Parallel Lives

by Plutarch (tr. George Long & Aubrey Stewart)

Volume I

Rating: ★★★★

Imagine you want to create Epic Rap Battles of History, except it's 100AD, YouTube doesn't exist yet, and rather than beating the streets learning all the most aggressive rhymes for 'suck it' you're a fuckin' nerd who's been studying all the historical authorities of antiquity. That's- well, almost nothing like this, really, but it at least sort of gestures in the right direction.

In his Parallel Lives, of which this is the first of four volumes in translation, Plutarch is providing biographies of all the major figures of history (read: Rome and Greece, this is 100AD) and pairing them off against each other in search of-- well, it's not exactly clear what he's looking for exactly, but something like insight into character and how fortune, vices and virtues interplay in the stories of great figures. Each Roman so far has been paired with a Greek, and Plutarch tends to pick figures who are vaguely comparable in terms of the structure of their lives.

The main two impressions I've got so far are firstly that Plutarch is remarkably even-handed: because he's writing a metric tonne of biographies, he doesn't usually get particularly attached to any one character, so his commentary on them comes off as quite fair, weighing atrocities and failures against glories and mitigating factors without a sense of his hand upon the scales. Secondly, he is quite evidently enthusiastic about his work, brimming with stories to the extent that even within a biography he will sometimes be seized with an aside that he will pursue passionately for a passage or two before a final 'But enough of that'. He also sees no reason to limit himself to the purely biographical, and if somebody's life story is tied up with a particular historical campaign then he happily details all the relevant events (in quite entertaining style) even if they didn't involve his subject. The result is sometimes a little scatterbrained, but quite charming.

It is perhaps needless to say, but Plutarch is one of our major surviving authorities on many of the events described in these Lives, and beyond just entertainment and studies of virtue, this (first volume of four) has been a whirlwind of classical history education. The focus being primarily on individuals rather than a national history gives the reading narrative pull. This has drawbacks in terms of the lens of things Plutarch bothers to include (this is for the most part not a social history, but the battles are often detailed), but also helps bring events to life -- it's one thing to hear about the effects of reforms, but quite another to see how they slot into events in the reformer's private life. I'd hesitate to rely entirely upon Plutarch's authority, but he's a great prod for events and periods I'd be interested in reading about in more modern treatments. The Long & Stewart translations feel appropriate for the content, and I plan to continue with the other volumes pretty much immediately.

Below, I include my notes on each Life in this volume.

Theseus -- Fun, being largely myth, but very episodic, and there are many differing authorities offering sometimes wildly different versions of certain stories, the only common elements seeming to be most of the places and people involved. I hadn't heard of Theseus' ignominious death before, it's a typically Greek ending, with the man first disgraced by his abduction of Helen bringing ruin to his city and then dying without celebration in exile.

Romulus -- Everyone remembers the wolf, but not the woodpecker? The word for she-wolf might also be the word for whore, which would simplify things a little. Also, did you know horoscopes could be reversed? So says Taroutius:

it belongs, he argued, to the same science to predict the life of a man from the time of his birth, and to find the date of a man's birth if the incidents of his life are given

Also, Romulus apparently just disappeared suddenly at age 38, in what now reads like a mix of Biblical myth and an alien abduction. Certainly a cooler ending than Theseus'.

Lykurgus -- Quite an opening. Literally everything about this man is disputed, but Plutarch doesn't try to give us all accounts. Instead, most of this life is devoted to description of the fascinating Spartan lifestyle.

Some foreign lady, it seems, said to [Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas], "You Laconian women are the only ones that rule men." She answered, "Yes; for we alone bring forth men."

There is so much in here that is just amazing -- the Spartan social system, the brilliant quotes and anecdotes -- though surprisingly little of it is specifically about Lykurgus as a person. The manner of his death, a noble suicide, is quite interesting for the parallel it runs with a certain influential Greek from another city.

Numa -- an odd comparison for Lykurgus, but I guess the main similarity is their role as a reformer of nations. Numa was peaceable and religious, and turned his people briefly to a less warlike stance, which may have been necessary to integrating them as one nation. Plutarch sees most similarity in their general virtues of self-control, piety and ability. It's also key that neither of them wanted the throne. Plutarch is a little harsh on Numa for not being so radical in vision as Lykurgus, but his point that Numa's peace ended immediately after him, and really to Rome's benefit, but Lykurgus' system made Sparta the Hellenic colossus that it was, and long endured.

Solon -- As you might expect, mostly concerned with the reforms of Athenian law and stabilisation of society. However, a few fun details do come through too:

Some writers argue, on chronological grounds, that Solon's meeting with Croesus must have been an invention. But I cannot think that so famous a story, which is confirmed by so many writers, and, moreover, which so truly exhibits Solon's greatness of mind and wisdom, ought to be given up because of the so-called rules of chronology, which have been discussed by innumerable persons, up to the present day, without their being ever able to make their dates agree.

