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Parallel Lives

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Engraving facing the title page of an 18th-century edition of Plutarch's Lives

The Parallel Lives (Greek: Βίοι Παράλληλοι, Bíoi Parállēloi; Latin: Vītae Parallēlae) is a series of 48 biographies of famous men written by the Greco-Roman philosopher, historian, and Apollonian priest Plutarch, probably at the beginning of the second century. It is also known as Plutarch's Lives (Πλούταρχου Βίοι, Ploútarchou Bíoi; Plutarchī Vītae); Parallels (Παράλληλα, Parállēla; Parallela); the Comparative Lives (Συγκριτικοί Βίοι, Sygkritikoí Bíoi; Vitae Comparatae); the Lives of Illustrious Men (Vitae Illustrium Virorum); and the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (Βίοι Ῥωμαίων καὶ Ἑλλήνων, Bioi Rhōmaiōn kai Hellēnōn; Vitae Illustrium Virorum Graecorum et Romanorum or Graecorum Romanorumque Illustrium Vitae). The lives are arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings.[1] The surviving Parallel Lives comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman of similar destiny, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes and Cicero. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.


Parallel Lives was Plutarch's second set of biographical works, following the Lives of the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius. Of these, only the Lives of Galba and Otho survive.[2][3]

As he explains in the first paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with writing histories, but with exploring the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of famous men. He wished to prove that the more distant past of Greece could show its men of action and achievement as well as the more recent past of Rome.[4] His interest was primarily ethical, although the Lives has significant historical value as well. The Lives was published by Plutarch late in his life after his return to Chaeronea and, if one may judge from the long lists of authorities given, it must have taken many years to compile.[5]


Third Volume of a 1727 edition of Plutarch's Lives, printed by Jacob Tonson

The chief manuscripts of the Lives date from the 10th and 11th centuries, and the first printed edition appeared in Rome in 1470.[6] Thomas North's 1579 English translation was an important source-material for Shakespeare. Jacob Tonson printed several editions of the Lives in English in the late 17th century, beginning with a five-volume set printed in 1688, with subsequent editions printed in 1693, 1702, 1716, and 1727.[citation needed] The most generally accepted text is that of the minor edition of Carl Sintenis in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana (five volumes, Leipzig 1852–1855; reissued without much change in 1873–1875).[citation needed] 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.[5]

Two of the lives, those of Epaminondas and Scipio Africanus or Scipio Aemilianus, are lost,[7] and many of the remaining lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae and/or have been tampered with by later writers.[citation needed]

Plutarch's Life of Alexander is one of the few 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, contains unique information about the early Roman calendar.[citation needed] Plutarch has been 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.[5]


Plutarch structured his Lives by pairing lives of famous Greeks with those of famous Romans. After each pair of lives he generally writes out a comparison of the preceding biographies.[a] The table below gives the list of the biographies. Its order follows the one found in the Lamprias Catalogue, the list of Plutarch's works made by his hypothetical son Lamprias.[8] The table also features links to several English translations of Plutarch's Lives available online. In addition to these 48 Parallel Lives, Plutarch wrote an additional four unpaired biographies that although not considered part of Parallel Lives, can be included in the term Plutarch's Lives. The subjects of these four biographies are Artaxerxes, Aratus, Galba, and Otho.[i]

All dates are BC.

