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The Age of Alexander

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The Parallel Lives of Plutarch are cornerstones of Western literature, and have exerted a profound influence on writers and statesmen since the Renaissance, most notably Shakespeare. This selection of ten biographies spans the period from the start of the fourth century BC to the early third, and covers some of the most important figures in Greek history, such as the orator Demosthenes and Alexander the Great, as well as lesser known figures such as Plato's pupil Dion of Syracuse. Each Life is an important work of literature in itself, but taken together they provide a vivid picture of the Greek world during a period that saw the collapse of Spartan power, the rise of Macedonia, the conquests of Alexander and the wars of his successors.

Timothy Duff's revised version of Ian Scott-Kilvert's translations is accompanied by a new general introduction, and introductions and notes to each Life. He has also added two Lives previously not included: Artaxerxes I, Great King of Persia from 405 to 359 BC, and Eumenes of Cardia, one of Alexander's officers.

625 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 100

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Plutarch, later named, upon becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus; (AD 46 – AD 120) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia. He is classified as a Middle Platonist. Plutarch's surviving works were written in Greek, but intended for both Greek and Roman readers.

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Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
530 reviews54 followers
September 1, 2022
The age of Alexander the Great was a splendid time for warlike kings and generals – for all those would-be emperors who liked nothing better than overrunning large stretches of other people’s territory, and spilling vast amounts of blood in the process. On the other hand, it was a terrible time for quaint, old-fashioned values like peace and democracy. Such were the times that the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch chronicles in these nine biographies, collected here under the title The Age of Alexander.

Plutarch’s name and work are familiar to students of classical civilization. Living in the first and second centuries A.D., at the peak of the Roman Empire, Plutarch was of Greek cultural background, but eventually became a Roman citizen. Small wonder, then, that when he took as his great subject the study of biography, he chose to compose and bring together paired biographies of eminent Greek and Roman political and military leaders.

Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans is the great classical work of comparison and contrast – Alexander is paired with Caesar among military leaders, Demosthenes with Cicero among orators, and so on. It would be as if a modern historian wrote a book titled Lives of the Noble Britons and Americans, and paired Churchill with F.D. Roosevelt, Montgomery with Patton, etc.

Implicit in Plutarch’s approach – and sometimes stated explicitly – is the idea that these biographies can teach readers what actions to emulate, and which to avoid, if they wish for their own lives to be worthy of being remembered and celebrated by future generations. As Plutarch himself puts it, the writing of these Lives “allows me to treat history as a mirror, with the help of which I can adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described” (p. 151).

His work has been a staple of the classical education for centuries – William Shakespeare often drew upon Plutarch’s Parallel Lives for the plots of his plays, and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein educates himself in his isolation by reading a pilfered copy of Plutarch.

Because modern readers cannot be counted upon to know the ancient Greek or Roman world as well as did the people of classical times, Penguin Books has organized Plutarch’s Lives into a series of books – half of them dedicated to the Greeks, the other half to the Romans. Earlier books in the Greek part of the series were titled The Rise and Fall of Athens and On Sparta, and chronicled the ascendancy of those two Greek city-states. With the nine biographies included in The Age of Alexander, we move on to the period of Macedonian dominance.

But before we get to the Macedonians, there are leaders of other Greek city-states to deal with. Agesilaus II of Sparta (444-360 B.C.) was “king of Sparta for forty-one years; for more than thirty of these he was the greatest and most powerful man in Greece, and had been regarded as the king and the leader of almost the whole of Hellas, down to the time of the battle of Leuctra” (p. 68).

The battle of Leuctra, in 371 B.C., in which Thebes led Boeotian forces against Sparta and her allies, was a devastating defeat for Sparta, and therefore it is appropriate that this volume then turns to Pelopidas of Thebes (403-364 B.C.), who commanded the victorious Theban forces in that battle. Pelopidas always conducted himself with conspicuous battlefield courage; Plutarch sums up the short life of this leader by writing that Pelopidas “spent the greater part of his life surrounded with honour and renown and finally…while engaged in a heroic action aimed at the destruction of a tyrant, he sacrificed his life for the freedom of Thessaly” (p. 102).

Dion of Syracuse (408-354 B.C.), was “a disciple of Plato who knew the philosopher personally” (p. 104); and when his military campaigning eventually helped him become tyrant of Syracuse, he sought to behave in the Athenian manner, with moderation and restraint. Unfortunately, Dion “possessed the kind of temperament which finds it difficult to unbend”, and he behaved toward his Syracusan subjects in an excessively grave and formal manner, “even though the times called for a more gracious demeanour” (p. 145). His enemies thereupon found it an easy thing to plot and carry out his murder. For Plutarch, Dion provides lessons in what not to do.

A more positive role model is Timoleon of Corinth (411-337 B.C.). He fought many battles in Sicily, defending the Greek colonies there from the Carthaginian enemy on the other side of the Mediterranean, and established a constitution for Syracuse. By the time of his death from natural causes, “He had come to be regarded as the father of the whole people,” and at the time of his death it was announced that the Syracusan people “resolve to honour his memory for all time to come with annual contests of music, horse-racing, and gymnastics, because he overthrew the tyrants, subdued the barbarians, repopulated the largest of the devastated cities, and then restored their laws to the people of Sicily” (pp. 186-87).

