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Literature / Parallel Lives

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I am not writing history but biography, and the most outstanding exploits do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent; often, in fact, a casual action, the odd phrase, or a jest reveals character better than the battles...just as a painter reproduces his subject's likeness by concentrating on the face and the expression of the eyes, by means of which character is revealed...I must be allowed to devote more time to those aspects which indicate a person's mind and to use these to portray the life of each of my subjects, while leaving their major exploits and battles to others.
Life of Alexander

Also known as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or Plutarch's Lives after its author, Parallel Lives is a series of biographical essays written in Greek by the historian Plutarch (46-120 CE) during The Roman Empire.

The conceit of the work is to match one Greek biography with a Roman biography, based on Plutarch's perceived similarity between the two figures, and finish it with a comparison where Plutarch analyses each subject's common points, strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and vices. It is one of the most important secondary sources for Ancient Greece, The Roman Republic and a primary source for the early empire. It's especially celebrated for being one of the key sources for Alexander the Great. It's also considered the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for the "biography" as a genre. The word "biography" in English was popularized by the translation of the works overseen by John Dryden, and Plutarch's particular way of trying to portray his subject's character, the influences on his person, general contradictions and paradoxes, as well as an even-handed attempt to empathize with his subjects as much as possible, remains the central standard for all biographies, and biographical fiction in multiple media, well into the 21st Century.

Plutarch's characterizations of his subjects in prose in turn greatly inspired novelists and dramatists working in fiction centuries later. Most notably, this book is one of the major sources used by William Shakespeare for his plays (chiefly Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens). Shakespeare used Thomas North's 1579 translation, which was a translation not from the original Greek, but from the French translation by Jacques Amyot in 1559. The definitive English translation was overseen by the poet John Dryden in 1683. Dryden edited the entire effort, translating from the original Greek into English, and this translation revised by multiple authors remains the most widely available and often quoted version. It's also in the public domain.

The surviving work is incomplete with many lives and comparisons missing (including one on Scipio Africanus). Likewise some of the biographies and comparisons, notably those on the later Roman Emperors (Otho and Galba) are believed to have been separate works grouped together by later authors. In addition there is one Persian life (Artaxerxes II) that likewise seems incongruous with the theme.

The following Roman and Greek Lives have entries on their own in this site, many of them using Plutarch as a source:


