Plutarch’s Lives Revisited
Bard College classicist James Romm, author of memorably good books such as Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero and Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire, provides the preface for a curious and inviting new book from W.W. Norton, The Age of Caesar, which is a selection of five Roman lives written in the first century AD by the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch. Romm quotes Plutarch himself (from his life of Alexander the Great) about the aim of his project: “For it is not histories I am writing, but lives; and the most glorious deeds do not always reveal the workings of virtue or vice. Frequently, a small thing—a phrase or a flash of wit—gives more insight into a man’s character than battles where tens of thousands die, or vast arrays of troops, or sieges of cities.”
This sentiment is as close to the expression of a working principle as Plutarch ever comes, and it fits what we know of the man: confident but not overreaching, careful of distinctions, concerned more with the quirks of individuals than the affairs of nations. It’s that human focus, the endless variety of his character portraits, that has made Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, from which these five lives are quarried, such endlessly good reading for the last 2,000 years.
It’s a vast quarry. Plutarch was born around AD 46 in the central Greek town of Chaeronea in Boeotia, apparently of a well-to-do family. As a young man, he was sent to finish his education at Athens, where in 66 AD the emperor Nero infamously toured Greece. Plutarch was a fairly conventional Platonist, tutoring and giving lectures on morals and philosophy and giving dinners for well-heeled and influential guests, including some of the foremost Roman visitors of the day. One of these was Quintus Sosius Senecio, a close friend of the emperor Trajan, who would go on to hold the consulship and to whom Plutarch dedicated many of his works. Romm evokes something of this comfortable, cultured world in his introduction to this new volume, noting that his familiarity with powerful Romans tells us something about Plutarch’s “breadth and temperament.” “Not covetous of power himself,” Romm writes, “he felt at ease with those who were; he no doubt shared with them many dinner parties of the kind he represents in his Table Talk, where learned conversation flowed freely in Greek.”
The Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough, in his 1859 revision of John Dryden’s 17th-century translation of the Parallel Lives, strikes a similar note about Plutarch’s congeniality, the way he constantly displays “the instructed happiness of one who had lived into good times out of evil.” For Clough, “his natural cheerfulness is undiminished, his easy and joyous simplicity is unimpaired, his satisfactions are not saddened or imbittered by any overpowering recollections of years passed under the immediate present terrors of imperial wickedness.”
In other words, Plutarch was enviably free to recollect times of chaos from the security of peaceful times. He married, had children, traveled some (including to Egypt), and served as a city official at his beloved Chaeronea—a small town, he remarked, where he stayed because he was reluctant to decrease its population by leaving. He also served as priest of Apollo at Delphi. He had none of the servility of his contemporary Pliny the Younger, nor any of the bitter acerbity of his contemporary Tacitus. Rather, he was calm and clear-eyed without being sycophantic, garrulous but controlled, writing in a Greek that was both polished and approachable. He wrote an enormous amount in a full literary life, and roughly half of that output has come down to us in various stages of preservation. Forty-eight of the mini-biographies Plutarch wrote for his Parallel Lives have come down to us.
The book was a long project, begun in the settled maturity of Plutarch’s writing life. Its aim was to give readers one illustrious Greek life, one illustrious Roman life, and then an essay comparing the two. His emphasis is pointedly personal; as he writes at one point in his life of Nicias, in the Dryden translation, “such things as are not commonly known, and lie scattered here and there in other men’s writings, or are found amongst the old monuments and archives, I shall endeavor to bring together; not collecting mere useless pieces of learning, but adducing what may make his disposition and habit of mind understood.” Historians have complained for a thousand years about Plutarch’s handling of those scattered gleanings from other men’s writings. Here was an author with access to the full range of written sources available at the pinnacle of classical Roman civilization, these historians lament, and yet he confines himself to a kind of willful, impressionistic approach. While Romm defends Plutarch, telling us he “never intended his work as a historical record,” he also mentions the author’s “insouciance with regards to the chronology and relative weight of the events he describes.”