Poplicola -- Perhaps better known as Publius Valerius? An interesting public figure of influence in Roman history, and not one I was aware of before reading. The transition from monarchy to the republic is an element of Roman history I've never really read about, and it seems like it might be quite worth pursuing, apparently including quite a protracted period where the old king wars with the new republic. Poplicola doesn't seem especially unique for his situation -- he made various canny decisions, but seems mostly motivated by the prospect of public office, whereas Solon is more easily painted as disinterested and altruistic.

Themistokles -- One of the first really interesting characters, Themistokles is a schemer, ambitious for power, 'excessively fond of admiration' and well-versed in statecraft -- yet this isn't an evil vizier story. As the story goes, he managed to position himself as a patriot while also appearing to be a defector to Xerxes, craftily securing his ambitions whatever the outcome might be. This turned out to be farsighted, as he ended up having to flee Greece and throw himself on Xerxes' mercy (which was, it seems, extensive).

Camillus -- Another interesting character I had not heard of before, and an excellent match for Themistokles, both of them being in a way saviours of their cities despite those cities being lost to the enemy, and both of them being exiled. This is also one of the most action-packed lives so far, with lots of well-described battles and sieges and intrigue. Strangely, the comparison section is missing, so it's not clear what Plutarch made of them.

Perikles -- A surprisingly philosophical opening to justify Parallel Lives.

That which is in itself admirable kindles in us a desire of emulation, whether we see noble deeds presented before us, or read of them in history. It was with this purpose that I have engaged in writing biography

Things to know about Perikles, other than his pivotal role in the Athenian golden age and that his death seems in ways to have cost Athens the Peloponnesian War (which he also started): he had a really big head. Like, multiple authorities insert jokes about how big his head was. Must've been huge. Perhaps not unconnected to this, he is also described as having an exceptionally self-serious manner.

He also seems to have been something of a despot, using public funds to bribe the people, destroying a system of courts with juries chosen by lot, exiling political opponents, and making use of the common defence fund of Greek allies to build glorious monuments in Athens. He even carved out a personal exception to a law he instituted which had caused many Athenians to be sold into slavery.

Fabius Maximus -- This is a pretty thrilling biography, mostly for its detailed account of the war against Hannibal, filled with portents and mythic overtones. It is somehow fitting that Fabius died when Hannibal left Italy. But there's also personal detail:

His own personal nickname was Verrucosus, because he had a little wart growing on his upper lip. The name of Ovicula, signifying sheep, was also given him while yet a child, because of his slow and gentle disposition.

Imagine having such a grand, inspiring name as 'Fabius Maximus', and everyone calling you Sheepy or Wartface.

Plutarch's right to point out that Fabius generally treated his domestic rivals much better than Perikles did. Though both are characterised by their cautious approach to defensive warfare, Fabius seems to have been more generally timid whereas Perikles only adopted caution in the conflict with Sparta, pointing to being ruled by reason rather than a sheepy character.

Alkibiades -- such a strange and contradictory figure, a devoted follower of Socrates who was also a reviled proto-despot, loved for his generous use of his wealth but hated for his bullying. It's somehow quite appropriate that he was the treacherous author of the Sicilian folly and also condemned in a highly dubious blasphemy case. Yet he also saved Athens later in the war, and his overall record is ambiguous -- neither clearly self-serving nor simply patriotic. He resembles in some ways Themistokles, even presenting that model for comparison to Artaxerxes.

Coriolanus -- This biography would've been extremely useful reading before watching Shakespeare's play. Coriolanus is a warrior hero, the sort of man who can rally routing troops and turn them around into the thick of battle, a hulk whose charge breaks a shield-wall. Exactly the sort of person who should not go into politics, because 'tact' is for people who fear death. Upon being banished, however, he seems to have developed a great deal of cunning, and his plots against Rome are quite deadly. The whole story is, by the way, quite gripping -- I can see why you'd want to adapt it for the stage.

The key similarity with Alkibiades is obvious:

Both alike obtained great success for their native countries while they remained in command of their countrymen, and both succeeded even more remarkably when fighting against them.

Timoleon -- Plutarch approaches this next pair more explicitly looking for the lessons to be learnt from their stories. It's perhaps a particularly bad time to start on this, however, as Timoleon's story includes a great number of examples where pivotal events are decided through the whims of fortune -- Timoleon unexpectedly coming upon his superior enemy just as they were disorganised in setting up camp, an assassin sent to kill Timoleon struck down in the crowd by the son of one of his previous victims, the Carthaginian admiral leaving the straits unguarded just as the Corinthian forces arrived unexpectedly...

