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Plutarch’s Own Life

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Source: Preface to Plutarch’s Lives. The Translation called Dryden’s. Corrected from the Greek and Revised by A.H. Clough, in 5 volumes (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1906). Vol. 1.


The collection so well known as “Plutarch’s Lives,” is neither in form nor in arrangement what its author left behind him.

To the proper work, the Parallel Lives, narrated in a series of Books, each containing the accounts of one Greek and one Roman, followed by a Comparison, some single lives have been appended, for no reason but that they are also biographies. Otho and Galba belonged, probably, to a series of Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius. Artaxerxes and Aratus the statesman are detached narratives, like others which once, we are told, existed, — Hercules, Aristomenes, Hesiod, Pindar, Daiphantus, Crates the cynic, and Aratus the poet.

In the Parallel Lives themselves there are gaps. There was a Book containing those of Epaminondas and Scipio the younger. Many of the comparisons are wanting, have either been lost, or were not completed. And the reader will notice for himself that references made here and there in the extant lives, show that their original order was different from the present. In the very first page, for example, of the book, in the life of Theseus, mention occurs of the lives of Lycurgus and Numa, as already written.

The plain facts of Plutarch’s own life may be given in a very short compass. He was born, probably, in the reign of Claudius, about 45 or 50. His native place was Chæronea, in Bœotia, where his family had long been settled and was of good standing and local reputation. He studied at Athens under a philosopher named Ammonius. He visited Egypt. Later in life, some time before 90, he was at Rome “on public business,” — a deputation perhaps, from Chæronea. He continued there long enough to give lectures which attracted attention. Whether he visited Italy once only, or more often, is uncertain.

He was intimate with Sosius Senecio, to all appearances the same who was four times consul. The acquaintance may have sprung up at Rome, where Sosius, a much younger man than himself,* may have first seen him as a lecturer; or they may have previously known each other in Greece.

To Greece and to Chæronea he returned, and appears to have spent in the little town, which he was loth “to make less by the withdrawal of even one inhabitant,” the remainder of his life. He took part in the public business of the place and the neighborhood. He was archon in the town, and officiated many years as a priest of Apollo, apparently at Delphi.

He was married, and was the father of at least five children, of whom two sons, at any rate, survived to manhood. His greatest work, his Biographies, and several of his smaller writings, belong to this later period of his life, under the reign of Trajan. Whether he survived to the time of Hadrian is doubtful. If 45 be taken by way of conjecture for the date of his birth, 120, Hadrian’s fourth year, may be assumed, in like manner, as pretty nearly that of his death. All that is certain is that he lived to be old; that in one of his fictitious dialogues he describes himself as a young man conversing on philosophy with Ammonius in the time of Nero’s visit to Greece, 66-67; and that he was certainly alive and still writing in 106, the winter which Trajan, after building his bridge over the Danube, passed in Dacia. “We are told,” he says, in his “Inquiry into the Principle of Cold,” “by those who are now wintering with the Emperor on the Danube, that the freezing of water will crush boats to pieces.”

To this bare outline of certainties, several names and circumstances may be added from his writings; on which indeed alone we can safely rely for the very outline itself. There are a few allusions and anecdotes in the Lives; and from his miscellaneous compositions, his Essays, Lectures, Dialogues, Table-Talk, etc., the imagination may furnish itself with a great variety of curious and interesting suggestions.

The name of his great-grandfather, Nicarchus, is incidentally recorded in the life of Antony. “My great-grandfather used,” he says, “to tell how in Antony’s last war the whole of the citizens of Chæronea were put in requisition to bring down corn to the coast of the gulf of Corinth, each man carrying a certain load, and soldiers standing by to urge them on with the lash.” One such journey was made, and they had measured out their burdens for the second, when news arrived of the defeat at Actium.* Lamprias, his grandfather, is also mentioned in the same life. Philotas, the physician, had told him an anecdote illustrating the luxuriousness of Antony’s life in Egypt. His father is more than once spoken of in the minor works, but never mentioned by his name.

The name of Ammonius, his teacher and preceptor at Athens, occurs repeatedly in the minor works, and is once specially mentioned in the Lives; a descendant of Themistocles had studied with Plutarch under Ammonius. We find it mentioned that he three times held the office, once so momentous in the world’s history, of strategus at Athens.* This, like that of the Bœotarchs in Bœotia, continued under the Empire to be intrusted to native citizens, and judging from what is said in the little treatise of Political Precepts, was one of the more important places under the Roman provincial governor.

“Once,” Plutarch tells us, “our teacher, Ammonius, observing at his afternoon lecture that some of his auditors had been indulging too freely at breakfast, gave directions, in our presence, for chastisement to be administered to his own son, because, he said, the young man has declined to take his breakfast unless he has sour wine with it, fixing his eyes at the same time on the offending members of the class.”

