Plutarch's best-known work is the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives, a series of 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. Some consider these to be more of an insight into human nature than a pure historical account. The surviving Parallel Lives (Greek: Β?οι Παρ?λληλοι, Bíoi Parálleloi) comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman of similar destiny, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes and Cicero, as well as four unpaired single lives. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.
As is explained in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history so much as the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of men. Whereas sometimes he barely touched on epoch-making events, he devoted much space to charming anecdote and incidental triviality, reasoning that this often said far more for his subjects than even their most famous accomplishments. He sought to provide rounded portraits, likening his craft to that of a painter; indeed, he went to tremendous lengths (often leading to tenuous comparisons) to draw parallels between physical appearance and moral character. In many ways, he must be counted amongst the earliest moral philosophers.
Some of the Lives, such as those of Heracles, Philip II of Macedon, Epaminondas, Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus and possibly Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus no longer exist; many of the remaining Lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae or have been tampered with by later writers. Extant Lives include those on Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Agesilaus II, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Demosthenes, Pelopidas, Philopoemen, Timoleon, Dion of Syracuse, Eumenes, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Coriolanus, Theseus, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Sulla, Sertorius, Lucullus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Cato the Elder, Mark Antony, and Marcus Junius Brutus.
Plutarch's Lives were translated into English, from Amyot's version, by Sir Thomas North in 1579. The complete Moralia was first translated into English from the original Greek by Philemon Holland in 1603.
In 1683, John Dryden began a life of Plutarch and oversaw a translation of the Lives by several hands and based on the original Greek. This translation has been reworked and revised several times, most recently in the 19th century by the English poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough (first published in 1859). One contemporary publisher of this version is Modern Library. Another is Encyclopædia Britannica in association with the University of Chicago, ISBN 0-85229-163-9, 1952, LCCN 55-10323.
In 1770, English brothers John and William Langhorne published "Plutarch's Lives from the original Greek, with notes critical and historical, and a new life of Plutarch" in 6 volumes and dedicated to Lord Folkestone. Their translation was re-edited by Archdeacon Wrangham in the year 1819.
From 1901 to 1912, an American classicist, Bernadotte Perrin, produced a new translation of the Lives for the Loeb Classical Library. The Moralia is also included in the Loeb series, translated by various authors.
Penguin Classics began a series of translations by various scholars in 1958 with The Fall of the Roman Republic, which contained six Lives and was translated by Rex Warner. Penguin continues to revise the volumes.
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