Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:
“The age of Caesar,” writes classicist Mary Beard, “was a world of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome.” These chaotic times — roughly the middle decades of the 1st century B.C. — were deeply riven by “fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run” and “how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met.” In the end, the Roman Republic was destroyed, as the people — worn out by civil war — turned to the ruthless Augustus to bring them peace, even at the cost of despotism.
That story, at times striking in its contemporary relevance, is vividly retold in these newly translated short biographies of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Brutus and Mark Antony, all five of them extracted from Plutarch’s famous “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” Written in the early years of the 2nd century, this biographical classic quickly became a school text as early as the 4th century and from the Renaissance to the early modern era served as both a popular introduction to antiquity and the preferred leisure reading of everyone from parsons to politicians.
The list of Plutarch’s most ardent admirers includes, for example, Montaigne, Shakespeare (who drew on Thomas North’s translation while writing “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra”), Rousseau (who called the “Lives” his favorite book) and this country’s Founding Fathers, notably Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.