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Plutarch for the Sound-Bite Generation

By Gilbert T. Sewall

Let me be the first to admit that teaching with Plutarch is a challenge. For high school students, the language is difficult and the references obscure. But it is still possible—and worthwhile—to introduce students to Plutarch though excerpts from the Lives. The excerpts below could be incorporated into a variety of history, literature, or even current events classes.

You may find that students need a "warm-up" exercise before they dive into an excerpt; in that case, maxims are a great place to start. Punchy and debatable, maxims hint at the character issues that Plutarch raises throughout the Lives. Five maxims appear near the end of the "Teaching Plutarch in the Age of Hollywood"; several more are provided below the excerpts. Dozens more can easily be found online; see, for example, the quotations searches at www.bartleby.com.

Throughout his writing, Plutarch contemplates character and manners, good and bad, particularly in those who rule and govern. In teaching with Plutarch, one central question is this: What qualities did Plutarch look for in a leader? Another key question arises from the language itself, since many translations of Plutarch were done over 100 years ago. What does the modern reader do when confronted with a maxim that says, "Man is neither by birth nor disposition a savage … but only becomes so by indulging in vices…" or an excerpt, like the one below on Fabius, that disdains "womanish lamentations"? With guidance, students can learn to peel back modern meanings and see that Plutarch's messages and morals forcefully condemn all forms of debauchery and weakness.

I. Excerpts from the Lives

Lycurgus and Alcander (c. 800 B.C.)

Lycurgus was the leader and father of early Sparta. Alcander was a hot-headed young Spartan who blinded Lycurgus in one eye to protest the introduction of common meals, designed to prevent showing off and gluttony. Alcander was then handed over to Lycurgus to be punished as he pleased. The other Spartans expected him to be tortured and killed. Instead, Lycurgus made him a waiter. When Alcander witnessed Lycurgus' moderation, wisdom, and industry close-up, he became one of the leading Spartan citizens and a devotee of Lycurgus.

The third and most masterly stroke of this great lawgiver, by which he struck a yet more effectual blow against luxury and the desire of riches, was the ordinance he made, that they should all eat in common, of the same bread and same meat, and of kinds that were specified, and should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks, to fatten them in corners, like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick. It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have brought about such a result as this, but a greater yet to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observes, not merely the property of being coveted, but its very nature of being wealth. For the rich, being obliged to go to the same table with the poor, could not make use of or enjoy their abundance, nor so much as please their vanity by looking at or displaying it. So that the common proverb, that Plutus, the god of riches, is blind, was nowhere in all the world literally verified but in Sparta. There, indeed, he was not only blind, but like a picture, without either life or motion. Nor were they allowed to take food at home first, and then attend the public tables, for every one had an eye upon those who did not eat and drink like the rest, and reproached them with being dainty and effeminate.

This last ordinance in particular exasperated the wealthier men. They collected in a body against Lycurgus, and from ill words came to throwing stones, so that at length he was forced to run out of the market-place, and make to sanctuary to save his life; by good-hap he outran all, excepting one Alcander, a young man otherwise not ill accomplished, but hasty and violent, who came up so close to him, that when he turned to see who was so near him, he struck him upon the face with his stick, and put out one of his eyes. Lycurgus, so far from being daunted and discouraged by this accident, stopped short and showed his disfigured face and eye beat out to his countrymen; they, dismayed and ashamed at the sight, delivered Alcander into his hands to be punished, and escorted him home, with expressions of great concern for his ill-usage. Lycurgus, having thanked them for their care of his person, dismissed them all, excepting only Alcander; and, taking him with him into his house, neither did nor said anything severely to him, but, dismissing those whose place it was, bade Alcander to wait upon him at table. The young man, who was of an ingenuous temper, without murmuring did as he was commanded; and being thus admitted to live with Lycurgus, he had an opportunity to observe in him, besides his gentleness and calmness of temper, an extraordinary sobriety and an indefatigable industry, and so, from an enemy, became one of his most zealous admirers, and told his friends and relations that Lycurgus was not that morose and ill-natured man they had formerly taken him for, but the one mild and gentle character of the world. And thus did Lycurgus, for chastisement of his fault, make of a wild and passionate young man one of the discreetest citizens of Sparta.

