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Plutarch's Lives

by Plutarch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Vidas paralelas (1)

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1,878226,143 (4.12)1 / 36
Biographies written around a.d. 120 on the lives of famous ancient Greeks and Romans.

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English (20)  Spanish (2)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
I also have the Langhorne edition, and they seem to be very different. The Dryden translation seems easier to read, and the print is bigger.
  Mapguy314 | Apr 20, 2020 |
Volume 1

22. [44929::Plutarch's lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 1], edited by [[Arthur Hugh Clough]]
written: circa 120 ce
translation: 1683 (and not by Dryden)
editing and notes 1859
format: 785 page paperback
acquired: December
read: Feb 27 – May 2
time reading: 48 hr 43 min, 3.7 min/page
rating: 3

A weird decision to read this, but it's become somehow meaningful to me in a way I don't exactly understand and that may not have anything to do with the text. The text is a strange relic of the Roman era. Plutarch was a Greek scholar during the high Roman Empire and wrote in Greek and may not have spoken Latin well. After doing whatever cultural touring he did in life, which included extensive travelling, collecting vast notes, he spent his later years in Greece as a priest at Delphi, writing. The parallel lives was his largest single work. The remnants of his possible 200 other works are collected in [Moralia], mostly philosophical writings.

Lives has a philosophical underlying component, a kind of "Middle Platonic" view on the morality of leaders through history, but mainly it's an historical work, a collection of paired biographies. Each prominent Roman is paired with a prominent Greek with similar aspects in their life trend. These are lengthy biographies, collected from a variety of sources. Then their lives are compared in brief essays. The general consensus is that Plutarch should not be taken as historically accurate, as his interest was in the morality and the story telling, not the accurate, well-documented history of the modern sense. He does occasionally note his sources within the text, and even expresses notes of skepticism here and there. And he seems to be internally consistent, as he often covers the same event in different lives from different perspectives. But, despite the consensus of soft accuracy, you will find he is often cited today as the main source for parts of the histories of Greece and Rome. Some Wikipedia articles basically summarize his essays from this work as the entire article on historical figures who, outside Plutarch, are mostly unknown. These are the kind of things that force me to re-visit or re-think ancient history, that undermine to me what we think we know.

As a historian Plutarch is really frustrating in that he loves and focuses on rumors, attributing major historical occurrences to unlikely details in someone's personal life. I constantly had to ask myself, that, even if what he had just described were completely true, is there any way it could have been accurately recorded.

The reading of this is an odd experience. I always had in mind that I was reading the "Dryden translation", a translation John Dryden put his name on, but did not apparently actually contribute to, and so I have little sense of how accurate any of this is in meaning or tone. This work of Plutarch is famous because of the way he tells these stories. They are fast and bring in immense detail and sometimes that combination can make for some vivid stories. But it's a tough read. The rush through details, one on top of the next, is relentless. Then major points of the story will be sort of sneaked into the text, leaving this reader forced to backtrack here and there to find where I lost the thread. And every part of this info dump begs some critical evaluation and a whole lot of skepticism. I would try at times just to blindly believe everything he says, but I had force that.

Plutarch was important in the late Renaissance when his focus on morality was of interest. His works, translated to English by Thomas North in 1579, were key source material for several of Shakespeare's plays. But it seems his importance has faded. There are no major new complete translations of his work. Newer translations focus on parts, and may break up these lives into just some of the Greek or Roman characters (and presumably re-order them chronologically). For me, he's a name that caught my attention and that my brain somehow needed to pin down by reading. I'm halfway through.

Volume 2

29. [44929::Plutarch's lives, The Dryden Translation, Volume 2] by edited by [[Arthur Hugh Clough]]
written: c 120 ce
translation: 1683 (and not by Dryden)
editing and notes 1859
format: 696-page paperback
acquired: December
read: May 4 – Jun 27
time reading: 42 hr 32 min, 3.7 min/page
rating: 2

It’s not a good thing when I’m disappointed I read a book. This, of course, isn’t a bad book. It’s a special relic, full historical details that are only captured here, or at least that are captured only here in this way, from this quirky 1900-year-old perspective. The cumulative impact of all these lives is a multifaceted view of a few key points in classical history – the rise and fall of the Greeks and their experimental governments, including the chaos that was the Athenian democracy, and the formation, tumultuous history and death of the Roman Republic, which faded into empire. The Greeks may come across a little tired and done over, but the leading characters in the later Roman Republic are fresh and come together to create a memorable synergy from all these full distinct enlarged egos colliding, with winners, losers, violent consequences, upper-class purges, some fascinating compatibilities, and ultimately the pulsing heart, the dedication to this Republic found most deeply in those who lost it. It’s easy to look on this, look at what Cato the Younger failed to do, and wonder at the reflection in our own times, and it’s not a comforting thought.

