Plutarch was a Greek writer who lived from 46 to 120 AD. To quote from the Philip's World History Encyclopedia, "his best-known work is his Parallel Lives, which consists of paired biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. Shakespeare used it as the source for his Roman history plays." Dr. George Grant of King's Meadow Study Center has written an article that addresses this called "Why Read Plutarch?"
Some eager Year Four students will be able to begin Plutarch; others may choose to read Emily Beesly's Stories from the History of Rome (online at archive.org or googlebooks). Students who have moved up to reading Shakespeare's plays in the original will probably be ready.
We take one of the biographies each term and study that person's life in detail. To make it easier, we have created study notes for many of the Lives we use, breaking each one down into twelve readings, suggesting parts that parents will probably want to omit, giving vocabulary help, and offering discussion questions.
For various reasons (such as the cost of books and the high frequency of mature content in Plutarch), Charlotte Mason seemed to expect that these lessons would be read aloud. Most of us have found that, since these Lives offer many topics for discussion, students (and parents) get more out of them when they are studied together. Older students may prefer to read independently.
No, you do not have to buy a volume of Plutarch's Lives. Each term's study notes gives a link to an online version or an (included) edited version of the text.
The translation Charlotte Mason recommended was that by North, which is the one Shakespeare would have used and which is full of nice, rich, Shakespearish language. (purchase; There are page images of all ten volumes online). (Advisory member Anne White is typing these to use with her Study Guides.) The poet Dryden re-translated Plutarch, and in the 1800s that translation was edited by Arthur Hugh Clough. The first versions of the study notes here (written by Advisory member Anne White) mostly used Dryden because it was easily accessible online. However, these are being revised to use North's translation, and the revised notes contain the text within the lessons.
In the early years of the Parents' Union School, Plutarch was counted as part of the History lessons, because there was no real category that seemed to fit. In later years, after Charlotte Mason had written her own book (Ourselves) for students, and other books came along that dealt with what we might call practical civics and economic history, these were grouped together and called Citizenship. What does one need to do, or what character did one need to have, to be both a good subject and a great leader? When is it right to fight against tyranny? How do human beings manage their affairs, wisely and justly or not?
That is not to say that you can't learn a great deal of history from them; and in fact, Plutarch is one major source of the historical information we do have on many events. But for our purposes, we read Plutarch for the ideas and life lessons his biographies offer, rather than as a history course. It's a look at what motivated some of the famous figures of the ancient world, what they did right, and where they went wrong.
"Plutarch's Lives, . . . I think, stand alone in literature as teaching that a man is part of the State, that his business is to be of service to the State, but that the value of his service depends upon his personal character. (Parents Review article by Charlotte Mason)
The key to understanding Plutarch's Lives, as Charlotte Mason used them, can be found in the examination questions that were given. Something as innocent-sounding as Form III's "How did Alexander spend his days at a time of leisure?" may end up being, as Charlotte would say, suggestive. Note that there is nothing more there than a question--but it's a thought-provoking one. Did he make the dull time count for something, or was it unproductive? Form II's (younger students) were asked "Why and how did Alexander teach his men 'to acquaint themselves with hardness?'" They were not being asked to write essays on the importance of fortitude, they were simply asked to recount what was said or done; but the idea was there, to be taken or not.
Alcibiades, someone who had "great courage and quickness of understanding, but had many great faults and imperfections" inspired an examination question that went both ways: "Tell a story to illustrate (a), his courage, (b), his envy." Often the students were asked to describe someone's behaviour in a particular situation; again, not necessarily telling why this was good or bad, but telling the story, giving examples of particular virtues or vices.
In many cases the examination questions were based on a quotation, which may suggest to us as the "course facilitators" that we may want to make sure such sayings are noticed and remembered, in whatever ways seem the most natural for us to do so.
From Alexander again:
"Alexander loved to remember and reward the worthy deeds of men." Give two instances in details,
OR, "To live at pleasure is a vile thing, and to travel is princely." Why did Alexander thus rebuke his friends? Tell the whole story.
