Written towards the end of the 1st century, Plutrach's Parallel Lives (of which Lives of Greek Heroes, published by Blackie and Son circa 1909, is a subset) is one of the earliest examples of biographical writing. The original format of Parallel Lives contained pairs of lives, one Greek and one Roman, followed by a comparison. What survives today are 23 pairs and 4 single lives. The comparisons are generally omitted from reprinting as they have been lost or are incomplete, whilst the remaining are considered inferior and irrelevant. In the writing of these biographies the Greek born Plutrach, who later also became a citizen of Rome, wanted to encourage and promote mutual respect and understanding between Greeks and Romans.
Although Parallel Lives is considered an important historical reference, Plutrach stated his intention was 'not to write histories, but lives’ and likened his craft to that of a painter. Important historical events may form the background of this work, but it is the morality of his protagonists, both their virtues and vices, that take centre stage. Sometimes (and somewhat tenuously) he would even draw on his hero’s physical appearance to emphasise a particular characteristic.
His highly literary approach to history means the reader is presented with everything from descriptions of the Athenian democracy’s procedure of Ostracism to reports that Pericles, the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age, was said to have always worn a helmet in public to mask his sea-onion shaped head. Whilst not always entirely faithful to the truth, the combination of fact with fun make Plutrach’s biographies a highly enlightening and entertaining read to this day.
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