Life Coaching In Greek

Front cover of Plutarch’s Greek work from 1533.

Plutarch, Parallēla en biois Hellēnōn te kai Rhōmaiōn (“Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, or just “Parallel Lives”)

Printed 1533 by Andreas Cratander and Johannes Bebel in Basel


“Fill your souls with Plutarch, and while you believe in his heroes, dare to believe in yourself.” Now, what is this quote if not a clear prompt to readers to get their act together? Friedrich Nietzsche himself could serve as a prime example of just how much self-confidence you can gain by reading the works of Plutarch.

In this quote, he was referring exclusively to one single work by the ancient writer: “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, or just “Parallel Lives.” The 1533 edition we’re presenting here, with its beautiful, lovingly designed lettering, is the first original edition of this collection of biographies to be printed north of the Alps and helped to make Plutarch one of the most widely read writers of world literature. But more about that later.

Plutarch was writing at the time of Hadrian, who loved Greece and Greek culture. In keeping with the spirit of the times, he also wanted to show that both Greeks and Romans had accomplished great things. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5

Plutarch: Drawing Lessons From the Lives of the Greats

Plutarch was writing when the Roman Empire was at its most prosperous, under the rule of Trajan and Hadrian. He began writing his 23 biographies or “Parallel Lives” (he probably wanted to add more) in 96 AD, with the intention of educating the reader. First of all, the reader was expected to follow the examples set by great role models like Caesar, Alexander, and the mythical Theseus, or else be deterred by figures like the “Diadochus” (the term used for Alexander the Great’s successors) Demetrius Poliorcetes. This idea of turning to the “Greats” endured from antiquity until recently, and, in the biography of Roman general Aemilius Paullus, Plutarch himself writes that he has improved his own life with this approach.

Plutarch’s second objective reflects the fashion of Philhellenism that was prominent in his day: he would compare a Roman with a Greek (for example, the orators Demosthenes and Cicero) and suggested that both societies had produced figures of equal talent.

Plutarch often outlines these figures’ greatness in the form of anecdotes – and there are anecdotes galore in his biographies. If he was around today, he’d definitely be diligently filling social media channels with little tidbits about society – but for educational purposes.

All the way up to late antiquity, “Parallel Lives” was enormously popular, but fell victim to a failed education policy.

Greek Flourishes In the West Once Again

In late antiquity, the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire had become increasingly distant from each other. As a result, there came a time where nobody in the West could speak or understand Greek anymore. But then came a major turning point: after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, a large number of academics fled to the West, and Greek became rather a fashionable language in universities. At the start of the 16th century, book printers set about producing editions of works by ancient Greek writers.

The Master of The Wenceslas Workshop skilfully produce this front cover of the “Golden Bull” around 1400 – he probably didn’t know any Greek. It wasn’t until 100 years later that academics in Western Europe were able to read works of Greek literature in the original language again.

The Original Edition From 1533: By Academics, For Academics

One of the classical philologists who particularly excelled at publishing ancient works at that time was Simon Griner, or, to use the Latinized name he created for himself: Simon Grynaeus. Like a pig sniffing for truffles, Grynaeus travelled across Europe looking for ancient manuscripts. In 1531, he even went to England with publisher and printer Bebel, and he gathered enough material there to keep himself busy with publishing for years.

In that same year in Basel, where he was now also teaching, Grynaeus published a revised Latin translation of Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” which he followed up with the original edition we have here just two years later. Today’s researchers can only dream of publication cycles like that!

One thing is clear about this work: this academic’s book is written for his specialist colleagues and serves as basis for translations or text-critical analysis of the work. In the foreword, the editor addresses – in Latin – his young colleague Johannes Oporin. Oporin’s life demonstrates just how vastly perceptions of jobs have changed since that time: after a shining career as a teacher and professor of Latin and Greek, and as an assistant of famous doctor Paracelsus, Oporin changed his profession and became – a printer. What seems unthinkable today enabled the philologist, at that time, to guarantee that his texts would be of the highest possible quality. Even his university colleagues didn’t consider this to be a downgrade!

But in 1533, when our edition of Plutarch’s work was published, 26-year-old Oporin was still trying to familiarize his pupils with ancient languages. Grynaeus was so impressed by his colleague’s efforts that he dedicated this book to him. What could be better suited as an educational book for young people? After all, studying these biographies was meant to build character. According to Grynaeus’s praises, Oporin was not only an excellent teacher, but above all, he set a shining example of how to fulfil Plutarch’s call for self-improvement.

The book, which includes all of the surviving “Parallel Lives,” was jointly produced in Basel by prestigious printers Andreas Cratander and Johannes Bebel. The Greek lettering is enchanting, with the letters artfully designed in a way that makes them look almost handwritten. It is only the third original edition ever printed. The first was published in 1517 by Filippo Giunta in Florence, the second in 1519 by Aldo Manutius in Venice. And now, the Greek Plutarch had finally found a readership north of the Alps.

Plutarch’s Triumph Through the Ages

While the Greek edition remained reserved for the educated elite, the translations into modern languages were extremely successful. William Shakespeare certainly wouldn’t have been able to write his dramas in the same way if he hadn’t read the English edition of “Parallel Lives,” published in 1579. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was no ancient work as widely read as this one. Even as late as the 1990s, it inspired a modern historian to write a double biography of Hitler and Stalin. Of course, this was written without that key intention – so heavily praised at the time– of providing examples of virtuousness as a means of life improvement. But we have life coaches for that now.


Thanks to the Bavarian State Library, you can browse the 1533 edition of Plutarch’s work online at your leisure.

If you’d like to see the German edition of “Parallel Lives,” printed in the 19th century, you’ll find the transcript by Gottlob Benedikt von Schirach on Wikisource.

The more recent English translation, from the prestigious Loeb Classical Library and by Bernadotte Perrinins, is available to read here.

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