One of the few non-military men in this volume is the renowned orator Demosthenes of Athens (384-322 B.C.). Here, readers get to hear the famous story of how Demosthenes overcame a speech impediment: “He corrected his lisp and his indistinct articulation by holding pebbles in his mouth while reciting long speeches” (p. 197). Therefore, I suppose Eliza Doolittle from the musical My Fair Lady can blame Demosthenes for the way in which Professor Henry Higgins makes her speak with marbles in her mouth in order to improve her articulation. Demosthenes poisoned himself after the decisive Macedonian victory over an alliance of Greek city-states in the battle of Crannon (322 B.C.), and the Athenian people erected in his honour a statue bearing the inscription, “If only your strength had been equal, Demosthenes, to your wisdom/Never would Greece have been ruled by a Macedonian Ares” (p. 216).

Phocion of Athens (402-318 B.C.), according to Plutarch, “By nature…was one of the kindest and most considerate of men, but his appearance was stern and forbidding” (p. 221). Like Demosthenes, Phocion had the misfortune of living in the time when Athens and other city-states were falling under Macedonian rule; but Phocion’s humility and practicality were appreciated by the people of Athens, as with his response when he learned that the Athenians wanted to make war against Philip of Macedon: “he at first tried to persuade the people not to go to war and to accept Philip’s terms, in view of the fact that the king was peaceably inclined and greatly feared the dangers which were likely to ensue from a war” (p. 230). Traduced and betrayed by his enemies, Phocion was executed; but “only a short time elapsed before the course of events taught the Athenians how great a protector and champion of moderation and justice they had lost….Phocion’s fate reminded the Greeks once more of that of Socrates: they felt that in each case the wrong which the city of Athens had done and the misfortune she had suffered were almost identical” (pp. 250-51).

All of which brings us to Alexander the Great. Most readers of this volume will be more interested in hearing about Alexander than about any of the other eight subjects whose lives Plutarch chronicles. Some of the most famous stories about Alexander are here – for instance, the story of how he tamed the supposedly “untamable” horse Bucephalus, winning a bet with his father Philip. Alexander figured out what was bothering the horse – “went quickly up to Bucephalus, took hold of his bridle, and turned him towards the sun, for he had noticed that the horse was shying at the sight of his own shadow” (p. 258). Once Alexander had successfully tamed Bucephalus – the horse that would carry him through so many legendary campaigns – Philip wept with joy and told Alexander, “My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you” (p. 258).

Alexander, famously, was tutored by Aristotle; but if you think that the future world-conqueror was overawed by taking lessons from history’s greatest philosopher, think again. When Aristotle published one of his treatises on topics that Alexander thought should remain a word-of-mouth matter, the pupil did not hesitate to upbraid his teacher:

Alexander to Aristotle, greetings. You have not done well to write down and publish those doctrines you taught me by word of mouth. What advantage shall I have over other men if these theories in which I have been trained are to be made common property? I would rather excel the rest of mankind in my knowledge of what is best than in the extent of my power. Farewell. (p. 259)

Among the other pre-eminent bits of Alexandrian legend set down here is the story of the “Gordian knot.” Plutarch records how, after Alexander’s conquest of Gordium in modern Turkey, Alexander “saw the celebrated chariot which was fastened to its yoke by the bark of the cornel-tree, and heard the legend which was believed by all the barbarians, that the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world.” Seeing the elaborateness of the knot, Alexander “did not know what to do, and in the end loosened the knot by cutting through it with his sword” (271) – thereby providing a lasting metaphor for all those who end up solving a problem by not quite following the rules.

Alexander emerges as an enigmatic figure in the pages of Plutarch – always bold, always ready for a fight, but sometimes treating either friends or enemies in an unexpectedly merciful or harsh manner. I suppose that is how it is when one is the conqueror of worlds.

Incidentally, it is not in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, but rather in Plutarch’s essay collection Moralia, that one reads the story of Alexander weeping when he hears the philosopher Anaxarchus discussing the possibility that there exist an infinite number of worlds, and then saying to his friends, “Is it not worthy of tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?” This is the quote that Alan Rickman’s villainous Hans Gruber character mangles, albeit stylishly, in the movie Die Hard (1988) – another example of Alexander’s enduring hold on our culture.

Demetrius I of Macedon (337-283 B.C.) had a great nickname – “Demetrius the Besieger” – but in a way his nickname seems to speak to his problems; he always had to be besieging some town or city. His restless spirit, which kept him going through one conquest-and-defeat cycle after another, is cited by Plutarch as expressing the truth of Plato’s declaration “that great natures produce great vices as well as great virtues” (p. 336). It is as if he wanted to out-Alexander Alexander; he couldn’t accept and consolidate a victory. Out would come the siege towers again, and off went Demetrius the Besieger to yet another besieging. Plutarch links Demetrius with Rome’s Mark Antony as leaders who “met with prodigious triumphs and disasters, conquered great empires and as easily lost them, rose to the heights of success as unexpectedly as they plumbed the depths of failure” (p. 336).

