Thursday, May 14, 2020

Plutarch, Introductory

Well, this is Plutarch, Introductory, both because it's an introduction to my reading of Plutarch, but also because I pulled all the various (mostly unread) editions of Plutarch off the shelf and read or reread their introductions to fix a certain amount of knowledge about Plutarch in my head. And then munged it all together to produce this.

Plutarch is born in Chaeronea (120 kilometers northwest of Athens) to a wealthy family about 45 AD and dies around 120 AD. Greece is subject to the Roman Empire at this time--it has been since 146 BC, though it has a fairly privileged place in the empire.

Pretty much everything we know about Plutarch comes from incidental remarks in his writings. He went to Athens when young and studied philosophy there under the Egyptian Ammonius; he was in Athens when Nero toured Greece and stopped there in 66 AD. He mentions visiting Alexandria in Egypt. Sometime around 90 AD, he goes to Rome on public business, and, as he's already a philosopher with some reputation by then, gives public lectures. He learns Latin, not very well he tells us, and I have to say, I would agree...more on that momentarily.

The various things I read disagree about how long he spent in Rome, but in any case he returns home at some point to Chaeronea. Since it's cute, and most of my sources quoted it, I will too: "As to myself, I live in a small town and am fond of staying in it, that it may not be the smaller for the absence of a single inhabitant." [Life of Demosthenes.]

Plutarch was happily married, though of their five children it seems only two boys survived to adulthood.

Only about half of what he wrote survives, but that's still quite a lot. In addition to the 1300 pages of Parallel Lives in my edition, there is also the Moralia, a series of writings on moral subjects, of about equal length. As a general rule, the Lives were written toward the end of his life, the Moralia earlier. There are 46 extant lives in the Parallel Lives, but he refers to others he'd written now lost. The concept was to pair one Roman and one Greek life, and then write a comparison; some of the comparisons for extant lives were lost, or possibly never written.  The order of the Lives as generally given is roughly chronological, beginning with the mythical figures, Theseus for the Greeks and Romulus for the Romans. It ends with Julius Caesar's assassin Marcus Brutus ("Et tu, Brute"), though there are four additional lives (the Hellenistic general Aratus, the Persian king Artaxerxes, the Roman emperors Galba and Otho) that were probably not intended as part of the Parallel Lives, but are generally included.

But the fact that the Lives are arranged chronologically betrays Plutarch's purpose: he's explicitly not writing narrative history, and he's not particularly interested in the world-historical events of any individual life; rather he's writing these biographies as studies of character for use as ethical examples. They were not written in the chronological order they're presented in. Holden, the editor of the Themistocles I have, groups them into four series. The first series is written at the request of friends; these are more historical and include, among the Roman figures, Cicero & both Catos. The second series was written for Plutarch's own satisfaction (or so he says) and in these, his approach is more explicitly ethical. He describes his methodology for these at the beginning of the Pericles. In the third series, of only two pairs, he writes of bad examples; one of those pairs is Alcibiades and Coriolanus. The last series, and seemingly the last written, are another two pairs of mythical figures, given first in my translation.

On that translation, the so-called 'Dryden' translation. I now know to call it 'so-called.' It was translated by a number of anonymous hands; Dryden's name was affixed to it to help it sell. It's unclear how much Dryden actually contributed, if any. Based on this bit of awfulness:
"The numerous nations of the Celtic foe
Bore her not living to the banks of Po;
Their heavy shields upon the maid they threw,
And with their splendid gifts entombed at once and slew." 
[Life of Romulus]
I rather hope Dryden had nothing to do with it. I'm quite sure giggling is not the reaction Plutarch wanted.

Finally on Plutarch's Latin. Now linguistics and proper etymologies are a thing simply alien to most ancients, but this is particularly poor:
"...they [Roman priests] have the name Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power to command over all...The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons, and assigns the priests the title of bridge-makers." [Life of Numa Pompilius]
This is simply silly. No Roman would derive pontifex (pontifices in the plural) from anything but the words pons (bridge) and facio (make or build). A bridge-builder. In fact if one is to hold the ethicist Plutarch to ethical standards, why is he insistent on changing the derivation to something from 'power'? The metaphor implied by bridge-builder, I find much more appealing than Plutarch's implied metaphor. (Or for that matter, the autocratic, controlling metaphors implied by Father or Pastor.)

Pelling, the editor the Cambridge Life of Antony, notes that Plutarch happily quotes Greek poetry, likely from memory, but he shows no sign of knowing the great Latin poets even when quoting them (in the later Roman lives) would be useful. No Vergil, no Horace, etc. Pelling suggests Plutarch could make his way through a prose text, but his Latin wasn't good enough to enjoy Roman poets and have them at his synapse-ends as he does Greek poetry.

Of course if Plutarch could cadge a ride on the TARDIS and quiz me on my Latin skills these days he wouldn't be very impressed with me either. Nevertheless I stand by it.

Well, this post is long enough as it is. I should be further in the Lives than I am, but I'm making progress.

Though I will add this quote I copied out. Don't know why it struck me now...
"Anacharsis...repressed his wonder at the fact that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided." [Life of Solon]


  1. that final quote registers, haha... things don't change a whole lot...
    this all sounds very fascinating and informative... i'm going to be inspired to read some if i can find my roundtoit... good luck with this monumental effort: it will be wonderful and boring i'm sure... and undoubtedly rewarding...

    1. As long as I take it in manageable chunks I'm finding it pretty interesting stuff. I just read the life of Alcibiades earlier--the best one yet, I thought.

      It is pretty monumental, though...

  2. The most I know about Plutarch is that they mention his name in one of the songs in the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. ;D Happy reading?

    1. Really? i saw that movie when it first came out; i forgot that, tho...

    2. I saw that years ago, too, (though not when it came out!) but I had no idea Plutarch was mentioned. Now I want to see it again!

    3. It's just a brief mention in one of the songs...when he's singing about the 'sobbin' women just before the brothers go out and get steal away their brides.

  3. Is this what happens when you can't get to the public library? :D

    1. It is! Reading all those enormous tomes I've collected over the years & not read. Miss Macintosh, My Darling could be next...

      I saw where the province said libraries could open up for curbside pickup, but I haven't seen where Toronto has decided to do it. Please! Please! Please!