"Lives" (a.k.a The Lives of the Great Greeks & Romans or Parallel Lives) is a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs to facilitate the comparison their common characteristics. The first century AD author, Plutarch, states that his goal in writing is primarily to compare the influence of character on the lives and destinies of their respective cultural and political worlds. Indeed he does devote much of his writing to interesting anecdotes and incidental trivial happenings while quickly skimming over some of the more historical accomplishments. I believe Plutarch is assuming the the readers are familiar with the roles these individuals played in major historical events, but what he's providing are the lesser known stories.
Nevertheless, this book does read mostly as a series of historical biographies, and the comparisons of the lives don't seem all that significant to a modern reader. It's interesting to speculate as to what his motivations were in writing a book structured in this manner. Plutarch was a native of Greece, but was also a Roman citizen. I suspect he was striving to enhance the memories of historical characters from his own native Greece whose political power had been eclipsed by the Roman Empire. By comparing their stories and actions with those of the current world power he was reminding the readers of his day of the past glories of ancient Greece, and he was making the case that they deserved to be compared with the glories of Rome.
The individual stories are easy to read. However, the book as a whole is a difficult read. This book isn't the longest book I've ever read (1500 pages, commonly published in two volumes) but it sure seemed like it. There are a total of 50 biographies varying in length from 20 to 50 pages, the comparisons are between individuals separated in time by hundreds of years, and the biographies are not necessarily discussed in chronological order. After a while it becomes difficult for the reader to keep the various stories straight. It's sort of like reading a really long collection of short stories. I read the book over a summer for a book group that met three times to discuss the book, a third at a time. That helped keep the stories in context, but I sure feel sorry for the reader who reads from beginning to end without this assistance. I found the timeline at THIS LINK
to be helpful. (This link hasn't work for a couple days. Here's a SECOND LINK
to the web page that has a link to it.)
The following is a summary of some of my observations from this book:
1. The greater the accomplishment of an individual, the greater the hatred and jealousy of their opponents.
2. There was a reoccurring tendency for wealth to accumulate into the hands of fewer and fewer rich people.
3. Steps taken to more evenly redistribute wealth was almost never accomplished through peaceful means.
4. The most loved and admired politicians were those who live modestly in their personal lives.
5. Support of fellow citizens was fickle. (I understand now why Plato concluded democracy was not the best form of government -- "democracy, which is not a government at all but, as Plato says, a market-place."
The swings in public sentiment as described in this book were extreme and sudden. Any ancient Greek who hadn't suffered banishment at sometime during their life could not be considered a prominent citizen.)
6. Augury and auspices were considered of great importance to ancient Greeks and Romans. (These appear silly to 21st century readers, but I'll bet that readers of American history 2,000 years from now will likewise find the role that religion plays in politics today as being rather strange.)
7. War seemed to be a constant state of affairs. (I suspect that a close study of the ratio of years of peace to years of war might reveal that the 20th century is about the same as for ancient Greece and Rome.)
After spending this summer reading Plutarch, I sense some familiarity with what I perceive his personality to be. He impresses me as the sort of person who was probably a good, happy and long winded conversationalist -- the sort of person who would say, "That reminds me of a story ..." He often discusses the sources for his stories, and sometimes he admits that certain stories are probably not true. But he proceeds to tell the story anyway because it's such a good story. There a couple of stories where he indicates that they are first hand accounts told to him by his grandfather. He obviously had to do a lot of reading and research to write book, and this was in the days of scrolls and hand written manuscripts. It is my understanding that Plutarch's writing is the sole source for some of the facts that we know about ancient Greece and Rome since many of his sources no longer exist.
I find it of personal interest to note that Plutarch was writing during the same time period when many of the books of the New Testament were also being written. Even though he is writing about morals and ethics, he gives no indication that he's heard of the new upstart religion of Christianity. If he did know about them I'm sure he considered them to be an insignificant group.