Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives, is a series of biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, written in the late 1st century.[not verified in body] The surviving Parallel Lives [in Greek: Βίοι Παράλληλοι (Bíoi Parállēloi)] contain twenty-three pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, as well as four unpaired, single lives. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals biographized, but also about the times in which they lived.[not verified in body]
As he explains in the first paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with writing histories, as such, but in exploring the influence of character — good or bad — on the lives and destinies of famous men, and he wished to prove that the more remote past of Greece could show its men of action and achievement as well as the nearer, and therefore more impressive, past of Rome. The interest is primarily ethical, although the lives have significant historical value as well. The Lives were published by Plutarch late in life after his return to Chaeronea, and, if one may judge from the long lists of authorities given, must have taken many years in the compilation.
The chief manuscripts of the Lives date from the 10th and 11th centuries; the first edition appeared at Florence in 1517. Jacob Tonson printed several editions of the Lives in English in the late 17th century, beginning with a 5-volume set printed in 1688 and subsequent editions printed in 1693, 1702, 1716, and 1727. The most generally accepted text is that of the minor edition of Carl Sintenis in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana (5 vols., Leipzig 1852-55; reissued without much change in 1873-75). There are annotated editions by I. C. Held, E. H. G. Leopold, Otto Siefert and Friedrich Blass and Carl Sintenis, all in German; and by Holden, in English.
The first pair of lives — the Epaminondas–Scipio Africanus — no longer exists, and many of the remaining lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae and/or have been tampered with by later writers.
His Life of Alexander is one of the five surviving secondary or tertiary sources about Alexander the Great and it includes anecdotes and descriptions of incidents that appear in no other source. Likewise, his portrait of Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, also contains unique information about the early Roman calendar.
Plutarch is criticized for his lack of judicious discrimination in use of authorities and the consequent errors and inaccuracies, but he gives an abundance of citations and incidentally a large number of valuable bits of information which fill up numerous gaps in historical knowledge obtained elsewhere. He is praised for the liveliness and warmth of his portrayals and his moral earnestness and enthusiasm, and the Lives have attracted a large circle of readers throughout the ages.
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Plutarch structured his Lives by alternating lives of famous Greeks ("Grecians") with those of famous Romans. After such a set of two (and one set of four) lives he generally writes out a comparison of the preceding biographies. The table below links to several on-line English translations of Plutarch's Lives; see also "Other links" section below. The LacusCurtius site has the complete set; the others are incomplete to varying extents. There are also four paperbacks published by Penguin Books, two with Greek lives, two Roman, rearranged in chronological order, and containing a total of 36 of the lives.
Key to Abbreviations
- D = Dryden
Dryden is famous for having lent his name as editor-in-chief to the first complete English translation of Plutarch's Lives. This 17th-century translation is available at The MIT Internet Classics Archive.
These translations are linked with D in the table below; those marked (D) in parentheses are incomplete in the HTML version.
- G = Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg contains several versions of 19th-century translations of these Lives, see: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/authrec?fk_authors=342 and http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14114
These translations are linked with G in the table below.
- L = LacusCurtius
LacusCurtius has the Loeb translation by Bernadotte Perrin (published 1914‑1926) of part of the Moralia and all the Lives; see http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/home.html
These translations are linked with L in the table below.
- P = Perseus Project
The Perseus Project has several of the Lives, see: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cache/perscoll_Greco-Roman.html
The Lives available on the Perseus website are in Greek and English according to the Loeb edition by Bernadotte Perrin; and/or in English according to an abbreviated version of the Thomas North translations. This last edition concentrates on those of the Lives Shakespeare based his plays upon: Thomas North's translation of most of the Lives, based on a French version published in the 16th century, preceded Dryden's translation mentioned above.
These translations are linked with P in the table below.
- ^ The last line of the table contains the four "unpaired" lives, as mentioned above.
- ^ The Perseus project also contains a biography of Caesar Augustus appearing in the North translation, but not coming from Plutarch's Parallel Lives: P
- ^ Though the majority of the Parallel Lives were written with the Greek hero (or heroes) placed in the first position followed by the Roman hero, there are three sets of Lives where this order is reversed : Aemilius Paulus-Timoleon, Coriolanus-Alcibiades and Sertorius-Eumenes.
- ^ At the time of composing this table there appears some confusion in the internal linking of the Perseus project webpages, responsible for this split in two references.
Chronology of the lives
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (July 2013)|
The following chronology of legendary and historical figures whose biographies appear in the Lives is organized by date of death, as birth dates in antiquity are more often uncertain. All dates are BC except Galba and Otho.
- University of Chicago English text of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.
- A website dedicated to modern parallel biographies, where Plutarch's Lives appears as an example