And appropriately, this volume ends with Pyrrhus of Epirus (319-272 B.C.), whose career shows the beginning of the end of Greek or Hellenistic ascendancy, and the beginnings of Roman power. Pyrrhus gives us the term “Pyrrhic victory”; for while he never hesitated to engage his Roman enemies, his battles with Rome resulted in Greek casualties that Pyrrhus could not replace. Nominally, the Greeks won the Battle of Asculum in 279 B.C., but Greek casualties were so high that “when one of Pyrrhus’ friends congratulated him on his victory, he replied, ‘One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely!’” (p. 409)

After some unsuccessful campaigning in Sicily, Pyrrhus and his army decamped for the Italian mainland in 275 B.C. As they did so, “The story goes that as he was leaving, [Pyrrhus] looked back at the island and remarked to his companions, ‘My friends, what a wrestling ground we are leaving behind us for the Romans and the Carthaginians.’ And certainly it was not long before this prophecy of his was fulfilled” (p. 412), as the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage began just eight years later, in 267 B.C. In Pyrrhus’ words, we see the final eclipse of Greek power in the Mediterranean basin. Henceforth, it will be Rome, as republic and empire, that will dominate the Western world for the next six centuries.

These nine Plutarch biographies collected as The Age of Alexander are essential reading for any student of the classical world – or, for that matter, for anyone who wants to observe the process by which hegemony and supremacy pass from one great power to another.
Profile Image for Ave Timoleon.
8 reviews22 followers
February 3, 2016
Spengler once wrote that Mozart would cease to be heard not when his music was no longer played, but when its meaning was no longer understood. Something of this fate is also shared by Plutarch in an age where the study of history remains distorted by positivist ideology (see some other reviews on this site for examples of its largely unconscious perpetuation), coupled with the obvious temporal distance between Hellenic (pre-monotheistic) notions of virtue which Plutarch upheld, and today's neoliberal capitalism wherein virtue has been degraded to the empty rhetoric of the protestant work ethic and selfish profiteering. These kinds of prevailing reception practices mean that it is particularly important to approach Plutarch on his own terms and cognisant of the social and historical conditions in which he wrote.

Unlike Thucydides, Plutarch is not building a system, a philosophy of history - which also means that he is not in the habit of inventing speeches. Rather, he is interested in studying character, as may be reflected in chance remarks, habits, or idiosyncratic actions. His interest is in the understanding of virtue, perhaps indeed of reason conceived as an objective and divinely-mediated feature of social life that must be carefully cultivated and upheld against corruption, tyranny, and other forms of barbarism. His choice of subjects covered by those biographies included in this volume, reflects his emphasis on good statesmanship and the virtuous conduct of military endeavours - in essence moral themes that provide a stark contrast to Nietzsche's (in my view, very wayward) conception of Hellenic "amoralism." To be sure, his appraisal of democracy is certainly coloured by the aristocratic viewpoint that the majority of classical writers shared as a result of their social position. But this does not mitigate some of his carefully reasoned criticisms of unrestrained mob rule (particularly in the biography of Timoleon, which is fantastic!). For those that hold to the historical character of truth and reject the delusion of the so-called objectivity of the historian--a rejection put very well by E.H. Carr, for instance--it is not remarkable that Plutarch, like all historians and biographers, is writing for a particular purpose and for a particular end.

What is remarkable is that Plutarch constructs a highly dialectical account of Alexander as both a Dionysian-type character and, paradoxically, a paragon of virtue who is wracked by guilt for the sacking of Thebes and his belief that he has angered Dionysus, the patron god of Thebes, who as punishment for the sacking manipulates fate and prevents his army from advancing further into India. Although Nietzscheans would love to render him into a merely Dionysian character, Plutarch tends to emphasise that his "greatness" is founded not in the daring of his military conquests alone but also in his just treatment of Darius and his family, and various other smaller and greater episodes, such as his siding with an aristocratic woman who was raped by one of his soldiers and subsequently stoned the soldier to death. Through his perceptive and exciting narration of such events, Plutarch appeals to an idea of virtue that resembles something of the "just rule" that was a leitmotif of Aristotle's 'Politics.' Academic commentators nowadays tend to regard Plutarch as a Platonist, which may be true in certain respects, but I see his understanding of virtue as distinctly Aristotelean in orientation.

For the above reasons and more, this volume is well worth reading for those who wish to understand something of the social, economic and political values of the Hellenic world. The biography of Pyrrhus provides a portrait of emerging Roman power in Italy and their degree of militaristic ruthlessness, which Plutarch quite mercilessly contrasts to the luxuriousness of the Italian Greek cities.

Profile Image for Ron.
Author 1 book133 followers
November 16, 2016
“War has an appetite that cannot be satisfied by quotas.” Hegesippus

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was the primary source for the history of Rome and Greece during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this volume covers the period after Athens fall from supremacy in the Greek-speaking world.

“… and deliver the state from the habit of pandering to the mob, a disease scarcely less pernicious than tyranny itself.” (Some things never change)

Plutarch’s Lives influenced art and literature as well as politics and history. Shakespeare based his ancient history plays on Plutarch, occasionally quoting him verbatim.

