6. See below, pp. 31 ff.

  7. Obvious non-classical traits include for ou as the negative in most kinds of subordinate clause and participial phrase, and the very restricted, but in some ways unclassical, use of the optative.

  8. See below, pp. 150 ff.

  9. La Morale de Plutarque, 391.

  10. i.e. as sudden and complete as the change of attitude to food that comes with the passing of disease and the restoration of health.

  11. Iliad 10.85.

  12. Euripides fr. 287 (from Bellerophon).

  13. Holland is in fact translating the sommaire added in many later editions of Amyot.

  14. The essentials of the rhetorical doctrine are in Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.20-1.

  15. Val. Max. 8.14 ext. 2: compare 3.3 ext. 4. Valerius Maximus is one of the Latin authors whom Plutarch knew, though there is no likelihood of his having used him here.

  16. Diogenes Laertius 6.27.

  17. The second one is in fact the ‘text’ of Plutarch's ‘sermon’ on fortune (97c).

  18. Tragica adespota 361 Nauck.

  19. iv. 350 and v. 968 Hense.

  20. See 123c, 602b.

  21. cf. Horace Epist. 1.7.98, 10.42; Aristippus fr. 67 Mannebach.

  22. cf. M. Aurelius 7.59.

  23. Plutarch wrote a book (Cat. Lampr. 105) on ‘the likeness of life to a game of dice’: cf. also Plato, Republic 604c; Sophocles fr. 947; [Plu.] Consolation to Apollonius 112e.

  24. e.g. 32a, 41f.

  25. A useful term much used, since the publication of Usener's Epicurea (1887), to describe a lecture or discourse on a moral theme, marked by a combination of seriousness with humour and a certain vividness and immediacy in language. Typical examples in the remains of Teles (ed. O. Hense, 1909). The word is often used in discussions both of Roman Satire (N. Rudd, The Satires of Horace, ch. 1) and of moralists like Plutarch and Epictetus. Definition is difficult; but there is a distinct tradition which needs a name. The connotations of English diatribe confuse the issue. In Greek, diatribe is strictly ‘way of passing time’.

  26. O. Gréard, op. cit., 190.

  27. Odyssey 5.264.

  28. ibid. 5.439.

  29. ibid. 5.291, 295.

  30. cf. Matthew 5.29-30; not the only coincidence between this piece and the Gospels: 830b recalls Matthew 6.26.

  31. cf. above, p. 9.

  32. Sulla 13.4.

  33. Isocrates, Panegyricus 86.

  34. A poet of Old Comedy: fr. 300k.

  35. Demosthenes 18.208; ‘Longinus’ 16.

  36. The point is underlined by the untranslatable conceit of PROkinduneusantas (‘risked their lives’) and PROdidaskontas (‘taught lessons’), the pro- in the second verb being trivial or meaningless.

  37. cf. Dionysius, On the Forcefulness of Demosthenes 4.

  38. cf. Pericles 13.5, and indeed the whole marvellous passage, 12-13.

  39. No general history of the dialogue has yet replaced R. Hirzel, Der Dialog (1895). It is vital to remember that Aristotle (Poetics 1447b) was prepared to subsume the Socratic dialogue under poetry.

  40. Varro, De Re Rustica, 1.59.2.

  41. Women had been promised; they were in fact the conspirators in disguise.

General Bibliography

Actes du VIIIe Congrès de l'Association Guillaume Budé, Paris, 1969, 481-594 (includes report on recent work, by R. Flacelière).

R. Aulotte, Amyot et Plutarque, Geneva 1965. [Very valuable and important.]

D. Babut, Plutarque et le stoïcisme, Paris 1969. [Detailed, and wider in range than the title suggests.]

N. I. Barbu, Les Procédés de la peinture des caractères et la vérité historique dans les biographies de Plutarque, Paris 1934. [Not satisfactory, but still the only long treatment of the subject.]

R. H. Barrow, Plutarch and His Times, London 1967.

A. Dihle, Studien zur griechischen Biographie, Gottingen 1956.

O. Gréard, De la morale de Plutarque, Paris 1866. [Stimulating and wise in its approach.]

J. J. Hartman, De Avondzon des Heidendoms, Leiden3, 1924. [A highly personal book by a lifelong enthusiast.]

W. C. Helmbold & E. N. O'Neil, Plutarch's Quotations, American Philological Association, 1959.

R. Hirzel, Der Dialog, Leipzig 1895, ii 124-237. [Useful on Moralia.]

———. Plutarchos, Leipzig 1912. [Particularly valuable for Plutarch's influence.]

F. Leo, Die griechisch-römische Biographie, Leipzig 1901, 145-92.

C. P. Jones, Plutarch and Rome, Oxford 1971. [The fullest and most recent treatment of Plutarch's life etc.]

R. M. Jones, The Platonism of Plutarch, Menasha, Wisconsin, 1916. [Systematic and valuable.]

J. Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch, London 1902. [By an official of the G.P.O.; an amateur work in a good sense.]

H. Peter, Die Quellen Plutarchs in den Biographieen der Römer, Halle 1865.

G. Soury, La Démonologie de Plutarque, Paris 1942.

R. Volkmann, Leben, Schriften und Philosophie des Plutarch von Chaironeia, Berlin 1869. [Still valuable.]

K. Ziegler, ‘Plutarchos’, in Pauly-Wissowa, Realenzyklopädie … 1951 (separately published 1949; revised 1964). [The standard, essential work of reference.]

W. M. S. Russell (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4877

SOURCE: Russell, W. M. S. “Plutarch as a Folklorist.” In Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century: Proceedings of the Centenary Conference of the Folklore Society, edited by Venetia J. Newall, pp. 371-78. Suffolk, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1980.

[In the following essay, Russell investigates Plutarch's interest in and use of folklore in his writings.]

The late Victorian scholar Frank Byron Jevons was a folklorist of some distinction; he was one of the eight experts chosen to review the second edition of The Golden Bough in Folklore in 1901.1 In 1892, Jevons published a new edition of Philemon Holland's seventeenth-century translation of Plutarch's Roman Questions. ‘On the whole,’ writes Jevons at the opening of his Introduction, ‘Plutarch's Romane Questions may fairly be said to be the earliest formal treatise written on the subject of folklore. The problems which Plutarch proposes for solution are mainly such as the modern science of folk-lore undertakes to solve; and though Plutarch was not the first to propound them, he was the first to make a collection and selection of them and give them a place of their own in literature.’2 This view of the Roman Questions was endorsed in 1898 in that classic of folklore, Tom Tit Tot, by the stormy petrel of the Folklore Society, Edward Clodd.3 In view of all this, I thought it worth while, as the Society celebrates its centenary, to spare a few thoughts for this pioneer, who died more than one and three-quarter millennia before the Society was founded; and I shall begin with some account of Plutarch's life and other works, as the background to his achievement in the field of folklore.

Plutarch was born, somewhere around a.d. 40, into a leading family of the town of Chaeronea, in northern Boeotia, not far from Delphi. In the Roman Empire, it was generally true to say that happy was the writer who had a dull biography. Plutarch, who wrote of so many eventful lives, had an agreeably uneventful one himself. On the whole, he seems to have kept well out of trouble.4 He was still a young man when Nero paid his celebrated visit to Greece, in a.d. 66-7.5 Apart from extracting large sums of money and priceless works of art from some of them, Nero was on his best behaviour with the Greeks. Plutarch, who was luckily unaffected by these exactions, remembered with pleasure Nero's famous proclamation at Corinth, in November 66, when he solemnly gave the Greeks home rule and freedom from taxes. The Emperor did this to ensure good will for his sporting activities there the next year, when he convened all four national Greek games at the wrong time. He succeeded admirably in this, for he won every single event, including one race in which he fell out of his chariot and never reached the finishing line, and several for which he was not even entered. Luckily he was recalled to Rome by news of revolts before he could erase the good impression he had made; the taxes and provincial government were of course soon restored by the next secure Emperor, Vespasian.

The next bad Emperor, Domitian, was a home-loving tyrant, quite content to torture and murder people in or near the capital. However, there is circumstantial evidence that Plutarch had a narrow squeak in this reign, specifically in a.d. 93.6 By that time, he had visited Rome more than once, as well as Asia Minor and Egypt, and made friends with a number of influential people.7 In 93, Domitian killed one of Plutarch's friends and banished another, and expelled all philosophers from Italy. It is possible that Plutarch was in Rome at the time and had to get out fast. Still, he certainly survived. During the reigns of the unmurderous Emperors Nerva and Trajan he lived happily in Greece, enjoying a relaxed family life, visiting friends, working in local government, and turning out his huge output of literary works.8 At the beginning of Hadrian's reign, another of Plutarch's Roman friends was executed, but this was probably without Hadrian's wish or knowledge—he was not in Rome at the time9—and, by the time this Emperor went berserk, Plutarch was safely out of the way, having died at the age of about 80 in around a.d. 120.10 He enjoyed great fame in his lifetime, and, thanks to this and to his influential friends, he obtained in turn Roman citizenship, the status of a Roman knight, nominal consular rank, and finally the office, probably also nominal, of Imperial procurator of Greece.11 But he himself perhaps valued most of all his appointment, probably held for decades, as one of the two permanent priests of Delphi.12 His enormous influence on later generations, especially through his Parallel Lives, is a large story, which I shall only touch on incidentally in this paper.13

Plutarch took his Delphic priesthood very seriously, and was deeply concerned with religion and morals. With due allowance for all the great differences between pagan and Christian civilisation, I think you get the feel of him if you make a comparison with a gifted and unconventional nineteenth-century English clergyman, that extraordinary body of men that included talents as various as those of Robert Malthus, Charles Dodgson, and Sabine Baring-Gould. It is, of course, irresistible to look for a parallel to the author of the Parallel Lives, and I am impressed by the number of features he had in common with one particular Victorian parson, Charles Kingsley.14

Plutarch and Kinglsey have some obvious things in common, such as their interest in old myths, or the biographical approach to history evident in the Parallel Lives and in Kingsley's lectures as Professor of Modern History at Oxford. They were both superb narrative writers. Oddly enough, when they retold old myths, Kingsley was by far the better story-teller, as is clear when we compare Plutarch's dry and academic Life of Theseus with the rousing tale in The Heroes. But of course this comparison is unfair to Plutarch, who reserved his wonderful narrative skill for his factual biographies.

But they have far more in common than these traits. Kingsley was appointed tutor to the Prince of Wales; Plutarch was honoured by Emperors, and his nephew tutored the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.15 To be a Priest at Delphi was perhaps the nearest thing in the Roman Empire to being a Canon of Westminster in Victorian England. Both were devoted family men, and both were active educationalists, and also wrote much about education. Kingsley was a keen feminist, particularly active in promoting the acceptance of women as medical practitioners. Plutarch was most unusual among Greeks in treating his wife at least as a near-equal.16 He wrote much about the abilities of women, and advocated higher education for them. Kingsley was extremely humane in his outlook as evidenced by his sermons and social novels, his active philanthropy, and his love of animals. Plutarch wrote about the rights of slaves,17 and even animals—he was the first great advocate of animal welfare. Yet both men had odd outbursts of militarism and insensitivity. Kingsley was a real jingo nationalist at times, and vigorously defended the repressive measures of Governor Eyre of Jamaica. Plutarch wrote a whole treatise to prove that Athenian exploits in war were more glorious than Athenian achievements in literature;18 and he recalls, without a flicker of disapproval,19 actually watching the revolting show with which the Spartans entertained foreign tourists, in a theatre built for the purpose, by flogging their own children at the altar of Artemis, awarding a prize to the boy who endured the greatest number of strokes without flinching, crying out, or dying. Then there is another, more attractive, contradiction common to both. They were both models of Victorian propriety, but both had unconventional moments about this. Kingsley openly declared his enthusiasm for Rabelais, whose work greatly influenced The Water-Babies (for instance, the long comic catalogues). In one of Plutarch's dialogues, somebody priggishly complains of the statue of the courtesan and model Phryne, put up at Delphi by her lover, the great sculptor Praxiteles.20 Another character promptly declares she has more right to be there than all the monuments put up to celebrate murders, wars and plunderings.

Finally, both Plutarch and Kingsley tried their best to combat superstition, and were fully abreast of the rational sciences of their times. Their attitude to superstition appears again and again in their works, but most notably in Plutarch's specific treatise on the subject and Kingsley's sermon on science and superstition at the Royal Institution in 1866. They were both particularly indignant at the idea of a literal hell after death.21 Kingsley's great involvement in natural science, especially biology, and scientific education is a large subject I cannot discuss now; he was, among other things, one of the leading champions of Darwin and evolution. Plutarch's interest in natural science was equally deep and wide, ranging from astronomy to animal behaviour.

It must be admitted that dislike of superstition and an up-to-date appreciation of science were not quite the same things in the England of Darwin and in the Roman Empire in its middle period; Plutarch stands in fact at the turning-point when rational Greek science (which still included plenty of mistaken ideas) was beginning to give place to the demon-haunted world view of the Neoplatonists. Plutarch reflects this situation, and is full of beliefs considered wildly superstitious by Kingsley's day. Nevertheless, he does know a great deal of the scientific information available in his time, and much of his science is quite sound. His dialogue on the face on the moon is a case in point.22 Here he discusses the markings visible on the moon, and concludes, quite rightly, that they are depressions in a solid, planet-like object. His conclusion is carefully argued, and was far from self-evident in the age before the telescope. The dialogue ends with an explicit myth, or imaginative excursion in the manner of Plato, on the moon as the destination of souls after death. This dialogue has had momentous influence in the history of both science and science fiction. Bernard de Fontenelle, the versatile poet who was Secretary of the Académie des Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Society,23 was certainly under Plutarch's influence when he wrote his charming conversation about the possibilities for life on other planets and satellites, published in 1686.24 Earlier in the seventeenth century, the dialogue caught the fascinated attention of Johann Kepler, who had read it before he wrote his famous science-fiction story about the moon. Kepler obviously appreciated both the science and the fantasy in Plutarch's dialogue. Shortly before his death, he made a Latin translation of the work, with a commentary.25

The variety of subjects I have mentioned so far give only a first impression of Plutarch's great versatility. There is a catalogue of his works, compiled probably in the fourth century, with 227 titles.26 Many of these are, unfortunately, lost; as the poet Dryden observed,27 one cannot look upon this catalogue without the same emotions that a merchant might feel in perusing a bill of freight, after he has lost his vessel. But even the surviving works cover a wider field than I have yet indicated. If the ancient Greeks and Romans had had the choice of one author to represent ancient civilisation, in a time capsule or a monastic scriptorium, they could have chosen worse than Plutarch. He gives, of course, no clue to the glories of Latin literature; he read Latin only with difficulty, and only quotes two lines of Latin verse in his entire output.28 But, apart from this gap, no other author tells us more about ancient civilisation. The surviving Parallel Lives give a pretty consecutive account of Greek and Roman history from legendary times to the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c. His Lives of the Caesars would have carried the story well into the first century a.d., but only two survive. The Parallel Lives were my own favourite childhood reading, and I can vouch for the extensive background of ancient history I possessed when I started my formal classical education. In addition, one can learn a great deal from Plutarch about the social and economic life, beliefs and customs, arts and crafts of the ancient Greeks and Romans; and a good general impression of ancient mathematics and science. On top of this, he quotes a considerable amount of Greek literature, including verse. He even goes outside Graeco-Roman civilisation, with a life of one of the Achaemenid Persian kings. Passionately interested in comparative religion, his book on Isis and Osiris is the most complete account surviving in any language of this crucially important myth of ancient Egypt.29

His most famous work is, of course, justly, the Parallel Lives. These biographies are full of the touches that bring history to life. We hear of the great artist Apelles, for instance, literally speechless at the sight of a wonderful painting by Protogenes, and finally recovering his voice to gasp out that it had not quite the beauties that lifted his own paintings out of this world.30 Or there is the moving passage of the birds beginning their dawn chorus as Cato takes his last nap before committing suicide.31 The best tribute to their literary quality is the fact that Shakespeare used long passages from North's translation of the Lives in his Roman plays with so little modification.32 But the great importance of the Lives, and their relevance to a discussion of Plutarch as folklorist, lies in his use of the comparative method. Others before him had roughly compared Greek and Roman celebrities,33 but nobody before him, and nobody after him until William Bolitho in the twentieth century, made detailed comparisons to bring out detailed parallels. It was obvious enough to compare Caesar with Alexander, or Cicero with Demosthenes. Plutarch's genius appears when he makes unexpected, but completely successful matches, like the bon vivants generals Cimon and Lucullus, or the champions of lost causes, Sertorius and Eumenes. We know he often chose one hero, Greek or Roman, and carefully looked around for a matching life.34 Some of his comparative essays survive, and in them he shows a wonderful eye for differences, as well as similarities. Thus Demosthenes was exiled for embezzlement, Cicero for suppressing a dangerous conspiracy, but Demosthenes spent his exile working for his cause, while Cicero dithered about unhappily.35 Thus Plutarch pin-points the difference between the corrupt and single-minded Greek, and the honest Italian who was always looking for a dramatic role, like an actor, and was quite at a loss when he was, so to speak, ‘resting’.

Plutarch's use of comparison has been so little appreciated, even in modern times, that translations of the Greek and Roman lives are sometimes published separately, losing the whole point. For what Plutarch discovered was the extraordinarily repetitive automatism of human behaviour in politics, especially under stress. Political activities are so stereotyped and repetitious that individuals in different periods and societies can have almost identical careers, by a process of extremely detailed convergence, like two animal or plant species occupying closely similar ecological niches. ‘It is no wonder’, he observes,36 ‘as fortune moves hither and thither over unlimited time spans, that automatic behaviour often issues in identical incidents.’ He applies this generalisation, with his tongue in his cheek, to the rather trivial observation that one-eyed men are often clever and tricky generals; he lists Philip II of Macedonia, Antigonus, Hannibal and Sertorius, and we might now add Nelson and Moshe Dayan. But the sentence, in a far more fundamental sense, is really the clue to his major discovery and the significance of the Parallel Lives.