The speedy rout of Hiketes and capture of the city may be justly ascribed to the skill of the General; but the fact that not one of the Corinthians was killed or wounded is due to Timoleon's good fortune, which seemed to vie with his courage and try to make those who read of his exploits wonder at their good luck more than their merit.

He even got a mid-battle thunderstorm while attacking a much larger army at a river crossing -- and the dead even turned out to be uncommonly wealthy. Plutarch doesn't miss the clear role of fortune in Timoleon's campaign, and points out that even in his being in Sicily rather than Greece at that time he was fortunate, as he avoided the internal strife of Greeks killing Greeks, and got to die of old age, beloved by everyone around him. It's perhaps a bit much to say he led a charmed life, given what happened with his brother, but it's certainly a pretty good one.

Aemilius -- Plutarch seems particularly taken with Aemilius, though from the biography he gives it's not terribly clear why. The two great campaigns of Aemilius' life are commendable achievements, especially the speedy and extremely lucrative one in Macedon, but the exploits don't seem to speak as deeply of personal virtue as some of the other biographies. Aemilius was a retiring, unambitious but extremely capable general -- I agree that is actually better than a life wracked with dramatic highs and low, but the extent of Plutarch's admiration is difficult to fathom. He doesn't even seem that great a match for Timoleon, as you can hardly call a man lucky whose young sons both die when he is meant to be celebrating a triumph.

Volume II

What makes a good Life? I think I'm narrowing it down. First, you should almost certainly kill a lot of people -- if you've never commanded an army in battle or overseen the sack of a city, you're basically nobody. What, you think this is amateur hour? Sulla had thousands of people executed outside while he was addressing the Senate, just to make a point, and he's still one of the more mixed-record guys in this volume. Second, prophetic dreams. If you're sleeping and you're not receiving vaguely cryptic messages from the gods telling you exactly what you should do about the situation at hand, then why are you even sleeping? Anybody who's anybody gets told things in their dreams. Finally, it might help if you're nice to people, avoid the temptations of luxury, and sometimes spare cities from bloodbaths, particularly if those happen to be the cities where famous Greek biographers will grow up.

Anyway, details below.

Pelopidas -- A life defined by a great friendship with Epameinondas, various acts of valour against tyrants, and some historic import in his taking as hostage one Philip of Macedon. Also, I loved the crux Pelopidas was put in by a prophetic dream:

So now Pelopidas, when asleep in the camp, seemed to see the maidens weeping over their tombs and invoking curses on the Spartans, and Skedasus, who bade him sacrifice a red virgin to the maidens, if he wished to conquer his enemies. And as this command seemed to him shocking and impious, he started up and consulted the prophets and the generals. Some of them forbade him to neglect or disobey the warning, quoting the famous old instances of Menækeus the son of Kreon and Makaria the daughter of Herakles, and, in later times, Pherekydes the philosopher, who was killed by the Lacedæmonians, and whose skin, according to some oracle, is still kept by their kings, and Leonidas, who following the oracle did in some sort offer himself as a victim on behalf of Greece; and futhermore they spoke of those persons whom Themistokles sacrificed to Dionysus before the sea-fight at Salamis. All these are verified by the success which followed them. And again, Agesilaus when starting from the same place that Agamemnon did to fight the same enemies, was asked by the god, during a vision at Aulis, to give him his daughter as a sacrifice; but he did not give her, but by his softheartedness ruined the expedition, which ingloriously failed. Others spoke on the other side, urging that so barbarous and impious a sacrifice could not be pleasing to any of the powers above, for, they said, it is not the Typhons and giants of legend that rule in heaven, but the father of all gods and men. To believe that there are deities that delight in the blood and slaughter of mankind is probably a foolish fancy; but if there be such, it is our duty to disregard them and treat them as powerless, for these strange and shocking desires can only take their origin and exist in feeble and depraved minds.

Marcellus -- Who needs to learn strategy when you can just kill all the enemy commanders in single combat? Well, it turns out that when you end up besieging a city defended by Archimedes, bodily courage is not enough.

Archimedes opened fire from his machines, throwing upon the land forces all manner of darts and great stones, with an incredible noise and violence, which no man could withstand; but those upon whom they fell were struck down in heaps, and their ranks thrown into confusion, while some of the ships were suddenly seized by iron hooks, and by a counter-balancing weight were drawn up and then plunged to the bottom. Others they caught by irons like hands or claws suspended from cranes, and first pulled them up by their bows till they stood upright upon their sterns, and then cast down into the water, or by means of windlasses and tackles worked inside the city, dashed them against the cliffs and rocks at the base of the walls, with terrible destruction to their crews. Often was seen the fearful sight of a ship lifted out of the sea into the air, swaying and balancing about, until the men were all thrown out or overwhelmed with stones from slings, when the empty vessel would either be dashed against the fortifications, or dropped into the sea by the claws being let go.

I wonder how much of the worldwide military R&D budget this passage alone is responsible for.