“The truth is that the great majority of mankind are more offended by a contemptuous word than a hostile action, and find it easier to put up with an injury than an insult.”

Ian Scott-Kilvert’s English translation is clear and readable, if occasionally colloquial. Every day English has evolved since the 1970s.

“To show kindness only to one’s friends and benefactors is no proof of having acquired such self-control: the real test for a man who has been wronged to be able to show compassion and moderation to the evil-doers.”

The serious student of history may look elsewhere for greater authority, but the rest of us are enlightened and entertained by Plutarch’s commentary on the lives of the movers and shakers during a time which reads to us like epic fantasy: Descendants of Heracles, mythic tasks, loyalty and betrayal, heroes and tyrants.

“One more victory like that over the Romans will destroy us completely.” Pyrrhus
94 reviews6 followers
September 29, 2019
Artaxerxes II - wasn't especially interesting to me. Artaxerxes was apparently not super amazing but he was pretty generous. His brother Cyrus II is the one who rebelled and employed 'The Ten Thousand' Greek mercenaries, including Xenophon. There was one kind of interesting scene where Plutarch describes 'the death of the troughs', where the victim is put between two troughs, which have holes for his legs/arms/head to stick out. The victim is then forced to consume milk and honey, which is also poured over his face. This attracts swarms of flies both to his face and to the inside of the trough, where his excrement collects. So he will eventually be eaten alive by worms and maggots. Pretty disgusting.

Pelopidas - I was impressed by two things especially - his daring and his harmonious collaboration with Epaminondas. He led a tiny group of exiles back to Thebes and was able to overthrow the Spartan garrison against long odds. He then led the Theban army against the Spartan and won unprecedented victory against them, in party by organizing the Sacred Band (a group of 300 elite warriors and lovers) into its own unit (it had previously been dispersed across the front ranks of the army). I think at both the battles of Tegyra and Leuctra he led the Sacred Band into headlong charges against the Spartan, absolutely destroying their ranks. He ended up being too bold for his own good though - at one point he got himself captured by Alexander of Pherae (a tyrant in Thessaly), and in a later battle against Alexander he allowed himself to be provoked into a suicidal attack on Alexander in which he challenged Alexander to battle amidst Alexander's troops - Alexander retreated and his troops filled Pelopidas with javelins.

Dion - this life illustrates the vicissitudes of fortune. Dion was one of the most trusted advisors of Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse. After Dionysius I died, his son Dionysius II became the tyrant. Dion tried to 'reform' Dionysius II's character by introducing him to Plato, but in the end Dion fell out with Dionysius and was sent into exile. Dion eventually organized a small mercenary army and returned to Syracuse to overthrow Dionysius - in the process of the siege, he was at first welcomed as a savior by the Syracusans, then told he wasn't welcome, then when Dionysius's mercenaries set fire to the city, they begged him again to come back. So Dion took the city and became its tyrant for a while. And then he was assassinated. So yeah, I basically learned you should hold to your principles - if they are good they will guide you to success, and maybe assassination.

Timoleon - Timoleon is interesting 1) because he spent 20 years in self-enforced exile and 2) because of his extremely good fortune during his expedition to Sicily. When he was younger, he killed his brother because he had made himself tyrant of Corinth. His mother disowned him, and he felt so guilty and depressed that he left Corinth and apparently wandered around the countryside for 20 years. But he was finally recalled to lead an expedition to free Syracuse from the tyrant Dionysius II. This expedition was interesting because Timoleon overcame such huge odds over and over again. He set out with about 1,000 troops and 10 ships but was blocked by Carthaginians in Rhegium. When I was reading this I thought, "How's he gonna overcome this?" But then he does! Via trickery - he worked with the Rhegians to distract the Carthaginians in an assembly and slipped away with his cre to Sicily. When in Sicily he defeated a superior Syracusan force by taking them by surprise. This enabled him to win over a bunch of smaller towns. Then Dionysius II surrendered Ortygia (Syracuse's acropolis) to him (at this point the city had been taken over by Hicetas and the Carthaginians). But THEN the Carthaginians abandoned Syracuse (apparently because they were concerned by Timoleon's luck?). So Timoleon took Syracuse and, in counterpoint to Dion, demolished the acropolis (a redoubt for tyrants) and replaced it with courts of law. THEN Timoleon took on a vastly superior Carthaginian army and managed to rout it, ensuring the Greek Sicilians' freedom from Carthaginian domination. His combination of good thinking and good luck was pretty amazing.

