Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives, is a series of 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. The surviving Parallel Lives (Greek: Βίοι Παράλληλοι, Bíoi Parállēloi) comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman of similar destiny, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes and Cicero. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.
As he explains in the first paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with writing histories, but with exploring the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of famous men. He wished to prove that the more remote past of Greece could show its men of action and achievement as well as the nearer, and therefore more impressive, past of Rome. His interest was primarily ethical, although the lives have significant historical value as well. The Lives was published by Plutarch late in his life after his return to Chaeronea and, if one may judge from the long lists of authorities given, it must have taken many years to compile.
The chief manuscripts of the Lives date from the 10th and 11th centuries, and the first printed edition appeared in Rome in 1470. Thomas North's 1579 English translation was an important source-material for Shakespeare. Jacob Tonson printed several editions of the Lives in English in the late 17th century, beginning with a five-volume set printed in 1688, with subsequent editions printed in 1693, 1702, 1716, and 1727. The most generally accepted text is that of the minor edition of Carl Sintenis in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana (five volumes, Leipzig 1852-1855; reissued without much change in 1873–1875). There are annotated editions by I. C. Held, E. H. G. Leopold, Otto Siefert and Friedrich Blass and Carl Sintenis, all in German; and by Holden, in English.
Two of the lives, those of Epaminondas and Scipio Africanus or Scipio Aemilianus, are lost, and many of the remaining lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae and/or have been tampered with by later writers.
Plutarch's Life of Alexander is one of the few surviving secondary or tertiary sources about Alexander the Great, and it includes anecdotes and descriptions of incidents that appear in no other source. Likewise, his portrait of Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, contains unique information about the early Roman calendar.
Plutarch has been criticized for his lack of judicious discrimination in his use of authorities, and consequent errors and inaccuracies, but he gives an abundance of citations and, incidentally, a large number of valuable pieces of information, which fill up numerous gaps in historical knowledge obtained elsewhere. He has been praised for the liveliness and warmth of his portrayals, and his moral earnestness and enthusiasm, and the Lives have attracted a large circle of readers throughout the ages.
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Plutarch structured his Lives by pairing lives of famous Greeks with those of famous Romans. After such a set of two (and one set of four) lives he generally writes out a comparison of the preceding biographies. The table below gives the list of the biographies. Its order follows the one found in the Lamprias Catalogue, the list of Plutarch's works made by his hypothetical son Lamprias. The table also features links to several English translations of Plutarch's Lives available online. The LacusCurtius site has the complete set; the others are incomplete to varying degrees.[i]
All dates are BC.
|1||Theseus||mythic||D G L P LV||Romulus||fl. 771–717||D G L||D G L|
|2||Lycurgus||fl. c. 820 BC||(D) G L||Numa Pompilius||715–673||D G L||D G L|
|3||Themistocles||c. 524–459||D G L P||Camillus||446–365||(D) G L||n/a|
|4||Solon||638–558||D G L P||Poplicola||d. 503||D G L||D G L|
|5||Pericles||c. 495–429||(D) G L P||Fabius Maximus||275–203||D G L||D G L|
|6||Alcibiades||450–404||(D) G L P||Coriolanus||fl. 475||(D) G L P||D G L|
|7||Epaminondas||d. 362||Lost||Scipio Africanus or Aemilianus||236–183 or 185–129||Lost|
|8||Phocion||c. 402 – c. 318||D G L P||Cato the Younger||95–46||(D) G L||n/a|
|9-10||Agis||fl. 245||D L||Tiberius Gracchus||c. 164 – c. 133||D L||D L|
|Cleomenes||d. 219||D L||Gaius Gracchus||154–121||D L|
|11||Timoleon||c. 411–337||(D) G L||Aemilius Paullus||c. 229–160||(D) G L||D G L|
|12||Eumenes||c. 362–316||D G L||Sertorius||c. 123–72||D G L||D G L|
|13||Aristides||530–468||D G L P||Cato the Elder||234–149||D G L||G L|
|14||Pelopidas||d. 364||D G L||Marcellus||268–208||D G L||D G L|
|15||Lysander||d. 395||D G L P||Sulla||138-78||(D) G L||D G L|
|16||Pyrrhus||319/318–272||(D) G L||Marius||157–86||(D) G L||n/a|
|17||Philopoemen||253–183||D G L||Titus Flamininus||c. 229–174||D G L||D G L|
|18||Nicias||470–413||D G L P||Crassus||c. 115–53||(D) G L||D G L|
|19||Cimon||510–450||D G L P||Lucullus||118–57/56||(D) G L||D G L|
|20||Dion||408–354||(D) L||Brutus||85–42||(D) L P||D L|
|21||Agesilaus||c. 444 – c. 360||(D) G L||Pompey||106–48||(D) G L||D G L|
|22||Alexander||356–323||(D) G L P||Julius Caesar||100–44||(D) G L P1 P2||n/a|
|23||Demosthenes||384–322||D L||Cicero||106–43||(D) L||D L|
|25||Demetrius||d. 283||(D) L||Mark Antony||83–30||(D) L P||D L|
- ^ The Perseus project also contains a biography of Caesar Augustus appearing in the North translation, but not coming from Plutarch's Parallel Lives: P
- ^ Though the majority of the Parallel Lives were written with the Greek hero (or heroes) placed in the first position followed by the Roman hero, there are three sets of Lives where this order is reversed: Aemilius Paulus/Timoleon, Coriolanus/Alcibiades and Sertorius/Eumenes.
