on September 28, 2002
Plutarch's history isn't always the most accurate -- he clashes with Arrian and Quintus Curtius on Alexander, for example -- but it sure is a lot of fun...Plutarch weaves in lots of interesting little anecdotes and his narrative arcs are always complete without being too long. It's also great for leisurely reading; there are so many Lives, you can pick one up on any rainy afternoon, long car drive, or what have you, and don't even need to know a whole lot of context to get the gist of what's going on. For fans of history and biography, or just stories in general, this is as good as it gets.
I recommend the Modern Library edition because it's complete (with the two volumes, that is) and because the Dryden translation is very colorful even though it's old-school -- you're bound to pick up a lot of cool vocabulary. Also, don't quite know how to put it, but his translation just seems more...classic. It fits, get it.
on May 6, 2003
After having read McCullogh's splendid series on Rome, I turned to this fat, dense book with great expectations. I was not disappointed: the stories are endlessly fascinating, from their basic details on ancient history to the bizarre asides that reveal the pre-Christianised mind-set of the author.
Like all great books, this one can be read on innumerable levels. First, there is the moralising philosophy that is perhaps the principal purpose of the author to advance - each life holds lessons on proper conduct of great and notorious leaders alike. You get Caesar, Perikles, and Alcibiades, and scores of others who are compared and contrasted. Second, there is the content. Plutarch is an invaluable source of data for historians and the curious. Third, there is the reflection of religious and other beliefs of the 1C AD: oracles and omens are respected as are the classical gods. For example, while in Greece, Sulla is reported as having found a satyr, which he attempted unsuccesfully to question for its auguring abilities during his miltary campaign in Greece! It is a wonderful window into the mystery of life and human belief systems. That being said, Plutarch is skeptical of these occurances and both questions their relevance and shows how some shrewd leaders, like Sertorious with his white fawn in Spain, used them to great advantage.
Finally, this is a document that was used for nearly 2000 years in schools as a vital part of classical education - the well-bred person knew all these personalities and stories, which intimately informed their vocabulary and literary references until the beginning of the 20C. That in itself is a wonderful view into what was on people's minds and how they conceived things over the ages. As is well known, Plutarch is the principal source of many of Shakespeare's plays, such as Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. But it was also the source of the now obscure fascination with the rivalry of Marius and Sulla, as depicted in paintings and poetry that we still easily encounter if we are at all interested in art. Thus, this is essential reading for aspiring pedants (like me).
Of course, there are plenty of flaws in the work. It assumes an understanding of much historical detail, and the cases in which I lacked it hugely lessened my enjoyment. At over 320 years old, the translation is also dated and the prose somewhat stilted, and so it took me 300 pages to get used to it. Moreover, strictly speaking, there are many inaccuracies, of which the reader must beware.
Warmly recommended as a great and frequently entertaining historical document.
on April 30, 2008
First off, let me clarify that what follows is a review of a particular edition of Plutarch's Lives, the current (2001) edition from Modern Library Classics. It is not a review of the book itself and will not provide any information on the relevance of this wonderful classic or the many lives it includes or the ingenious structure of paralleling the lives of Greeks and Romans or the importance of this text to the history of biography. Several other reviews here do a fine job of that and I see no reason to cover the same ground. Moreover, I've noted rather a lot of confusion about this edition in reviews here on Amazon (see particularly the reviews associated with the hardbound Modern Library volumes). I am still researching the Dryden edition, but thought I might offer a few comments to provide clarity and a better understanding of this edition for those whose buying decisions are based on the nature and quality of a particular translation.
"The Dryden Translation" - this unusual phrasing (which appears on the cover) has become the traditional descriptor for this version of the Lives. In fact, Dryden is not, properly speaking, the translator of this book. In one article in Wikipedia he is described as an overseer for the edition and in another as editor-in-chief, but he is also described as having simply "lent" his name to the enterprise. I am still researching this, but I should not be surprised if Jacob Tonson, the publisher, was not more involved in editing than was Dryden. [Update: I have found some indications that Dryden may have had a fairly significant editorial role -- see "Dryden as Cambridge Editor" by Arthur Sherbo in Studies in Bibliography, Vol 38, (1985) pp 251-261. I am still surprised, however, that Dryden is so often given as the translator of this volume in various less detailed references to the book. Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, has Dryden as the translator; Wikipedia, much to my surprise, does not -- what can I say? sometimes the amateurs outdo the professionals.]