Demosthenes - I think that the inscription carved at the base of a statue commemorating Demosthenes sums up his life pretty well: "If only your strength had been equal, Demosthenes, to your wisdom, / Never would Greece have been ruled by a Macedonian Ares." Demosthenes is interesting because he definitely was not marked out for greatness and earned his fame entirely through his own hard work. As Plutarch records: "He was a skinny and sickly child from the beginning and it is said that it was to make fun of his puny physique that the other boys called him Batalus. According to one account, Batalus was an effeminate flute-player." "His voice was weak and his utterance indistinct and [...] he suffered from a shortness of breath, which had the effect of breaking up his sentences and making his meaning difficult to follow."
He completely devoted himself to the study of rhetoric: "he built an underground study [...]. Every day, without fail, he would go down to work at his delivery and to train his voice, and he would often remain there for two or three months on end, and would shave only one side of his face, to prevent himself out of shame from going out even if he wanted to." "He corrected his lisp and his indistinct articulation by holding pebbles in his mouth while he recited long speeches, and he strengthened his voice by running or walking uphill, discoursing as he went, and by reciting speeches or verses in a single breath. Besides this, he kept a large mirror in his house and would stand in front of it while he went through his exercises in declamation." He was pretty much the Rocky Balboa of Athenian orators.
Unfortunately, as the inscription alludes, although Demosthenes was a great orator and he steered Athens on what was probably the correct path in resistance against Philip II of Macedon, when it came to applying his principles in real life he fell short. At the disastrous Battle of Chaeronea (in which Philip crushed Athens and Thebes), Demosthenes "left his place in the ranks and took to his heels in the most shameful fashion, throwing away his arms in order to run faster" - in the 9 lives covered in this book, Demosthenes is the only coward. Later on, he probably accepted a bribe from Harpalus (Alexander's corrupt treasurer who fled to Athens with a lot of money). In the end, however, he committed suicide rather than allow himself to be taken prisoner by the Macedonians, which kind of redeemed his reputation.

Phocion - I don't have much to say about Phocion. He was just a really great and honorable leader. He lived a very humble life and was incorruptible; he was elected general more times than any other Athenian (over 40 times I think); he always hewed to virtuous, responsible, and principled opinions and policies, even when that antagonized the mob; etc etc. He also lived for forever (to be 84) and was instrumental in arranging compromises between Athens and Macedon. Unfortunately, after various twists and turns in fortune he was condemned to death by the mob (as was Socrates) and died by hemlock. There was one humorous anecdote in this life: Phocion's wife "remarked, when an Ionian woman who was staying with her showed off her gold ornaments and her collars and necklaces glittering with jewels, ‘My ornament is Phocion, who is just now serving his twentieth year as a general of Athens.’" I'm sure Phocion and his wife were amazing people but this comment is so obnoxious it made me laugh.

Alexander - Since I recently read Arrian's description of Alexander's campaigns, this life was very interesting to me. Arrian did not relate many of the anecdotes that Plutarch does, and he did not describe the others as vividly. Even if Alexander had not been born the son of a king and placed at the head of a world-beating army, it's clear that he would have been an exceptional person. "He cared nothing for pleasure or wealth but only for deeds of valor and glory," and he was surprisingly disciplined in most aspects of his life probably due to his pursuit of glory. He was surprisingly controlled around women (especially compared to his father who was very polygamous) - he never touched Darius's wife and daughters after he captured them (which is impressive by ancient standards) and only had one illegitimate child (once again impressive by ancient standards) - and in fact only one legitimate child. He was also "exceptionally temperate in what he ate." "When he was at leisure, his first act after rising was to sacrifice to the gods, after which he took his breakfast sitting down. The rest of the day would be spent in hunting, administering justice, planning military affairs or reading." He trained extremely diligently and was always at the forefront of the action in his battles. "Alexander made a point of risking his life in this way both to exercise himself and to inspire others to acts of courage, but his friends, because of the wealth and pomp with which they were surrounded, desired only to lead a life of luxury and idleness." "He continued to expose himself unsparingly to danger: for example, he crossed the River Orexartes, which he believed to be the Tanaïs, routed the Scythians and pursued them for 11 miles, even though all this while he was suffering from an attack of dysentery."
Alexander was a complicated character and Plutarch goes over his executions of many of his friends and associates. He vividly narrates the confrontation between Alexander and Cleitus the Black. Cleitus had saved Alexander's life at the Battle of the Granicus 6 years earlier. Based off of Plutarch's retelling of their confrontation, I don't really blame Alexander for killing Cleitus, because Cleitus kept on hurling insults at Alexander. And the problem with the insults was that they were really true - especially regarding Alexander's annoying insinuations that he was the son of Zeus Ammon and not Philip, and his adoption of Persian customs.
One interesting anecdote: "He regarded the Iliad as a handbook on the art of war and took with him on his campaigns a text annotated by Aristotle, which became known as ‘the casket copy’, and which he always kept under his pillow together with his dagger."