- ^ At the time of composing this table there appears some confusion in the internal linking of the Perseus project webpages, responsible for this split in two references.
Of the biographies in Parallel Lives, that of Antonius has been cited by multiple scholars as one of the masterpieces of the series. In 1895, George Wyndham wrote that the first rank consists of the biographies of Themistocles, Alcibiades, Marius, Cato the Elder, Alexander, Demetrius, Antonius, and Pompey. Peter D'Epiro praised Plutarch's depiction of Alcibiades as "a masterpiece of characterization." Academic Philip A. Stadter singled out Pompey and Caesar as the greatest figures in the Roman biographies. In a review of the 1859 A. W. Clough translation, Plutarch’s depictions of Antony, Coriolanus, Alcibiades, and the Cato the Elder were praised as deeply drawn. The reviewer found the sayings of Themistocles to be “snowy and splendid”, those of Phocion to be “curt and sharp”, and those of Cato “grave and shrewdly humorous”. Carl Rollyson lauded the biography of Caesar as proof Plutarch is “loaded with perception” and stated that no biographer “has surpassed him in summing up the essence of a life — perhaps because no modern biographer has believed so intensely as Plutarch did in ‘the soul of men’.
- Key to abbreviations:
D: Dryden is famous for having lent his name as editor-in-chief to the first complete English translation of Plutarch's Lives. This 17th-century translation is available at The MIT Internet Classics Archive. These translations are linked with D in the table below; those marked (D) in parentheses are incomplete in the HTML version.
G: Project Gutenberg contains several versions of 19th-century translations of these Lives, see here and here. The full text version (TXT) of the English poet, Arthur Hugh Clough's revision of Dryden's translation is available (via download) Gutenberg here. These translations are linked with G in the table below.
LV: LibriVox has many free public domain audiobooks of the Parallel Lives, Volumes I, II, and III. These translations are linked with LV in the table below.
P: The Perseus Project has several of the Lives, see here. The Lives available on the Perseus website are in Greek and English according to the Loeb edition by Bernadotte Perrin; and/or in English according to an abbreviated version of the Thomas North translations. This last edition concentrates on those of the Lives Shakespeare based his plays upon: Thomas North's translation of most of the Lives, based on the French version of Jacques Amyot published in the 16th century, preceded Dryden's translation mentioned above. These translations are linked with P in the table.
- James Romm (ed.), Plutarch: Lives that Made Greek History, Hackett Publishing, 2012, p. vi.
- Life of Alexander 1.2
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). . Encyclopedia Americana.
- Pade, Marianne. The Reception of Plutarch's Lives in Fifteenth-Century Italy Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/R/bo14317199.html
- "Translator's Introduction". The Parallel Lives (Vol. I ed.). Loeb Classical Library Edition. 1914.
- PLutarch's Moralia, XV, edited and translated by F. H. Sandbach, Loeb Classical Library, 1987, pp. 3–11.
- Kevin Herbert, "The Identity of Plutarch's Lost Scipio", in The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 78, No. 1 (1957), pp. 83–88. Plutarch only gives the name "Scipio". Herbert favours Scipio Aemilianus as the topic of the lost Life; he notes that Scipio Africanus was the subject of another (lost) biography by Plutarch.
- Eran Almagor, "The Aratus and the Artaxerxes", in Mark Beck (editor), A Companion to Plutarch, pp. 278, 279. The n°24 in the Lamprias catalogue was a pair of biographies of Aratus and Artaxerxes, but they did not belong to the Parallel Lives.
- Shakespeare's Principal Plays. Century Company. 1922.
- Stadter, Philip A., ed. (2002). Plutarch and the Historical Tradition. Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 1134913192.
- Plutarch (1906). Plutarch's Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius: In North's Translation. Translated by North, Thomas. Clarendon Press.
- Plutarch (1895). Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Volume 1. Translated by North, Thomas. D. Nutt.
- D'Epiro, Peter (2010). The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet. Anchor Books. p. 38. ISBN 0307388433.
- Brice, Lee L.; Slootjes, Daniëlle, eds. (2014). Aspects of Ancient Institutions and Geography: Studies in Honor of Richard J.A. Talbert. BRILL. p. 38. ISBN 9004283722.
- Quarterly Review. J. Murray. 1861. pp. 246–250.
- Rollyson, Carl (2005). Essays in Biography. iUniverse. p. 12. ISBN 9780595341818.