Parallel Lives

views updated

Parallel Lives

by Plutarch


A collection of 23 pairs of biographical sketches (each matching the life of one Greek with one Roman man) and 4 single lives; written in Greek in the early 100s CE.


The biographies illustrate the personal qualities of great figures of Greece and Rome, focusing on their actions. Plutarch groups every two figures according to his view of some basis for psychological comparison.

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Take Place

The Biographies in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Were Written

For More Information

Plutarch was born about 47 ce to a wealthy family in Chaeronea, a provincial town in central Greece in the region of Boeotia. He did his advanced schooling in Athens, a city that would remain dear to his heart throughout his life, studying rhetoric, physics, and philosophy, as well as Greek and Latin literature. To cap his education, Plutarch traveled widely through Greece and Rome, meeting the Roman emperor Hadrian and other key figures along the way. He also visited Egypt and Asia Minor (Turkey) before returning to his beloved hometown and settling down to become a teacher and public servant. In about 68 ce, Plutarch married Timoxena and went on to father five children (four sons and a daughter)—only two of whom would outlive him. The now settled Plutarch went about his daily life, meanwhile maintaining ties with key figures in the Greco-Roman world, which won him a position from Hadrian. The emperor made Plutarch a procurator of Greece, an official whose duties included overseeing tax revenues. From his other connections, Plutarch received invitations to lecture on philosophy and ethics throughout Italy. Gradually he built a large and enthusiastic following, benefiting from the pro-Greek cultural climate that existed in Rome during his day. About 99 ce, Plutarch returned to Greece and began serving in various civic positions, most notably that of head priest at Delphi, the country’s principal shrine. It is probably during this period that he wrote his two main bodies of works: the Parallel Lives and the Moralia, a catch-all title designating 60 or so writings on subjects ranging from religion to philosophy, ethics, politics, psychology, and education. Plutarch died about 120 ce, leaving behind a collection of paired biographies that seems to have met with immediate success and that became his enduring monument. Among its most exemplary pairs is that of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, who reached the pinnacle of individual achievement in the Greek and Roman worlds, respectively. Their importance to the collection is evidenced not least by the fact that the account of Alexander is twice as long as any of the other lives; Caesar’s is only slightly shorter. The remaining pairs feature other statesmen and conquerors. Plutarch documents the feats and failings of these real-life figures to tell the story of Greco-Roman civilization and to enlighten the reader morally. In the process, he conveys thoughts on the quest for honor by individual Greeks and Romans, and bequeaths to posterity a set of heroic portraits that has shaped conceptions of these individuals from antiquity to the present.

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Take Place

*Note: The history related to Alexander and Caesar is pertinent to many of the other lives in Plutarch’s collection. An asterisk following the first use of a name indicates that Plutarch has written a sketch for this figure in his collection.

Greece’s saga—from the Athenian Empire to Alexander the Great

Considered the greatest of all the ancient Greek and Roman generals, Alexander* (356-323 bce) took the throne in 336 bce, going on to dominate the Greeks, conquer the Persians, occupy Palestine, Egypt, and Phoenicia, and penetrate into northwestern India. When he first came to power in 336 bce, the Greek city-states were already in decline. Athens, a center of Greek values, had reached the height of power in the age of Pericles* (461-429 bce), more than a century before Alexander’s rise. Philosophy, architecture, literature, and democracy had flourished then, becoming the foundation for a rich cultural legacy that would influence Alexander and the course of Western history itself.

Although Alexander was born in Macedon, a kingdom to the north of the Greek city-states, his kingdom was a center for Greek artists and scholars. Athens in particular wielded great influence on Alexander, in part because of its high status in the Greek world and in part because Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, had lived at Athens for many years, becoming a keen observer of its politics and culture. A century before Alexander was born, during the 400s bce, Athens had seen the growth of robust democratic institutions, especially in the age of Pericles. A consummate politician, Pericles increased the degree of democracy in Athens. He added greater citizen oversight to government and heightened citizen control of the judicial system. Meanwhile, his own authority increased as he won repeated reelection to the office of strategos (military commander endowed with civil powers), a position of tremendous influence in Athens’s machinery of government.

Yet Athens began to weaken during the fifth century, primarily because of two sets of wars. The first, the Persian Wars (490 bce-479 bce), began as Persian reprisal against the Greek city-states for encouraging the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor to revolt against their Persian overlords. The famous victories of the Greeks at Marathon (490 bce) and Salamis (480 bce) repelled the Persian assault, which, though aimed at all Greece, had been directed especially at Athens. It aptly, then, was an Athenian-led victory, which owed particular thanks to the strategos Themistocles*. The victory may well have preserved the very possibility of Greek civilization. The invasion of 480 bce, during which Athens was burned, would inspire Alexander to claim that, in waging war against the Persian ruler Darius III in the 330s bce, he was really avenging the Persian destruction of Athens’ temples more than a century before his time.

The second conflict feeding into Athenian power in the fifth century was the Peloponnesian War, an armed contest between the city-states of Athens and Sparta for supremacy of Greece (431 bce-404 bce). The 27-year war ended in the destruction of the Athenian Empire. Complicating matters were the pronounced cultural differences between the two powers: Athens was democratic, urban, imperialist, and culturally experimental; Sparta, on the other hand, was aristocratic, agrarian, and culturally conservative.

