Ancient History & Civilisation



Haase, W., and Temporini, H. (eds.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1972–)


Austin, M. M. (ed.), The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)


Bergk, T. (ed.), Poetae Lyrici Graeci, 3 vols. (4th edn; Leipzig: Teubner, 1878–82)

CAH vi

Lewis, D. M., Hornblower, S., and Ostwald, M. (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. vi, The Fourth Century BC (2nd edn; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

CAH vii

Walbank, F. W., Astin, A. E., Frederiksen, M. W., and Ogilvie, R. M. (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. vii, The Hellenistic World (2nd edn; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2 vols., 1984–9)


Classical Quarterly

De Falco

De Falco, V. (ed.), Demades Oratore: Testimonianze e Frammenti (2nd edn; Collana di Studi Greci 25, Naples: Libreria Scientifica Editrice, 1954)


Jacoby, F. (ed.), Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker, 3 vols. (Berlin: Werdmann, 1923–30; Leiden: Brill, 1940–58)


Harding, P. (ed.), From the End of the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Ipsus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)


Kassel, R., and Austin, C. (eds.), Poetae Comici Graeci, 8 vols. (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1983–2001)


Maehler, H., and Snell, B., Pindari carmina cum fragmentis, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1987–9)


Page, D. L. (ed.), Poetae Melici Graeci (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962)


Pfeiffer, R. (ed.), Callimachus, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949–53)


Papiri Greci e Latini: Pubblicazioni della Società Italiana per la Ricerca dei Papiri Greci e Latini in Egitto (Florence: Tipografia Ariani, 1912–)


Rhodes, P. J., and Osborne, R. (eds.), Greek Historical Inscriptions 404–323 BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)


Rose, V. (ed.), Aristotelis qui ferebantur Librorum Fragmenta (Leipzig: Teubner, 1886)


Snell, B., Kannicht, R., and Radt, S. (eds.), Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 5 vols. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971–2004)


Voigt, E.-M. (ed.), Sappho et Alcaeus (Amsterdam: Athenaeum, 1971)


West, M. L. (ed.), Iambi et Elegi Graeci ante Alexandrum cantati, 2 vols. (2nd edn; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989–92)

General Introduction

This volume contains a selection of ten Lives, written by the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch and covering the period from the start of the fourth century BC to early in the third. It includes Plutarch’s biographies of some of the most famous and important figures in Greek history, such as Demosthenes and Alexander the Great. It also includes some less well-known figures such as Dion of Syracuse or Eumenes, Alexander’s secretary. All the Lives included here are extremely important historical sources. They also provide a vivid picture of the Greek world and beyond at a crucial period, which saw the collapse of Spartan power, the eclipsing of the city-states of mainland Greece by Macedonia, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of a series of Macedonian kingdoms in the wake of those conquests.

Plutarch and his Works

Plutarch lived when the Roman Empire was at its height (c. AD 45–120), and more of his work survives than of almost any other author from Classical antiquity. About Plutarch’s life we know almost nothing except what he himself tells us in his writings, but from those we can learn a good deal. He seems to have travelled widely, including to Rome, and to have been acquainted with many important Roman figures. But his home was in the small Greek city of Chaeronea in Boeotia, some 60 miles north-west of Athens, where he was a member of the governing elite. Plutarch’s writings contain many references to the dinner parties and philosophical conversations held at his house, and give us a lively picture of the intellectual and social life of his circle. In one famous passage he complains of the difficulties of accessing books in Chaeronea, far away from the main urban centres like Athens: ‘I … live in a small city’, he declares, ‘and choose to stay there to prevent its becoming even smaller’ (Demosthenes 2).

Plutarch’s works, all written in Greek, are traditionally divided into two categories: Moralia and Lives. Moralia means literally ‘ethical works’, but in fact this title, which does not seem to be Plutarch’s own, is rather misleading: the Moralia are much broader in nature than the title implies, and the Lives, as we shall see, are also in their own way concerned with ethics. Over seventy different works survive in the Moralia; they range in content from practical treatises, such as On control of one’s anger or How to profit from one’s enemies, to heavyweight philosophical works, such as commentaries on Plato or polemics against the doctrines of the Stoic or Epicurean philosophies. The Moralia also include a number of works of political theory and guidance, such as Political advice, an open letter to a young aristocrat about to enter public life in the city of Sardis in Asia Minor. Most of these works are steeped in quotation and allusion to earlier Greek literature and display an immense erudition. Many also show the influence of Plato, especially in the latter’s understanding of human psychology, and a concern for morality: that is, for the art of living properly and well.