Dryden also provided a "Life of Plutarch" which is included in this edition only by way of a two short excerpts in Clough's Preface.
Arthur Hugh Clough's Preface and Revisions - Clough was a nineteenth century poet. Clough's preface was, for me, a major reason I became interested in the Modern Library edition. I found the preface quite intriguing. It is a solid piece of work from an individual who was neither a full time scholar, nor a particularly notable prose writer. In a couple of cases, the argument at the very beginning of the preface for example, he seems to drop his thoughts without fully completing them. But this is a minor problem in an otherwise well thought out and informative discussion of Plutarch and his book.
The text itself - One of the reviewers here on Amazon calls this Clough's "train wreck" assuming that the difficulties in the text must lie with Clough because, concludes the reviewer, Dryden is a much better prose writer. Few would doubt that Dryden was a better prose writer, but I strongly suspect that the translation in this case (not Dryden's as I have already pointed out) was aided by Clough's hand. I am having trouble getting a copy of the original (pre-Clough) "Dryden" translation, although I should very much like to do a comparison. Once Clough's version came out, publishers seem to have had no reason to go back to the original which provides at least some indication that Clough had resolved some of the problems with the text. As a result, the pure "Dryden" editions are older and more expensive.
I find the text quite readable. It is not a "modern" translation (I hate using the word "modern" here because I think of Clough as a modern, perhaps I should say it is not a twentieth or twenty-first century translation). This text is clearly more given to complex clausal structures than we would expect in a popular translation today. I think it more than has its merits. I'm not sure but that the complex clausal structures might not have their own virtue in a text like this. Certainly one of the interesting qualities in Plutarch is a kind of questioning of sources that the syntax of this edition brings out rather nicely. I say that, however, as a non-classicist with little or no Greek, so I cannot be sure whether it really does reflect the original.
Notes - My chief concern with the text would be that it lacks annotation or other textual apparatus beyond an index. This is particularly peculiar given that the cover states that it includes notes by Clough! I am trying to get my hands on an earlier edition of the Clough revision to see what it might contain in the way of notes. Nonetheless, I'm not quite sure what to make of the Modern Library advertising notes on the cover, but providing none. Until I know better what these notes might entail, I'm loath to make any judgment. [Update: I attempted to contact Random House about my concerns but, to my surprise, I could not get them to understand that I was not referring to the notes in the preface, but rather to notes for the text itself! I hate to be too hard on Random House over something like this, notheless, I still feel I should provide some warning to potential buyers. The language on the cover suggests that this book includes Clough's notes. It does not. I have, since I first wrote this, purchased a copy of an early edition with the Clough edits. In all honesty Clough's notes are few and far between, but there is enough of value in them that, in my opinion, at least, they should have been included. And, not to be too snarky, but Clough and Random House deserve editors who understand the difference between textual notes and notes to a preface.]
Introduction by James Atlas - I wish I could speak more highly of the Modern Library introduction, but I am afraid I felt it was lacking on many levels. It fails in anyway to clarify the nature of the translation. One would think that it would at least contain some mention of the relevance of this particular text (why reprint it now?), of the curious assignment of Dryden's name as translator to a book that he did not translate, and of the role that Clough played as a nineteenth century editor of a seventeenth century text.
Additionally, and perhaps most warranting concern, Atlas's introduction covers such similar ground to Clough's Preface (even using many of the same quotations) that it feels rather curiously redundant.
The cover - I cannot close without commenting on the cover. It looks like wallpaper for a nineteenth century classicist's study. And quite honestly, I like it.
I've given the book four stars because I see no reason to visit the sins of this particular edition upon the text as a whole, and the text has plenty of merits both as a translation and as a classic of literature.
on May 26, 2003
I have now plowed through the second and final volume of this series, and though my energy began to flag, I still think this is one of the great classics of all time. Though not exactly chronological, the stories in this volume tend to occur later than in the first volume and are often longer, which is understandable given that Julius Caesar and Alex the Great are covered in this volume. THe stories are also more intricately interwoven - you get lives that overlap, such as those of Brutus and Caesar, with slightly different takes and details in each one. The upshot of all this is that the serious reader will need to keep this around as a reference, going over the text again when some question of detail comes up or to refresh one's point of view. Plutarch's take on things is very different from that of many authors: he is a pro-aristocrat conservative and admiring of martial prowess, yet pro-Republican. Once again, the reader really needs to know the historical context before undertaking this. It is not at all introductory.
Warmly recommended. Though it takes real effort at times to continue, it is well worth the slog.
Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Noble Greek and Romans is one of the central works in the Western literary and philosophical tradition. It is one of the keys to understanding Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Montaigne and Emerson. It was a favorite book and resource of Jefferson, Madison and others of the Founding Fathers. All these writers were deeply influenced by their reading of Plutarch.
Plutarch (hereafter to be P)was a Greek writing in the first century after Christ. He was a Platonist who was also well read in Aristotle as well as a fierce opponent of Stoicism and Epicurius. His paired biographies are based on a broad reading in many sources some of which are lost to us and known only through their presentation in P. P is fan of Thucydides, Homer and Hesiod and Pindar. He had much less use for Herodotus. All of these sources along with many others are woven into his writings. To read P is to be introduced to many of the great writers and thinkers of the Greeks and the Romans. For me, it has been a delight. When reading the first volume of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch, I have found myself wondering why I put off reading him for so long. He is a subtle and entertaining companion.
For my review, I want to do two things. First, I want to offer you reasons to read the Modern Library edition of Plutarch over the alternative such as the Loeb edition or the Penguin Travesty.
The reasons for my preference for the Modern Library edition is two-fold. It is true to P's intention and it is cheap.
The Penguins are (or should be considered)a joke. That publisher decided to offer Plutarch by splitting up the pair biographies and then presenting all the biographies that had to do with, say, the Makers of Rome. Never mind that Plutarch denied that he was writing history as such. Never mind that he organized his writing around the paired biographies and that he had several purposes in doing so. The Penguin Powers That Be know better than P! Plutarch's writings should be offered to us in easy-to-digest (i.e., fairly short) books about something like the Rise of Rome rather than a very long book about the dynamic interactions between character, virtue, upbringing, fate (or Fortune or God, your pick) of the individual in interaction with that of their polis. Nobody, fears the Lord Editors of Penguinia, would want to read a complicated book like that. Needless to say, I think the Penguin editors are a bunch of maroons (although they do some things right like including a few maps to help us figure out where they heck Illyria, Thrace or Parthia were).
The Loeb edition runs to eleven volumes, each of which includes the Greek and each of which is expensive. From what I have seen of the Loeb, I don't think the notes are enough of an argument to favor this edition.
So buy the Modern Library edition. It gives you all of the biographies, in their original pairings and all the extant individual ones including a couple (of Galba and Otho) of biographies that are all that is left of a series on Roman emperors. The Dryden translation is a good one or so I believe simply because the voice of the author is distinctive, consistent and enjoyable. Reading this edition, I can understand why so many people have enjoyed P. for so long.
The most important point I want to make is that I believe that Plutarch had several intentions behind his organization. He is writing toward the end of the 1rst century AD- a period of Roman domination over just about everybody (that Plutarch knew of). I said earlier that I found P to be a subtle writer. For an instance, look to the Comparison that he makes after writing about Lycurgus and Numa. Toward the end, P basically asks if Rome is the better for the six centuries or so of constant warfare that she unleashed upon Italy and the world after the death of Numa. He doesn't give an answer although he suggests what his would be by talking about how the answer would differ from judges who value "riches, luxury, and dominion rather than in security, gentleness, and the independence which is accompanied by justice" (p. 106 of the Modern Library edition). In my reading, in other words, Plutarch is pushing for Greek culture to establish a counterweight or a critique to Roman hegemony. Rome may be militarily supreme but that is a mere moment in Fortune's turning wheel. And culturally, Rome is subject to the standards established by the Greeks like Plato, Aeschylus, Homer and Thucydides.
Even more central to P.'s thinking are moral lessons to be learned from comparing great men whose characteristics in interaction with their upbringing created men of often conflicting virtues who then tried to use the circumstances of their times to achieve glory for themselves and their cities.
This is an enormous theme with infinite variations. P.'s weaves in through these studies thoughts on political philosophy, on the reliability of founding myths, on the struggle between the many and the few (class struggle, we like to call it)and other assorted themes. It is a glorious and messy brew.
