Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch

Lives of the Noble Greeks
Plutarch, edited by Edmund Fuller
Written/Published 2nd century/1517
Well-Educated Mind (Histories)

At the start of "Alexander," Plutarch told his readers "he is not writing histories, but lives." 
I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men . . .
I said I would read five Greek lives but instead read four because "Alexander the Great" was understandably lengthy. With that, I also read "Theseus," "Solon," and "Pericles." 


Adriadne Giving Thread to Theseus by Palagi

"Theseus" was my favorite because I was already familiar with his story. He was the famous Greek who saved the Athenians from the Minotaur and the founder of Athens:
Now, after the death of his father Aegeus, forming in his mind a great and wonderful design, he gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica into one town, and made them one people one city . . . and gave the name of Athens to the whole state . . .
He also founded a democracy, or "people's government, in which he should only be continued as their commander in war and the protector of their laws, all things else being equally distributed among them."

Aristotle says, "Theseus was the first who, out of an inclination to popular government, parted with the regal power."

Unfortunately, he was accused of dubious behavior as well, and he ended up in prison for a while. Sometime after his release he died a gruesome death, but even how that happened it is not certain. In the end, future Athenians honored him as a demigod.


Solon was one of Greece's essential statesmen because he contributed to many of the successful reforms, laying the foundation for a democratic government. He preferred justice to wealth, and sought to eliminate the monopoly of the powerfully rich in society. He established a set of laws for men to live by.  His friend, Anacharsis, "laughed at him for imagining the dishonesty and covetousness of his countrymen could be restrained by written laws, which were like spider's webs, and would catch . . . the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and the rich."
To this Salon rejoined that men keep their promises when neither side can get anything by the breaking of them; and he would so fit his laws to the citizens, that all should understand it was more eligible to be just than to break the laws. 
Solon removed most of the severe Draco laws, and laid the foundation for more compassionate and reasonable punishment for lawbreakers.

And one more tidbit: he wrote poetry.


Another great statesmen with whom Athens had a love/hate relationship, Pericles was greatly admired for his upright character and superior intelligence. He found favor with the poor, especially for his ideas about redistribution of wealth. (Of course.)

When his political opposition, Thucydides, was set against him, he kicked it up a notch:
And so Pericles . . . let loose the reins to the people, and made his policy subservient to their pleasure, contriving and continually to have some great public show or solemnity, some banquet, or some procession or other in the town to please them, coaxing his countrymen like children with such delights and pleasures as were not, however, unedifying. 
I mean, you have to do something during an election year.

However, the opposition became so threatening that Pericles became more aristocratic, influencing and encouraging his countrymen in the best interest of the country instead of being a passive leader.

Pericles also led the Athenians through the ambitious war against Sparta, in which he was a firm and strategic general (or admiral), but he made mistakes. The Athenians were frustrated, and deposed him. But before long, they pitied him and took him back, though by then he was near death.

Of Pericles, Plutarch remarks,
To me it appears that this one thing gives that otherwise childish and arrogant title a fitting and becoming significance; so dispassionate a temper, a life so pure and unblemished, in the height of power and place, might well be called Olympian, in accordance with our conceptions of the divine being, to whom, as the natural authors of all good and of nothing evil, we ascribe the rule and government of the world. 

Alexander the Great by Rembrandt
You all know the stories of Alexander, right? Because of Plutarch we know the stories of Alexander's father, Philip of Macedonia, Alexander's youth and superior education under Aristotle, and the unruly horse with the odd name that Alexander conquered, to which his father delightfully squealed,
O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.
After Philip was murdered, Alexander, who was only 20, immediately came to power. And so went on for pages and pages and pages of his amazing adventures, from Egypt to Persia, especially his long conflict with Darius and then Cyrus, his issues with Cleopatra, his personal conduct, and his mysterious death. I leave that to you reader to see it for yourself. Alexander's life is quite impressive.

But I must mention the funniest moment when Alexander met Diogenes, the philosopher, who was not impressed with the young Macedonian leader. Alexander asked if there was anything Diogenes wanted to say to him, and the philosopher quipped, "Yes, I would have you stand from between me and sun." After Alexander and his friends had a good laugh at the nonchalant reply, Alexander told them "if he were not Alexander, he would choose to be Diogenes."

Roman Lives
Plutarch, ed. by Robin Waterfield
Written/Published 2nd Century/1517
Well-Educated Mind (Histories)

My next book continued Plutarch's Lives, of great Roman men. I decided only to read two: "Caesar" and "Antony."


