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If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect.
—Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote comparative lives of noble Greeks and Romans such as Pericles and Fabius, Demosthenes and Cicero, and Alexander and Caesar. He chose his subjects not for the greatness and interest of their careers so much as for the sake of the moral qualities revealed by the collision of formidable characters and powerful events. Fortunate himself to live at the dawn of the era Gibbon considered the happiest in human history, Plutarch took full advantage of the learning of his and past ages as well as his experience in public life to discover that which constitutes the best in a human being, and which, in turn, determines a person’s role in the world. The subjects he chose as his examples live on memorably in his vivid narratives and strongly stated judgments. More than any other author from antiquity, Plutarch defined for all subsequent ages the character of Greek and Roman moral identity.
Ironically, we can recover the life of this most famous of biographers almost only from incidental references in his voluminous writings. For example, because he mentions that he was a young man when Nero visited Greece in 67 CE, Plutarch must have been born in the 40s CE. He came from a wealthy leading family in the small city of Chaeronea in Central Greece, famous not only for its biographer but also as the battlefield where Alexander’s father, Philip, defeated the Greeks in 338 BCE and where the Roman general Sulla defeated the eastern monarch Mithridates VI in 86 BCE. Plutarch reports that relics of Sulla’s battle continued to surface in the fields for two hundred years afterward, which means he was still alive in the 110s CE. Inscriptional evidence from Delphi, where he served as one of the two priests for life at the beginning of the sanctuary’s second-century revival, suggests that he died before 125 CE. We meet several members of his family in his writings. His brother, father, grandfather (the witty, cultured Lamprias), and sons participate in some of the dialogs in the sprawling collection of essays called the Moralia, and he addressed the most touching of his essays, Consolation, to his wife, Timoxena, on the death of their daughter. Sympathetic to marriage, children, and women, Plutarch expected women to be literate and interested in philosophy. Proud of his origins even while he recognized their provinciality (see the opening of Demosthenes), he remained a lifelong resident of Chaeronea and held several municipal and regional offices. The people of Delphi and Chaeronea joined to honor Plutarch by setting up a statue of him in Delphi.
Plutarch also studied in Athens and traveled widely through Greece and the empire, from Alexandria to Rome. He had many friends in high positions within the imperial government, including Quintus Sosius Senecio, twice consul and dedicatee of several of the Lives, and Lucius Mestrius Florus, who evidently arranged for Plutarch to receive Roman citizenship; in gratitude Plutarch assumed the Romanized name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus. Plutarch’s interest in education has led many to believe he ran a school in Chaeronea, but there is little evidence for anything but widely ranging discussion at informal gatherings.
Plutarch lived at the beginning of the period Gibbon considered the most felicitous in human history. But, ironically, he grew up during the reign of Nero and lived through the calamitous eighteen months of civil war following it—the two surviving of Plutarch’s Lives of the emperors from Augustus to Vitellius belong to this period. He also experienced the catastrophic year 79–80 when Vesuvius erupted, plague decimated the empire, fire swept Rome, and when he saw his friends suffer under the harsh rule of Domitian (81–96). While the Romans enjoyed unprecedented peace and stability in the following half century, they knew how easily bad days could return: as Gibbon observed, so much depended on the quality of the man who ruled the empire—and so the writers of the period weighed carefully the character of their rulers. Arnoldo Momigliano noted with appreciation the independence of the biographers of Plutarch’s age: neither Tacitus, Suetonius, nor Plutarch became servants of imperial propaganda; rather they kept the emperors human.
Although he focused on individual lives and individuals’ characters in his writings, Plutarch offered some comments on the larger world; several of the essays, notably Precepts on Statecraft, treat the Roman context explicitly. The Roman Empire functioned not by coercing its subjects but by co-opting local elites, giving them responsibility for ensuring good order at the local level in return for keeping them in their positions of privilege. Plutarch believed that he lived in a world not only of security but also of considerable liberty—which meant that those naturally suited to rule by virtue of wealth and birth had the freedom to control their cities without external interference. Liberty emphatically did not mean democracy, a system Plutarch attacked repeatedly in his writings: in his view, a democracy represents a city where the wise speak but fools decide. Notably, Flamininus’ proclamation of Greek liberty at the end of the Second Macedonian War in 196 BCE constitutes the climax of his life, Sulla’s liberation of Athens from Mithridates offsets his sack of the city in 86 BCE, and Nero’s gesture in freeing the Greeks in 67 CE redeems the otherwise monstrous emperor. But Emperor Vespasian (69–79 CE) revoked Nero’s grant, and Plutarch spent all his adult life as a subject and then citizen of Rome.