Eumenes - I read a lot about Eumenes in James Romm's book "Ghost on the Throne," which is basically an extended version of Plutarch's Life of Eumenes. One thing that annoys me about Ghost on the Throne, though, is that Romm always calls Eumenes "little Eumenes," and the "former secretary." That is pretty misleading. Philip II first took note of Eumenes because of his skill as a wrestler, and I doubt that Eumenes was little. Plutarch says "his whole body, with its astonishingly well-proportioned limbs, resembled a carefully composed work of art." He was a tough guy and when he started to make his appearance on the battlefield he killed people (in particular Neoptolemus, his arch-nemesis for a time whom he slew in hand-to-hand combat). I had this impression of Eumenes from Romm's book as a slight but clever former secretary, but from this Life it's clear that he was a tough and cunning general. Even under Alexander he was like that - once Alexander asked him to give him 300 talents since the royal coffers were empty, and Eumenes gave him 100 talents, saying that even that money was hard to find. So Alexander had his tent burned down to see how much gold Eumenes would have to carry out. Unfortunately the tent burned down too fast, but apparently there were 1,000 talents of gold and silver in the tent. (Also, maybe don't take management tips from Alexander). Eumenes also often quarreled with Hephaestion, Alexander's favorite. So even when he was a secretary, Eumenes was a sly guy who was not afraid of a fight.
As a general, Eumenes was extremely skilled both on the battlefield and in manipulating his soldiers in camp. I won't recount his battlefield victories, but his management of his soldiers was pretty amazing I think. Once while he was fleeing he came upon the enemy's baggage train. He realized that if he allowed his soldiers to plunder the baggage train they would be too burdened to flee. So he sent a secret message to the head of the baggage train warning him to head for high ground, thwarting his own soldiers. At other times, however, he allowed his soldiers to plunder the countryside freely to keep them happy. In order to convince the leaders of the Silver Shields to meet with him, he invented the "Alexander tent", a tent with a throne dedicated to Alexander where Alexander's ghost could preside over their meetings. When Eumenes was leading the eastern satraps, he perceived that they hated him, so he got them to lend him money - so if they ever wanted their money back, they would have to keep him safe.

Demetrius - There were a few interesting aspects of this life. One was that Demetrius was a hedonist and a womanizer. Two is that Demetrius went through a lot of very severe swings in fortune - so many that it's hard to keep track of where he was in power - at first he and Antigonus controlled most of Alexander's Asian conquests; Demetrius lost to Ptolemy, losing Syria, but later won against Ptolemy, regaining Syria. Then Seleucus took Babylon and most of the east for himself. Then Demetrius took Athens and most of Greece but then had to come back to help his father fend off an alliance of the other Successors. They were crushed in this battle and Antigonus was killed, but Demetrius was able to escape to Greece (and maybe Cyprus? Can't remember). He was able to make himself king of Macedon, and raised an immense army to invade Asia. But most of his army went over to Pyrrhus, and Demetrius fled to Asia where he fought a pitiful campaign and was ultimately captured by Seleucus, who kept him under house arrest basically. Demetrius then drank himself to death.
The third interesting aspect of the Life is that this is pretty much the point in history at which Athens loses its soul (permanently). It became a competition among the politicians of the city to see who could heap the most honors on Demetrius (while he was alive and in charge of Athens).
"They were the first people in the world to confer upon Antigonus and Demetrius the title of king." "The Athenians changed the name of the month Munychion to Demetrion, gave the name of Demetrias to the last day of the month and renamed the festival of the Dionysia the Demetria." Etc. It was sad to see Athens reduced to this state of servility.

Pyrrhus - Pyrrhus seems to have been defined by his boldness and his restlessness - he was always chasing dreams that led him to be briefly a king of Sicily and later a king of Macedon. He died in Argos after an old lady threw a tile at him and knocked him out.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
482 reviews167 followers
September 12, 2014
Plutarch's biography of Alexander is, of course, the main event of this collection of Greek lives. And what a fascinating biography it is. Nietzsche once said of Alexander that he was a Dionysus incarnate, and although it may be true that Alexander thought himself cursed by the god for his ransacking of Thebes, his life and character can be said to have embodied what Nietzsche understood to be the Dionysian mode of life. He was an utterly otherworldly being, breathtakingly indifferent to risk and adversity, and possessed of a self-assuredness and singularity of purpose more commonly found among prophets than among kings.

The myths Plutarch relates about him are fascinating, and further illuminate the meaning of the man himself. As a youth, he tamed a wild horse, Bucephalus, which may have taken him as an adult from Macedon to Pakistan. When he was preparing to invade Asia, a statue of Orpheus was said to glisten with sweat; a sign, they told him, that the bards and poets would exhaust themselves in relating the glory of his deeds. He never once flinched in the face of danger; making a harrowing crossing of the river Granicus under fire, demonstrating an almost inhuman tenacity in his long siege of Tyre, smashing Darius's army at Issus and Gaugamela, pressing on to make war on the Indians. The man was ambition personified.

Little wonder that the generals of the ancient world so often consciously sought to emulate him. Even Pompei Magnus styled himself after Alexander; Lord of Asia, ruler of land and sea.
Profile Image for Smiley .
774 reviews18 followers
June 27, 2014
I wonder if these Ten Greek Lives are similar to those in the two-volume paperbacks published by Vintage (?). I think their translated versions could be lexically different if another team of translators had to tackle such a monumental historical writing by Plutarch, however, I need time to find the paperbacks first so that I can compare each Life, one by one.

