Parallel Lives by Plutarch
Little is known of the life of Plutarch, greatest of biographers.
He was born about 50 A.D., at Chæronea, in Botia,
Greece, the son of a learned and virtuous father. He studied
philosophy under Ammonius at Delphi, and on his return to his
native city became a priest of Apollo, and archon, or chief
magistrate. Plutarch wrote many philosophical works, which
are enumerated by his son Lamprias, but are no longer extant.
We have about fifty biographies, which are called "parallel"
because of the method by which Plutarch, after giving separately
the lives of two or more people, proceeds to compare them
with one another. The "Lives" were translated into French
in Henry II.'s reign, and into English in the time of Elizabeth.
They have been exceedingly popular at every period, and many
authors, including Shakespeare, have owed much to them. Plutarch
died about 120 A.D.
I.—Lycurgus and Numa
According to the best authors, Lycurgus, the law-giver,
reigned only for eight months as king of Sparta,
until the widow of the late king, his brother, had given
birth to a son, whom he named Charilaus. He then
travelled for some years in Crete, Asia, and possibly also
in Egypt, Libya, Spain, and India, studying governments
and manners; and returning to Sparta, he set himself to
alter the whole constitution of that kingdom, with the encouragement
of the oracles and the favour of Charilaus.
The first institution was a senate of twenty-eight members,
whose place it was to strengthen the throne when
the people encroached too far, and to support the people
when the king should attempt to become absolute. Occasional
popular assemblies, in the open air, were to be
called, not to propose any subject of debate, but only to
ratify or reject the proposals of the senate and the two
His second political enterprise was a new division of
the lands, for he found a prodigious inequality, wealth
being centred in the hands of a few; and by this reform
Laconia became like an estate newly divided among many
brothers. Each plot of land was sufficient to maintain a
family in health, and they wanted nothing more.
Then, desiring also to equalise property in movable
objects, he resorted to the device of doing away with gold
and silver currency, and establishing an iron coinage, of
which great bulk and weight went to but little value. He
excluded all unprofitable and superfluous arts; and the
Spartans soon had no means of purchasing foreign
wares, nor did any merchant ship unlade in their harbours.
Luxury died away of itself, and the workmanship
of their necessary and useful furniture rose to great
Public tables were now established, where all must eat
in common of the same frugal meal; whereby hardiness
and health of body and mutual benevolence of mind were
alike promoted. There were about fifteen to a table, to
which each contributed in provisions or in money; the
conversation was liberal and well-informed, and salted
with pleasant raillery.
Lycurgus left no law in writing; he depended on principles
pervading the customs of the people; and he reduced
the whole business of legislation into the bringing
up of the young. And in this matter he began truly at
the beginning, by regulating marriages. The man unmarried
after the prescribed age was prosecuted and
disgraced; and the father of four children was immune
Lycurgus considered the children as the property of
the state rather than of the parents, and derided the
vanity of other nations, who studied to have horses of
the finest breed, yet had their children begotten by ordinary
persons rather than by the best and healthiest men.
At birth, the children were carried to be examined by
the oldest men in council, who had the weaklings thrown
away into a cavern, and gave orders for the education of
As for learning, they had just what was necessary
and no more, their education being directed chiefly to
making them obedient, laborious, and warlike. They
went barefoot, and for the most part naked. They were
trained to steal with astuteness, to suffer pain and hunger,
and to express themselves without an unnecessary
word. Dignified poetry and music were encouraged. To
the end of his life, the Spartan was kept ever in mind
that he was born, not for himself, but for his country;
the city was like one great camp, where each had his
stated allowance and his stated public charge.
Let us turn now to Numa Pompilius, the great law-giver
of the Romans. A Sabine of illustrious virtue and
great simplicity of life, he was elected to be king after
the interregnum which followed on the disappearance of
Romulus. He had spent much time in solitary wanderings
in the sacred groves and other retired places; and
there, it is reported, the goddess Egeria communicated
to him a happiness and knowledge more than mortal.
