HOME
The complete text of the Lives, in English, with footnotes and other aids is available free on our website www.agathonassociates.com. There are also several versions ranging from inexpensive paperback to deluxe collectors editions available from book shops and online book dealers. It is convenient to refer to episodes in the Lives by the Life and Chapter. The chapter divisions are a modern addition and some of the editions in print do not use them. Do yourself a favor and buy one with the chapters indicated so you can quickly find the referenced passage. Or just print out our free version on line. The most common English translation is the so-called Dryden. The English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) was involved in making this seventeenth century translation, although several hands worked on it. Dryden's contribution was limited to an attached Life of Plutarch. This translation was revised in the nineteenth century by the poet-scholar Arthur Hugh Clough. It is the version we present on our website. If you find the formality of seventeenth century English slows down your reading and comprehension, you might pick up any of the inexpensive paperback editions in more contemporary English.

Plutarch wrote the lives as parallel companions, a Greek paired with a Roman. Thus, for example, the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great is paired with the Roman empire-builder Julius Caesar. The Greek rhetorician Demosthenes is set parallel to the Roman orator Cicero. Theseus, founder of Athens is paired with Romulus the founder of Rome. There are 46 parallel lives plus four singletons. These are Aratus, a third century B.C. Greek and Artaxerxes (who as a Persian is really odd-man-out in among all the Greeks and Romans). Galba and Otho are Roman Emperors from Plutarch's own day and were originally part of series (the rest of which is lost) of lives of the Emperors along the lines of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, a contemporary of Plutarch.

If you read the lives in parallel, you are reading them as Plutarch intended. By placing the lives of two men who faced similar challenges opposite each other Plutarch is able to compare and contrast the characters of the two men. For several of the pairs there also survive Plutarch's own brief comparisons. Some of the current English language editions omit the comparisons which is a pity, as the comparisons are very lively and enlightening. In the Lives Plutarch shows the character strengths and faults of his characters in action; in the comparisons he discusses the issue of character as evidenced by the biography. The comparisons are lacking --whether because they are lost or because Plutarch didn't finish the task we know not-- in the case of four pairings:

Themistocles and Camillus
Pyrrhus and Caius Marius
Alexander and Caesar
Phocion and Cato the Younger

On our website we have supplied the missing comparison with ones we have composed in the manner of Plutarch and in the style of the "Dryden" translation.

The least satisfactory method of reading the lives is to pick one up randomly. Unless you concentrate on some of the more well-known men such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar you are apt to find this sort of unsystematic approach to be quite frustrating. Plutarch, living much closer to the times of which he writes, assumes the reader already knows the basic outline of the biography and the history of the subject's time. If you choose to approach the lives this way, do yourself a favor by starting with one such as Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great whom you likely have at least some prior knowledge of.

For new-comers to Plutarch and the Lives we suggest picking one historical period and reading the lives of that era in chronological order. This way you minimize the amount of historic background material you need to bring to each life. Our website has a complete list of lives grouped by historical period. Start with this method and then, after you get more familiar with the events and protagonists, proceed to reading them in parallel as Plutarch intended.

As you read the Lives, discuss the biographies and the lessons you are take from them with other students.

Here is a selection of Lives you might consider reading and discussing as a group.

  • Lycurgus. The Father of Sparta (c. 800 B.C.) A primary responsibility of every leader is to bring order out of chaos. Lycurgus is one of those near mythical leaders who is one of the founding Minds of the West. His reputation is due to the fact that he brought order out of chaos and strength out of weakness by giving Sparta its laws and mores. Plutarch shows us how he accomplished this astonishing feat.

  • Solon. The Lawmaker of Athens (c. 600 B.C.) Like Lycurgus, Solon brought order out of chaos to the peoples of Athens, but unlike Lycurgus, Solon did this, according to Plutarch by using political discretion. Solon developed a legal consitution that prevented and to some extent reconciled and regulated class conflict over resources and power in Athens. Political discretion is a crucial skill every leader must develop. Plutarch shows us how.

  • Pericles. The Olympian (495-429 B.C.) Pericles not only possessed the gift of political discretion to an extraordinary degree, but Plutarch shows that he also possessed the gift of eloquence. By eloquence Plutarch means the use of well-ordered public rhetoric in service to the good. In order to sustain his followers and to bring his followers along with him, the leader needs to know how to elicit their best and Plutarch claims that the way this is done is via the right practice of rhetoric.

  • Alexander The Great There has been a spate of books on the 'leadership lessons of Alexander the Great' (356-323 B.C.), and well there should be as there are many to glean from a study of Alexander's life. Yet in his study of Alexander, Plutarch emphasized only one or two such lessons: these were boldness and fearlessness in action and eliciting loyalty of one's followers. More than once Alexander turned the tide of war by attacking the enemy when all around him counseled retreat or defensive posturing. Plutarch shows us when to decide in favor of attack when all the signs say retreat.

  • Alcibiades. The profligate (450-404 B.C.) Down through the centuries Alcibiades has gotten a bum rap, largely through the influence of Thucydides, Plato and a few other ancient Greek historians. Alcibiades was presented as a corrupt politician who forced the disastrous Sicilian expedition upon the Athenian people and who was a corrupt sensualist in his private life and so forth. Plutarch, however, presents a more complex portrait of the man. The Plutarchian Alcibiades is presented in all of his dazzling giftedness: a brilliant pupil of Socrates, a magnificent military genius, a daring and bold fighter who displayed intense physical courage in battle after battle right up to the end of his life, a public orator and rhetorician who rivaled Pericles in his eloquence, a physically beautiful and handsome man even in his old age who seemed able to elicit the undying love of several women through out his life, and finally an amazingly astute politician who could not only survive, but thrive in whatever political culture he found himself in the ancient world.

  • Caesar The Will to Rule. (100-44 B.C.) Caesar is the true founder of the Roman empire and the embalmer of the Roman republic. Like Alciabiades he was astonishingly gifted. A great orator and politician, he could also think well and write well. Without a doubt he was also a military genius. He alone among all of the Leaders described by Plutarch exhibited most if not all of the fundamental principles of leadership: he had political discretion when it was required. He knew how to elicit intense loyalty from his followers and soldiers. He was bold and fearless, displaying amazing physical courage in battle. He knew how to rule as well. In the few months in which he had to rule he brought order to Rome ending years of mayhem and chaos in the streets. He mitigated some of the class conflict that fueled the chaos by passing poor relief laws for example. Interestingly, while Plutarch mentions episodes that illustrate all of these facets of his character he chooses to emphasize the 'crossing of the Rubicon' decision as the single most important leadership decision in Caesar's life. While other writers have seen the episode as decisive in some way for Caesar and for the history of the world, only Plutarch, as far as we can tell, has seen into the true nature of the episode. Plutarch shows us what precipitated the crisis and what character traits of Caesar's were constellated by the crisis and therefore what determined the outcome for both Caesar and the World. For Plutarch the character trait most determinant at this most precipitous point in the history of the World where so much hung in the balance was audacity-Caesar's sheer, caustic, intransigent and marvelous audacity!

After about eight meetings, we recommend you take stock of what has been learned to date. Have a free-wheeling discussion of how the Lives are affecting you. Are you more inclined to think big, to take on leadership roles, to initiate projects and so forth? If the answer is no to any of those questions then the group is failing you or you need to get unstuck!


Copyright 2004 Agathon Associates, Cambridge, Massachusetts. All Rights Reserved.