Wednesday 18 January 2012

Reading Plutarch in Geraka

One of the most appropriate passages I’ve ever read about Greece, ancient, Byzantine or modern, is the Introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Plutarch: Makers of Rome, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (1965). I came across this at Princeton in 1989, and it has stayed with me ever since. I take the liberty of transcribing part of the Introduction of the 1965 edition here.


Two themes dominate the cycle of Plutarch’s Roman Lives, the valour and tenacity of the Roman people in war, and their genius for political compromise. The creators of the pax Romana were first of all children of Mars, and so Plutarch depicts them, often defeated by never subdued, and in the end triumphant over one dreaded enemy after another, the Volscians, the Gauls, Pyrrhus and his elephants, the Carthaginians and their matchless cavalry. Lastly the army moves into politics, the enemies of the Republic become her own legions led by their contending generals, and the clash of arms is only finally stilled when, after the victory of Actium, Octavius Caesar symbolically closes the ever-open doors of the temple of Janus.

This brings us to Plutarch’s second motif, the problems of statecraft and the struggle for power between patricians and plebeian, the Senate and the popular leaders. It is here, for all the ruthlessness of Roman political life, that Plutarch pays tribute to the political instinct, the ability to close ranks in a moment of crisis, which eventually raised this tribal confederation of Italian farmers to the mastery of the world – and the absence of which proved the ruin of the Greek city-state.

The tragedy of Greece and the triumph of Rome form the political poles of the Lives viewed as a whole, and Plutarch passes judgment on his fellow countrymen in a memorably passage from The Life of Flaminius:

For if we except the victory of Marathon, the sea-fight at Salamis, the battles of Plataea and Thermopylae, and Cimon’s exploits at Eurymedon…Greece fought all her battles against and to enslave herself. Every one of her trophies stands as a memorial to her own shame and misfortune, and she owed her ruin above all to the misdeeds and the rivalries of her leaders.

The peculiarly Roman virtues as Plutarch sees them – best exemplified perhaps in the careers of Fabius, Marcellus and Sertorius – include not only courage and the power of leadership, but also generosity and forbearance, the qualities which create harmony between rulers and ruled. But the real source of Roman supremacy and object of Plutarch’s admiration is “the idea of Rome”, a spiritual heritage undreamed of in Greece, which at moments of supreme crisis seems to descend upon the city’s fallible representatives, to work through them and to shape their ends.


Today, in the midst of a wrenching economic crisis which illuminates the self-destructive tendencies of Greece’s political elite and of many segments of her population, these words seem more relevant than ever.

Ironically enough, Plutarch hailed from Chaeronea in Boeotia, today an otherwise unremarkable village near Levadia we drive by while en route to Delphi. I have often wondered why Chaeronea’s most famous son is not honoured with a museum, or even a simple sign along the road, and why Chaeronea is not on any tourist routes.

Another brief transcription from the summary:


Plutarch was one of the last of the classical Greek historians. He was born in about AD 45 at Chaeronea in Boeotia, where he later had a schook, and in middle age took up a priesthood at near-bye Delphi.

When Nero visited Greece in AD 66, Plutarch was a student at Athens. He became a philosopher, a man capable of lecturing and discussing on many learned topics, and wrote a large number of essays and dialogues on philosophical, scientific and literary subjects (the Moralia). He adopted the philosophic standpoint of a Platonist, and frequently attacked both Stoics and Epicureans. He wrote his historical works somewhat late in life, and his Parallel Lives of eminent Greeks and Romans is probably his best-known and most influential work (their translation by North was used by Shakespeare as a source for his Roman plays).


Some additional resources:

MIT Classics Archive (complete Dryden translation of Plutarch’s Lives):

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


  1. Thanks! So much of Plutarch survived because he was considered indispensable for the political/ moral education of responsible citizens. That the late 20th c dropped him from the curriculum without bothering to find a replacement teacher of civic virtue does not bode well for us. Brady K