In the high school years, the quotations and the writing were at a higher level. From the Life of Julius Caesar, for Form IV (Grade 9):
1. Sketch briefly the character of Julius Caesar, and say to what events in his life the following sayings refer,--
(a), "A man can be but once undone, come on."
(b), "Time of war and law are two things."
(c), "Thou has Caesar and his fortune with thee."
And from Cleomenes, a question which seems to sum up much of Plutarch and Citizenship:
What were some of the things that Cleomenes "thought most fit and honourable for a prince" in private and in public life?
First of all, don't underestimate your children (and yourself). Many of us have gone into Plutarch studies with great trepidation, and have ended up finding it one of the favourite and best-remembered books in the upper years.
That said, yes, there are later translations *, and there are abridgements for young people, and even some children's versions online. There are three childrens' versions of Plutarch (Our Young Folk's Plutarch, by Rosalie Kaufman, Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls by W. H. Weston, and a 2-volume Children's Plutarch by F.J. Gould divided between Tales of the Greeks and Tales of the Romans) that may be helpful in the same way as Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare or Bible story books are. (See chapter titles for some of these retellings below.) There is also John S. White's Boys and Girls Plutarch on Project Gutenberg which is basically the Dryden/Clough translation with omissions of material not suitable for children. However, like Bible story books, sometimes the retellings feel like they're missing the original flavour or intent of the story, and on occasion they will even substitute a gorier word or phrase than one that earlier translators used!
One thing we sometimes suggest in the notes is not trying to focus on details of names or other unfamiliar references, but just trying to get the main idea of what's going on in the story. The same thing can happen with Shakespeare if you get so caught up in understanding all the vocabulary that you can't just read the script. Plutarch does tell good stories; you have to get into his style, though. (One advantage of doing Plutarch that many parents have found is that it takes some of the fear out of reading other older historical books.)
Stop frequently and have your student(s) narrate, or at least make sure they're is clear on what just happened. It can be a good idea to to start Plutarch lessons with an overview of what's going to happen, even if sometimes a "spoiler" has to be included--it helps to know what kind of a story they'll be listening to before they start. You could also suggest one or two things to listen for in the reading.
Term 1: September - November
Term 2: January - March
Term 3: April - June
AmblesideOnline schedules these terms as a group to facilitate our Artist, Composer, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Folksongs and Hymns studies through sharing resources and experiences on the list. Study Guides with Thomas North's "text included and divided are the work of AO Advisory member Anne White.
If you are just beginning Plutarch, you may wish to begin with Publicola (listed below), as it has has study notes for beginners. Anne White's study guide with the text of Thomas North's Life of Publicola is also available for purchase from amazon.com: The Publicola Primer by Anne White: $
2015-2016 School Year (Purchase all 3 of this year's Lives with Anne White's study guides as a single book: $)
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Marcus Cato the Censor (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Philopoemen (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Titus Flamininus (Anne White's Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
2016-2017 School Year (Purchase all 3 of this year's Lives with Anne White's study guides as a single book: $)
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Nicias (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Crassus (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
2017-2018 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Agis and Cleomenes
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of T. Gracchus and C. Gracchus
2018-2019 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Demosthenes (Study Guide)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Cicero (Study Guide)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Demetrius (Anne White's study guide and student-friendly edited text) Although a good leader, he also had a more sordid side, which Plutarch does not sanitize; we recommend using an edited text. Wikepedia.org has a brief bio.