Greek Roman Comparison
Life Years Translations Life Years Translations
1 Theseus mythic D G L P LV Romulus fl. 771–717 D G L D G L
2 Lycurgus fl. c. 820 BC (D) G L Numa Pompilius 715–673 D G L D G L
3 Themistocles c. 524–459 D G L P Camillus 446–365 (D) G L n/a
4 Solon 638–558 D G L P Poplicola d. 503 D G L D G L
5 Pericles c. 495–429 (D) G L P Fabius Maximus 275–203 D G L D G L
6 Alcibiades 450–404 (D) G L P Coriolanus fl. 475 (D) G L P D G L
7 Epaminondas d. 362 Lost Scipio Africanus or Aemilianus[9] 236–183 or 185–129 Lost
8 Phocion c. 402 – c. 318 D G L P Cato the Younger 95–46 (D) G L n/a
9–10 Agis fl. 245 D L Tiberius Gracchus c. 164–133 D L D L
Cleomenes d. 219 D L Gaius Gracchus 154–121 D L
11 Timoleon c. 411–337 (D) G L Aemilius Paullus c. 229–160 (D) G L D G L
12 Eumenes c. 362–316 D G L Sertorius c. 123–72 D G L D G L
13 Aristides 530–468 D G L P Cato the Elder 234–149 D G L G L
14 Pelopidas d. 364 D G L Marcellus 268–208 D G L D G L
15 Lysander d. 395 D G L P Sulla 138–78 (D) G L D G L
16 Pyrrhus 319/318–272 (D) G L Marius 157–86 (D) G L n/a
17 Philopoemen 253–183 D G L Titus Flamininus c. 229–174 D G L D G L
18 Nicias 470–413 D G L P Crassus c. 115–53 (D) G L D G L
19 Cimon 510–450 D G L P Lucullus 118–57/56 (D) G L D G L
20 Dion 408–354 (D) L Brutus 85–42 (D) L P D L
21 Agesilaus c. 444 – c. 360 (D) G L Pompey 106–48 (D) G L D G L
22 Alexander 356–323 (D) G L P Julius Caesar (detailed article) 100–44 (D) G L P1 P2[1] n/a
23 Demosthenes 384–322 D L Cicero 106–43 (D) L D L
25[10] Demetrius d. 283 (D) L Mark Antony 83–30 (D) L P D L

The two-volume edition of Dryden's translation contains the following biographies: Volume 1. Theseus, Romulus, Lycurgus, Numa, Solon, Publicola, Themistocles, Camillus, Pericles, Fabius, Alcibiades, Coriolanus, Timoleon, Aemilius Paulus, Pelopidas, Marcellus, Aristides, Cato the Elder, Philopoemen, Flamininus, Pyrrhus, Marius, Lysander, Sulla, Cimon, Lucullus, Nicias, Crassus. Volume 2. Sertorius, Eumenes, Agesilaus, Pompey, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Phocion, Cato the Younger, Agis, Cleomenes, Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, Demosthenes, Cicero, Demetrius, Mark Antony, Dion, Marcus Brutus, Aratus, Artaxerxes II, Galba, Otho.

  1. ^ The Perseus project also contains a biography of Caesar Augustus, in North's translation, but not from Plutarch's Parallel Lives: P
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.


Of the biographies in Parallel Lives, that of Antonius has been cited by multiple scholars as one of the masterpieces of the series.[11][12][13] In 1895, George Wyndham wrote that the first rank consists of the biographies of Themistocles, Alcibiades, Marius, Cato the Elder, Alexander, Demetrius, Antonius, and Pompey.[14] Peter D'Epiro praised Plutarch's depiction of Alcibiades as "a masterpiece of characterization."[15] Academic Philip A. Stadter singled out Pompey and Caesar as the greatest figures in the Roman biographies.[16] In a review of the 1859 A. H. Clough translation, Plutarch's depictions of Antony, Coriolanus, Alcibiades, and the Cato the Elder were praised as deeply drawn. The reviewer found the sayings of Themistocles to be "snowy and splendid", those of Phocion to be "curt and sharp", and those of Cato "grave and shrewdly humorous".[17] Carl Rollyson lauded the biography of Caesar as proof Plutarch is "loaded with perception" and stated that no biographer "has surpassed him in summing up the essence of a life – perhaps because no modern biographer has believed so intensely as Plutarch did in 'the soul of men'.[18]

John Langhorne, D.D. and William Langhorne, A.M.'s English translation, noted that Amiot, Abbe of Bellozane, published a French translation of the work during the reign of Henry II in the year 1558; and from that work it was translated into English, in the time of Elizabeth I. No other translation appeared until that of John Dryden.[19]


  1. ^ Except for Agis IV and Cleomenes III of Sparta, and Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who a grouped together as a set of four.
  1. ^ Key to abbreviations:

    D: 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 contains several versions of 19th-century translations of these Lives, see here and here. The full text version (TXT) of the revision of Dryden's translation by the English poet Arthur Hugh Clough is available (via download) Gutenberg here. These translations are linked with G in the table below.

