BMCR 2013.07.52

Plutarch: Lives that Made Greek History

, , Plutarch: Lives that Made Greek History. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., . 295. ISBN 9781603848466. $12.95 (pb).


This volume features fifteen excerpted Greek Lives, from Theseus to Phocion. Extensive notes and a glossary offer guidance on the periods covered in the volume. It is somewhat problematic that the book’s title does not indicate that the Lives are excerpted, as many in the intended audience of ancient history undergraduates will never realise how far the editor has guided their interpretation of the material or how much of the original text is missing. The large number of Lives featured and the extensive historical notes will undoubtedly be welcome to some course leaders, but some will be discouraged from recommending this volume to students by the difficulty of identifying edit points and the encouragement to treat sources without attention to genre or form.

The editor’s introduction explains the editing conventions that have been applied. Cuts mid-chapter are marked with ellipsis, while those made at the beginning or end of a chapter take effect without indication. Chapters are marked by bracketed numbers, so cases where chapters have been cut in their entirety can be seen, so long as readers check each number they pass. The result is that there is often little or no indication that a selection process has been applied.

Each Life is given its own introduction, which influences how that Life is read. The introduction to the brief selection from Theseus explains that it has been included despite its mythical nature because it ‘preserves important ideas the Athenians held about their own early history,’— a reasonable position. The Lycurgus introduction explains that this is an account of a person who may or may not have been a historical figure. The extracts focus on Lycurgan law, which is a good choice as this reflects the main topic of the Life. Plutarch’s account of the inheritance crisis in pre-Lycurgan Sparta is omitted, a decision which has ramifications for attempts to use this Life for discussions of Spartan society.

Solon is particularly rich in notes, something that is likely to be useful to readers unfamiliar with this early period. Political processes and factions are briefly explained (with terms such as boulé carrying pronunciation guides), and the translation issues surrounding tyrannos are discussed.

Plutarch’s Themistocles is introduced as ‘a complex blend of heroism and self-serving machination.’ While a huge percentage of religious episodes are cut from the Lives, this one retains Themistocles’ manipulation of an oracle, something surely intended to reinforce the editor’s interpretive focus on ‘self-serving machination.’ Notes provide cross-references to Herodotus and Thucydides, and explain that Themistocles’ ‘ritual bow’ is ‘proskynesis. . .a highly formalized gesture of submission seen by the Greeks as a shameful self-prostration.’ But there is no explanation of how differently Greeks and Persians understood this gesture, and no cross-reference to Alexander, where an explanation would have been particularly helpful.

The Aristides introduction notes that Plutarch foregrounds this individual in a number of episodes where Herodotus has ‘Athenians.’ This should ‘remind readers that in the Lives Plutarch was composing character studies and moral paradigms, not history as we know it.’ This is a welcome reminder, but it disguises the fact that this volume presents neither ‘history as we know it’ nor Plutarch’s character study. Plutarch’s elegy on justice is cut, although it is central to the interpretation of Plutarch’s selection and presentation of his material (ch.6).

Chapters 1-3 of Cimon, in which Lucullus saves Chaeronea, is understandably cut. The omission of Plutarch’s interpretive remarks, however, is more unfortunate. Plutarch is explicit about his admiration for his protagonists’ feats against the barbarian, their timely moderate politics, and their generosity; he also notes their love of opulence and failure to capitalise on their victories. Rather than these themes, we get a foregrounding of Cimon’s rivalry with Themistocles. This creates an interpretive scheme that is imposed by the editor rather than inherent in the text. Similarly, while Cimon’s fondness for women and drink is included, Plutarch’s insistence on Cimon’s nobility and candour is cut. This creates the impression of an oafish Cimon, something not representative of Plutarch’s depiction. The notes provide helpful and concise explanations of phenomena such as cleruchies and the Delian League, but sections in which Cimon helps the poor and refuses bribes are cut, which exaggerates the distinction between Themistocles as populist and Cimon as aristocrat, and obscures the complexity of Athenian society.

Pericles is provided almost in full, in keeping with its significance for the study of the fifth century. Most references to religion are cut. Nicias has few cuts and useful notes. Alcibiades appears almost in full. The introduction asserts that this is a ‘morality tale about the perils of self-pride’. Alcibiades’ pairing with Coriolanus is typically unmentioned; this silence is particularly unfortunate in the case of this complex Life, in which, as Duff has demonstrated, the pairing helps express themes concerning education and civil strife.1 Lysander is also presented as a tale about pride, with sections exploring attitudes to wealth, veracity, and civic violence largely cut.

