Our Penguin Classic this time around is actually four separate volumes, spread out over almost twenty years, which, when assembled, constitute only a portion of the work they translate – a work which is itself incomplete.

That doesn’t sound very auspicious, but in reality the four volumes that comprise the Penguin Classics version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are thoroughly delightful, in that intensely idiosyncratic way that typifies many of the best Penguins in our parade.

The trouble here starts with Plutarch himself. This first-century historian and essayist – a sought-after lecturer and the most famous man of letters of his day (prolific too – his section in any good bookshop would usually cover half a wall) – was born in Greece around A.D. 45 and spent most of his life there, writing and teaching and gaining enough renown so that when he eventually travelled to Rome, his fame preceded him. We’re not certain why he went there or how long he stayed, but he was apparently popular and well-respected by the mucky-mucks of Trajan’s Rome. When he died, around 120, he left behind many fans (including the emperor Hadrian) and a vast body of work.

That body of work is the problem – specifically, the fact that the success of the earliest volumes of his biographies of famous Greeks and Romans prompted him to keep writing such works, until the final tally was gigantic. Plutarch pairs one famous Greek with one famous Roman – often on the most specious grounds – writes a usually vivid, impressionistic account of their lives, and then (again, usually) writes a separate essay comparing the two. There are twenty-three pairs and four stand-alones, and no matter how you slice it, it’s a huge work – and a correspondingly huge undertaking for any translator who wants to do the whole thing.

In the English-speaking realm of scholarship, the translator’s name most often associated with Plutarch is of course Dryden. In 1683, Dryden took on the massive headache of overseeing an entirely new, complete translation of Plutarch from the Greek. Dryden had always been a man who talked much of how over-committed he was, how little time he had to do anything – and scholars throughout the intervening centuries have commented on the evident haste they say mars much of what he wrote (I respectfully disagree – although not always at his most accurate, he was almost always at his best when working at full-gallop, usually with the printer’s boy impatiently waiting in the doorway). In this case he was far more involved in the work than is generally credited, often going over rough pages late into the night (not so much to correct translating errors – nearly all of the poor drudges doing the translating knew their Greek better than he did – as to try to impose a uniformity of sweet English, a subject he knew better than any man alive and few who’ve ever lived).

The result was a great big thumper of a book, one that instantly displaced every previous English version (including the 1579 one – translated from a French translation – by Thomas North, which is something of a shame, since it’s really remarkably good English in its own right … Shakespeare was far from the only one to be mesmerized by it) and for centuries remained, for good or ill, the standard English Plutarch.

Standards can still become dated, however, and that happened to Dryden. In 1859, the fifth-rate English poet Arthur Clough published his epic revision of the work, which is the version of both Dryden and Plutarch that most readers are likely to encounter if they encounter any at all. Clough’s poetry might not be anything to cry from the rooftops, but he turned out to be a damn good reviser – especially considering it was nothing he’d ever intended to do (credit for the idea that a marketable book might be made by fixing the “creakings” of Dryden goes to a Boston bookseller who broke the concept through Clough’s thick skull during the poet’s stay in Cambridge). His revised Dryden comes closer than anything else in English had to being the impassioned one-man-show Plutarch’s original is.

When Penguin Classics (remember them?)(hee) decided to enter this torturous textual history, they made a tried and true editorial decision – to chop the block into more user-friendly pieces. Rex Warner’s 1958 volume The Fall of the Roman Republic contains just six lives – Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar – with no parallel lives, no comparative essays, and none of the slight fustiness of Clough or the remaining “creakings” of Dryden; here was a blast of fresh translation, concentrating on some of the most famous, most pivotal Roman lives in history.  In his Introduction, Warner is indulgent of his great original:

He is a moralist and (as Shakespeare was to recognize) a dramatic artist. He accepts rather uncritically the Roman aristocratic tradition and applauds the intellectual and indeed disastrous moralizing of Cato or of Brutus. Yet in his presentation of the characters themselves he goes some way towards amending some of his more facile judgements. He is a fair man and cannot help showing, for instance, that Sulla was even more of a monster than Marius, that Cato was a bit of a prig, that Caesar, though disreputable in some ways, was, alone of the dynasts of his time, merciful to his enemies.

Warner’s volume was followed in 1960 by the first of Ian Scott-Kilvert’s efforts, The Rise and Fall of Athens, which features nine of the most important of Plutarch’s Greek lives: Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Nicias, Lysander, Alcibiades, and Pericles. Scott-Kilvert’s next volume, The Makers of Rome, came out in 1965 and featured the remainder of the important Roman lives: Fabius Maximus, Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, Sertorius, Marcellus, Cato the Elder, Coriolanus, Brutus, and Mark Antony. These two volumes run the same Introduction by Scott-Kilvert, and it contains one of the sweetest tributes to Plutarch I know:

… it is just this boundless interest in the individual character which has given the Lives their enduring popularity from age to age. Plutarch has an unerring sense of the drama of men in great situations. His eye ranges over a wider field of action than any of the classical historians. He surveys men’s conduct in war, in council, in love, in the use of money – always in Greek eyes a vital test of a man’s capacities – in religion, in the family, and he judges as a man of wide tolerance and ripe experience. Believing implicitly in the stature of his heroes, he has a genius for making greatness stand out in small actions. We think of Alexander handing his physician the paper denouncing him as an assassin, and in the same gesture drinking off the physic the man had prepared for him, or of Antony sending Enobarbus’s treasure after him; these and countless other scenes Plutarch has engraved upon the memory of posterity for all time. It was surely this power of his to epitomize the moral grandeur of the ancient world which appealed most strongly to Shakespeare and Montaigne, which inspired the gigantic outlines of such typically Renaissance heroes as Coriolanus and Mark Antony, and which later prompted Mme Roland’s remark that the Lives are the pasturage of great souls.

Scott-Kilvert’s final Plutarch volume for Penguin Classics, The Age of Alexander, also shares a version of this Introduction, although eight of the lives it features, Pelopidas, Agesilaus, Timoleon, Dion, Phocion, Demetrius, Pyrrhus, Demosthenes, are naturally overshadowed by the ninth, that of Alexander the Great.

All four of these volumes (Penguin also did versions of Plutarch’s Moralia and his writings on Sparta) sport sprightly notes, glossaries, maps, chronologies – all the appurtenances it never would have occurred to Dryden to provide in so helpful a manner. The four books – at least in their original mass market paperback format – are handy enough so you can carry the heart and pith of an English Plutarch with you anywhere, be it the train from Boston to New York or a slow packet plying the Indian Ocean. In freeing Plutarch from his own organizing schema, they perform an inestimable service to the many thousands of readers who might not otherwise have known him. And readers should know him. On the front page of my copy of The Rise and Fall of Athens, some previous owner had written, “Plutarch offers hope.” This is very simply true. That alone makes him indispensable.

Now what I wouldn’t give for Penguin Classics to publish a solid black-spined brick of the whole of the Parallel Lives! A new translation (with every last word included), new notes, new maps – new everything, a perfect shelf-companion to some of their very best other massive volumes: The Shorter Pepys, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, the Pope Iliad, or last year’s epic Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Plutarch has deserved such a volume for two thousand years; I dream that someday Penguin will get around to it, while there’s still anybody around to enjoy it.

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