Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
The book that is known to the modern world as Plutarch’s Lives originated as three or more separate works written by Plutarch, an ancient Greek philosopher, priest, and essayist who lived during the early years of the Roman Empire. Fifty of Plutarch’s biographical portraits currently survive, forty-six of which are...
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- Critical Essays
The book that is known to the modern world as Plutarch’s Lives originated as three or more separate works written by Plutarch, an ancient Greek philosopher, priest, and essayist who lived during the early years of the Roman Empire. Fifty of Plutarch’s biographical portraits currently survive, forty-six of which are taken from the work known as the Parallel Lives. The Parallel Lives were brief biographies of twenty-three important Greeks paired with twenty-three important Romans who were regarded by Plutarch as similar to the Greeks in character, fortune, or achievement. For example, he paired the orators Demosthenes and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the conquerors Alexander the Great and Gaius Julius Caesar, and the generals Pericles and Quintus Fabius Maximus. Nineteen of Plutarch’s essays comparing the Greek figures to their Roman counterparts have survived; four sets of Plutarch’s paired lives, including those of Alexander and Caesar, lack comparative essays.
Charles A. Robinson, Jr.’s 1962 edition of Plutarch, with the title Ten Famous Lives, results from a long history of translating and adapting these essays. In 1683, the English poet, dramatist, and critic John Dryden lent his name to a translation of all fifty of Plutarch’s Lives. Dryden’s work on this project was largely that of editor, few of the biographies being translated by Dryden himself. This “Dryden translation” was to remain the most popular English edition of Plutarch for more than two hundred years. In 1908, Dryden’s edition of Plutarch was updated into more contemporary English by the poet Arthur Hugh Clough. (Unabridged editions of the Clough translation are still widely available; they may be found, for example, in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World series.) Finally, Robinson selected ten lives from the Clough revision, heavily abridged and edited them for young readers, and published these biographies under the title Ten Famous Lives.
Rather than using Plutarch’s original arrangement of paired lives, Robinson places the biographies in Ten Famous Lives in a strict chronology. For this reason, all five Greek biographies precede their Roman counterparts. Of Plutarch’s comparative essays, only the discussion of Demosthenes and Cicero has been included in Robinson’s edition. Moreover, in addition to simplifying the language of the Dryden and Clough translations, Robinson also shortens the essays to about one-tenth of their original length. Robinson’s goal, as stated in the book’s introduction, is “that this presentation of what may fairly be claimed as the cream of Plutarch will inspire” young adults to read the complete text of Plutarch’s Lives.