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AO Aristides

AmblesideOnline: Plutarch's Life of Aristides

study by Anne White

This study represents a great deal of research, thought and work. We offer it to be used freely, and hope it will be a blessing to many students and parents. However, out of respect for this work, please honor our long-standing terms of use, and do not repost this or any of the AO curriculum anywhere else, in any form. This copyrighted material is free to use, not free to repost or republish. Please be conscientious in your desire to share AO, and link instead of copying.


First, a note perhaps of apology to anyone starting here for the first time.

When I started writing study notes--five years ago now--I came into it cold. I found it easy to think like someone who had never read Plutarch before, because I hadn't.

Now, although I'm still far from being a Plutarch expert, I do "get" a lot of his references without having to look them up; and that makes writing the study notes more difficult, especially for this term: I might forget what the average young AmblesideOnline student doesn't already know.

If you've been following the AmblesideOnline Plutarch rotation, you will probably have done the Life of Themistocles quite recently, and you'll already be familiar with many of the events in the Life of Aristides. If you've read any history of the Persian/Greek war, you'll also know about the context of his life: the battles of Marathon, of Thermopylae, of Salamis, of Plataea. If you've read Hillyer's Child's History of the World, you'll even know the story of his ostracism. (I think Hillyer cribbed from Plutarch.)

If you haven't read any of this, you have two choices: go back and do Themistocles first (my recommendation), or plug along here and hope that I do explain enough but not too much.

Who is Aristides?

Aristides (nicknamed Aristides the Just) was an Athenian statesman and general. He led the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, fought at Salamis in 480 BC, and then led the Athenian forces at Plataea in 479 BC--the final battle against the Persians. He died in about 468 BC. (Clarification for younger students: this century is referred to as the fifth century BC or BCE.)

How do you pronounce Aristides?


Why study Aristides?

If you've just read Themistocles,you might to be tempted to skip Aristides--who needs to read again about the same battles? However, switching the focus to Aristides gives a different perspective on now-familiar events. Also, Aristides is a creative and gifted leader, whose concern with justice sometimes leads him to solve problems in unusual ways.

Translation Used

These notes will be based on the Dryden/Clough translation of Plutarch's Lives. Any online version will be fine. One online text: (first part) and (second part).

Recommended Omissions

The only inappropriate content in Aristides comes near the beginning, at the end of what will be the first paragraph in the second lesson. Please omit the sentence beginning "Ariston of Chios says . . . "

You could also skip some of the very last page, about Aristides' grandaughter and so on, not so much for inappropriateness but just for length and because it may not be of much interest.

Some readers may wish to shorten or skip some of the details of the Greeks' prayers, fortune-telling, and sacrifices; however, they are important to the story so should not be completely omitted.

LESSON ONE--Rich Man, Poor Man


Again, an apology on behalf of Plutarch: this first lesson, at first glance, looks almost unintelligible. Don't run away.

Most of the names in this section don't matter and won't come up again. They are the names of some of Plutarch's sources of information on Aristides. There is one particular question that he wants to begin by discussing: was Aristides rich or poor? You can think about the reasons why that might or might not have mattered much, and discuss them after the reading. Anyway, what he is doing here is bringing up the bits of evidence for each side, and trying to respond to them logically. For instance, someone says that Aristides must have been rich because he sponsored theatrical performances; Plutarch answers that it wasn't uncommon in those days for someone like Aristides both to receive gifts of money and to spend them on something for the public benefit. Somebody named Aristides put up a monument in a temple, which indicates wealth; however, Plutarch says there is evidence that it was another Aristides. One more example: Aristides was ostracized, and, as Plutarch says, that punishment (oddly enough) was considered too good for common people; some would think then that Aristides must have belonged to a wealthy family. But Plutarch says that "everyone was liable to it, whom his reputation, birth, or eloquence raised above the common level." You could get ostracized for being too smart or too popular, and it didn't matter whether you were wealthy or not.

So was Aristides one of the upper class, or just someone who rose by his own merits?


indigence -- poverty
interred -- buried
opulence -- wealth
archon eponymus -- chief magistrate
lot of the bean -- by lot, by the luck of the draw
"highest assessed" etc. -- in the highest tax bracket
ostracism -- temporary banishment of a citizen, decided upon by popular vote (Random House College Dictionary)
tripod -- three-footed pedestal
inveterate -- confirmed, habitual
irreconcilable -- uncompromising
avaricious -- greedy
sordid/mean -- morally low, base

Read from: the beginning to "also seventy minae put out at interest with Crito."

Discussion and Narration

Much of this section is a weighing of evidence for or against the fact of Aristides' supposed poverty. What are the arguments on each side, and how does Plutarch answer them? More importantly, why did this matter?--why does Plutarch start out the story of someone's life by trying to fit him into a particular economic class? Some ideas to consider: is poverty itself a virtue? Can a rich man be virtuous? Can a poor man be virtuous? (Look up the original meaning of "virtue.")

