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Plutarch's Lives: Volume 1 (The Dryden Translation) [Hardcover]

Plutarch , John Dryden
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

26 May 1994 Modern Library
Plutarch's Lives, written at the beginning of the second century A.D., is a brilliant social history of the ancient world by one of the greatest biographers and moralists of all time. In what is by far his most famous and influential work, Plutarch reveals the character and personality of his subjects and how they led ultimately to tragedy or victory. Richly anecdotal and full of detail, Volume I contains profiles and comparisons of Romulus and Theseus, Numa and Lycurgus, Fabius and Pericles, and many more powerful figures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The present translation, originally published in 1683 in conjunction with a life of Plutarch by John Dryden, was revised in 1864 by the poet and scholar Arthur Hugh Clough, whose notes and preface are also included in this edition.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 158 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Inc; New edition edition (26 May 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679600086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679600084
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 14.2 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,215,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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When AEthra was delivered of a son, some say that he was immediately named Thesus, from the tokens which his father had put under the stone; others that he had received his name afterwards at Athens, when AEgeus acknowledged him for his son. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars Invaluable source and historical document 14 May 2011
By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
After having read McCullogh's splendid series on Rome, I turned to this fat, dense book with great expectations. I was not disappointed: the stories are endlessly fascinating, from their basic details on ancient history to the bizarre asides that reveal the pre-Christianised mind-set of the author.
Like all great books, this one can be read on innumerable levels. First, there is the moralising philosophy that is perhaps the principal purpose of the author to advance - each life holds lessons on proper conduct of great and notorious leaders alike. You get Caesar, Perikles, and Alcibiades, and scores of others who are compared and contrasted. Second, there is the content. Plutarch is an invaluable source of data for historians and the curious. Third, there is the reflection of religious and other beliefs of the 1C AD: oracles and omens are respected as are the classical gods. For example, while in Greece, Sulla is reported as having found a satyr, which he attempted unsuccesfully to question for its auguring abilities during his miltary campaign in Greece! It is a wonderful window into the mystery of life and human belief systems. That being said, Plutarch is skeptical of these occurances and both questions their relevance and shows how some shrewd leaders, like Sertorious with his white fawn in Spain, used them to great advantage.

Finally, this is a document that was used for nearly 2000 years in schools as a vital part of classical education - the well-bred person knew all these personalities and stories, which intimately informed their vocabulary and literary references until the beginning of the 20C. That in itself is a wonderful view into what was on people's minds and how they conceived things over the ages.
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dryden's Plutarch 21 April 1999
By A Customer
In response to the review below:
"Simple pleasure" is worth something; Dryden's Plutarch, promoted in "yet another" publication, is worth even more.
? This translation by this talented poet is rendered "useless" by the absence of "reference numbers"? Plutarch is not about "indexing", but about morality, courage, and fate. This is an excellent book, by an excellent translator, and it is good to know that so many publishers are interested in keeping it alive.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plutarch enlightens as well as informs. 25 Jun 2000
By Lance Kirby - Published on
As well as being a great historian Plutarch was a philosopher who used the examples of good and infamous men alike to reinforce his conception of morality and what the best in a man can truly be. Unlike other classical historians, he doesn't just accept stories about individuals at face value but always mentions conflicting facts in the historical record. He often digresses in mid narrative, but never to the reader's frustration, as it is always with an eye to the social practice's and political environment of the people of whom he writes, analyzing deeply with an anecdote here or an quotation there the merits and demerits of that society, and leaving us with a clearer picture of the classical mind-set as well as we might know it. As for the translation of Dryden which my fellow reviewer below much bemoans, I can only say that as a classic of English prose style it ranks only second to Gibbon and reminds us that Plutarch means not just to educate, but to delight and entertain as well; such an achievement is not easily matched without the advantage of genius.
39 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A rough read 13 Dec 2001
By El Cholo Invisivel - Published on
Plutarch's Lives is one of my all time favorite books. I especially enjoy the "gay windows" in Alcibiades life and the description of Archimedes defense of Syracuse. My three star rating has nothing to do with Plutarch and everything to do with the terribly outdated translation "update" by Sir Clough. Sure, as another reviewer points out, it is vocabulary enhancing, but Plutarch was not a Victorian English gentleman. If you like Victorian prose, read a Victorian novel or something. I would actually prefer to read Dryden and company's undoctored original than wade through Clough's train wreck, as I find 18th century prose an easier read, and Dryden was a better writer.
If someone were to do a modern translation of the Lives, more people would be able to enjoy it. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that you can probably count the number of good classical translators on one hand, and how many of them have the time to translate Plutarch?
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for Western culture 13 Mar 2001
By Donald Steiny - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
These writings are 100% essential to have as a basis for understanding Western civilization. The description of Sparta here is the benchmark. Understanding the modern issues of culture and development can be made much richer by reading the laws of Solon (who laid down the groundwork for Democracy) and Lycurgus (Sparta - the ultimate egalitarian state) you can see the seeds of a dichotomy that has lived to this day.
This two volume set contains the lives of many of the people that you hear about again and again. If you plan to study the classics and read Plato, the Histories or other of the great books, these books are a perfect companion. Instead of reading them straight through, you can read about people as you come across them.
With much soul searching I gave the books 4 stars instead of 5. The reason for this is that the translations are challenging. They are not terrible and they are better than other tranlations I have seen, but they have endless sentences and word choices that are not common in modern American English. If you are into personal growth, this may not be a bad thing, because you can look up the words and expand your vocabulary, but it does make it somewhat more slow going than it could be.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The "Dryden Translation" that Dryden did not translate... 1 Jun 2009
By Mark D. Dietz - Published on
I have provided a more indepth review of this edition for the Modern Library paperback, but I thought it might be worth repeating one or two comments from that review here.