The following anecdote appears to belong to some period a little later than that of his studies at Athens. “I remember, when I myself was still a young man, I was sent in company with another on a deputation to the proconsul; my colleague, it so happened, was unable to proceed, and I saw the proconsul and performed the commission alone. Upon my return, when I was about to lay down my office, and to give an account of its discharge, my father got up in the assembly and bade me privately to take care not to say I went, but we went, nor I said, but we said, and in the whole narration to give my companion his share.”

Of his stay in Italy, his visit to or residence in Rome, we know little beyond the statement which he gives us in the life of Demosthenes, that public business and visitors who came to see him on subjects of philosophy took up so much of his time that he learned, at that time, but little of the Latin language. He must have travelled about, for he saw the bust or statue of Marius at Ravenna, as he informs us in the beginning of Marius’s life. He undertook, he tells us in his essay on Brotherly Affection, the office, whilst he was in Rome, of arbitrating between two brothers, one of whom was considered to be a lover of philosophy. “But he had,” he says, “in reality, no legitimate title to the name either of brother or of philosopher. When I told him I should expect from him the behavior of a philosopher towards one who was first of all an ordinary person making no such profession, and in the second place, a brother, as for the first point, replied he, it may be wellenough; but I don’t attach any great importance to the fact of two people having come from the same pair of bodies;” an impious piece of freethinking which met, of course, with Plutarch’s indignant rebuke and reprobation.

A more remarkable anecdote is related in his discourse on Inquisitiveness. Among other precepts for avoiding or curing the fault, “We should habituate ourselves,” he says, “when letters are brought to us, not to open them instantly and in a hurry, not to bite the strings in two, as many people will, if they do not succeed at once with their fingers; when a messenger comes, not to run to meet him; not to jump up, when a friend says he has something new to tell us, — rather, if he has some good or useful advice to give us. Once when I was lecturing at Rome, Rusticus, whom Domitian afterwards, out of jealousy of his reputation, put to death, was one of my hearers; and while I was going on, a soldier came in and brought him a letter from the Emperor. And when every one was silent, and I stopped in order to let him read the letter, he declined to do so, and put it aside until I had finished and the audience withdrew, — an example of serious and dignified behavior which excited much admiration.”

L. Junius Arulenus Rusticus, the friend of Pliny and Tacitus, glorified among the Stoic martyrs whose names are written in the life of Agricola, was in youth the ardent disciple of Thrasea Pætus; and when Pætus was destined by Nero for death, and the Senate was prepared to pass the decree for his condemnation, Rusticus, in the fervor of his feelings, was eager to interpose the veto still attaching in form to the office — which he happened then to hold — of tribune, and was scarcely withheld by his master from a demonstration which would but have added him, before his time, to the catalogue of victims. After performing, in the civil wars ensuing on the death of Nero, the duties of prætor, he published in Domitian’s time a life of Thrasea, as did Senecio one of Helvidius, and Tacitus, probably, himself, that of Agricola: the bold language of which insured his death. Among the teachers who afterwards gave instruction to the youthful Marcus Aurelius, we read the name of an Arulenus Rusticus, probably his grandson, united with that of Sextus of Chæronea, Plutarch’s nephew, “who taught me,” says the virtuous Emperor, “by his own example, the just and wise habits he recommended,” and to whose door, in late life, he was still seen to go, still desirous, as he said, to be a learner.

It does not, of course, follow from the terms in which the story is related, that the incident occurred in Domitian’s time, and that it was to Domitian’s letter that Plutarch’s discourse was preferred. But that Plutarch was at Rome in or after Domitian’s reign, seems to be fairly inferred from the language in which he speaks of the absurd magnificence of Domitian’s palaces and other imperial buildings.

His two brothers, Timon and Lamprias, are frequently mentioned in his Essays and Dialogues. They, also, appear to have been pupils of Ammonius. In the treatise on Affection between Brothers, after various examples of the strength of this feeling, occurs the following passage: “And for myself,” he says, “that among the many favors for which I have to thank the kindness of fortune, my brother Timon’s affection to me is one, past and present, that may be put in the balance against all the rest, is what every one that has so much as met with us must be aware of, and our friends, of course, know well.”

His wife was Timoxena, the daughter of Alexion. The circumstances of his domestic life receive their best illustration from his letter addressed to this wife on the loss of their one daughter, born to them, it would appear, late in life, long after her brothers. “Plutarch to his wife, greeting. The messengers you sent to announce our child’s death apparently missed the road to Athens. I was told about my daughter on reaching Tanagra. Everthing relating to the funeral I suppose to have been already performed; my desire is that all these arrangements may have been so made as will now and in the future be most consoling to yourself. If there is anything which you have wished to do and have omitted, awaiting my opinion, and think would be a relief to you, it shall be attended to, apart from all excess and superstition, which no one would like less than yourself. Only, my wife, let me hope that you will maintain both me and yourself within the reasonable limits of grief. What our loss really amounts to, I know and estimate for myself. But should I find your distress excessive, my trouble on your account will be greater than on that of our loss. I am not a ‘stock or stone,’ as you, my partner in the care of our numerous children, every one of whom we have ourselves brought up at home, can testify. And this child, a daughter, born to your wishes after four sons, and affording me the opportunity of recording your name, I am well aware was a special object of affection.”