Plutarch’s other great literary achievement was his biographies. A series of Lives of the Caesars was written first. Unfortunately, only two short Lives of the emperors Galba and Otho survive, but the series as a whole seems to have covered the Roman emperors from Augustus to Vitellius (roughly from c. 31 BC to AD 69). This series preceded Suetonius’ better-known Latin Lives of the Caesars by a generation, and it is a great pity that it has largely been lost. Plutarch also wrote a few stand-alone Lives, such as that of the Persian King Artaxerxes II, which is included in this volume. But his most famous and influential work is the Parallel Lives, a series of paired biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen, and it is from that collection that all the other biographies translated in this volume are drawn.

Parallel Lives

The Parallel Lives include many of the great names of Greek and Roman history. Even not counting the few Lives of mythical or semi-mythical figures, such as Theseus and Romulus, the supposed founders of Athens and Rome respectively, they span some six centuries, from Archaic and Classical Greece and the early Roman Republic to the Greek kings of the Hellenistic period and the dynasts of the later Roman Republic, such as Pompey, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The Parallel Lives were written between aboutAD 96 and 120, that is after most of the works of the Moralia, and are often regarded as the pinnacle of Plutarch’s achievement. They were used as a source by Shakespeare, and have since the Renaissance exerted a great influence on both writers and statesmen; in the eighteenth century no other work from Classical antiquity was so widely read.

The Parallel Lives owe their name to their unique structure. They were designed to be read not as individual biographies but in pairs, each pair consisting of the biography of a Greek statesman or general and the biography of a Roman, usually but not always in that order. Thus, for example, the Life of Alexander is paired with the Life of Caesar, and the Life of Demosthenes with the Life of Cicero. Many pairs of Lives begin with a prologue, which introduces both men and sets out some of the factors which led Plutarch to pair them. In addition, most pairs of Lives are followed by a ‘Comparison’ (in Greek, syncrisis), where the two subjects are weighed up against each other. Together these elements – prologue (where it exists), first Life, second Life, and Comparison – form a single Plutarchan ‘book’.

Twenty-two such books survive. Some of the men whom Plutarch paired, such as those just mentioned, had already been compared with each other by writers before Plutarch; in other cases the pairing seems to have been of Plutarch’s own devising. But the paired or ‘parallel’ structure was plainly of great importance to Plutarch’s design. It encourages the reader to think not just about a particular individual and the specifics of his career, or about the period or society in which he lived; rather, we are encouraged to compare and contrast, to think about common character traits or experiences shared by the two men or differences between them, and about similarities or differences between the two men’s societies. Many modern readers approach the Parallel Lives primarily as sources for history, and most modern editions, such as this one, dispense with the parallel structure and group Lives for convenience by theme or by period. But it is important to keep in mind that Plutarch’s Lives were not designed to be read one by one in chronological order, nor was Plutarch’s aim simply to provide a historical narrative of any particular period. Rather, the reader was expected to read both Lives of a pair together and to read the second directly after reading the first. Furthermore, the comparative element implied in the structure of the Parallel Lives is central to their meaning: they were supposed to be an exercise in cultural and biographical comparison, and to read one Life without its partner, or without the common prologue or comparison which weld the two Lives together, is to miss much that was of importance to Plutarch and his original readers.

The Purpose of the Parallel Lives

Plutarch himself tells us something of the purposes of his work and its main concerns in the prologues which introduce many pairs of Lives. Perhaps the most famous is the prologue to the Lives of Alexander and Caesar. After naming the two subjects of the book (‘Alexander, the king, and … Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Pompey’), Plutarch warns his readers not to expect large-scale historical narrative. The deeds of Alexander and Caesar will not, he claims, be narrated in detail:

For I am writing Lives not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than battles where thousands die, huge troop deployments or the sieges of cities. When a portrait painter sets out to create a likeness, he relies above all upon the face and the expression of the eyes and pays little attention to the other parts of the body: in the same way it is my task to dwell upon those details which illuminate the workings of the soul, and to use these to create a portrait of each man’s life, leaving to others their great exploits and battles.

