Parallel Lives

by Plutarch

December 21st, 2009

This book is one of the great classics of Western literature. From 1600 until about 1930, if you hadn't read Plutarch's Lives, you weren't educated. Many students read it in the original Greek; many more read it in translation. It had a huge impact on Western civilization. Shakespeare, for example, based most of his classical times plays on Plutarch. There's a famous moment in Julius Caesar where Caesar, on his way to his assassination, encounters a soothsayer who earlier had warned him, "Beware the Ides of March". Caesar chides the soothsayer, saying "The Ides of March are come". The soothsayer replies, "Aye, Caesar, but not gone". That's taken almost word for word out of Plutarch.

Plutarch set himself an ambitious goal in writing the book. He wrote biographies of 50 of the greatest men of antiquity, going as far back as Romulus and Remus, who tradition holds to have lived around 750 BCE and ending in 69 CE with the death of Otho. From modern times, this might not seem like such a feat, but remember, Plutarch was writing around 100 CE, more than 800 years after his first subject died. What if you tried to write a biography of the 50 most notable men of Western civilization, starting 800 years ago in 1200 CE? His biographies are detailed and extensive; Plutarch must have researched a massive amount of documentation in writing these biographies. He even included Artaxerxes, a Persian king.

One of Plutarch's most striking innovations was the drawing of comparisons between a number of paired biographies. He always compared a Greek with a Roman, showing how their careers followed similar trajectories, and how they both boasted the same strengths or suffered from the same weaknesses. His emphasis was on making a moral comparison of their characters. Thus, Alexander suffer from too much pride and a hot temper; Cicero's weakness was his inability to curb his wicked sense of humor, which antagonized everybody around him. For example, on one occasion, Caesar sent a decree to the Senate for approval. The decree distributed land in Campagnia to his soldiers, and Cicero supported it. Lucius Gellius, a very old senator, opposed the decree, declaring that, so long as he lived, he would not permit it. "Let us wait, then," Cicero cracked, "since Gellius does not ask much of a postponement." Cicero's best rejoinder, however, came when an opponent claimed that he had ruined more people as a witness than he had saved as a lawyer. "I admit it", Cicero responded, "It just shows that people have more confidence in my integrity than in my eloquence."

How accurate are these biographies? Modern historians tend to sniff at Plutarch, because he was concerned with moral lessons rather than objective history. I grant that this reduces his value to their work, but I see nothing wrong with writing biographies that demonstrate moral lessons. After all, the ultimate purpose of history is to provide us with a database of knowledge of past mistakes, and to guide us away from repeating those mistakes. As to the question of his accuracy, I concede that we cannot ascribe the kind of hard accuracy that we would prefer to have -- but here we must keep in mind that Plutarch based all his work on other literary sources. When he wrote his biographies, there were no living witnesses to the events he described (except for the last two biographies); everything had to be gleaned from previous writings. Plutarch could only be as accurate as his sources. There's no question that he consulted many works in his research; he ofttimes mentions that his sources disagree. Thus, Plutarch demonstrated a sensitivity to the problems of obtaining accurate information. We have no reason to reject his representations, except perhaps where other sources conflict with his version.

One surprising realization for me was just how thuggish the Roman Republic really was. We tend to think of the Senate deliberating over eloquent orations, but the realities of Roman democracy were truly ugly. Each major politician had his own private army of thugs ready to murder inconvenient people or fight street battles. It was not uncommon for people to be murdered upon approaching or leaving the Senate. Outright vote-buying was rampant, and indirect vote-buying through largesse was business as usual. Visualize Roman politics as if it were run by Mafia families, each with its own capo, rubbing out each other's soldiers, controlling their own territories, providing support and favors for clients, and using the government to enrich themselves. That's what the Republic was like -- and it's one reason why the early Empire was more stable and less venal. With one Godfather to rule all the others, everything ran more smoothly.

Another surprise for me was the degree to which superstition ruled the Romans (although the Greeks showed less susceptibility to it). The pages of Plutarch bristle with mentions of actions being delayed because of inauspicious portents, armies being demoralized or stoked up by birds flying one way or the other, leaders taking great care to carry out the proper sacrifices at the proper times -- what a list! Here's a sample, from the biography of Sulla:

There were many supernatural warnings of what was to come. Fire broke out of its own accord from under the staves of the ensigns, and was only got under control with great difficulty. Three ravens brought their young out into the road and after eating most of them, carried back the remains to their nest; mice gnawed at some consecrated gold in a temple, and when a keeper caught one of them, a female, in a trap, she gave birth in the trap itself to five young, and ate up three of them. But the most striking phenomenon of all was when the sound of a trumpet rang out from a perfectly clear and cloudless sky with a shrill, prolonged, and dismal note so loud that people were driven half crazy with terror.

I have been reading Plutarch for years. I started off with some of the Penguin classic paperbacks, but these present only selected biographys, and exclude Plutarch's comparisons. Eventually I decided to buy the whole thing. I found a set on eBay that wasn't too expensive. A 1907 edition, five volumes in all. I started at the beginning, plowing through it chapter by bloody chapter. At some point I realized that I was re-reading material that I had already read in the Penguin edition, so I started skipping around. I can't be certain that I've read every last biography, but I am pretty sure that I've read more than 50 biographies. The problem with the full edition is that it is based on an old translation by Dryden, updated somewhat in language by Clough. But it's still pretty stilted English. Consider this monstrosity of a sentence from the Clough edition:

Cicero, whose story I am writing, is said to have replied with some spirit to some friends, who recommended him to lay aside or change the name when he first stood for office and engaged in politics, that he would make it his endeavor to render the name of Cicero more glorious than that of the Scauri and Catuli.

Here's the same sentence in the modern translation:

Certainly Cicero himself, whose life I am now writing, is said to have given a spirited reply when he first entered politics and stood for office, and his friends thought that he ought either to drop or change his name. He said he was going to do his best to make the name of Cicero more famous than such names as Scaurus and Catalus.

I think I deserve a Scholar's Purple Heart for slogging through five volumes of the Clough version.