The sweet temper and the pretty ways of the child, he proceeds to say, made the privation peculiarly painful. “Yet why,” he says, “should we forget the reasonings we have often addressed to others, and regard our present pain as obliterating and effacing our former joys?” Those who had been present had spoken to him in terms of admiration of the calmness and simplicity of her behavior. The funeral had been devoid of any useless and idle sumptuosity, and her own house of all display of extravagant lamentation. This was indeed no wonder to him, who knew how much her plain and unluxurious living had surprised his philosophical friends and visitors, and who well remembered her composure under the previous loss of the eldest of her children, and again, “when our beautiful Charon left us.” “I recollect,” he says, “that some acquaintance from abroad were coming up with me from the sea when the tidings of the child’s decease were brought, and they followed with our other friends to the house; but the perfect order and tranquillity they found there made them believe, as I afterwards was informed they had related, that nothing had happened, and that the previous intelligence had been a mistake.”

The Consolation (so the letter is named) closes with expressions of belief in the immortality of each human soul; in which the parents are sustained and fortified by the tradition of their ancestors, and the revelations to which they had both been admitted, conveyed in the mystic Dionysian ceremonies.

There is a phrase in the letter which might be taken to imply that at the time of this domestic misfortune, Plutarch and Timoxena were already grandparents. The marriage of their son Autobulus is the occasion of one of the dinner-parties recorded in the Symposiac Questions; and in one of the dialogues, there is a distinct allusion to Autobulus’s son. Plutarch inscribes the little treatise in explanation of the Timæus to his two sons, Autobulus and Plutarch. They must certainly have been grown up men, to have anything to do with so difficult a subject. In his Inquiry as to the Way in which the Young should read the Poets, “It is not easy,” he says, addressing Marcus Sedatus, “to restrain altogether from such reading young people of the age of my Soclarus and your Cleander.” But whether Soclarus was a son, or a grandson, or some more distant relative, or, which is possible, a pupil, does not appear. Eurydice, to whom and to Pollianus, her newly espoused husband, he addresses his Marriage Precepts, seems to be spoken of as a recent inmate of his house; but it cannot be inferred that she was a daughter, nor does it seem likely that the little Timoxena’s place was ever filled up.*

The office of Archon, which Plutarch held in his native municipality, was probably only an annual one; but very likely he served it more than once. He seems to have busied himself about all the little matters of the town, and to have made it a point to undertake the humblest duties. After relating the story of Epaminondas giving dignity to the office of Chief Scavenger, “And I, too, for that matter,” he says, “am often a jest to my neighbors, when they see me, as they frequently do, in public, occupied on very similar duties; but the story told about Antisthenes comes to my assistance. When some one expressed surprise at his carrying home some pickled fish from market in his own hands, It is, he answered, for myself. Conversely, when I am reproached with standing by and watching while tiles are measured out, and stone and mortar brought up, This service, I say, is not for myself; it is for my country.”

In the little essay on the question, Whether an Old Man should continue in Public Life, written in the form of an exhortation to Euphanes, an ancient and distinguished member of the Areopagus at Athens, and of the Amphictyonic council, not to relinquish his duties, “Let there be no severance,” he says, “in our long companionship, and let neither the one nor the other of us forsake the life that was our choice.” And alluding to his own functions as priest of Apollo at Delphi, “You know,” he adds in another place, “that I have served the Pythian God for many pythiads* past, yet you would not now tell me, you have taken part enough in the sacrifices, processions, and dances, and it is hightime, Plutarch, now you are an old man, to lay aside your garland, and retire as superannuated from the oracle.

