Many people who listen to the Cost of Glory podcast tell me that I have inspired them to read some or all of Plutarch’s lives.  And they often ask me for my recommendations on editions to get, and how to make it through the collection. So, here’s a post to help you if you’re considering this project.

If you have thoughts, share them, and I can update this post accordingly.

Why would you want to this?

In terms of word count, Plutarch’s Lives is about half the length of the entire Bible. 

It’s a comparable effort, too. It’s the “key text” for understanding an entire culture, mindset, religion, and philosophical way of life.

Plutarch’s Lives, word for word, is the most efficient and comprehensive introduction to the ancient Greek and Roman world, its greatest ideas and achievements, and its most famous personalities.

What do you want to know about?  Mythic origins?  Greco-Persian wars? Athens vs. Sparta? Alexander’s conquests? Rome’s capture of Greece? War with Hannibal? The Fall of the Roman Republic?  The Rise of the Roman Empire?

Plutarch has you covered for all these, and he details nearly every key personality involved.  As a bonus, you get lengthy anecdotes about intellectual figures who directly impacted history, like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, Archimedes, many famous Stoics, and more. 

If you’re going to read one single book on antiquity, Plutarch’s Lives is a great way to go.

But the Lives is also a great place to start before taking on more challenging ancient texts, for example historians and political theorists like Thucydides, Aristotle, Polybius, Sallust, Cicero.

Plutarch is very entertaining, and has been a favorite of leaders, creators, and entrepreneurs for centuries.  These include: Most of the American Founding Fathers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harry Truman, Ludwig van Beethoven, Michel de Montaigne, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and others.  They really gush sometimes. Popular contemporary writers like Stephen Pressfield, Robert Greene, and Ryan Holiday repeatedly trawl through Plutarch’s biographies as a source text.  If there’s anyone who says anything interesting about antiquity, Plutarch is likely to sit well-worn on their bookshelf.

Let’s not even start on all the famous masterpieces of art and sculpture that were inspired by Plutarch…

“Why Read Plutarch” deserves its own post.  Hereafter, I’ll assume you’re already sold.

What Order to Read

Each life takes up around 30-50 pages in a modern book.  At 48 (+1, see below), you can comfortably get through them all in a year, and still take couple of weeks off.

First, I’ll cover two reading strategies I recommend, and then talk about the right editions to get, which depends on your reading strategy.

There are 48 surving biographies in the Parallel Lives collection.  Originally there were 50, but one pair was lost (Epaminondas and Scipio Africanus).  They were written in Greek / Roman pairs (like Alexander the Great + Caesar, or Demosthenes + Cicero).  

There are also 4 other Plutarch biographies that are worth reading, but were not written in parallel Greek / Roman pairs: Aratus, Artaxerxes, Galba, Otho. Of these, Aratus, an impressive Greek leader from the third century B.C. is the one that most resembles the other biographies (he’s the +1). 

We’ll focus on the 48 paired lives, which you should prioritize.  We’ll ignore the many assorted essays in Plutarch’s other collection, the Moralia, which are also great, but the Lives are greater and more widely read.

Strategy 1: Reading in Pairs

This is how Plutarch intended his readers to read the Lives.  He wrote them in pairs, so that his readers could compare a great Greek and a great Roman.  Plutarch skipped around chronologically in composing the Lives, so you can too.

**With either method, you should try to read his very short essays comparing the two men.  Some are lost, but the majority survive.**

Advantage: You focus on the moral purpose of the Lives, examine the character of two great figures at a time.  This gives you an opportunity to compare your own virtues and vices, and compare the cultures of Greece and Rome.

Disadvantage: If you are not familiar with the period, this may be more confusing. You may lose the historical thread, forget names and contexts as you jump back and forth through hundreds of years of history with every new biography.

See the full list of the pairs of lives at the very end of this post.

Strategy 2: The Chunking Method

This is the strategy I would recommend to people approaching the classical world for the first time: reading by rough chronological groups, or chunks.

Take these groups as stand alone.  I recommend focusing on one group at a time, but you can skip around within the group.  You could read the groups in chronological order, but don’t feel like you have to.  Let yourself be guided by your interests.

There is some overlap between the groups.  Also, I have indicated other classical works which make nice pairings with these biographies (e.g. “->Homer, Iliad“).  These are not meant to be exhaustive.

Note the date ranges.  You’ll find that all of Greek and Roman history up until 31 B.C. (the sole reign of Augustus) is covered.

The Chunks

(Call them blocks if “chunks” makes you nauseous)

GREECE

(semi-) Mythic Origins, founders: Greece (1200 – 550 BC)

  • Theseus
  • Lycurgus
  • Solon

Pairings

  • ->Hesiod, Theogony, Works and Days
  • ->Homer, Iliad, Odyssey

Early Athens / Persian Wars (550 – 450 BC)

  • Solon
  • Themistocles
  • Aristides
  • Cimon

Pairings

  • ->Herodotus, Histories

Golden Age Athens/Peloponnesian War (450 – 395 BC)

  • Pericles
  • Nicias
  • Alcibiades
  • Lysander

Pairings

  • ->Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
  • ->Sophocles, Tragedies
  • ->Aristophanes, Comedies
  • ->Xenophon, Hellenica

The 4th century Decline of Athens and Sparta, Internecine Strife (404 – 318 BC)

  • Lysander
  • Agesilaus
  • Pelopidas
  • Dion
  • Timoleon
  • Demosthenes
  • Phocion
  • *Artaxerxes (a mediocre King of Persia who lived in interesting times)