First, this is called the "Dryden Translation" -- the quotations marks are intentional, because Dryden is not actually the translator. He may have provided some oversight for the translating activity, but the text of the lives were originally translated by others, primarily academics from Oxford and Cambridge. Dryden's one direct contribution is a life of Plutarch which survives here as a few paragraphs at the end of Clough's introduction. The publisher, Jacob Tonson, appears to have used Dryden's name, Dryden was one of his star writers, to gain extra sales.

Secondly, Clough's editiorial work has long been regarded as an improvement on the original, but Clough himself, after having started on the revision, decided he really wanted to start from scratch with a whole new translation. His nineteenth century publishers would not let him do so. As it was, it took him six years to revise the seventeenth century translations of Dryden's academic peers. The result is, nonetheless, quite readable and has been the standard ever since.

Today the Loeb translation is generally regarded as superior (I have not made the comparison myself, but I have seen a review in an academic journal that was written at the time that the Loeb translation first appeared; the side-by-side comparisons in that review were pretty compelling). However, the Loeb is much more expensive and the casual reader should, no doubt, be more than satisfied with this translation.

I felt I needed to add these comments to counter some of the reviews that suggest that Dryden's writing or Clough's editing were superior or inferior based upon what amounts to a reader's casual critique -- a fine thing in its way, but in this case not at all supported by the facts. Hopefully, with this review we may set aside any notions that this is "Clough's trainwreck" or an example of Dryden's fine prose. It is neither.

None of this changes the quality of the work itself. This is still a readable and very good (if not the best) translation of a piece of writing that has its own inherent interests, details of which one may find in other reviews posted here.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For the ages' tooth . . . 4 Mar 2006
By cvairag - Published on
Twain's pejorative definition of `classic' need not apply. I define classic as that (text) which speaks to the heart over an extended duration - perhaps for several generations, as in `classic rock', or several millennia, as in Plutarch's "Lives". I probably never would have read Plutarch, were it not for a glorious discovery of Montaigne in mid-life. Having acquired enough distaste for the copious demands required to master classical languages after five years of Latin in secondary school, I made an arbitrary and direly misguided vow to eschew all Classics courses at the university level. And thus again is revealed the fateful difference between post-modern (post-1945), and the modern (c. 1500 - August 5, 1945) pedagogy, of which I unwittingly, if serendipitously, caught the tail end. The modern cannon required thorough immersion in the classics, and, for many years, Plutarch was required reading in the best schools, and should be even now. The author of the Shakespearian plays came to Plutarch by way of Montaigne (and likely read the Amyot translation, and only later the North, if at all), and the English schools came to Plutarch by way of Shakespeare. We might say that the revival of Plutarch was one of the most far reaching achievements of the Northern Renaissance.
At one point in his celebrated chronicle of the self, Montaigne (as a shaper and bona fide member of that cannon, guardian of some of what is best in our cultural inheritance) amusedly reveals that, when his critics believe they are attacking his work, they are actually attacking Plutarch and/or Seneca, so profound is their presence in his writing, and, in his "Defense of Plutarch and Seneca", he declares that . . . "my book [is] built up purely from their spoils".

