Plutarch is an ancient Greek who, in the first century AD, wrote an extremely influential series of capsule histories of famous Greeks and Romans which are commonly called Plutarch’s Lives (or sometimes, Parallel Lives). And they’re basically some of the most fun biographies that you could ever read, because: a) they’re full of fun little anecdotes and quips and little details about places and customs and b) Plutarch knows exactly what the aim of these biographies is–he wants to examine these people on a moral level.
For most of the lives, he pairs two people together (often one ancient Greek with one ancient Roman) and then, after the two biographies are done, he also includes a little comparison of the two, in terms of the praiseworthiness of their actions.
What’s most interesting about Plutarch is that he includes a pretty mixed back of characters. For instance, in the current volume I just finished reading a biography of the Gracchi brothers: two Roman senators who, with the best of intentions, basically undermined the constitution of the Republic and ignored its laws and planted the seeds for the civil strife that would eventually conclude it. And now I’m reading about Demosthenes and Cicero, who both, despite their tremendous oratorical abilities and heroic intentions, also displayed no small amount of venality and false pride.
To a certain extent, Plutarch is willing to evaluate people on the basis of the magnitude of their achievements. Many of the people that he studies were tyrants or dictators. Some, such as Themistocles or Coriolanus, were traitors. And others, like Marius and Sulla, were just bloodthirsty murderers.
But Plutarch looks at them with a gentle eye.
Part of this is due to a difference in moral systems. In modern times, the main thing we care about is how kind and compassionate a person is. But in ancient times, they cared about how skillful you were and how courageous and how principles and honest and all kinds of other things. A tyrant who had a magnanimous disposition could be worthy of praise. Or the cleverness of a Themistocles could be praiseworthy. And so could the passion and integrity of a Coriolanus.
Anyway, if you read the whole thing, you basically also get the entirety of Greek and Roman history. He writes about figures from all eras: the founders of Sparta and Athens and Rome; the heroic figures from the wars between Greece and Persia; the various dictators and demogogues and generals of the Peleponnesian wars; the rise of Alexander and the history of the Greeks who resisted him; the generals who won the Punic wars; the mixed bag of figures who decimated Rome during its civil wars; and lots of others.
Actually, my one regret about reading Plutarch is that there is so much information that I simply can’t retain it all. Like, I know that I read 20 pages about Flaminus, for instance, but I can’t remember the first thing about him. Sad sad.
Anyway, I read the first two volumes (out of four) within the space of six weeks in 2010. And then I read the third volume one year later, in the spring of 2011. And then three years passed. The problem is that I really liked the two translators who did the first three volumes of the Project Gutenberg edition of Plutarch. The fourth volume, unfortunately, is by some other guy who I don’t like as much. But I recently opened it up and found it to be much more tolerable. So now I’m making my way through it.