The Death of Julius Caesar by Camuccini
Immediately, Plutarch informs the reader that Julius Caesar, a little Roman statesman turned general, is under threat of death by his enemies and always on the run or in hiding. Nonetheless, he was popular because of his representation of the people. He was a great orator who provoked emotions. In other words, Rome knew he was popular, though they could not get rid of him no matter how they tried.

Meanwhile, as long as he stayed away from Rome - always on campaign throughout Europe and Northern Africa - he was spitefully tolerated, especially because he was always victorious, which was a benefit to Rome.

At his final triumphal campaign against Pompey's sons, Rome finally
bowed their heads before Caesar's good fortune and accepted the bridle. Since autocracy was . . . a pleasant change after civil war and turmoil they proclaimed [Caesar] dictator for life. But when permanence is added to the unaccountability of autocracy, tyranny is the result, and this is now what Caesar had, with the acquiesce of the Romans.
If you look up the word ambition in the dictionary, you'll see Julius Caesar's portrait. He is the absolute example of drive, determination, prideful lust and idolatry. He probably never slept, always thinking of ways to glorify his great mind. He had plans and he was never satisfied even after he accomplished his zealous goals. He was meticulous about his ideas, but who cares if they are only done with him in mind.

His desire to anoint himself king of Rome finally turned the people against him; while the Senate quietly plotted to stop him. And you all know that fateful day that Caesar was murdered. His ambitions brought him to nothing except the fame of his name (like Little Caesar's Pizza and Orange Julius Caesar drink); and so the little Roman Republic transformed into 500 years of an oppressive overreaching Roman Empire.


Marc Antony Gives Funeral Speech of Caesar
If Julius Caesar was ambitious, Marc Antony was a reckless fool. He was thrown out of his home for his poor choices and bad influences, and it was no surprise that he continued making poor choices and following after bad influences long after he found himself in the seat of the Roman government and right up to his death. 

It was his charming personality that attracted him to Julius Caesar, but it was not long before Caesar discovered what a mess Antony was: a lazy, drunken, womanizing, extravagant fool.

Antony had nothing to do with Caesar's murder, and he even aroused the crowd at the funeral, calling out the murderers; that is how he developed a following of Caesar's supporters and began acting like a dictator. However, there was the problem with Caesar's nephew, Octavius, who expected to be Caesar's successor, which would lead to years of conflict between the two sides. For a while the two men and one more man formed the triumvirate, the government of Rome.  

But the worst thing that ever happened to Antony, if not his own hedonism, was Cleopatra of Egypt. By that time, Antony was a successful military leader winning fame and power for Rome; but fooling around with Cleopatra was the end of him.  

It is a little more complicated than this, but it was Octavia, Antony's second wife, that really brought this conflict to an end. Cleopatra felt threatened by Octavia, so she plotted in order to secure Antony's power, which he relinquished to her, in turn causing Octavius Caesar to declare war on Cleopatra (and Antony). 

Plutarch referred to Antony as Cleopatra's "appendage." He shamefully abandoned his soldiers to be with Cleopatra. Later his last remaining men abandoned him and joined forces with Octavius Caesar, who also tried to get Cleopatra to have Antony assassinated. Antony felt betrayed by Cleopatra, and she hid herself from him in her tomb. She sent a messenger to Antony to tell him she was dead. Unfortunately, he could not even successfully kill himself with his own dagger. When Cleopatra found out he was injured, she had him brought to her, where he pathetically died in her presence.  

Plutarch finishes Antony's life with the death of Cleopatra and the results of all the children involved. Poor kids.


Even though it took me months to read the few lives I read, I just wanted to be done; but I do want to go back someday and read the remaining Greek and Roman lives that I skipped. Plutarch writes about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it is fascinating.


  1. Outstanding post. I have not read Plutarch but I really want to. I will likely give at least one of these a try soon. I find Marc Antony such an intriguing character. I might start with that one.

    1. Brian, there are intriguing parts of Antony's character, but I could not look away from his recklessness, and neither did Plutarch. Antony played right into the trap of Cleopatra.

  2. Well, now that you've read 4, you just have to read 4 more, and so-on and so-on ...... ;-) I started this but I'm still on the first story. My reading has gone all awry! Yipes! In any case, it's good to be reminded that I need to pick it up again. Enjoyed your review!

    1. Thanks. I had to admit, they were intriguing (some more than others). Plus I want to read the others, but I want to move on, too. I only read three history books from TWEM this year. That's awful.