Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.07

Susan G. Jacobs, Plutarch’s Pragmatic Biographies: Lessons for Statesmen and Generals in the 'Parallel Lives'. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 43.   Leiden:  Brill Academic, 2018.  Pp. xv, 471.  ISBN 9789004276604.  €132.00.  

Reviewed by James T. Chlup, University of Manitoba (

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In a frequently cited passage from the introduction to his Alexander, Plutarch states that his objective is to study not history, but character (1.2), and thus he seemingly provides a narrow definition of biography. In her substantial book, Susan Jacobs chooses to read outside this prescription, arguing that Plutarch wrote the Parallel Lives, to provide his reader with practical advice concerning military and political leadership and so enable him to make his contribution to society.

Jacobs understands ‘pragmatic biography’ as combining ‘the focus of biography on the character of one man and the events in his life from birth to death with lessons on leadership included in pragmatic history’ (5-6) so that the reader can (hopefully) be a good individual, an effective politician, a successful military leader, and a dutiful citizen. Jacobs is careful to point out that Plutarch’s typical reader very probably received a philosophically inclined education that would enable him to know virtue; from the Lives, for instance, he acquires guidance for real-life situations. To Jacobs, then, ‘pragmatic’ allows for the philosophical to serve as a modus vivendi, but this requires supplementing with real-life examples—a modus regendi.

Like Gaul, this book comprises three parts. Part One consists of the first three chapters under the heading ‘Training the Politikos under Rome’. Chapter one (13-38) serves to establish the scope of the study. While the emperor may be a reader of, and therefore benefit from, Plutarch’s pragmatic biographies, Jacobs makes the case for provincial governors and civic leaders as an—if not the most probable, hopefully the most receptive—audience (15-31).

Jacobs situates the Parallel Lives in the broader literary contexts relevant to her study in chapter two (39-92). In the first section, she provides an overview of ‘advice literature’ or ‘pragmatic literature’ (41-77), which includes authors such as Cicero (primarily his philosophical texts such as De Officiis), Seneca the Younger, Dio Chrysostom, Quintilian, and Pliny. Jacobs argues that in the Lives Plutarch seeks to negotiate the potential conflict between moral virtue as explored in these texts and the need to take an action that may seem to contravene it. She makes an important and original point in this section by connecting the Lives and the military treatise, linking Plutarch to authors such as Onasander, Frontinus, and Polyaenus (61-64). While the military treatise focuses primarily on how to win, in the case of Plutarch, as Jacobs demonstrates especially in Part Two, there is also discussion of failure in order for the reader to understand how to cope better with adversity. The second section of this chapter addresses ‘pragmatic history’ (77-83), by which Jacobs means authors such as Polybius and Diodorus Siculus. In the final section, Jacobs introduces briefly Nepos’ and Plutarch’s stand-alone biographies to highlight the biographical tradition prior to the Parallel Lives (84-92). While this chapter initially appears as an extended overview of primary sources, it establishes a frame of reference for discussion of these authors whose approaches Jacobs compares to Plutarch’s in her analysis of specific Lives in parts two and three.

In chapter three (93-121), Jacobs directs her attention to aspects of the Parallel Lives themselves, focusing on the prologues and synkriseis. She detects a wide range of themes, but she proffers that in almost all cases they touch upon facets of political and military leadership. Jacobs demonstrates Plutarch’s willingness not to judge his pairs by the same standards, instead acknowledging, where appropriate, the differences of the environments in which they operate. Thus Plutarch does not engage in presentism: he is a pragmatic biographer writing pragmatic biographies for pragmatic readers.

Parts Two and Three consist of six chapters in total, each of which entails close study of a pair of Lives. Part Two, ‘Political and Military Leadership’, investigates how some biographies provide practical advice on being a political leader and a general, analysing Pericles-Fabius Maximus (chapter four, pp. 128-79), Coriolanus-Alcibiades (chapter five, pp. 180-227), and Agesilaus-Pompey (chapter six, pp. 227-76). Part Three, ‘Ruling and Being Ruled’, follows in a similar vein, but with the added element of the interpersonal relationships between rulers and subjects, featuring discussion of Aemilius Paullus-Timoleon (chapter seven, pp. 283-324), Demetrius-Antony (chapter eight, pp. 325-66), and Phocion-Cato Minor (chapter nine, pp. 367-415). Each chapter begins with its own introduction, and Jacobs prefaces her analysis of each biography with a more specific introductory overview, highlighting the most pertinent aspects of the individual’s life and the main surviving primary sources that would have been available to Plutarch. This section also identifies Plutarch’s discussion of the individuals across the Moralia and the other Lives. In each chapter, Jacobs breaks down her analysis into two or three broad categories, and she includes a chart to outline which part(s) of the biography pertains to each category. Each chapter then concludes with a discussion of the synkrisis, if available (Phocion-Cato Minor is the only pair included that is missing its synkrisis).

