The Greek writer Plutarch wrote a series of biographies of famous men of the ancient world entitled Parallel Lives. The title reflects the organization of the work—the lives of two individuals (in one case two sets of people), one Greek and one Roman, are presented side by side for comparison. In all, Plutarch compares 23 pairs, comprising 46 lives. The title also refers to Plutarch’s purpose in writing Parallel Lives. Plutarch set out to examine the lives of people who shared certain personal characteristics that made them outstanding in their fields. He wanted to gain a better understanding of those qualities.

Plutarch's Life and Influences. Plutarch was born about A.D. 40 into a wealthy family in Chaeronea, a city in central Greece whose turbulent history may well have had an influence on him. It was at Chaeronea that Philip II and his son Alexander the Great decisively defeated the Greeks in 338 B.C. and that the Roman general Sulla defeated the Greek king Mithradates 250 years later. Plutarch must have been aware of these events and of the parallels between the Greek and Roman civilizations.

As a young man, Plutarch served as a diplomat, representing his city in dealings with the local Roman authorities. He later traveled to Italy to represent his province*. There he made friends with several influential Romans. Plutarch’s exposure to the world of politics and power and his keen interest in history and human nature came together in Parallel Lives. In Plutarch’s view, the Greeks and Romans had equal status and therefore were good subjects for comparative studies. He also believed that extraordinary situations brought out the special qualities that made certain people great. Therefore, the subjects he chose were primarily rulers, generals, and politicians. He included such important pairs of men as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero, and Demetrius and Mark Antony.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Plutarch's Purpose and Method. Plutarch wanted not only to examine character in Parallel Lives but also to hold up his subjects as exemplary, or deserving of imitation. He believed that people were naturally drawn toward excellence and that by providing examples of men of outstanding character, his readers would want to emulate them. Because the main goal of Parallel Lives was to examine character, Plutarch was less concerned with presenting all the historical facts of a person’s life than he was with concentrating on the events that shaped and revealed his subject’s character. For example, in his biography of the Roman general Pompey, Plutarch wrote that he would spend little time discussing his hero’s early life in order to focus instead on “the great matters and those that show his character best.”

One serious drawback to this approach is that Plutarch had a tendency to downplay the shortcomings of his subjects. He often blamed their less-than-admirable behavior on the petty plots or schemes of others. He also tended to omit events that contradicted his assessment of a subject’s character, despite the fact that those incidents were well known or widely reported by other sources. Plutarch believed that character was the result of temperament, natural ability, and training, and that, once determined, one’s character was fixed for life. Actions that were “out of character” for an individual were explained as being caused by circumstances. However, Plutarch was not simply a cheerleader for his subjects, and his aim was not to present false portraits of them. Indeed, not all men presented in Parallel Lives are examples of virtue. Plutarch included men whose characters showed great flaws as well because, as he noted, “great natures produce great vices as they do great virtues.” Again, his goal was to give moral instruction to his readers by providing examples, and he felt that was best achieved by focusing more on “the beautiful things” in a man’s life than on his “faults and blemishes.”

Parallel Lives has long been the most popular of Plutarch’s works, largely because it is written for people who read history for pleasure rather than for the specialist. Plutarch’s ability to mix “the useful and the pleasant,” as well as his interest in the psychological makeup of his subjects, makes Parallel Lives as compelling to modern readers as it was to its original audience. (See also Literature, Greek.)

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