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Plutarch (A.D. 46?–c.A.D. 120). Plutarch’s Lives.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

PLUTARCH, the great biographer of antiquity, had not the fortune himself to find a biographer. For the facts of his life we are dependent wholly upon the fragmentary information that he scattered casually throughout his writings. From these we learn that he was born in the small Bœotian town of Chæroneia in Greece, between 46 and 51 A. D., of a family of good standing and long residence there; that he married a certain Timoxena, to whom he wrote a tender letter of consolation on the death of their daughter; and that he had four sons, to two of whom he dedicated one of his philosophical treatises. He began the study of philosophy at Athens, travelled to Alexandria and in various parts of Italy, and sojourned for a considerable period in Rome; but he seems to have continued to regard Chæroneia as his home, and here he did a large part of his writing and took his share in public service. As a lecturer and teacher of philosophy he achieved considerable repute, and the nature of his doctrine may be gathered from the treatises in which the substance of many of the lectures has been preserved. His death is placed between 120 and 130 A. D.

The ruling passion of Plutarch’s life was ethical. His miscellaneous writings are known collectively as his “Morals,” and though they deal with a great variety of themes, the prevailing interest is so strongly centred on conduct that the title is not unsuitable. Many of the subjects of his biographies, even, are treated as models of virtue or warnings against vice, and as a rule he was more concerned about portraying character than about intricacies of political history.

The “Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans” have their name from the author’s plan of setting side by side a Greek statesman, soldier, or orator, and a Roman of eminence in the same field, in order to gain illumination from the comparison; and in this way he covered almost the whole history of Greece and Rome from legendary times to his own day. He collected his facts with care and at the expense of great labor, and for many periods he is the chief, sometimes the only, source of information now accessible. In general, the Greek lives are more learned than the Roman, partly, no doubt, because of the greater difficulty of getting information as to Roman affairs when he was writing in Greece, partly because, as he tells us, his mastery of Latin was incomplete.

The biographical as distinct from the historical purpose was entirely deliberate. “It must be borne in mind,” he says in his life of Alexander the Great, “that my design is not to write histories but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore, as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.” Most of the critical comment passed upon the “Lives” is but an elaboration of these statements of their author. The proportions and the significance of political events were often hidden from him, but in his portraiture of men he has laid the world under a perpetual debt.

The influence of these Lives it is almost impossible to exaggerate. All classes of people have taken delight in them, from kings to shepherds, and it is safe to say that the influence has always been wholesome. Not only do they supply a mass of information, vividly and picturesquely presented, regarding the leading personalities of some of the greatest periods of the world’s history, but they offer in concrete and inspiring form the ideals of human character in the antique world incarnated in a series of great heroic figures. Of few books can it be said with such assurance that they will remain a permanent possession of the race.

The present translation is that made originally by a group of scholars in the end of the seventeenth century and published with a life of Plutarch by Dryden. This, usually called the Dryden translation, was revised in 1859 by Arthur Hugh Clough, who corrected it by the standards of modern scholarship, so that it took the place which it still occupies as the best version in English for the purposes of the general reader.