Plutarch's antiquarian and folklore interests appear in many of his works, including some of the Lives, such as Theseus, Romulus and Numa. But his main contribution to folklore, as Jevons and Clodd observed, was his Roman Questions, in which he lists 113 Roman customs or beliefs, and supplies alternative explanations for each. Certainly he includes some bizarre and really old-fashioned explanations, as Jevons notes in a charming passage about Philemon Holland's translation.37 ‘To say in modern English’, writes Jevons, ‘that “five is the odd number most connected with marriage,” is to expose the Pythagorean doctrine of numbers to modern ridicule. But when Philemon says, “now among all odde numbers it seemeth that Cinque is most nuptial,” even the irreverent modern cannot fail to feel that Cinque was an eminently respectable character, whose views were strictly honourable and a bright example to other odde numbers.’ As H. J. Rose points out, in his translation and commentary of 1924, many of Plutarch's explanations are vitiated by the fact that ‘“Roman mythology” is almost altogether Greek, at least in so far as it concerns the gods, and therefore quite worthless for establishing the facts of cult’;38 moreover, many of the explanations are, so to speak, folk folklore—explaining a custom as commemorating a historical event, an explanation so rarely true, or at least wholly true, in fact.39

However, I am not now concerned with the correctness or otherwise of Plutarch's explanations, or with the true explanations of the customs concerned, which are thoroughly discussed in Rose's commentary. We must remember that new knowledge is always accruing, and before we patronise Plutarch we might note that on one question both Jevons in 189240 and Rose in 192441 are exactly as ignorant as Plutarch and Rose admits the fact. This is Plutarch's Question 95, ‘Why is it normal for those living in a holy manner to abstain from legumes?’42 We now know that many people in the Mediterranean suffer from the genetically determined disease of favism. This is a severe allergy to the broad bean Vicia faba: eating the bean raw or inhaling the pollen produces anaemia, which may be fatal in twenty-four hours. The enzyme deficiency causing favism, however, affords some protection against malaria, since the red blood cells of the sufferer lack a substance essential to the malarial parasite. In malarious regions, there is a balance of advantage, and favism is found in malarious regions all over the world, but notably in the Mediterranean, where malaria was widespread till very recently, and probably still more widespread in ancient times.43 Pythagoras of Samos, the most prominent ancient philosopher to prescribe abstention from beans, probably had favism himself: it is said that he was fleeing from his political opponents when he came to a bean-field, presumably in flower, and sooner than cross it he waited for his enemies to catch up and kill him.44 The taboo generated in this way could easily spread to other legumes. Obviously Plutarch could know nothing about all this, and neither could Jevons or Rose.

But what interests me now is the methods used by Plutarch, irrespective of whether they led to the right answers, and it is his methods which, I believe, entitle him to be considered a pioneer of folklore study. To begin with, he gives several alternative answers to every question. This in itself casts scientific doubt on the standard sorts of folk folklore explanation, such as commemorating an event, just as Peter Abelard weakened medieval blind faith in authority by listing contradictory opinions of the early Christian Fathers on many topics.

Next, Plutarch includes many explanations of quite different kinds, and it is in these that he often anticipates modern approaches. He raises the interesting possibility of spread or contagion of a culture pattern. Thus, he asks why Romans do not like to travel on the day after the Kalends, Nones and Ides of the month, gives a possible reason for the case of the Ides, and suggests the taboo was then extended to the other two dates.45 Then he is aware of the possibility of a vestigial custom, anticipating Tylor. Thus he suggests ambassadors to Rome register at the treasury as a vestige of more hospitable days when they used to be given gifts and other benefits by the treasurers.46

Plutarch often advances explanations we should now call anthropological, sometimes with considerable insight. Thus, after asking why Romans do not marry close kinsfolk, he suggests two reasons perfectly valid and acceptable today—that exogamy multiplies useful social connections, and that marriages of close kin give rise to disputes.47 After asking why women kiss their kinsmen on the lips, he first suggests it was a means of detecting women who committed the misdemeanour of drinking wine. But besides this breathalyser test, he also suggests it is a relic of a former wider exogamy than the present one, when even cousins were in a prohibited degree, but were allowed to express their kinship by kissing.48

Above all, Plutarch again and again uses the comparative method. Rose notes a good example of this, Plutarch's Question 5,49 where a commemorative explanation is ‘rather contemptuously rejected (and rightly so) as “sheer mythologising”, There follows an explanation which (again quite rightly, with genuine feeling for the Comparative Method) puts forward a Greek parallel.’50 I have found at least half a dozen cases of this comparative use of Greek customs to illuminate Roman ones. For instance, Question 14 asks why sons cover their heads at the funeral of their parents, while daughters attend with bare heads and unbound hair.51 One of his suggestions is that this is a reversal of normal procedure, since men normally go out with bare heads and women with their heads covered. For in Greece, he observes, men usually cut their hair and women let it grow, but they do just the reverse when mourning some disaster. In one case, Plutarch even uses a Phoenician parallel, from Tyre.52 One of his lost works was called Barbarian Questions, and would no doubt have yielded more examples of the comparative method.

Finally, as Plutarch compared different regions in space, he was also unusually sensitive among ancient writers to change in folk beliefs over time. This appears especially in his dialogue on the decline of oracles.53 Here he considers why there are so few oracular shrines in Greece in his day, whereas there had been many more in the great days of the Persian wars in the fifth century b.c. The main answer given is a very sensible demographic one: there are fewer oracles because there are fewer people. ‘The whole of Greece’, observes one character,54 ‘could now scarcely supply the 3,000 heavy infantry supplied by the single city of Megara at the Battle of Plataea’ in 479 b.c. The depopulation of mainland Greece was certainly a fact. The overpopulation crises of archaic and classical times had left the country by the third century b.c. with an impoverished land and exhausted mines, while industry had been exported to the Greek settlements abroad.55

But Plutarch is not wholly satisfied with this explanation. He senses that there is also some fundamental change in beliefs taking place. The discussion of this involves the fascinating idea, characteristic of the age, that minor deities have a finite life span. We learn, for instance, from a calculation based on information in Hesiod, that a Naiad normally lives for 9,720 years.56 But above all, the dialogue includes perhaps the most dramatic story ever told about change in folk beliefs. The story is fittingly ascribed to the reign of Tiberius, whose acts, of course, included the appointment and recall of Pontius Pilatus as procurator of Judea.57 It is vouched for as true by one of the speakers in the dialogue, a historian called Philip,58 and several others said to be present, who had all heard it from their teacher, a Greek orator who, like many in his age,59 had taken a Roman name, Aemilianus. This teacher had in turn heard the story from his own father, Epitherses. Here, then, is the story.60

Some of you have studied under Aemilianus the orator; his father was Epitherses, a fellow-citizen of mine who taught grammar. Epitherses said he was once travelling to Italy, and went on board a ship carrying cargo and a lot of passengers. It was already evening and they were near the Echinades islands, when the wind dropped and the ship drifted near Paxi. Most people on board were still awake, and many were still having an after-dinner drink. All of a sudden, a voice was heard from the island of Paxi, calling loudly for Thamus, so that they were astonished. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many people on the ship. Twice he kept silence when he was called, but the third time he acknowledged the call. Then the caller said, more loudly still, “When you are opposite Palodes, announce that great Pan is dead.

When they heard that, said Epitherses, they were all dumbfounded, and considered whether it was better to carry out the instruction or not to meddle and let well alone. Thamus himself finally decided that if there was a breeze he would sail past without speaking, but if there was no wind and a calm sea when they got to the place, he would pass on the message he had heard. So when they came opposite Palodes, without a breath of wind or a ripple on the sea, Thamus looked towards the land from the ship's stern, and repeated what he had heard, that great Pan was dead. He had not finished speaking when there came the sound of many voices groaning in lamentation, mingled with cries of amazement.

Since there were many people present when this happened, the story was soon spread around in Rome, and Thamus was summoned by Tiberius Caesar. The Emperor was so impressed by the story that he had inquiries made about Pan, and the many scholars at his court concluded that he was the child born of Hermes and Penelope.’ And Philip had several witnesses to this story, former pupils of old Aemilianus, among the people present at our dialogue.

With this wonderful story, I may conclude this account of Plutarch as a folklorist. The achievement of every great creative artist or scientist is, after all, unique, whether it be The Water-Babies or The Parallel Lives, so, despite my comparison of Kingsley and Plutarch, I will end by quoting Dryden's version of the verses by the sixth-century poet Agathias, imagined to be written on a statue erected by the Romans:—

Chaeronean Plutarch, to thy deathless praise
Does martial Rome this grateful statue raise,
Because both Greece and she thy fame have
(Their heroes written, and their lives
But thou thyself couldst never write thy own;
Their lives have parallels, but thine has


  1. R. M. Dorson, The British Folklorists (London, 1968), 284.

  2. F. B. Jevons, ed., Plutarch's Romane Questions. Translated A.D. 1603 by Philemon Holland (London, 1892), V.

  3. E. Clodd, Tom Tit Tot (London, 1898), 63.

  4. Birth, family, town: C. P. Jones, Plutarch and Rome (Oxford, 1971), 3-14; writers in the Roman Empire: W. M. S. Russell, ‘Sound Drama before Marconi’, Papers of the Radio Literature Conference 1977, ed., P. Lewis (Durham, 1978), 1-26, passim.

  5. Jones, 16-19; G. Finlay, Greece under the Romans (Edinburgh and London, 1857), 82-83; A. Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines, tr. J. R. Foster (London, 1976), 183-4.

  6. Jones, 23-25.

  7. ibid., 15 and Ch. 3.

  8. ibid., Chs 4 and 5; D. A. Russell, Plutarch (London, 1972), 5-6.

  9. Jones, 53-54, 32; Garzetti, 383.

  10. Jones, 137.

  11. ibid., 22, 29, 34.

  12. ibid., 26.

  13. e.g. G. Highet, The Classical Tradition (London, 1957), index, s.v. Plutarch.

  14. For the information about Kingsley, see W. M. S. Russell, ‘Biology and Literature in Britain, 1500-1900. II. The Victorians’, Biology and Human Affairs, XLIV (1979), 114-33, and the sources given there.

  15. Jones, 11.

  16. H. J. Rose, The Roman Questions of Plutarch, a New Translation, with Introductory Essays and a Running Commentary (Oxoford, 1924), 61; D. A. Russell, 6.

  17. Rose, 60.

  18. Plutarch, Moralia, 345 ff.

  19. Plutarch, Lives, Lycurgus, 18.

  20. Moralia, 401.

  21. D. A. Russell, 78; Rose, 58.

  22. Moralia, 920B ff.

  23. W. M. S. Russell, ‘Biology and Literature in Britain, 1500-1900. I. From the Renaissance to the Romantics’, Biology and Human Affairs, XLIV (1979), 50-72.

  24. A. Calame, ed., Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (Paris, 1966).

  25. H. Cherniss and W. C. Helmbold, ed. and tr., Plutarch's Moralia, Vol. 12 (London, 1957), 21, 104, 138.

  26. D. A. Russell, 18-19.

  27. J. Langhorne and W. Langhorne, tr., Plutarch's Lives, Vol. 1 (London, 1819), lviii-lix.

  28. Rose, 12.

  29. A. W. Shorter, An Introduction to Egyptian Religion (London, 1931), 10-11.

  30. Lives, Demetrius, 22.

  31. Lives, Cato Minor, 70.

  32. K. Muir, Shakespeare's Sources. I. Comedies and Tragedies (London, 1957), Ch. 7.

  33. Jones, 105-6; D. A. Russell, 106-7.

  34. Jones, 104-5; D. A. Russell, 113-4.

  35. Lives, Comparison of Cicero and Demosthenes, 4.

  36. Lives, Sertorius, 1. All translations in this paper are my own, except two specified later, from Philemon Holland and Dryden, respectively.

  37. Jevons, viii.

  38. Rose, 68.

  39. ibid., 52 ff.

  40. Jevons, lxxxvi ff.

  41. Rose, 207.

  42. Moralia, 286 D,E.

  43. W. R. Aykroyd and J. Doughty, Legumes in Human Nutrition (Rome, 1964), 65-66; A. G. Motulsky, ‘Metabolic Polymorphisms and the Role of Infectious Diseases in Human Evolution’, Human Populations, Genetic Variation and Evolution, ed. L. N. Morris (London, 1972), 222-52, esp. 240-6.

  44. R. D. Hicks, ed. and tr., Diogenes Laertius, Lives, Books VI-X (London, 1925), 354-7.

  45. Moralia, 269 E,F.

  46. Moralia, 275 B,C.

  47. Moralia, 289 D,E; see C. Russell and W. M. S. Russell, ‘The Social Biology of Totemism’, Biology and Human Affairs, XLI (1976), 53-79, esp. 58-63.

  48. Moralia, 265 B-E.

  49. Moralia, 264 D-F, 265 A.

  50. Rose, 23.

  51. Moralia, 267A,B.

  52. Moralia, 279A.

  53. Moralia, 411 E ff.

  54. Moralia, 414 A.

  55. Finlay, 63, 97-98; W. M. S. Russell, Man, Nature and History (London, 1967), Chs 8 and 9; C. McEvedy and R. Jones, Atlas of World Population History (Harmondsworth, 1978), 110-12.

  56. Moralia, 415 D.

  57. Garzetti, 76.

  58. Moralia, 418 A.

  59. Finlay, 81.

  60. Moralia, 419 B-E (my translation).

  61. A. H. Clough (revised), Plutarch's Lives: The Dryden Plutarch, Vol. I. (London, 1910), xxv-xxvi.

Brian Doyle (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5940

SOURCE: Doyle, Brian. “The Soul of Plutarchos.” American Scholar 69, no. 3 (summer 2000): 111-22.

[In the following essay, Doyle provides a character sketch of Plutarch, discusses his portrayal of Mark Antony, and praises him for his ability to render the essential qualities of his subjects.]

As with most of the greatest writers in Western history—Homer, Shakespeare, the gaggle of anonymous geniuses who wrote the Bible—we don't know much about Plutarch of Greece in the usual biographically fussy way. Born in the year 45 a.d. or so, died around the year 120 at perhaps seventy-five years of age, he lived an unimaginably long life at a time when living to fifty was a triumph. He was a student in Athens when the emperor Nero visited there in the year 66; a traveler to Egypt; a visitor for a long period in Rome, apparently on civic business, although he also gave a number of popular lectures as a sort of visiting professor of history and ethics. Back home in Greece and his little native village, Chaeronea, in Boeotia—which he was famously loath “to make less by the withdrawal of even one inhabitant”—for the rest of his many years, he wrote perhaps fifty books while serving as mayor, priest, and inspector of public works (he remarks that his neighbors tease him for “standing by and watching while tiles are measured out and stone and mortar brought up”). There is no firm record of his death, no famous funeral oration by a friend, no deathless stone under which we might find his dignified bones; but if ever a man was surely buried where he was born, it was Plutarch—in his own language, Plutarchos—and Greece's soil is richer for his final return to it.

Thus the skeleton of his life. But let us enflesh him, bring back something of the personality and character of the man, as he saved so many notable men of his time (alas, few women, mostly warrior queens) from desiccated hagiography.

His wife was Timoxena, and they had at least five children, four sons and a daughter. The oldest son died; a second son, “our beautiful Charon,” died; Autobulus and Plutarch the younger lived to manhood; and little Timoxena, “born to your wishes after four sons,” as he wrote to his wife, “and affording me the opportunity of recording your name, and a special object of affection,” died while yet a child and while her father was traveling. His wife sent messengers, and Plutarch was confronted with the awful news as he arrived in the town of Tanagra.

Imagine our man at this juncture, dusty and tired, an old man by the gauge of his day—he's now a grandfather—standing at the gates of the city. He has lived long and hard, studied under the great Egyptian philosopher Ammonius in Athens, traveled to the great capitals of the known world, worked in Rome, the heart of the empire, where he befriended the best and brightest men of his day. Now, retired from imperial fame and happily become a local lion, he's on the road, perhaps on a lecture tour to scrape up some appearance fees or on a trip to Athens on civic business, to haggle over taxes or tiles. And as he walks in the gate, a man rushes up to him and tells him, Plutarch, news from Chaeronea, your little daughter Timoxena is dead.

A taut moment there at the gate, the day sliding into evening, the messenger silent, waiting; and Plutarch's body sagging, dust in his throat, a sudden sharp pain in his belly. After a minute he clears his throat and thanks the messenger, hands him a coin. The man walks off, turning twice to look with rising pity on the famous Plutarch, now bereft of his last-born child and only daughter, the daughter he held alive in his heart only moments before, thinking of her as he walked toward Tanagra, imagining her finishing her bath that afternoon in Chaeronea.

“Plutarch to his wife, greeting,” begins the letter Plutarch wrote from Tanagra, possibly that night. “The messengers you sent to announce our child's death, apparently missed the road to Athens. I was told about my daughter on reaching Tanagra.” He discusses the funeral, and his conviction of their mutual desire that arrangements be made “apart from all excess and superstition, which no one would like less than yourself. Only, my wife, let me hope, that you will maintain both me and yourself within the reasonable limits of grief. What our loss really amounts to, I know and estimate for myself. But should I find your distress excessive, my trouble on your account will be greater than on that of our loss. I am not a stock or stone, as you, my partner in the care of our numerous children, every one of whom we have brought up ourselves at home, can testify.”

The good character and sweet ways of their late daughter make their loss especially painful, he continues, “yet why should we forget the reasonings we have often addressed to others, and regard our present pain as obliterating and effacing our former joys?” And after recalling with admiration the “perfect order and tranquillity” of their home immediately after the deaths of their older boys, Plutarch concludes by repeating his conviction that the human soul is immortal, and that we are sustained in loss by the ancient nurturing rivers of clan and religion.

A most curious and revealing letter, this. Let us imagine Plutarch scratching it out, the scritch of his pen and the quiet snapping of an evening fire the only sounds in the room; below him, in the street in the gathering dark, the small sounds of a town closing down for the night. Plutarch has bathed and eaten lightly after his long journey but refrained from proffered wine, mindful of the solemnity of the moment and the hole in his heart; and now he sits sadly by the fire, collects pen and paper, and—and writes at length about the necessity of a tranquil funeral and the avoidance of excessive lamentation? What kind of cold fish is this?

This kind of fish: character was everything to Plutarch, both in his own life—in which he aspired to unrelenting service and rose as high as governor of all Greece and honorary consul of the Roman Empire (according to the reports of Syncellus and Suda) and priest of Apollo at Delphi—and in his literary work, all of which was made, as he said, to explore the souls of his subjects. “My design is not to write histories, but lives,” he begins his account of Alexander the Great.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.