In "Life of Demetrius", a word in this sentence has surprised me: "Besides this Philippides enjoyed a good reputation, since he was no busybody and had none of the self-important habits of a courtier." (p. 413) I mean the word 'busybody'. The reason is that I first heard my Australian friend say this word during our chat in a bookstore and it seems to denote disapproving. So it is a surprise to find it in one of Plutarch's Lives. Moreover, this extract related to Plato is a good point I've found and scribbled:

In short, Seleucus was a conspicuous example of the wisdom that Plato showed when he argued that the man who wishes to be really rich should seek not to increase his possessions but to decrease his desires. For he who can never restrain his avarice will never be free from the sense of poverty and want. (p. 432)
Profile Image for David.
6 reviews2 followers
April 19, 2014
One of my favorite Roman-contemporary Greek biographers. Rich with context into each man's life, this work is, as far as my undergraduate knowledge is concerned, relatively unbiased. It also includes the life of Pelopidas, one of the leading generals of the Theban sacred band. These guys were the 'OG' 300 bad asses. 150 lovers that fought together, whooped serious city-state ass together, and died together. Even the militaristic society of Sparta was no match for them. They put Thebes on the map. But that is only one man in this collection of histories. Plutarch's content is rich, and considered by scholars a prime source for information on the lives of these men. The same can be said for his other work, The Rise and Fall of Athens.
Profile Image for Craig Williams.
425 reviews11 followers
November 2, 2017
It's really cool to me that we can get a glimpse of what life was like an ancient Greece thanks to historians like Plutarch. It was so different back then and yet the same in many ways. Unlike some ancient histories, Plutarch doesn't get bogged down with unnecessary details, and even offers his own opinion of the events which he describes. That being said, one naturally questions the validity of Plutarch's interpretation of history and how much of served as propaganda for the time.

My favorite story of Dion, who served as an advisor for a brutal tyrant named Dionysius. After the tyrant's death, Dion made an effort to groom his successor, who shared the same namesake as his father, to be a more benign ruler. However, Dionysius II was not only stupid, due to his education being neglected, he was also a man who lived for pleasure and partying. He was also very susceptible to manipulation by his friends, who were afraid that Dion's influence would eventually make Dionysius relinquish his throne, which would ruin their own sweet setup. So basically you have this tug-o-war between Dion, who simply wants to make Dionysius as a better human being, even going so far as recruiting Plato to help tutor the young king, and Dionysius's leech friends who just wanted to protect their prestige. Dion was eventually forced to leave for his life after Dionysius II decided that all of this "being a good person" talk was just a ploy to take away his power.

What an interesting story this is, right? We didn't learn about this in our history classes! This book is full of neat little stories like this if you can wade through the confusing haze of military campaigns that punctuate these histories. Man, people fought wars constantly at this point in time. It's treated more like a sporting event than an actual war of consequences. Anyway, as a history buff, I was very satisfied with this read.
Profile Image for Pausonious.
45 reviews3 followers
January 5, 2017
Allows his own personal biases (mainly against Democracy, which you can tell he despises by the many opportunities he takes to shit all over it and the things that come with it when he can) to seep into the work often, which only gives the Lives more flavour and makes it entertaining to read. Rather than simply recording the events that took place, Plutarch focuses moreso on the personalities of the characters in his Lives, thus leaving out much information that he probably supposed the reader to have a general knowledge about anyway at the time. He doesn't allow the reader to form their own opinions on the people whose lives he is recording, instead giving his own opinions on them and their actions and leaving no ambiguity - which makes sense when you consider that it was written as an address to an individual he was seeking to instruct with the example of the Lives rather than writing a purely historical narrative.
His inclusion of people like Artaxerxes, Demetrius and Pyrrhus who he was able to find constant fault with and used particulars of their Lives as examples of things a person should not emulate (IE. Artaxerxes' despotism [general contempt for orientalism here though]; Demetrius' arrogance, puffed up by the Athenians, vainglory and debauchery; Pyrrhus' insatiable ambition, shared by Demetrius also to a large degree), was refreshing after the long list of people he heaped praise on, but was also able to find fault with as well (such as Demosthenes' greed, Dion's unapproachability/arrogance, Pelopidas' constant self-exposure to danger, etc.).