The surrender of Athens in 404 BCE to the Spartan general Lysander* spelled the end of its empire. For the time being, government by democracy gave way to government by oligarchy (although Athens would manage to reestablish its democracy quickly). Sparta dominated much of Greece until 371 bce, when its king Agesilaus*, till then a prudent monarch, needlessly provoked a war with Thebes because of a personal grudge. Contrary to all expectation, the Thebans, under the generalships of Epaminondas* and Pelopidas*, crushed Sparta in battle. Although Agesilaus’ leadership saved the city itself from capture, Sparta’s power was squashed forever. There followed a period of Theban hegemony that came to an end with the rise of another power, Macedon, led by Alexander’s father, Philip II (whose kingdom comprised a substantial portion of the Balkan Peninsula to the north of the great cities of Greece). As Plutarch’s life of Alexander makes clear, among Alexander’s first acts was the continuation of his father’s campaigns in Greece; these were followed by the eastward extension of his empire and his eventual transformation into a tyrant. Making an outward show of his status, Alexander donned the trappings of Persian as well as Macedonian royal attire. During his life-time, some regions proclaimed him to be divine. People considered him a direct son of the Greek god Zeus. In contrast to Plutarch, who ascribed the death of Alexander to fever, a number of Alexander’s contemporaries blamed his demise on poison.

From the Roman Republic to Caesar’s empire—Rome’s saga

Living twice as long as Alexander, Julius Caesar* (100-44 bce) achieved his victories during one of the most troubled times in all of Roman history. Time and again, he led his troops to victory, extending Roman rule over all of Gaul (including modern-day France) and over the low countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg). The specter of civil war haunted Rome throughout Caesar’s lifetime and beyond. He began his political career in the aftermath of civil war and attained absolute power in the state through victory in civil war. His assassination led to a series of further civil wars, first between his supporters and his assassins, then between his supporters.

Class conflict tore at the fabric of the Roman Republic, and violence spread into domestic politics. Two brothers, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus* and Gaius Gracchus* (known together as the Gracchi), proposed reforms on behalf of the people. In 133 bce Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune (one of the officials elected to protect the lives and property of the people) proposed to divide public lands among the landless. He met with vigorous opposition from some wealthy senators, who made a practice of illegally farming those lands to supplement the profits from their own holdings. Tensions escalated. Well aware of the solid opposition, Tiberius tried to circumvent the Senate and was murdered, along with 300 followers. His younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, who served as tribune in 123-22 bce, carried on the struggle for reform. He stabilized the price of grain and lobbied to extend the right to vote to Rome’s Italian allies (which would finally be granted in 88 bce, after a bloody civil war between Rome and its allies). So great was the resistance of the conservative senators to Gaius that they characterized the struggle as a battle for the preservation of the Republic and authorized Rome’s army to defend the state. In the conflict that followed, Gaius committed suicide and as many as 3,000 of his followers were killed. Thus was “the use of violence in domestic politics legitimized by official decree” (Mackay, p. 42). It was during the Gracchus brothers’ terms as tribunes that murder was introduced into Roman politics as a strategic tactic.

Against the background of this violence emerged Marius*, a brilliant general who lacked the customary aristocratic credentials for leadership. Marius overcame this obstacle by building support among the commoners, courting the very political constituencies cultivated by the Gracchi brothers. Marius transformed the Roman army into a professional, all-volunteer force, creating a new breed of soldier who had no farm or work to which he needed to return and so could fight year round and for longer terms of service. Allegiance in this kind of army, however, shifted from the state to one’s general—the leader who ensured his soldiers’ fortunes. Marius’ changes to the army and the politics of the Gracchi brothers gave rise to populist leaders, statesmen, and generals who aligned themselves more with the people than the Senate. Marius and his nephew-in-law Julius Caesar were two such leaders. Aligned with the Senate, others—like Sulla* (Marius’ protégé and later rival)—were conservatives. But in either case, ambitious generals of all stripes now had political power bases in the armies that they led, a situation that made civil war an inevitable method for resolving political disputes.

Sulla, after a bloody purge of Rome’s elite, orchestrated his own appointment to an unlimited term as dictator in 82 bce. Once securely in power, he worked to restore stability. He even resigned his extraordinary official powers after three years. Unfortunately Sulla’s methods of acquiring power had greater consequence than anything he did once he had it. After him, politician-generals such as Caesar, Pompey* (Sulla’s protégé), and a host of lesser lights would use their wealth and military might to interfere directly in the politics of Rome. The electoral system soon became mired in a climate of scandal, violence, and bribery, giving rise to the uneasy triumvirate of Crassus*, Pompey, and Caesar, and, after the death of Crassus, to civil war between Pompey and Caesar. When Caesar emerged triumphant, he gave little thought to restoring the Republic but instead began to adopt the symbols of monarchy. This self-promotion had the same alienating effect on the Romans as Alexander had on his people when assuming the trappings of an Eastern potentate. Following Sulla’s precedent, Caesar arranged to be appointed dictator-for-life (44 bce), only to be assassinated by a band of senators led by Brutus* and Cassius.