(Alexander 1)

Two related points stand out here. First, Plutarch’s focus is on the character of his subjects. Secondly, in order to pursue this interest in character, Plutarch self-consciously declares that he will be selective in his choice of material. He will not offer a narrative of historical events per se, and will not attempt to cover all the subject’s known actions. Instead, just as a portrait painter concentrates particular attention on the face because it is there that his subject’s character is most evident, so Plutarch will choose material that will most bring out character; indeed, he will often, he says, prefer a revealing anecdote or saying to a detailed narrative of political and military events.

An interest in character is central to all Plutarch’s Lives. But by ‘character’ Plutarch meant something slightly different from what a modern biographer might mean by the term. Today we tend to think of character as having to do with what makes a person distinctly themselves; the unique collection of traits which sets them apart from others. In antiquity, however, character was conceived in moral terms. Thus, when Plutarch talks here about his concern to bring out the character of his subjects, the focus is on judging them according to accepted standards of behaviour (hence the reference to ‘virtues or vices’). Furthermore, in ancient thought a person’s character was only revealed through his deeds. Thus Plutarch’s Lives do not concern themselves with the inner world of the individual or what we might call his ‘private’ life (a concept that would scarcely have made sense to Plutarch’s readers) but with his behaviour, by which character is actualized and made manifest.

This focus on the character of the subject is meant to have for the reader a practical moral benefit. Plutarch explains in another prologue, that to the Lives of Aemilius and Timoleon (one of the few pairs of Lives in which the Roman Life precedes the Greek):

When I first took up the writing of these Lives I did it for the sake of others, but now I find that I have grown fond of the task and continue it for my own pleasure, endeavouring somehow in the mirror of history to adorn my life and make it like the virtues of these men. It is as though we could talk with them and enjoy their company every day. We receive each one of them in turn and welcome him as our guest, when they visit us through history, and examine ‘how great he was and of what kind’ [Homer, Iliad 24.630], taking from his deeds the most important and most beautiful to know. ‘Ah! What greater joy than this could you obtain’ and what more effective for the improvement of character?

(Aemilius 1)

Plutarch imagines himself and his readers communing with the great men of the past, learning from them and imitating them; trying, as he puts it, ‘to adorn my life and make it like the virtues of these men’. He compares this process to looking in the ‘mirror’ of history. This is a very significant metaphor. Plutarch imagines himself and his readers not only observing the actions of the statesmen of the past, assessing their behaviour and judging it on a moral scale, but also comparing themselves with those great men: by looking in the mirror of history one sees oneself reflected, good points and bad, and considers one’s own behaviour in the light of that of the great men of history. Such self-examination, Plutarch explains, with a quotation from a now lost play of Sophocles (TrGFIV fragment 636), is pleasurable but also ‘effective for the improvement of character’. A central goal, then, of the Parallel Lives is the moral improvement of the reader.

We should not confuse Plutarch’s moral aims with his being ‘moralistic’, or imagine that in the Parallel Lives Plutarch lectures his readers on good or bad behaviour. In fact, Plutarch very rarely goes in for overt moralizing, but tends to shape his work so that moral issues appear to emerge directly from his narrative, and trusts his reader to notice them. Furthermore, as well as providing examples of good or bad behaviour, the Lives also seem to highlight difficult moral problems or dilemmas. To take an example from the Lives in this volume, when Dion of Sicily sanctions the assassination of his troublesome opponent Heracleides, the Syracusans, though at first annoyed, soon recognize that the city would have had no peace with both men alive (Dion 53). This might suggest that the reader should approve. But earlier Plutarch has had Dion himself argue that murdering Heracleides would be an act of moral weakness (ch. 47). So was the murder a necessary evil essential to ensuring the greater good or a lamentable failure of moral nerve? Plutarch draws his readers’ attention to the problem, but does not resolve it.

Finally, Plutarch never paints his subjects as black-and-white heroes and villains. It may be easy to label some of their actions as more or less good or bad, but Plutarch presents whole Lives rather than isolated stories, and in all of his Lives there are many grey areas and much food for thought. To take just one example, Alexander the Great combines great bravery and drive, and his conquests are presented as glorious and praiseworthy. But he also murders his friends and dies from heavy drinking, superstitious and embittered. This is not a model for simple adulation or imitation; rather, Plutarch’s Alexander encourages the reader to think deeply about moral issues: what makes a good leader? what makes a good life? It is exactly in this capacity of the Lives to make the readerthink that their moral power lies.