Pairings

  • ->Xenophon, Hellenica, Anabasis
  • ->Plato, Republic
  • ->Isocrates, Panegyricus
  • ->Demosthenes, On the Crown
  • ->Aristotle, Politics

Alexander the Great and his Age (350 – 272 BC)

  • Demosthenes
  • Alexander
  • Eumenes
  • Phocion
  • Demetrius
  • Pyrrhus

Pairings

  • ->Arrian, Anabasis

Greece on the Eve of Rome (271 – 183 BC)

  • *Aratus of Sicyon
  • Agis and Cleomenes
  • Philopoemen

Pairings

  • ->Polybius, Histories

(semi-) Mythic Origins, founders: Rome (800 – 500 BC)

  • Romulus
  • Numa
  • Valerius (“Publicola”)

Pairings

  • ->Virgil, Aeneid
  • ->Livy, [Early] History of Rome

Early Roman Republic (550 – 365 BC)

  • Valerius (“Publicola”)
  • Coriolanus
  • Camillus

Pairings

  • ->Livy, History of Rome

“Roman Glory Days” Hannibal, Greek Conquests (280 – 149 BC)

  • Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus
  • Marcellus
  • Flamininus
  • Aemilius Paulus
  • Cato the Elder

Pairings

  • ->Polybius, Histories
  • ->Livy, History of Rome

Roman Troubles, The First Civil War (149 – 72 BC)

  • Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
  • Marius
  • Sulla
  • Sertorius

Pairings

  • ->Sallust, War with Jugurtha

Fall of the Roman Republic (72 – 31 BC)

  • Pompey
  • Lucullus
  • Crassus
  • Cicero
  • Cato the Younger
  • Julius Caesar
  • Brutus
  • Mark Antony

Pairings

  • ->Caesar, Gallic War, Civil War
  • ->Cicero, Speeches, Political Writings,
  • ->Lucan, Civil War
  • ->Horace, Poems
  • ->Virgil, Georgics

*Aratus and *Artaxerxes: not “Parallel” (see above).  Not included on here: Otho and Galba, which can be read along with Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Tacitus’ Histories

Editions

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Modern Library Full Set

If you want to read the Lives in pairs, get yourself an edition that prints the pairs next to each other.  For a single (two volume) comprehensive edition, Modern Library is good.  The translation is the one supervised by the great poet Dryden, so it’s high, antiquated English, which is often charming and funny, occasionally challenging.  But it’s worth the effort.

Dryden coined the English word “Biography” with this edition:

Penguin Editions

For the “chunking” method, the Penguins are good: very readable, with helpful notes, etc.  The older ones don’t contain the Comparison essays (on which, see below), but the newer ones do. (I’ve noted where):

Penguin, Rise and Fall of Athens, Contains:

  • Theseus
  • Solon
  • Themistocles
  • Aristides
  • Cimon
  • Pericles
  • Nicias
  • Alcibiades
  • Lysander

Penguin, Plutarch on Sparta, Contains:

  • Lycurgus
  • Agesilaus
  • Agis
  • Cleomenes

**Also contains :

  • Plutarch, Saying of Spartans
  • Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women
  • Xenophon, Constitution of Sparta

Penguin, Age of Alexander, Contains:

  • Agesilaus
  • Pelopidas
  • Dion
  • Timoleon
  • Demosthenes
  • Phocion
  • Alexander
  • Demetrius
  • Pyrrhus

Penguin, Rise of Rome, contains:

  • Romulus
  • Numa
  • Publicola
  • Coriolanus
  • Camillus
  • Fabius Maximus
  • Marcellus
  • Aratus of Sicyon
  • Philopoemen
  • Flamininus
  • Cato the Elder
  • Aemilius Paulus
  • *Contains Comparisons

Penguin, Rome in Crisis Contains:

  • Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
  • Sertorius
  • Lucullus
  • Cato the Younger
  • Brutus
  • Mark Antony
  • Galba and Otho
  • *Contains comparisons

Penguin, Fall of the Roman Republic Contains:

  • Marius
  • Sulla
  • Crassus
  • Pompey
  • Caesar
  • Cicero
  • *Contains Comparisons

Penguin, Makers of Rome Contains:

  • Coriolanus
  • Fabius Maximus
  • Marcellus
  • Cato the Elder
  • Tiberius Gracchus
  • Gaius Gracchus
  • Sertorius
  • Brutus
  • Mark Antony

Other good candidates include the Oxford World’s Classics translations, and the little green hardback Loeb editions, which have the facing Greek text and a readable and accurate English translation.

You can find all the lives, and the comparison essays, free online – based on the Loeb translation (by Perrin, which is public domain) here, at Lacus Curtius, hosted by U Chicago.

The Pairs

Here they are:

Greek – Roman

  • Theseus – Romulus
  • Lycurgus – Numa Pompilius
  • Themistocles – Camillus
  • Solon – Publicola
  • Pericles – Fabius Maximus
  • Alcibiades – Coriolanus
  • Phocion – Cato the Younger
  • Agis – Tiberius Gracchus
  • Cleomenes – Gaius Gracchus
  • Timoleon – Aemilius Paullus
  • Eumenes – Sertorius
  • Aristides – Cato the Elder
  • Pelopidas – Marcellus
  • Lysander – Sulla
  • Pyrrhus – Marius
  • Philopoemen – Titus Flamininus
  • Nicias – Crassus
  • Cimon – Lucullus
  • Dion – Brutus
  • Agesilaus – Pompey
  • Alexander – Julius Caesar
  • Demosthenes – Cicero
  • Demetrius – Mark Antony