Scholars face the perplexing problem of incomplete works in those that have survived from antiquity, Parallel Lives included. “There is good reason,” says one scholar, “to think that the end of the [life of] Alexander and the start of the flife ofl Caesar are lost. The text of Caesar’s life seems to begin in mid-sentence” and “gives no treatment to Caesar’s family or boyhood” (Duff, p. 254). likewise, Plutarch may have written a brief comparison for this pair that is lost Here are tines from another comparison for two of his lives, those of the Greek public speaker Demosthenes and his Roman counterpart, Cicero:

“For Demosthenes oratory was without all embellishment and jesting…. Whereas … in his love of laughing away serious arguments in judicial cases by jests and facetious remarks … [Cicero] paid too little regard to what was decent…. The power of persuading and governing the people did, indeed, equally belong to both.

(Plutarch, Parallel Lives, pp. 1070-1071)

The Biographies in Focus

Contents overview

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives includes 23 pairs of biographical sketches, one Greek matched with one Roman in order to draw implicit comparisons and to extract lessons for moral improvement by example. Usually the Greek sketch precedes the Roman one, and the two are followed by a brief comparison. Four of the pairs, however, include just the biographies without Plutarch’s comparison, perhaps because, though it once existed, it has been lost. Forging new ground, the biographies center not only on the man in action but also on his mind and soul. Great figures from Greek and Roman history reveal themselves through a focus on human character tested under the pressure of major historical events and made manifest in everyday incidents. Before launching into the life of Alexander, Plutarch cautions the reader to bear in mind that he aims not to write a detailed his-tory but a life story that promotes the discovery of virtue or vice in men and that reveals their characters. History, he says, is a “faithful mirror in which I observe these great men in order that I may seek to model my own life on their virtues” (Plutarch in Flacelière, p. 359). Since space prohibits a detailed summary for all the lives, featured here are Alexander and Caesar—the most famous military heroes of Greece and Rome. Although Plutarch pairs the two together, no comparison of them by him survives.

The Lives That Plutarch Pairs and Their Common Characteristics

Each pair below lists the Greek hero before the Roman. In parentheses after the names are the centuries in which the heroes scored their principal achievements. All centuries are BCE.

  1. Theseus (fourteenth/thirteenth century) & Romulus (eighth century)

    Mythical heroes; the founders of their cities.

  2. Lycurgus (eighth century or earlier) & Numa (eighth/seventh century)

    Also mythical; wise kings who established the important social customs of their respective peoples.

  3. Solon (sixth century) & Publicola (sixth century)

    Statesmen who made peace between a stubborn aristocracy and an embittered peasantry.

  4. Themistocles (fifth century) & Camillus (fourth century)

    Each saved his country from invasion yet was forced to endure exile. There is no comparison for this pair.

  5. Aristides (fifth century) & Cato the Elder (third/second century)

    Famously moral public figures who revered tradition.

  6. Cimon (fifth century) & Lucullus (first century)

    Both died before the unraveling of their countries; in different ways, both benefited Greece.

  7. Pericles (fifth century) & Fabius Maximus (third/second century):

    Each was a canny military and political leader whose superior strategic ability averted wartime disaster (in Athens, only temporarily).

  8. Nicias (fifth century) & Crassus (first century)

    Each was killed while leading the most disastrous military expedition in his country’s history.

  9. Alcibiades (fifth century) & Coriolanus (fifth century)

    Each had a noble but ill-governed nature; both took reprisal against domestic adversaries to the point of waging war on their own cities.

  10. Lysander (fifth/fourth century) & Sulla (second/first century)

    Brilliant, pitiless military commanders in whom the extremes of good and bad coexisted starkly.

  11. Agesilaus (fifth/fourth century) & Pompey (first century)

    Success gave way to disaster late in life for both men. Agesilaus recovered to save Sparta from its enemy Thebes; Pompey could not save the Roman Republic from Caesar.

  12. Epaminondas (fourth century) & Scipio Africanus (third/second century)

    Two generals who defeated hitherto invincible foes: for Epaminondas, the foe was Sparta; for Scipio, Hannibal. Both of these lives are lost.

  13. Pelopidas (fourth century) & Marcellus (third century)

    Each fell in battle as one of his country’s greatest generals, but despite many impressive victories, neither actually conquered his country’s primary foe.

  14. Dion (fourth century) & Brutus (first century)

    Each man overthrew a dictator whom he knew personally: Dion overthrew Dionysius II of Syracuse; Brutus, Julius Caesar.

  15. Timoleon (fourth century) & Aemilius Paulus (second century)

    Timoleon rescued Sicily from an invasion by Carthage; Aemilius conquered Macedon. Both are depicted as incorruptible.

  16. Demosthenes (fourth century) & Cicero (first century)

    Each was a famous orator who foresaw the major threat to his city but was unable to stop it: for Athens, the threat was domination by Macedon; for Rome, the rise of totalitarian rule.

  17. Alexander (Macedon, fourth century) & Julius Caesar (first century)

    Conquerors of extraordinary achievement, each died without fulfilling his ambitions. There is no comparison for this pair.

  18. Eumenes (fourth century) & Sertorius (first century)

    Both overcame exile to lead victorious armies composed of foreign troops; each met his end through treachery.

  19. Phocion (fourth century) & Cato the Younger (first century)

    Political figures held up even in their own times as models of incorruptible morality. There is no comparison for this pair.

  20. Demetrius (fourth/third century) & Antony (first century)

    Would-be conquerors whose personal failings defeated their aspirations; this pair complements the other “negative” pair of Pyrrhus and Marius.