Plutarch’s Historical Selectivity

We have already noticed how in the prologue to Alexander and Caesar Plutarch declares that he will be selective in the events he chooses to narrate. He relates this selectivity not only to his moral focus but also to the fact that he is ‘writing Lives not history’ (Alexander 1). This was a more controversial and striking claim to his original readers than it now seems to us, as political biography in Plutarch’s time was only gradually developing an identity as a separate genre. At any rate, Plutarch declares that his aim is not to give a complete or consistent coverage of a particular historical period, but to focus on his biographical subject and to give only such background material as the reader may need to understand him.

Plutarch’s selectivity can sometimes be frustrating for the modern historian. He tends to assume knowledge of the basic narrative, which forms the background against which the actions of the subject of the particular Life are set. Furthermore, Plutarch does not attempt to give a full coverage even of the events in which the subject was involved; instead he tends to select for special treatment episodes which he considers particularly revealing of the subject’s character and to explore them at length, while ignoring or passing quickly over other events or periods of the subject’s life entirely. This selectivity means that, although we can often fill in the gaps from other ancient sources, there are times when Plutarch assumes knowledge of the wider period that we simply do not possess. For example, the first third or so of Phocion consists largely of anecdotes designed to bring out Phocion’s character. As a result, much remains unclear in the early career of Phocion, and neither this Life nor that of Demosthenes enables us to understand fully Athenian foreign policy in the decades leading up to Chaeronea in 338 BC. Similarly, Eumenes concentrates almost exclusively on the last six years of Eumenes’ life, and even then focuses mainly on his difficulties in dealing with his Macedonian subordinates, and on his betrayal by his troops, rather than on giving a clear narrative of the hugely important events which convulsed Greece and the Near East in the years after Alexander’s death and in which Eumenes played a major role. In both cases Plutarch certainly had access to sources which would have informed him of the wider narrative; his decision not to repeat this narrative is a deliberate one.

Also challenging for the historian is Plutarch’s tendency to be sympathetic to the subject of whichever Life he is writing. This is perfectly understandable in a biographer, and in Plutarch never involves a white-wash. But it does mean that in each Life Plutarch tends to adopt something of the point of view of the subject of that Life. As a result, different Lives give quite radically different presentations of the same events or period. For example, Pelopidas portrays the events of the 370s and 360s BC from a Theban point of view, whereas Agesilaus portrays them from a Spartan one. Similarly, Demosthenes and Phocion give very different ‘takes’ on the question of Athenian resistance to or collaboration with Macedonia. In neither case are the differences explicable in terms of Plutarch’s access to information or of his own personal beliefs; rather they flow naturally from his single-minded biographical focus. This tendency to focalize through the subject of each Life can be seen particularly clearly in Artaxerxes, the one stand-alone Life in this volume (i.e., the only one which is not part of the Parallel Lives); here the Greeks are mere bit-players, seen from the point of view of the Persian court (though the terms in which Plutarch analyses that court, and the assumptions he brings, are themselves thoroughly Greek).

Plutarch and his Sources

One of the reasons for Plutarch’s selectivity must have been that for all the periods of Greek history about which he wrote, including the period covered in this volume, there already existed large-scale histories to which many of his readers had access. For the fourth- and third-century BC Greek Lives collected in this volume this included, among many others, the works of Xenophon, Ephorus, Timaeus and Hieronymus of Cardia. All of these historians had by Plutarch’s day attained the status of classics, though unfortunately only Xenophon’s work now survives. Plutarch’s aim is not to repeat what these historians said or to compete with them, but to give a new, distinctive version of history, focused tightly on the individual subject and his character.

Plutarch makes explicit his desire to avoid direct competition with earlier historians in the prologue to another pair of Lives, Nicias and Crassus. Nicias was commander of Athens’ ill-fated expedition to Sicily in 415 BC, and he died, like most of his men, in the slaughter which followed the Athenian retreat from Syracuse. All this had been dealt with by the great fifth-century historian Thucydides, whose account had become a classic, as well as by the Sicilian historian Philistus. Plutarch announces in his prologue that he will not try to compete with either work. He continues:

But in order not to appear totally careless or lazy, I have run through briefly and without unnecessary detail those deeds which Thucydides and Philistus described, since it is impossible to pass them by, containing as they do indications of the man’s character and disposition, which are revealed in the midst of great sufferings. I have also tried to bring together those incidents which escape the majority and which have been mentioned in scattered locations by others, or have been found either on votive offerings or in old decrees. My aim is not to gather a useless mass of material, but rather material that contributes to an understanding of character and temperament.