Numa was in his fortieth year, and was not easily persuaded
to undertake the Roman kingdom. But his disinclination
was overcome, and he was received with loud
acclamations as the most pious of men and most beloved
of the gods. His first act was to discharge the body-guard
provided for him, and to appoint a priest for the cult of
Romulus. But his great task was to soften the Romans,
as iron is softened by fire, and to bring them from a violent
and warlike disposition to a juster and more gentle
temper. For Rome was composed at first of most hardy
and resolute men, inveterate warriors.
To reduce this people to mildness and peace, he called
in the assistance of religion. By sacrifices, solemn
dances, and processions, wherein he himself officiated,
he mixed the charms of festal pleasure with holy ritual.
He founded the hierarchy of priests, the vestal virgins,
and several other sacred orders; and passed most of his
time in performing some religious function or in conversing
with the priests on some divine subject. And by
all this discipline the people became so tractable, and were
so impressed with Numa's power, that they would believe
the most fabulous tales, and thought nothing impossible
which he undertook. Numa further introduced agriculture,
and fostered it as an incentive to peace; he distributed
the citizens of Rome into guilds, or companies,
according to their several arts and trades; he reformed
the calendar, and did many other services to his people.
Comparing, now, Lycurgus and Numa, we find that
their resemblances are obvious—their wisdom, piety,
talent for government, and their deriving their laws from
a divine source. Of their distinctions, the chief is that
Numa accepted, but Lycurgus relinquished, a crown;
and as it was an honour to the former to attain royal
dignity by his justice, so it was an honour to the latter
to prefer justice to that dignity. Again, Lycurgus tuned
up the strings of Sparta, which he found relaxed with
luxury, to a keener pitch; Numa, on the contrary, softened
the high and harsh tone of Rome. Both were equally
studious to lead their people to sobriety, but Lycurgus
was more attached to fortitude and Numa to justice.
Though Numa put an end to the gain of rapine, he
made no provision against the accumulation of great
fortunes, nor against poverty, which then began to
spread within the city. He ought rather to have watched
against these dangers, for they gave birth to the many
troubles that befell the Roman state.
II.—Aristides and Cato
Aristides had a close friendship with Clisthenes, who
established popular government in Athens after the expulsion
of the tyrants; yet he had at the same time a
great veneration for Lycurgus of Sparta, whom he regarded
as supreme among law-givers; and this led him to
be a supporter of aristocracy, in which he was always
opposed by Themistocles, the democrat. The latter was
insinuating, daring, artful, and impetuous, but Aristides
was solid and steady, inflexibly just, and incapable of
flattery or deceit.
Neither elated by honour nor disheartened by ill success,
Aristides became deeply founded in the estimation
of the best citizens. He was appointed public treasurer,
and showed up the peculations of Themistocles and of
others who had preceded him. When the fleet of Darius
was at Marathon, with a view to subjugating Greece,
Miltiades and Aristides were the Greek generals, who by
custom were to command by turns, day about; and
Aristides freely gave up his command to the other, to
promote unity of discipline, and to give example of military
obedience. The next year he became archon.
Though a poor man and a commoner, Aristides won the
royal and divine title of "the Just." At first loved and
respected for his surname "the Just," Aristides came to
be envied and dreaded for so extraordinary an honour,
and the citizens assembled from all the towns in Attica
and banished him by ostracism, cloaking their envy of his
character under the pretence of guarding against tyranny.
Three years later they reversed this decree, fearing lest
Aristides should join the cause of Xerxes. They little
knew the man; even before his recall he had been inciting
the Greeks to defend their liberty.
In the great battle of Platæa, Aristides was in command
of the Athenians; Pausanias, commander-in-chief
of all the confederates, joined him there with the Spartans.
The opposing Persian army covered an immense
area. In the engagements which took place the Greeks
behaved with the utmost firmness, and at last stormed
the Persian camp, with a prodigious slaughter of the
enemy. When, later, Aristides was entrusted with the
task of assessing the cities of the allies for a tax towards
the war, and was thus clothed with an authority which
made him master of Greece, though he set out poor he
returned yet poorer, having arranged the burden with
equal justice and humanity. In fact, he esteemed his
poverty no less a glory than all the laurels he had won.
