Ten Famous Lives Critical Essays



(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

At the very beginning of the Life of Alexander the Great (in a passage not included by Robinson in Ten Famous Lives), Plutarch summarizes the principles that he used in composing his biographies: His goal was to provide not a full account of every incident in the lives of his subjects but rather a few details that would give his readers insight into his subjects’ characters. Plutarch was always mindful that he was writing biographies (bioi), not histories (historiai). Thus, the great sieges or most dramatic battles of a period may not even be included in his profiles unless they provide insight into the personalities of the individuals involved. It is important to keep this principle in mind when reading Ten Famous Lives. Plutarch hoped that his work would enable readers to understand the forces that motivated his subjects and to be inspired by the great deeds of the past.

Because of this intention, Plutarch has adopted a highly didactic tone throughout the lives. He wanted to present his subjects as moral exemplars whose nobility of purpose was worthy of imitation. In Plutarch’s account, therefore, Demosthenes is presented as exemplifying the steadfast defender of liberty, Fabius as providing wise restraint against the impatience of others, and Cato as representing the sturdy values of the early Roman Republic. The writings of other ancient historians make it clear that the truth was rarely this simple: Demosthenes and Fabius were seen by many of their contemporaries as weak and ineffective, with Cato as an obstinate reactionary. Robinson’s editing actually intensifies the moral focus of Plutarch’s...

(The entire section is 680 words.)