For most of the engines on the walls had been devised by Archimedes, and the Romans thought that they were fighting against gods and not men, as destruction fell upon them from invisible hands.

Strangely, given his very warlike nature, Marcellus seems to be a softening influence on Rome, bringing her art and more civil treatment of foes.

Aristeides -- The other half of the story of Themistokles in many ways, although this time around we get a much more detailed treatment of what happened at the battle of Platæa, including a lot of the blow-by-blow involving the Spartans that made the first engagement. Aristeides seems mostly to be venerated for sense of justice and fairness in all things, and a comparative lack of interest in his own advancement.

Cato the Elder -- A parsimonious self-made man, who treated himself, his public offices and his estate with discipline -- generally a praiseworthy thing, but Plutarch passes specific comment on Cato's habit of selling slaves once they have grown too old:

I for my own part consider that his conduct in treating his slaves like beasts of burden, and selling them when old and worn out, is the mark of an excessively harsh disposition, which disregards the claims of our common human nature, and merely considers the question of profit and loss. Kindness, indeed, is of wider application than mere justice; for we naturally treat men alone according to justice and the laws, while kindness and gratitude, as though from a plenteous spring, often extend even to irrational animals. It is right for a good man to feed horses which have been worn out in his service, and not merely to train dogs when they are young, but to take care of them when they are old. When the Athenian people built the Parthenon, they set free the mules which had done the hardest work in drawing the stones up to the acropolis, and let them graze where they pleased unmolested. It is said that one of them came of its own accord to where the works were going on, and used to walk up to the acropolis with the beasts who were drawing up their loads, as if to encourage them and show them the way. This mule was, by a decree of the people of Athens, maintained at the public expense for the rest of its life. The racehorses of Kimon also, who won an Olympic victory, are buried close to the monument of their master. Many persons, too, have made friends and companions of dogs, as did Xanthippus in old times, whose dog swam all the way to Salamis beside his master's ship when the Athenians left their city, and which he buried on the promontory which to this day is called the Dog's Tomb. We ought not to treat living things as we do our clothes and our shoes, and throw them away after we have worn them out; but we ought to accustom ourselves to show kindness in these cases, if only in order to teach ourselves our duty towards one another. For my own part I would not even sell an ox that had laboured for me because he was old, much less would I turn an old man out of his accustomed haunts and mode of life, which is as great an affliction to him as sending him into a foreign land, merely that I might gain a few miserable coins by selling one who must be as useless to his buyer as he was to his seller.

This biography is also packed full of great aphorisms; Cato led a long, fruitful, and opinionated life. He also, interestingly, generated a pro-genocide meme to sign off all his speeches with.

Plutarch focuses mostly on the nature of the two men's households when comparing them -- Aristeides was famously of meagre wealth even after attaining public office, while Cato came from poverty and died wealthy from his own efforts.

Philopoemen -- As Plutarch will have it, Philopoemen is the final gasp, a last echo of the former great men of Greece, just as their civilisation was being subsumed by that of Rome. His main virtues were all of excellence in warfare, not being particularly wise or even-tempered, often ruled by passion. His capture and death have a certain ironic tragedy to them, though, and Plutarch always brings the drama to the fore.

Titus Flamininus -- A first, I think, in Plutarch selecting for comparison two men who actually met each other.

The homage which was paid Philopœmen in all public assemblies by the Achæans vexed Flamininus, who felt angry that a mere Arcadian, who had gained some credit as a leader in obscure border warfare, should be treated with as much respect as the Roman consul, who was acting as the protector of all the peoples of Greece.

He is praised for his defeat of Philip, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the diplomatic victories he achieved in bringing Greek cities over to Rome peacefully. Parts of this biography make it clearer why the defeat of Philip was so important -- this was Rome moving up into the big leagues and taking one of Alexander's successors, moving from being a regionally significant power to being a superpower in the sight of greats like Antiochus. It's also an important moment for Plutarch, living in a very Roman Greece, as it signifies the 'liberation' of Greece from both Macedon and its internal war.

Flamininus and the Romans, however, not only obtained the praise of the Greeks in return for the benefits which they had conferred upon them, but also gained the trust and confidence of all mankind by their noble acts. Not only cities, but even kings who had been wronged by other kings came to them for redress, so that in a short space of time, with the assistance, no doubt, of the divine favour, all the world became subject to them.

