Wednesday, February 6, 2019


Chrysanthos S. Chrysanthou, Plutarch's 'Parallel Lives': Narrative Technique and Moral Judgement. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 57. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. 238. ISBN 9783110574722. €79,95.

Reviewed by Lucy Fletcher, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site


The present volume is a lightly revised version of the author's 2016 Oxford DPhil thesis; it begins with a summary of the work of Christopher Pelling, Philip Stadter and Timothy Duff on moralism in Plutarch's Parallel Lives. This is a fitting beginning to the book whose stated aim bears quoting in full, "Building upon and verifying further recent research on the challenging and exploratory, rather than affirmative, moral impact that the Lives are designed to have on their readers, this book seeks to describe and analyse the range of narrative techniques that Plutarch employs to draw his readers into the process of moral evaluation and expose them to the complexities and difficulties involved in making moral judgements." (pg. 3-4) The references to moral evaluation as a process which involves the reader and exposes the difficulties of moral evaluation further summarise the arguments of Duff, Stadter and Pelling. In fact, the reference to Plutarch's moralism as 'exploratory and challenging, rather than affirmative' is essentially a quotation of the central thesis of Duff's 1999 monograph Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice (Oxford) as Duff summarises it on page 9. This book, then, is aimed at readers already familiar with the work of the key figures in the debate around Plutarch's moralism in the Parallel Lives , and their works remain the starting points for anyone interested in this issue.

It is most fruitful to discuss the contribution of this volume according to its individual chapters. The value of the book does not lie in offering a new argument about Plutarchan narrative or moralism; rather, its value lies in the analysis of individual narrative techniques and in verifying earlier approaches to Plutarchan moralism.

The volume is divided into six chapters which are organised broadly around what Chrysanthou considers the 'basic parts' (pg. 7) of the Plutarchan book. The table of contents may be viewed here.

Chapter One is an introduction to the book. It lays out the scope of the volume and explains how the methodology is informed by modern theoretical approaches to narrative and reader response. This discussion here might have been more detailed and critical, and the author's preferences (e.g. for the approach of Genette on Narrative Time) explained. The Introduction ends by discussing two passages from Plutarch's Solon to illustrate the approach of the volume. This gives a good indication of the method of work in this book which is centred around analysis of individual passages rather than whole Lives or books.

Chapter Two focuses on Plutarch's projection of his own self and that of his readers, including his strategies for establishing authority and engaging his readers. Chrysanthou notes that the projection of the narratorial self is most apparent in the prologues, as has been argued previously by Pelling1 and Duff2, and the second chapter begins by analysing some of Plutarch's prologues. The prologues chosen for analysis are: Demosthenes–Cicero, Alexander–Caesar, Theseus-Romulus, Cimon–Lucullus, Aemilius Paulus–Timoleon, and Pericles-Fabius Maximus. These largely overlap with those analysed previously by Duff and Pelling.3 Chrysanthou continues in Chapter Two to consider how the narrator's self-projection in the prologues to Demosthenes–Cicero, Cimon–Lucullus and Pericles–Fabius Maximus functions within the moralising agenda of the books which they open. With regard to Demosthenes–Cicero, for instance, Chrysanthou (pp. 27-29) takes up Pelling's idea4 that Plutarch's remarks in the prologue (at 2.2-3.1) concerning his own character and methodology amount to self-praise; then, later in the chapter (pp. 43-50), he argues that the Plutarchan narrator's self-praise in the prologue links with a key moral theme of the Dem.–Cic. book: that of praise. He suggests that the narrator's self-projection in the prologue functions as a paradigm of inoffensive and appropriate self-praise by which to evaluate Demosthenes and Cicero with regard to this ethical issue. The arrangement of the material in this chapter, whereby narratorial self-projection in the prologue is examined separately from the analysis of how the same topic functions in the remainder of the book is a little infelicitous for the appreciation of the argument.

