book-reviews


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

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 cruz 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.