Pyrrhus -- The genealogy of this name is apparently ripe with opportunity for confusion, as Pyrrhus was apparently the nickname of Achilles' son Neoptolemus, and the name of one of his sons that founded a dynasty. This dynasty became suspiciously obscure until one Tharrhypas, father of the father of the father of the famous Pyrrhus. Anyway, our character has quite a dramatic early life, involving a dangerous river crossing while being pursued by forces of the throne's usurpers, and is himself rather unusual. To give a taste of Plutarch's wandering enthusiasm:

The appearance of Pyrrhus was more calculated to strike terror into the beholder than to impress him with an idea of the dignity which becomes a king. He had not a number of separate teeth, but one continuous bone in his upper jaw, with only slight lines showing the divisions between the teeth. He was thought to be able to cure diseases of the spleen by sacrificing a white cock, and then gently pressing with his right foot in the region of the spleen of the sufferer, who lay upon his back meanwhile. No man was so poor or despised that Pyrrhus would not touch him for this disorder if requested to do so. He also received, as a reward, the cock which was sacrificed, and was much pleased with this present. It is said that the great toe of that foot had some divine virtue, so that when the rest of his body was burned after his death, it was found unhurt and untouched by the fire. But of this hereafter.

There are a bunch of interesting campaigns in Pyrrhus' life, but the account of the war between Pyrrhus and Rome is unusual in that it really paints Rome as morally upstanding even while Pyrrhus was winning his campaign into the grave. The siege of Sparta is also one of those great moments in Plutarch, ambitious fail-fast Pyrrus battering himself bloody against the beautiful unyielding Laconic insanity. His death, also, is a great story -- this great general and warrior, struck down in the end by a tile thrown by a poor old woman.

Caius Marius -- One of the most relentlessly negative Lives I've seen. Our subject is ambitious, ruled by passion, deceitful, jealous and while he seems to have served extremely well in the defence of Rome against the Cimbri and Teutonnes, he was ultimately a traitor to the Republic, siding with populist despots and, after fleeing a death-sentence, returning and instituting a brutal series of purges. He seems mostly the bad-guy in other people's stories. But the Life also gives us this:

But those who have no memory and no sense, let the things that happen ooze away imperceptibly in the course of time; and consequently, as they hold nothing and keep nothing, being always empty of all goodness, but full of expectation, they look to the future and throw away the present. And yet fortune may hinder the future, but the present cannot be taken from a man; nevertheless, such men reject that which fortune now gives, as something foreign, and dream of that which is uncertain: and it is natural that they should; for before reason and education have enabled them to put a foundation and basement under external goods, they get and they heap them together, and are never able to fill the insatiate appetite of their soul.

Lysander -- Essentially skips any attempt at an early life to focus on Lysander's role in winning the Peloponnesian war. While Plutarch stresses Lysander's underhandedness, his overbearing tyranny and his nepotism, it's not difficult to see how he also in many ways was a preface to Alexander in his conquest of the Greek cities, his growing personal cult, and his efforts at arranging a conquest of Persia. Ultimately, though, he was restrained by the Laconic laws and other circumstance, and never became the Greek emperor he might have been.

Sulla -- Another precursor story, but a far more bloody one. In the Life of Caius Marius, you get the impression that Sulla was the protector against Marius and his despotic allies. As it turns out, that was only true until Sulla himself held power in Rome -- the purges and atrocities he carried out when he conquered were if anything worse than the previous reign of terror. His later life shows some sign of either mellowing or regret, putting aside the dictatorship and focusing much more (it would seem) on his private life. His end was not clean -- rotting away from disease, he finally ruptured himself by shouting for someone to be strangled.

while Sulla performed greater achievements, Lysander committed fewer crimes:

Kimon -- Plutarch opens this pair with a longer dedication explaining why he wants to honor Lucullus (as a native of the city Lucullus once saved), which is a little confusing as an introduction to the life of Lucullus' Greek counterpart, Kimon. Notwithstanding some early rumours of incest, and more minor vices, Kimon was an extraordinarily successful general in the age of Athenian supremacy:

If, however, he really was a careless drunkard, and yet took so many cities and won so many battles, it is clear that if he had been sober and diligent he would have surpassed the most glorious achievements of any Greek, either before or since

Kimon served his city well, but was mistrusted by its citizens as a result of his positive sentiment towards the Lacedæmonians, and his ostracism from the city seems to reflect more on the popular sentiment against their rival state than on his personal conduct, which was later recalled to be excellent.

Lucullus -- Not an excellent entry onto the world stage, to pursue a frivolous lawsuit and attract the sponsorship of the man soon to be a blood-soaked dictator -- even if Lucullus avoided actually becoming part of that massacre. For a while, Lucullus was one of those charmed commanders, trouncing numerically superior forces across Asia. Notable achievement: he foiled an assassination plot by taking a midday nap.

[The assassin Olthakus] would have entered the tent without any suspicion, if sleep, that has been the cause of the death of many generals, had not saved Lucullus; for he happened to be asleep, and Menedemus, one of his chamber-attendants, who was standing by the door, said that Olthakus had not come at a fit time, for Lucullus had just gone to rest himself after long wakefulness and many toils. As Olthakus did not go away when he was told, but said that he would go in, even should Menedemus attempt to prevent him, because he wished to communicate with Lucullus about a matter of emergency and importance, Menedemus began to get in a passion, and, saying that nothing was more urgent than the health of Lucullus, he shoved the man away with both his hands. Olthakus being alarmed stole out of the camp, and, mounting his horse, rode off to the army of Mithridates, without effecting his purpose.