    L: LacusCurtius has the translation by Bernadotte Perrin of part of the Moralia and all the Lives, published in the Loeb Classical Library 1914–1926; see here. These translations are linked with L in the table below.

    LV: LibriVox has many free public-domain audiobooks of the Parallel Lives, Volumes I, II, and III. These translations are linked with LV in the table below.

    P: The Perseus Project has several of the Lives, see here. The Lives available on the Perseus website are in Greek and in the English translation by Bernadotte Perrin (see under L above), and/or in an abbreviated version of Thomas North's translations. This edition concentrates on those of the Lives that Shakespeare based plays on: North's translations of most of the Lives, based on the French version by Jacques Amyot, preceded Dryden's translation mentioned above. These translations are linked with P in the table.


  1. ^ James Romm (ed.), Plutarch: Lives that Made Greek History, Hackett Publishing, 2012, p. vi.
  2. ^ Kimball, Roger. "Plutarch & the issue of character". The New Criterion Online. Archived from the original on 2006-11-16. Retrieved 2006-12-11.
  3. ^ McCutchen, Wilmot H. "Plutarch – His Life and Legacy". Archived from the original on 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2006-12-10.
  4. ^ Life of Alexander 1.2
  5. ^ a b c Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Lives, Parallel" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  6. ^ Pade, Marianne. The Reception of Plutarch's Lives in Fifteenth-Century Italy Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/R/bo14317199.html Archived 2017-12-01 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Translator's Introduction". The Parallel Lives (Vol. I ed.). Loeb Classical Library Edition. 1914.
  8. ^ Plutarch's Moralia, XV, edited and translated by F. H. Sandbach, Loeb Classical Library, 1987, pp. 3–11.
  9. ^ Kevin Herbert, "The Identity of Plutarch's Lost Scipio Archived 2019-07-13 at the Wayback Machine", in The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 78, No. 1 (1957), pp. 83–88. Plutarch only gives the name "Scipio". Herbert favours Scipio Aemilianus as the topic of the lost Life; he notes that Scipio Africanus was the subject of another (lost) biography by Plutarch.
  10. ^ Eran Almagor, "The Aratus and the Artaxerxes", in Mark Beck (editor), A Companion to Plutarch, pp. 278, 279. The n°24 in the Lamprias catalogue was a pair of biographies of Aratus and Artaxerxes, but they did not belong to the Parallel Lives.
  11. ^ Shakespeare's Principal Plays. Century Company. 1922.
  12. ^ Stadter, Philip A., ed. (2002). Plutarch and the Historical Tradition. Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 1-134-91319-2.
  13. ^ Plutarch (1906). Plutarch's Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius: In North's Translation. Translated by North, Thomas. Clarendon Press.
  14. ^ Plutarch (1895). Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Volume 1. Translated by North, Thomas. D. Nutt.
  15. ^ D'Epiro, Peter (2010). The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet. Anchor Books. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-307-38843-8.
  16. ^ Brice, Lee L.; Slootjes, Daniëlle, eds. (2014). Aspects of Ancient Institutions and Geography: Studies in Honor of Richard J.A. Talbert. BRILL. p. 38. ISBN 978-9004283725.
  17. ^ Quarterly Review. J. Murray. 1861. pp. 246–250. Note that this 1861 review mistakenly identifies the author as "A.W. Clough" (p.239) but this is a typo; the author is A.H. Clough
  18. ^ Rollyson, Carl (2005). Essays in Biography. iUniverse. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-595-34181-8.
  19. ^ Plutarch's Lives. Edward and Charles Dilly. 1770.

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