The Roman counterpart of Aristides was Cato; which
name he received for his wisdom, for Romans call wise
men Catos. Marcus Cato, the censor, came of an obscure
family, yet his father and grandfather were excellent
soldiers. He lived on an estate which his father left him
near the Sabine country. With red hair and grey eyes,
his appearance was such, says an epigram, as to scare
the spirits of the departed. Inured to labour and temperance,
he had the sound constitution of one brought up
in camps; and he had practised eloquence as a necessary
instrument for one who would mix with affairs. While
still a lad he had fought in so many battles that his breast
was covered with scars; and all who spoke with him
noted a gravity of behaviour and a dignity of sentiment
such as to fit him for high responsibilities.
A powerful nobleman, Valerius Flaccus, whose estate
was near Cato's home, heard his servants praise their
neighbour's laborious life. He sent for Cato, and,
charmed with his sweet temper and ready wit, persuaded
him to go to Rome and apply himself to political affairs.
His rise was rapid; he became tribune of the soldiers,
then quæstor, and at last was the colleague of Valerius
both as consul and as censor.
Cato's eloquence brought him the epithet of the Roman
Demosthenes, but he was even more celebrated for his
manner of living. Few were willing to imitate him in
the ancient custom of tilling the ground with his own
hands, in eating a dinner prepared without fire, and a
spare, frugal supper; few thought it more honourable
not to want superfluities than to possess them. By reason
of its vast dominions, the commonwealth had lost
its pristine purity and integrity; the citizens were frightened
at labour and enervated by pleasure. But Cato
never wore a costly garment nor partook of an elaborate
meal; even when consul he drank the same wine as his
servants. He thought nothing cheap that is superfluous.
Some called him mean and narrow, others thought that
he was setting an object-lesson to the growing luxury of
the age. For my part, I think that his custom of using
his servants like beasts of burden, and of turning them off
or selling them when grown old, was the mark of an ungenerous
spirit, which thinks that the sole tie between
man and man is interest or necessity. For my own part,
I would not sell even an old ox that had laboured for me.
However that may be, his temperance was wonderful.
When governor of Sardinia, where his predecessors had
put the province to great expense, he did not even use a
carriage, but walked from town to town with one attendant.
He was inexorable in everything that concerned
public justice. He proved himself a brave general in
the field; and when he became censor, which was the
highest dignity of the republic, he waged an uncompromising
campaign against luxury, by means of an almost
prohibitive tax on the expenditure of ostentatious superfluity.
His style in speaking was at once humorous,
familiar, and forcible, and many of his wise and pregnant
sayings are remembered.
When we compare Aristides and Cato, we are at once
struck by many resemblances; and examining the several
parts of their lives distinctly, as we examine a poem
or a picture, we find that they both rose to great honour
without the help of family connections, and merely by
their own virtue and abilities. Both of them were
equally victorious in war; but in politics Aristides was less
successful, being banished by the faction of Themistocles;
while Cato, though his antagonists were the most powerful
men in Rome, kept his footing to the end like a skilled wrestler.
Again, Cato was no less attentive to the management
of his domestic affairs than he was to affairs of state,
and not only increased his own fortune, but became a
guide to others in finance and in agriculture. But Aristides,
by his indigence, brought disgrace upon justice
itself, as if it were the ruin and impoverishment of families;
it is even said that he left not enough for the
portions of his daughters nor for the expenses of his
own funeral. So Cato's family produced prætors and
consuls to the fourth generation; but of the descendants
of Aristides some were conjurors and paupers, and not
one of them had a sentiment worthy of his illustrious
III.—Demosthenes and Cicero
That these two great orators were originally formed
by nature in the same mould is shown by the similarity
of their dispositions. They had the same ambition, the
same love of liberty, and the same timidity in war and
danger. Their fortunes also were similar; both raised
themselves from obscure beginnings to authority and
power; both opposed kings and tyrants; both of them
were banished, then returned with honour, were forced
to fly again, and were taken by their enemies; and with
both of them expired the liberties of their countries.