Chapter Two concludes by arguing for the potential for what Chrysanthou calls 'internal minds' (i.e. the perspectives of characters in the story) and 'external minds' (i.e. the perspectives of narrator and reader) to intertwine within Plutarch's narrative. Chrysanthou suggests that at times the narrative deliberately creates ambiguity about the extent to which perspectives in the text are those of the narrator or of characters within the story. Three examples (from Caesar 56.7-9, Demetrius 19.4-10, and Lucullus 38.5) are discussed to demonstrate the potential for this 'blurring' of perspectives. In all cases, a γάρ clause suggests the narrator's explanation, but in the contexts it is plausible also to see in the discussion the views of the characters in the text; this is something previously argued by Duff in discussing Antony 63.5 In Chrysanthou's analysis of Demetrius 19.4-10 (pg. 61) the example of Demetr. 19.5 seems more clearly a potential blurring of inner and outer perspectives than that at 19.10 where Plutarch says that Demetrius' father treated his son's failings leniently because he was efficient otherwise 'for the Scythians, in the midst of their drinking and carousing, twang their bowstrings…'. As Chrysanthou notes, it is unlikely that the in-text character would have thought in these specific metaphorical terms. Chrysanthou suggests, though, that the narrator's use of the present tense in his metaphor blurs the perspectives of narrator, readers and characters since its durative sense allows that the metaphor would be meaningful to all these groups. This does not seem an especially helpful way to understand the passage, however. The specificity of the metaphor seems most appropriately attributable to one 'mind' (that of the narrator) and the issue of whether or not the metaphor would have been meaningful also to characters in the story is not very pertinent to the issue of whose perspective (or 'mind' in Chrysanthou's terms) this reflects.

Chapter Three, 'Emotion, Perception, and Cognition: The Individual and Society', argues that the insights into perception, emotion and cognition which Plutarch provides function to re-enact characters' experience and generate empathy on the part of the reader. This is very similar to the argument of Duff6 but discussed by Chrysanthou at greater length. The chapter has two parts. In the first, Chrysanthou looks at characters' internal dialogues, influenced by Christopher Gill's concept of 'the self in dialogue'.7 The second part looks at the individual within the perspective of the community, examining particularly the responses of in-text characters to the biographical subject as a method of shaping the moral response of the reader; this verifies the earlier arguments of Pelling and Duff.8

The initial examples given to illustrate 'selves in dialogue' are Dion 33.4-5 and Cicero 19.7-20.1. Chrysanthou suggests potential for the 'blurring' of perspectives for which he argued in Chapter Two in these examples. He suggests that what we see in such passages is more than the character's 'self in dialogue' but an amalgamation also of the external perspective of the narrator. For Chrysanthou, this gives to such passages greater immediacy. The concept of 'immediacy' here could usefully have been further elaborated, however, as it would be possible to see the immediacy of this moment as in fact lessened by the introduction of the external narratorial perspective.

Chapter Four concerns Plutarch's tendency to avoid an overall moral conclusion in the closing chapters of his biographies and looks at Plutarch's closural devices. Chrysanthou's discussion reinforces existing work rather than offering a new approach. The section on 'Perplexing anecdotal endings' focuses on the endings of Alcibiades and Lysander which are both examples previously discussed by Duff to illustrate this very phenomenon.9 Section 4.2, which is about looking beyond the subject's life at the end of a biography, takes as its examples Theseus and Lycurgus. This section adds further weight to the original discussion of this topic by Pelling,10 who mentions these examples but does not discuss them at length; Pelling does, however, discuss endings in the Theseus–Romulus in some detail in a separate article.11 Section 4.3 on 'Closural Allusiveness' considers, among others, the endings of Nikias and Crassus and their references to Euripides. Chrysanthou perceptively draws attention to the further mention of Euripides' poetry in the Synkrisis 4.3 which he claims functions 'to problematise moral judgement' (pg. 120),12 but the passage from the Synkrisis is, unfortunately, not quoted or discussed to demonstrate how it problematises moral judgement. The discussion of tragic elements in the ending of the Demetrius misses a reference to Duff.13

Chapter Five looks at the concluding synkriseis and considers the ways in which Plutarch exposes readers to the challenges of making overarching moral judgements. That the synkriseis have this effect is the argument of Duff.14 In section 5.4, Chrysanthou analyses the endings of those Lives which fall second in their respective books and which are not followed by a concluding Synkrisis: Marius, Cato Minor, Camillus and Caesar. From his analysis here (pp.153-157) and earlier (pp.114-116 and 123-127) Chrysanthou argues, following Duff,15 that there is nothing in these endings to suggest that a concluding Synkrisis was deliberately omitted. Chrysanthou's analysis of these endings adds significant weight to Duff's earlier suggestion that although, as Pelling argued 16, these endings have closural features which might explain the lack of a concluding Synkrisis, these endings are not so very different from those of other Lives which are followed by a concluding Synkrisis.