Such complaints are familiar, but they would have mystified most of the great writers who have found in the Parallel Lives such a wealth of human understanding that they seldom paused to criticize things like textual chronology. From 1559 to 1565, French humanist Jacques Amyot translated the Parallel Lives into a clear, punchy French edition much admired by Montaigne. In 1579, Sir Thomas North made a thundering English-language translation based on Amyot, and the reception of the work was good enough for him to keep expanding on it throughout the course of a very busy professional life. It was from North’s Plutarch that Shakespeare drew, often verbatim, for his Roman plays, and the translation stood unchallenged until 1683, when Dryden attached the fame of his name to a new translation of the Parallel Lives done by a hard-working but unevenly talented syndicate of scholars. Despite its inconsistencies, this “Dryden” version has enjoyed a remarkable life; it and its more polished Clough facelift have been in print for centuries in one format or other, probably helped in no small part because the only other post-North rival, the 1770 version by John and William Langhorne, although dutiful, is virtually unreadable.
Another reason why the Dryden translation of the Parallel Lives remains in print and in bookstores when North and the Langhornes have long since fallen away is a bit starker and more shameful: as a popular edition, it largely has no competition.
In the middle of the 20th century, popular reprint and academic publishers brought out the Parallel Lives in splinters. Penguin Classics produced four volumes carved out of the Lives: The Fall of the Roman Republic in 1958, with English-language translation by Rex Warner, followed by The Rise and Fall of Athens in 1960, Makers of Rome in 1965, and The Age of Alexander in 1973, all by Ian Scott-Kilvert. All four of these volumes enjoyed boisterous sales to schools and the general public, and they all share the same approach: notable lives of Greeks and Romans are grouped together, introduced, and annotated, and presented free of their counterparts and also free of the comparison essays, although some of these comparison essays were added in later editions. Thirty years later, Oxford World’s Classics followed a similar pattern: Robin Waterfield translated selected lives in volumes called Greek Lives and Roman Lives, likewise presented in thematic groups without their comparative essays.
The Age of Caesar ushers this pattern into the 21st century. The volume includes Plutarch’s lives of Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Brutus, and Marc Antony, all translated by Pamela Mensch, who worked with James Romm on a translation of Herodotus and on the Landmark Arrian, as well as on something of a companion volume to The Age of Caesar called Lives That Made Greek History. This new book includes maps, an essay on the Roman constitution by Song of Wrath author J.E. Lendon, and an introduction by popular classicist Mary Beard, who writes not so much about Plutarch as about the “age of Caesar” in Romm’s title, a world of “political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome, and fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run, how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met.”
Classical scholars, among them Christopher Pelling, the dean of modern-day Plutarch studies, have argued that Plutarch almost certainly worked on a group of Roman lives together, writing them with the same set of sources open before him. This group included all the lives presented here except the Cicero, which is added in this case, according to Romm, “because of its subject’s historical importance.” Marius and Sulla, the proto-dictators who paved the way for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon by first introducing the fatal admixture of political demagoguery and raw military coercion into Roman civilian life, are missing from The Age of Caesar, as are the Roman general Sertorius and the plutocrat Marcus Crassus and the influential grandee Lucullus.
Instead, we concentrate on these five: Gnaeus Pompey, the military boy genius who later became the de facto ruler of Roman life for nearly two decades; Julius Caesar, the preening aristocrat who took it upon himself to shatter once and for all the old structures of the Roman state; Marc Antony, Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, who stepped forward in the wake of his assassination and tried to take up some of the authority of his fallen master; Marcus Brutus, onetime friend to Caesar who later helped lead the men who assassinated him; and Marcus Tullius Cicero, the arriviste “new man” and celebrated lawyer and orator whose voluminous writings about his own day remain our best single contemporary source for the “age of Caesar.” Even though Plutarch himself was manifestly proud of his own Greek culture and filled his Greek lives with some of his most memorably beautiful prose, there’s an easy argument to be made that the core group of his Roman lives represents his best work.
