From Solon to Alexander: Two Collections of Plutarch’s Greek Lives

The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives
The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch
The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch

A while ago, I wrote a short piece about Plutarch, the Roman biographer whose Parallel Lives have been popular for centuries. There’s a reason why he’s survived so well when so many of his peers – Tacitus and Pliny the Elder come to mind – haven’t: his stuff is accessible and enjoyable reading for the layperson.

Plutarch lived in the second century AD, writing in Greek for primarily an affluent audience. His Lives were mostly concerned with comparing famous Romans to Greeks. One such was Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar or Demostenes to Cicero. Traditionally, they were kept in these pairs and sometimes there was a short essay comparing the two, although not all of these have come down to us (for reference, here’s a great compilation of his Lives).

These are presented a little bit differently: the first is a compilation of lives showing Athens rising as a power in Greece, through the Peloponnesian War and ends with Lysander razing the long walls of Athens. It starts with the legendary Theseus, the son of Poseidon, who did everything from slay a minotaur to found the city of Athens. It continues with figures like Solon, Themistocles to the most famous Athenian of all: Pericles, who was an orator, general and helped foster democracy. It ends with the life of Lysander, who led Sparta to a victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War, ending the long-running war and leaving one city in power over the whole Greek empire.

The second covers the next period: Athenian orators like Demosthenes and Phocion, the Spartan king Agesilaus, Pelepidas, generals like Demetrius (the besieger of cities) or Pyrrhus and, it’s namesake, Alexander the Great. Taken as a whole, they’re a compact history of the Greek world’s rise and decline, taking you through the wars with Persia and amongst themselves and the successive rises of Athens, Sparta and Macedonia.

While they’re an interesting secondary source, they’re great fun on their own: they’re more concerned with showing the ideals of these famous men than they are in repeating history, so one often gets to see things overlap and covered from more than one way. And they’re packed with little flourishes and details too, like the famous tale of Diogenes and Alexander:

When he saw so many people approaching him, Diogenes raised himself a little on his elbow and fixed his gaze upon Alexander. The king greeted him and inquired weither he could do anything for him. “Yes,” replied the philosopher, “you can stand a little to one side out of the sun.” Alexander is said to have been greatly impressed by this answer… so much so that he remarked to his followers, who were laughing and mocking the philosopher as he went away, “You may say what you like, but were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” (pg 266)

But there’s others too: Pericles leading the construction of Athens famous temples, including the Parthenon; Demosthenes trying to rally Athens to a revolt, getting arrested and committing suicide by sucking on his reed; Demetrius’ giant siege machines; Alexander trying to stump the ten leading philosophers of India.

It’s a fascinating look at this interesting time and a more colourful than Thucydides to boot; Plutarch was a favorite of everyone from Montagne to Shakespeare to. It might be best read in conjunction with some of the other Classical Greek historians, but by itself it’s a nice look at this period of history that’s never too obtuse or hard to follow: the translations here by Ian Scott-Kilvert are lucid and well-supplanted by notes and maps.

While I would’ve appreciated more of Plutarch’s connective essays being translated and included,  I also recognize why Penguin went this route. When they started translating Plutarch for a modern audience, they split the lives up by era. The first volume was Rex Warner’s collection of Roman lives, all centered around the civil wars: Cicero, Caesar, Sulla, Pompey and so forth. It omitted any of the connecting essays. Their reasoning for this was simple enough: interested readers were more likely to want to read about a period of time than a collection of biographies. Hey, Oxford University Press did the same thing.

Throughout the years, this has been Penguin’s MO: Scott-Kilvert translated several volumes and later, Richard J.A. Talbert rounded off the series. But more recently, Penguin’s editors have relented somewhat: volumes have been reissued with the connecting essays and some of the other lives have been collected in a volume called Rome in Crisis. I’ll visit that one in a later essay.

Rating: 8/10. If you’re interested in ancient history, there aren’t many more enjoyable primary sources, especially for this period. Recommended, especially in the new Penguin editions.


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