Friday, November 11, 2011


Noreen Humble (ed.), Plutarch's Lives: Parallelism and Purpose. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2010. Pp. xxii, 282. ISBN 9781905125418. $100.00.

Reviewed by Michael Nerdahl, Bowdoin College (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Most modern readers of translations of Plutarch's Lives are likely to be unaware of the importance of parallelism to his biographical purpose. English collections do not publish the Lives as parallels, but instead contain of Greco-Roman Lives that tend to be organized by a historical era. Such collections fail to show the utility of reading Plutarch's Lives as they were originally published—as paired biographies. Humble's collection demonstrates that the contemporary scholar cannot adequately examine the purpose of even a single Life of Plutarch's biographies without engaging with the vital role of parallelism.

The work is a collection of papers originally presented at a conference in Cork in 2005. The editor states that those invited were "told only that parallelism is the theme" (xi). The individual authors have taken advantage of this rather broad request and generated a wide variety of essays on parallelism in Plutarch's Lives ranging from discussions of one biography to discussions of them all. The compilation is elegantly organized. Three complementary pairs of essays on specific types of parallelism in the Lives start the collection, then a single essay is concerned with the unpaired Artaxerxes, and three expansive discussions illustrate the theme of Plutarch's parallelism more broadly. The book concludes with an essay on the publications of the Lives in translations of the Italian Humanists that serves as a fine coda to the compilation.

The first two essays discuss the formal, comparative epilogues, or syncriseis, that cap most pairs of Lives. Jeffrey Tatum tackles these comparisons as a whole, noting how scholars have traditionally found them perturbing, distracting, and rife with inconsistencies. He shows how these formal syncriseis are part of a conventional, rhetorical game that compels judgment; he also argues that Plutarch's process of employing parallels is essentially a Roman approach, and suggests a cultural competitiveness between Greek and Roman that would lose some of its potency without these formal epilogues.

Whereas Tatum looks at the epilogues more generally, Simon Verdegem undertakes a detailed examination of one formal syncrisis, the problematic comparison of Coriolanus and Alcibiades. He reasonably explains that the content of this epilogue diverges from that of the preceding pair because the themes critical to those biographies (such as paideia) are irrelevant to the specific, rhetorical thesis of private versus public virtue that Plutarch develops in the formal comparison of Coriolanus and Alcibiades. Though not all the differences in content are explained, Verdegem does successfully highlight correlations in theme and structure within this pair of biographies that encourage readings of other epilogues whose syncriseis may provide a more adequate feeling of closure.

The next two essays focus on syncrisis located not within the epilogues, but the actual biographies, in the manner long encouraged by Erbse and Stadter.1 Timothy Duff first examines the structure of Plutarch's Themistocles-Camillus, adding deeper analysis to the foundation laid by Larmour's earlier treatment of the pair.2 Duff illustrates many complex comparisons between the two men as well as their home cities, comparisons that comment on the nature of power in both Athens and Rome. Most critically, he highlights Plutarch's method of characterizing each city within this pair. In particular, he shows how Camillus' Rome, despite the dictator's constant success at reestablishing harmony, exhibits an intrinsic tendency for internal strife. Though the Roman "undoubtedly displays more 'civic' virtues than Themistocles" (68), the deficiencies displayed by Rome are particularly ominous.

Where Duff illustrates the depth of Plutarch's use of parallelism, John Dillon applies a broader, more topical treatment to another pair, the Dion-Brutus. In his essay, a slightly different version of one previously published,3 Dillon examines Dion and Brutus as Platonists who are ill-matched to their respective historical contexts, especially in their failure to become successful philosopher-kings. His treatment, which illustrates a successful use of Plutarchan parallelism, provides a useful starting point for readers of the Dion-Brutus pair.

The first essay of the next complementary "pair" of essays demonstrates an approach to Plutarchan parallelism that crosses multiple Roman Lives. Jeffrey Beneker argues that the Life of Sertorius portrays a banished general who exhibits a unique characteristic. Namely, he changes as a result of fortune from a typically ambitious and war-mongering Roman to a man who seeks peace. Unlike most other Romans, Plutarch's Sertorius has had his fill of glory, yet is not allowed a quiet retirement in Spain. Beneker shows how this portrait of Sertorius has a particularly poignant resonance with Plutarch's characterization of Caesar and other late Republican figures in his other Lives.

