As a fair warning from the beginning, I did not read the full version of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks. In fact, the full version is actually the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (or called Parallel Lives or Plutarch’s Lives) and is about 23 Greeks and 23 Romans.
The version I read is a selectively edited copy that was edited and released by Edmund Fuller in 1959. So, while I did not read the full book (I will read the Roman section soon) I did read a copy that discusses the most important of the Greeks and my review will only discuss the historical figures in the version I read. Although I normally avoid abridged or edited books, in this case, because Lives of the Noble Greeks was originally written in the 10th century, I decided to read a selective version that was a bit shorter to read.
In any case, Lives of the Noble Greeks is an excellent book about some of the most famous figures from Classical Greece. Because it is a classic that has survived from the 10th century to the present, I will not do my normal review, where I give a summary and then my opinion on it. My opinion is the same as the millions of other who have read it and kept it alive for ten centuries now. Instead, I will give a brief summary of the edited version that I read and then give my perspective on why it is worth reading. Enjoy!
Summary of Lives of the Noble Greeks by Plutarch
The version of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks that I read is about 9 historical Greek figures. They are, in the order they are presented in the book, Theseus, Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Pericles, Alcibiades, Timoleon, Alexander, and Demosthenes.
The earliest three- Theseus, Lycurgus, and Solon- are probably at least mostly mythological. Theseus, in particular, might have existed but his exploits, such as killing the Minotaur, are probably mythological and meant to be a story and lesson rather than an actual history. The stories about Lycurgus and Solon, the founders of Sparta and Athenian democracy, respectively, are based in more reality. But, because Plutarch wrote about them so long after their lives, it is hard to know what is real and what is myth.
The stories of the other 6 great men in Lives of the Noble Greeks are probably more factual than those about Theseus, Lycurgus, and Solon. All 6 are characters from the times around the Persian wars, the Peloponnesian War, and the reign of Alexander. Their lives show the failings of Athenian democracy, what war was like in classical Greece, what values the Greeks, especially the Athenians, esteemed, and what type of men rose to prominence.
While no biography in Lives of the Noble Greeks provides the full story about any of those wars or time period, as that is not what they are meant to do, they do give the reader a certain feel about what the time period was like. If there were ever an era that epitomized Hobbes’ view of society in Leviathan as “nasty, brutish, and shorty,” it would be the Classical Era and Lives of the Noble Greeks shows why.
Additionally, Plutarch frames everything in them as practical. Who knows if that’s correct, but it does make them more interesting, as he tells stories of great men and their exploits without constantly qualifying and explaining away stories. Unlike modern authors, he casts no judgement on the past but instead just tells their stories and informs the readers of the magnificent exploits of exceptional men.
The stories are mainly about three topics: governance, politics, and war.
Theseus was a travelling warrior who defeated monsters like the Minotaur, tyrants, and extraordinary criminals.
Lycurgus founded Sparta and established its strict set of rules and practices, turning it into a mixture of Prussia and the Soviet Union.
Solon was an Athenian politician that established the famous democracy of the city.
Themistocles was an Athenian general and politician who fought the Persians at Marathon, navigated the treacherous web of Athenian politics, and prepared the city to win the Battle of Salamis, which ended the Persian threat.
Pericles and Alcibiades were also Athenian generals and politicians. However, they fought in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and its allies rather than against the Persians.
Timoleon helped liberate Sicily and defeated the Carthaginians. Originally from Corinth, he left the city after killing his brother, who had become a tyrant. After leaving, he proved his martial prowess in Sicily and defeated forces many times his size.
Alexander needs no introduction. The famous Macedonian united the Greeks and Macedonians against the Persians and conquered all of the Persian Empire, taking his troops all the way to the Indus River and never once losing a battle. He was renowned for his battlefield genius and magnanimous nature.
Demosthenes was an Athenian politician who lived during the time of Alexander. Multiple times he rallied the Athenians and other Greeks to fight the Macedonians, testing Alexander’s magnanimity and causing much suffering and unnecessary violence.
All of their stories have similar themes, but also differences. Classical Greece was a violent place and men became great by enganging in that violence. Whether naval battles like Salamis or mass infantry and cavalry actions like Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela, violence was the key to political success and renown. Lives of the Noble Greeks is about what the most famous Greeks did to become the “Noble Greeks.”
Why Should You Read Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks?
As interesting as Lives of the Noble Greeks might sound, you’re probably wondering why you should read it. Sure, Classical Greece was an interesting place full of a thrilling cast of characters. But their experiences, if even real, aren’t relevant anymore, right?
Wrong. They are relevant. Read about Alcibiades, Pericles, or Themistocles. They were brilliant politicians that saved their city, Athens, multiple times during their lives. But, despite that, their countrymen turned their backs on them because they didn’t want anyone growing too famous, or just because they envied them. Their story is reminiscent of Trump, who saved America but was spat on for doing so.
Similarly, Alexander’s story in Lives of the Noble Greeks is not just one of conquering. There is more to learn from his life than tactics. He teaches why magnanimity is a virtue and how power can go to someone’s head; he was at first generous and kind but grew cold and unforgiving by the time of his death.
Also, his story teaches how to rally the troops and ensure their loyalty. Multiple times during his campaign across Asia Minor, his troops wanted to stop and turn back. Every time, up until he reached the Indus, he was able to rally them and keep them loyal. How? By leading by example. He didn’t drink until they drank, was generous with them, and always exposed himself to just as much danger as they did, if not more so. This speech of his, in particular, shows that:
So, to anyone interested in a leadership position, Lives of the Noble Greeks is a book worth reading. It shows how some of the greatest men of history led and stayed in power, or why they lost what power and glory they had. While it can’t be all you read if you want to learn how to lead, Lives of the Noble Greeks is definitely a good start.
Finally, read it because it’s interesting. There are many books I’ve read that have no practical purpose. Robots in Space. Orphans of the Sky. Wry Martinis. And many more. None of those were practical. They weren’t about important history, great men, how to lead, or how to be more effective. But they’re interesting and reading interesting books expands one’s mind. So, for that, if nothing else, go ahead and read Lives of the Noble Greeks. The edited, slimmed-down versions aren’t that long or complex. They focus on the most important characters, rather than the whole cast. And they’ll hold your attention and teach you what a great man of history really looks like.
I enjoyed reading Lives of the Noble Greeks. Upon finishing it, I thought I should have ordered the full version, rather than an edited down version. And I found it very interesting in that it covered topics I knew next to nothing about.
For example, I knew a little bit about pre-Alexander Greece. I had heard of Pericles and knew that Theseus supposedly killed the Minotaur. Plus, I read The End is Always Near by Dan Carlin, so I knew a tiny bit about Greece’s Bronze Age Era collapse and why, much later, Alexander was able to take over the Persian Empire so easily. But, other than that, I knew next to nothing. Lives of the Noble Greeks taught me more about a very interesting and fun to read about the subject. Who doesn’t like to hear about Spartans in training, Greek triremes defeating the Persians at Marathon, or Alexander marching across the known world?
So go ahead and read it. There’s a reason that Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks has been around for centuries. You won’t be disappointed.