Lycurgus, trans. John Dryden*

Solon and Croesus (c. 550 B.C.)

This famous encounter inquires directly into the good life. What is the moral of the story? What is Solon's conception of the good life? How does it differ from Croesus's? What are the signals that Croesus does not even understand what Solon is trying to point out? Why to this day is calling someone "rich as Croesus" not considered a compliment?

Solon came to visit Sardis at Croesus's invitation, and there experienced much the same feeling as a man from the interior of a country traveling to the coast for the first time, who supposes that each river, as it comes into sight, must be the sea itself. In the same way Solon, as he walked through the court and saw many of the king's courtiers richly dressed and swaggering about amid a crowd of guards and attendants, thought that each of them must be Croesus, until he was brought to the king himself, whom he found decked out in jewels, dyed robes, and gold ornaments of the greatest splendor, extravagance, and rarity, so as to present a gorgeous and imposing spectacle. Solon, however, as he stood in his presence, neither showed any surprise at what he saw, nor paid any of the compliments Croesus had expected; indeed, he made it clear to those who had eyes to see that he despised such a lack of taste and petty ostentation. The king then commanded that his treasure-chambers should be thrown open and his guest conducted on a tour of his magnificent household and his other luxuries. There was no need for this, since the sight of Croesus himself was enough to enable Solon to judge his character. However, when he had seen everything and was again brought before the king, Croesus asked him whether he had ever known anyone more fortunate than he. Solon said that he had, and mentioned the name of Tellus, a fellow Athenian. Tellus, he went on to explain, was an honest man, he had left behind him children who upheld his good name, he had passed his life without ever being in serious want, and he had ended it by dying gloriously in battle for his country.

By this time Croesus had already come to regard Solon as an eccentric and uncouth individual, since he evidently did not regard a fortune in gold and silver as the criterion of happiness, but found more to admire in the life and death of an obscure private citizen than in all this parade of power and sovereignty. In spite of this he asked Solon a second time, whether, after Tellus, he knew of any man more fortunate that himself. Solon again replied that he had, and named Cleobis and Biton, two men who had no equals in brotherly affection and in their devotion to their mother. Once, he told Croesus, when the carriage in which she was riding was delayed by the oxen, they harnessed themselves to the yoke and pulled her to the temple of Hera. All the citizens congratulated her and she was overjoyed, and then, after they had sacrificed and drunk wine, the two young men lay down and never rose again, but were found to have died a painless and untroubled death with their honors fresh upon them.

By this time Croesus had lost his temper and burst out: "So you do not include me among those who are happy at all?" Solon had no desire to flatter the king, but he did not wish to exasperate him further, and so he replied: "King of the Lydians, the gods have given us Greeks only a moderate share of their blessings, and in the same way our wisdom is also a moderate affair, a cautious habit of mind, I suppose, which appeals to common people, not a regal or magnificent one. This instinct of ours tells us that human life is subject to innumerable shifts of fortune and forbids us to take pride in the good things of the present, or to admire a man's prosperity while there is still time for it to change. The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown, and we can only count a man happy when the gods have granted him good fortune to the end. To congratulate a man on his happiness while he is still living and contending with all the perils of the mortal state is like proclaiming an athlete the victor and crowning him before the contest is decided; there is no certainty in the verdict and it may be reversed at any moment." After delivering this warning, Solon took his leave. He had annoyed Croesus, but left him none the wiser.

Solon, trans. L. Scott-Kilvert**

Alcibiades (c. 450-404 B.C.)

Alcibiades was a dashing general in Athens, a nephew of the great leader Pericles. He had it all: charm, wealth, intelligence, and good looks. Among his many admirers was Socrates. He led Athens to victory, but he was also a traitor, helping Sparta when Athens rejected him. Alcibiades is a man of great contradictions. Plutarch dissects the qualities that made him successful no matter what people he encountered.