But I say that Plutarch did treat of the most weighty matters, those being the hearts and characters of human beings, and that the things he says he will not account—although of course he does account them, in voluminous detail—are of much less weight. It is a matter of historical interest, for example, that Alexander hewed such a vast empire in so few years while so young, and his violent exploit certainly influences and informs modern boundaries and nations in Europe and the Near East; but what do we learn of Alexander by the record of the people he defeated, or by a careful reporting of the military means by which his victories were won? What do we learn of ourselves? That we are capable of ferocious ambition and murder, that we might commit any act for power and glory? This, from experience, we knew.

Plutarch, however, tells us of the desperately thirsty Alexander who refuses water because there is not enough for all his men—the same Alexander who in a drunken rage spears his friend Clitus through the heart for disagreeing with him; of the munificent Alexander who casually gives away a hundred fortunes to his soldiers—and the bloody Alexander who casually has a hundred prisoners killed to mark the festive occasion as he enters Asia; of the Alexander who as a boy was so temperate with bodily pleasures that “he was with much difficulty incited to them”—and the Alexander who as a man, says Plutarch bluntly, is so “addicted to drinking” that he dies of a roaring fever after a long bender; of the Alexander so little concerned with money that he gives away all his wealth—and the Alexander so concerned with fame that when abandoning a battlefield on the Ganges he deliberately leaves larger-than-life weapons and gear to be found and wondered over; of the Alexander so keenly sensitive of his status as future emperor that he will footrace only with kings—and the Alexander who, at the height of his all-conquering fame, tells his friends that if he were not the peripatetic lord of the known world, he would choose to be the penniless and sedentary philosopher Diogenes.

In short, Plutarch gives us the man's tumultuous heart, even as he chronicles the man's relentless march through life. And the richer tale, the one that truly educates, is of Alexander grappling not with the many nations and peoples he attacks, but with his own incendiary ambition, personal demons, and awful success.

In a sense, Plutarch is the first great modern writer. He is absorbed by the stories of great men as clues to character (great Greek and Roman men only, actually, no Africans or Gauls or Teutons or Egyptians or other members of the Roman Empire need apply); but he is more absorbed by their actions as revelation of the personal than as parable for the public, despite his avowals that the whole thesis of the Lives was moral uplift. “Using history as a mirror, I try somehow to improve my own life by modeling it upon the virtues of the men I write about,” he writes. “In the study of and writing of history, we receive in our souls memorials of the best. … This enables us to drive away and put far from us all the base or corrupt or ignoble influences produced by our associations with those with whom circumstances compel us to mingle. Thus we are enabled to discipline our thoughts and to direct them toward the finest examples of conduct.”

I believe him about his motivation; he was a priest, after all, and a man utterly convinced that virtue—personal, civic, and religious—was the keystone of civilization. But I also think that he was too good a literary artist to be satisfied with sermonizing, and that while his overarching theme was the importance of the moral life, the power and allure of his narrative was (and is) his fascination with character, the pressures that formed and revealed it, and the grace with which those pressures were endured.

Homer was after character, too, to a degree—the Odyssey is in part a character study of its hero, and a powerful image of Odysseus (broad sailor-shoulders, salt-cured face, hawk glare, hard head) stays with a reader for a lifetime. But Homer was primarily after the sweep of historical narrative, whereas Plutarch wanted to explore one man at a time. It may well be that Plutarch's great mission was to leave behind a series of moral lessons, a lively catechism—this is a man, after all, who also wrote a collection of homilies called the Morals, as well as three lost books about the soul—but the prime virtue of his Lives is not so much their moral uplift as their uncanny personality.

Plutarch's lost books, I note with heartfelt regret, include not only those three volumes on the soul but four books of commentaries on Homer, which certainly must be accounted among the greatest lost treasures of Western criticism. Our contemplating the whole awful list of his missing books (culled from a list of all Plutarch's works attributed to his son Lamprias) is, as John Dryden noted, something like a merchant perusing a bill of freight after he has lost the ship that carried the goods. Among the literary creations no longer in the world, or else hidden in crevices and cellars not yet unearthed, are Plutarch's eight books on Aristotle; six books of essays; four books on history; three books of fables; three books on sense; three books on justice; three books on cities; two books on politics; two books of proverbs; and lives of Hercules, Pindar, Augustus, Claudius, Nero, and Caligula, among others. The mind reels, partly at lost possibility—Plutarch on Augustus, what a match of fine emperor and fine essayist!—but more at the man's sheer industry, at the eye-popping range of his thought, and at the vagaries of history that cast off six books of Plutarch's essays while preserving the muck that infests much of the modern bookshelf.

My own favorite in the Lives is the story of Antony, in which Plutarch's art rises to its zenith. Here he has a most remarkable man to explore, a peculiar man in whom swirl all sides of the human character, a man brave and craven at once. And all this courage and cowardice and lust and love is set against the most dramatic and colorful background imaginable—a battle between two mighty generals for the whole Roman Empire, a brilliant and power-hungry enchantress (Cleopatra), the betrayal of friends and nation—the whole nine yards of melodrama and B movies, absent only a swelling soundtrack and Technicolor. Plutarch must have rubbed his hands with glee when it came time to tell of Antony.

“A very beautiful youth,” he says of the boy Antony, “but by the worst of misfortunes, he fell into the acquaintance and friendship of Curio, a man abandoned to his pleasures, who plunged him into a life of drinking and dissipation.” Antony, of an “ostentatious, vaunting temper, full of empty flourishes and unsteady efforts for glory,” does what restless and reckless young men have always done as a desperate corrective: he joins the army and pours all his yearning for fame and furious energy into battle.

He leads the Romans against the rebel Aristobulus II and his Jewish army. He conquers Egypt, winning “a great name among the Alexandrians” by preventing a massacre of the losers (that great reputation in Egypt echoing in the ears of a young girl in Alexandria, Cleopatra) and becoming the rising Julius Caesar's right-hand man. By now, grown into his manhood, he has developed a great fame among the common soldiers for dressing, acting, and talking like them and has achieved a reputation as a ladies' man (and “an ill name for familiarity with other people's wives”). His “good humor, generous ways, his open and lavish hand in gifts and favors to his friends and fellow-soldiers, did a great deal for him in his first advance to power, and after he had become great, long maintained his fortunes, when a thousand follies were hastening their overthrow.”

So the pattern of Antony's life is set. He is amazingly brave and crafty in battle (“there was not one of the many engagements that now took place one after another in which he did not signalize himself”) and amazingly lazy and ill-mannered in private life (“his drinking bouts at all hours, his wild expenses, his gross amours, the day spent in sleeping or walking off his debauches, and the night in banquets and at theaters, and in celebrating the nuptials of some comedian or buffoon”). After Caesar is murdered, Antony views for the empire with Caesar's nephew Octavian (later Augustus), is defeated at Modena, and is forced to flee Italy.

But “it was his character in calamities to be better than at any other time,” observes Plutarch:

Antony, in misfortune, was most nearly a virtuous man. It is common enough for people, when they fall into great disasters, to discern what is right, and what they ought to do; but there are but few who in such extremities have the strength to obey their judgment, either in doing what it approves or avoiding what it condemns; and a good many are so weak as to give way to their habits all the more, and are incapable of using their minds. Antony, on this occasion, was a most wonderful example to his soldiers. He, who had just quitted so much luxury and sumptuous living, made no difficulty now of drinking foul water and feeding on wild fruits and roots. Nay, it is related they ate the very bark of trees, and, in passing over the Alps, lived upon creatures that no one before had ever been willing to touch.

Eventually Antony returns in force to Italy and divides the empire with Augustus (who changed his name, speculates the historian Suetonius, to distinguish himself from his two sisters, both named Octavia). His fortunes restored, Antony slides headlong into debauch again, this time while traveling with his army through Asia. “Such being his temper,” writes Plutarch, with a nearly audible sigh of frustration, “the last and crowning mischief that could befall him came in the love of Cleopatra,” which would eventually “stifle and corrupt any elements that yet made resistance in him of goodness and a sound judgment.”

Shakespeare, who leaned heavily on a translation of Plutarch in writing his Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, has this account of Cleopatra sailing into Antony's ken for the first time:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars
          were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
Over-picturing that Venus where we did see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids
With diverse-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.

(The same passage in Plutarch: “She came sailing up the river … in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all alone under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes running out of the city to see the sight.”)

We know the tale from that point on: their torrid love affair, Antony's waffling between love and glory, his final battle with Augustus for the world title, his ignominious abandoning of the fight at sea to follow like a puppy at Cleopatra's fleeing keel, his suicide and Cleopatra's subsequent close embrace of the deadly asp. Shakespeare uses their melodramatic tale to make a story of tragic and powerful love; Plutarch, treating the love affair like a virus (“the mischief that had long lain still, the passion for Cleopatra, which better thoughts had seemed to have lulled and charmed into oblivion, upon his approach to Syria gathered strength again, and broke out into a flame …”), is, as usual, fascinated by their characters or lack thereof. As clearly as he considers her Antony's bane, he cannot help exploring Cleopatra's charms and delving into what it was that made her so mesmerizing not only to Antony but, before him, to Julius Caesar—two of the greatest men of her day.

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue.

Clearly a woman of many parts, who won back the throne of her country from usurping siblings at age seventeen, held it for twenty-two years, and died at thirty-nine by her own hand, bereft of the man she loved and unwilling to be brought as prisoner to Rome, there to be exhibited and chained, in the traditional triumphant march of the conqueror. So passed Cleopatra, queen of the Nile.

Plutarch ends his tale with a dark note; among Antony's descendants was Claudius I, who became emperor, and who adopted Lucius Domitius, “giving him the name Nero Germanicus,” says Plutarch. “He was emperor in our time, and put his mother to death, and with his madness and folly came not far from ruining the Roman empire, being Antony's descendant in the fifth generation.”

Closing Plutarch after a long voyage among his tales, a reader is awash in a sea of images, the riveting human stories of men long dead brought to magical, immortal immediacy by one man with a relentless pen and a sharp ear. Again and again, Plutarch gives us a small gesture or remark or anecdote that refracts the whole tenor of the man:

The great orator and statesman Cicero perceiving that his death was hard upon him with the arrival of Antony's soldiers, and so commanding his servants to set down the litter in which they were trying to carry him to freedom, “and stroking his chin, as he used to do, with his left hand, he looked steadfastly upon his murderers, his person covered with dust, his hair and beard untrimmed, and his face worn with his troubles … and thus was he murdered, stretching forth his neck out of the litter, being now in his sixty-fourth year.”

Sylla, who, “when supreme master of all, was often wont to muster together the most impudent players and stage-followers of the town, and to drink and bandy jests with them without regard to his age or the dignity of his place.”

Pericles, silent, “near his end,” surrounded by his friends and family, who are “speaking of the greatness of his merit, and his power, and reckoning up his famous actions and the number of his victories,” talking among themselves “as though he were unable to understand or mind what they said, but had now lost all his consciousness”—but Pericles suddenly speaks up and “said that he wondered they should commend and take notice of things which were as much owing to fortune as to anything else, and had happened to many other commanders … and not speak or make mention of that which was the most excellent and greatest thing of all: ‘no Athenian, through my means, ever wore mourning.’”

Marcius Coriolanus, flipping off the hood that hides his face as he sits at the hearth of Tullus, his bitterest enemy, and offering Tullus and the Volscians his military skills against his native Rome—a breathtaking act of treason, beginning on a stool by a crackling fire with the stroke of a man's hand against the cloth of his cloak.

Callippus, architect of the murder of Dion, himself eerily later killed by the same Spartan-made sword (“the workmanship of it very curious,” observes Plutarch meticulously).

The Spartan king Agesilaus, who was “said to have been a little man, of a contemptible presence; but the goodness of his humor, and his constant cheerfulness and playfulness of temper, always free from anything of moroseness or haughtiness, made him more attractive, even to his old age, than the most beautiful and youthful men of the nation.”

The Athenians of Demosthenes' time going house to house, searching for stolen treasure, but leaving one house unsearched, that of a newly married couple, “out of respect to the bride who was within.” Demosthenes himself, burning to be a great orator but physically “meagre and sickly,” afflicted with “a perplexed and indistinct utterance and shortness of breath which by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke.” He practiced speeches with pebbles in his mouth, declaimed speeches and verses as he sprinted up hills, and built himself an underground chamber in which to practice for hours every day, “and here he would continue, oftentimes without intermission, for two or three months together, shaving one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.” Though he desired it ever so much!—you can almost taste the boy's furious ambition, and see him sweating and shouting up the hills like a high school football player preparing for two-a-day drills.

Tiberius Gracchus, fleeing his assassins “in his undergarment only,” having thrown off his gown, at which his pursuers had clutched as he sprinted through Rome—his death the first sedition to draw blood among the Romans since they had abandoned their kings centuries before.

Artaxerxes of Persia, his right hand much bigger than his left; Aratus, at age seven, wandering the disordered streets of Sicyon as his father's killers search for him; Alexander, from whom “a most agreeable odor exhaled … his breath and body all over so fragrant as to perfume the clothes which he wore next him.”

And Antony, who “went out one day to angle with Cleopatra, and being so unfortunate as to catch nothing in the presence of his mistress, gave secret orders to the fishermen to dive under water, and put fishes that had already been taken upon his hooks.” Sharp-eyed Cleopatra, seeing this dodge, arranging for a dried fish to be put on his hook, to the great laughter of onlookers.

Yet as much as a reader's mind is crammed with the thousand characters who populate Plutarch, and agog at the breadth of his detailed and vibrant natural histories of their feats and failures, it increasingly wishes to know the stage manager himself, who is fully as interesting as any of his subjects. There are so many tantalizing clues to the man—the dozens of lost books; the length and nature of his time in the capital of the empire (five years in Rome? forty? diplomat? scholar? no one knows); the extent of his travels; the fact that he kept with him at all times a commonplace book, in which he was often seen to be hurriedly scribbling anecdotes as they drifted by in conversations (Plutarch, the Greek Boswell); his unusual predilection toward monotheism (“Is not one Excellent Being, imbued with reason and intelligence, such as He whom we acknowledge to be the Father and Lord of all things, sufficient to direct and rule?”); his relations with Christianity (Plutarch “had heard of the Christian religion, and inserted several of its mysteries in his books,” says the historian Theodoret—imagine a Plutarchian Life of Paul, Paul the prickly public relations genius who marketed Christ worldwide, or of Jesus himself—the Gospel according to Plutarch!); his relations with the emperors, especially Trajan, to whom, according to medieval writers, Plutarch sent a legendarily taut, dry-witted recipe for empiring:

Let your government commence in your breast: and lay the foundation of it in the commands of your passions. If you make virtue the rule of your conduct, and the end of your actions, every thing will proceed in harmony and order. I have explained to you the spirit of those laws and constitutions that were established by your predecessors; and you have nothing to do but to carry them into execution. If this should be the case, I shall have the glory of having formed an emperor to virtue; but if otherwise, let this letter remain a testimony with succeeding ages, that you did not ruin the Roman empire under pretense of the counsels or the authority of Plutarch.

But, failing the discovery of his lost books, there is no way now of seeing more of the man, and we are left with his counsels and authority, which have been touchstones of Western literature and culture since he wrote them nineteen centuries ago. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a brilliant aphorist but dull essayist who must have gritted his teeth in envy at Plutarch's vibrant prose, had the character himself to sense that the Greek's work would never disappear (“Plutarch's popularity will return in rapid cycles. … His sterling values will recall the life and thought of the best minds, and his books will be reprinted and read anew by coming generations. And thus Plutarch will be perpetually rediscovered from time to time as long as books last”). But of all the compliments one might collect for Plutarch, I choose, as John Dryden did in an appendix to his translation of the Lives in 1686, one by Theodorus Gaza, “a man learned in the Latin tongue, and a great restorer of the Greek, who lived about two hundred years ago,” as Dryden notes. “'Tis said that, having this extravagant question put to him by a friend, that if learning must suffer a general shipwreck, and he had only his choice left him of preserving one author, who should be the man, he would preserve, he answered, Plutarch; giving this reason, that in saving him he should secure the best collection of them all.”

Theodorus had his hat on straight here, I think; and of all the literary geniuses in the West these last three millennia, the extraordinary men and women who reached into themselves to tell true of us all, the one in whom nearly all stories may be found is Plutarch. We do not know who Homer was—Samuel Butler famously thought Homer a brilliant young woman—and we are not at all sure who Shakespeare was, the glove maker's son and the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford being the current arm wrestlers for the name. But dimly across nineteen centuries we do see Plutarch the human being, and we sense under his voluminous work the voluminous man, as complex and intricately threaded as any of his subjects: a dignified but warm husband and father, stern but affable neighbor, eloquent statesman and scholar, reverent priest, and most of all—best of all—a genius of a storyteller, a spinner of tales unsurpassed in our recorded literature.

For all his diligence as a scholar and historian digging after the details of the lives and characters of his subjects, Plutarch did spin some tales out of nearly whole cloth (Theseus and Romulus, for example), and he danced around the sparseness of fact with his usual graceful humor:

As geographers … crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so, in this work of mine … after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions. … Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

So to resurrect this most interesting of our ancient cousins, as he resurrected so many others, we make a prodigy and fiction, and beg indulgence of candid readers, and bring Plutarch closer to the camera that we might see the literature of his face and study a bit of his soul. Choose a happy day for the man, on vacation at the coast—mid-September, perhaps, when the weather has just turned a corner and afternoons are russet at the edges, the days still hot but the nights brisk, the ocean darker by the day. Late in the afternoon, Plutarch is scribbling furiously—it's his Life of Hercules and it's going very well, it's nearly writing itself, everyone has a Hercules story to tell—but his hand is starting to cramp and he pauses, stands, stretches at length like his cat, looks casually out the window toward the sea. Something about the ocean this afternoon makes him lean out his window for a better look—maybe this was how the sea looked, wind-tossed and glittering, to Homer? Or to Odysseus? Now there was a man who must have been able to read the moods and hours of the ocean like a book after twenty years at sea, hmm? How would such water-wisdom form a man? Wouldn't he yearn to read faces that way, too, trying to peer under the surface for the weather to come, for the hidden currents, for the shoals, for the jagged dangers?