  21. Pyrrhus (second century) & Gaius Marius (second/first century)

    Ambitious leaders whose natural greatness of character was perverted by bad influences. There is no comparison for this pair.

  22. Agis and Cleomenes (third century) & Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (second century)

    Two sets of brothers; each pair sought to reapportion wealth in their society more equitably.

  23. Philopoemen (third/second century) & Flamininus (third/second century)

    Rivals in the period of Greece’s decline and Rome’s rise; the only pair in which Greeks and Romans interact.


Plutarch begins this sketch by noting a series of supernatural events surrounding the hero’s birth: omens, dreams, and signs that point to his future greatness. Much in Plutarch is unverifiable and some is fanciful. To his credit, however, he frequently signals that he is on uncertain ground by repeating the tags, “it is said” or “some say.”

Plutarch covers little of Alexander’s boyhood, offering instead a series of keen psychological observations that portray the hero’s character. We are told, for example, that Alexander is not given to sensual pleasures and that from very early on, the desire to achieve great things is his driving passion. So intense is his “love of glory” that he resents his father’s military achievements. The son “would tell his companions that his father would … leave him and them no opportunities of performing great and illustrious actions” (Lives, p. 803). Philip arranges for Alexander to take tutorials with the philosopher Aristotle. The result is an education in fine works of literature as well as morals, ethics, politics, and rhetoric. Plutarch emphasizes Alexander’s love of learning. The young man goes so far as to keep his edition of Homer’s Iliad (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), the “casket copy”—a copy including Aristotle’s notes—under his pillow, where he also stows his dagger.

Alexander quarrels with his father on many occasions, particularly over Philip’s extramarital affairs. Eventually these affairs prove ruinous, “the troubles that began in the women’s chambers spreading, so to say, to the whole kingdom” (Lives, p. 806). Resenting her husband’s infidelity, his wife, Olympias, has someone slay Philip with a knife. This ensures Alexander’s succession, which was threatened by his father’s polygamous marriage to a Cleopatra (who precedes the famous queen of Egypt of this same name by some 300 years).

At the age of 20, Alexander inherits a kingdom “beset on all sides with great dangers and rancorous enemies” (Lives, p. 808). Alexander rejects his advisors’ pleas for caution and presses campaigns first against the rebellious tribes to the north and east of Macedon, and then against the people of Thebes, who have risen up against him in revolt (Lives, p. 808). Seeking to make an example of the Thebans to all Greece, Alexander surrounds the city with his armies. The Thebans stand at his mercy yet dare, says Plutarch, to demand that Alexander surrender to them. Earlier he had offered them amnesty but now he razes the city, then sells 30,000 The-bans into slavery and has another 6,000 killed by the sword, sparing from death only the priests, the descendants of the poet Pindar, and those who did not want to revolt. These are harsh punishments, says Plutarch, which Alexander will regret (indeed, he later attempts to make amends with the conquered Thebans). Alexander is likened to a lion whose fierce manner grows docile once his rage has subsided. After conquering Thebes, he is undisputed master of the Greece he reveres so deeply.

Plutarch devotes a good deal of the life to Alexander’s conflict with Darius III, king of Persia. Darius’ empire, the largest and wealthiest on earth, reaches from Asia Minor to India and from Egypt to present-day Russia. As always, Plutarch is more interested in what a particular battle reveals about Alexander’s character than in the campaigns themselves. A good example is Alexander’s first confrontation with Darius at the Granicus River (northern gateway to Turkey) in 334 bce. Darius has assembled a vast army to defend his lands from Alexander, with the river imposing a barrier to the Macedonian warrior’s southward advance. Because he realizes the psychological significance of the encounter, Alexander ignores the advice of his counselors to retreat and orders his 34,000 or so troops across the river toward the Persians’ well-fortified positions. With Alexander diverting attention by leading the cavalry charge himself, his men ford the river and penetrate Persian territory, delivering a key blow to the larger Persian forces, whose losses Plutarch estimates at upwards of 20,000. Over the next several years, Alexander’s Macedonian armies maintain dominance, but Darius himself continues to elude Alexander.

In narrating Alexander’s several exploits in this period, Plutarch emphasizes both the aura of great fortune that surrounds the hero and his powerful imagination, as when he manages to cut the famous Gordian knot, which had so far stumped all who tried to untie it. Legend had it that whoever could undo the knot would reign over Asia. Although Alexander cut the knot in-stead of untying it, he considered himself the one who had finally undone it (his “feat” would develop into a saying—“to cut the Gordian Knot”—meaning to take drastic action to solve a problem). Plutarch observes the kindness shown by Alexander to Darius’ wife and daughters when they are captured after the Persians lose the battle of Issus and Darius escapes. Alexander protects the female captives from harm and permits them to bury their dead so that they seem “rather lodged in some temple … than in the camp of the enemy” (Lives, p. 816). The wife, reports Plutarch, is accounted the most beautiful princess alive, yet Alexander refrains from intimate relations with her or her daughters. Plutarch uses the incident to highlight the importance of self-mastery, seen as a key facet of Alexander’s ethical core. The king controls his lust instead of ravaging his enemy, putting into practice the common ancient philosophy that to rule others, one first has to rule oneself.

