What’s the Best Translation of Plutarch’s Lives?

I cover the question of best Plutarch translation in my inaugural podcast, so if you prefer that medium, check out the first episode. I have also covered other resources like maps and timelines on the Plutarch Resources page.

Here, I’ll give an overview of the translations of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives currently available, in print and online. While there’s no wrong way to read Plutarch, it helps to know what to expect. After all, the English translations Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans reach all the way back to the early modern English of the 16th century.

Try this video if you just want the overview…

Translators = Traitors?

Plutarch is one of those authors that people read in translation and get a lot out of. I’m a Greek teacher. All the incentives align for me to want you to learn Greek. Plutarch does not provide a good reason to learn Greek. Learning Greek to read Plato, the New Testament, Homer? Great, I will join you on your worthy quest! Learning Greek for Plutarch? Sorry, but this Classicist thinks your time is better spent elsewhere.

You’ll get almost as much out of Plutarch in translation as you’ll get by going through the decade it would take you to learn Greek well enough to read Plutarch. If you’re younger and have more time, you could get there in a few years, but let’s be real, comfortable reading skill takes about a decade.

So why do purists of almost any language insist that you read the poem, novel, or epic you love in the original language? Isn’t Shakespeare just as good translated into French or Italian? What’s missing?

Well, that’s where we take the Italian phrase Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. This isn’t true with Plutarch. His style tends toward long sentences with balanced parallelism for harmonious effect, and most of his translators keep pace. Having translated The Life of Aristides, I can see now why his translators have kept the long sentences they have. Plutarch’s prose withers in the spare, direct English prose of today. His sentences extend their roots and branches like the flowers of an English cottage garden.

English Country Garden and Cottage - a fitting metaphor for how Plutarch's style can sound and feel in English translation.
 Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

So, while free translations of Plutarch abound in English, I’d like to look at each one to help you make an informed decision about which translation to use. It’s really going to be about what century of English prose style you’re looking for, and whether or not the words will illuminate or obfuscate what Plutarch is trying to say. I’ll introduce each translation and then link to an excerpt from the “Life of Caesar” (para. 35) in each translation discussed.

The (mostly) Free Editions: Parallel Presentation

The older editions generally keep the framework that Plutarch imposed on his biographies: a parallel Greek with a parallel Roman. While this may confuse those using Plutarch to study history, it makes them more informative as biographies and delightful as art to read them in parallel. Because I see advantages to both approaches, I’m arranging my podcast chronologically but reminding my listeners of the many parallels when we arrive at the parallel life. I’ll give the information so that you, the reader, can make an informed decision about the best Plutarch translation for yourself.

North – From Greek to French to English to the Public Domain

Thomas North first translated Plutarch from Jacques Amyot’s French translation in 1579. Charlotte Mason, the famous English educator, originally used these translations, now available here or here. If you go in knowing they’re a translation of a translation in Elizabethan English, I don’t think you’ll have any problems with it. Obviously, those who already love Shakespeare and the King James Bible will be right at home in this translation.

“Dryden”-Clough: The Modern LIbrary Edition

John Dryden next took up Plutarch as general editor, though he probably did little of the translating himself, and those editions have been published, edited, and re-published all the way to the present day. The biggest revision occurred in the middle of the 19th-century by a man named Hugh Arthur Clough. The Modern Library (hardcover, or twovolume softcover) owns and publishes the most recent edition. There are online versions provided for free by MIT and Gutenberg.

This is the only single-volume Plutarch translation I’ve ever come across, so if that’s what you seek compactness and keeping it all in one place, this could be the best Plutarch translation for you. That said, you could fit a “single volume” in any phone or tablet. I don’t do well reading from my phone, though, and Plutarch is a big project (600,000 words in Greek, likely more in English).

Bernadotte Perin: Loeb and Perseus; pdf or native web

The Loeb Classical Library issued an English translation from Bernadotte Perrin, which has now thankfully fallen into the Public Domain. Those translations are available online hosted by the University of Chicago, or downloadable pdfs hosted at DownLoebables. You can read them alongside the Greek at the Perseus website, which has all the Lives.