Plutarch had no illusions about any possibility of the Greeks recovering their ancient liberty. Instead, Plutarch insisted, the role of Greek leaders was to lead free men within the empire, ensure local order and cooperation among local elites and with the imperial authorities, and to strike a balance between the independence that might occasion intervention by the imperial authorities and excessive dependency that might annoy them. The glories of ancient Greece that fill the Greek Lives serve as background to the analysis of the characters of her heroes, not inspiration for revolutionary activity.
If the Lives furnishes any advice for the contemporary statesman, it comes perhaps in Phocion, where Plutarch compares the duty of the statesman to the sun’s gentle declination, dispensing “his light and influence, in his annual revolution, at several seasons in just proportions to the whole creation.” The ruler, by turns, must favor the people, but also hold them in check. “But if such a blessed mixture and temperament may be obtained, it seems to be of all concords and harmonies the most concordant and most harmonious. For thus we are taught even God governs the world, not by irresistible force, but persuasive argument and reason, controlling it into compliance with his eternal purposes.”
Plutarch goes on to insist that the Greek statesman should not look beyond Greek politics by pursing positions within the imperial administration. Romans had long developed friendships with Greeks, but only in the second century do we find the Greeks on the verge of the period when they, like other non-Italians, could attain positions of power in the Roman order and not limit themselves to the role of learned Greeks advising Romans. Plutarch himself became the acquaintance of many powerful Romans who attended his lectures and discussions, but except for the grant of citizenship and, possibly, consular honors, he did not appear to have taken advantage of those connections in any way beyond the pleasure of cultivated company. Plutarch’s own rather modest political career therefore constitutes a model for how the Greek statesman should work within the empire.
One wonders why Plutarch paired Greeks and Romans in his Parallel Lives. D. A. Russell argued it was to demonstrate the “parity and partnership of Greece and Rome, each with its contribution to make towards the development of political virtue,” and to show how the humanity (philanthropia) that Greek moral education inculcated could modify Roman destructiveness. Others have seen in his project a reflection of the insecurity of the Greeks who wanted to equal the Romans on their terms—military and political greatness—rather than in the Greek sphere where the Romans acknowledged their inferiority: art and literature; thus Plutarch strove to prove the Greeks real men and the Romans civilized and not barbarian. C. P. Jones showed in Plutarch and Rome that this supposed diplomatic purpose never appears in the Lives. The very arrangement of the lives belies such a plan: it is haphazard, accidental, and dependent on chance just as much as life itself—the sort of arrangement that can serve a study of morality in human life, not an argument about culture. Plutarch did not need to build a bridge between Greeks and Romans; the bridge already existed, well integrating Greece into the Roman order. Plutarch, Jones said, was both “Greek, in that he saw himself as a Greek by birth and language, Roman, in that his interests and sympathies are bound up with the empire.” Robert Lamberton argued that Plutarch actually helped create the Athenocentric interpretation of Greek culture that influenced Hadrian’s program to elevate Athens to a position analogous to Rome’s: “Plutarch’s Parallel Lives constitute the principal document in the high empire’s reinvention of Classical Greece.” Plutarch’s way of interpreting Greece and Rome proved so powerful that his became the standard way of understanding antiquity—as opposed to, say, the Virgilian model in which Rome prevails in law and government, Greece in arts and literature. The lives of the mythical heroes Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa, for whom limited information enabled considerable flexibility on Plutarch’s part, above all show the biographer’s interest in elevating Greece into Rome’s sphere of action: these lives really compare Athens and Rome and Greek and Roman institutions, not individuals.