Alexander next marches southward along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, capturing cities along the way. He founds the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a site chosen on the basis of a dream in which the poet Homer speaks to Alexander about Pharos, a Greek island that lies across from the site. But first Alexander must finish off Darius, so he turns inland for his final confrontation with the Persians. The showdown gives rise to another revealing anecdote. When Darius offers to avoid war by dividing the kingdom, one of Alexander’s generals, Parmenio, says if it were up to him, he would take the deal. “So would I,” retorts Alexander, “if I were Parmenio” (Lives, p. 822).

A climactic battle ensues between the Macedonians and the Persians in 331 bce at Gaugamela, near Mosul in present-day Iraq. Once more, the odds are against Alexander. While ancient estimates are often inflated, Plutarch’s sources say Darius had amassed a Per-sian force of one million men. Again ignoring his advisors, Alexander refuses to “steal” the victory by attacking at night. Despite the poor odds, he crushes Darius’ army.

Plutarch’s attention to Alexander’s generosity early in his military career works nicely to set up the later portions of the narrative, in which Plutarch attributes Alexander’s decline to a series of crippling character defects. Principal among these are overweening pride and intractable stubbornness. In the already-described battle at Granicus, Alexander insists on following his own instincts, even when his trusted military aides think otherwise, and his stubborn insistence pays off. Yet this same trait prompts him to surround himself with flatterers and to reject those who fail to applaud his decisions; he turns away even close associates, such as Aristotle.

When Plutarch narrates Alexander’s famous march to India, he connects his increasingly ruthless behavior toward his close advisors to larger questions of his effectiveness as a military leader. Of particular importance here are the consequences resulting from setbacks at the River Ganges, where Alexander’s forces face the daunting task of fording the wide river while a huge army awaits them on the opposite banks. Nothing Alexander says spurs his men forward, so he broods in his tent and declares petulantly that if the soldiers do not cross the river, he owes them “no thanks” for any previous service (Lives, p. 845). What is worse, Alexander miscalculates the journey back, once again by failing to listen to the sound advice of his men. The results are disastrous: withering attacks, a plethora of diseases, scorching heat, and dwindling rations reduce Alexander’s army by three-fourths.

Alexander returns to Persia but fails to realize his dreams of additional conquests and the creation of a mighty Greco-Persian culture. Increasingly obsessed with ill omens and superstitious fears, he grows moody and pessimistic. He is deeply affected by the death of a close friend and male lover, Hephaestion. Alexander mourns the loss for several days, then turns to unbridled revelry. Stricken quite suddenly by a fever, he himself dies within ten days, a few months shy of his thirty-third birthday. Plutarch’s tone makes clear that, great though he was, Alexander failed to live up to his early promise because he did not fulfill the Greek ideals of self-knowledge and self-discipline.


Plutarch’s portrait of Caesar begins with the hero’s early career. Because he has family ties to Marius, Sulla’s rival, Caesar is marked for death by Sulla. Caesar escapes, fleeing Rome only to be taken prisoner by pirates. They threaten him and demand a ransom for his return, yet Caesar nonchalantly flouts his captors, composing poems, engaging in saucy wordplay, and paying no mind to his dire predicament. Once his ransom has been duly paid, Caesar exacts a brutal revenge; capturing the pirates, he crucifies them. The episode reveals Caesar’s overpowering sense of dignity, his iron self-control, and, above all, his capacity for ruthlessness against enemies.

Like Alexander, Caesar is more than simply a man of action; he is a well-rounded individual, who acquires an education in philosophy, rhetoric, and oratory. Indeed, his teacher is Apollonius, instructor to the great orator Cicero. Caesar’s skills in public speaking portend his future political success. On the strength of them, he builds a large and enthusiastic public following, winning popular support by his easy and friendly, though carefully orchestrated, manner. He spends great sums of money, throws lavish parties, sponsors large gladiatorial contests, and curries favor with important figures in Roman society—and all these tactics are instrumental to his rapid rise.

Caesar rises into Rome’s highest offices. He wins a close contest for the position of Pontifex Maximus, or high priest, and, through hard lobbying, gains a consulship. But his greatest achievements are military triumphs, which Plutarch narrates in great detail. Caesar’s power grows, and he makes speeches in the Senate that antagonize the aristocracy, especially Cato the Younger, a champion of the republican government who sees Caesar’s ambitions as a threat to its survival. Yet Caesar’s exploits on the battle-field win the undying admiration of his soldiers. In less than ten years, estimates Plutarch, Caesar conquers several hundred cities and fights more than 3 million men. His campaigns in Spain and Gaul cement his reputation as a military leader and enrich him, as he takes the booty that comes with conquest (see Commentaries on the Gallic War, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). His troops wonder at the hardships he endures with them, and he shares his plunder with them, knowing it is their principal reward and realizing it can cinch their loyalty to him. Caesar’s love of honor and his passion to distinguish himself spur him onward. Ambitious to achieve more, he compares himself unfavorably to Alexander: “Do you think … I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations?” (Lives, p. 861). Here, as elsewhere in the Lives, Plutarch uses the first sketch in a pair to establish patterns taken up in the second one.

Plutarch stirringly narrates Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Europe, observing how he leads his men across the Rhine River, becomes the first to sail in the Atlantic Ocean with an army, and ventures into the far reaches of the civilized world to do battle in Britain. The greatest of Caesar’s military deeds is his capture of the most prized city, Rome itself. Allowing his ambition to overpower his reason, he wavers but then risks battle for control of Rome: Caesar’s cunning and mastery of human psychology—much like Alexander before him—allows him to prevail against Pompey, a better-equipped foe.