His meditation is interrupted by two voices, wind-splintered by the growing breeze: wife Timoxena and daughter Timoxena, the child bounding like a deer into his view and laughing through the window, Father, Father, come out in the light! Come look for whales with me! And he grins, does Plutarch, unable to resist her verve and glee—the sheer energy of that child, she's got more pepper than all the boys combined!—and he steps out on the bright portico and savors the crisp air, the hot hand of the sun. He stands for a moment with his wife, their arms intertwined, clothes fluttering, daughter dancing in a circle and humming, and they talk of writing and dinner and her cousin in Athens and the foreman who probably did steal those tiles, and they talk about her health—she's been coughing so in the mornings, should they make that trip to Delphi now or wait a bit?—and then little Timoxena trips over the edge of the table as she spins, and she cuts her arm, Father! It's bleeding!, and he rocks her in his arms with her head on his chest until suddenly, smiling shyly, she says, Will you walk with me before dark? And he says, Yes of course my tiny flower, and down the beach they go, father and daughter, hand in hand, immortal.

Roger Kimball (essay date December 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5157

SOURCE: Kimball, Roger. “Plutarch and the Issue of Character.” New Criterion 19, no. 4 (December 2000): 4-12.

[In the following essay, Kimball speculates about some of the possible reasons why Plutarch is not widely read today.]

What Histories can be found … that please and instruct like the Lives of Plutarch? … I am of the same Opinion with that Author, who said, that if he was constrained to fling all the Books of the Antients into the Sea, PLUTARCH should be the last drowned.

—Montesquieu, quoted by Oliver Goldsmith

Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and select from their actions the most authoritative and the best with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving one's own character?

—Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

Like all ancient authors today, Plutarch is at best a name to most people, even—especially?—to most college-educated people. You, dear reader, are of a select group, because you know that Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120) was a Greek biographer and moral philosopher who wrote, among other things, a famous series of “parallel lives” comparing various Greek and Roman figures. Perhaps, like me, you first learned about Plutarch from reading the notes to Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, or Coriolanus, the four plays for whose plots Shakespeare drew heavily upon the then-recently translated Plutarch. Perhaps you also, like me, dipped casually into the odd volume of Plutarch now and again, to find out more about Pericles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, or some other antique worthy. Probably, like me, you left it at that.

Literary fashion is a mysterious thing. Why is it that Sir Walter Scott, for example, whom generations of readers found absolutely spellbinding, is unread and, for many of us, unreadable today? Why is it that the Renaissance Italian poet Tasso, who fired imaginations from Milton and Dryden to Shelley, Byron, and Goethe, should now subsist as a decoration in scholarly footnotes instead of as a living presence? why is it that Plutarch—“for centuries Europe's schoolmaster” as the classicist C. J. Gianakaris put it—should quite suddenly move from center stage to the mental off-off-Broadway of reference books and dissertations? If Plutarch, in Sir Paul Harvey's words, is “one of the most attractive of ancient authors, writing with charm, geniality, and tact, so as always to interest the reader,” why does he no longer interest us?

Doubtless there are many reasons: the shelf life of novelty, competing attractions, educational atrophy, the temper of the age. It seems clear, at any rate, that wholesale changes of taste are never merely matters of taste. They token a larger metamorphosis: new eyes, new ears, a new scale of values and literary-philosophical assumptions. It is part of the baffling cruelty of fashion to render mute what only yesterday spoke with such extraordinary force and persuasiveness. It is part of the task of criticism to reanimate those voices, to provide that peculiar medium through which they might seem to speak in the way their best, their most ardent hearers understood them.

Plutarch's best hearers form a distinguished but exceedingly various group. Erasmus, resonating to Plutarch's urbane humanism, translated and broadcast his work. Henri IV of France, in a letter to his wife, wrote that “Plutarch always delights me with a fresh novelty. To love him is to love me; for he has long been the instructor of my youth. … [Plutarch's writing] has been like my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct.” Shakespeare, Sidney, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Milton, and Bacon learned and freely borrowed from him, as did Shaftesbury, Winckelmann, Lessing, Hume, and Addison. (“Plutarch” Addison wrote, “has more strokes of good nature in his writing than I remember in any author.”) The nineteenth-century French critic Brunetiere argued that what Homer was to the Greek tragedians, Plutarch was to the classical French dramatists. Cotton Mather proclaimed Plutarch necessary reading for “a person of good sense.” Browning drew on his life of the Athenian general Nicias for “Balaustion's Adventure,” Wordsworth on his depiction of the death of Dion for his poem of that name. Emerson adulated him, as, alas, did Rousseau, who started to read Plutarch when he was six. (The life of Lycurgus, the man who made Sparta spartan, made an especially deep impression on Rousseau.) Boswell, who quoted a few lines from Plutarch's life of Alexander toward the beginning of his Life of Johnson, called him “the Prince of ancient biographers.” And Montaigne, to end this catalogue of ships, is inconceivable without the example of Plutarch. His essays, which contain more than four-hundred references to Plutarch and his works, are consciously modelled on the Greek's easygoing, discursive inquiries into science, manners, customs, and beliefs. “When I write,” Montaigne noted in his essay “On Some Verses of Virgil,”

I prefer to do without the company and remembrance of books, for fear they may interfere with my style. … But it is harder for me to do without Plutarch. He is so universal and so full that on all occasions, and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work and offers you a liberal hand, inexhaustible in riches and embellishments. It vexes me that I am so greatly exposed to pillage by those who frequent him. I cannot be with him even a little without taking out a drumstick or a wing.

Plutarch's writing divides into essentially three parts. One part is the Lives. Extant are twenty-three pairs of lives (including one double pair) and four singletons. Scholars believe that we have between a third and one-half of Plutarch's corpus; missing are not only the companions to the four solo biographies but also the lives of such important figures as Augustus, Claudius, and Nero, and other works. The dual biographies begin, in the traditional order, with the mythological figures of Theseus, supposedly an early king of Athens, and Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome; they conclude with lives of Dion, the philosopher and brother-in-law of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius, and Brutus. The lives were written late in Plutarch's career, probably between 105-115. His general procedure was to write the life of a prominent Greek, then cast about for a suitable Roman parallel. In the text that we now have, nineteen of the parallel lives end with a brief comparison; probably they all once did.

Some of the comparisons are distinctly more compelling than others. There are obvious parallels between the orators Demosthenes and Cicero, for example, or the conquerors Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. But many of Plutarch's pairings seem arbitrary—or, if that seems too severe, let us say merely convenient. One often feels, in any event, that he was more interested in the exhibition than the analysis of character. Reflecting on his task at the beginning of his life of Alexander, Plutarch tells his readers that

I am not engaged in writing history, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated by others.

It was the bit about “a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest” that Boswell quoted to help justify his own procedure in dealing with Dr. Johnson. Both biographers rely on the friction of anecdote—the arresting detail, the turn of phrase, the private manner of public men—to elicit the moral bearing of their protagonists.

The second part of Plutarch's work is several volumes of “symposia” or table talk, occasional pieces that he wrote up following spirited after-dinner-party conversations at his home or the homes of friends in Athens, Eleusis, Corinth, Delphi, Thermopylae, Rome, and elsewhere. These bagatelles are usually light, sometimes trivial, but are always entertaining. Plutarch begins by indicating the topic and the speakers—which often included Plutarch himself—who debate it: “Whether it was a good custom to deliberate over wine” (yes); “Whether the hen or the egg came first” (probably the hen); “Why old men hold writing at a greater distance for reading” (he got this one wrong); “Why we take pleasure in hearing actors represent anger and pain but not in seeing people actually experience these emotions” (complicated: you will have to read this one to learn his answer).

Some of the issues raised in the table talk have a distinctly contemporary relevance. Item: “That one should guard especially against the pleasures derived from degenerate music, and how to do so.” One of the guests recalls another dinner at which the host provided an elaborate musical entertainment. It seemed a fine performance—“at first.”

But then, shaking the hall and filling it with resounding noise, when [the performer] perceived that most of the auditors were so overwhelmed as to allow him, under the spell of pleasure, to do with them what he pleased and hypnotize them with his piping or even with licentious movements, he cast off all disguise and showed that music can inebriate, more effectively than any wine, those who drink it in as it comes, with no restraint. For the guests were no longer content to shout and clap from their places, but finally most of them leapt up and joined in the dancing, with movements disgraceful for a gentleman, though quite in keeping with that kind of rhythm and melody.

It is a pity that one cannot enlist Plutarch to report on the next big rock concert.

The third part of Plutarch's work consists of somewhat more formal essays, many of which began life as lectures. Like the table-talk, these pieces betray a hearty, somewhat garrulous curiosity. Several are in the form of a dialogue. Begun in the 80s, most were written before Plutarch embarked on the Lives. Although today the Lives are far and away Plutarch's most popular work—insofar as any of it can still be said to be popular—at one time his essays exercised a nearly equal claim to attention. Many bear dedications to Plutarch's friends; some were written on request for guidance or information. They range over a wide number of topics, moral, cosmological, etymological, hortatory, and numerological. There are treatises on love, on education, on whether animals have reason, on superstition, on Plato's philosophy, on Stoicism, on Epicureanism. (Plutarch was sound on Epicurus, as you can tell from this title: You Cannot Live a Happy Life If You Follow Epicurus.)

Although generally moderate in tone, Plutarch could be a severe critic. In On Herodotus' Spite, which has been called the “first instance in literature of the slashing review,” he takes the historian to task for all manner of prejudice and misrepresentation. He makes some palpable hits, catching Herodotus out in various errors. But as the Plutarch scholar R. H. Barrow observed, Herodotus' real failing in Plutarch's eyes was to advance any criticism at all of those states that saved Greece from Persia. “Plutarch,” he concluded, “is fanatically biased in favor of the Greek cities; they can do no wrong.”

Plutarch does not often wander into purely literary terrain, but when he does he lets you know where he stands. In the fragmentary Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander he clearly awards the palm to the decorous New Comedy of Menander. “The witticisms of Aristophanes,” he wrote,

are bitter and rough and possess a sharpness which wounds and bites. And I do not know wherein his vaunted cleverness resides, whether in his words or his characters. Certainly even whatever he imitates he makes worse; for with him roguishness is not urbane but malicious, rusticity is not simple but silly, facetiousness not playful but ridiculous, and love not joyful but licentious.

Menander, by contrast, is said to bring us a “polished diction” whose ingredients are “mingled into … [a] consistent whole.” (It is hard for us to judge, since we have only fragments of Menander's work.)

Some of Plutarch's essays sound a more personal note. There is, for example, a touching letter of consolation to his wife on the occasion of the death of their only daughter. Plutarch also had some useful things to say about how one can distinguish between a flatterer and a genuine friend (for one thing, a true friend is willing to disagree and criticize one) and how to turn the hatred of others to good account (like fire, the enmity of others keeps one alert and on one's toes). The single longest essay is devoted to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, an historical-anthropological work full of arcane information and conjecture and still often referred to by Egyptologists.

Plutarch's essays and table-talk are published together and are generally known by their Latin title, Moralia, “moral matters” As for translations, there were early on various translations into Latin (by the Italian humanist Guarinus, for example). But the person who really brought Plutarch to Western Europe was Jacques Amyot, who published a French translation of the Lives in 1559 and Moralia in 1572. Amyot's translations swept educated Europe. In a way, they made as deep an impression in England as France, for Thomas North, who published an English translation of the Lives in 1579, based his work not on Plutarch's Greek but on Amyot's French. It was North's Plutarch that Shakespeare, for example, absorbed and refigured to such happy effect. Here is Plutarch, in North's translation, on Antony's first glimpse of Cleopatra:

[S]he disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.

And here is Shakespeare:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them, the
          oars were silver
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke,
          and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke. For her own
It beggared all description; she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold of tissue—
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature; on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like
          smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind
          did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they
          did cool.

And so on.

North's translation was more inspirational than accurate. In 1683, John Dryden began a life of Plutarch and oversaw a translation of the Lives by several hands and based on the original Greek. This translation has been reworked and revised several times, most recently in the nineteenth century by the English poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough. There have been other translations of the Lives, but Clough's edition remains the handiest complete edition.1

It is a curious irony that Plutarch, who expended so much energy bringing other people to life in his biographies, should himself remain a somewhat shadowy figure. We have some of the standard externals. We know that he was born to a prominent family in Chaeronea, Boetia, a town about twenty miles east of Delphi. He studied philosophy in Athens and emerged a worldly and undoctrinaire Platonist. Like Plato, he believed that to know the good was tantamount to following it. That is one reason Plutarch is often described as “naive”—a diminishing adjective that, like “charming,” one finds regularly employed to describe him. Identifying evil with ignorance, Platonists unwittingly discount the reality of sin. (As Coleridge observed, sin consists in seeing the good, understanding it, and choosing evil anyway.) But Plutarch did not share Plato's systematizing ambitions or his contempt for the flesh. He entertained often. He was happily married—his wife, Timoxena, peeks glancingly through at us from his table talk, a dignified, hospitable presence—and had at least five children.

Plutarch was officially critical of Stoicism, but the scholar who refers to his “recessive stoicism,” “poised between the pessimism of stoicism and the optimism of humanism,” has it about right. He was above all a proud, civic-minded Greek at a time when Greek power was definitively eclipsed by Rome. Historical marker: Plutarch wrote most of his work during the reigns of Domitian (81-96), Nerva (96-98), and Trajan (98-117); his contemporaries writing in Rome included Tacitus, Martial, Pliny the Younger, and Juvenal. If there is a current of pathos in Plutarch, it has to do with the recognition that his world—the world of the Greek gods and Hellenic culture—had declined into a sort of posthumous existence. What were living realities to him in his relative backwater had long since become museum pieces to the world at large. As Sir Paul Harvey observed, much of Plutarch's work was “an attempt to satisfy the demand for moral guidance in an age of reaction against the decadence of the Roman world, when the faith in the old gods and philosophies was failing.”

Plutarch himself helped to extend that spiritual autumn by serving for many years as a priest at the Delphic Oracle. Delphi, as one commentator noted, was “almost a second home to Plutarch.” His interventions helped to restore the oracle's outward fortunes for a time. Although his own commitment seems never to have wavered, there are many suggestions that he understood he was tending a guttering flame. “The power comes from the gods and demigods,” he wrote at the end of his essay On the Obsolescence of the Oracles, “but, for all that, it is not unfailing nor imperishable, nor ageless.” Still, Plutarch's life and writings continually bore witness to the famous maxims inscribed at Delphi: “Know Thyself” and “Avoid Extremes.”

Plutarch traveled extensively. A long trip to Alexandria stocked his mind with material for his monograph on Isis and Osiris. He was clearly in Rome, though how often and for how long is not known. His knowledge of Roman literature was poor; he acknowledges in his life of Demosthenes that he did not know much Latin until he was “well into middle age.” He never mentions Ovid or Virgil; when he cites a passage from Horace, it is in a Greek translation. Nevertheless, Plutarch's lectures in Rome were popular—so popular, indeed, that his friend Sosius Senecio, to whom the Lives are dedicated, seems to have procured him an honorary Roman citizenship from Trajan. Many ancient sources—Plutarch's works prominent among them—provide a tolerably detailed picture of the stage set upon which Plutarch performed. What we are missing, by and large, is the actor himself. Plutarch exists as a genial but disembodied authorial presence, a courteous ghost. Over the centuries, there have been several lives of Plutarch, but nothing that gives us a Plutarch's life of Plutarch.

It is pretty clear that Plutarch regarded himself first of all as a philosopher. But posterity has tended to regard him rather as a kind of moral compendium: a repository of vivid characters, arresting anecdotes, dramatically engaging conflicts—the drumsticks and wings to which Montaigne refers. R. H. Barrow is right that Plutarch, although deeply immersed in Greek philosophy,

originated nothing. His mind was not adventurous; it did not use its accumulated knowledge as a springboard to make a leap; it may have lacked imagination. Yet in one particular realm Plutarch was a man of genius. For he had a supreme gift of sensitiveness to religious and moral values which was acutely alive to inconsistency and was profoundly disturbed by it. It would be wrong to say that this sensitiveness issued in a passion for truth; for ‘truth’ is apt to be lifted to a metaphysical plane. Plutarch's mind worked on lower levels. It would be better therefore to say that he had a passion for sincerity, and was able to discriminate values with precision and delicacy.

Clough, in the introduction he provided to his edition of the lives, made a kindred point.

In reading Plutarch the following points should be remembered. He is a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world.

In short, Plutarch regarded history as a moral theater whose performances it was his task to recapitulate for the edification of himself and his readers. Considered as a “mirror” for the soul (as Plutarch says in his life of Timoleon), history provided a series of cautionary tales, of virtue compromised and virtue salvaged.

Plutarch did not go in for salacious details about his subjects as, for example, did his younger Roman contemporary Suetonius (c. 70-c. 160) in his Lives of the Caesars. But his biographies, though sometimes rambling, are nonetheless powerfully entertaining and informative. How could they fail to be? Plutarch had assembled some of the most extraordinary personalities of antiquity, and he endeavored to portray not so much what they did but who they were.

Consider Alcibiades, one of the most gifted and treacherous figures in history. The Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos (C. 99-c. 24 b.c.—Plutarch knew some of his work) begins his chapter on Alcibiades by noting that “it is agreed by all who have written his biography that he was never excelled either in faults or in virtues.” Immensely rich, he was also widely reckoned the handsomest man of his times. A skilled orator, he seemed to be able to talk his way out of, or into, anything. Alcibiades was also a military genius of sorts: as able leading an army as commanding a naval assault. If, like Emma Woodhouse, he was “handsome, clever, and rich” he was unlike that heroine in that his vanity and hubris were never checked. Chameleon-like, he displayed character without ever possessing one. “At Sparta,” Plutarch tells us, “he was devoted to athletic exercises, was frugal and reserved; in Ionia, luxurious, gay, and indolent; in Thrace, always drinking; in Thessaly, ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tissaphernes the Persian satrap, he exceeded the Persians themselves in magnificence and pomp.”

Educated in part by Pericles, Alcibiades (as readers of Plato's Symposium will remember) became an intimate of Socrates. Boundless narcissism combined with extravagant gifts of fortune made Alcibiades a prodigy of ambition. When he decided to enter public life, Plutarch notes, “his noble birth, his riches, the personal courage he had shown in many battles, and the multitude of his friends and dependents, threw open, so to say, the folding-doors for his admittance.” During the Peloponnesian War, he was one of Athens's greatest assets; he was also her most horrible liability. It was Alcibiades who helped destroy the so-called Peace of Nicias and masterminded the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. He undertook the risky expedition solely for his own greater glory; its failure would eventually cost Athens her empire.