LESSON TWO--"Not at seeming just, but being so"


This lesson introduces Themistocles, another great leader in Athens with whom Aristides shares a lifelong friendship/enemy-ship, but with whom he has almost nothing in common, including temperament or political or moral philosophy. Themistocles is an innovator and a take-charge leader, and he can't understand why it wouldn't be right to show favouritism to your friends--after all, what's the fun of being in power if you can't make use of your privileges?

Aristides, on the other hand, wants only justice and integrity--whatever it takes.

Read From: "Aristides being the friend and supporter of that Clisthenes" to "this virtue, in an especial manner, belonged to him."

Reminder of Recommended Omissions

Please omit the sentence near the beginning of the lesson that starts "Ariston of Chios says . . . "


barathum (possibly also "barathrum") -- I haven't found a definition of this yet.
vicissitudes -- ups and downs
mercenary -- doing something only for a reward
aristocratical -- in Athenian politics, supporting the rule of the old, noble families
partisans -- a young upstart political party (something like guerrillas)
tribunal -- court of justice
inexpediency -- unsuitability

People and Places Referred to:

Clisthenes / expulsion of the tyrants -- "EXPULSION OF THE TYRANTS FROM ATHENS (510 BC).--The two sons of Pisistratus, Hippis and Hipparchus, succeeded to his power, [but later the rule of Hippias] became a tyranny indeed . . . .the Spartans resolved to drive Hippias from Athens. Their first attempt was unsuccessful; but in a second they were so fortunate as to capture the two children of the tyrant, who, to secure their release, agreed to leave the city . . . .THE REFORMS OF CLISTHENES (509 BC).--Straightway upon the expulsion of the Tyrant Hippias, there arose a great strife between the people, who of course wished to organize the government in accord with the constitution of Solon, and the nobles, who desired to re-establish the old aristocratical rule. Clisthenes, an aristocrat, espoused the cause of the popular party. Through his influence several important changes in the constitution, which rendered it still more democratical than under Solon, were now effected." (Source: P.V.N. Myers--A General History for Colleges and High Schools, online.)
Lycurgus -- famous leader of Sparta ("the father of Sparta")
Lacedaemonian -- Spartan

Discussion and Narration

Why did Aristides worry that he and Themistocles could become too powerful?

Discuss the different points of view held by Aristides and Themistocles; for example, about showing partiality to friends. You could do this orally, acting out the parts; or you could write out a conversation between the two men.

LESSON THREE: The Real Thief


This lesson has two parts. If you're just beginning Plutarch, you might want to do them on different days.

The first part continues the description of Aristides' justice and impartiality, not only to his friends but to his enemies. He has such a reputation for honesty that when his supposed friend gets him impeached (to save his own reputation), the elders of the city "un-impeach" him and pay his fine for him. He does not care about public honour--at least not at the expense of integrity.

The second part gets into the Battle of Marathon--the Persians (led here by Datis, sent by King Darius) come into Greece, officially to punish the Athenians "for their burning of Sardis," but really just to gain power over them. (The Persians, at this time, own most of the rest of the known world.) In the Athenian system of command, there are ten generals who take turns being in charge. When Aristides' turn comes, he gives it up to Miltiades, so everyone else follows his lead, and the Greeks unexpectedly send the Persians packing.

The very last bit (starting at "Aristides, immediately after this, was archon") is just a question about when exactly Aristides did become archon; it can be omitted if you want.

Read from: "He was a most determined champion" to "Aristides is registered."


alienated -- stolen
impeach -- "to accuse a public official before an appropriate tribunal of misconduct in office" (Random House College Dictionary)
exempted -- let off
with more remissness -- with less diligence and attention
pillaged -- robbed
commiserate -- sympathize with
appeasing -- bringing to a state of peace
acquiesce -- agree
suffered -- allowed
prostrated himself -- cast himself on the ground out of humility
fillet -- a narrow headband or strip of ribbon worn as a headband

Discussion and Narration

Discuss the first sentence ("He was a most determined champion for justice, not only against feelings of friendship and favour, but wrath and malice."). Give examples from the reading. Is there an example here for you to follow yourself?

If you're having any trouble following the petty theft story, here is a breakdown of the events:
     1. Aristides, the chief treasurer, states that money and valuables have disappeared from the treasury, and that they have been taken by those (besides himself) who have access to it/are responsible for guarding them.
     2. Themistocles makes it sound like Aristides himself is the thief and that he is just trying to blame others; he gets Aristides impeached.
     3. Aristides is "un-impeached" and his fine is paid by those who trust in his integrity.
     4. Aristides decides to let the other officials get away with whatever they want from now on, which makes him so popular that they clamour for his re-election to the position.
     5. Aristides exposes what has been going on and expresses his sympathy to the public who are being governed by such robbers and rascals.
     6. He loses the support of those he had named, but continues to be commended by "the best men."