If you don’t need the Greek, these translations can seem like a waste of space. If you do need the Greek, there are better free options than downloading .pdfs or toting around 12 tiny volumes. If you have an iPad or iPhone, check out the Bellerophon app which allows you to pull up English and Greek alongside each other for almost every classical work, including decent Plutarch translations.

The Paid-For Editions: Chronological Presentation

Penguin Editions: Poor Paper and Binding, Solid Translations

And in the middle of the 20th century, Penguin began publishing and revising translations of all the lives. These lives are grouped historically and thus make it easier to use Plutarch to navigate a particular period of history. These Plutarch translations were my first introduction to the biographer in college. They’re easy to assign for college classes because they follow the chronology of a period. At less than $20 each, they won’t break the bank even for college students.

They cut each biography off from its parallel, though. The short comparative essay is reprinted in both the Greek and Roman location, but you’ll have to lookup Cimon’s parallel, Lucullus, in his Roman edition. They’re arranged into six major books, where I’ll list the Lives contained in each volume below:

Penguin Volume TitleLives Contained
linked to their podcast episode
The Rise and Fall of Athens
9 Lives
Theseus
Solon
Themistocles
Aristides
Cimon
Pericles
Nicias
Alcibiades
Lysander (a Spartan!)
On Sparta
4 Lives
Lycurgus
Agesilaus
Agis
Cleomenes
The Age of Alexander
10 Lives
Artaxerxes
Pelopidas
Dion
Timoleon
Demosthenes
Phocion
Alexander
Eumenes
Demetrius
Pyrrhus
The Rise of Rome
11 Lives
Romulus
Numa
Publicola
Camillus
Coriolanus
Fabius Maximus
Marcellus
Cato the Elder
Aemilius Paullus
Philopoemon
Aratus
Makers of Rome
(don’t purchase this one)
8 Lives
Coriolanus
Fabius Maximus
Marcellus
Cato the Elder
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
Sertorius
Brutus
Mark Antony
Rome in Crisis
7 Lives
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
Sertorius
Lucullus
Cato the Younger
Brutus
Antony
Galba and Otho
Fall of the Roman Republic
6 Lives
Marius
Sulla
Crassus
Pompey
Julius Caesar
Cicero

While they would be the most expensive route, if you’re only interested in a few lives, they’ll be the easiest read by far. I excerpt the Julius Caesar passage at the end of this post in the Penguin Edition for comparison with the free translations.  

While you could add all the lives to your library, and even a few from outside the scope of Plutarch’s Parallel Project (Galba and Otho; Aratus), you’re going to shell out $120 for books whose spines are weak and whose paper is newsprint-gray even when relatively new. The gray grows with age.

The Oxford Editions: Better Quality, Fewer Lives (than Penguin)

Oxford World Classics publishes three editions of the Lives: Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman. I list the lives included below in the chart. Overall the quality of the paper and binding means the physical copies will last longer.

Oxford TextLives Included
Greek Lives
9 Lives
Lycurgus
Solon
Themistocles
Cimon
Alexander
Pericles
Nicias
Alcibiades
Agesilaus
Hellenistic Lives
10 Lives
(Agis & Cleomenes count as one)
Alexander
Demosthenes
Phocion
Eumenes
Demetrius
Pyrrhus
Agis and Cleomenes
Aratus
Philopoemon
Flamininus
Roman Lives
8 Lives
(Tiberius and Gaius count as one)
Cato the Elder
Aemilius Paullus
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
Marius
Sulla
Pompey
Caesar
Antony

So Oxford gives you 26 lives for around $35. That’s a little over half the lives, and certainly not all the famous ones: where are Cato the Younger or Cicero, for example?

Preface to the Parallels: Why This Passage?

Julius Caesar is the most commonly assigned life in Charlotte Mason schools. It’s also most likely the most common life in Classical schools for one reason: it’s the basis of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

I also picked this passage because it exhibits two extremes of Plutarch’s language. First, in each paragraph, there is a pithy quote that you would stick with the reader because of its pith. The two phrases are bolded in each paragraph to help you find and compare them. They all take far fewer words in Greek than they do in English. I highlight this to show the difficulty of bringing across the punchy nature of the words Caesar chose (which were delivered in Latin anyway, but Plutarch reports them in Greek).

