on 16 June 2009
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). `His skin used to emit a delightful odour and... his mouth and whole body used to be bathed in a fragrance which filled his clothes,' he says of Alexander. And later: `his self-restraint was apparent in his stubborn disregard for physical pleasures. He also had less penchant for wine than is generally thought. He gained his reputation because he dragged out the time he took over each cup, but it was time spent talking rather than drinking...' Yeah, right. 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 nine of Plutarch's Greek Lives: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, Agesilaus, and Alexander. A number of the less prominent characters treated by Plutarch need to be looked for in other editions (Theseus, Pelopidas, Pyrrhus, Lysander...).