Jacobs is pragmatic in her approach, avoiding a narrow definition of each biography as positive or negative, since, as her analysis demonstrates, each Life—even those that narrate the lives of individuals most worthy of admiration such as Pericles—contains both actions to emulate and actions to avoid. Aemilius Paullus-Timoleon, for instance, which on a cursory reading is a strikingly positive pair, does provide some negative examples: in the case of the former, the Macedonian regent Perseus serves as a negative model of a ruler (303), while in the case of the latter, Timoleon’s involvement in the overthrow of his brother Timophanes as tyrant of Corinth problematises what is otherwise a quite praiseworthy life (308-10). It is also the case that what one might presume to be a negative Life contains examples for the reader to desire to emulate: Coriolanus, Alcibiades, Demetrius, and Antony demonstrate that even those whom one might criticise for moral or other deficiencies of character or action can, in certain instances, serve as positive role models. In fact, one can do both: Antony provides a positive role model in Octavian (360-61) and both positive and negative examples on Antony’s relationship with his soldiers (362-63).

Since we lack an introduction to the Parallel Lives as a whole collection, one cannot know if Jacobs’ approach is, in fact, how Plutarch intended for the reader to navigate his work. Jacobs reasonably speculates that a more formal prescription may have appeared at the outset of the unfortunately missing Epaminondas-Scipio. Alternatively, of course, maybe it did not, and Plutarch’s comment in Alexander mentioned above holds. This has been the approach that most—though admittedly not all—Plutarch scholars follow. Whereas Jacobs’ readings of her selected episodes from her selected Lives are engaging and often convincing, Plutarch’s tendency to eschew significant editorial comment makes it hard to ascertain if this is indeed how he wanted or realistically expected the reader to engage the Lives.

On the other hand, the reader familiar with the continuously expanding corpus of scholarship on the Parallel Lives will find little in these chapters that is objectionable, since Jacobs methodically outlines her familiarity with, and thus her desire to build upon, that scholarship, especially the work of Timothy Duff and Lieve van Hoof.1 To be sure, each scholar has her or his favourite Life or pair, so one might quibble with Jacobs’ choices of pairs. Her selections are sound in that she covers both Classical and Hellenistic Lives on the Greek side (and ensures representation of Athenian, Spartan, and Corinthian Lives) and Early, Middle, and Late Republican on the Roman.

There are two particularly noteworthy strengths to Jacobs’ study. First, she points out the subtle yet important differences in Plutarch’s accounts versus those of other sources, especially historical narrative. In so doing, she demonstrates that in each and every Life Plutarch does not always follow the historical or biographical tradition, but rather he designs each to suit his own biographical agenda. For example, in her analysis of Agesilaus, Jacobs notes that in most sources (Xenophon, Diodorus, and Nepos) the Spartans’ policies towards Thebes come from the state, but in Plutarch Agesilaus is the primary author (236). In the case of Timoleon, the change that she detects is one of degree of emphasis between Plutarch’s approach and those of Diodorus and Nepos concerning the general’s arrangements following his deposing of the tyrants, which creates a more positive impression of Timoleon.

The second strength of this study is the author’s consistent and effective engagement with Plutarch’s Moralia, since, as Jacobs herself notes, almost every individual for whom Plutarch drafted a Life appears in the Moralia (and some do frequently, for example, Pericles). The essays that prove important to this study are Political Precepts (by far the most discussed), Old Men in Politics, Fortune of the Romans, Philosophers and Men in Power, and Tranquility of Mind. In so doing, Jacobs contributes to understanding further the Plutarchean oeuvre as an organic and complementary whole.2

One minor criticism is that an index locorum would have been useful, given the wide range of authors and texts of Plutarch discussed and cited. Only minor typographical or other errors appear.3 Jacobs’ study makes a positive contribution to the study of Plutarch specifically and ancient life-writing in general, opening up new lines of enquiry on Plutarch’s Lives in particular and ancient life-writing more broadly.


1.   Timothy E. Duff, Plutarch’s Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice, Oxford, 1999; Lieve van Hoof, Plutarch’s Practical Ethics, (Oxford, 2010).
2.   On the inter-relationship(s) between the Lives and the Moralia, see especially the strong collection of N. Anastasios, ed., The Unity of Plutarch’s Works: ‘Moralia’ Themes in the Lives, Features of the Lives in the ‘Moralia’, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008).
3.   Pg. 313 ‘assassination of Nero and the oppression of Diocletian’. Pg. 43 n.14: the reference to Crassus at How to Profit from One’s Enemies 89A is probably L. Licinius Crassus (RE 55), the famed orator and Censor of 92 BCE, not M. Licinius Crassus, subject of Plutarch’s Crassus: see A. M. Ward, ‘Crassus’ Slippery Eel’, CR 24 (1974): 185-86.

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