As if in answer, John Marincola's corresponding essay examines a type of parallelism across Greek Lives, namely how Plutarch depicts Hellas in the Athenian biographies that cover the conflict with the Persians. Analyzing Plutarch's descriptions of the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and the Eurymedon, Marincola demonstrates how Plutarch employs a "diachronic similarity" (139) across the relevant Athenian biographies. Though he does not classify this type of parallelism as a formal method of syncrisis, he shows that the biographies of Themistocles, Aristides, and Cimon contain notable thematic similarities. In particular, they collectively over-state the involvement of these Athenian heroes of the Persian Wars (particularly Aristides' contribution) and glorify the effects of pan-Hellenic cooperation that Plutarch considered so beneficial to Classical Greece.

The seventh essay, unlike the previous three "pairs", thematically stands alone, as Judith Mossman treats Plutarch's unpaired biography of Araxerxes II. Mossman, after discussing and ultimately dismissing the likelihood that Plutarch had intended to publish a series of Greco-Barbarian parallel Lives, explores the relationship of Artaxerxes to the rest of the Lives in order to explain why it stands without a parallel. She is particularly successful in showing how this biography exhibits similarities to and differences from the rest of Plutarchan biography. Like his paired Lives, the Artaxerxes contains internal syncriseis and character integration, but differs primarily in depicting a singular character who is constrained by his barbaric nature and by the Persian court. The latter presents special difficulties for any attempt at establishing Greek-Persian parallelism. As such the Artaxerxes stands not as a Life, but as a spectacle that discourages similar biographies: one Persian is enough.

From examination of a single Life the compilation moves to more wide-ranging discussions of Plutarchan parallelism. Alexei Zadorojnyi looks at a metaphor that is quite central to the Lives, the mirror, to which Plutarch famously refers in a statement commonly considered programmatic (at Aemilius 1.1). Zadorojnyi first details the dense literary history of the mirror as a metaphor, especially among philosophers who consider it as both a useful and dangerous tool for encouraging self-examination. Plutarch's reader, in using the Lives in the manner of a moral mirror, must be cautious in deriving lessons from "reflections" of his statesmen—much as philosophers must be aware of the potential superficialities and misrepresentations that arise when employing mirror imagery. Zadorojnyi concludes his investigation with references to Plutarch's dialogue On the Face of the Moon, which illustrate Plutarch's awareness of how complexly his Lives may serve as a "(meta)textual mirror" (184). Zadorojnyi's reading means that Plutarch's Lives can be simultaneously reflective of three (or more!) images, an implication that suggests a correspondingly broad context for comparative evaluation of his heroes.

Recalling Zadorojnyi's essay in imagery as well as content, Philip Stadter's "Parallels in Three Dimensions" contains arguments for a more expansive application of parallelism. Notably, he makes a case for intertextual readings that go beyond Plutarch's formal pairings, suggesting that a larger vision of his compositional method emerges from reading several pairs of Lives in relation to each other, particularly the late Republican biographies that Pelling contends had been prepared simultaneously.4 But where Pelling examines the connections among the Romans, Stadter extends analysis of thematic connections to their Greek parallels. Stadter argues that the full implications of many Lives are not completely revealed without examination of a more comprehensive set that includes six pairs, including Alexander-Caesar, Agesilaus-Pompey, Nicias-Crassus, Dion- Brutus, Phocion-Cato Minor, and Demetrius-Antony. He highlights numerous cross-references among these twelve biographies, and illustrates how many of these Lives include references to Alexander and routinely incorporate the themes of conquest, politics, kingship, and tragedy. Stadter concludes by wondering whether four additional pairs of Parallel Lives might also belong to this inter-connected group. Though one might question whether Stadter has gone too far—if one finds inter-connections among twelve or twenty Lives, why not all of them?—the essay leaves the reader wondering how conclusive any interpretation of a single Life can be that does not take into account Stadter's more comprehensive view.