(Nicias 1)

The basic narrative covered by earlier historians will not, Plutarch claims, be ignored: after all, a man’s deeds, especially when he is placed in situations of great stress, can throw light on his character. But Plutarch will supplement the narrative he found in the major historians with material from other sources. The purpose, he maintains, in a claim which is meant to set him apart from writers of standard historiography, is not mere narration; gathering material for its own sake could so easily be ‘useless’ erudition. Rather, his focus will be the ‘character and temperament’ of his subjects, an analysis of which, he implies, might be useful for his readers.

Plutarch certainly drew on a vast range of sources, and names literally hundreds of writers whose work he used. As well as the large-scale narrative histories, he cites as sources of information comedies, speeches and letters, and where relevant the work of Latin historians, as well as collections of inscriptions, oral tradition, and occasionally his own knowledge of the terrain or its landmarks. In many cases, and especially in the Lives collected in this volume, these sources are now lost, and Plutarch’s own citations have become important evidence for the content of these works. But where Plutarch’s sources do survive, it is clear that he has exercised a considerable degree of flexibility in the use he made of them. While he occasionally sticks close to the wording of his source, he more often rewrites the material entirely, transforming its tone and the use to which it is put, either by combining it with material from other sources or simply by adapting it for his own purposes or to suit his own concerns.

In fact, Plutarch uses and cites earlier writers not simply as sources of information. His Lives are peppered with references to and quotations of the classics of Greek literature, especially Homer, the tragedians and Plato. Many of these allusions have no direct relevance to the subject or period about which Plutarch is writing. Sometimes they merely add literary colour to Plutarch’s prose. But in many cases we can see that readers who knew the original passage and could call to mind its context would find additional meaning in such quotations or allusions. For example, when Plutarch discusses the Theban general Pelopidas’ simplicity of life in Pelopidas 3, he quotes two lines of Euripides’ Suppliant Women: ‘Like Capaneus in Euripides’ play, he possessed “Abundant wealth, but in that wealth no pride”.’ This quotation is no mere ornament. In Euripides’ play, these lines were spoken in praise of Capaneus, after he had been killed in battle. To readers who know the original passage, Plutarch’s quotation of it both reinforces the sense of Capaneus’ noble character and provides a hint to think forward to Pelopidas’ rash death in battle, which had itself just been discussed at length in the prologue (Pelopidas 1–2). Similarly, when Plutarch has Pyrrhus declare to his men, as they prepare to assault Argos (Pyrrhus 29), ‘One omen is best, to fight for Pyrrhus!’, readers who recognize that this is an adaptation of Hector’s words in the Iliad, and that Hector’s death soon followed, will understand that Pyrrhus too will die in the forthcoming battle. In such cases we should not talk about Plutarch’s use of ‘sources’ but about his use of intertextual allusion.

Chronology and Structure

Each Life has a broadly chronological structure, but Plutarch does not always follow chronological order; indeed, his interest in character almost guarantees that he will from time to time interrupt his narrative and gather into one place material which illustrates or reveals particular character-traits. Such sections usually include one or more self-contained stories, or anecdotes; these anecdotes may have no chronological relationship to each other or to the context into which they are inserted, but are selected because of the light they throw on the subject’s character. In such cases it would be wrong to say that Plutarch is imprecise or unconcerned about chronology; he is in fact often in the Lives very precise about chronological matters, giving exact dates or making comments of the kind ‘But this happened later’. But chronological considerations are not the only ones which guide Plutarch in his selection or deployment of material: at times thematic considerations may trump the chronological and the links between episodes may be logical rather than chronological. It is important to keep this in mind. Modern readers tend to expect narrative and to assume that the order in which events are mentioned must correspond with the order in which they happened or the order in which the author thought they happened. But Plutarch may follow a train of thought or argument and group together various incidents which have a bearing on a particular theme. As a result, unless he states it clearly, we should never assume that the order in which Plutarch introduces his material must necessarily correspond to the chronological order of events, or to what Plutarch believed to be the chronological order.

