Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.31

José Luís Lopes Brandão (trans.), Plutarco. Vidas de Galba e Otão. Colecção Autores Gregos e Latinos. Série Textos Gregos, 14.   Coimbra:  Centro de Estudos Clássicos e Humanísticos da Universidade de Coimbra (CECH), 2010.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 9789898281487.  €9.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael B. Charles, Southern Cross University (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This translation of Plutarch's lives of the ephemeral Roman emperors Galba and Otho represents another volume in the series on Plutarch being published under the auspices of the project "Plutarch and the Foundations of European Identity" ("Plutarco e os fundamentos da identidade europeia"). It also forms part of the University of Coimbra's "Colecção Autores Gregos e Latinos—Série Textos Gregos", of which it is the fourteenth volume. Unlike the Loeb Classical Library or the Collection des Universités de France (Budé) translations, a close reading of the translation needs to be accompanied by the 1976 Ziegler text (Bibliotheca Teubneriana), on which the translation is based.1 To me, a parallel Greek text would have been a good thing, though perhaps the series avoids such a presentation in order to keep costs down, with the assumption being that dedicated classicists would have their own Greek text close at hand, should the need arise. Footnotes, which are kept to a minimum so as not to interfere unduly with Plutarch's narrative, deal more with historical issues or cross-references to other ancient accounts, such as those of Suetonius, Tacitus and the epitomes of Cassius Dio, rather than with grammatical issues in the text.

For those living outside Portugal or Brazil (or indeed any countries with a Lusitanian heritage) perhaps wondering about the worth of a Portuguese translation of the two imperial lives in question, I am happy to report that, for the most part, the Portuguese is elegant, generally economical, and largely straightforward. If only for reasons of novelty, I found it pleasant and indeed refreshing to read these lives in Portuguese. Indeed, those without Portuguese but with a good understanding of Spanish should have little trouble locating the bits of interest to them. Obviously, there is little fundamentally new in the volume, but the translations, of course, would be very welcome to Portuguese- speaking students—and the introductory material, as described briefly below, is not to be sneezed at either.

In terms of presentation, it is a slim soft-cover volume that is attractively printed and formatted. For the translation, the separation of sections with a bit of white space, together with the use of bold numbering for the sections, makes it easy to navigate around the two translated works—something which cannot always be said for recent editions of ancient texts. Orthographical or formatting errors in the main text seem to be few, at least to a non-native speaker (for example, there seems to be a "de" missing between "juventude" and "Nero" on p. 34). But the bibliography suffers from being a little all over the place, with the presentation being rather inconsistent, to the extent of initials going missing for a book editor (p. 117), a full stop missing after initials (p. 118), and extra spaces and full stops here and there. Somebody clearly did not bother to edit this section properly. "Loeb" on p. 118 is also not a publisher, as most classicists would surely know, but is in fact a reference to the Loeb Classical Library, a series of classical texts published by Heinemann. It is a shame that this oversight, which could have so easily been corrected, mars the rest of the editing work carried out for the volume.

On the matter of bibliography, this section is rather slim, with only twenty-four works being adduced. It seems that the emphasis, here, is on leading the reader to the most critical works relating to Plutarch's imperial lives, and the emperors Galba and Otho in a more general sense. In particular, there is a clear bias towards works written in a Romance tongue, or else English, for there are no German works in sight. There are some notable omissions, such as the monograph on Galba by Fabricotti and Sancery, the second of Raoss' two lengthy articles on Galba's accession, Drexler and Klingner's respective studies on the presentation of Otho by Tacitus (and Plutarch in the case of Drexler), and Paul's lengthy article, if admittedly a little dated, on Otho. 2 I have also found Ash's work on Tacitus' Historiae particularly useful with respect to coming to grips with ancient depictions of Galba and Otho.3 Some of these works could well have been consulted, with respect to the material presented in the introduction, especially on the source traditions underlying Plutarch's presentation of events.4

The introduction to these brief lives, the only extant lives of Plutarch's more ambitious project on the lives of the Caesars from Augustus through to Vitellius, takes up a third of the volume. It deals a) with the historical context of the accession of Galba, his murder, and the rise of Otho and the events leading up to his noble suicide (at least as portrayed by Plutarch), b) looks at Plutarch's thoughts on why the crisis occurred, c) correctly positions the text more as history than as ancient biography per se (unlike the better known and more widely read Parallel Lives), and d) discusses the undoubted and indeed critical importance of the death scenes in both of the lives presented. The information and interpretations on historical matters presented are slightly derivative in places, as is understandable in a volume of this nature (particularly in the section discussing the historical context of the two lives), but, elsewhere, the author demonstrates a finely-tuned understanding of his author and his means of expression, as will be elaborated on further below.