In the penultimate essay Christopher Pelling examines the possibility that Plutarch intended the Lives to be a global history presented through a filter of leading individuals. Like Stadter, Pelling stresses the importance of reading the Lives as part of a larger series, but also emphasizes how Plutarch characterizes nations and cities, particularly Rome, as his biographical project expands. Ultimately, Pelling argues that Plutarch did not write the Lives as a "global" history, as there are many gaps, and history is too complicated and full of variable perspectives for one Life to cover a given time period sufficiently. Rather, the themes of history are subordinate to Plutarch's concern for understanding (and thereby judging) his individual heroes. Pelling concludes by stressing Plutarch's recognition of the importance of context: Caesar is successful for his era, Cato the Younger is not; only by reading the entirety of the Lives (or at least as many as possible!) does the analysis of the relationships of different virtues to their times bear the most fruit.

The collection concludes with Humble's illustration of how the Parallel Lives came to be split from paired works to individual biographies among the Italian-based Humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, chosen because they "show the greatest and most sustained interest in the Lives" (238). In this informative essay accompanied by an appendix containing a helpful chart of translators, dedicatees, works, and dates, Humble presents the history of the translations of the Lives into Latin among the Humanists. She shows how patronage and moral instruction were the prevailing factors in the choice of translation, and demonstrates, often through the translators' own letters, the Humanists' steadily decreasing concern for parallelism. By tracing these publications of Plutarch's Lives, Humble clearly portrays a process that illustrates similarities to, and differences from, our own modern preference for publishing Plutarch's biographies with little concern for parallelism.

The work contains very few typographical errors, and is well-produced. Though I would not recommend this compilation as an introduction to Plutarchan parallelism and syncrisis—for that I insist on Duff's study5— the editor has done a wonderful job of organizing papers for the collection, and the authors must be collectively congratulated for the diversity and success of their efforts in addressing Plutarchan parallelism. The essays are all highly relevant and provocative, while offering fresh insights into fundamental issues in Plutarchan studies.

Table of Contents

1. Why Parallel Lives? - W. Jeffrey Tatum (1-22)
2. Parallels and contrasts: Plutarch's Comparison of Coriolanus and Alcibiades - Simon Verdegem (23- 44)
3. Plutarch's Themistocles and Camillus - Timothy E. Duff (45-86)
4. Dion and Brutus: philosopher kings adrift in a hostile world - John Dillon (87-102)
5. Asêmotatos or autokratôr? Obscurity and glory in Plutarch's Sertorius - Jeffrey Beneker (103-119)
6. Plutarch, 'parallelism' and the Persian-War Lives - John Marincola (121-144)
7. A life unparalleled: Artaxerxes - Judith Mossman (145-168)
8. The rhetoric and philosophy of Plutarch's mirrors - Alexei V. Zadorojnyi (169-195)
9. Parallels in three dimensions - Philip A. Stadter (197-216)
10. 'Plutarch's tale of two cities: do the Parallel Lives combine as global histories?' - Christopher Pelling (217-235)
11. Parallelism and the Humanists - Noreen Humble (237-265)


1.   Erbse, H., "Die Bedeutung Der Synkrisis in Den Parallelbiographien Plutarchs." Hermes 84 (1956): 398-424; Stadter, P. "Plutarch's Comparison of Pericles and Fabius Maximus," GRBS 16 (1975): 77-85.
2.   Larmour, D.H.J., (1992) "Making Parallels: Synkrisis and Plutarch's 'Themistocles and Camillus." ANRW II.33.6: 4154-4200.
3.   In A.G. Nikolaidis, ed., Unity in Plutarch's Works. "Moralia" Themes in the "Lives," Features of the "Lives" in the "Moralia". Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2008: 351-64. (Reviewed at BMCR 2010.05.54).
4.   Most recently published in C. Pelling, Plutarch and History. Oxford, 2002: 1-44.
5.   Duff, T., Plutarch's Lives: Virtue and Vice. Oxford, 1999.

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