“Traitor” docs not encompass Alcibiades' perfidy. Virtually on the eve of the Athenian fleet's departure to Sicily, many sacred statues were mutilated in Athens. It is likely that Alcibiades, on a drunken rampage with friends, was guilty of the outrage. He was allowed to set sail, but was later called back to Athens to stand trial. He then went over to Sparta. Learning that his property had been confiscated and that he had been condemned in absentia to die, he remarked: “I will make them feel I am alive.” As indeed he did. For his advice to the Spartan forces was directly responsible for the defeat of Athens in Sicily. Probably the Spartans would never have completely trusted Alcibiades, but he sealed his fate with them by seducing the wife of a Spartan general and having a son by her. He then fled to Sardis where he was taken in by Tissaphernes. In short order, he betrayed him as well. Briefly imprisoned, he managed to escape and offered his services once again to Athens as the war dragged on. He won some brilliant victories for his native city. But the end came after his good advice was ignored by the Athenian commander at Aegospotami. The Athenian fleet was utterly destroyed and Athens was at the mercy of Sparta. Alcibiades fled to Phrygia, but a Spartan condemnation followed him. The assassins did not dare confront him face to face. But one night as he lay sleeping with a mistress—“a young lady of a noble house,” Plutarch comments, “whom he had debauched”—he woke to find his house on fire. He managed to escape, but was felled by a cataract of darts and arrows.

I have always been surprised that more is not made of Alcibiades today. He seems the perfect contemporary hero: rich, handsome, brilliant, amoral; he had it all. He was even bisexual, virtually a prerequisite for appearing well-rounded these days. Plutarch notes that when it came to “temperance, continence, and probity,” Alcibiades must be judged “the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings.” But he forgives him a lot, not least because “he was often of service to Athens, both as a soldier and a commander.”

In fact, Plutarch nearly always attempted to accentuate the positive. Again and again he stresses that his overriding purpose is to edify. In his life of Demetrius, one of the bad hats who scrambled for power after the death of Alexander the Great, Plutarch acknowledges that evil men must be discussed—not for themselves but because “we shall be all the more eager to watch and imitate the lives of the good if we are not left without a description of what is mean and reprehensible.” In general, it was Plutarch's policy either to winnow out what was disreputable or to surround it with exculpating extenuations. Since, he writes in his life of the Athenian commander Cimon,

it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to exhibit a life which is blameless and pure, … we must select its good elements and in these we must satisfy truth and present a likeness. The shortcomings and faults which run through a man's conduct owing to individual passion or political necessity we should regard rather as the defects of goodness than the misdeeds of wickedness; these our narrative should not display eagerly or gratuitously; rather it should show restraint out of regard for human nature, which produces nothing of unalloyed nobility, no character beyond the criticism of goodness.

Plutarch pursued this high-minded procedure not out of primness or timidity but because he thought it the most effective propaganda for virtue. There is something about the display of virtuous character, Plutarch believed, that inspires emulation. In a famous passage in his life of Pericles, Plutarch notes that there are many things which we admire that we do not seek to imitate or emulate. When it comes to “perfumes and purple dyes” for example, we may be “taken with the things themselves well enough, but we do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people.” The fact that we admire a statue by Phidias does not mean that we admire Phidias himself. But the spectacle of virtue in action is different. The “bare statement of virtuous actions,” Plutarch wrote,

can so affect men's minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise: we are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us. Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice.

We moderns, of course, chalk up Plutarch's belief in the magnetic properties of the moral good to his “charming naivete.” It is curious that today we are much more apt to emulate what pleases us than what we approve. Hence it is that the contemporary equivalents of Plutarch's perfumers and dyers are among our most prominent culture heroes, as of course are celebrity artists of all sorts. What does this change tell us about ourselves? What does it mean that a rock star or television personality is adulated by millions? The issue of character, in both senses of “issue,” was at the heart of Plutarch's teaching. It was also at the heart of Western culture for the centuries in which Plutarch was accounted an indispensable guide. Countless people turned to Plutarch not only for entertainment but also for moral intelligence. He was, as one scholar put it, “simply one of the most influential writers who ever lived,” not because of his art but because of the dignity he portrayed. We have lost our taste for that species of nobility. To an extraordinary extent, character has ceased to impress us. Which is one reason, I believe, that Plutarch and the humanity he championed have become increasingly inaccessible.


  1. I believe that the only complete edition of Plutarch's Moralia available in English is in the indispensable Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press. Most of the translations—the work of several hands—were done between the 1930's and the 1960's. The Loeb Moralia fills sixteen volumes, costs $19.95 per volume, and the like all Loebs provides the original text with an English translation en face. There is also a Loeb edition of the Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin in the 1910s and 1920s, in eleven volumes at $19.95 each. Clough's revision of the Dryden translation of the Lives is available in two volumes from The Modern Library at $21 each.

Robert Lamberton (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13507

SOURCE: Lamberton, Robert. “Between Past and Present: The Dialogues.” In Plutarch, pp. 146-87. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Lamberton examines Plutarch's predecessors in the genre of the dialogue and discusses how he developed this form beyond his models.]


The Lives gained a rapid and long-lived popularity that has tended to eclipse the rest of the Plutarchan corpus. The most unfortunate victims of this neglect in modern times have been the dialogues, representatives of a literary genre that thrived in antiquity, lived on into the Middle Ages, was revived in the Renaissance and survived into the eighteenth century, but since then has had relatively few practitioners. Plutarch, to judge by the surviving evidence, considered the dialogue central to his literary activity. Despite all the work he put into the Lives, one might even argue that his creations in the genre that was preeminently Plato's were the ones that mattered most. Certainly they provided him with a vehicle whose obliqueness he savored and whose capacity to juxtapose the complementary and the contradictory, argument for argument's sake, and multiple tentative solutions he found congenial.

Although we hear of a few earlier, lost dialogues, the talk of one brilliant talker—Socrates—seems to have given birth to the dialogue as a genre in the Greek world. Antecedents can be found in Herodotus and in Thucydides, dialogues embedded in historical narrative that sometimes seem to be re-creations of actual debates, with the issues marshaled plausibly on either side (e.g., the Melian Dialogue [Thucydides 5.84-114]) and that in other instances are purely literary creations, with ideas and arguments dramatized in contexts that can hardly be historical (e.g., Herodotus 3.80-83). The independent dialogue, however, the freestanding work consisting entirely of the display of a discussion presented as historical, was for all practical purposes the invention of the Socratics, with their teacher as protagonist. Plato may not have been the first among them to do create one. We know, in any case, of at least half a dozen others who wrote Socratic dialogues, although only Plato's and Xenophon's survive, along with fragments of the competition. The Socratic dialogue was never an exercise in transcription. Rather, it was a literary genre, and one with subgenres, including Socrates' Defense Speech (Apologia).

Right from the start, then, the dialogue was an elusive combination of memoir and fiction. Plato's own dialogues are by no means uniform. The ancient historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius (3.49-51) divided and subdivided them, using as his major categories “instructional” and “inquisitive,” and he acknowledged that others used categories such as “narrative” and “dramatic,” but he thought these more appropriate to plays than to Plato. But the analogy to drama was lost on no one. In Aristotle's lost dialogue On Poets, the Socratic dialogue was juxtaposed with Sophron's prose mimes (frs. 72, 73 Rose), and the later Platonists had a story that the young Plato was on his way to a career as a dramatist until he was redirected by Socrates toward writing a prose drama of intellectual inquiry instead of plays for the stage.

Plato's dialogues defy reductive summary. There is no satisfactory answer to the question of why he chose to make the Socratic dialogue the unique vehicle for the publication of his ideas. There is a general agreement that the simpler, aporetic dialogues, such as the Ion and Euthyphro, where Socrates is seen testing and refuting others' claims to wisdom, are concerned in large part with the representation of the activity and the thought of the historical Socrates, whereas the “middle” dialogues, such as the Republic, and “late” dialogues, such as the Parmenides and the Sophist, use Socrates and his interlocutors as personae to develop notions and concerns that were Plato's own and not his teacher's. There is also a general agreement that at some level Plato's motive must have been protreptic and that the dialogues present intellectual inquiry for the interested spectator while they invite that spectator to come closer and embrace the philosophical life.

Of the many puzzling and elusive conventions of the Platonic dialogues, two are of particular importance in approaching the dialogues of Plutarch: the frame and the myth. By frame, I mean the explanation, provided within the dialogue, of the conditions and occasion of the original conversation to be re-created for the reader, including the chain of transmission of the account. Some are direct and uncomplicated, either lacking a separable frame (e.g., the Crito) or narrated by Socrates in an autobiographical mode (as is the Republic). Others, however, are oddly insistent on the distance that separates the original conversation from the retelling.

Plato's Symposium, for instance, opens as a dialogue between Apollodoros (devoted Socratic and weepiest of the attendants of Socrates on his last day) and a nameless friend. The friend has asked for an account of a dinner party “a long time ago” at the home of Agathon, the tragic poet, a dinner party attended by Socrates and Alcibiades. Apollodoros begins by telling the friend that he has it all clearly in mind because he happened to be asked “just the other day” by Glaucon to recall the same evening. Glaucon had already heard it from a man named Phoenix, who heard it from Aristodemos, who was actually present at the party. Phoenix's account was unsatisfactory, however, so Glaucon came to Apollodoros, whose source for the whole matter is the same Aristodemos who had told Phoenix about it in the first place.

The Symposium presents itself, then, as a re-creation by Apollodoros for his anonymous interlocutor of an account he gave a few days ago to Glaucon, based on a report by Aristodemos, who was there, of a conversation many years in the past. Apollodoros mentions that he subsequently checked “a few things” with Socrates, who confirmed Aristodemos's account. Why all this confusing narrative paraphernalia? The most satisfying answer is that it problematizes from the start the issue of knowledge—knowledge, in this case, of the past, of what was said on a specific occasion. How do we know such things? By repetitions of reports of reports of (perhaps) eyewitnesses. Our knowledge, in other words, is mediated. We have no direct and verifiable perception of a truth as ordinary and everyday as a dinner-party conversation some years ago. Given the frailty of the chain that links us to this truth, what must we think of the larger epistemological dilemmas that confront us?

This explanation of Plato's odd, distancing frame stories combines the philosophical with the esthetic. Other explanations have been offered: there is no way to prove, for instance, that this cumbersome frame is not simply Plato's way of legitimating the account he is about to deliver and rendering it more credible. Our explanation, however, has the tacit approval of at least one ancient student of Plato's dialogues: Plutarch. As we shall see, Plutarch manipulates the frames of his dialogues in precisely this spirit, savoring the paradox of our endlessly frustrated attempts to know the truth.

The myths of Plato's dialogues are even more problematic than the frames. The bulk of most of the dialogues consists of attempts to solve problems, attempts that we may broadly categorize as analytic. The specific techniques illustrated range from the Socratic elenchus, or refutation, to the “division” tested in the Sophist. Plato's arguments are not always logically sound, and in a number of instances we cannot say whether their failures of logic were clear to Plato or not. It is nevertheless fair to characterize all of this material as rational analysis, as attempts—successful or failed, seriously portrayed or ironically parodied—to use the resources of mind, reason, and discourse to reach certainty on some issue or other. These arguments sometimes include illustrations, analogous to mind experiments, that serve to clarify or focus some matter under discussion. Thus in Republic 7 (514a-520a), Socrates uses the illustration of the cave to sum up what has already been said about education and to introduce the notion that the state will have to compel the philosopher to rule. The story of the people trapped in the cave, vivid as it is, is circumscribed. Its function within the argument is adequate to explain its presence and to exhaust its significance.

In roughly ten instances, however, Plato introduced stories—myths, nonanalytic, nonverifiable narratives, characterized by fabulous and folkloric elements—into contexts that do not wholly exhaust them. Some, including the wonderful comic creation myth fabricated by Aristophanes in the Symposium, may be explained as illustrations, like the cave story. One way or another, though, each takes over the exposition, as if it constituted an alternative to the analytic discourse, another way of talking about the world, unfettered by the demands of proof or logical demonstration. In two instances—the creation story of the Timaeus and the story of Atlantis in the Crito—this sort of discourse dominates to the point that the dialogue is reduced to storytelling, and any possible philosophical value is obscured, if such value can be equated with rational inquiry.

One of the most outrageous of Plato's myths is the “Myth of Er,” which brings the Republic to a close. It has greatly offended some of Plato's most devoted and careful readers. Julia Annas denounces it as a blatantly “consequentialist” reversal and subversion of what has gone before. Socrates, she points out, spends many hours (the content of 286 Stephanus pages) attempting to demonstrate to his interlocutors that justice, or simply doing right, is an end in itself in the context of the successful life—and then in the final seven pages he tells a colorful fairy tale about reward and punishment in the afterlife (Introduction to Plato's Republic, 349-53). Various solutions to this dilemma have been explored, but for our purposes it suffices to note the problem itself. Plato in his dialogues repeatedly shifts gears, often at or near the end of a dialogue, abandoning rational inquiry in favor of colorful and implausible storytelling, sometimes seemingly at odds with whatever gains have been attained up to that point by the use of rationally structured language.

These two problematic aspects of Plutarch's primary model, the Platonic dialogue, are central to his own creative reworking of the genre. Much has been lost between Plato and Plutarch. Aristotle wrote perhaps fifteen dialogues that circulated to a general public. Cicero and Plutarch both read them. Remarks of Cicero's suggest that Aristotle's dialogues opened with proems and that Aristotle was at least sometimes the principal speaker, but neither claim is certain, given the nature of the surviving fragments.

More likely to have influenced Plutarch's practice are the dialogues of two fourth-century thinkers whose works have almost totally vanished, Dicaearchus and Heraclides of Pontus. Of the first, we can say only that he wrote dialogues and that Plutarch read him. He wrote a book whose title is reported as “The Descent to the Oracle of Trophonios” (cited by Athenaeus 594e-f), which might lurk in the background of the myth of Socrates' Sign. Heraclides wrote nearly fifty dialogues, if we can believe Diogenes Laertius (5.86-94), who lists all his titles under that rubric. Although Heraclides frequented philosophers in Athens, he is generally treated as an intellectual lightweight, a judgment shared by ancients and moderns. Plutarch, though, refers to him at least ten times and recommends him especially warmly for children:

It is clear that in the area of philosophical discourse the very young take more pleasure in books that do not seem philosophical or even serious, and they enjoy listening to them and pay attention. They enjoy not just Aesop's Fables and stories from the poets but the Abaris of Heraclides and the Lycon of Ariston as well, with ideas about souls mixed up with mythology, and they are excited by them.

(“Poetry” 14e)

Abaris was a Hyperborean shaman of whom all sorts of fabulous tales were told. The two random snippets of Heraclides' dialogue that survive (as illustrations of points of syntax) support Plutarch's description (Heraclides frr. 74, 75 Wehrli):

Snakes crawled out of their lairs nearby and rushed at the corpse, but they were held off by the dogs that snarled and barked at them.

And [Abaris?] said the daimon, now transformed into a young man, turned to him a second time and told him to believe that the gods exist and that they concern themselves with human affairs.

Heraclides' dialogue On the Soul contained a firsthand account of the fate of souls reported by one Empedotimos of Syracuse. This was very widely read and commented on by later Platonists and was compared to what clearly was its literary model, the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic. Heraclides seems to have embellished his version of the near-death tale with precisely the sort of poetic metaphysics that we find in Plutarch, centuries later. The Neoplatonist Iamblichus gives us the most elaborate reconstruction:

Again, another group of Platonists [postulates that] the soul is always in a body, but that it spends time in a lighter body and then returns to live in a flesh-and-blood body. They say that souls go off into some portion of the perceptible universe and that they descend into a solid body at various times and from various places—Heraclides of Pontus defines this place as the Milky Way, but others distribute souls through all the heavenly spheres and maintain that they descend from there to return here

(Heraclides fr. 97 Wehrli)

What we see in the Milky Way in the night sky, then, was claimed by a character in a dialogue of Heraclides to be souls, wrapped in the fiery vehicle that sustains them between incarnations. We know from Plutarch's testimony (Cam. 22) that he himself had read the dialogue in question. Clearly, then, Heraclides was not exclusively for children. Plutarch also noted (Live Unknown 1130b) that “some philosophers consider the soul to be light, as far as its substance is concerned,” and he may well have been thinking of Heraclides' myth. As we shall see, it was certainly to his taste.

After Heraclides, it is difficult to identify specific practitioners of the dialogue who are likely to have influenced Plutarch's practice. The best candidate among preserved authors might well be Cicero, whose De Republica is modeled on Plato's Republic. This dialogue is only partially preserved, but we have the end, a dream reported by the principal speaker, the younger Scipio Africanus. The discussion that immediately preceded the account of the dream is lost, but it seems to have included reference to Plato's Myth of Er (whose place the dream occupies in Cicero's Republic), perhaps dismissing it as a fiction. Scipio's dream is a visitation from his homonymous older relative by adoption, the great general of the Second Punic War. It consists of a string of prophecies, followed by a tour of the universe not unlike Er's. Cicero and Plutarch made their respective contributions to the genre of the dialogue by looking back on much the same models, some evident and some lost to us. Those contributions seem, however, to be largely independent of one another. Cicero's dialogues do not contain the poetically elaborated myths that are the beauty of Plutarch's, and Plutarch in turn shows little knowledge of Cicero's dialogues.

Of the seventy-some preserved pieces in the Moralia generally accepted as authentic, sixteen make some use of dialogue form, but four of these quickly turn into speeches or monologues. Of the remaining twelve, the ninety-one short dialogues of the Table Talk constitute a separate subgenre, although participants in those symposia often appear in the more elaborate dialogues as well. All of the rest (and much of the Table Talk) might be broadly characterized as philosophical, though varying considerably in presentation and imaginative elaboration.

