Plutarch’s Parallel Lives has been a staple of people reading the classics for hundreds of years. For many of the great enlightenment thinkers, it was their first exposure to Greek and Roman history and the works of antiquity. I hardily agree with the special place Plutarch has amongst the ancient histories, as evidenced by the short interval since my post last week on Darwin. Plutarch wrote biographies instead of a history, and this lends itself well to the student of antiquity. Understanding all the swirling events going on in Classical Athens, the Age of Alexander, or the Fall of the Roman Republic is extremely difficult, but following one figure at a time, learning about not just their accomplishments, but also their character, adds a touch of personality to what is often a dull subject.
Plutarch certainly goes out of his way to make his Lives interesting. The caveat when reading Plutarch is that everything may not be 100% accurate, and you can tell this when Plutarch references a previous author before telling a hard-to-believe, but in-character story about a figure. The biographies have narrative arcs, with twists and turns that have led to the creation of archtypal stories. Of the nine biographies chosen to be a part of the Harvard Classics, three of them formed the basis for plays by Shakespeare (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra). Even beyond Shakespeare, Coriolanus’ story seems to have influenced every fall and redemption tale I’ve seen.
As I just mentioned, only 9 of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are included in the Harvard Classics, out of 46 biographies that he did. The parallel nature of the Parallel Lives was that every biography had a partner, so that each Greek had an associated Roman biography with it. So for example, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great were paired by Plutarch and were the subject of a section comparing and contrasting them. The figures included in the Harvard Classics were: Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, Coriolanus, Demosthenes, Cicero, Caesar and Mark Antony. These represent some of the finest biographies that Plutarch wrote and do a good job of covering the Persian War, the Pelopponesian War, and the Fall of the Roman Republic.
The other thing to note about this version of Plutarch’s Lives is that the translation was done by poet laureate John Dryden, the most important literary figure of late-17th century England. His translation does a very good job of striking a balance between compelling prose and literal translation as far as I can tell. His skills as a writer plainly shine through and he makes the biographies gripping and readable. I found myself sneaking in one of the Lives every time I had some spare time this past week, and I ended up going through it very quickly.
The next volume is another translation by Dryden, The Aeneid, by Vergil. Surprisingly enough, for my love of ancient literature, I’ve never read The Aeneid. I seem to remember reading the first book in Latin Class, and maybe one or two of the others in high school. I look forward to reading this work and finishing the second to last of the volumes of Greco-Roman works in the Harvard Classics. The very last one is The Odyssey, but that’s awhile off yet.