There is one part of the Life which is almost never chronological: the start. A very few Lives, notably Timoleon and Pyrrhus, begin with some general historical background before introducing the subject, possibly because in these cases Plutarch was dealing with geographical areas (Sicily, Epirus) whose history was less known to his readers. But the openings of most Lives include material on a fairly uniform set of themes, such as the subject’s family, appearance and character. Stories from the subject’s childhood may be included here, but, if they are, they are often placed alongside stories from later in life. Thus early sections of Lives do not necessarily or exclusively deal with the early part of a man’s life. The truth is that Plutarch is not much interested in investigating the childhood of his subjects in its own right, and there is only rarely any narrative of childhood, or sense that the child is developing or changing. This is all very different from how a modern biographer might work. The latter will often look to childhood influences or experiences to explain the way a person developed as they did. Plutarch, on the other hand, usually includes stories from childhood merely to confirm or illustrate a point about adult character or to provide early indications of that adult character. Accordingly, he tends to begin the narrative proper with the subject’s first actions as an adult on the public stage.

Plutarch’s Lives do not, then, normally narrate the subject’s life from birth. Nor do they tend to finish with his death. Many Lives continue the story to look briefly at the fate of the subject’s body, and at his reputation after death: any posthumous honours, for example. Others look at the fate of his descendants or opponents, and many Lives give some sort of summing up of the man and his life. Thus Plutarch’s literary Life tends not to be co-terminous with the life of the subject.

One feature of Plutarch’s narrative technique which deserves special mention is his variation of narrative ‘speed’. Plutarch will often pass quickly over long periods, perhaps several years or more, especially if the subject did not himself play a major role in the wider events of that time. On the other hand, Plutarch often slows the narrative down to create dramatic scenes, described at length and in great detail, in which the subject of the Life and his actions form the focal point. This variation in narrative speed gives Plutarch’s Lives an ‘episodic’ or even ‘cinematic’ feel, as the narrative fragments into a series of self-contained vignettes or tableaux. This prevents the writing from becoming monotonous, and also serves to create meaning by throwing emphasis on these large scenes and on the characteristics of the subject which emerge from them, and away from other events which are brushed over quickly.

Plutarch and his Period

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives were written at the height of the Roman Empire, some four to five centuries after the men whose Lives are included in this volume. They are dedicated to a powerful Roman, Sosius Senecio (see Dion 1 and Demosthenes 1 and 31), but several features make it likely that they were written with a mainly Greek audience in mind. First, and most obviously, the Lives were written in Greek. Secondly, Plutarch seems to assume that his readers have a much greater background knowledge of Greek history than of Roman, as he includes much more basic historical narrative in his Roman Lives than he does in his Greek ones. Finally, in his Lives of both Greek and Roman figures, Plutarch constantly quotes and alludes to the classics of Greek literature, both prose and verse, but rarely makes reference to Latin literature, except for the immediate sources which he is following.

It is important to keep in mind that Plutarch and his Greek readers lived in a world far removed from the one he was writing about. Peace and stability had been imposed on Greece, with some interruptions, two centuries before Plutarch’s birth, and Roman power was now unchallenged across the Mediterranean world. For the Greeks of the mainland, the era of conquest and warfare was, for the moment, over. So was the era of competing kings, of shifting alliances, of mercenaries and the sacking of cities. Furthermore, even though in Plutarch’s time many cities called their constitutions ‘democracies’, in reality power lay firmly in the hands of the landed elites, whose own power was underwritten by the might of Rome.

Thus Plutarch is in no sense a contemporary witness or source of the events or people he describes. Indeed, some features of the Lives, especially the ways in which the politics of the polis are portrayed, reflect Plutarch’s own political and social context. For example, while Plutarch, like many writers of his day, idealizes Classical Athens in general, its democracy, like that of Syracuse, is not presented in a particularly positive light. The masses are consistently presented in the Lives as a dangerous force which must be carefully managed and controlled; popular leaders, in Plutarch’s projection, can easily become demagogues, who stir up the masses. Similarly, while Plutarch and his wealthy contemporaries maintained a deep, personal attachment to their own polis, they were also used to a world in which the polis had long been subsumed within much wider political and geographic entities, and in which a broader, over-arching concept of Greekness had more traction than it had in the Classical period. It was thus much more natural for Plutarch to present the conquest of the states of mainland Greece by Macedonia as a natural, perhaps inevitable, development and to take seriously Alexander’s pan-Hellenic propaganda, just as it was for him to accept the incorporation of the mainland Greek cities first into the Hellenistic kingdoms and then into the Roman Empire. Indeed, the decision to pair Greek subjects with Roman ones is itself, at the very least, a recognition of the importance of Roman culture, and perhaps suggests a bipartite vision of history, in which the Mediterranean world is made up of two dominant civilizations, comparable and yet separate: a Latin-speaking West and a Greek-speaking East.