The most fanciful consists of a discussion between Odysseus and a pig named Oinker (Gryllus)—formerly one of his men, now transformed by Circe—about the rationality of animals. The Symposium of the Seven Sages presents itself as a first-person account of the table talk of the pre-philosophical wise men of archaic Greece. Seven of the remaining eight dialogues present discussions among individuals close to Plutarch; he himself is present and named in only one. Plutarch is presumably the “I” of The E at Delphi as well and may be lurking behind other personae. Several of these dialogues include elaborately and self-consciously developed myths, but the dialogue Love attractively substitutes a love story—or a story of passion and abduction—for the myth. This unfolds simultaneously with the discussion and ultimately provides closure in a wedding scene. Socrates' Sign is the most ambitious of the dialogues, and the only one where Plutarch presumes to join Plato and Xenophon in expanding the Socratic corpus. Set twenty years after Socrates' death and appropriating two of the speakers Plato used in the Phaedo, this major dialogue with its fabulous and colorful myth marks Plutarch's most successful venture into combining philosophy, (exemplary) history, and rhetoric into a single, coherent whole.


It seems appropriate for most of what concerns the god to be concealed in riddles.

The E at Delphi 385c

Plutarch is the only insider to provide us with evidence regarding the oracular shrine at Delphi, but it will come as no surprise that this evidence is in large part infuriatingly indirect and notoriously difficult to use. The bulk of it is concentrated in three dialogues, all set at the site and all implying, but never explicitly claiming, the presence of Plutarch himself. Of the three, The E at Delphi is in this sense the most straightforward. The nameless first person addresses the dialogue to Sarapion (a poet, mentioned in the Table Talk and a participant in another Delphic dialogue), claiming that a recent discussion of the E had reminded him of a discussion of this odd dedication that occurred “long ago” (E 385b), when Nero was in Delphi (67 c.e.). In the recalled conversation that follows, the speaker—let us call him Plutarch to avoid periphrasis—discusses the E with Lamprias (Plutarch's brother) and others. His teacher Ammonios had the last word (E 391e-394c), and although Ammonios's explanation does not replace the others, it carries an authority the others lack. Here, the distancing static introduced by the frame is minimal, but the recent discussion of the E to which the speaker refers, which was attended by his grown sons, is imposed as a sort of silenced echo across generations. The Disapperance of Oracles is also presented by a nameless first person, who addresses it to Terentius Priscus (identifiable, but not mentioned elsewhere in the Plutarchan corpus), precisely (and uselessly) specifying the date of the conversation as just before the Pythian Games presided over by the undatable Callistratos (Disappearance 410a). What is ingenious and playful about the obfuscating frame here, though, is that the “I” is belatedly identified as Plutarch's brother Lamprias (Disappearance 413d), whereas everything up to that point would suggest that we are hearing Plutarch's own voice—an assumption that The E at Delphi allows us to sustain. Plutarch thus remains absent (or disguised) in this discussion. The other Delphic dialogue never mentions Plutarch, although several of the interlocutors are denizens of the Table Talk, and there are plausible reasons for taking the character named Theon to be a mask, or a mouthpiece, for the author.

This, then, is the way Plutarch the Delphic priest turns his insider's information into literature. He uses the distancing convention of the frame, developed by Plato, to erase himself from the picture—or, rather, to obscure his own identity in the manner of a protected witness whose image is optically blurred to prevent recognition. In this case, however, we know all along—or think we know—whose voice we are hearing. The blurring is for purely esthetic reasons, even though these impinge on the issue of knowledge and ignorance and consequently on much else besides. Nothing is less authentic, less transparent, than Plutarch's voice speaking from within the Delphic shrine. These characters in dialogue, exploring, arguing, and counterarguing, are doing exactly what the Delphic priesthood rigorously refused to do: they are explaining, interpreting, unfolding, Delphic mysteries. The dialogue itself is not forbidden, but its closure decidedly is. The priest cannot possibly speak in his own voice, and ultimately no conclusion can be reached that is not subject to further interrogation and revision.

Plutarch comes as close as he ever does to making this explicit in Ammonios's imposing speech closing The E at Delphi. The dialogue as a whole consists of attempts to explain the dedication at Delphi of a series of objects in the form of the letter epsilon, E (E 385f-386a). The dedications apparently have a symbolic value—they are signs with some obscure referrent—but the frame of reference is undefined and potentially cosmic in scope. The E could designate the number 5 (represented in Greek by the fifth letter of the alphabet, epsilon), and this in turn could be referred to historical or numerological levels of meaning. Alternatively, as the second vowel in the alphabet, epsilon could have to do with secondness—perhaps the sun (Apollo) as the second planet. Finally, epsilon, whose name is written “epsilon-iota” (εῒ, in the sense that the letter D may be designated by the name “dee” in English), could have any of the meanings of that combination of letters in Greek. In fact, several words consist of these two letters and are more or less distinguished one from another by accents and other diacritics. As εῒ, epsilon could mean “if”—an appropriate dedication here, either as an opener for oracular inquiries (people ask “if” they should do this or that) or as symbolic of the power of the syllogism (“if” x, then y). It could also point to the inquirer's desire: “‘If’ only …” But accented differently, εῒ is the second-person singular of the verb “to be,” meaning “you are” or “you exist.”

This last is the interpretation that Ammonios privileges, so it stands at the top of the hermeneutic hierarchy of the dialogue, though without entirely displacing the others. It is half of an exchange, Ammonios claims, the other half of which is the famous Delphic maxim “Know yourself” (gnothi sauton 392a). In effect, the god says to the inquirer approaching the temple, “Know yourself” (in your ephemeral, mortal being, radically divorced from the unity and eternity of the divine and of truth), to which the inquirer replies with an acknowledgment: “You exist” (i.e., you have being in Plato's sense, eternal and unchanging, whereas we are only becoming, only fragmented creatures with a beginning and an end). What Plutarch's Ammonios does not go on to point out—perhaps because it is self-evident—is that this exchange is strikingly relevant both to the ontology and to the hermeneutics of oracular inquiry and response. The priests never interpret. They accept the inquiries (which may well be the wrong questions or questions asked in the wrong way, for lack of essential knowledge on the part of the seekers), they submit them to the transcendent intelligence accessible through the prophetess, and they deliver the response, Zeus's response, mediated by Apollo and articulated by the prophetess. What comes back is a text, and as the story of human folly so dear to Herodotus reiterates, the inquirer is very likely to get it wrong, to do the wrong thing on the basis of the hard-won text—to fail, in other words, as an interpreter. The ritual exchange into which Ammonios inserts the E is the limit of the god's hermeneutic assistance to the inquirer. Apollo is saying: You had better know who you are (and the relationship to my being of your becoming) or else you will never manage to fit my answer to your question.

The E at Delphi begins, then, as a hermeneutic dilemma, with the dialogue form providing the perfect vehicle for the juxtaposition of competing interpretations, and develops into a pretext for Ammonios to deliver a short lecture on being and becoming. The remaining Delphic dialogues address more general issues regarding the Delphic shrine and prophecy in general, but each likewise ends up with a colorful meditation on an aspect or aspects of Platonic metaphysics.

The order of the dialogues in the modern editions is uniform but rather arbitrary. Robert Flacelière argued influentially a generation ago that The Delphic Oracles Not Now Given in Verse must be the last. It makes mention both of the “recent” eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e. (Oracles 398e) and of a recent benefactor of the Delphic shrine (409b-c), whose name has disappeared into a lacuna in the text. Flacelière argued that this must be the same Hadrian whose statue Plutarch erected near the end of his own life. He may have been correct, but the evidence is not compelling. Flacelière's argument for placing this essay at the very end of Plutarch's career rests further on the observation that The Disappearance of Oracles remains aporetic on the nature of oracular communication, whereas the other essay seems more conclusive—Plutarch's last thoughts on the matter, perhaps. My own inclination is to believe that Plutarch was as evasive, tentative, and respectful of the limits of knowledge at the end of his life as he had been throughout it. Some matters do allow conclusions to be reached: the Delphic responses, couched in human language and specifically in Greek, are in a medium that belongs to the priestess, not to the god. The Disappearance of Oracles addresses much larger issues, where certainty is more elusive.

Not the least of the problems that surround the essay The Delphic Oracles Not Now Given in Verse is that the title—and hence the central issue of the dialogue—is misleading. It is certainly possible that at the dramatic date of the dialogue (whenever, between 79 and 120, we may imagine that to be) the oracular shrine offered only prose responses, but responses of the traditional sort, in hexameter verse, are nevertheless well documented for Plutarch's time and later, and not simply in literature, where we must suspect tampering or manipulation, but in inscriptions, which are far more likely to accurately represent the responses as they were returned to their cities by the delegates sent to Delphi. In fact, the Pythia's most ambitious recorded effort, as believable as any other literary oracle, was a fifty-one-verse hymn on the fate of the soul of the Neoplatonist Plotinus, who died a century and a half after Plutarch. (This oracle is certainly a fabrication, but one that based on the assumption that, in 270 c.e., an oracle of Apollo ought to speak in hexameters.) These facts call seriously into question the nature and thrust of Plutarch's dialogue.

The dialogue has a minimal frame: an otherwise unmentioned and presumably fictional Basilocles asks Philinos, a well-attested friend of Plutarch's, to repeat to him a conversation that has just ended. Philocles agrees and re-creates a guided visit to the shrine just carried out for the benefit of a visiting philosopher, Diogenianus of Pergamon. Aside from Philinos himself and some professional guides, the party included Sarapion, the poet to whom The E at Delphi is addressed, as well as a mocking Epicurean named Boethos (who thinks prophecy is bunk and any apparent accuracy a matter of pure chance) and a character named Theon, who emerges as the principal interpreter of Delphic matters and the principal defender of the oracular shrine against the general skepticism of Boethos, as well as the specific doubts that trouble Diogenianus regarding responses delivered either in bad verse or in prose. This Theon both is and is not Plutarch. He is as much of Plutarch as the author will let us glimpse in this context. Characters with this name occur in the Table Talk, dining and conversing with Plutarch (626e, 728f), and in The Face in the Moon (where Plutarch is absent), The E at Delphi, and Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible, where Theon is one of those who have listened to and now discuss Plutarch's lecture Against Colotes. There are several other references to this or other Theons as well. All of this, combined with Plutarch's own observation (Roman Questions 30, 271e) that “Dion and Theon” are names of convenience used in philosophical formulations (i.e., “Tom and Dick”) leaves us here face to face with Plutarch's thickest and least penetrable disguise, a figure deliberately situated on the margins of identity: a dissolving mask.

Philinos's account of a distinguished visitor's experience of the Delphic shrine around 100 c.e. begins with the professional guides (periegetai) who would present the site to an ordinary visitor. It is not clear just why Diogenianus, who has more expert and specialized guidance at his disposal, is initially in their hands. Philinos, Sarapion, and even Theon apparently have to wait until the guides are through, however impatient they may be with their reading the inscriptions through aloud and delivering their speeches. The inscriptions, however, are a nice touch. This passage is unique in making explicit the fact that inscriptions on sites such as the Delphic shrine were performance pieces for guides, and we must imagine much of their ancient readership experiencing them in this way.

After a sotto voce digression within the little group on the qualities of Delphic air, Diogenianus observes (apropos of a guide's reading of a verse response from an inscription) that he has often been amazed at the terrible, second-rate poetry that is the vehicle of the oracles: “We can see that most of the oracles are full of defects in meter and diction and poetically incompetent” (Oracles 396d). This, then, is the initial formulation of the problem, and Theon cuts through distracting comments by Sarapion and Boethos to formulate a solution: the voice of the response, including sound, diction, and meter, is no more the god's than the handwriting would be if the Pythia wrote the responses rather than speaking them. The god places mental images (phantasiai) in her head, a “light directed toward the future,” but from there on, the medium is human, not divine (397c). Diogenianus's rejoinder (taking his cue from Theon) shifts the question in the direction that the title anticipates: “There isn't one of us who is not looking for an explanation of how it is that the oracular shrine has stopped using epic verse and meter” (397d).

Diogenianus has to wait quite a while for an answer, in deference again to the guides. As the party climbs along the sacred way, past monument after monument, Boethos mocks prophecy and invokes chance while Sarapion and Theon defend providential prophecy. Amid general and sarcastic disapproval of the infamous golden statue of the prostitute Phryne, displayed “among generals and kings,” Theon does indeed sound like the subversive and semi-submerged moralist of the Lives:

You seem to me to want to drive from the shrine a wretched woman who made disgraceful use of her body, while you see the god and his temple surrounded by the firstfruits and tithes of murders and wars and plunder. … Praxiteles [should be praised] for putting a golden prostitute up next to those golden kings and throwing in the face of the rich the fact that what they have is nothing wonderful or deserving of reverence.

(Oracles 401c-d)

That is, it is the big crooks, who laundered the spoils of their rapacious brutalities by putting up dedicatory monuments at Delphi, who bring shame to the shrine, not the sculptor who added a portrait of his girlfriend.

But Diogenianus is not troubled by any of this so much as by the question that he keeps insisting on, which is for him “the major obstacle to faith in the oracle” (Oracles 402b): the abandonment of poetic form seems to show either that the prophetess no longer gets close to the god or that the spirit has died, the power departed.

Theon's resolution of Diogenianus's misgivings about the replacement of poetry by prose in the oracular responses is delivered in a lecture filling the final third of the dialogue. He begins with a corrective, more nuanced account of the relation of prose to verse in the history of the oracle. There were always prose oracles, he says—even the confirmation that Lycurgus sought of the validity of his constitution was delivered in prose (Oracles 403e)—and there are still oracles delivered in verse, however rarely. The issue has already been resolved in any case, and the lecture consists of elaborations and new metaphors developing Theon's earlier description of the nature of inspiration and its relation to the medium of the prophetess's language (Oracles 397c). What is envisioned is a series of analogous relationships, constructed from the bottom up: the body uses tools, the soul uses the body, and the god uses the soul (404b). Each medium aspires to transparency. The tools do the best they can to translate the craftsman's design into an object. The body does the best it can to express the intention of the soul, which in turn transmits the intention of the god, but each medium fails in a necessary way, and at each new level the medium generates an artifact whose relation to its antecedent is both intimate and remote.

At this point (Oracles 404d-e), Theon puts on the table a sentence he attributes to Heraclitus (fr. 93 DK) and assumes to be generally familiar: “The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives signs (semainei).” It is no exaggeration to say that semiotics, in the tradition of European thought, starts here, with this notorious, sententious claim, and were it not for this passage of Plutarch's, this Heraclitus fragment would be unknown. Indeed, without the passage we would have little or no evidence for articulated, analytic concern with signs, signification, and meaning among the pre-Socratics. These are matters that come into their own in Greek thought with the Stoa and then again in later Platonism, a development to which Plutarch provides the essential background. What Plutarch delivers seems to be in Heraclitus's own words, but it is nevertheless predigested. What Heraclitus was getting at remains obscure, but what Plutarch is using his words to say is quite clear. Heraclitus, according to Plutarch, used the verb semaino, “indicate by signs,” to designate the action of Apollo through the prophetess (or perhaps more properly, through her utterances). The ontological hierarchy that Plutarch projects onto this sentence can hardly have anything to do with Heraclitus, and is steeped in Platonism, but to Plutarch's mind, if Heraclitus pointed to a tertium quid for the pair “speak—conceal,” he must have meant the projection of meaning down the hierarchy, with the attendant necessary distortion introduced by the medium. Apollo “signs,” and the prophetess “speaks.” She is his tool, but he is not implicated (although his meaning may be expressed) by her utterance.

Much of what remains is a meditation on history, and one that strikes an uncharacteristically positive note. The past—along with the priestesses of the past—was more poetic than the present. Similarly, love was more poetically expressed in the past, but we do not say that love has changed (Oracles 406a), and as was pointed out earlier, philosophy over time has also made the transition from the poetic medium of the early pre-Socratics to prose. These changes all favor clarity (to saphes, sapheneia 496e-f). We have seen that the sententious obfuscation of archaic philosophers—and Pythagoreans in particular—was not to Plutarch's taste. If he approves of it (e.g., in Numa), it is justified as a legitimating pose, a means of impressing and imposing on the public. The change in oracular style is an escape from this deliberate obscurantism. The allegories (hyponoiai) and ambiguities (amphilogiai, 407e) that the priestesses used to indulge in were necessary in part because the consultations were about important matters, and the responses had to be encoded so only the inquirer would understand them (407d-e). This resulted in misinterpretations (408a).

The conclusion of the dialogue is the paean of praise for the Pax Romana evoked above (Chapter 1). These days, people generally come to ask modest, personal questions, but at least they receive clear answers (Oracles 408f), and the shrine, along with the rest of the world, has entered a period of renewed prosperity. The responses given now are not imposing, and so they provoke skepticism in people like Diogenianus, but the very prosperity of the shrine is testimony to their accuracy. Prose for a prosaic world, but one that has peace, unlike in the past, and so can be said to have been transformed “for the better” (pros to beltion, 406b).

The Disappearance of Oracles, like the dialogue just discussed, is about prophecy and history—or, better, history and prophecy—but the resemblance does not go much further than that. In overall orientation, the two are in fact so fundamentally at odds that they might be compared to Plutarch's paired rhetorical exercises that support opposite theses. Where The Delphic Oracles Not Now Given in Verse reaches an optimistic conclusion, celebrating the present and the Delphic shrine's new prosperity with its new mode of prophecy, The Disappearance of Oracles explores the decline and disappearance of oracles in a shrinking world.

Plutarch's moment in history was viewed retrospectively by the Christian West as one of transition and decay. With Christian self-satisfaction removed, the view is nicely summed up in a phrase from a letter of Flaubert's (cited in Marguerite Yourcenar's notebooks for Hadrian's Memoirs): “When the gods were no more and Christ did not yet exist, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, [there was] a unique moment when man alone existed.”

One would not have any trouble finding abundant support for this picture of dying gods (or demons) in Christian writers from the late second century to Augustine's time and beyond. What is amazing, though, is to find Plutarch, a traditional polytheist, offering primary evidence generations earlier. Platonists like Plutarch genuinely understood the world to be a living, ensouled entity inhabited or visited by complex hierarchies of other ensouled beings, ranging from plants to gods. The gods—manifest as the hypercosmic bodies and phenomena—are the only immortals. All the rest will have an end. The Disappearance of Oracles is haunted by the sublime sense of loss inherent in the spectacle of the aging and the anticipated death of that complex living being.

