The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Volume II

by Plutarch

Plutarch's Parallel Lives, written at the beginning of the second century A.D., form a brilliant social history of the ancient world. They were originally presented in a series of books that gave an account of one Greek and one Roman life, followed by a comparison of the two: Theseus and Romulus, Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Demosthenes and Cicero, Demetrius and Antony. Plutarch was interested in the personalities of his subjects and on the way their characters molded their actions, leading them to tragedy or victory. He was a moralist of the highest order. 'It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies' he says, 'but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life' Plutarch was a man of immense erudition who had traveled widely throughout the Roman Empire, and the Lives are richly anecdotal and full of detail. They were the principal source of Shakespeare's Roman plays.

  • Random House Publishing Group; November 2000
  • ISBN: 9780679641759
  • Read online, or download in secure ePub format
  • Title: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Volume II
  • Author: Plutarch
  • Imprint: Modern Library

About The Author

Plutarch was born during the reign of Claudius, around A.D. 45, at Chaeronea in Boeotia, a town of historic but somewhat faded importance. His family, originally from Thebes, had long enjoyed local distinction, a tradition he was to maintain in a life full of civic accomplishments. He founded a school of philosophy, served as Archon of Chaeronea, and eventually officiated as a priest of Apollo at Delphi. Only a few details of his life can be gleaned from his writings. At the time of Emperor Nero's visit to Greece in A.D. 66, Plutarch was by his own account a student of philosophy at Athens under the teacher Ammonius. As an exponent of Platonism, he vigorously attacked the positions of the Stoics and Epicureans. He was married and had at least five children.

Plutarch spent some part of his career in Italy, although he describes his experiences there only in passing; for example, in a discussion about his knowledge of Latin writers in his life of Demosthenes, he says that 'having had no leisure, while I was in Rome and other parts of Italy, to exercise myself in the Roman language, on account of public business and of those who came to be instructed by me in philosophy, it was very late, and in the decline of my age, before I applied myself to the reading of Latin authors.' He traveled in Egypt as well. He was a prolific writer in a variety of genres; his surviving work (representing perhaps half of what he wrote) fills a dozen volumes. In addition to the Parallel Lives of celebrated Greeks and Romans, which he produced late in his career, he wrote essays and dialogues on an immense range of subjects, collected in the Moralia. The dialogues--involving a cast of philosophers, grammarians, rhetoricians, and physicians--recreate in stylized fashion the table talk, alternately moralizing and frivolous, of Plutarch's milieu. The comings and goings of these participants--from Britain to Tarsus, from Egypt to Lacedaemonia--emphasize that this was the heyday of Roman imperial unity, and an era of cultural flowering: Plutarch's contemporaries included Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, Arrian, Quintilian, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Martial, and Juvenal.

Plutarch's own life may have been centered on his native town, but his writings move easily through centuries of history and across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world. His reputation was evidently wide; under Trajan and Hadrian he is said to have received the insignia of a consul and a post as procurator of Greece. He probably died sometime after A.D. 120. It was during the reign of Trajan that he wrote the Lives, which have proven his most enduring work. Intended as moral portraits rather than historical interpretations, the Lives are an incomparably rich trove of the facts and legends that Plutarch tirelessly collected, and an epitome of Graeco-Roman concepts of character. In the English translation made by Sir Thomas North in 1579 they contributed enormously, in both incident and language, to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra. The present translation, originally published in 1683-86 in conjunction with a life of Plutarch by John Dryden, was revised in 1864 by the poet and scholar Arthur Hugh Clough.