The Agesilaus retains the accusations of bastardy against the heir-apparent, before skipping straight to Agesilaus’ succession, thus omitting the ‘lame king’ warning oracle. This selectivity means that there is no interpretive guide or anticipation of problems to come. Similarly, Agesilaus’ spoiled sacrifice at Aulis is omitted, although as well as anticipating future events it offers valuable insight into Spartan-Boeotian relations. Notes provide guidance on a period that many students will be less familiar with, although in a serious omission there is no reference to Tissaphernes’ possible absence from the battle of Sardis. While the translation is generally clear and accurate, Agesilaus contains a striking exception. When Agesilaus watches Epaminondas crossing the Eurotas and says “Ώ τοû μεγαλοπράγμονος,” “O doer of great deeds,’ this resonates with the dominant theme. Here we have “A mover of mountains!” which is neither accurate nor as thematically meaningful.

Pelopidas and Demosthenes both appear in edited form. Plutarch gives several explanations for Demosthenes’ nickname (ch.4); this volume includes only one, and that one is not found in Plutarch. Alexander 1.1 is omitted, losing Plutarch’s famous statement about writing biography not history. This is significant in its own right, and has implications for e.g. n.42 ‘Plutarch has not troubled to explain these movements clearly’, which sounds unnecessarily critical. Dion and Timoleon are omitted because of their Sicilian focus, while Eumenes, Pyrrhus, Agis, and Aratus are omitted because they are Hellenistic (p.vii). A brief Phocion closes the collection.

The introduction states that this volume is a ‘further step’ in ‘a gradual shift in the way the Lives are read, moving away from the ethical towards the historical’ (p.viii). This runs contrary to modern Plutarchan scholarship. Timothy Duff and Christopher Pelling feature in the bibliography, but the introduction’s position does not reflect the work that these scholars and others have done to discourage plundering Plutarch for apparent nuggets of ‘pure history’ and to encourage readings of the Lives that are sensitive to their nature as biography, as moral literature, and as works that function in parallel pairs. Although the introduction does mention that the Lives were originally presented in pairs, no information on the respective pairings is provided. While there may be some merit in collecting Greek or Roman Lives separately, the omission of information on the pairings limits readers’ ability to locate the corresponding Lives for themselves.

The editing pattern sees references to religion and sexuality largely cut, creating a misleading impression of Greek history and Plutarchan writing. Plutarch’s reference to Spartan boys taking lovers is included, but with the observation (n.27 p.19) that Xenophon says that Lycurgus outlawed homosexuality. While it was thorough to include a reference to Lac. Pol., this accords with a general tendency to downplay Greek homosexuality. The Aristides retains one version of the origin of Aristides’ rivalry with Themistocles (differing personalities), but cuts the other (in which it was instigated by rivalry over a boy). Similarly, there is extreme selectivity in the episodes that illustrate Agesilaus’ personal life. That Agesilaus was tough and happy to lie on rough ground is included. That he accepted a handsome Persian boy as a guest-friend and helped him with his love affairs is not. The king’s (politically significant) indulgence of his son’s relationship with Cleonymus is omitted, while Cleonymus dying bravely at Leuctra is retained. It is hard not to conclude that this represents a particular notion of what the history of warriors should be about.

The religious theme, so strong in Aristides and elsewhere, is absent from this account of the Persian Wars. The Tegean push for prime-position is retained (ch.12), but the entire section in which leaders seek and interpret oracles is cut. Chapters in which the Spartans delay their attack, sacrifice, read omens, and pray are also omitted, without indication that a cut has been made. This significantly alters the battle narrative from a tactical perspective, and it creates the false impression that ancient warfare was essentially religion-free. Nicias’ reaction to the eclipse is cut until it appears as if Plutarch presents him as absurd, rather than as a man who lacked necessary religious guidance ( Nicias ch.23-4). The Syracusans’ corresponding access to diviners and to the sanctuary of Heracles is also cut, again omitting what Plutarch represents as significant aspects of the conflict. Cimon’s capture of Scyros is depicted solely in terms of the recovery of Theseus’ bones, with nothing on the suppression of piracy ( Cimon ch.8). As so much religion-focused material is cut from the Lives, this inclusion (with the retention of Themistocles’ oracle) creates the impression that ancient Greek religion was little more than opportunistic trickery, which is certainly not the impression Plutarch gives.

No two people would make the same selection from Plutarch, and it would have been impossible for the editor to make a selection to everyone’s satisfaction. Nonetheless, at a time when most students are being encouraged to treat sources sensitively and to think broadly about what constitutes ‘history’, it seems retrograde to have a work which treats biography as historiography, and history as a matter of politics and battles. Above all, with edit points so hard to identify, non-Plutarchan themes quietly and misleadingly replace those which were carefully constructed by Plutarch.


1. Duff, T. (1999) Plutarch’s Lives. Exploring Virtue and Vice (Oxford University Press) ch.7.