As Plutarch tells it, Caesar’s force has been reduced to only 300 cavalry and 5,000 footsoldiers by the time he advances against Pompey. But the small force works to his advantage, for his plan depends on speed, not power: “what was wanted was to make this first step suddenly, and so to astound his enemies with the boldness of it” (Lives, p. 874). Using surprise to his advantage, he arrives at the Rubicon, the river separating Italy from his own domain of Gaul, pauses to reflect on his actions, then boldly crosses the boundary.

The plan works to perfection. Afraid of civil war, the citizens of Rome panic and stream out of the city, including senators and other officials. Pompey escapes too. At first, Caesar gives chase, but then, victory assured, turns back toward Rome, having in 60 days without bloodshed “made himself master of all Italy” (Lives, p. 876). Later Caesar and his lieutenant Antony pursue Pompey and defeat him at the battle of Pharsalus in Thessaly (central Greece). Pompey’s flight to Egypt, where he is later murdered, gives Plutarch the chance to narrate Caesar’s Egyptian adventures, including, briefly, his affair with Cleopatra.

Plutarch turns to Caesar’s further military ad-ventures as he fights Pompey’s sons in Asia, Africa, and Spain. Ever ambitious, notes Plutarch, Caesar yearns for further glory, as if he “might outdo his past actions by his future” (Lives, p. 887). Among his many achievements, he reforms the calendar, a feat of great “scientific ingenuity,” adds an approving Plutarch, regularizing the year to 365 days, with an extra day added every fourth year (Lives, p. 888).

Around this time, Caesar begins to make many enemies. Some are offended by his lordly disdain of Senate traditions, others by prophecies that he will be made king. While Plutarch does not make explicit any moral lessons here, the implication is clear, especially for Plutarch’s first readers, who would have known well how Caesar’s story ends: the same vaulting ambition that drives him forward will be the cause of his downfall at the hands of enemies. He fails to temper his passion for honor with reason.

It is passion, not reason, that drives Caesar to celebrate his victory over Pompey’s sons in a triumphal procession through Rome, thereby upsetting its citizens. They watch, their minds heavy with the thought that these sons are no enemies of Rome but the offspring of a great patriot. As the famous conspiracy against him mounts, Caesar grows suspicious, fearing ominous signs, such as the soothsayer’s warning to beware the Ides of March, and his wife Calpurnia’s dream of holding him “butchered in her arms” (Lives, p. 891). Nevertheless, he ventures forth to the Senate, urged on by one of the conspirators. They “were ready,” said this conspirator, “to vote unanimously that [Caesar] should be declared king of all the provinces out of Italy…. But if he was possessed so far as to think this day unfortunate, yet it were more decent to go himself … to adjourn [the Senate] in his own person” (Lives, p. 891). Persuaded, Caesar proceeds to the meeting place, a building formerly dedicated to the public by his old rival, Pompey. Soon after Caesar appears, the assassins crowd around and cut him down with their daggers and swords. “Something of a supernatural influence,” muses Plutarch, “guided the action,” for a bloodied Caesar fell “at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompey’s statue stood … so that Pompey himself seemed to have presided … over the revenge done upon his adversary” (Lives, pp. 892-93).

Plutarch and subjective biography

As he states at the beginning of his life of Alexander, Plutarch is interested not in “histories, but lives,” for the reason that “the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men” (Lives, p. 801). In his life of Alexander, this means forfeiting a strictly factual and sequential approach for one that will, through the experience of reading, instill virtue in his audience (Duff, p. 55). Plutarch generally does not, however, insert moral judgments but leaves them for readers to glean, expecting them to identify the praiseworthy as well as blameworthy. By way of examples, his writing attempts to foster self-restraint, the rule of reason over passion and the exercise of basic virtues—compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit, and calmness.

Other writers of the day show a concern for the morally enlightening effects that history can have on readers, for example, Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). In focusing on the character of the men he profiles, Plutarch promotes this moral enlightenment. He compares himself to a portrait painter who finds in the telling detail a sign of the “souls of men,” a larger truth about human nature that transcends “weighty matters and great battles” (Lives, p. 801).

A good example of the technique of the telling detail occurs early in the life of Alexander, when Plutarch illustrates Alexander’s conflicts with his father, Philip. Plutarch tells the memorable story of Bucephalus, a magnificent but unmanageable horse offered for sale to Philip. Just at the point that Philip’s attendants are ready to despair of ever mounting Bucephalus, Alexander proclaims that he will tame the horse. His father ridicules his son for speaking so rashly but then Alexander masters the animal without “striking or spurring him,” instead using soft words and gestures (Lives, p. 805). Impressed by the strength of his son’s will, the father resolves thereafter to deal with Alexander by persuasion rather than command. Instead of focusing on Alexander’s willfulness, Plutarch portrays his hero as a sym-pathetic problem solver who understands other minds, which is a key trait of the military leader as Plutarch understands it. Beyond this one biography, the incident shows how Plutarch highlights a trait of a hero’s life, which he sees as instrumental to the hero’s success and as worthy of emulation.

