Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1

Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1

Written by PlutarchAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Plutarch
Edited by Arthur Hugh CloughAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Arthur Hugh Clough
Translated by John DrydenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Dryden
Introduction by James AtlasAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Atlas

Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1 Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1
  • Email this page - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1
  • Print this page - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1
» see more categories
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
history (64) biography (60) classics (21) literature (12)
» see more tags


Plutarch's Lives, written at the beginning of the second century A.D., is a brilliant social history of the ancient world by one of the greatest biographers and moralists of all time. In what is by far his most famous and influential work, Plutarch reveals the character and personality of his subjects and how they led ultimately to tragedy or victory. Richly anecdotal and full of detail, Volume I contains profiles and comparisons of Romulus and Theseus, Numa and Lycurgus, Fabius and Pericles, and many more powerful figures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The present translation, originally published in 1683 in conjunction with a life of Plutarch by John Dryden, was revised in 1864 by the poet and scholar Arthur Hugh Clough, whose notes and preface are also included in this edition.



As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but the sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off- "Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther." Yet, after publishing an account of Lycurgus the lawgiver and Numa the king, I thought I might, not without reason, ascend as high as to Romulus, being brought by my history so near to his time. Considering therefore with myself--

"Whom shall I set so great a man to face?

Or whom oppose? Who's equal to the place?"

(as Aeschylus expresses it), I found none so fit as him that peopled the beautiful and far-famed city of Athens, to be set in opposition with the father of the invincible and renowned city of Rome. Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Theseus seemed to me to resemble Romulus in many particulars. Both of them, born out of wedlock and of uncertain parentage, had the repute of being sprung from the gods.

"Both warriors; that by all the world's allowed."

Both of them united with strength of body an equal vigour of mind; and of the two most famous cities of the world, the one built Rome, and the other made Athens be inhabited. Both stand charged with the rape of women; neither of them could avoid domestic misfortunes nor jealousy at home; but towards the close of their lives are both of them said to have incurred great odium with their countrymen, if, that is, we may take the stories least like poetry as our guide to the truth.

The lineage of Theseus, by his father's side, ascends as high as to Erechtheus and the first inhabitants of Attica. By his mother's side he was descended of Pelops. For Pelops was the most powerful of all the kings of Peloponnesus, not so much by the greatness of his riches as the multitude of his children, having married many daughters to chief men, and put many sons in places of command in the towns round about him. One of whom named Pittheus, grandfather to Theseus, was governor of the small city of the Troezenians and had the repute of a man of the greatest knowledge and wisdom of his time; which then, it seems, consisted chiefly in grave maxims, such as the poet Hesiod got his great fame by, in his book of Works and Days. And, indeed, among these is one that they ascribe to Pittheus,

"Unto a friend suffice
A stipulated price;"

which, also, Aristotle mentions. And Euripides, by calling Hippolytus "scholar of the holy Pittheus," shows the opinion that the world had of him.

Aegeus, being desirous of children, and consulting the oracle of Delphi, received the celebrated answer which forbade him the company of any woman before his return to Athens. But the oracle being so obscure as not to satisfy him that he was clearly forbid this, he went to Troezen, and communicated to Pittheus the voice of the god, which was in this manner,

"Loose not the wine-skin foot, thou chief of men,
Until to Athens thou art come again."

Pittheus, therefore, taking advantage from the obscurity of the oracle, prevailed upon him, it is uncertain whether by persuasion or deceit, to lie with his daughter, Aethra. Aegeus afterwards, knowing her whom he had lain with to be Pittheus's daughter, and suspecting her to be with child by him, left a sword and a pair of shoes, hiding them under a great stone that had a hollow in it exactly fitting them; and went away making her only privy to it, and commanding her, if she brought forth a son who, when he came to man's estate, should be able to lift up the stone and take away what he had left there, she should send him way to him with those things with all secrecy, and with injunctions to him as much as possible to conceal his journey from every one; for he greatly feared the Pallentidae, who were continually mutinying against him, and despised him for his want of children, they themselves being fifty brothers, all sons of Pallas.
Plutarch|James Atlas

About Plutarch

Plutarch - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1
Plutarch was born during the reign of Claudius, around A.D. 45, at Chaeronea in Boeotia, a town of historic but somewhat faded importance. His family, originally from Thebes, had long enjoyed local distinction, a tradition he was to maintain in a life full of civic accomplishments. He founded a school of philosophy, served as Archon of Chaeronea, and eventually officiated as a priest of Apollo at Delphi. Only a few details of his life can be gleaned from his writings. At the time of Emperor Nero's visit to Greece in A.D. 66, Plutarch was by his own account a student of philosophy at Athens under the teacher Ammonius. As an exponent of Platonism, he vigorously attacked the positions of the Stoics and Epicureans. He was married and had at least five children.