But the tides of fortune turn, and Lucullus' haughty disregard for his own men would set in motion his downfall, coupled with their growing mutinous attitude as they became rich on sacked cities, and tired of the constant campaigning. No matter how good your command in battle, if your army won't follow you anywhere, you're a little hamstrung.-- he struggled even to get men to march in his triumph.

Yet, judging by the extravagance of his retirement, Lucullus does seem to have managed to make an awful lot of money from his campaigns, suggesting that some of the muttering from his men might not be entirely unfounded. Luxurious banquets constantly sound only decadent, but the public libraries stocked at his expense suggest it wasn't all wasted on frivolities. A note tells me we also owe our knowledge of the cherry to Lucullus, who brought the tree into Europe from Cerasus, the fruit named after this place.

Volume III

Biographies can be great because they let you live out proxy -- in Plutarch's case, often over the course of an evening -- a very different life to the one you actually live. This is particularly great because of the variety of strange experiences life has offered.

Have you ever tried to convince your countrymen that a military campaign is folly, only to have your own excessive caution cited as a reason you should be put in charge of the (doomed) army? Have you ever, fighting in the desert for riches, seen your own son's head waved mockingly at you on a spear? Have you ever consulted with a pure white fawn about the best use of guerilla tactics? Have you ever, after sipping the cup of victory on the field, found yourself captured by your own men, who intend to turn you over to the defeated general in order to liberate their captured wives, and, giving a dramatic speech to shame them into better behaviour, found yourself ignored by the impervious geriatric veterans that once conquered the world? Have you ever been so popular that you've been fined for it?

All this and more.

Nikias -- A rather rich man, scorned for his disabling fear of the mob and of popular orators, to the extent that he was known to try and pay them off. In fact, he seems to be an extremely cautious fellow in general -- a caution that earns him some disrespect, but also comes with the result that he avoided fault for Athens' military defeats, and in his commands was generally quite successful. It's rather unfair that he ended up given the command for the Sicilian campaign that he vigorously opposed at every step, and with Alkibiades withdrawn and Lamachus killed in battle, he was left to deal with a war he never wanted, while he himself was ill.

Crassus -- Another rich guy, but one who obtained his wealth largely through profiting from disasters (he bid on houses that were on fire), bribes, and confiscating land. He also was quite happy to admit hiring assassins in order to obtain the consulship. Crassus is part of a Big Three with Caesar and Pompeius, and there is a fair bit in his Life about their machinations together, as well as his war against Spartacus, but the real highlight is the narrative of Crassus' doomed Parthian expedition, with the battle and tragedy told from the losing side. While both died as a result of their own failed campaigns, Nikias at least never wanted the command, while Crassus was eager for it, hoping to emulate Lucullus and get richer.

Sertorius -- One of the great things about Plutarch is his capacity for amazing digressions. Here, for example, he opens the Life with a discussion of weird historical coincidences:

there were two Scipios, by one of whom the Carthaginians were first conquered, and by the other were cut up root and branch; that Troy was taken by Hercules, on account of the horses of Laomedon, and by Agamemnon by means of the wooden horse, as it is called, and was taken a third time by Charidemus, by reason of the Ilians not being able to close the gates quick enough, owing to a horse having got between them; that there are two cities which have the same name with the most fragrant of plants, Ios and Smyrna, and that Homer was born in one of them and died in the other

Sertorius is probably less interesting for the minor role he played in the revolt of Cinna, and more for his story as a Roman general who conquered great territories for his barbarian masters, and humbled large Roman armies, and even some of the best generals of the age. It's a Robin Hood story, a cunning trickster general and his magical deer, dancing bloody havoc against the legions. The ending is a tragic betrayal.

Eumenes -- It's interesting how Plutarch handles men in secondary positions. The whole of Eumenes' life up until the death of Alexander is covered in just two passages. To an extent, this may reflect the lack of sources, but the suspicion is that Plutarch doesn't consider Eumenes really worthy of acknowledgement until he is a leader in his own right.

The narrative, of course, is of the great struggles that followed the death of Alexander, as all his friends and relatives fought for the remnants of his empire. There's an ugly grandeur to it, the backstabbing and the battles against brothers. Eumenes isn't particularly noble or inspiring, but he is a little foresighted and a competent general -- comparatively unremarkable, for a subject of Plutarch's. Though there are some quirks of detail.

he heard that the watchword of the enemy was 'Athena,' with the countersign 'Alexander.' Hearing this, he himself gave the word 'Demeter,' with the countersign 'Alexander,'

(Surely this defeats the purpose of a countersign?)