While he enjoyed public repute and admiration, he was also wooing the mass of the people in private ways, enchanting them with his Spartan way of life. Seeing him with his hair cut short, taking cold baths, eating plain bread, and drinking black broth, they could hardly believe that he had ever had a cook in his house or set eyes on a perfumer, or could bear so much as the touch of a cloak of Milesian wool. It was, they say, one of his many ingenious methods of captivating people, to be able to assimilate himself and share intimately in their habits and ways of life. He could change quicker than the chameleon. Indeed, there is one color, or so they say, that that animal is incapable of simulating, namely, white: but Alcibiades found nothing anywhere, good or bad, that he was unable to reproduce and put into practice. Athletic, plain-living, and grim-faced in Sparta, he was luxurious, charming and easygoing in Ionia, while in Thrace he devoted himself to drinking and riding. When he visited the satrap Tissaphernes, his splendor and extravagance surpassed Persian standards of magnificence. It was not that he could shift from one personality to another all that easily, or that his character admitted every conceivable change. It was rather that when he found that it would offend the company to behave according to his own nature, he would conceal it and take refuge in any form or fashion that suited the moment.

Alcibiades, trans. D.A. Russell**

Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator (d. 203 B.C.)

Fabius was famous for use of a "waiting game" and "delaying tactics" as a soldier. George Washington has been called "the American Fabius" and the Fabian Society in the U.K. was named after him. What qualities of personality and mind made Fabius a leader in the midst of crisis and disaster?

"Misfortune tests the quality of our friends," Euripides tells us, and the same test, it would seem, reveals the prudent general. The very strategy, which before the battle had been condemned as passive and cowardly, now came to be regarded as the product of a superhuman power of reasoning, or rather of a divine, almost miraculous intelligence, capable of penetrating the future and of prophesying a disaster which could scarcely be believed by those who experienced it. So it was upon Fabius that the Romans centered their last hopes. His wisdom was the sanctuary to which men fled for refuge as they might to a temple or an altar, and they believed that it was his practical capacity above all which had preserved the unity of Rome at this moment, and had prevented her citizens from deserting the city and dispersing.

For when, as had happened during the disasters of the Gallic invasion, the people had felt secure, it was Fabius who had appeared to be cautious and timid, but now, when all others were giving way to boundless grief and helpless bewilderment, he was the only man to walk the streets with a resolute step, a serene expression, and a kindly voice. It was he who checked all womanish lamentations, and prevented those who wished to bewail their sorrows from assembling in public. On the other hand, he persuaded the Senate to continue to hold its meetings, stiffened the resolution of the magistrates, and made himself the strength and the moving spirit of all the offices of state, since every man looked to him for guidance.

Fabius Maximus, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert**

Cato the Elder (d. 149 B.C.)

Cato the Elder was the great-grandfather of Cato the Younger (a hero of George Washington who perished while trying to fight Julius Caesar). The older Cato lived a hundred years before the fall of the republic. He was a farmer of modest origins, yet he became one of the legendary Roman statesmen who repeatedly advised the Roman Senate to strike out against Carthage, its rival for control of the Mediterranean. Why was Cato the Elder a figure of probity to the Founders, as his great-grandson was a hero of liberty? How did Cato's view of the slave illustrate a harsh aspect of antiquity?

Cato's speeches continued to add greatly to his reputation, so that he came to be known as the Roman Demosthenes, but what created an even more powerful impression than his eloquence was his manner of living. His powers of expression merely set a standard for young men, which many of them were already striving their utmost to attain. But a man who observed the ancestral custom of working his own land, who was content with a cold breakfast, a frugal dinner, the simplest clothing, and a humble cottage to live in, and who actually thought it was more admirable to renounce luxuries than to acquire them—such a person was conspicuous by his rarity.