Even in these, the comparatively few, more positive and matter-of-fact passages of allusion and anecdote, there is enough to bring up something of a picture of a happy domestic life, half academic, half municipal, passed among affectionate relatives and well-known friends, inclining most to literary and moral studies, yet not cut off from the duties and avocations of the citizen. We cannot, of course, to go yet further, accept the scenery of the fictitious Dialogues as historical; yet there is much of it which may be taken as, so to say, pictorially just; and there is, probably, a good deal here and there that is literally true to the fact. The Symposiac, or After-Dinner Questions, collected in nine books, and dedicated to Sosius Senecio, were discussed, we are told, many of them, in the company of Sosius himself, both at Rome and in Greece, as, for example, when he was with them at the marriage festivities of Autobulus. Lamprias and Timon, the author’s brothers, are frequent speakers, each with a distinctly traced character, in these conversations; the father and the elder Lamprias, the grandfather, both take an occasional, and the latter a lively part; there is one whole book in which Ammonius predominates; the scene is now at Delphi, and now at Athens, sometimes perhaps, but rarely, at Rome, sometimes at the celebrations of the Games. Plutarch, in his priestly capacity, gives an entertainment in honor of a poetic victor at the Pythia, there is an Isthmian dinner at Corinth, and an Olympian party at Elis. As an adopted Athenian citizen of the Leontid tribe, he attends the celebration of the success of his friend, the philosophic poet Serapion. The dramatis personæ of the various little pieces form a company, when put together, of more than eighty names, — philosophers, rhetoricians, and grammarians, several physicians, Euthydemus his colleague in the priesthood, Alexion his father-in-law, and four or five other connections by marriage, Favorinus the philosopher of Arles in Provence, afterwards favored by Hadrian, to whom he dedicates one of his treatises, and who in return wrote an essay called Plutarchus, on the Academic Philosophy. Serapion entertains them in a garden on the banks of the Cephisus. They dine with a friendly physician on the heights of Hyampolis, and meet in a party at the baths of Ædepsus. The questions are of the most miscellaneous description, grave sometimes, and moral, grammatical, and antiquarian, and often festive and humorous. In what sense does Plato say that God uses geometry? Why do we hear better by night than by day? Why are dreams least true in autumn? Whichexisted first, the hen or the egg? Which of Venus’s hands did Diomed wound? Lamprias, the grandfather, finds fault with his son, Plutarch’s father, for inviting too many guests to the parties given “when we came home from Alexandria.” Ammonius, in office as general at Athens, gives a dinner to the young men who had distinguished themselves at a trial of skill in grammar, rhetoric, geometry, and poetry; and anecdotes are told on the occasion of verses aptly or inaptly quoted.

Of the other minor works, some look a good deal like lectures delivered at Rome, and afterwards published with little dedications prefixed. We have a disquisition on the Advantages we can derive from our Enemies, addressed to Cornelius Pulcher, a discourse On Fate, to Piso, and On Brotherly Affection, to Nigrinus and Quintus. Many, however, are dialogues and conversations, with a good deal of the same varied scenery and exuberant detail which embellish the Table-Talk.

In a conversation which he had been present at, “long ago, when Nero was staying in Greece,” between Ammonius and some other friends, the meaning of the strange inscription at Delphi, the two letters EI, is debated. A visitor is conducted by some of Plutarch’s friends over the sacred buildings at Delphi, and in the intervals between the somewhat tedious speeches of the professional guides, who showed the sights, a discussion takes place on the Nature of the Oracles. “It happened a little before the Pythian games in the time of Callistratus, there met us at Delphi two travellers, from the extremities of the world, Demetrius the grammarian, on his way home to Tarsus from Britain, and Cleombrotus the Lacedæmonian, just returned from a journey he had made for his pleasure and instruction in Upper Egypt, and far out into the Erythræan Sea.” The question somehow or other occurs; and the dialogue, Of the Cessation of Oracles, ensues, one passage of which is the famous story of the voice that proclaimed the death of the great Pan. Autobulus is talking with Soclarus, the companion of his son, about an encomium which they had heard on hunting; the best praise they can give it is, that it diverts into a less objectionable course the passion which finds one vent in seeing the contests of gladiators. Up come presently a large party of young men, lovers of hunting and fishing; and the question of the Superior Sagacity of Land or of Water Animals is formally pleaded by two selected orators. Stories are told of elephants; and Aristotimus, the advocate of the land animals, relates a sight (of the dog imitating in a play the effects of poison) which he himself, he says, saw in Rome, and which was so perfectly acted as to cause emotion in the spectators, the Emperor included, — the aged Vespasian himself being present, in the theatre of Marcellus. It reads very much as if Plutarch, and not Aristotimus, had been the eye-witness.*

Autobulus occurs again in the Dialogue on Love. At the request of his friend Flavianus, he repeats a long conversation, attended with curious incidents, in which his father had taken part on Mount Helicon, “once long ago, before we were born, when he brought our mother, after the dispute and variance which had arisen between their parents, that she might offer a sacrifice to Love at the feast held at Thespiæ.”