But for all that we should not overstate Plutarch’s distance from the periods about which he writes. Roman control did not mean the end of the Greek city-states, such as Plutarch’s own city of Chaeronea. Governing councils still met, magistrates were still appointed, inscriptions put up and festivals with their athletic contests still held. Plutarch’s own writing in the Moralia, especially his Political advice, gives a lively picture of political life within these cities, where the well-to-do competed among themselves for power and prestige. Thus, although Roman power meant that freedom of action in foreign policy was now more limited, the structures and rhythms of polis life were little changed. Furthermore, although the Greek language had evolved and changed, Plutarch still spoke essentially the same language as had been spoken in the Classical period, and worshipped the same gods at the same shrines. He also had the benefit of reading hundreds of ancient authors now lost. So although not a contemporary source, Plutarch’s choices and the way he presents his material are always worth taking very seriously. This is the case not least in his ability to recreate for us the atmosphere of the ancient world, whether he is describing the palace of Dionysius II in Sicily, a meeting of the Athenian assembly, Alexander’s banquets or the clash of two Hellenistic armies on the great plains of Asia.

Plutarch’s Language

Plutarch’s Greek is difficult. This is partly because the Greek language itself had changed since the Classical period, and Plutarch had open to him a much wider range of linguistic and stylistic choices than were available to Classical authors such as Thucydides or Demosthenes. His style is mildly ‘Atticizing’, that is, he utilizes the grammatical forms and syntactical structures of the Classical Athenian writers. But his sentences are more loosely constructed and his vocabulary, drawing on the new coinages of the Hellenistic period, wider and more abstract.

His Greek provides some particular problems for the translator. Some sentences are very long and cannot be reproduced in English without tiring the reader. Plutarch also has a tendency to put in subordinate clauses those important political or military events in which the subject of the Life was not involved, sometimes at length, reserving the main clause for the subject himself. This has the effect of presenting such events as background, against which to set the activity of the subject of the Life. The modern translator must in most cases break such sentences down into smaller units and use more main clauses, thereby losing the grammatical and thematic hierarchization of Plutarch’s prose.

A particular characteristic of Plutarch’s style is his use of ‘doublets’: that is, to express a single concept or action, Plutarch will often use pairs of almost, but not quite, synonymous nouns, adjectives or verbs. The translator may try to reproduce these doublets in English, where this can be done naturally. But often one must translate with just a single term and risk losing some of the richness of Plutarch’s style.

Finally, a particular problem is caused to the translator by Plutarch’s assumption that his readers will be well versed in the Classics of Greek literature. He frequently quotes and alludes to earlier Greek authors (especially Plato, Homer and the tragedians), often without making it explicit that he is doing so. In order to understand fully Plutarch’s point, the reader must recognize and call to mind the passage to which he alludes. The modern reader, who is dependent on endnotes to explain such allusions, inevitably misses much of the allusive or ‘literary’ quality of Plutarch’s prose.

List of Surviving Lives by Plutarch

Lives included in this volume are marked with an asterisk.


Theseus and Romulus

Lycurgus and Numa

Solon and Publicola

Themistocles and Camillus

Aristides and Cato Major

Cimon and Lucullus

Pericles and Fabius

Nicias and Crassus

Coriolanus and Alcibiades

Lysander and Sulla

Agesilaus and Pompey

Pelopidas* and Marcellus

Dion* and Brutus

Aemilius and Timoleon*

Demosthenes* and Cicero

Phocion* and Cato Minor

Alexander* and Caesar

Sertorius and Eumenes*

Demetrius* and Antony

Pyrrhus* and Marius

Agis & Cleomenes and Tiberius & Caius Gracchus (a double pair)

Philopoemen and Flamininus



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