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Customer Review

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography, not history, 11 Jun. 2009
This review is from: Roman Lives: A Selection of Eight Lives (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
I hate Plutarch, if only because he is indispensable. His numerous Lives are all that is left of large sections of Greek and Roman history, or are essential corroboration for other, scarce sources.

To modern readers, Plutarch can easily sound annoying. His portraits are invariably red-cheeked and gleaming-eyed. Vice and virtue are his main measures of men (and the few women). `These two young men were remarkably similar in terms of their courage and self-restraint - and also their generosity, eloquence, and high principles,' he begins on the Gracchi. `The younger Marius revealed the extent of his savagery and brutality in the continued slaughter of the best and most distinguished men of Rome,' is how he concludes on Marius. Politics are first and foremost personal, and portents and dreams are invariably full of meaning. Yet this is excellent, colourful, and entertaining biography. The characters jump out of the page. The times are evoked magnificently. Some people like to see in Plutarch timeless lessons on human psychology and behaviour; without going so far, his Lives certainly provide unmatched insights into the thoughts and beliefs of the ancients.

As to history, one needs to be aware how this came to us. In antiquity, works were copied in schools, especially of rhetoric. Thus what ensured they were reproduced in large numbers, and had a chance of survival in the ensuing Dark Age, was style, not content. Likewise, medieval copyists, all monks, were interested in the moral lessons of the works they preserved. (There are exceptions to this: invaluable papyri were found intact in the Egyptian desert; but these are rare.) Plutarch passed both the stylistic and moral tests. But he lacks the structure of a Thucydides or a Polybius. His works are not graspable without context - a context which the introductions contained in this edition don't quite supply, even if they help. So the history enthusiast needs to be warned: this is great biography, but to the historian it is only supplementary, if essential, material.

This edition contains only eight of Plutarch's Roman Lives: Cato the Elder, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. A number of the less prominent characters treated by Plutarch need to be looked for in other editions (Numa, Cato the Younger, Marcellus, Crassus, Galba...).
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Sep 2010 20:01:13 BDT
Last edited by the author on 16 Sep 2010 20:03:36 BDT
No one at the time would have told Crassus he was less prominent. Which version of Plutarch would you advise me to buy?

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Nov 2010 23:27:38 GMT
Last edited by the author on 21 Nov 2010 23:44:48 GMT
reader 451 says:
Good point on Crassus. He'd be turning in his grave if he had one. Both the Modern Library and Loeb will have complete editions. I am not qualified to judge of the quality of translation, but I understand that both the Modern Library and the Loeb translations date from the nineteenth century.

Posted on 8 Oct 2011 11:04:21 BDT
Crassus features in the Penguin version of Plutarch: Fall of the Roman Republic (along with Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero if I remember correctly).

Posted on 30 May 2013 18:09:23 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 May 2013 18:10:04 BDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jan 2014 16:18:34 GMT
reader 451 says:
I fail to see how giving a book five stars constitutes 'whining like a little annoying twerp'.
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