In Chapter Six Chrysanthou suggests that many of the techniques which Plutarch presents in De Herodoti Malignitate as evidence of the κακοήθεια of Herodotus are found also in Plutarch's Lives. Chrysanthou argues that the presence of these techniques in Plutarch's biographies is not evidence of the narrator's malicious character because they function within the moralising programme of the Lives to encourage the reader's autonomous thinking. According to Chrysanthou, Plutarch's narrator does not intend to persuade his readers to follow judgements which might, prima facie, be taken as malicious according to the arguments of De Herodoti Malignitate; on the contrary, Chrysanthou argues, he invites them to think for themselves.

Chapter Six ends by arguing that the De Herodoti Malignitate invites a re-engagement with Herodotus' historia through which readers should not simply accept Plutarch's criticisms but reflect upon them so as better to understand Herodotus' narrative. The De Herodoti Malignitate belongs to a different genre than the Parallel Lives and there is no reason a priori to suppose the same techniques always function in the same way across different texts. Chrysanthou's argument, therefore, requires a more detailed exposition to show how the treatise works to elicit the sort of reader response he suggests here. It is, however, an interesting suggestion.


1.   Pelling, C. B. R. (2002), 'You for Me and Me for You: Narrator and Narratee in Plutarch's Lives' in idem Plutarch and History (London): 267-282.
2.   Duff, T. E. (2011), 'Plutarch's Lives and the Critical Reader' in Roskam and Van der Stockt (eds.) Virtues for the People: Aspects of Plutarch's Ethics (Leuven): 59-82.
3.   Duff, T. E. (1999), Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice (Oxford), pp.13-42; Pelling, C. B. R. (2002), 'You for Me and Me for You', esp. pp. 271-273.
4.   Pelling, C. B. R. (2002), 'You for Me and Me for You', pp. 271-272.
5.   Duff, T. E. (2011), 'Plutarch's Lives and the Critical Reader', pg. 70; for γάρ as introducing a narratorial perspective and the use of verbal aspect to mark internal and external perspectives see also Duff, T. E. (2015) 'Aspect and subordination in Plutarchan narrative.' in Ash, Mossman and Titchener (eds.), Fame and Infamy: essays for Christopher Pelling on characterization in Greek and Roman biography and historiography. Oxford: 129-148.
6.   Duff, T. E. (2011) 'Plutarch's Lives and the Critical Reader', pp. 68-72.
7.   Gill, C. (1996), Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (Oxford).
8.   Pelling, C. B. R. (1988) (ed.), Plutarch: Life of Antony (Cambridge), pg. 40; Duff, T. E. (1999) Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice, pg. 55 and 120.
9.   Duff, T. E. (1999), Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice, esp. pp. 239-40 and 182-4.
10.   Pelling, C. B. R. (1997), 'Is Death the End? Closure in Plutarch's Lives' in Roberts, Dunn and Fowler (eds.) Classical Closure: Endings in Ancient Literature (Princeton) 228-250.
11.   Pelling, C. B. R. (2002), ''Making Myth Look Like History': Plutarch's Theseus–Romulus', in idem Plutarch and History: 171-195.
12.   The term 'problematise' in the context of problematising moral judgement is Timothy Duff's e.g. (1999) Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice, pg. 203 and 267 on the Synkrieis (and throughout, e.g. 10, 55, 71,161).
13.   Duff, T. E. (2004), 'Plato, Tragedy, the Ideal Reader and Plutarch's Demetrios and Antony', Hermes 132: 271-291.
14.   Duff, T. E. (1999), Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice, esp. 243-286; and discussed also in Duff (2011), 'Plutarch's Lives and the Critical Reader'.
15.   Duff, T. E. (2011), 'The Structure of the Plutarchan Book', Classical Antiquity 30.2: 213-278, pg. 258-259.
16.   Pelling, C. B. R. (1997) 'Is Death the End?', pp. 244–50.

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