And what a book it is! But Plutarch's magnum (see the 14 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library for his other works), is the greater. Montaigne is one of the great students of the self. Plutarch is the first (and may yet still be the definitive) historian of virtue. Montaigne, in scrutiny of his own nature, seeks to recognize the limitations and potentials of the self, and thereby sketch our general spiritual contours. Plutarch, in an unparalleled series of real life, historically and culturally pivotal, examples, shows us what they are.

The book records in the most remarkably intimate style (Plutarch has few peers as a master of narrative and an uncanny ability to ferret out of detail the significance of individual actions as a unified whole), the major events in the lives of the most impacting figures of the ancient world. Therefore, like the best novels, the book forms a world in itself, a lost world, the world of our ancestors, through a landscape drawn of actions and consequences. The structure of the book is such that an account of the seminal moments in the life of a noble Greek and then of a noble Roman are brought forth in pairs, followed by a comparison. In some sections of the work these comparisons are absent. They appear at some point in antiquity to have either been lost to or removed from the text, which would seem to explain why, for instance, there is no comparison of Alexander and Caesar. But the comparisons are brilliant, and eminently instructive.

Of course, from the details alone, we may draw our own inferences. Alexander, as a mere teen, leading his troops in hand-to-hand combat, won his first battle fighting uphill at night. Caesar, a heavy drinker, was wont to ride horseback at full tilt with his hands clenched behind his back. He had a life-long passion for Cato's sister and it is said that from their relationship, which continued through their respective marriages, Brutus was born. Et tu? Of course, one cannot fail to mention, even in this briefest review of the abundantly rich description in the nearly 1,300 pages which comprise the book, the death of Cato the Younger - one of the most exquisitely drawn figures in the book. Hunted down with the remnants of his troops into the wastelands of Carthage by the army of Octavius Ceasar in an effort to snuff out the last vestiges of republican resistance and opposition to Empire, realizing that the last realistic hope for freedom is lost, Cato attempts ritual suicide (a Stoic custom common to Roman nobility) by disembowelment. As Plutarch describes the scene, ". . . he did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired." In Seneca's words: "For Cato could not outlive freedom, nor would freedom outlive Cato."

However, the life most appropriate for the contemporary reader, I feel (and wish that every member of the shadowy corporate/military junta that seems to be ruling us these days would read and take to heart) is the life of Crassus. Crassus was the most successful businessman in the history of the Roman Empire. Plutarch relates that at one time he owned virtually one-third of the real estate in Rome. However, such mind-boggling success was not enough for him. His yen, and later, obsession, was to be revered as a great military leader, a world conqueror, expand the domain of the already burgeoning Empire, and the object of his fantasies was the area of the world at that time known as Mesopotamia and Persia, today as Iraq and Iran. We follow as he makes extensive preparations, investing his own fortune and a great deal of the nation's wealth into outfitting an army for the venture. And at first, the invasion of Mesopotamia seems to go well. But the centers of population are spread out over great stretches of desert, and the occupation never really succeeds, because a central authority cannot be solidly established. Crassus, however, remains undaunted, even though the troops are becoming mutinous as supplies begin to run thin. Led on by treacherous advisors, he enters Parthia (somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Syria). Plutarch describes the grueling denouement with his usual detachment, aplomb, and gifted eye for pertinent detail. Having lost the greatest fortune in the world, he proceeds to lose his troops, then his sons, and finally his life. These lessons are never too late for the learning, and my apologies to Twain, but a classic is a text which retains its urgency to be read, and read now.

I read the Dryden/Clough translation. Dryden was never my favorite writer of his period, the late 17th century - hardly a match for Burton or Milton, in my opinion, but he was poet laureate, and this work I love - his English is fine, and resonates with classic dignity. Clough, the mid-nineteenth century British scholar who revised the translation, befriended Emerson when he traveled to England, and became a sort of mentor to the New England Transcendentalists in general. We can be grateful for such a wonderful rendering for one of the very greatest and most edifying masterpieces.
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