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, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. The surviving Parallel Lives (Greek: Βίοι Παράλληλοι, Bíoi Parállēloi) comprises 23 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 described, but also about the times in which they lived.
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 remote past of Greece could show its men of action and achievement as well as the nearer, and therefore more impressive, past of Rome. His interest was primarily ethical, although the lives have 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.
The chief manuscripts of the Lives date from the 10th and 11th centuries, and the first printed edition appeared in Rome in 1470. 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. 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). 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.
Several of the lives, such as those of Epaminondas and Scipio Africanus, are lost, and many of the remaining lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae and/or have been tampered with by later writers.
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.
Plutarch has been criticized for his lack of judicious discrimination in his use of authorities, and consequent errors and inaccuracies, but he gives an abundance of citations and, incidentally, a large number of valuable pieces of information, which fill up numerous gaps in historical knowledge obtained elsewhere. He 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.
Plutarch's Life of Romulus is a significant source of the Roman foundation myth.
Parentage and youth
Plutarch adds details to the royal scandal behind the infant Romulus and Remus' abandonment in the wilderness. He quotes Diocles of Peparethus and Pictor in writing that when Numitor and Amulius stood to inherit the throne, the twins' great-grandfather gave his sons a choice between the throne and the treasures that had been brought back from Troy. Numitor chose the throne, but when he was overthrown, he ended up with neither. Along with the two names mentioned by Livy for the twins' mother, Plutarch tells us she may also have been named Ilia. The boys were the issue of Amulius himself, who raped his niece while wearing his armor. Upon the discovery of her pregnancy, her cousin Antho, the king's daughter convinced him to spare her life. He suggests that Faustulus may have been the name of the servant charged with the drowning of the twins, as opposed to their adopted father. He names the site where the boys are brought back to dry land by Tibernius as Kermalus, formerly Germanus (from the Latin word for twin).
In addition to the common tale, Plutarch relates a version from Dionysius where the twins' mother was Larentia, a woman famous for her beauty, and their father Hercules. She was forced to spend the night with the hero as his reward for winning a dice game with the keeper of his temple. In the morning, he threw her out and told her to befriend the first man she meets. He was Tarrutius, a wealthy elderly childless bachelor. They slept together, ended up marrying and were together until his death. Faustulus was, in this account, in the employ of Amulius. The basket in which they were abandoned bore a bronze inscription of their names and was kept by Faustulus, however, the inscription had worn off, but it was hoped that it might be used to determine their true parents.
Numitor and others possibly knew the secret of the twins origin and Numitor had them educated in Gabii. Romulus was the more dominant of the two. They were defiant toward the authorities and instead of being highwaymen preying on other thieves, here they were portrayed as vigilante protectors of their neighbors. In a story from Caius Ancilius, on one occasion, the twins had lost their flock and had set out after them naked so their sweat wouldn't slow them down. Because they were guided by Faunus, the god of nature, this inspired the later festivals.
Conflict with Amulius
A dispute between herdsmen loyal to Numitor and Amulius is at the heart of this version. The twins sided with Amulius. Remus was captured when Romulus was elsewhere. When Faustulus learned that Remus has been taken to Numitor, he went to Alba with the basket in which the infant twins were abandoned. It bore a copper plate with an engraving that had long been effaced. He was stopped by the city guards at the gate. The servant charged with abandoning the twins happened to be present and saw the basket, immediately going to inform the king. When brought before Amulius, Faustulus tries to fool the king by telling him the twins were alive elsewhere and the basket was being brought to their mother Ilia.
Citing Fabius and Diocles, Plutarch writes that Amulius sent a man close to Numitor to ask if he had had any word that the twins were alive. However, when he arrived, he saw Remus and Numitor together and warned them. They incited the people against the king just as Romulus arrived with an army of supporters to attack the city. The king was promptly overwhelmed and killed.
Plutarch claims that many slaves and fugitives were already following the twins when they set forth and were motivated by the Alban unwillingness to allow their cohorts to remain. He adds that some sources indicate that Romulus lied about the 12 birds he saw during the contest with Remus. Remus was killed either by his brother, or Celer, Romulus' man, who then fled to Tuscany with so much haste that his name became the Latin word for speed. Also killed was Faustulus' brother Pleistinus.
The war with the Sabines
In the account of the Battle of the Lacas Curtius, the Roman line broke not because of Hostilius' death, but because Romulus was struck by a stone to the head. He rallied the men after recovering. When the women intervened to stop the fighting, some of them had children in their arms. The women not only ended the battle, but brought food and water, cared for the injured and introduced their husbands to their fathers. It was agreed that the Sabine women had no duty but to spin for their husbands from then on.
Union with the Sabines
According to Plutarch, the two kings were in full agreement on all except one: the royal response to the crime committed by members of Tatius' relatives against the Laurentian ambassadors. Some of Tatius' relatives killed a group of ambassadors from Laurentium when their attempt to rob them went wrong. Romulus wanted to punish the men with death promptly, and Tatius did not. Later, while sacrificing with Romulus in Lativium, friends of the ambassadors attacked and killed Tatius, but spared Romulus, praising his sense of fairness.