The great parallel of these two lives is they both died as victims of betrayal, despite winning great victories. Even here, Eumenes for the most part just shows up Sertorius' superior virtue, by succumbing in spirit as well as body to those who turned on him. I did like that he gave a speech that by dramatic convention should have humbled the Macedonians into reconsidering their treachery, but they just went ahead with it anyway.

Agesilaus -- Lysander's buddy, and oddly friendly and approachable for a Spartan king. This even made him too popular, which is a fineable offense in Sparta's well-oiled state machinery. His Persian campaign was highly successful, and Plutarch makes the point that if it were not for the war on the home front that called Agesilaus back -- a war funded by Persian gold -- it might have been a Greek rather than a Macedonian that conquered the great empire.

If each Life captures a historical moment in a story, this Life is a story of the end of Spartan supremacy, an End of Days coming with its required tragedies and decay and defeats, but also some flickers of the old glory.

Isidas, the son of Phœbidas, must have been most admired both by his own countrymen and even by the enemy. He was remarkably tall and handsome, and was just of the age when boyhood merges into manhood. Naked, without either clothes or armour, having just been anointing himself at home, he rushed out of his house, with a sword in one hand and a spear in the other, ran through the front ranks, and plunged among the enemy, striking down all who opposed him. He received not a single wound, either because the gods admired his bravery and protected him, or else because he appeared to his foes to be something more than man. After this exploit we are told that the Ephors crowned him for his bravery, and fined him a thousand drachmas for having fought without his shield.

Pompeius -- Firstly, the detail that Pompeius' father Strabo was struck dead by lightning was surprisingly not mythologised, or at least not that Plutarch mentions. Anyway, Pompeius has a Life of two stories. The first story is one of a successful young general, who entered on the side of Sulla during the civil war, won some great victories in Libya, and later won a series of slightly more ambiguous contests around the Roman world, several times largely because he turned up at someone else's campaign just as they were winning it themselves, and stole the glory. This was one of Crassus' complaints against him in the matter of the Third Servile war, and it does seem to somewhat be a pattern, though clearly Pompeius contributed more than just his tardy presence.

Possibly his greatest act at this time was burning some letters. Perpenna, the man who betrayed Sertorius, tried to bargain for his own life by offering Pompeius some letters from powerful men in Rome who had written to invite Sertorius to Italy. Reading these letters and finding out who had betrayed the city was likely to start a new and possibly greater civil war than the one which had just been ended, and it's of credit to Pompeius that he recognised this and overcame temptation. However, that greater civil war could not be evaded forever.

The second story of Pompeius' life is his time in politics, which is intricately plotted but ultimately tends towards disaster. Pompeius was responsible for Caesar, both in terms of his political sponsorship of this young ally and in terms of his own example as a general exerting undue influence over the state. When he at last acknowledged Caesar as a threat, he underestimated him, putting off the creation of an army that might oppose him, which ultimately led to his own defeat, the first in his thirty-four years of generalship. It's worth noting that Pompeius, when earlier in life returning to Rome under conditions very like Caesar's, including the fear he would take the city and install himself as king, peacefully disbanded his army and won great acclaim. Did he think Caesar, so similar to him in the course of his life, would do the same? Is the typical mind fallacy responsible for the Roman Emperor?

Alexander -- This is the big pair, Alexander and Caesar. I knew they would be paired before I ever saw them in the table of contents, the choice is that clear for Plutarch. As with many others in Plutarch, this biography of Alexander is one of the few texts preserving original sources and other ancient historians' commentary on events. He does not pull punches: Alexander comes across surly and foolish, constantly bestowing his wealth to win love, prone to tantrums and often lacking in judgement.

It is related that once at a great banquet, when sitting over their wine, Kallisthenes was asked to speak in praise of the Macedonians, and that he at once poured forth such a fluent and splendid eulogy that all the company rose, vehemently applauding, and threw their garlands to him. At this Alexander remarked that, as Euripides says, "On noble subjects, all men can speak well." "Now," said he, "show us your ability by blaming the Macedonians, in order that they may be made better men by having their shortcomings pointed out." Kallisthenes hereupon began to speak in a depreciatory strain, and told many home-truths about the Macedonians, pointing out that Philip had become strong only because Greece was weakened by faction, and quoting the line, "In times of trouble, bad men rise to fame." This speech caused the Macedonians to hate him most bitterly, and provoked Alexander to say that Kallisthenes had made a display, not of his own abilities, but of his dislike to the Macedonians.

I think that captures it. Much of the Life is similar material, relating Alexander's interactions with his friends and a few of his enemies, and his conduct during his conquests. It's not a pretty picture I think precisely because Alexander was not a hard and merciless man -- he was educated in philosophy, had spoken with Aristotle and Diogenes and many others. He could be merciful, even generous, but despite all he was capable of he was fundamentally fickle in a childish way. He might shower you with gifts, or he might murder you for offending him.