Plutarch also brings character traits to the fore when he has one mind meet another in his biographies. He notes that after Alexander invaded Persia, although many wise men came to pay homage to the general, the philosopher Diogenes did not. He never so much as stirred “out of the suburb called the Cranium, where Alexander found him lying along in the sun” (Lives, p. 810). Does the philosopher need anything? Alexander wondered, whereupon Diogenes saucily replied, “I would have you stand [away] from between me and the sun” (Lives, p. 810). Instead of being offended, Alexander admired Diogenes for taking “so little notice of him” (Lives, p. 810). “If he were not Alexander,” quips the mighty general, “he would choose to be Diogenes” (Lives, p. 810). This moment is open to several readings, which Plutarch, in typical fashion, leaves unsettled. A straightfor-ward reading would focus on Alexander’s generosity of spirit and self-deprecation. But another reading might stress this as a moment in which the man of action comes up against a force he cannot defeat, the man of philosophic contemplation, with the wider implication that while the armies of the Greek city-states have been overcome, their philosophic legacy is not so easily destroyed. In the ac-count of this meeting, Plutarch emphasizes at this point how necessary it is for Alexander to remain a man of action. Ultimately, as the biography later shows, he is pulled down by his lack of self-knowledge, a preoccupation for many philosophers, a general pursuit in Rome, and one of the purposes of Plutarch’s project. His Parallel Lives aims to aid readers in their own self-knowledge.

In Plutarch’s portrait of Caesar as well, we are meant to see not just a great warrior but, more importantly, a human being struggling to under-stand himself and his place in the world he is shaping. A superb example of this interest in the hero’s self-questioning can be seen in Plutarch’s account of Caesar at the Rubicon. Although the Life depicts Caesar as having a well-formulated plan, the narrative slows down to convey his in-decision as he ponders the enormity of his actions. When he reaches the Rubicon, the river marking the boundary between his province of Gaul and Italy, he pauses, wavering as he considers “the greatness of the enterprise,” for his crossing threatens to touch off another civil war (Lives, p. 874). While Caesar deliberates, “computing how many calamities his passing that river would bring upon mankind,” the fate of the Roman Republic is held in suspense and time seems to stand still, until he decides to cross the river and coins the famous phrase “The die is cast,” an expression that has come to mean “taking an irreversible step” (Lives, p. 874). What matters in this episode is the complex psychological state of the hero. We see Caesar weighing in his mind the risks and rewards of his next step, and through this process we see also the moral lesson, in which Caesar chooses passion over reason, desire for glory over the preservation of the Republic, choices that ultimately lead to his fateful encounter with his assassins in the Senate.

In his last desperate moments, Caesar shifts his body to avoid the dagger thrusts of the conspirators. He falls, Plutarch notes, at the foot of a statue of his archrival, “so that Pompey himself seemed to have presided, as it were, over the revenge done upon his adversary, who lay here at his feet” (Lives, p. 893). Although the Alexander-Caesar pair lacks the comparison by Plutarch that exists for most other pairs, this last image suggests that Caesar, like Alexander, let himself be driven by ambition and that he, like his predecessor, was brought down by an excess of the very trait that had brought him his greatest success.

Sources and literary context

Plutarch’s text is quite informative about his sources. In his life of Alexander alone, he names 24 of them. Although modest about his knowledge of Latin, Plutarch shows a wide familiarity with Greek and Roman authors. For the Roman leaders Cicero and Caesar, Plutarch drew on their own writings as well as other Latin sources. Underlying his understanding of virtues was training in Greek ethics and values. Plutarch viewed people as neither wholly good, nor wholly evil. In his view, those endowed with great natural ability were capable of great vice as well as great virtue.

With respect to the genre in which he was writing, “There is no specific model for Roman biographers, or for Plutarch himself, only a range of Greek biographical writing with quite different purposes and forms” (Mellor, p. 133). The fourth century bce Greek author Xenophon wrote The Education of Cyrus, or Cyropedia, a largely fictional biographical study of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, as well as a short biography of the Spartan king Agesilaus that provides not a complex view of the man but one of pure praise. The Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos (c. 100-c. 24 bce), a forerunner of Plutarch, sketched the lives of illustrious Romans, Greeks, and other non-Romans—these are the earliest biographies that have come down to us. Most of his work, however, has been lost, and those sketches that survive are very brief, often inaccurate, and again lacking in the psychological complexity characteristic of Plutarch. More specifically, Quitus Curtius Rufus (first or early second century ce) wrote a biography of Alexander but it too does not deal with the complex man, instead concentrating on vivid presentation of the dramatic events. With respect to Julius Caesar, Plutarch’s Roman contemporary Suetonius (c. 70-130 ce) included a profile in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Suetonius uses a careful mixture of anecdote and public record to produce in the reader a sense of almost voyeuristic access into the subject, and avoids the sense of reasoned analysis of character and psychology found in Plutarch. Furthermore, Suetonius focuses to a greater extent on character defect (including sexual “excesses”); for Plutarch, how-ever, even where his great men give cause for regret, greatness is the constant theme.

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Were Written

Greece under the Roman Empire

In the pairing of its heroes, the Parallel Lives draws a comparison between Greece, a great civilization from the past, and Rome, which expanded into a preeminent empire and was now enjoying a period of strong, stable government. Plutarch’s beloved Greece had already been part of the Roman Empire for more than 250 years, but Greece remained a worldly, cosmopolitan center even in captivity. Chaeronea, Plutarch’s hometown, while unimportant politically, was close to Delphi, site of the famous shrine or oracle of the god Apollo. The location enabled Plutarch to meet a steady stream of visitors from all over the Greek world and beyond.

