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. As is well known, Plutarch is the principal source of many of Shakespeare's plays, such as Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. But it was also the source of the now obscure fascination with the rivalry of Marius and Sulla, as depicted in paintings and poetry that we still easily encounter if we are at all interested in art. Thus, this is essential reading for aspiring pedants (like me).
Of course, there are plenty of flaws in the work. It assumes an understanding of much historical detail, and the cases in which I lacked it hugely lessened my enjoyment. At over 320 years old, the translation is also dated and the prose somewhat stilted, and so it took me 300 pages to get used to it. Moreover, strictly speaking, there are many inaccuracies, of which the reader must beware.
Warmly recommended as a great and frequently entertaining historical document.
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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