Tatius was given a royal burial, however Plutarch reports that there were no efforts to punish his killers. He cites one source that claims that the assassins were brought by Laurentium authorities to Romulus but he declined to punish them. Rome was later visited by a series of plagues, and when it spread to Laurentuim, it was thought to be a result of the injustice in the death of Tatius and the ambassadors. Both cities brought to justice the parties involved in the two attacks, and Romulus performed rites to purify the cities.
Rome was weakened by the plague and this prompted Camerium to invade. In one version of the war with Fidenae, Romulus did not raze the city, but instead declared it a colony and sent 2500 Romans to live there.
Death of Romulus
Plutarch recounts several versions of the death. In one, he died peacefully after a long illness. In another, he committed suicide by poison. He recounts two versions wherein he died violently, either by assassins who smothered him at home during the night, or by senators who lured him to the Temple of Vulcan where they killed and dismembered him and each disposed of a small part of his corpse, hidden in their robes. He details the motivations of the senate, saying there was anger toward his demeanor toward them and disregard toward their legal sovereignty in diplomacy and legal proceedings.
In the version cited by Livy, the gods themselves were suggested to have intervened. He retells one variant wherein the emotions of the public were assuaged not only by the oath of Proculus Julius to have seen the deified king, but also by an apparently divine force that quieted the anger and suspicions toward the nobles. It descended upon the city and the Romans accepted and worshiped Romulus as Quirinus. Romulus was 54 years old when he disappeared.
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Plutarch structured his Lives by alternating lives of famous Greeks 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 English translations of Plutarch's Lives available online; see also "Other links" section below. The LacusCurtius site has the complete set; the others are incomplete to varying degrees. 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: https://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/authrec?fk_authors=342 and https://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.
- LV = LibriVox
These translations are linked with LV 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 the French version of Jacques Amyot published in the 16th century, preceded Dryden's translation mentioned above.
These translations are linked with P in the table below.
All dates are BCE unless otherwise stated.
|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||Solon||638–558||D G L P||Poplicola||d. 503||D G L||D G L|
|4||Themistocles||c. 524–459||D G L P||Camillus||446–365||(D) G L||n/a|
|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||Timoleon||c. 411–337||(D) G L||Aemilius Paullus||c. 229–160||(D) G L||D G L|
|8||Pelopidas||d. 364||D G L||Marcellus||268–208||D G L||D G L|
|9||Aristides||530–468||D G L P||Cato the Elder||234–149||D G L||G L|
|10||Philopoemen||253–183||D G L||Flamininus||c. 229–174||D G L||D G L|
|11||Pyrrhus||319/318–272||(D) G L||Marius||157–86||(D) G L||n/a|
|12||Lysander||d. 395||D G L P||Sulla||138-78||(D) G L||D G L|
|13||Cimon||510–450||D G L P||Lucullus||118–57/56||(D) G L||D G L|
|14||Nicias||470–413||D G L P||Crassus||c. 115–53||(D) G L||D G L|
|15||Eumenes||c. 362–316||D G L||Sertorius||c. 123–72||D G L||D G L|
|16||Agesilaus||c. 444 – c. 360||(D) G L||Pompey||106–48||(D) G L||D G L|
|17||Alexander||356–323||(D) G L P||Julius Caesar||100–44||(D) G L P1 P2||n/a|
|18||Phocion||c. 402 – c. 318||D G L P||Cato the Younger||95–46||(D) G L||n/a|
|19||Agis||fl. 245||D L||Tiberius Gracchus||c. 164 – c. 133||D L||D L|
|Cleomenes||d. 219||D L||Gaius Gracchus||154–121||D L|
|20||Demosthenes||384–322||D L||Cicero||106–43||(D) L||D L|
|21||Demetrius||d. 283||(D) L||Mark Antony||83–30||(D) L P||D L|
|22||Dion||408–354||(D) L||Brutus||85–42||(D) L P||D L|
|23||Aratus||271–213||(D) L||Galba||3 BCE–69 CE||D L||n/a|
|Artaxerxes||c. 440–358||D L||Otho||33 CE–69 CE||D L|
- ^ 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.
Of the biographies in Parallel Lives, that of Antonius has been cited by multiple scholars as one of the masterpieces of the series. In 1895, George Wyndham wrote that the first rank consists of the biographies of Themistocles, Alcibiades, Marius, Cato, Alexander, Demetrius, Antonius, and Pompey. Peter D'Epiro praised Plutarch's depiction of Alcibiades as "a masterpiece of characterization." Academic Philip A. Stadter singled out Pompey and Caesar as the greatest figures in the Roman biographies.
- James Romm (ed.), Plutarch: Lives that Made Greek History, Hackett Publishing, 2012, p. vi.
- Life of Alexander 1.2
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Lives, Parallel". Encyclopedia Americana.
- 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
- "Translator's Introduction". The Parallel Lives (Vol. I ed.). Loeb Classical Library Edition. 1914.
- Shakespeare's Principal Plays. Century Company. 1922.
- Stadter, Philip A., ed. (2002). Plutarch and the Historical Tradition. Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 1134913192.
- Plutarch (1906). Plutarch's Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius: In North's Translation. Translated by North, Thomas. Clarendon Press.
- Plutarch (1895). Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Volume 1. Translated by North, Thomas. D. Nutt.
- 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 0307388433.
- 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 9004283722.
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