The variance alluded to must clearly have been a fact. And in general, though these playful fictions or semi-fictions, which form the machinery of the dialogues, are not indeed to be accepted in a literal way, they possess an authenticity which we cannot venture to attribute to the professedly historical statements about their author given in later writers. Suidas, the lexicographer, repeats a mere romance when he tells us that Trajan gave him the dignity of consul, and issued orders that none of the magistrates in Illyria should do any thing without consulting him. Syncellus, the Byzantine historian, under the record of one of the first years of Hadrian’s reign, is equally or even more extravagant, relating that Plutarch, the philosopher of Chæronea, was in his old age appointed by the Emperor to the office of governor of Greece. Though the period of Trajan and the Antonines was the golden age of philosophers, whose brief persecution under Domitian seems to have won them for a while a sort of spiritual supremacy, similar to that which, after Diocletian, was wrested from them by the ministers of the new religion, still these assertions are on the face of them entirely incredible.

There is a letter, indeed, given among Plutarch’s printed works, in which a collection of Sayings of Kings and Commanders is dedicated to Trajan; and though much doubt is entertained, it is not at all improbable that it is Plutarch’s own writing. There is nothing remarkable in its contents, and it is most noticeable for the contrast in tone which it presents to another letter, undoubtedly spurious, first published in Latin by John of Salisbury, which is a very preceptorial lecture to Trajan, his pupil, by Plutarch, his supposed former teacher.

A list of Plutarch’s works, including many of which nothing remains, is also given by Suidas, as made by Lamprias, Plutarch’s son; and a little prefatory letter to a friend, whom he had known in Asia, and who had written to ask for the information, is prefixed to the catalogue. The catalogue itself may be correct enough, but the name of Lamprias occurs nowhere in all Plutarch’s extant works as that of one of his sons; and it cannot but be suspected that this family name was adopted, and this letter to the nameless friend in Asia composed, by some grammarian long after, who desired to give interest to an ordinary list of the author’s extant writings.

In reading Plutarch, the following points should be remembered. He is a moralist rather than a historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action, — duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised; hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories, which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.

The time itself is a second point; that of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian; the commencement of the best and happiest age of the great Roman imperial period. The social system, spreading over all the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, of which Greece and Italy were the centres, and to which the East and the furthest known West were brought into relation, had then reached its highest mark of advance and consummation. The laws of Rome and the philosophy of Greece were powerful from the Tigris to the British islands. It was the last great era of Greek and Roman literature. Epictetus was teaching in Greek the virtues which Marcus Aurelius was to illustrate as Emperor. Dio Chrysostom and Arrian were recalling the memory of the most famous Attic rhetoricians and historians; and while Plutarch wrote in Chæronea, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Martial, and Juvenal were writing at Rome. It may be said too, perhaps not untruly, that the Latin, the metropolitan writers, less faithfully represent the general spirit and character of the time than what came from the pen of a simple Bœotian provincial, writing in a more universal language, and unwarped by the strong local reminiscences of the old home of the Senate and the Republic. Tacitus and Juvenal have more, perhaps, of the “antique Roman” than of the citizen of the great Mediterranean Empire. The evils of the imperial government, as felt in the capital city, are depicted in the Roman prose and verse more vividly and more vehemently than suits a general representation of the state of the imperial world, even under the rule of Domitian himself.

It is, at any rate, the serener aspect and the better era that the life and writings of Plutarch reflect. His language is that of a man happy in himself and in what is around him. His natural cheerfulness is undiminished, his easy and joyous simplicity is unimpaired, his satisfactions are not saddened or imbittered by any overpowering recollections of years passed under the immediate present terrors of imperial wickedness. Though he also could remember Nero, and had been a man when Domitian was an emperor, the utmost we can say is, that he shows, perhaps, the instructed happiness of one who had lived into good times out of evil, and that the very vigor of his content proves that its roots were fixed amongst circumstances not too indulgent or favorable.

Much has been said of Plutarch’s inaccuracy; and it cannot be denied that he is careless about numbers, and occasionally contradicts his own statements. A greater fault, perhaps, is his passion for anecdote; he cannot forbear from repeating stories, the improbability of which he is the first to recognize; which, nevertheless, by mere repetition, leave unjust impressions. He is unfair in this way to Demosthenes and to Pericles, against the latter of whom, however, he doubtless inherited the prejudices which Plato handed down to the philosophers.

It is true, also, that his unhistorical treatment of the subjects of his biography makes him often unsatisfactory and imperfect in the portraits he draws. Much, of course, in the public lives of statesmen can find its only explanation in their political position; and of this Plutarch often knows and thinks little. So far as the researches of modern historians have succeeded in really recovering a knowledge of relations of this sort, so far, undoubtedly, these biographies stand in need of their correction. Yet in the uncertainty which must attend all modern restorations, it is agreeable, and surely also profitable, to recur to portraits drawn ere new thoughts and views had occupied the civilized world, without reference to such disputable grounds of judgment, simply upon the broad principles of the ancient moral code of right and wrong.