The Pith of Plutarch

In choosing which Plutarch translation to read, it can be helpful to see how each translator handles the Greek. The two pithy quotations to focus on:

παρρησίας γὰρ οὐ δεῖται πόλεμος

War does not need free-speech

and

μοι δυσκολώτερον ἦν εἰπεῖν ἢ πρᾶξαι

It is harder for me to say it than to do it.

You can see that, taken by themselves, they’re fairly easy to translate into clear English and you’ve missed little of what is expressed in the Greek except in subtleties like word-order and emphasis.

Plutarch’s Style: Long Sentences Ahead!

The second aspect of Plutarch’s language is his hypotaxis, on display in almost any sentence you could select from the Lives. It is not, contrary to what you may have pieced together for yourself, a person hypo-ventilating (not a thing) in a taxi (a real thing). Hypotaxis is a fancier, and more specific, way of describing what I said before in the metaphor about English cottage garden. An author prone to hypotaxis subordinates many ideas to the main one. That is, while working his way to the main point, an author may, in trying to instruct the reader, point out a beautiful byway, modulate the main idea, or otherwise show off his syntactic control, subordinate and sandwich many clauses into one sentence, as this one has.

Its opposite is called parataxis. It is clear and direct and the preferred contemporary style. Thus, it is hard for translators to do justice to Plutarch’s sentence style without sounding old-fashioned themselves because his prose style falls on the opposite end of today’s prose style spectrum.

The first sentence serves as enough of an example because all of Metellus’s actions are subordinated to Caesar’s response. The main clause (and point) is “Caesar said, ‘Shut up! War doesn’t need free speech'” Keep an eye out for how each translator handles it.

Passage Preamble: Setting The Scene

The passage needs just a bit of introduction but serves as a wonderful illumination of Caesar’s character, particularly his celeritas (speed) and clementia (mercy), at a climax in his story. Caesar has entered the city of Rome and found it bereft of defenders. Strangely, the city seems to be at peace. Pompey and the rest of the Senatorial resistance fled Italy when rumor reached Rome that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. They’re all hastening for Greece and gathering the resistance.

This leaves the entire Roman treasury—all the gold and silver of the past decades of conquest— available to Julius Caesar. He’ll need this money to fund the next few years of Civil War. The passage accents the relationship between the force of law and the force of war. The second pithy statement introduces the flow from words to deeds, casting further light on Metellus’s inability to enforce any of the demands he makes on Caesar, while Caesar is willing to enforce his demands against Metellus, with death if need be.

The Plutarch Passages Translated for Comparison

Thomas North – Shakespeare’s Plutarch Translation

And when Metellus also, one of the tribunes, would not suffer him to take any of the common treasure out of the temple of Saturn, but told him that it was against the law: “Tush,” said he, “time of war, and law, are two things. If this that I do,”quoth he, “do offend thee, then get thee hence for this time: for war cannot abide this frank and bold speech. But when wars are done, and that we are all quiet again, then thou shalt speak in the pulpit what thou wilt: and yet I do tell thee this of favour, impairing so much my right; for thou art mine, both thou, and all them that have risen against me, and whom I have in my hands.”

When he had spoken thus unto Metellus, he went to the temple-door where the treasure lay, and, finding no keys there, he caused smiths to be sent for, and made them break open the locks. Metellus thereupon began again to withstand him, and certain men that stood by praised him in his doing: but Caesar at length, speaking bigly to him, threatened him he would kill him presently, if he troubled him any more: and told him furthermore, “Young man,” quoth he, “thou knowest it is harder for me to tell it thee, than to do it.” That word made Metellus quake for fear, that he got him away roundly; and ever after that Caesar had all at his commandment for the wars.

“Dryden”-Clough Translation

Afterwards, when Metellus, the tribune, would have hindered him from taking money out of the public treasure, and adduced some laws against it, Caesar replied that arms and laws had each their own time; “If what I do displeases you, leave the place; war allows no free talking. When I have laid down my arms, and made peace, come back and make what speeches you please. And this,” he added, “I tell you in diminution of my own just right, as indeed you and all others who have appeared against me and are now in my power may be treated as I please.”