Plutarch was a Greek scholar who toured Rome and the empire and most likely taught his sort of middle-Platonic philosophy, who never mastered Latin, yet who took copious notes and who then retired back in Greece and began to write works in Greek that spread widely and are still around. The existing lives (it seems some are lost) are paired prominent Romans and Greeks with similar life trajectories. A lot of these characters are pretty obscure, but he captures the main names. For those who like ancient Greece, the lives of the great Athenians Themistocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades are captured, and criticized, along with some lesser ones like Aristides, Cimon and Nicias. And Lysander, the Spartan who eventually defeated Athens. Plutarch throws in Theseus, Lycurgus, and Solon for foundations, and Pelopidas because he co-led the Theban revolt against Sparta, leading the all-gay army of lovers, the Theban Sacred Band. The ancient Romans get covered too, from Romulus through the Punic wars. Odd names like Poplicola and Coriolanus or Cato the Elder show up. Publius, the name signed to the Federalist Papers, references Poplicola, as he helped found the Roman Republic. But Roman history really comes alive first through the civil wars between Marius and Sulla (around 80 bce), and then through the personalities involves in the death to the Republic. The members of the first triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, each get a long chapter. Their counters in the Senate, the failed heroes of the Republic, Cato the Younger, Cicero and Brutus, make the best chapters in the book. This Cato the younger, who committed suicide rather than surrender to Caesar, was for me the most distinctive and memorable character here. Of course, there is also Plutarch’s famous take on Mark Antony and his dramas with Cleopatra, which led to a Shakespeare’s play. Three Shakespeare plays come from Plutarch – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Plutarch captures something of the memories of these larger than life personalities. A happy Julius Caesar who liked everyone, even his enemies, and who, upon Cicero’s surrender, walked with him chatting amiably, leaves an impression of the clubby Roman upper class. As does the old man, Galba, another happy well-liked general who might not hesitate to condemn thousands to death, and who yet managed only about week alive in Rome as emperor before he was dispatched. Or Pompey the Great who was living it up so well and in such control of Rome yet found himself caught off-guard, completely unprepared, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. And Plutarch captures the chaos of these eras. There was never any peace in Athenian democracy or its empire, or in the Roman Republic where senators would murder political enemies, or, so things evolved, where senators were killed in the hundreds in mass political purges, called proscriptions (by which Cicero fell). And, new to me, was the chaos left behind by the death of Alexander the Great. Asia was left with power vacuums filled inadequately by warlords at the mercy of their fickle armies. And Greece was left with no dominant power, and it seems everyone fought everyone, desperately and constantly, often with both sides of a battle funded by the same nearby Mediterranean power.

So, it’s not a bad book, actually it’s a gem, but it’s a tough read. It’s already a massive amount of data, but Plutarch makes it thicker, leaving the reader flooded in endless detail. Reading means wading through rumors and counter rumors and strange prophecies predicting everything. It’s tough to every gain any speed or momentum, only a slow inertia allowed me to slowly pass through. It’s a disappointing because it was work. Whatever the enjoyment, and there was some, it was far less than the reward. After four months of exhausted reading, 1481 pages at 3½ to 4 minutes a page, I’m putting this down thinking only, thank goodness, and good riddance. Maybe I’ll feel differently later on.

2019 - Volume 1
https://www.librarything.com/topic/306026#6817859

2019 - Volume 2
https://www.librarything.com/topic/306026#6867701 ( )
  dchaikin | Apr 18, 2020 |
3 v.Ex libris James P. Draper (purchased at Thornton's, Oxford, 1982); ex libris F. W. Ogilvie (purchased at Blackwell's, Oxford, 1913). For F. W. Ogilvie, see DNB. ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 20, 2020 |
3 v. ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
As long as you've got a taste for epics this is great stuff. Its thirty six biographies of ancient greeks and romans as told by a slightly less ancient greek (Plutarch). Usually a greek and a roman with similar aspects of character or life story will be paired together, have their individual stories told, and then be compared. There is tons of social, political, scientific and philosophical context lurking among the lives. Whats most striking is how little government and social behavior has changed in the last two thousand years. Public opinion is pandered to and manipulated in exactly the same ways, politicians are still backstabbing and forming dubious alliances for their advancement. Lack of universal suffrage aside (women and slaves couldn't vote), the basic shape of democracy appears relatively similar then as now, though bloodier. Its humbling in a way - I'd expect things to have improved more in the last two thousand years.It took four months to read and was completely worth it. Its a little heavy on battles and war, but even those are made interesting by documenting the tricks and deceits, and using them to frame the behavior and character of the biography being told. ( )
1 vote reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (89 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Plutarchprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adler, Mortimer J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Atlas, JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baughman, Roland OrvilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clough, A. H.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clough, Arthur HughTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dacier, AndréTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dryden, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
North, Sir ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Perrin, BernadotteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steele, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but the sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off: "Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther."
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