Making some little deductions in cases such as those that have been mentioned, allowing for a little over-love of story, and for some considerable quasi-religious hostility to the democratic leaders who excited the scorn of Plato, if we bear in mind, also, that in narratives like that of Theseus, he himself confesses his inability to disengage fact from fable, it may be said that in Plutarch’s Lives the readers of all ages will find instructive and faithful biographies of the great men of Greece and Rome. Or, at any rate, if in Plutarch’s time it was too late to think of really faithful biographies, we have here the faithful record of the historical tradition of his age. This is what, in the second century of our era, Greeks and Romans loved to believe about their warriors and statesmen of the past. As a picture, at least, of the best Greek and Roman moral views and moral judgments, as a presentation of the results of Greek and Roman moral thought, delivered not under the pressure of calamity, but as they existed in ordinary times, and actuated plain-living people in country places in their daily life, Plutarch’s writings are of indisputable value; and it may be said, also, that Plutarch’s character, as depicted in them, possesses a natural charm of pleasantness and amiability which it is not easy to match among all extant classical authors.

The present translation is a revision of that published at the end of the seventeenth century, with a life of Plutarch written by Dryden, whose name, it was presumed, would throw some reflected lustre on the humbler workmen who performed, better or worse, the more serious labor. There is, of course, a great inequality in their work. But the translation by Langhorne, for which, in the middle of the last century, the older volumes were discarded, is so inferior in liveliness, and is in fact so dull and heavy a book. that in default of an entirely new translation, some advantage, it is hoped, may be gained by the revival here attempted. It would not have been needed, had Mr. Long not limited the series which he published, with very useful notes, in Mr. Knight’s Shilling Library, to the lives connected with the Civil Wars of Rome.

Dryden’s Life of Plutarch is, like many of Dryden’s writings, hasty yet well written, inaccurate but agreeable to read; that by Dacier, printed in the last volume of his French translation, is in many respects very good. The materials for both were collected, and the references accumulated, by Rualdus, in his laborious Life appended to the old Paris folios of 1624. But every thing that is of any value is given in the articles in Fabricius’s Bibliotheca Græca, and with the most recent additions, in Pauly’s German Cyclopædia. Much that is useful is found, as might be expected, in Clinton’s Fasti Romani, from which the following table is taken:—

41 Accession of Claudius.
54 Accession of Nero.
66 Nero comes into Greece; alluded to in Plutarch’s Dialogue on the EI at Delphi. } Seneca.
67 Nero celebrates the Isthmian Games; alluded to in Plutarch’s life of Flamininus. }
68 Galba is Emperor. Civil wars.
69 Vitellius, Otho, Vespasian.
70 Taking of Jerusalem.
74 The Philosophers are expelled from Rome. } Death of Pliny the Elder.
79 Death of Sabinus, the Gaul. }
Death of Vespasian, and accession of Titus. }
Eruption of Vesuvius; alluded to by Plutarch, as a recent occurrence, in his Enquiry why the Pythian Oracles are no longer delivered in verse. }
81 Accession of Domitian. } Quintilian.
Silius Italicus.
90 The Philosophers are again expelled from Rome, after the death of Rusticus. }
96 Accession of Nerva. } Dio Chrysostom.
Tacitus, born about
Pliny the Younger, born 61.
Juvenal, born 59.
Suetonius, born about 70.
98 Accession of Trajan. }
100 Pliny’s Panegyric. }
103 Epictetus is teaching at Nicopolis, Arrian attending him. }
104 Pliny in Bithynia. }
106 Trajan winters on the Danube; alluded to by Plutarch, On the Principle of Cold. }
113 Erection of Trajan’s Column. }
114 Trajan’s Parthian Victories. Plutarch had written his life of Antony before these. }
117 Accession of Hadrian. }
In Hadrian’s third year, Plutarch, according to Eusebius, was still alive. }
138 Accession of Antoninus. } Ptolemy.
Dion Cassius.
161 Accession of Marcus Aurelius. }
181 Accession of Commodus. }
NOTE. — The authors whose names are printed in Italics are Greek writers

The fault which runs through all the earlier biographies, from that of Rualdus downward, is the assumption, wholly untenable, that Plutarch passed many years, as many perhaps as forty, at Rome. The entire character of his life is of course altered by such an impression. It is, therefore, not worth while reprinting here the life originally prefixed by Dryden to the translations which, with more or less of alteration, follow in the present volumes. One or two characteristic extracts may be sufficient. The first may throw some light on a subject which to modern readers is a little obscure. Dryden is wrong in one or two less important points, but his general view of the dæmonic belief which pervades Plutarch’s writings is tolerably to the purpose.