Demosthenes, while a weakly child of seven years,
lost his father, and his fortune was dissipated by unworthy
guardians. But his ambition was fired in early
years by hearing the pleadings of the orator Callistratus,
and by noting the honours which attended success in that
profession. He at once applied himself to the practice of
declamation, and studied rhetoric under Isæus; and as
soon as he came of age he appeared at the Bar in the
prosecution of his guardians for their embezzlements.
Though successful in this claim, Demosthenes had much
to learn, and his earlier speeches provoked the amusement
of his audience. His manner was at once violent
and confused, his voice weak and stammering, and his
delivery breathless; but these faults were overcome by
an arduous and protracted course of exercise in the
subterraneous study which he had built, where he would
remain for two or three months together. He corrected
the stammering by speaking with pebbles in his mouth;
strengthened his voice by running uphill and declaiming
while still unbreathed; and his attitude and gestures were
studied before a mirror.
Demosthenes was rarely heard to speak extempore,
and though the people called upon him in the assembly,
he would sit silent unless he had come prepared. He wrote
a great part, if not the whole, of each oration beforehand,
so that it was objected that his arguments "smelled of the
lamp"; yet, on exceptional occasions, he would speak unprepared,
and then as if from a supernatural impulse.
His nature was vindictive and his resentment implacable.
He was never a time-server in word or in action,
and he maintained to the end the political standpoint with
which he had begun. The glorious object of his ambition
was the defence of the cause of Greece against Philip;
and most of his orations, including these Philippics, are
written upon the principle that the right and worthy
course is to be chosen for its own sake. He does not
exhort his countrymen to that which is most agreeable,
or easy, or advantageous, but to that which is most honourable.
If, besides this noble ambition of his and the
lofty tone of his orations, he had been gifted also with
warlike courage and had kept his hands clean from
bribes, Demosthenes would have deserved to be numbered
with Cimon, Thucydides, and Pericles.
Cicero's wonderful genius came to light even in his
school-days; he had the capacity and inclination to learn
all the arts, but was most inclined to poetry, and the time
came when he was reputed the best poet as well as the
greatest orator in Rome. After a training in law and
some experience of the wars, he retired to a life of
philosophic study, but being persuaded to appear in the
courts for Roscius, who was unjustly charged with the
murder of his father, Cicero immediately made his reputation
as an orator.
His health was weak; he could eat but little, and that
only late in the day; his voice was harsh, loud, and ill
regulated; but, like Demosthenes, he was able by assiduous
practice to modulate his enunciation to a full, sonorous,
and sweet tone, and his studies under the leading
rhetoricians of Greece and Asia perfected his eloquence.
His diligence, justice, and moderation were evidenced
by his conduct in public offices, as quæstor, prætor, and
then as consul. In his attack on Catiline's conspiracy, he
showed the Romans what charms eloquence can add to
truth, and that justice is invincible when properly supported.
But his immoderate love of praise interrupted
his best designs, and he made himself obnoxious to many
by continually magnifying himself.
Demosthenes, by concentrating all his powers on the
single art of speaking, became unrivalled in the power,
grandeur, and accuracy of his eloquence. Cicero's studies
had a wider range; he strove to excel not only as an
orator, but as a philosopher and a scholar also. Their
difference of temperament is reflected in their styles.
Demosthenes is always grave and serious, an austere man
of thought; Cicero, on the other hand, loves his jest, and
is sometimes playful to the point of buffoonery. The
Greek orator never touches upon his own praise except
with some great point in view, and then does it modestly
and without offence; the Roman does not seek to hide his
Both of these men had high political abilities; but
while the former held no public office, and lies under the
suspicion of having at times sold his talent to the highest
bidder, the latter ruled provinces as a pro-consul at a
time when avarice reigned unbridled, and became known
only for his humanity and his contempt of money.