BMCR 1995.09.22

1995.09.22, Scardigli, ed., Essays on Plutarch’s Lives

, Essays on Plutarch's Lives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 403 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198140764 $72.00.

‘Every scholar interested in any aspect of the ancient world’, writes B. Scardigli in her introduction (p. 28) to this volume, ‘can find something of use somewhere in Plutarch: therein lies the special attraction and unique importance of his oeuvre.‘ Nothing could make that point more clearly than the thirteen essays assembled in this volume, which, viewed together, amply demonstrate how deeply imbued Plutarch was—in his life and his Lives—with all of Hellenic culture and history and the fullness of what it had to offer, both in the long past days of its own glory and in more recent times when ‘the world’ had become Roman. He was, as Wilamowitz says (p. 54), ‘still a Hellene to the bone’. Yet he lived in the Roman world, and in his Lives he brought both worlds together, showing not only that the Greeks were equal to the Romans, but also that despite their differences the Greeks and Romans were equally human, and thus that each group offered important lessons in humanity. To a discipline frequently assailed for the irrelevance of its dead white European males, Plutarch, who showed what the original dead white Europeans males had to offer their successors and descendants in terms of humanity, is, or should be, a figure of special attraction and unique importance.

These of course are only the broader implications for the Classics that this excellent collection of essays has to offer. Even when one narrows the focus to the man and the Lives themselves, one still finds an admirably wide range of informative discussion on the cultural and literary aspects of the Lives. Such discussions are essential to the study and use of Plutarch today, for although none of the essays published here is new, with the exception of Scardigli’s introduction and C.B.R. Pelling’s postscript to his ‘Plutarch’s method of work in the Roman Lives‘, one still often finds citations from the Lives shuffled in and out of footnotes with careless disregard for the aims of Plutarch’s biography and for his literary technique. As D.A. Russell warns in ‘On Reading Plutarch’s Lives‘ (p. 75), ‘…it should be obvious that…it is misleading and dangerous to use what is plainly one of the most sophisticated products of ancient historiography without constant regard to the plans and purposes of the author’. This volume should serve as a useful corrective and may be added to the other volumes of essays on Plutarch that have appeared in the past decade ( ICS 13.2 [1988]; Plutarch and the Historical Tradition, [London, 1992]; ANRW 2.33.6 [Berlin and New York, 1992]) as the keystone of an arch through which all may pass to a better understanding of Plutarch and his work.

The volume begins by addressing Plutarch and the Lives on a large scale: B. Scardigli’s masterful introduction to the literary, philosophical, historiographical, and biographical background to the Lives, complete with an up to date bibliography; Wilamowitz’ subtle, almost breathing portrait of Plutarch the man and biographer painted as only he could paint it; Russell’s essential article on how to read the Lives, forewarned and forearmed; C.P. Jones’ painstaking progress towards establishing a chronology of Plutarch’s works. More detailed treatments then follow, exploring and extending many of the avenues of approach found in the first four. Pelling’s fundamental ‘Plutarch’s adaptation of his source-material’ identifies and discusses in depth the techniques Plutarch used to adapt what he found in his sources to his own purposes by comparing his practice within related Lives. P.A. Stadter’s ‘Plutarch’s comparison of Pericles and Fabius Maximus’ then shows how the portraits of these men strengthen and illuminate each other by Plutarch’s focus on their common traits. In ‘Plutarch’s Parallel Lives : the choice of heroes’, J. Geiger strongly argues that Plutarch’s varying knowledge of different periods of Greek history, his relatively scanty knowledge of Roman history, and his moral purpose led him to write about certain men rather than others. Russell’s ‘Plutarch, Alcibiades 1-16′ shows how much Plutarch’s literary considerations can influence the presentation of his material to the detriment of chronology and history. J.M. Mossman, in ‘Tragedy and epic in Plutarch’s Alexander‘, again stresses the literary element in biography, ably pointing out how Plutarch uses epic patterning, inspired by Alexander’s emulation of Achilles, to stress the good in Alexander’s character, and tragic patterning to stress the bad. S.C.R. Swain’s splendid ‘Hellenic culture and the Roman heroes of Plutarch’ examines the biographer’s notion that education and culture are important positive elements in character development, and shows how the presence or absence of these elements in his Roman subjects, in whom such elements cannot be assumed, reveals itself in their character. In ‘Plutarch’s method of work in the Roman Lives‘ Pelling argues that the Pompeius, Caesar, Crassus, Brutus, Antonius, and Cato minor were all researched and composed together, and examines the lessons in this for understanding Plutarch’s methods. In ‘Plutarch and Roman politics’, Pelling then considers the biographer’s representation of Roman politics, and how this varies with his focus in each Life and is influenced by his understanding of Greek politics. Finally, Russell’s ‘Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus’ demonstrates how Plutarch can reinterpret and rewrite his source-material to suit his own literary purpose, and provides a useful lesson for all who study the Lives.