The Greek elite, including Plutarch, benefited enormously from the prosperity and stability afforded by the Roman Empire and from the tendencies of emperors like Hadrian to indulge “his love for Greek art, sculpture and rhetoric (Goodman, p. 155). But there were disadvantages too. The Romans of Plutarch’s era welcomed Greek architecture, literature, and philosophy into its fold, developing something of a passion for all things classically Greek. However, Roman writers had stereotyped later Greeks of their own empire as deceitful, unmanly, overindulgent, untrustworthy, and dishonorable. Their culture should be emulated; their personality traits disparaged. The fervent admiration for the Greek cultural legacy, however, made it possible for many Greek intellectuals of Plutarch’s day to thrive, as Romans im-ported artists and philosophers to “glorify [Rome as] the new hub of the civilized world” (Gianakaris, p. 26). Also, by this time Greeks were being called to serve as officials in the Roman Empire, as Plutarch’s personal experience shows.

The pairing of Greek and Roman figures for comparison and ethical instruction afforded Plutarch a perfect platform for placing one culture alongside the other in ways that enabled moral evaluation on the part of the reader. In less subtle hands, it would have been easy to structure the portraits to paint the Romans in a consistently bad light by juxtaposing them against always noble Greeks. But Plutarch is remarkably fair-minded in his treatments, suggesting that he saw the cultures of Greece and Rome on equal terms, without prejudice or bias. Virtue and vice, he seems to have believed, are “no respecters of nationality” (East-erling and Knox, p. 668).


Shakespeare relied extensively on Plutarch for background who his Roman pfays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Julius Caesar. His source was Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of an earlier French version of a rendition in Latin of Plutarch’s Greek, and thus quite a distance from the original. From North, Shakespeare lifted not just plots, themes, and characters but also some of the actual wording. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (first performed in 1599) several well-known aspects come directly from Plutarch. Examples are the prophecy to Caesar to beware the Ides of March, Calpurnia’s dream of Caesar’s butchered body, and Caesar’s worry about what the “pale, lean fellows, meaning Cassius and Brutus” intend to do (Lives, p. 890). In Shakespeare’s play, this worry turns into “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1.2.194).

Impact. For the classicist J. A. K. Thomson, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that at least up to the nineteenth century the picture of ancient Greece and Rome in the modern mind was the picture painted by [Plutarch]” (Gianakaris, p. 11). Indeed the Lives have shaped not only the modern world’s assumptions about their subjects, but also our conceptions of who the important figures were and also what a biography should be. A measure of Plutarch’s fame in the years immediately following his death may be found in the North African writer Apuleius’ Latin novel The Golden Ass (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), in which the ethnically Greek narrator, anxious to show his scholarly pedigree, informs the reader he is descended from Plutarch. In antiquity the Lives served as a resource for schools of rhetoric, which used the dilemmas of the great as subject matter for oratorical exercises. A Greek text of the Lives was published in Italy in 1517 and a French version by Jacques Amyot in 1559. Plutarch’s Moralia —his treatises on superstition, the control of anger, and friends and flatterers, among other subjects—had a lasting impact on the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, as did the Lives. From the Lives, Montaigne borrowed Plutarch’s subjective approach to human character and the interest in virtue. In Britain, Thomas North translated the Lives in 1579, which William Shakespeare consulted when writing his Roman plays. The Lives (as published in 1683-86, with a life of Plutarch by John Dryden) had a decisive impact on the development of British biography by James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Lytton Strachey, and others (see Duff, pp. 3-5). In the United States, one of Plutarch’s most fervent admirers was the nineteenth-century essayist and transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew Plutarch’s writings directly as well as through his beloved Montaigne.

Plutarch’s tailoring of facts to his moral pur-poses and his lack of concern for strict chronology did not endear him to nineteenth-century historians. However, his reputation has of late undergone a “sea-change,” largely as a result of new approaches to ancient history and the writing of historical narrative, which emphasize the creative role of the historian and the “process of writing itself as interpretation” (Duff, p. 8). Most recently, scholars have viewed Plutarch’s work with renewed respect due to fresh insights into his purposes and strategies.

—Robert D. Aguirre

For More Information

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957-75.

Duff, Tim. Plutarch’s “Lives”: Exploring Virtue and Vice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Easterling, P. E., and B. M. W. Knox, eds. The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Flacelière, Robert. A Literary History of Greece. Trans. Douglas Garman. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

Gianakaris, C. J. Plutarch. Twayne’s World Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Goodman, Martin. The Roman World: 44 bc-ad 180. London: Routledge, 1997.

Lamberton, Robert. Plutarch. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Mackay, Christopher S. “The Republic.” In Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World. Ed. Greg Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mellor, Ronald. The Roman Historians. London: Routledge, 1999.

Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. [Parallel Lives]. Trans. several hands, attributed to John Dryden. Rev. Arthur Hugh Clough. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. David Daniell. The Arden Shakespeare Series. Waltonon-Thames, Surrey, U.K.: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Swain, Simon. Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World AD 50-250. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

About this article

Parallel Lives

Updated About content Print Article Share Article