Plutarch spent some part of his career in Italy, although he describes his experiences there only in passing; for example, in a discussion about his knowledge of Latin writers in his life of Demosthenes, he says that 'having had no leisure, while I was in Rome and other parts of Italy, to exercise myself in the Roman language, on account of public business and of those who came to be instructed by me in philosophy, it was very late, and in the decline of my age, before I applied myself to the reading of Latin authors.' He traveled in Egypt as well. He was a prolific writer in a variety of genres; his surviving work (representing perhaps half of what he wrote) fills a dozen volumes. In addition to the Parallel Lives of celebrated Greeks and Romans, which he produced late in his career, he wrote essays and dialogues on an immense range of subjects, collected in the Moralia. The dialogues--involving a cast of philosophers, grammarians, rhetoricians, and physicians--recreate in stylized fashion the table talk, alternately moralizing and frivolous, of Plutarch's milieu. The comings and goings of these participants--from Britain to Tarsus, from Egypt to Lacedaemonia--emphasize that this was the heyday of Roman imperial unity, and an era of cultural flowering: Plutarch's contemporaries included Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, Arrian, Quintilian, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Martial, and Juvenal.

Plutarch's own life may have been centered on his native town, but his writings move easily through centuries of history and across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world. His reputation was evidently wide; under Trajan and Hadrian he is said to have received the insignia of a consul and a post as procurator of Greece. He probably died sometime after A.D. 120. It was during the reign of Trajan that he wrote the Lives, which have proven his most enduring work. Intended as moral portraits rather than historical interpretations, the Lives are an incomparably rich trove of the facts and legends that Plutarch tirelessly collected, and an epitome of Graeco-Roman concepts of character. In the English translation made by Sir Thomas North in 1579 they contributed enormously, in both incident and language, to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra. The present translation, originally published in 1683-86 in conjunction with a life of Plutarch by John Dryden, was revised in 1864 by the poet and scholar Arthur Hugh Clough.

About James Atlas

James Atlas - Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1
James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for many years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and many other journals. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, which was nominated for the National Book Award.


"A Bible for heroes."
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. As Plutarch says in the beginning of his Life of Pericles, "Such objects we find in the acts of virtue, which also produce in the minds of mere readers about them an emulation and eagerness that may lead them on to imitation." Can these lines be said to encapsulate Plutarch's project in writing the Lives? How is Plutarch more a moralist than a historian? How are morals and virtue central to the lives you have read?

2. Although Plutarch's Lives are, without a doubt, one of the greatest historical works of antiquity, Plutarch has often been criticized as an inaccurate historian, for including apocryphal anecdotes, citing facts from questionable sources, and especially for ignoring historical events that would contradict his depiction of the figure. Do these lapses in historical accuracy weaken the credibility of the Lives? Do they strengthen them by reinforcing his purpose in writing? Are such modern concerns about historical methods even applicable to a writer of antiquity?

3. Attempt to characterize Plutarch's moral beliefs as they are revealed in the Lives. What traits does he most esteem, and what traits does he most condemn? How does he depict these traits in the men he describes, and what is the lesson to be drawn from each depiction? Does he have moral consistency from one life to the next? To what extent do you believe these morals to be held by his contemporaries as opposed to a modern readership?

4. In the case of the "Parallel Lives," what purpose is served by the structure of Plutarch's biographies? Why dedicate a passage to their comparison? What were the criteria upon which he based his comparisons? Why did he choose to compare these particular figures to one another? Finally, why would Plutarch always choose one Roman and one Greek figure to compare? Was it to show the similarity of the two cultures to his Greek or Roman audiences, or was it for an entirely different reason?

5. While the bulk of Plutarch's Lives is concerned with historical figures, Plutarch also includes biographies of several mythological characters who held an important place in the history of Greece and Rome. What function is served by the lives of these mythological figures? How are these lives fundamentally different from the other lives he recounts? Does their inclusion weaken the historical believability of the Lives? Would it have done so for an audience of Plutarch's contemporaries?

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: