Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

The Children's Plutarch provides a brief biography of most of the Romans that Plutarch wrote lives for, including Cicero, Caesar, Sulla, Marcellus, Pompey, Numa, Romulus, Coriolanus, and many others. The essays are not complete biographies, but brief sketches that usually illustrate a few simple moral lessons about the character of the subject. The complexity level is very appropriate for younger children.

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I do not know why it is that among the Greeks and Romans who are so nearly fabulous as to be scarcely historical at all, Romulus should have a living hold upon the imagination, and Theseus should remain a very dim memory. The Lives of Plutarch begin with these founders of the Roman and the Grecian states, but if the balance tilts so heavily on the side of the Romans, it is dressed in favor of the Greeks in the next following lives of Lycurgus and Numa, and the next of Solon and Poplicola, and the fourth pair, Themistocles and Camillus. It is not until we come to Pericles and Fabius that the balance begins to be even again; and there the splendor of the Grecian's statesmanship eclipses the glory of the Roman patriot in the eyes of those who value civic genius above military virtue.

Of course in the long-run the Romans excel the Grecians in the number of their famous men, but the children ought to remember that the years of Rome were nearly ten times as many as those of Greece; and when their minds kindle with the thought of the Romans who were great from the earliest days of the city far down into the dark of the dying empire, they should be made to consider how glorious the fewer Greeks were in the few short centuries which compassed in time the rise and fall of their republics. As they read Mr. Gould's stories from Plutarch they should be reminded that both Greece and Rome were republican after a brief time, when they were misruled by tyrants, until that long, long time when they sank again under the sway of kings and emperors; the long time which continues yet for most of the European states, but has ceased throughout the whole of America except in the democratic Dominion of Canada. Yet they should be taught that the Roman republic was always a state where even without kings the few ruled the many as they do in Spanish America now, while in the Grecian republics the whole people came nearer the likeness of our own people in their self-government. The freedom of both these states, they should also be taught, was based upon the bondage of men who might be killed or whipped and put to the cruelest shame at the pleasure of their masters because they had suddenly, while free, rich, learned citizens of their native countries, been taken in war, or stolen and sold by pirates. The children should be told that such an immortal sage as Plato was bought for a hundred dollars, and Epictetus, whose philosophy was the study of the good and wise Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was a slave with all the chances of a slave's misery. Not all of the Greeks and Romans were blind to the despair which underlay their highest and bravest hopes, and when Christianity came to them it brought liberty to their bondsmen long after they had lost their own free citizenship.

I believe that if the children realize this they will the more perfectly realize the nobleness and greatness of the Romans whose lives are told in this book. It will be well for them to understand that human nature is a mixed and contradictory thing, and that out of the warring good and evil in it the good often triumphed. Socrates truly said that a slave could have no virtues, and yet the slave Epictetus taught in his book and in his life all the virtues. The young readers should also be made to see how, in every time, human nature has continued capable of the same results; and how very modern in the high things the civilized Greeks and Romans were, while in the low things they remained savage. It will be curious and instructive for them to note how, in the earliest and strongest of the Grecian states, one of the latest dreams of government had come true. The Sparta which the laws of Lycurgus created was a state in which the people were equal sharers in the rights and duties of all; none were rich or poor, except as the others were, and that each did everything for the common weal. But this was for the common weal in war, while the new dream of a perfect state is for the common weal in work, where there are neither rich nor poor in an equality of the peaceful ownership of the land and the tools and the fruits of labor by all, for all.

Another thing which I could wish the children to observe is how the wisest and best of the ancients were in the bonds of fear to signs and portents which men laugh at now. This was because their education was, at the best, philosophical, and dealt with conduct through the discussion of moral principles under gods who had none, while the modern education is scientific, and has enlarged the world to boundlessness through vaster knowledge and sympathy with every form of life. The Roman world, though it was the whole civilized world, was a small world, and it sank at last under the fears and dangers that always encompassed it in the unknown beyond it.

But while it lasted for well a thousand years, what a glorious world it was, and what quenchless memories it has left! It makes one a boy again to think of Romulus and Remus and their wolf foster-mother and the undying city they founded; of the patriots, who drove out the race of kings; of Cincinnatus, who left his plough to serve his country and went back to it when his country was safe; of Regulus, whom the Carthagenians sent to counsel peace to the Romans, but who counselled war, and then held himself bound in honor to return to captivity and death in Carthage; of Virginius, who slew his child rather than let her live the slave of the tyrant; of the stern Brutus, who put his sons to death for treason; of that other Brutus, who joined in slaying his adoptive father, the mighty Caesar, "because he was ambitious" of the rule of Rome; of the mighty Caesar himself, with his splendid soldiership and statesmanship; of the warrior and orator Antony; of the stern patriot Cato; of the great Augustus; of the good emperors who made the best of their bad business of being absolute sovereigns.

But I hope that the boys of this present day will see these captains and patriots with clearer eyes than the boys of the past, and will perceive that if their deeds had been done for the help and not for the hurt of others, they would have been far truer and grander heroes. When they read of the last days of the Roman Republic and the first days of the Roman Empire, let them remember how it was that then the spirit of Christ came into the world to bring peace on earth and good-will to men, and to teach the patriotism which is not bound by a city or a country, by a tribe or a nation, but devotes itself to the happiness of all mankind.



It appeared to me that, by way of preliminary to lessons on justice, government, political progress, etc., it would be well to create in the child-nature a sympathy for some definite historic movement. With this sympathy as a basis, one could better build up conceptions of social justice, civic evolution, and international relations. I could think of no finer material for this purpose than the admirable biographies of Plutarch; though the national history, or the history of Western Europe generally, would doubtless serve the same end. Western history, however, derives its traditions from Greece and Rome, and it seemed to me an advantage to use a work which not only furnished simple instruction in the meaning of politics, but also held rank as a literary classic. My version is intended for children aged about ten to fourteen, after which period they should be encouraged to go direct to the wise, manly, and entertaining pages of Plutarch himself. The ethical index is framed for the use of teachers who wish for examples to illustrate the moral lessons which are now becoming a recognized part of the regular school education. The spirit of my selection from Plutarch's ample store is aptly represented in the beautiful drawings by Mr. Walter Crane.


Biographical Note

The famous author, philosopher, and educator who is known to us as Plutarch—in Greek, Πλουταρχος—was born at Chaeronea, in Boeotia, about A.D. 46. The wealth of his parents enabled him to enjoy a thorough education at Athens, particularly in philosophy. After making various journeys, he lived for a long time in Rome, where he lectured upon philosophy and associated with people of distinction, and took an important part in the education of the future Emperor Hadrian. The Emperor Trajan gave him consular rank, and Hadrian appointed him Procurator of Greece. It was about A.D. 120 that he died in his native town of Chaeronea, where he was archon and priest of the Pythian Apollo.

In addition to his most famous work, the Parallel Lives, known familiarly as Plutarch's Lives, he was the author of some eighty-three writings of various kinds. The Lives, which were probably prepared in Rome, but finished and published late in life at Chaeronea, were intended to afford studies of character, and the vividness of the mental and moral portraiture has made them continue to be a living force. Historically they have supplied many deficiencies in knowledge of the times and persons treated in his great work.