  • And Then What?: When Pyrrhus was about to go to war with Rome, his adviser Cineas, an Epicurean philosopher, asked him what he would do after conquering Italy. Pyrrhus replied, "We shall take Sicily." And then? "Carthage and Libya." And then? "Macedon and all Greece." And then? "Then we shall be at ease, drink, and gladden our hearts." Cineas then asked him why he couldn't just do that now? Pyrrhus had no answer.
  • Anti-Role Model: Plutarch intended Demetrius and Mark Antony to be these, explaining: "I think, we also shall be more eager to observe and imitate the better lives if we are not left without narratives of the blameworthy and the bad."
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Plutarch generally believed that the outward physical appearances of his subjects revealed a great deal about their character, and as such figures he admires and hagiographs, such as Alexander the Great, are described as good because they are beautiful (or rather their surviving statues are beautiful).
  • Dead Guy on Display: Antony had Cicero murdered because Cicero made a series of speeches against him. His head and his hands (which had penned the speeches) were cut off and displayed in the Forum Romanum. As Plutarch writes, this was "a sight that made the Romans shudder; for they thought they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but an image of the soul of Antony".
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cicero. Plutarch relates a whole paragraph of his zingers.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Plutarch's "Life of Antony" actually focused far more on Octavian, and especially Cleopatra, than Antony himself. Most notably where all of Plutarch's "lives" stop after the subject's death, in the case of Antony, he continues until Cleopatra's death, which happens days later, and then describes the aftermath of her suicide. The essay also has more digressions (including the famous "Timon" one as well as anecdotes Plutarch relates from his great-grandfather who was apparently in Alexandria when it fell), and the sections where it describes the crowd scenes of Alexandria leading up to its fall is almost novelistic in its descriptions.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The finale of "Life of Antony" after the Battle of Actium, focuses quite evocatively on the despair felt by Antony, Cleopatra, and the Alexandrians about their impending loss of independence and approaching occupation. In a famous section, Antony laments that he's like Timon of Athens, the quasi-folkloric figure who was abandoned by his friends and reduced by it. There's still celebrations in the city, but everyone knows that that the End of an Age is nigh.
  • Dirty Old Man:
    • Cato the Elder marries a slave girl decades younger than him, which caused much scandal in its time, greatly offending his own son. Cato the Elder in reply mutters that he wanted to make more sons like him while he still has the time i.e. I'm a Man; I Can't Help It.
    • Cicero likewise is much chided by Plutarch for divorcing his wife of many years, and choosing a much younger woman for both her wealth, her youthful beauty, and her family connections.
  • Dynamic Entry: The famous anecdote of Cleopatra VII meeting Caesar by being rolled into a carpet, comes from Plutarch's essay, and any major portrayal of Cleopatra retains that scene.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Plutarch Lampshades this trope by noting how badass commanders like Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander's dad), Antigonus, Hannibal Barca and Quintus Sertorius lost eyes in battle and how that nonetheless gave them a certain aura:
    "Others, he said, could not always carry about with them the evidences of their brave deeds, but must lay aside their necklaces, spears, and wreaths; in his own case, on the contrary, the marks of his bravery remained with him, and when men saw what he had lost, they saw at the same time a proof of his valour."
    Life of Sertorius
  • Foil: The concept of Parallel Lives compares Greek Lives with Roman Lives, and the comparison essays generally has Plutarch identify common parts from each. Indirectly, Plutarch, a Greek author writing in the era of the Roman Empire, is implicitly comparing Greek culture and history with Roman culture, generally seeing Greeks as ornery, dissolute, disorganized, and rebellious compared to the orderly, stately, and purposeful Romans.
  • Hero of Another Story: Plutarch's works offer many asides on characters you can tell he would have loved to have written essays on. In the middle of "Life of Antony"'s description of Antony's Heroic BSoD after losing the Battle of Actium, he describes in detail Timon of Athens (doing so well he partly inspired Shakespeare's play about Timon). He specifically says there could be more said about Timon elsewhere. Likewise, when describing Antony and Cleopatra's children, he mentions that one of them married King Juba II of Numidia, who he calls one of the smartest rulers of his time.
  • Historical Domain Character: With the exception of mythological founders Plutarch believed were real (Romulus, Theseus), and others whose historicity is disputed (Early Republican Rome such as Coriolanus). Plutarch's Lives are a honor roll of the great politicians, generals, statesmen of Ancient Greece and Republican Rome.
  • Hypocrite: "Life of Cato the Elder" ironically notes the famous statesman's dislike for Ancient Greece and his chiding his generation for imitating Greek culture, while secretly modelling his own Latin prose on his reading of Greece, hiring Greek tutors for himself and his sons, and generally acting contrary to his public persona. Given that Plutarch himself is a Greek writing in Greek, you can sense that he's mocking the man.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Plutarch notes this about Quintus Sertorius, the brilliant general who more or less codified guerilla warfare in the ancient world, and held out and defied commanders with forces, armies, and records greater than him, and yet for all his skills, achievements, and abilities, ultimately died as a renegade and traitor to Rome among barbarian tribes:
    "The most warlike of generals, and those who achieved most by a mixture of craft and ability, have been one-eyed men, Philip, Antigonus, Hannibal, and the subject of this Life, Sertorius; of whom one might say that he was more continent with women than Philip, more faithful to his friends than Antigonus, more merciful towards his enemies than Hannibal, and inferior to none of them in understanding, though in fortune to them all. Fortune he ever found harder to deal with than his open foes, and yet he made himself equal to the experience of Metellus, the daring of Pompey, the fortune of Sulla, and the power in Rome, though he was an exile and a stranger in command of Barbarians."
    Life of Sertorius
  • Manly Tears: Given the time period, this happens rather often. For example, in the "Life of Marcellus," Plutarch records Marcellus, the commander of the Roman Army at the siege of Syracuse, as crying his eyes out as he mused on how his own troops were about to loot the place. He also ordered his men to bring Archimedes to him alive. Sadly, one of Marcellus' soldiers murdered Archimedes, which upset the Roman commander.
    • In both the "Life of Pompey" and the "Life of Caesar," Plutarch makes note that Julius Caesar was in tears when Ptolemy XIII and his advisor Pothinus presented him with Pompey's head. Upon realizing that Pothinus had murdered Pompey, Caesar made sure that Pothinus was Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves.
    • Alexander the Great is also reported to cry a few times, most notably after he realized that he had just killed his friend Cleitus during an argument.
  • The Men First: Plutarch gives an example in from the life of Alexander. When his and his troops were pursuing Darius through a desert, they were desperately lacking drinking water. When his men noticed that Alexander is extremely thirsty, they brought him water in a helmet, but he refused to drink from it, stating: "if I should drink of it alone, these horsemen of mine will be out of heart." This gave a huge boost to the troops's morale.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Alexander stabbed one of his friends, Cleitus in a rage after Cleitus criticized him. He was overwhelmed with regret immediately afterwards, and tried to kill himself, but he was restrained by his bodyguards.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Pompey married Julia, the daughter of his political ally Julius Caesar, in an effort to shore up their waning alliance. Despite the significant age difference between the two (Pompey was older than her father), they ended up falling passionately in love.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: A freedman named Philologus told where Cicero went to the soldiers Antony sent to kill him. Antony eventually gave Philologus over to Pomponia, the wife of Cicero's brother, and she had him tortured to death.
  • Shield Surf: According to Life of Marius, during the war between the Romans and the Cimbri, the Cimbri showed off their toughness and audacity by climbing up naked (!) "through ice and deep snow" to peaks of the Alps and then sliding down from there on their shields.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Broadly the dynamic between Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, and according to Plutarch the real source for their downfall was the age difference that prevented both of them from working together to form a proper Sibling Team:
    In the first place, then, as regards cast of features and look and bearing, Tiberius was gentle and sedate, while Gaius was high-strung and vehement, so that even when haranguing the people the one stood composedly in one spot, while the other was the first Roman to walk about upon the rostra and pull his toga off his shoulder as he spoke...The style also of Tiberius was pure and elaborated to a nicety, while that of Gaius was persuasive and ornate. So also as regards their table and mode of life, Tiberius was simple and plain, while Gaius, although temperate and austere as compared with others, in contrast with his brother was ostentatious and fastidious...Again, their tempers were no less different than their speech...The differences between them, then, were of this nature; but as regards bravery in the face of the enemy, just dealings with subject peoples, scrupulous fidelity in public office, and restraint in pleasurable indulgence, they were exactly alike. Tiberius, however, was nine years older than his brother...They did not rise to eminence at the same time, and so did not combine their powers into one. Such an united power would have proved irresistibly great.
  • Theseus' Ship Paradox: The Trope Maker, described by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Plutarch mentions that Octavian/Augustus gave letters telling Cleopatra that he would allow her and her family to rule if she either killed or surrendered Antony. The latter didn't know about these letters, which prove Cleopatra's devotion and loyalty to him.