The dialogue is also fascinating for its mix of information and of methodologies, ranging (in our terms) from the scientific to the religious. Plutarch both does and does not respect that distinction, a fact that is even more evident in The Face in the Moon. He emerges, once again, as a pluralist in ways that make it difficult for us to take him seriously. Driven by the sheer pleasure of intellectual work and discourse, he embraces every mode of explanation and rejects none. The positive gains are few, but some modest conclusions can be reached. Much more, however, is left suspended in uncertainty, and the long, rather rambling conversation concludes with the acknowledgment of that fact.

The frame—which consists simply of the narrator Lamprias's explanatory note to the addressee—quickly establishes the cosmic scale of the discussion. The occasion of the conversation is the intersection at Delphi of the trajectories of two travelers, Demetrius, coming from Britain, and Cleombrotos, coming from Siwa, in the Libyan desert—like the Delphic eagles coming from the ill-defined ends of the earth to its ambiguous center. The first thing we learn is that Cleombrotos has brought from the priests of Ammon at Siwa the observation that their permanent sacred lamp uses less oil every year. They interpret this to mean that the years are becoming progressively shorter. Taking off from this (supposed) fact and its interpretation, the discussion turns to disparity of scale in explanation—tiny indicators of events of cosmic scale. Ammonios extrapolates (he is apparently older than in The E at Delphi and no longer as dominant in the conversation). If the priests were right, then the consequences not just for the sun but for celestial mechanics would be devastating. To save the phenomena (here, the progressively smaller annual oil measures, which Cleombrotos has actually seen), an answer can and must be sought in the conditions of combustion or in the quality of the oil. This initial exercise in explanation is very much in the tradition of Plato. It will be echoed at the end of the dialogue in the unresolved attempts to mediate between Ammonios's explanation of the disappearance of oracles as an expression of divine will and Lamprias's explanation in terms of the fluctuations of terrestrial exhalations that stimulate a capacity for prophecy that is innate in the soul.

On the whole, Cleombrotos seems to have accepted the Egyptian priests' conclusion that time is shrinking, but he cannot sustain this position against Ammonios's objections. This complicates the problem of interpreting his deliberate silence when asked by Lamprias whether the Oracle of Siwa is “wasting away” (Disappearance 411e). His silence is filled, in any case, by Demetrius, who supplies a long list of local—mainly Boeotian—oracles that have been silenced since the classical period (411e-412d). This list in turn leads into the discussion—continued in the Lesche (or clubhouse) of the Cnidians at the upper end of the Delphic sanctuary—of the meaning of the failure of oracular shrines.

At this point, some others have joined the group, and the first attempt to explain the phenomenon takes the form of a harangue from a Cynic named Didymus, who chalks it all up to human wickedness, which has caused the providence of the gods to withdraw from mankind. In its violence and simplistic moralizing, Didymus's speech is a re-creation of a type of Cynic discourse familiar in Plutarch's world and often parodied (e.g., Lucian Peregrinus 4-6). Not unlike the violent Thrasymachus in the first book of Plato's Republic, Didymus seems to represent an irreconcilable position that can be neither incorporated into the analysis of the problem nor entirely ignored. Like Thrasymachus again, he hits a nerve when he proposes changing the question to “why this oracle as well has not refused to function” (Disappearance 413a), a matter clearly not on the table for debate. Lamprias's rather gentle rebuttal—the badness of mankind is constant, and if anything, there was more of it in the larger populations of the past; therefore badness cannot explain the decline of prophecy (413c-d)—is sufficient to make the Cynic stalk out in high dudgeon.

Lamprias's rebuttal contains the first mention in the dialogue of a decline in population—yet another aspect of this shrinking, dying cosmos. The passage where Ammonios takes up that theme and turns it into a sufficient explanation for the decline of oracles is often cited as social history. He claims that “now” the whole of Greece could produce only three thousand footsoldiers, the number that Megara alone sent to Plataea in 479 b.c.e. (Disappearance 414a). Avoidance of excess is essential to Ammonios's notion of the divine (413f): a diminished population needs fewer oracles, and therefore the god provides fewer. Delphi once had two alternating prophetesses as well as one in reserve, but now one is quite sufficient (414b-c). Lamprias, however, refuses to take seriously the notion of a divine efficiency expert downsizing the oracle delivery system. The divine by its nature creates and gives. Nature (i.e., the necessary condition of being in the world) causes decay and destruction. The god, however, never wills the cessation of an oracle (414d). There is an implicit competition here between Lamprias and Ammonios, and it is Lamprias, with his optimism about the gods combined with pessimism about nature and natural decay, who sounds more like a Platonist in the style of Plutarch.

The issue seems to be settled, then, that the decline in population is related to the decline in number of functional oracular shrines. The difference remaining has to do with the role of divine will and/or nature in the actual failure of the oracles. Cleombrotos steps into the breach with the most Platonic of solutions: oracles are controlled not by gods (at least directly), nor by exhalations or other functions of the natural world (physis), but by mediating daimones, the bridge between mortality and immortality, between human ignorance and divine knowledge (Disappearance 415a).

This entire section of the dialogue, dominated by Cleombrotos (414f-421e), is built on evidence that is poetic or mythic. In other words, we are in the same realm of discourse as in Plato's Timaeus, where the subject is the creation of the universe, a realm where the goal is the “most plausible” or “likely” account and where certainty will not be reached. Cleombrotos is explicit about this: we must try to “proceed in our opinions to the most probable” (Disappearance 418f). A further, less Platonic limit is set to this theological speculation. Cleombrotos opens his lecture with the ancient evidence, which shows “that there exist entities occupying, so to speak, the border area between gods and men, susceptible to mortal emotions and to the changes brought about by necessity, entities it is correct for us to revere according to ancestral custom and to designate and call daimones” (Disappearance 416c).

The deliberately vague phrase “changes brought about by necessity” designates in the broadest terms what everything in the world of nature (physis) experiences, culminating in decay and death. This is precisely the point that will not go down with one of the listeners. Heracleon accepts as plausible and theologically acceptable the notion that it is these intermediaries who speak through prophets and prophetesses in the oracular shrines: “But to take by the handful out of the verses of Empedocles crimes and violent acts and divinely imposed wanderings and attribute these to the daimones, and to postulate that they meet their end in death as humans do—this seems to me too bold (thrasuteron) and too barbarous (barbarikoteron)” (Disappearance 418e).

Theological correctness, then, is a matter of tradition, specifically, of Hellenism. There is a body of texts complemented by a history of interpretation that can be distilled into correct theology. Plutarch at this point seems considerably more optimistic than Plato had been.

Cleombrotos does not have much trouble disposing of Heracleon's objection. He has already invoked a beautiful (and otherwise unknown) passage from Hesiod to the effect that the Naiad nymphs, though extremely long-lived, eventually die (Disappearance 415c). Now, in his support and in response to Heracleon, another speaker calls to witness the father of a respected rhetor, the teacher of some of those present. This mediated first-person account (by one Epitherses) is among the most characteristically Plutarchan of myths:

[Epitherses] told the story that once he got on board a ship for Italy, packed with cargo and passengers. In the evening, among the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted toward the island of Paxi. Most of the passengers were still awake, and some were still drinking after-dinner wine. Suddenly a voice was heard coming from Paxi, someone shouting for Thamous, and everyone was both amazed and confused. This Thamous was the Egyptian pilot of the ship, and not many of the passengers knew him by name. He did not respond to the first two calls, but the third time he answered, and the other shouted still louder and said: “When you reach Palodes, report that the great Pan is dead.” When they heard this, as Epitherses reported, they were all astounded and discussed whether it was better to carry out the order or not to get involved and just let it be. Thamous decided that if there was a breeze when they passed the island of Palodes, he would just sail by and keep quiet, but if they were becalmed on a flat sea, he would repeat what the voice had said to him. When they arrived and there was no wind or wave, Thamous climbed up on the elevated stern of the boat and spoke the words he had heard, in the direction of the shore: “Great Pan is dead.” Before he could finish, a great sighing groan was heard, composed of many voices and full of wonder. There were many witnesses to this, and the story spread quickly in Rome. Tiberius Caesar sent for Thamous and was so convinced by his story that he had an inquiry undertaken concerning Pan. The numerous literary scholars he employed reached the conclusion that this must be Pan the son of Hermes and Penelope. [This odd genealogy is confirmed by Herodotus.]

(Disappearance 419b-d)

The story is known to some of the others present, presumably by way of their teacher, Epitherses' son. Demetrius has a further story, gathered during his recent travels in Britain, of the deaths of daimones. The locals there attribute atmospheric disturbances to “the death of one of the greater ones” (Disappearance 419e-f). Plutarch has a better use in store for the best part of this story, however: the prophetic, sleeping Kronos attended by daimones on an island at the end of the world will return in The Face in the Moon (941a-f).

There is no need for us to follow this long and digressive dialogue through in detail to its aporetic end. Cleombrotos reports his conversations with an Arabian prophetic sage, who confirmed and elaborated a great deal of demonic lore (Disappearance 421a-e). The lore made some odd claims about the plurality of worlds, a subject that takes hold of the conversation (421f-431a). When the speakers return to the metaphysical hierarchy of souls, daimones, and gods, Lamprias has the opportunity to expand on his exhalation theory, locating the agency of prophecy in exhalations from the Earth (Gaia, Apollo's predecessor at Delphi, according to the myth), which act on a natural capacity in souls—now equated with embodied daimones—analogous to memory but directed toward the future. We are back to Lamprias's original differences with Ammonios and to a problem of causality that will not admit of resolution.

The Disappearance of Oracles, like the other dialogues, is best understood as a protreptic piece, seducing the reader or listener into a predisposition to delve deeper into philosophy, particularly speculation about metaphysics and psychology. With its vertiginous scale and unforgettable myth, it responds to the demands we have seen Plutarch make on literature that will serve the young as a propaedeutic to philosophy, incorporating “ideas about souls mixed up with mythology.”

A brief look at two more dialogues, still more ambitious, will indicate how he further implemented this program.


If the dialogue particularly suited Plutarch because it clothes philosophy in the imaginatively engaging trappings of drama, the genre also offered him the opportunity to juxtapose incompatible modes of explanation without sacrificing one to the other. Nowhere is this aspect of his cultivation of the dialogue more apparent than in The Face in the Moon. The subject before the speakers is stated in the title, and although they proceed with characteristically Plutarchan circumambulation, they do in fact address it repeatedly and insistently. Starting from the question of why we see what looks like a face on the lunar disk—our “Old Man in the Moon,” although the Greeks apparently saw a girl's face—they go on to the larger question of which this forms a part: What is the moon? What is it made of, and what keeps it up there in the sky? The striking thing about the answers offered is that they are so nearly equally divided between what we might call science (Face 920-938) and exotic, metaphysical mythmaking (Face 938-943).

The opening of the dialogue seems to be mutilated. There is no indication of where the discussion is taking place, and we are given even less of an account of the interlocutors than we might expect from Plutarch. Particularly elusive is the “I” of the dialogue, who will turn out much later (Face 937d) to be not Plutarch himself but his brother Lamprias. The loss of the opening sentences—perhaps more—leaves us unable to say whether this is another instance of authorial hide-and-seek like the one played out in The Disappearance of Oracles. The opening as we have it immediately directs our attention forward to Sulla the Carthaginian's “story” (mythos), the most elaborate and ambitious of Plutarch's myths, which will clearly be the explicit payoff of the conversation. In other words, the “scientific” portion of the dialogue is bracketed between Sulla's promise of more imaginatively and esthetically rewarding fare and its delivery much later. (Also missing here is some account of the “stranger,” who, we find out belatedly at 942b, was Sulla's source for the fabulous tale.)

The narrative cultivates the tension between rational or scientific explanation on the one hand and sublime storytelling on the other, and out of that tension emerges the richest presentation we have of Plutarch's teleological Platonist cosmology. The myth will take over and prevail, but once again, nothing is lost. There are many ways of apprehending the world and giving an account of it.

The “scientific” portion is a recapitulation, orchestrated by Lamprias, of an earlier conversation, itself apparently dominated by a figure designated only as “our friend” (hetairos). Many readers of the dialogue have claimed to see Plutarch himself lurking behind the anonymity of this distanced, mediated persona. The slippage between ill-defined past and featureless present is constant and serves to throw into relief the arguments themselves (or reports of arguments). The positions of various schools are crystallized around speakers who act as their spokesmen—including an Aristotelian curiously labeled simply “Aristotle” and a Stoic with the exotic Persian (or Pontic) name Pharnaces.

The initial accounts rejected out of hand include a subjectivist one (the “face” is an artifact of glare and our weak vision) as well as a simplistic hypothesis contradicted by the phenomena (the moon is a mirror, the image the reflection of the terrestrial continent with its internal sea and surrounding ocean). This discussion provides a bridge from the issue of the face to the broader one of the nature and substance of the moon. The arguments raised and refuted or endorsed by Lamprias are complex in their claims, sometimes easily shown to lack logical coherence but more often simply inaccessible to any available mode of testing or refutation. As we saw in Chapter 1, Lamprias's principal target is the formulation attributed to the Stoa (Face 921f) that the moon is a mixture of congealed mist and soft fire, maintained in its position by ineluctable laws that draw heavier, solid bodies down to an earth that attracts them by virtue of its centrality in the universe.

Lamprias dismantles this supposed web of necessity piece by piece (Face 924-925), exposing absurd consequences even of some cosmological principles that he apparently embraces (e.g., the sphericity of the earth, 924a-c). His rhetoric becomes vertiginous as he dismisses the notion that an infinite universe has, in any meaningful sense, a center (925e-926b), claiming that such a center would in any case be “an immaterial point,” which by the Stoics' own account could not act or exert force on material things. The orderly Stoic system, intolerant of anomaly, is shown to crumble when confronted by the task of explaining the phenomena. The Stoics have got it backwards. They assert the existence of divine providence (pronoia, 927a), but their claims that everything is as and where it is “according to nature” (kata physin) leave no room for that providence to be active. They should realize that the rational and beneficial order imposed by divine mind (to kata logon) is prior to the merely “natural.” Lamprias deconstructs the notion of nature, along with “natural order, position, or motion” (927d), quickly filling the void with teleology: “Rather, it is when each component makes its contribution usefully and appropriately to that whole for whose sake it has come into existence and in terms of which it develops or is shaped, and when each by its action, reaction, and disposition contributes to the preservation, beauty, or capacities of that whole—that is precisely when it seems to have its “natural” place, motion, and disposition” (Face 927e).

What follows is an exemplary elaboration of the microcosm/macrocosm analogy so dear to Plutarch and other Platonists. Look at man: the fire in his eyes is not up there “naturally,” nor that in his guts situated below “unnaturally.” “Rather, each is located where it is appropriate and useful” (927f; cf. the discussion in Chapter 1). The same is true of the living organism that is the kosmos, where benevolent reason (to kata logon) determines that everything is where it is “because that is the better way” (928b). That is why the solid moon is suspended in the ether between the solid earth and the sun: there is no better place for it to be.

At this point, Lucius takes over to relate how “our friend” explained the relation of the sun's light to the moon, conceding that the issue of the nature and motion of the other celestial bodies is a separate one, from which the problem of the moon can fruitfully be isolated. Throughout this “scientific” discussion the moon again and again turns out to be a tertium quid, belonging neither to this world nor to the more durable and remote realm of the stars. It will be no surprise to see this role transformed in the myth into one of mediation between the unchanging superlunary realm and this sublunary sphere of coming-to-be and passing away. For the present, though, it is enough to show that the moon's phases and eclipses mark it as a solid, earthy thing (Face 930-933). The Stoics are still not ready to give in, and they try to turn this discussion to their advantage (933f) and reassert the fiery nature of the moon, but Lamprias gets the final word, coming full circle back to the relation of the moon's light to the visual ray emitted by the eye. The moon does reflect the sun's light to us, but that light has become featureless, like a reflection in milk rather than water—whether because of the nature of the reflective surface or the nature of the visual ray is a question left unresolved.

Lamprias now demands Sulla's mythos (Face 937c), but the telling of it is again deferred when Theon interjects the question of the habitability of the moon. Lamprias's reply focuses on Theon's false corollary that an uninhabitable moon would be a useless thing, infertile and incapable of supporting human life, and in no sense an “earth” (937d-e). Even such a moon, Lamprias asserts, could mediate between the fiery sun and stars on the one hand and the earth on the other. In any case, we must remain agnostic concerning the habitability of the moon. We have sufficiently established that it is earthy, not fiery—and to deny that it could support life, based on our imperfect knowledge, would be to fail to acknowledge the amazing diversity of life forms and habitable environments right here on earth (940b-c). When Lamprias invokes the sublime perspectives of Homeric cosmology to reinforce the notion that the earth might well appear a Hades or a Tartaros from a lunar perspective, Sulla the Carthaginian intervenes to lay claim to this mode of explanation of lunar phenomena (940f). The transition is carefully orchestrated. The “scientific” discussion has in any case been larded with poetic citations and arguments invoking the poets. This last one carries the dialogue into a new realm, as mediated analytical discourse yields to mediated poetic fiction.

The heart of this fiction, as we shall see, is a discourse on the nature of the moon that Sulla reports as the teaching of a “stranger/foreigner” (ksenos), a devotee of Kronos whom he met in Carthage. The tale that grounds and validates the stranger's claim to privileged knowledge is unforgettable. It is a story set in a fabulous geography of the limits of the world and an account of oracular mediation as beautiful as any in the corpus of Plutarch.

The stranger told Sulla of a population of Greeks, worshipers of Heracles and of Kronos, who live at the limits of the world, somewhere in the vicinity of Britain. The text is lacunose, and much is unclear, perhaps by design. Is the stranger one of those Greeks, or was he a stranger among them as well—as later among the Carthaginians? He joined them, in any case, in an astrologically regulated thirty-year expedition to an oracular shrine in a faraway archipelago associated with Ortygia (Calypso's island in the Odyssey), five thousand stades (more than five hundred miles) from the mainland, across a “congealed” sea. The goal of the delegation is an island where Kronos sleeps deep in a golden cave—this is how Zeus keeps his superseded but immortal father out of mischief—attended by various unidentified daimones. The members of the delegation, themselves “servants of Kronos,” converse with these oracular daimones and study philosophy for the duration of their thirty-year vocation, most (unlike the stranger) choosing to remain on the island when the time is up. The crowning motif in this sublime conceit is the source of the deepest insights of the oracular daimones: they tap and report the dreams of the sleeping Kronos, which in turn are visions of the content of the mind of Zeus (Face 942a).