Caesar -- The translators seem to dispute the opinion voiced elsewhere that the beginning of Caesar's Life is missing, though I can't see why -- the Life begins without introducing its subject at all, with a passage about an early episode in Caesar's life under Sulla that I'd estimate is at least two or three passages in if following Plutarch's usual rhythm.

One thing I wasn't aware of before was the extent to which Caesar went massively into debt in his efforts to curry political favour, to the extent that if Crassus had not stood as security for him, he would never have been able to leave Rome to take up his position in Iberia, and likely would never have launched his military career.

Despite no clean record, Caesar in general (though not as a general) seems to come off better from Plutarch than Alexander -- his failings are more commonplace in statesmen, his intentions are made more relatable, and this is all in spite of him slaughtering far more of his own people than those for whom Alexander can be held to account.

Phokion -- An admirably pithy orator:

As the smallest coins are those which have the greatest intrinsic value, so Phokion in his speeches seemed to say much with few words. We are told that once while the people were flocking into the theatre Phokion was walking up and down near the stage, plunged in thought. "You seem meditative, Phokion," said one of his friends. "Yes, by Zeus," answered he, "I am considering whether I can shorten the speech which I am going to make to the Athenians."

Also a great contrarian:

When an oracle was brought from Delphi and read before the assembly, which said that when all the Athenians were of one mind, one man would be opposed to the state, Phokion rose and said that he was the man in question, for he disapproved of the whole of their policy. And once when he made some remark in a speech which was vociferously applauded, and he saw the whole assembly unanimous in its approval of his words, he turned to some of his friends and said, "Have I inadvertently said something bad?"

This is a Life rich with quotable aphorisms and moral fables. Phokion was an incorruptible statesman who held both himself and Athens to a high standard, and while he was for many years honoured for this conduct, it provided no defence when the mob eventually turned on him.

Cato the Younger -- Great-grandson of the Elder, giving some real heft to those age comparisons. Cato, like Phokion, is a moral exemplar, utterly dedicated to honesty and public service, to the extent that his name became a byword for such:

In consequence of this there was a high opinion of him, so that an orator said to the judices on a certain trial when the evidence of a single person was produced, that it was not right to believe a single witness even if he was Cato; and many persons now were used to say when speaking of things incredible and contrary to all probability, as by way of proverb, that this could not be believed even if Cato said it.

Honestly, though, Cato comes across extremely positively in this Life, showing neither fear nor favour in his public office, being impressively prescient about Pompeius and Caesar, and demonstrating that it is possible to remain stalwart in defence of principle in a time when all those around you fall prey to bribery or terror. There is a surprisingly detailed account of his last days, in the period where he had resolved to kill himself rather than submit to Caesar, which is pretty emotional.

Volume IV

Agis -- It seems it was hard times for Sparta after the end of the reign of Agesilaus, with Plutarch attributing their lowered condition to their failure to reject wealth (and, particularly, a tweak to inheritance law) as their ancestors had (personally I'm suspicious of the part where Plutarch mentions there are only 700 Spartans at the time, which seems like quite the decrease from Platea). Agis was a reformer, attempting to take Sparta back to its old glory. He began, admirably enough, by personally conducting himself according to the old ways, and abjuring luxury and indulgence. There's a lot of political intrigue that goes on as part of Agis' aim to restore the old constitution, which plays interestingly on the power dynamics between the two Spartan kings and the council of Ephors. The plan is undone by one of his allies, Agesilaus (who shares a name with but is not the old king) who urged on the 'forgive debts' part of the reforms, but stalled the 'divide up the land' part. Predictably, Agesilaus got away, but Agis, his mother and his grandmother were executed by Agis' political rivals.

Kleomenes -- Kleomenes, son of Agis' chief persecutor, took up the aim of reform in the next generation, which soon became a coup involving the murder of the Ephors. Kleomenes took up and actually implemented Agis' lapsed land reform policy. The reforms actually worked, and for a brief period Sparta reclaimed some of its former glory, dominating the Peloponnessus. Unfortunately, success led them into conflict with Antigonus of Macedonia, and while Kleomenes was able to inflict some painful defeats he couldn't match the empire in a sustained campaign. Kleomenes was forced to abandon Sparta for exile in Egypt, where he served with distinction until he was eventually imprisoned as part of an intrigue. The account of his last day or so of life is pretty interesting -- he and his companions schemed successfully to escape prison and assassinate some major figures, but they were unable to recruit anyone else to their revolt, and committed suicide rather than be recaptured.

Tiberius Gracchus -- Tiberius and Caius are Plutarch's Roman pair to match Agis and Kleomenes.