With regard to content, perhaps the author sometimes takes the information provided by the ancients too literally. For example, on p. 11, we are told that Vitellius was excessively given to the pleasure of eating and drinking, although this information obviously comes from a vituperative tradition—even if one likely to be grounded in some kind of actuality, at least if numismatic representations of him are anything to go by! Furthermore, the statement that Vespasian had shown himself favourable to Otho (p. 13) might need some minor qualification, since it is possible that Vespasian had entertained imperial thoughts as soon as news of Nero's death had reached the east—despite a) his sending of Titus, his son, to promise Flavian loyalty to Galba, b) Tacitus' insistence that this show of loyalty was genuine (Hist. 1.10.3), and c) the assertion that an oath of allegiance to Otho was administered by Vespasian to the armies of Judea (Hist. 1.76.2).5 Of course, it is possible to argue that the Flavians were not overtly unkind to Otho's memory, mainly so that Vespasian could appear as some kind of avenger, and so as to ensure that Otho's armies would join the Flavian cause in the impending contest against Vitellius. In addition, it is not clear why Suetonius is assigned to the time of the Antonines at p. 21, unless that expression, in Portuguese scholarly usage, extends to Hadrian's reign—the author shows himself to be very much aware of under whom Suetonius was writing (see, e.g., p. 22).6 But, aside from these minor issues, matters of interpretation of the evidence more than anything else, the author appears to be thoroughly conversant with the major themes of the period. The reader is in good hands.

The author's contribution to scholarship, albeit in the confines of the introductory material, is quite worthy. The introduction is necessarily concise (pp. 18-41), yet it presents a valuable account of the essential differences between the accounts of Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Tacitus and, of course, his subject: Plutarch. Here, he generally follows some of Baldwin's earlier work on this theme, especially on the differences between the accounts of Plutarch and Suetonius, yet adds his own flourishes and interpretations.7 This discussion ranges across differences in methodology, aims and philosophy, and how these affected the presentation of certain events in the extant accounts, together with why some episodes are found in some of the narratives, but not in others. The attention paid to the deaths of the two imperial subjects in Plutarch's accounts, in comparison with those of our other main sources (pp. 30-41), makes for particularly insightful reading.

The author is also capable of a particularly pithy observation here and there. For example, he observes on p. 33 (roughly translated) that the events of the period in question constitute a kind of tragic history, in which the emperors are merely puppets of the vicissitudes of the times. That is quite neatly put. The author also makes the statement – which is eminently supportable – that, unlike Plutarch, Suetonius needs to be unfavourable to Galba, once he shows a clear sympathy for Otho, and that this sentiment is particularly obvious in the telling of the latter's death (p. 36). The author follows this with some thought-provoking commentary on the manner of Otho's demise as recorded by the sources. In particular, he compares the actions of Otho shortly before his death with those of other Roman historical figures, and especially the last hours of Nero, the emperor with whom Otho is so closely associated in the sources (p. 38).

In sum, this is a well-presented Portuguese version of Plutarch's only extant imperial lives. The translation appears to be accurate, eminently readable, and makes these two small and sometimes overlooked snippets of imperial history available to an even wider audience. The introductory material is also of good quality overall, and will help the novice reader to understand precisely why Plutarch interprets certain events as he does.

Table of Contents

1. Nota prévia 7
2. Introducção
O contexto historico 9
A tentativa de interpretação da crise 13
Entre a história e a biografia 18
As mortes – relatos exemplares 30
3. Vida de Galba 43
4. Vida de Otão 87
5. Bibliografia117
6. Índice de nomes 121


1.   K. Ziegler, Plutarchi, Vitae Parallelae. Vol. 3. Fasc. 2. Accedunt Vitae Galbae et Othonis et Vitarum deperditarum fragmenta Bibliotheca Teuberniana (Leipzig, 1973).
2.   On Galba: E. Fabricotti, Galba (Rome, 1976); M. Raoss, "La rivolta di Vindice ed il successo di Galba", Epigraphica 22 (1960), 37-151; J. Sancery, Galba ou l'armée face au pouvoir (Paris, 1983); on Otho: H. Drexler, "Zur Geschichte Kaiser Othos bei Tacitus und Plutarch", Klio 37 (1959), 153-178; F. Klingner "Die Geschichte Kaiser Othos bei Tacitus", Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philologisch-historische Klasse 92 (1940), 3-27; L. Paul, "Kaiser Marcus Salvius Otho", RhM 57 (1902), 76-136.
3.   See R. Ash, Ordering Anarchy: Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories (London, 1999).
4.   One might also now refer to my co-authored article on the sexuality of Galba and the nature of his relationship with the freedman Icelus, unavailable when this volume was being written, though these are perhaps not really topics on which Plutarch lingers; see M. B. Charles and E. Anagnostou-Laoutides, "Galba in the Bedroom: Sexual Allusions in Suetonius' Galba", Latomus 71 (2012), forthcoming.
5.   Cf. Tac. Hist. 2.1.3, where there is some thought, on Galba's death, to Vespasian assuming imperial airs (at least in the mind of Titus, as portrayed by Tacitus).
6.   The time of the Antonines is usually regarded as beginning in A.D. 138, with the accession of Antoninus Pius.
7.   B. Baldwin, Suetonius (Amsterdam, 1983), passim.

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