This is why, Sulla tells Lamprias and the others, they should take seriously the story he is about to retell: its source is those remote servants of Kronos who report the content of his dreams. What remains of the dialogue (942c-945d) is the stranger's account of the moon. The gist of it has already been summarized in Chapter 1: the moon mediates between life and death, between the sublunary realm of birth and decay and the eternal heavens with their “visible gods.” This mediation is obscurely communicated in the story of Demeter and Persephone, the former presiding over the “first death,” when bodies are left behind to decay into the earth, while Persephone receives the souls, still united to mind, into the lunar realm, where the stories about the fate of souls in Hades in fact have their origin. Some souls are excluded, others punished. Some return to earth intact as daimones to preside over oracular and other shrines. The ultimate fate of all the purified dead is nevertheless the same: they leave behind their souls to decay into moon-stuff and ascend as pure mind to union with the sun, into which they are absorbed. There are variants on this scenario. When souls from the lunar realm, already devoid of mind and reason, occasionally escape back to earth and take control of bodies, they become monsters like the Tityus and Typhoeus of myth (945b). The moon can ultimately absorb even these violent spirits, however, and becomes in turn the source of souls for new earthly bodies when the sun provides a spark of mind.

Viewed in this perspective, the three Fates represent the three phases of birth, initiated in the sun by Atropos. Klotho in the lunar realm adds soul to the mind sent by Atropos, and on earth, Lachesis seals the union of spirit and (previously inanimate) matter.

The inanimate is feeble and acted upon from outside, whereas mind is free of outside influence and self-determining—but soul is a mixed, intermediate thing, like the moon, which the god brought into being as a mixture and compound of things from above and things from below, and moon is to sun as earth is to moon.

(Face 945c-d)


The Face in the Moon is an extreme instance of Plutarch's determined program to have his cake and eat it, too. As the metaphor implies, he spends a great deal of time savoring his subject, slicing it up in different ways and nibbling at it. The frosting is the myth, reveling in the pure pleasure of discourse, where the imagination asserts its rights alongside (and, finally, at the expense of) rational, analytical discourse.

We have seen how Plutarch weaves his seductive discourse around matters of theology and physics. In perhaps his most ambitious single work, the dialogue Socrates' Sign, he presents the reader with a yet more complex and eclectic interweaving of philosophy with myth and with history.

Plutarch's other dialogues (The Symposium of the Seven Sages and Gryllus aside) are set in his own era and represent his own intellectual and social world (albeit idealized), his relatives and friends, and sometimes himself. In Socrates' Sign, Plutarch turns back in time to the source of his genre, the dialogues of Plato, and writes as a belated Socratic. The dramatic date of the dialogue, 379 b.c.e., falls twenty years after the death of Socrates—a characteristically ingenious Plutarchan variation on Plato's own distancing of his dialogues. Twenty years after their teacher's death, Socrates' students are seen still trying to figure out what he meant when he spoke of a spirit or sign—a daimonion—that warned him when he was in danger of doing something he should not (Plato, Apology 40a). There is no question now of asking Socrates—although he, unlike the poets whose inspired but uncomprehended utterances are evoked in the Ion and Republic, could presumably have supplied a reasoned, rational answer to such a request. Leaving no mode of apprehension (and its failure) untapped, however, Plutarch does incorporate direct interrogation into his fiction: Simmias, the Theban Pythagorean whom Plutarch borrows from Plato's Phaedo, did in fact put the question to Socrates, over twenty years ago, only to be met with silence (Socrates' Sign 588c). So now, older and convalescent, Simmias and others who knew or knew of Socrates can only try to reconstruct what his answer to that question might have been, had he chosen to give one. That the dramatic date of the dialogue is nearly a half millennium in the past, from Plutarch's perspective, is also significant. Plutarch's dialogue takes on qualities of a historical novel that marks its distance from its models.

The question of the nature of Socrates' daimonion was one whose time had arrived. In an age when demonology was of intellectual and literary interest, we have treatments of the same subject from two more philosopher-rhetors of Plutarch's stamp—Maximus of Tyre and Apuleius—within a generation or so of Plutarch's death. Plutarch's version, however, mixing praise of famous Thebans with the dramatized inquiry (itself a pretext for unlawful and conspiratorial assembly) is unique. He narrated the same historical moment—the liberation of Thebes from an occupying Spartan garrison in December 379—rather differently in Pelopidas, and no doubt in the lost Epaminondas as well, but here, dramatized and elaborated with a myth in the manner of Heraclides, these events provide the vivid and heroic context for the inquiry. The result is, admittedly, something of a two-ring circus, with history and the present repeatedly impinging on philosophy and the interrogation of the past.

Socrates' Sign is a dialogue framed within a dialogue, much like its principal model, Plato's Phaedo. The framing narrative is set in Athens, presumably in the house of the pre-Boeotian Archedamos (Socrates' Sign 575d), where a group of prominent Athenians provide the audience for a narrative of recent events in Thebes, delivered by a Theban ambassador named Caphisias, said to be a brother of Epaminondas but otherwise unknown. What this audience wants to hear about is, presumably, the events themselves, although Archedamos insists that they will relish “the specifics” (ta kath'hekasta, 575c), and Caphisias warns them from the start that an account of both the deeds and the discussions (prakseis kai logoi, 575e) will not be short.

Why, indeed, juxtapose these disparate sorts of information at all? We have seen Plutarch the educator, philosopher, and scholar repeatedly singing the praises of the active life, and we have noticed the tension between that commitment and the life he in fact led. In this unique dialogue, Plutarch comes as close as he ever does to confronting that paradox. History invades and interrupts philosophy as deliberately and discordantly as farce invades opera seria in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos—the esthetic gain lies in the outrageousness of the juxtaposition, in the sheer daring of forcing the two genres into the same space. But there is something more. The assembled Athenian aristocrats who listen, with patient fascination with detail, to this mix of history and ideas mirror the Theban aristocrats, assembled in Simmias's house a few weeks or months earlier, on the evening of the coup. Collectively, these groups—simultaneously men of action and intellectuals—represent a genuine Plutarchan ideal. The world in which they are the ones in control, who steer their cities on paths mapped out by philosophy, is one that by Plutarch's standards is a well-ordered world. That it finds its richest expression in a relentlessly literary and self-referential dialogue retrojected half a millennium into the past is a strong indication of Plutarch's relation to his own historical present and to that ideal.

Even if the events leading up to that evening in December 379 were familiar to Caphisias's audience, they are unlikely to be known to Plutarch's modern readers. The ancient sources, aside from Plutarch himself, are Xenophon (a contemporary) and Cornelius Nepos and Diodorus Siculus centuries later. Archedamos does provide Caphisias (and so the reader) with a general outline of what the Athenians know of recent events in Thebes (Socrates' Sign 575f-576b), and Caphisias's account contains a few references to the background of the situation on the night he re-creates for his listeners. Briefly, in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, the Thebans joined Argos and Corinth, all disillusioned Spartan allies, and along with the Athenians went to war against Sparta. This is known as the Corinthian War (395-386 b.c.e.), and in its aftermath the victorious Spartans burdened their fractious onetime ally with an occupying Spartan garrison and a pro-Spartan oligarchy (in 382). Many prominent Thebans went into exile, some of them to Athens. In December 379, on the day Caphisias describes, a conspiracy of some thirty Thebans (Socrates' Sign 586c), along with the returning exiles, killed the oligarchs and some of their associates. Then Epaminondas, who had refused to participate in the killing of the oligarchs because they were fellow citizens, led a victorious army to drive the garrison from the citadel. It was eight years later that the same Epaminondas defeated a Spartan army at Leuctra (371) and effectively put an end to Spartan military dominance in Greece.

Within the dialogue, Epaminondas is the figure who comes closest to uniting the threads of philosophy and military-political action. His refusal to kill countrymen without trial—even quislings—is three times at issue, first when Caphisias defends his brother's position (Socrates' Sign 576d-577a), later, implicitly, when Epaminondas himself holds forth in Socratic fashion on the subject of profiting from injustice (585b-d), and finally when the crisis is at hand (594b-c). But for the most part, the philosopher-conspirators talk of matters remote from the present situation while events draw them into the thick of history.

As if the plot were not sufficiently cluttered, much of Caphisias's narrative concerns a Pythagorean from Italy named Theanor, who has chosen this particular day to arrive in Thebes to collect the bones of a Pythagorean teacher named Lysis and to offer Epaminondas money to compensate for the costs of Lysis's support during his old age. It is the report of this stranger's arrival and incubation at Lysis's grave in search of a divine sign that ushers in the issue of Socrates' daimonion. Galaxidoros, an admirer of Socrates, reacts to the news of the incubation with a tirade against superstition (deisidaimonia) and pompous obscurantism (typhos, 579f). When accused of lending credence to the charges of impiety that the Athenians brought against Socrates, he responds with a eulogy that says a great deal about Socrates' position in the history of philosophy:

[Socrates did not dismiss] the truly divine, but philosophy as it came to him from Pythagoras and his followers was full of phantoms and fables and superstitions, and Empedocles in particular had left it babbling ecstatically. Socrates taught philosophy wisdom in the face of the facts and taught it to go after the truth with sober reason.

(Socrates' Sign 580c)

Galaxidoros's portrait of Socrates the rationalist is vulnerable on one point, the daimonion. Theocritos—described as a “seer” (mantis) both here (595f) and in Pelopidas 22 and portrayed below as a dubious, if correct, dream interpreter—jumps on this, calling on first-person reminiscences. Theocritos was present one day when the sign stopped Socrates in his tracks, and those present who foolishly went on ahead were met by a herd of pigs that left them covered with mud and excrement (borboros, 580f). This starts the debate, and Galaxidoros counters that the “sign” had no supernatural power, but, like an ominous sneeze, allowed Socrates to arbitrarily resolve equally balanced dilemmas. Polymnis, the father of Epaminondas and Caphisias, intervenes with the claim (supported by second-hand anecdote) that Socrates' daimonion was, in fact, a sneeze—that it was sneezes that Socrates took as warnings and guides—but Polymnis himself is reluctant to give credence to the story, because Socrates is said often to have proved prescient. Further, why would the unpretentious, straightforward Socrates indulge in the pompous theatricality of calling a sneeze a daimonion? Simmias, whose firsthand knowledge of Socrates should throw light on the issue, is about to speak when Epaminondas and the Italian Pythagorean enter, and the topic is dropped (582c-d).

Meanwhile, tension is growing in the tangled plot of the conspiracy. There is fear of exposure. Alarmed by an ominous dream, one Hippostheneidas has taken it upon himself to send a messenger to the exiles nearby on Mt. Cithaeron to warn them to delay their return (586c). This report of a rash action that threatened the success of the coup will turn out to have been a false alarm—the messenger never set out because his wife had lent out an essential part of his harness (587f). It is at this point that Theocritos jumps in to counter Hippostheneidas's interpretation of his own dream and turn it into a divine promise of victory. Predictive dreams, it seems, are at best ambiguous, like sneezes.

Caphisias and Theocritos are at last able to join in the discussion of the sign, although they arrive too late to hear Simmias's response to Galaxidoros (Socrates' Sign 588b). It is at this point that we learn of Socrates' refusal to answer Simmias on the matter, along with Simmias's testimony that Socrates considered claims to have seen divine beings false and outrageous, but took reports of divine voices seriously (588c). Simmias goes on to elaborate a theory of telepathic communication—transmission of thought freed not only from the organs of speech but from grammar itself—from divinities to exceptionally receptive humans (588d-589f)—and presents this as the Socratics' own understanding of Socrates' daimonion when Socrates was still alive.

This is as close as we will get to a privileged solution to the principal question that gives the dialogue its title, but Simmias doubles that solution with a “story” (mythos, 589f, 592f), explicitly its complement: “first the reasoned account, then the story” (592f). He coyly allows Theocritos to coax him into telling it: “Even if it is not the most exact way, still myth has its way of getting at the truth” (589f).

Timarchos, Simmias explains, was a young Socratic who predeceased Socrates. This fictional young man from Chaeronea (Socrates' Sign 589f), whose name is modeled on and echoes that of Plutarch himself, is one of this author's oddest disguises. Mimicking Chaerophon's trip to Delphi to ask about Socrates' wisdom (Apology 21a), young Timarchos went to the oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia to ask about his daimonion.

On this bizarre Boeotian oracle—Timarchos (or Ploutarchos) would have had to travel less than an hour from home to reach it—we have little beyond this wonderful account, supplemented by that of Pausanias, perhaps fifty years later. Pausanias, whose narrative is hardly less fabulous than Plutarch's myth, insists that he writes from personal experience, having himself consulted the oracle (Pausanias 9.39.14). Despite some naive or rash claims in the literature, the shrine itself continues to elude archaeologists. Plutarch's “story” of Timarchos's visit to the oracle has already been cited and paraphrased at length in Chapter 1. It is the most disorienting and vertiginous of Plutarch's soul-myths and perhaps the best example of a rhetorical mode we might call the Plutarchan sublime.

Timarchos, once he has entered the subterranean shrine and embarked on his hallucinatory journey of discovery, understandably seems to forget the question he came to ask and, in response to the disembodied voice that greets him, can only say that he wants to find out about “everything” (591a). He gets his answer anyway, spontaneous and unsummoned. The daimones are the little flames of mind-stuff of his vision, the rational or higher soul that is part of—or attached to—each of us. We either drag them down into the abyss of matter—the Styx—or they raise us up to the moon and beyond, out of the cycle of generation. The significant difference among humans is one of sensitivity—degree of docility in the hands of our little bit of mind-stuff. Although Socrates is not mentioned, we are left to conclude that he was one of the exceptionally receptive, the exceptionally docile.

The answer to the dialogue's question has been distanced from any possible human apprehension in multiple ways: by deliberate silence, by death, and by history. This does not prevent its being formulated in a variety of rhetorics, from the ironic (Galaxidoros and the sneeze) to psychological (Socrates used his intellect) to the theological (the intellect itself is divine). It is Theanor the Pythagorean who speaks up when Simmias has finished his story. Theanor calls attention to the silence of Epaminondas, as if to defer to him (as a student of Lysis and fellow Pythagorean), but that silence remains unbroken. Undaunted, Theanor picks up the theological rhetoric of the myth and delivers a stream of inflated, groundless, soteriological bombast that exemplifies everything Galaxidoros said earlier about the damage that Pythagoras had done to philosophy. This is met by a wonderfully bathetic silence and a return to the world of action. Epaminondas says nothing in response to Theanor, but turns to his brother, the narrator, and says, “It's about time for you to go and join your friends in the gymnasium” (Socrates' Sign 594a).

Socrates, daimones, and souls receive no further mention. Caphisias narrates the comings and goings of the conspirators—who begin in the palaestra by exchanging information and plans as they wrestle, one after the other, with different partners. The gymnasium joins the philosophical thiasos in the list of aristocratic institutions that lend themselves to conspiracy and political action. The plot is executed, the oligarchs killed, the garrison removed.

Once again, with a different emphasis and in a different genre, Plutarch's concern has proven to be the interaction of character, intellect, chance, and history. Intellectually, the dialogue concerns itself with foreknowledge and with the nature of judgment. History, as it impinges on the discussion, is riddled with signs, true and false, and their interpreters, as well as plans that go awry and plans that succeed. The difference is something as liminal as a sneeze, or as imponderable as divine providence.


In the following …, the reader is often referred to specific passages in the corpus of Plutarch's works. Appendix 1 shows the complexity of the matter. References to the forty-eight surviving Parallel Lives are to title and section—for example, Numa 10. Any abbreviation that is not immediately clear may be sought in Appendix 1, part I.

The traditional sections (or chapters) of the Lives are respected and uniformly numbered in all editions of the Greek text and in most translations, providing a convenient system of reference that is not dependent on the pagination of a specific edition or translation. The Moralia in their diversity present even greater difficulties, solved here by the use of a title (in italics) or short title (in quotation marks) followed by page and section of the Frankfurt edition of 1599 (see Appendix 1, part II). All editions of the Greek text (as well as the Loeb translation, facing the Greek) mark these divisions, and Appendix 1, supplemented by the index, will serve as a guide.

Not all translations will provide the reader with the necessary information for locating a given reference by this system. Parenthetical numbers after Moralia titles that do not include both number and letter (as in “Oracles” 408c) designate sections of the composite pieces (e.g., Table Talk 4.6 refers to book 4, question 6). These references should be self-explanatory when the work in question is consulted.

The small number of other works, both ancient and modern, to which reference is made in the text are identified briefly in parentheses. The following standard abbreviations are used.

  • CIG A. Boeckh. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum. Berlin, 1828-38.
  • DK H. Diels and W. Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. 6th ed. Berlin, 1961.
  • FGrHist F. Jacoby. Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker. Berlin (later Leiden), 1923-.
  • Il. Iliad
  • Od. Odyssey

Further Reading

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Barrow, R. H. “The Roman Questions: The Greek Questions.” In Plutarch and His Times, pp. 66-70. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Examines these two major works from the Moralia.

Eyben, E. “Children in Plutarch.” In Plutarchea Lovaniensia: A Miscellany of Essays on Plutarch, edited by Luc Van Der Stockt, pp. 79-112. Belgium: Lovanii, 1996.

Explores what can be gleaned from Plutarch regarding the physiological, psychological, and mental development of children.

Howard, Martha Walling. “The Influence of Plutarch in the Major European Literatures of the Eighteenth Century.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Maryland, 1967, 317 p.

Examines ways in which major eighteenth-century writers in France, England, Germany, and Italy demonstrate their familiarity with and use Plutrach's Lives and Moralia in their own work.

Jones, Roger Miller. The Platonism of Plutarch. Menasha, Wis.: George Banta Publishing Company, 1916, 153 p.

Considers the influence of Plato's ideas on Plutarch's works.

McJannet, Linda. “Antony and Alexander: Imperial Politics in Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Some Modern Historical Texts.” College Literature 20, no. 3 (October 1993): 1-18.

Examines Plutarch's approach to Mark Antony, noting that it invites comparisons to Alexander the Great.

Additional coverage of Plutarch's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Ancient Writers, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Biography, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; and Twayne's World Authors.

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