“We can only trace the rest of his opinions from his philosophy, which we have said in the general to be Platonic, though it cannot also be denied that there was a tincture in it of the Electic* sect, which was begun by Potamon under the empire of Augustus, and which selected from all the other sects what seemed most probable in their opinions, not adhering singularly to any of them, nor rejecting every thing. I will only touch his belief of spirits. In his two Treatises of Oracles, the one concerning the Reason of their Cessation, the other inquiring why they were not given in verse as in former times, he seems to assert the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration of souls. We have formerly shown that he owned the unity of a Godhead, whom, according to his attributes, he calls by several names, — as Jupiter from his almighty power, Apollo from his wisdom, and so of the rest; but under him he places those beings whom he styles Genii or Dæmons, of a middle nature, between divine and human, for he thinks it absurd that there should be no mean between the two extremes of an immortal and a mortal being, — that there cannot be in nature so vast a flaw, without some intermedial kind of life, partaking of them both. As, therefore, we find the intercourse between the soul and body to be made by the animal spirits, so between divinity and humanity there is this species of dæmons. Who* having first been men, and followed the strict rules of virtue, have purged off the grossness and feculency of their earthly being, are exalted into these genii; and are from thence either raised higher into an ethereal life, if they still continue virtuous, or tumbled down again into mortal bodies, and sinking into flesh after they have lost that purity which constituted their glorious being. And this sort of Genii are those who, as our author imagines, presided over oracles; spirits which have so much of their terrestrial principles remaining in them as to be subject to passions and inclinations, — usually beneficent, sometimes malevolent to mankind, according as they refine themselves, or gather dross and are declining into mortal bodies. The cessation, or rather the decrease of oracles — for some of them were still remaining in Plutarch’s time — he attributes either to the death of those dæmons, as appears by the story of the Egyptian Thamus, who was commanded to declare that the great god Pan was dead, or to their forsaking of those places where they formerly gave out their oracles, from whence they were driven by stronger Genii into banishment for a certain revolution of ages. Of this last nature were the war of the giants against the gods, the dispossession of Saturn by Jupiter, the banishment of Apollo from heaven, the fall of Vulcan, and many others; all which, according to our author, were the battles of these Genii or Dæmons among themselves. But supposing, as Plutarch evidently does, that these spirits administered, under the Supreme Being, the affairs of men, taking care of the virtuous, punishing the bad, and sometimes communicating with the best, — as particularly, the Genius of Socrates always warned him of approaching dangers, and taught him to avoid them, — I cannot but wonder that every one who has hitherto written Plutarch’s life, and particularly Rualdus, the most knowing of them all, should so confidently affirm that these oracles were given by bad spirits, according to Plutarch. As Christians, indeed, we may think them so; but that Plutarch so thought is a most apparent falsehood. ’T is enough to convince a reasonable man, that our author in his old age (and that then he doted not, we may see by the treatise he has written, that old men ought to have the management of public affairs), I say that then he initiated himself in the sacred rites of Delphos, and died, for ought we know, Apollo’s priest. Now it is not to be imagined that he thought the God he served a Cacodæmon, or as we call him, a devil. Nothing could be further from the opinion and practice of this holy philosopher than so gross an impiety. The story of the Pythias, or priestess of Apollo, which he relates immediately before the ending of that treatise, concerning the Cessation of Oracles, confirms my assertion rather than shakes it; for ’t is there delivered, ‘That going with great reluctation into the sacred place to be inspired, she came out foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breast heaving, her voice undistinguishable and shrill, as if she had an earthquake within her laboring for vent; and in short, that thus tormented with the god whom she was not able to support, she died distracted in a few days after. For he had said before that the divineress ought to have no perturbations of mind or impure passions at the time when she was to consult the oracle; and if she had, she was no more fit to be inspired than an instrument untuned to render an harmonious sound.’ And he gives us to suspect, by what he says at the close of this relation, ‘That this Pythias had not lived chastely for some time before it; so that her death appears more like a punishment inflicted for loose living, by some holy Power, than the mere malignancy of a spirit delighted naturally in mischief.’ There is another observation which indeed comes nearer to their purpose, which I will digress so far as to relate, because it somewhat appertains to our own country. ‘There are many islands,’ says he, ‘which lie scattering about Britain, after the manner of our Sporades; they are unpeopled, and some of them are called the Islands of the Heroes, or the Genii.’ One Demetrius was sent by the Emperor (who by computation of the time must either be Caligula or Claudius* ) to discover those parts, and arriving at one of the islands next adjoining to the before mentioned, which was inhabited by some few Britons (but those held sacred and inviolable by all their countrymen), immediately after his arrival, the air grew black and troubled, — strange apparitions were seen, the winds raised a tempest, and fiery spouts or whirlwinds appeared dancing toward the earth. When these prodigies were ceased, the islanders informed him that some one of the aerial beings, superior to our nature, then ceased to live. For as a taper, while yet burning, affords a pleasant, harmless light, but is noisome and offensive when extinguished, so those heroes shine benignly on us and do us good, but at their death turn all things topsy-turvy, raise up tempests, and infect the air with pestilential vapors. By those holy and inviolable men, there is no question but he means our Druids, who were nearest to the Pythagoreans of any sect; and this opinion of the Genii might probably be one of theirs. Yet it proves not that all dæmons were thus malicious, only those who were to be condemned hereafter into human bodies, for their misdemeanors in their aerial being. But ’t is time to leave a subject so very fanciful and so little reasonable as this. I am apt to imagine the natural vapors, arising in the cave where the temple afterwards was built, might work upon the spirits of those who entered the holy place, — as they did on the shepherd Coretas, who first found it out by accident, — and incline them to enthusiasm and prophetic madness; that as the strength of those vapors diminished (which were generally in caverns, as that of Mopsus, of Trophonius, and this of Delphos), so the inspiration decreased by the same measures; that they happened to be stronger when they killed the Pythias, who being conscious of this, was so unwilling to enter; that the oracles ceased to be given in verse when poets ceased to be the priests, and that the Genius of Socrates (whom he confessed never to have seen, but only to have heard inwardly, and unperceived by others), was no more than the strength of his imagination; or to speak in the language of a Christian Platonist, his guardian angel.”