For all the many virtues of this collection, there are some few points that call for comment. Scardigli is commendably cautious in her treatment of what may have been the course of biography’s development prior to Plutarch, but a more explicit statement of the caution we must employ in placing Plutarch within this continuum would have made her introduction better still. The criticisms Plutarch answers or anticipates in his apology for his biographies at Alex. 1 could suggest that his Lives differ from those of others, or, perhaps, that Alexander-Caesar differ, and so could be mistaken for histories because they more closely approach history than biography generally did or than his previously published biographies had. The latter would certainly be the case for the very historical Caesar at least (cf. pp. 145-48, 319-20).

On pp. 142-43 Pelling quotes Alex. 1.1-2 in translation: ‘For it is not histories we are writing but Lives. Nor is it always his most famous actions which reveal a man’s good or bad qualities: a clearer insight into a man’s character is often given by a small matter, a word or a jest, than by engagements where thousands die, or by the greatest pitched battles, or by sieges of cities’. There is a problem here with ‘always’, which purports to render pantôs; and this is far more everyone’s problem than it is Pelling’s. For ‘always’ has long been the standard translation of pantôs. Yet pantôs means not ‘always’, but ‘in all ways’, i.e., ‘absolutely’ or ‘completely’. And so the passage means ‘nor is the revelation of a man’s good and bad qualities completely possible [ pantôs enesti dêlôsis ] through his most famous actions, but often…’. On this rendering the small deeds complement, rather than oppose, the great. And, as ‘often’ suggests, great and small deeds will appear in varying proportions in various Lives : the more historical the Life, the more great deeds appear; the less historical, the more small deeds. This is far more consistent with Pelling’s analysis of Plutarch’s biographical theory and practice at pp. 142-51 than ‘always’ would allow, a problem of which Pelling is himself aware (cf. p. 147).

On pp. 287-88 Pelling presents a strong case for regarding the lost history of C. Asinius Pollio as the major source for the Pompeius, Caesar, Crassus, Brutus, Antonius, and Cato minor from the year 60 onward. He is, however, rightly cautious about whether Plutarch used Pollio directly or through an intermediate source or translation which he calls the ‘Pollio-source’. No certainty, as he points out, is possible, but there is some indication that unavailability might have been the only factor that could have prevented Plutarch from consulting Pollio directly in Latin. For it is especially noteworthy that, despite Plutarch’s remarks on his inability to appreciate the fine points of Latin style and rhetoric at Dem. 2.2-4, Plutarch can nevertheless make extensive and intelligent first hand use of information gathered from Cicero’s Second Philippic in the Antonius (see pp. 297-98). As experience in the classroom shows, students can usually extract information from a text even if they never reach the point of being able to appreciate its style. On the other hand it is also entirely possible that, since there is no reason to assume that Plutarch discontinued his study of Latin, his Latin improved as his research led him to read more and more Latin sources, and, therefore, that the comments in the Demosthenes-Cicero, the fifth pair of Lives ( Dem. 3.1), were no longer true by the time he came to research and write the Demetrius-Antonius, probably no earlier than the sixteenth pair (cf. Jones, pp. 106-11). If this is so, Plutarch may well have consulted Pollio directly, though we must still be cautious.

Taken all in all then, this volume makes a long needed contribution. One may read each essay with profit without consulting the others, but the best way for student or scholar to reap the full advantage is to read the book from beginning to end. As Plutarch hoped his work would be, this work is an ouk akhrêstos historia.