Still, Plutarch’s own stated purpose did not involve the elucidation of themes of cultural difference or liberty; morality constituted his primary interest, and he used great lives to reveal great character. Perhaps we should see Plutarch’s biographical choices as the product not so much of a great Greco-Roman cultural project but rather as an exploration of character in those who most strongly demonstrated powerful moral qualities: the insatiable ambition of Marius, the pitiless inhumanity of Sulla, the sublime excessiveness of Alexander, the sheer power-hunger of Caesar, the futile idealism of the younger Cato, the charismatic immorality of Alcibiades, the uxorious helplessness of Antony, the impressive fairness of Aristides, the inhumane self-righteousness of Cato the Elder, the embarrassing self-importance of Cicero, the baffling bad luck of Sertorius. These biographical choices will be explored in the introduction to volume 2. Here we shall consider the lasting influence of Plutarch.
The last generation of scholars has credited Plutarch with great originality and creativity as he pursued his intellectual and moral projects. Earlier scholars, however, considered his work important not in itself, but for the way it transmitted antiquity to later generations. And indeed, no one can deny the fact that already in his own lifetime Plutarch’s readers derived their understanding of their Greco-Roman past largely through his eyes. The Parallel Lives became an instant classic, widely quoted and excerpted in antiquity. The Byzantine scholar Planudes collected and edited all the Plutarchan manuscripts he could find about 1300. The Lives saw their first translations in the fourteenth (into Aragonese and Tuscan) and fifteenth (into Latin) centuries, often for political motives. Thus Bruni, interested in the Republican origins of Florence, translated the life of the last Republican, Cato the Younger; the Venetians, in contrast, interested in the maritime East, preferred the Athenian general Phocion. The sixteenth century saw many vernacular translations—even Queen Elizabeth translated one of the essays into English—but pride of place goes to Amyot’s French translation (Lives in 1559, Moralia in 1572), which itself served as the source for Thomas North’s translation of the Lives (1579, with new editions in 1595 and 1603) into the English version Shakespeare knew, as did most English-speaking readers until the version edited by Dryden appeared a century later.
Thus the Plutarchan view of antiquity persisted through the end of the Roman Empire and was revived in the Renaissance and Early Modern Period when Shakespeare drew on his writings as his source for the Roman tragedies and Montesquieu proclaimed Plutarch “my man.” After the heroic age of Rousseau and Franklin, Plutarch went into decline on account of what seemed excessive moralizing and unthinking borrowing of earlier authors; nevertheless, he has continued to impart political wisdom to statesmen such as Harry Truman and Eugene McCarthy as well as memorable vignettes of Greek and Roman history to undergraduate students.
John Dryden (1631–1700) himself contributed only an essay on the life of Plutarch to the great translation of the Parallel Lives that bears his name. Nevertheless, Dryden deserves credit for soliciting translations of the individual lives, editing them, and arranging for their publication by Jacob Tonson in five volumes from 1683 to 1686 (second edition in 1688, third in 1693). Arthur Sherbo has shown that in the last two decades of his life Dryden assembled a team of gentlemen, many of whom he knew from his days at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he first read Plutarch in the mid-1600s. They contributed original poetry as well as translations from the classics for a series of books (most of them proceeding from Tonson’s press) from 1680 to 1711. Dryden’s innovative thinking about the craft of translation appeared in the preface to the first of the series, Ovid’s Epistles (1680), where he distinguished among close translation (metaphrase), free translation strictly preserving the sense of the original (paraphrase), and a substantially new composition in the style of the original but using its sense only as a starting point for new ideas (imitation). In the preface to another of these collaborative works, Sylvae (1685), Dryden characterized his translations of the sentiments of an ancient author: “if he were living, and an Englishman, they are such, as he wou’d probably have written.” Dryden preferred Plutarch’s sentiment to his “roughness of expression . . . . Yet, for manliness of eloquence, if it abounded not in our author, it was not wanting in him. He neither studied the sublime style, nor affected the flowery."
A. H. Clough revised the Dryden translation in the nineteenth century, rendering the version most accessible today. In the twentieth century the Loeb edition, with its facing Greek text and modern English translation, also enjoys wide use, and exclusively so for the Moralia. Otherwise we have English translations only of individual lives removed from their parallel setting into collections meant for history classes treating various periods of Greece and Rome. Although useful in such courses, treating the lives individually destroys the effect Plutarch aimed at in his comparative, ethical approach. We shall turn to this aspect of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the introduction to volume 2.
Clayton Miles Lehmann teaches history at the University of South Dakota. He has published widely on various topics in Greek and Roman history and archaeology.