The concluding passage of the life may serve as a conclusion to this prefatory essay. It is as follows: “And now, with the usual vanity of Dutch prefacers, I could load our author with the praises and commemorations of writers; for both ancient and modern have made honorable mention of him. But to cumber pages with this kind of stuff were to raise a distrust in common readers that Plutarch wants them. Rualdus, indeed, has collected ample testimonies of them; but I will only recite the names of some, and refer you to him for the particular quotations. He reckons Gellius, Eusebius, Himerius the Sophister, Eunapius, Cyrillus of Alexandria, Theodoret, Agathias, Photius and Xiphilin, patriarchs of Constantinople, Johannes Sarisberiensis, the famous Petrarch, Petrus Victorius, and Justus Lipsius.

“But Theodorus Gaza, a man learned in the Latin tongue and a great restorer of the Greek, who lived above two hundred years ago, deserves to have his suffrage set down in words at length; for the rest have only commended Plutarch more than any single author, but he has extolled him above all together.

“’T is said that, having this extravagant question put to him by a friend: that if learning must suffer a general shipwreck, and he had only his choice left him of preserving one author, who should be the man he would preserve? he answered, Plutarch; and probably might give this reason: that in saving him, he should secure the best collection of them all.

“The epigram of Agathias deserves also to be remembered. This author flourished about the year five hundred, in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The verses are extant in the Anthologia, and with the translation of them I will conclude the praises of our author; having first admonished you, that they are supposed to be written on a statue erected by the Romans to his memory.

  • “Chæronean Plutarch, to thy deathless praise
  • Does martial Rome this grateful statue raise,
  • Because both Greece and she thy fame have shared,
  • (Their heroes written and their lives compared).
  • But thou thyself couldst never write thy own;
  • Their lives have parallels, but thine has none.”
  • A. H. CLOUGH.

[* ]Unless the expression “my sons your companions” ought to be taken as a piece of pleasantry.

[* ]There appears, however, to be no sure reason for saying that Plutarch himself remembered seeing his great-grandfather, and hearing him tell the story.

[* ]This may throw some doubt on the statement (with which, however, it is perhaps not absolutely incompatible) made by the Byzantine historian Eunapius, that “Ammonius, the teacher of the divine Plutarch, was an Egyptian.”

Plutarch was certainly skilled in all the wisdom of the Græco-Egyptians (see his treatise addressed to the learned lady Clea, on Isis and Osiris); but he may, for anything we know, have staid long and studied much at Alexandria.

[* ]That he had more than two sons who grew up, at any rate, to youth, appears from a passage where he speaks of his younger sons having staid too long at the theatre, and being, in consequence, too late at supper.

[* ]Periods for four years elapsing between the celebrations of the Pythian games, like the Olympiads for the Olympic games.

[* ]Something also of a personal remembrance of Vespasian’s unrelentingly severe temper may be thought to appear in the story, related in the Dialogue on Love, of the Gaulish rebel Sabinus, and his wife Eponina, mentioned by Tacitus in his Histories, who after living in an underground concealment several years, were discovered and put to death. Two sons were born to them in their hiding-place, “one of whom,” says Plutarch, “was here with us in Delphi only a little while ago,” and he is disposed, he adds, to attribute the subsequent extinction of the race of Vespasian to divine displeasure at this cruel and unfeeling act.

[* ]He means the Eclectic, as it is more usually called.

[* ]He means, I believe, Those who; apparently the word and should be omitted in line 29, before sinking into flesh.

[* ]Undoubtedly much later.

Last modified April 13, 2016