One final remark- I have yet to locate anything that presents itself as a companion to this book. I find that lack staggering. Why isn't there a commentary of the book as a whole which provides background history, prosography, maps, etc.? Wikipedia and the Oxford Classical Dictionary have been my constant companions as I have read P. As inordinate as my ignorance is, I cannot be the only reader of Plutarch that has decried that lack of a decent companion volume.
I am currently reading Plutarch by Robert Lamberton and plan to read a few other secondary sources before I go on to volume 2. I will review them as I finish them especially if I find a stand alone sourcebook for the background knowledge necessary for a decent reading of Plutarch. In the meantime, I can only encourage you to pick up a copy. If you are not as impressed as I am, so be it. But you may find yourself as carried away as I have been. In that case, you will be singing my praises as well as Plutarch's.
Addendum: Scholarly obsession compels me to reveal a flaw in the Modern Library edition that I have only become aware of since finishing the first volume. I am currently reading Robert Lamberton's book on Plutarch. He, like all scholars of the work, refer to the Lives by the life in question and section numbers. For example, he will refer to Lyc., 2 to indicate the second section of the life of Lycurgus. Unfortunately, the Modern Library edition does not include the traditional section numbers so all references are much more difficult to chase down. And there are typically 30+ sections for each life. If that sort of thing is important to you, this lack may effect that choice of which edition of the Lives you choose.
on December 10, 2000
Plutarch's Lives is a book of epic proportions. Essentially, it is an encyclopeadia of the biographies of famous men in the history of Ancient Greece and Rome. With over 50 biographies and comparisons, this book covers the most important people in the history of Greco-Roman civilization. The impact of this book is phenomenal. Shakespeare read it, Dante read it. Its influence is evident in their writing. The book transcends simple biography though, and contains a wealth of information about ancient cultures such as Sparta. Plutarch also compares different historical figures to one another for an interesting study of comparative politics and virtue. Some of Plutarch's information is questionable, but it remains one of the best sources available. If you are interested in classical history then this is a great reference and it's enjoyable for pleasure reading as well.
Plutarch's parallel lives, parallels the life of a great Greek with a great Roman. Theseus and Romulus, Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Ceasar. There are forty- six such pairs which tell not only the story of the individuals but of their society . Plutarch brings to bear his tremendous learning from a wide variety of sources . Plutarch's first interest is in the character of the people he writes about, and the moral lessons he can draw from comparison of the lives. His work has had great influence and provided inspiration and material to Shakespeare, Montaigne, Browning and others. The reading of the work is not always easy, and there are strange and questionably credible tales and details but the work is humanly alive. The reading and studying of it was once considered a basic part of true humanistic education, and not the confine of a few scholars in the classic departments of universities. It once had broad reader appeal and anyone with a keen interest in biography, and the subject of how lives have been lived in worlds far from our own, would do well if not to read this work cover- to- cover than at very least have a good read in it.
on March 12, 2014
I purchased this on my Kindle to use as a primary source for a research paper. What I didn't realize with the sample provided is that the paragraphs are not numbered in chapters, therefore making the use of this edition for reference in a research paper not impossible but fairly impractical. There are no footnotes, whatsoever. I'm not a fan of this translation, either. I don't like it, but I don't hate it.
If I could suggest a superior version, it would be Bernadotte Perrin's translation, from the Loeb edition. It is complete with footnotes that are extremely valuable. The Loeb edition is available online for free on a number of websites.
on September 10, 2014
The Dryden translation, used in the Modern Library edition of this work, departs from Plutarch's writing to such a degree that a reader cannot trust any individual sentence as being what Plutarch actually though, and at best acquires an overview of Plutarch's development of character. Avoid it in favor of a reasonably literal translation, such as those in the Loeb Library.
on March 9, 2005
This is one of the most incredible pieces of literature in human history, yet is one of the most often overlooked.
Plutarch is not as much a historian as he is a moralist, and it is his examination of the lives of some of the most important historical figures of the ancient world for their moral roots that is so incredibly engaging.
Oddly enough, I was first introduced to the works of Plutarch through the fictional novels of Louis L'Amour, who often has one charcter encouraging another to read various classical authors.
For a interesting peek at the lives and morals of some of history's most intriguing figures, Plutarch is a great place to begin.