The truth was that by this date the Roman Republic had grown too large to preserve its original purity of spirit, and the very authority which it exercised over so many realms and peoples constantly brought it into contact with, and obliged it to adapt itself to an extraordinary diversity of habits and modes of living. So it was natural enough that everybody should admire Cato when they saw others prostrated by their labors or enervated by their pleasures, while he remained unaffected by either. What was even more remarkable was that he followed the same habits, not merely while he was young and full of ambition, but even when he was old and gray-headed and had served as a consul and celebrated a triumph, and that he continued, like some champion athlete, to observe the rules of his training and maintain his self-discipline to the end.

He tells us that he never wore a garment which cost more than a hundred drachmas, that even when he was praetor or consul he drank the same wine as his slaves, that he bought the fish or meat for his dinner in the public market and never paid more than thirty asses for it, and that he allowed himself this indulgence for the public good in order to strengthen his body for military service. He also mentions that when he was bequeathed an embroidered Babylonian robe, he immediately sold it, that none of his cottages had plastered walls, that he never paid more than 1,500 drachmas for a slave since he was not looking for the exquisite or handsome type of domestic servant, but for sturdy laborers such as grooms and herdsmen, and that when they became too old to work, he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths. In general he considered that nothing is cheap if it is superfluous, that what a man does not need is dear even if it cost only a penny, and that one should buy land for tilling and grazing, not to make into gardens, where the object is merely to sprinkle the lawns and sweep the paths.

Cato the Elder, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert**

Spartacus (73 B.C.)

In the first century B.C.E., Spartacus was the leader of the great Roman slave revolt. Spartacus managed to break through Roman forces, but after many battles was killed. Approximately 6,000 of Spartacus's followers were crucified on the Appian Way. The Roman general Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for years after the final battle. In the nineteenth century, for Europeans and Americans, Spartacus became a symbol of freedom and a hero for abolitionists, anti-royalists, and democrats. How does Plutarch pay Spartacus a compliment? He calls him Greek—civilized and gentle—rather than Thracian—savage and rude—in spirit.

The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiates trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls [France today] and Thracians [Bulgaria today], who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits, and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.

Crassus, trans. John Dryden*

Cleopatra and Mark Antony (40 B.C.)

The doomed bond between Antony and Cleopatra may be the world's greatest love story. The legend persists, the mystery goes on. In the first passage below, we get a glimpse of their poetic meeting. In the second, the Egyptian queen has lost Caesar and a large part of the Mediterranean world. She commits suicide after her lover Antony—Caesar's protégé—is defeated by opposing Roman forces. Plutarch leaves no doubt to the grandeur of the woman. What made Cleopatra majestic? How did she differ from today's Hollywood celebrities and "divas"? Cleopatra was not beautiful—she was smart, captivating in personality, and multilingual. How is the death of Antony tragic and magnificent?

Cleopatra received a whole succession of letters from Antony and his friends summoning her to visit him, but she treated him with such disdain, that when she appeared it was as if in mockery of his orders. She came sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with a poop of gold, its purple sails billowing in the wind, while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute accompanied by pipes and lutes. Cleopatra herself reclined beneath a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in the character of Venus, as we see her in paintings, while on either side to complete the picture stood boys costumed as Cupids, who cooled her with their fans. Instead of a crew the barge was lined with the most beautiful of her waiting-women attired as Nereids and Graces, some at the rudders, others a the tackle of the sails, and all the while an indescribably rich perfume, exhaled from innumerable censers, was wafted from the vessel to the river-banks. Great multitudes accompanied this royal progress, some of them following the queen on both sides of the river from its very mouth, while others hurried down from the city of Tarsus to gaze at the sight. Gradually the crowds drifted away from the marketplace, where Antony awaited the queen enthroned on his tribunal, until at last he was left sitting quite alone and the word spread on every side that Venus had come to revel with Bacchus for the happiness of Asia.

Antony then sent a message inviting Cleopatra to dine with him, but she thought it more appropriate that he should come to her, and so, as he wished to show his courtesy and goodwill, he accepted and went. He found the preparations made to receive him magnificent beyond words, but what astonished him most of all was the extraordinary number of lights. So many of these, it is said, were let down from the roof and displayed on all sides at once, and they were arranged and grouped in such ingenious patterns in relation to each other, some in squares and some in circles, that they created as brilliant a spectacle as can ever have been devised to delight the eye.

