The First Aldine Edition of Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”

Plutarch (c. 50–c. 120 AD)

Ploutarchou Parallela en Biois Hellenon te kai Romaion [Graece]. Plutarchi quae vocantur Parallela: hoc est, vitae illustrium virorum Graeci nominis ac Latini, prout quaeque alteri convenire videbatur, digestae.

Venice: In aedibus Aldi et Andreae Soceri, mense Augusto 1519


Folio: 30 x 20.5 cm. [4], 345, [1] leaves. Collation: *4, (lacking blank *4), a[alpha]-z[zeta]8, aa[2alpha]-tt[2tau]8, uu[2upsilon]10

FIRST ALDINE EDITION. Bound in eighteenth-century mottled sheepskin with a citron morocco label, gilt. A fine copy of the Aldine Plutarch with minor faults. The text is printed throughout in Greek, with capital spaces and printed guide letters at the beginning of each life. With the Aldine anchor and dolphin device on the title page and the verso of the final leaf. The title is a little soiled and there are discreetly backed tears in the margins of the first three leaves. A short worm trail has been expertly repaired in the final three signatures, very slightly affecting the text. There are also discreet repairs to the blank, upper corners of the final leaves. The margins of many of the lives have been heavily annotated in Greek and Latin by an unidentified 16th c. reader.

This is the second edition in Greek, following the editio princeps printed by Giunta in 1517. The text was edited by Francesco Asulano, Andrea Torresani’ son and Aldus’ brother-in-law. Renouard, citing Johann Jacob Reiske, reports that there are apparently two editions of this date that differ in a number of textual points “the first Aldine edition appears to have been formed on the preceding of Giunta; the second differs greatly from it, exhibits a purer text, and was the basis for the Basel and Stephanus editions.” It is unclear which of the two variants our copy represents.

Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”, a series of paired biographies in which the lives of famous Greeks and Romans are compared, is one of the signal achievements of classical literature. While the genre of biography was -in antiquity as it is now- distinct from that of history, Plutarch’s biographies, along with those of his Roman contemporary, Suetonius, provided complex portraits of the great figures of history - Theseus and Romulus; Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero- with which successive generations could populate their vision of the historical past.

“The lives display impressive learning and research. Many sources are quoted and although Plutarch had probably not consulted all these at first hand, his investigations were clearly extensive, and compilation must have occupied many years. The form of the lives represents a new achievement, not closely linked with either previous biography or Hellenistic history. The general scheme was to give the birth, youth and character, achievements, and circumstances of death, interspersed with frequent ethical reflections. Plutarch never claimed to be writing history, which he distinguished from biography. His aim was to delight and edify the reader, and he did not conceal his own sympathies, which were especially evident in his warm admiration for the words and deeds of Spartan kings and generals…

“Plutarch’s later influence has been profound. He was loved and respected in his own time and in later antiquity. Gradually, Plutarch’s reputation faded from the Latin West, but he continued to influence philosophers and scholars in the Greek East, were his works came to constitute a school book. Proclus, Porphyry, and emperor Julian all quote him, and the Greek Church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Clement the Great imitate him without acknowledgment. His works were familiar to all cultivated Byzantines. It was mainly the ‘Moralia’ which appealed to them, but in the ninth century the Byzantine scholar and patriarch Photius read the ‘Parallel Lives’ with his friends.

“Plutarch’s works were introduced to Byzantine scholars along with the revival of classical learning in the fifteenth century, and Italian humanists had already translated them into Latin and Italian before 1509, when the ‘Moralia’, the first of his works to be printed in the original Greek, was printed by the Aldine press. The first Greek text of the lives was printed at Florence in 1517.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition)

Renouard, p. 87, no. 9; New UCLA 182; Hoffmann III, 175; Schweiger p. 259, col. 2