Mensch’s translation captures the clarity of that work and a good deal of its easy forward momentum. Plutarch’s writing combines the comfortable, gossipy moralizing of Livy with the precise rhetorical calibration of Tacitus, and the result sparks with human insight unmatched by any other writer of the ancient world except the Greek tragedians. Plutarch is writing thematically, ethically pointed lives, so there’s scarcely a passage, however brief, that isn’t freighted with meaning. Take as an example one quick moment in his life of Caesar: Pompey has filled the Forum with armed men in order to ram through the Senate new laws designed to give his then-ally Caesar greatly expanded powers in the provinces. Plutarch gives readers a little follow-up moment, here in Pamela Mensch’s translation:
When Cato tried to argue against these measures, Caesar had him led off to prison, thinking the man would appeal to the tribunes. But when Cato went along without a word, and Caesar saw not only that the nobility were unhappy, but that the common people too, out of respect for Cato’s virtue, followed him in sorrowful silence, he himself secretly asked one of the tribunes to let Cato go.
Waterfield renders the last bit slightly differently: “… but when Caesar also saw that Cato’s noble qualities commanded such respect that ordinary people were accompanying him on his way in dejected silence, he quietly asked one of the tribunes to let him go.” In this he’s echoing Dryden’s version: “… but the people also, out of respect for Cato’s virtue, were following in silence, and with dejected looks, he himself privately desired one of the tribunes to rescue Cato.” In Mensch’s version “dejected” is rejected in favor of the sibilance of “sorrowful silence,” which is superior and slides smoothly into “secretly” to give the whole passage the slightly hissing overtone it deserves, since the point Plutarch is making flatters Cato, who will not cry up his own persecution even with popular support, at the expense of Caesar, who only does the right thing because the wrong thing isn’t polling well. It’s a translation full of good choices on Mensch’s part, and the whole of The Age of Caesar is full of such good choices.
But let’s note that as welcome as The Age of Caesar is, it’s a stunted, maimed thing, and for all its energy and good intentions, it also manages to do a fair amount of condescending to both its ancient author and its modern readers. In Plutarch, these lives are part of a larger narrative whole. Pompey is paired with King Agesilaus of Sparta, another brilliant military commander more suited to the battlefield than the Senate house. Brutus is paired with Plato’s disciple Dion, who likewise moved from dreamy youthful indolence to incipient tyranny in the name of overthrowing tyranny. Marc Antony is tellingly paired with Demetrius, another military golden boy known as much for his dissipation as his conquests. Cicero is paired with the great Athenian orator Demosthenes, who pitted his rhetoric against the rising military might of Alexander the Great. And Julius Caesar is paired with Alexander the Great.
And the pairings aren’t rote things; the halves come together to make wholes. An anecdote chosen to highlight the arrogance of the subject of the first life is counterbalanced by an anecdote about the humility of the subject of the adjoining life; points are set up in one half in order to be paid off in the other. There are very real ways in which these Lives don’t actually work when they’re cracked off from the whole like this and packed in with others solely on the basis of some modern theme. “This new scheme obscures the Parallel part of the Parallel Lives and makes Plutarch’s syncrises—the comparative essays with which he prefaced each pair of Lives, highlighting the ways that the characters of their Greek and Roman subjects might illuminate each other—all but irrelevant,” Romm concedes, then adds: “But it allows a fuller exploration of a single place, time, and culture, and a richer sense of the historical context that surrounds its subjects, than the original, paired arrangement.”
This may be true, but one could argue that this is a rotten way to treat a towering classic of world literature. An editor offering readers the best Napoleon bits from War and Peace would receive stern looks, not plaudits, from the New York Times. The Age of Caesar makes for an engaging introduction for English-only readers to a small sliver of the greatness that is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. But surely it’s long since time for a new edition of the whole thing—if only to give John Dryden a little well-earned rest.
Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its book-blogs, Stevereads.