On the following day Antony returned her hospitality with another banquet, but although he had hope to surpass her in splendor and elegance he was hopelessly outdone in both, and was the first to make fun of the crude and meager quality of his entertainment. Cleopatra saw that Antony's humor was broad and gross and belonged to the soldier rather than the courtier, and she quickly adopted the same manner towards him and treated him without the least reserve.

Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible, and there was an attraction in her person and her talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that in her interviews with barbarians she seldom required an interpreter, but conversed with them quite unaided, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, or Parthians. In fact, she is said to have become familiar with the speech of many other peoples besides, although the rulers of Egypt before her had never even troubled to learn the Egyptian language, and some of them had given up their Macedonian dialect.

Mark Antony, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert

The Death of Mark Antony (30 B.C.)

"Antony, why are you still waiting? Fortune has taken the one remaining excuse for clinging to life."98 He went into his room, and unfastened and put away his breastplate. "O Cleopatra," he said: "I am not grieved that you are taken from me. I shall soon come to you. But it does grieve me that a general like myself should be found inferior in courage to a woman." He had a reliable servant named Eros, whom he had long ago engaged to kill him if he ever needed it. Now he asked for the fulfillment of the promise. Eros drew his sword and raised it as though to strike. But then he turned away and killed himself, falling at Antony's feet. "Well done, Eros," said he; "you could not do it yourself, but you teach me to do what I must." He drove the sword into his stomach and fell back on the bed. It was not a wound to bring an easy death. When he lay down, the flow of blood stopped. He came to, and begged the people around to give him the final blow. But they ran out of the room, while he shouted and writhed, until Diomedes the secretary came from Cleopatra, with orders to take him to the tomb.

He thus realized that Cleopatra was alive, and anxiously asked the attendants to lift him up. He was carried in their arms to the door of the building. Cleopatra did not open the door but appeared at a window and let down ropes and cords. They fastened Antony to these, and Cleopatra herself and the two women she had taken with her into the tomb pulled him up. Eyewitnesses tell us there never was a more pitiful sight. He was covered in blood and dying painfully stretching out his arms towards her in as he dangled in the air. Nor was it easy work for women; Cleopatra, her hands clinging to the rope, her face strained, could scarcely pull the rope in. The people down below were shouting encouragement and sharing the agony. When she had thus taken him in and laid him down, she tore her clothes over him; beating and rending her breast with her hands, plastering the blood over her face, she called him "lord" and "husband" and "general." Indeed she nearly forgot her own troubles in her pity for his. But Antony put a stop to her lamentation and asked for a drink of wine. Perhaps he was thirsty; perhaps he thought it would make a quicker release. When he had drunk it, he gave her his advice: to see to the security of her own affairs if she could do so honorably, and to trust Proculeius99 especially among Caesar's friends; and not to grieve for him at this last change, but to reckon him happy for all the blessings he had enjoyed; he had been a famous man, and a man of great power; and now he had been defeated without disgrace by a fellow Roman.

Mark Antony, trans. D.A. Russell**

II. Plutarch's Maxims

Socrates thought: if all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence every one must take an equal portion, most persons would be contented to take their own and depart.

To find a fault is easy; to do better may be difficult.

In human life there is a constant change of fortune; and it is unreasonable to expect an exemption from the common fate. Life itself decays, and all things are daily changing.

We ought not to treat living creatures like shoes or household belongings, which when worn with use we throw away.

Man is neither by birth nor disposition a savage, nor of unsocial habits, but only becomes so by indulging in vices contrary to his nature.

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.

Courage stands halfway between cowardice and rashness, one of which is a lack, the other an excess of courage.


Gilbert T. Sewall is the president of the Center for Education Studies and director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Previously, he was a university professor, an education editor at Newsweek, and a high school history teacher.

*These excerpts were drawn from Daniel Stevenson's Internet Classics Archive, available here. (back to article)

These excerpts were drawn from Michael Grant's Readings in the Classical Historians, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1993. (back to article)