A worthy classic.
Profile Image for Derek.
222 reviews13 followers
October 1, 2021
While I typically don't enjoy history that's centered upon "great men," especially from a conservative Roman historian, I have to admit that Plutarch could paint a lively picture of the societies and the battles in which these men lived and died. I have all of the Penguin editions of the Roman Lives that I plan on digging into later. But first I want to go back and read some more books about ancient Iraq, the Near East, and Egypt.
Profile Image for Kate.
7 reviews60 followers
January 10, 2021
We are lucky to have this wonderful glimpse into the past. These books remind me of how little, yet how greatly people have changed.
Profile Image for Kenneth Lund.
112 reviews
January 16, 2023
The more Greco-Roman history I read, the more I appreciate how readable and enjoyable Plutarch's biographies are.
40 reviews
July 15, 2022
The original work was intended to compare characters from the Greek and Roman worlds. Hence called 'Parallel Lives'. I found Plutarch an avid writer with insight. And I found this translation easy to read.
In his book, Plutarch introduces both good and bad examples of leadership. Plutarch's writing style is not just iterating history, it is crafted to expose the personality of those characters and learn from their leadership style. Although Demetrius and Pyrrhus, we presented as villains, a reader can still learn from their mistakes.
Alexander's life seems to be the longest in these parallel lives. I noticed Plutacrh emphasis on Alexander's education and philosophy. Alexander's leadership was characterised by generosity, risk-taking and role modelling to his troops.
Profile Image for Coyle.
665 reviews52 followers
February 6, 2010
Great edition of Plutarch, covering nine lives from 444BC-272BC. The translation is readable and flows well (not always the case in ancient documents) and really captures Plutarch's delight in his subject. I think the two best lives were Dion and Timoleon, the two liberators of Syracuse. They clearly portray Plutarch's idea of the good life, which is his goal in writing at all. As he says:
The famous ode... which celebrates Alcibiades' victory in the chariot race at Olympia tells us that the first necessity for a happy life is to be born a native of a famous city. But in my opinion if a man is to enjoy true happiness, this will depend most of all upon his character and disposition, and consequently it will make no difference if he happens to belong to an obscure and humble city, any more than a small town.... virtue... like a tough and hardy plant, will take root and flourish in any place where it can lay hold upon a noble nature and a persevering spirit. In the same way, if we fall below the standards which we ought to attain in thought and action, we must not blame the insignificance of our native city, but rather our own shortcomings. (From the life of Demosthenes)
All this shows that Plutarch, like most philosophical minds of his time, was engaged in the quest for virtue, and had come to the realization that such a life must begin within the human soul. He articulates a question that can't be answered until Christianity arrives fully on the scene, but at least Plutarch has a clear understanding of the problem of happiness and human vice.
Profile Image for Masen Production.
131 reviews2 followers
October 17, 2013
“Plutarch, historian who lived 2 centuries back and has left behind legacies that is a treat to read. Even then in this book he narrates the stories of men who lived 600-300 years before him. In those days he has done extensive research over his subjects and introduces their behaviors and qualities which other historians tend to portray with their judgments. Here Plutarch is trying to draw parllels with various characters of past and with those from his times. Towards the end of Alexzander's campaign as he is turning back post the Porus affair he has a interesting dialogue between the bhramanas (learned sages) and himself. This has been included in this book too. I do not see many Indians have read this version to the campaign. In all once again Plutarch has managed to take me back 2 millennia to his era and I have relieved the times through him. Do read if ancient Greece has any appeal to you...”
Currently reading
May 31, 2015
In the beginning of the story the author tells about his parents and Alexander's great abilities and talents that were revealed pretty early in his life. Then the author tells us about Alexander taking his fathers place after his assassination. Although he was young he did an amazing job of not only ruling Macedonia but ruling other empires also.
I feel that all of the story is historically correct because it is pretty much am biography of his while life, it talks about his father and mother. It also talks about how his father was assassinated and how he took his spot, and went on to take over the Persian empire.
I really like this book and feel that it would be a good read for everyone else. I like it because it was all historically accurate and I really like the story of Alexander the Great, and how he took control of the army and took control of very many other empires and it shows that he is truly dominant.
Profile Image for Nate.
517 reviews
February 29, 2016
9 grecian lives that roughly fit into the hellenistic time period - lives are laid out chronlogically from roughly the aftermath of the peloponnesian war to just before the first punic war where rome is starting to ramp up its power and influence over the region. covers one of the last spartan kings, a theban general, two of the people involved with the liberation of sycacuse, two athenian orators, alexander himself, and two generals fighting over the scraps of alexander's empire, and will serve as a nice segueway into the next plutarch that i plan to read, which will be penguin's fall of the roman republic. as always, lots of fascinating detail and great stories that often read better than fictionalized accounts
Profile Image for Hachado.
37 reviews1 follower
March 19, 2017
Plutarch combines history, philosophy and literature all together in his fascinating portraits of some of the greatest figures of classical antiquity not exactly the most objective or rigorous by modern historical standards but he never claims to be, admitting he is not interested in knowledge for knowledges sake alone but seeks to paint a picture of the character of each of his subjects and through it ourselves and the world we live in. All done in a vivid and engaging style written by a man of considerable literary talent and knowledge.
Profile Image for Roz Milner.
394 reviews26 followers
December 1, 2012
Another good edition of Plutarch by Penguin, this time covering Demosthenes, Phocion, Agesilaus, Pelepidas, Dion, Timoleon, Demetrius, Pyrrhus and of course, Alexander the Great. While I would've appreciated more of Plutarch's connections being translated - he wrote these lives in pairs with Roman lives and included an essay comparing the two lives - I also recognize why Penguin went this route.

Recommended for ancient history buffs, especially those with an interest in Alexander.
519 reviews3 followers
December 4, 2008
The lives covered in this volume, apart obviously from Alexander himself, are: Demosthenes, Phocion, Agesilaus, Pelepidas, Dion, Timoleon, Demetrius and Pyrrhus.

Plutarch's translator has done a good job of rendering this work in English and the style is easy to follow. The lives are, naturally, fascinating.
Profile Image for Brittany.
265 reviews9 followers
August 2, 2011
Actually not a primary source, but a secondary source. A common misconception, but Plutarch was not contemporary to anyone he wrote about in this group of essays.

Still, an interesting and engaging read.
Profile Image for Nathanial.
236 reviews42 followers
July 2, 2016
Montaigne's favorite. A biographer who professes his primary interest in psychology, not history.

Funny 'cuz he writes in the first century a.d. and refers to the Athenian Greeks as "the ancients."
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