Having said this to Metellus, he went to the doors of the treasury, and the keys being not to be found, sent for smiths to force them open. Metellus again making resistance and some encouraging him in it, Caesar, in a louder tone, told him he would put him to death if he gave him any further disturbance. “And this,” said he, “you know, young man, is more disagreeable for me to say than to do.” These words made Metellus withdraw for fear, and obtained speedy execution henceforth for all orders that Caesar gave for procuring necessaries for the war.

Loeb – Bernadotte Perrin Translation

When the tribune Metellus tried to prevent Caesar’s taking money from the reserve funds of the state, and cited certain laws, Caesar said that arms and laws had not the same season. ‘But if thou art displeased at what is going on, for the present get out of the way, since war has no use for free speech; when, however, I have come to terms and laid down my arms, then thou shalt come before the people with thy harangues. And in saying this I waive my own just rights; for thou art mine, thou and all of the faction hostile to me whom I have caught’ [4]

After this speech to Metellus, Caesar walked towards the door of the treasury, and when the keys were not to be found, he sent for smiths and ordered them to break in the door. Metellus once more opposed him, and was commended by some for so doing; but Caesar, raising his voice, threatened to kill him if he did not cease his troublesome interference. ‘And thou surely knowest, young man,’ said he, ‘that it is more unpleasant for me to say this than to do it.’ Then Metellus, in consequence of this speech, went off in a fright, and henceforth everything was speedily and easily furnished to Caesar for the war.3

Penguin’s Pursuit of Plutarch Translation

When Metellus, the tribune, tried to prevent Caesar from taking money from the state reserve and began to cite various laws, Caesar told him that there was a time for laws and a time for arms. “As for you,” he said, “if you don’t like what is being done, get out of the way at present. War has no use for free speech. But when I have laid down my arms and come to terms, then you can come back again and make your speeches to the people. And let me point out that in saying this I am giving up my own just rights. In fact you are my prisoner, you and all the rest of the party acting against me whom I have in my hands.” After saying this to Metellus, Caesar went towards the doors of the treasury and, as the keys could not be found, sent for the smiths and ordered them to break the doors down. Metellus once again began to object and there were some who applauded him for doing so. Caesar then raised his voice and threatened to kill him if he did not stop interfering. “And, young man,” he said, “You know well enough that I dislike saying this more than I dislike doing it.” These words had their effect. Metellus went off in a fright and for the future all Caesar’s demands for material for the war were promptly and readily obeyed.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you make an informed decision. There’s no one right way to translate, or to read, Plutarch. Penguin makes their way the most expensive, but if you’re narrowly focused on one era of Roman or Greek history, that may be worth the investment. Perrin, Dryden, and Clough are free but have varying degrees of archaic language and obscure diction that may prevent clear understanding. When I finished reading the Dryden translation, I thumbed back through and picked the most obscure words from that translation for a laugh.

It’s important to remember that the archaic language doesn’t end up sounding more like Plutarch. Plutarch wrote in an elevated, but modern, style to the audience of his own time. He can and should be compared to authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, or Wendell Berry, all of whose essays may require a bit of specialized theological, political, or agricultural knowledge, but not more than the average reader’s capacity.

When people pick up Plutarch, they, consciously or unconsciously, seek one or all of three ends. First, Plutarch explicitly wants his readers to see examples of classical virtue lived out in specific places and times. Second, Plutarch serves us as a great introduction to Greek and Roman thought, showing the Romans that all their best thoughts are in fact Greek. And finally, Plutarch’s biographies help us to find in the historical perspective the lessons that are eternally true and applicable to our own lives. Someday, our children or our students will write our Life, if not literally, at least in their hearts and minds.  What influence do we want  to persist after we are gone?

To these ends, we really need to suit the language to clear and compelling delivery of the stories that comprise Plutarch’s Lives. As there are different people, so will there be different preferences. In picking up Plutarch, if you found him distasteful, perhaps the translator was at fault and not Plutarch himself. Give another translator a shot and know that you’re not choosing poorly if you’re choosing Plutarch. The best translation of Plutarch for you will be the translator who opens up the riches of Plutarch’s perspective, without his English style getting in the way.

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