2019-2020 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Alexander (summary of Alexander by AO student)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Dion - "Justice and bravery, together with a healthy feeling of self-sacrifice, and a preparation for and fulfilment of public responsibilities, breathe through the whole of the "Life of Dion." - Miss Ambler (Anne White's Study Guide)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Marcus Brutus (Anne White's Study Guide)
2020-2021 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Solon (Anne White's Study Guide) (summary of Solon by AO student)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Poplicola/Publicola (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only) [Purchase Publicola Primer $]
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Pompey
2021-2022 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Themistocles (Anne White's Study Guide and edited text)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Pericles (Anne White's Study Guide)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Fabius (Anne White's Study Guide; edited text)
2022-2023 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus (Anne White's Study Guide)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Cato the Younger
2023-2024 School Year
Term 1: Plutarch's Life of Timoleon (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 2: Plutarch's Life of Aemilius Paulus (Study Guide with Thomas North's text; text only)
Term 3: Plutarch's Life of Aristides (Anne White's in-progress Study Guide: lessons 1-6 complete)
Optional Alternative Lives:
Plutarch's Life of Theseus (use a child-appropriate version, such as this one)
Plutarch's Life of Romulus (Anne White's in-progress Study Guide and Text divided into 12 weekly readings)
These retellings could be used with younger children if Plutarch is read as a family study, or as a supplement.
Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls by W. H. Weston (not a complete collection, but the least abridged; not a childish edition.)
The Gracchi: Tiberius Gracchus, Caius Gracchus and Cornelia, their mother
Our Young Folks Plutarch by
Rosemary Kaufman, online at www.mainlesson.com and Heritage History (significantly more condensed than Weston's, but not as easy as Gould's; meant for fairly young children)
Caius Marcius Coriolanus
Marcus Cato (also called Cato the Stern, or Cato the Elder, or Cato the Censor)
Cato the Younger
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould (the shortest, most condensed version for the youngest ages; includes pronunciations of names.)
The Hardy Men of Sparta - Lycurgus
The Wise Man of Athens - Solon
The Just Man - Aristides
The Savior of Athens - Themistocles
The Admiral of the Fleet - Cimon
The Man Who Made Athens Beautiful - Pericles
Three Powers - Lysander
The Man with Many Faces - Alcibiades
In Old Persia - Artaxerxes
A Lame King - Agesilaus
A Martyr King - Agis
A Valiant Helper - Pelopidas
The Man Who Saved Sicily - Timoleon
The Orator - Demosthenes
The Conqueror - Alexander
A Servant of the City - Phocion
Golden Shoes and Two Crowns - Demetrius
Up the Scaling-Ladders - Aratus
A Fighting King - Pyrrhus
The Last of the Greeks - Philopoemen
Tales of the Romans: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
The Twins - Romulus
What the Forest Lady Said - Numa
Why the Romans Bore Pain - Brutus
The Second Founder of Rome - Camillus
The Man Who Waited - Fabius
How a Woman Saved Rome - Coriolanus
The Triumph - Aemilius Paulus
A Roman Undismayed - Marcellus
Cato the Stern - Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder, or Cato the Censor)
The General Who Ate Dry Bread - Caius Marius
The Red General - Sulla/Sylla
Battle-Fields and Gardens - Lucullus
The Man Who Loved Gold - Crassus
The White Fawn - Sertorius
The Conqueror of Pirates - Pompey
Caesar and His Fortune - Caesar
The Man Who Seldom Laughed - Cato the Younger
The Noble Brothers - Tiberius Gracchus and Caius Gracchus
Tully - Cicero
The Man Who Looked Like Hercules - Antony
Caesar's Friend and Enemy - Brutus
* Louise Ropes Loomis translated a version titled "Plutarch: Selected Lives and Essays." It has a 1951 copyright date and is not online as an etext, but used copies can be found from online booksellers. This is an unabridged yet modernized, easy to read version. Because it is unabridged, it will require some on-the-fly parental editing. It includes these Lives: Lycurgus; Numa Pompilius; Themistocles; Camillus; Pericles; Fabius Maximus; Alcibiades; Gaius Marcius Coriolanus; Demosthenes; Cicero.
Plutarch's Lives of Illustrious Men translated from the Greek by John and William Langhorne, 1856 (page images; may be more complete than Dryden's; this is the version quoted in the Parents' Review article above, which may indicate that it was one used by CM's students.)
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