LESSON FOUR: A Short Lesson about Ostracism


If you were a superhero, would you rather be known for your power, or your virtue? Plutarch begins this lesson with some philosophical musings. He wonders why people throughout history seem to downplay virtue, "the only divine good really in our reach." ("Nice guys finish last."--The Flintstones)

The rest of the lesson is about The Ostracism. Most of it is self-explanatory.

Read from: "Of all his virtues, the common people were most affected with his justice" to "constrain them to remember Aristides."


appellation -- name, nickname
assimilate themselves -- make themselves like
the elements and vacuum -- refers to the Greek beliefs about the structure of the universe. ("From the time of Thales, about 600 bc, Greek philosophers were making logical speculations about the physical world rather than relying on myth to explain phenomena. Thales himself assumed that all matter was derived from water, which could solidify to earth or evaporate to air. His successors expanded this theory into the idea that four "elements" composed the world: earth, water, air, and fire. Democritus thought that these elements were composed of atoms, minute particles moving in a vacuum. Others, especially Aristotle, believed that the elements formed a continuum of mass and therefore a vacuum could not exist. The atomic idea quickly lost ground among the Greeks, but it was never entirely forgotten. When it was revived during the Renaissance, it formed the basis of modern atomic theory." -- MSN Encarta)
divinity, divine -- refers to the gods or deities (a divinity is a god or deity, a divine being)
varieties of feeling commonly entertained towards the deity -- different attitudes people generally have towards or about the gods
surname -- last name, or in this case an extra name attached after one's common name (Aristides the Just)
speciously -- sounding true but not really so
mitigation -- lessening, easing off
factions -- parties, political groups
sherd -- piece of broken pottery

Discussion and Narration (choose some of these rather than trying to do all of them)

Discuss this line: "affecting (desiring), it seems, the reputation which proceeds from power and violence, rather than that of virtue." Why do you think it is that "kings and tyrants have never sought" to be known for their justice, and yet that Aristides' justice brought him the "kingly and divine appellation of Just?"

How did Themistocles stir up the Athenians against Aristides?

If someone at work or school is "ostracized," it usually means that nobody will talk to him or work with him because he has done something shameful. How was the Athenian thinking about ostracism quite different?

Discuss Aristides' reaction to his ostracism.

LESSON FIVE: The Battle of Salamis


The Battle of Salamis--the victory of the Greek navy over the Persians--led to the downturn in Persia's status as world leader and also, according to some sources, established Greece (especially Athens) as a major force in the development of western culture. (From Wikipedia: "Many historians argue that Greece's ensuing independence laid the foundations for Western civilization, most notably from the preservation of Athenian democracy. Had the Persians won at Salamis, it is very likely that Xerxes would have succeeded in conquering the nation and passing to the European continent, with important effects on the course of human history."--Wikipedia article "Battle of Salamis"; argument attributed to Victor David Hanson) In other words, this battle was world-changing.

If you need more background on these events, I'd suggest having a quick read through two Wikipedia articles: "Battle of Salamis" and "Eurybiades." For more detail, you could read the appropriate chapters in a junior history of Greece such as Mary MacGregor's The Story of Greece (online at The Baldwin Project); or Jacob Abbott's biography of Xerxes (also at The Baldwin Project--see the chapter "The Battle of Salamis" (very interesting and relevant, although Abbott refers to "Mnesiphilus" conversing with Themistocles, instead of Aristides. Apparently there is some controversy over this, but this isn't the place to get into it.). Or if you're really interested in the Persian Wars, you could read Herodutus's history.

But we need to focus in on Aristides; and he doesn't seem to have been right there in the battle (he was handling things at Psyttalea--more on that later), so Plutarch skips right over most of the details of how the Greeks trapped the large, unwieldy Persian ships in the narrow bay and sank enough of them to declare a victory. It is the hours leading up to the battle, the events on Psyttalea, and the battle's aftermath, that get most of the attention in this story.

NOTE on the Persian kings (also referred to here as the barbarians or the Medes): lesson 3 referred to King Darius, but he had died in the ten years since the Battle of Marathon. The later invasions were carried out by his son and successor, Xerxes, aided by Xerxes' son-in-law (some just say "kinsman"), Mardonius.

Read from: "Nevertheless, three years, after . . . " to "deserted the alliance of Greece."

Notes on the last section of the reading:
The very last part of the reading, about the dealings between Athens and Sparta, may not be clear from the details Plutarch gives. Mary MacGregor's The Story of Greece simplifies it somewhat and you may prefer to read this version, starting at Plutarch's line "But he sent privately to the Athenians . . . .":

"MARDONIUS . . . .determined to win Athens from the league which she had formed with the other Greek states, or if he failed to do this, to drive the citizens once again away from their city and occupy it himself.

"So he sent an ambassador to the Athenians to offer, in the name of Xerxes, not only to repair all the harm that the Persians had done to Athens and to the country round about the city, but to give them new lands and to treat them as independent allies, if they would make a treaty with the great king.

"The Spartans were afraid that the Athenians would accept so generous an offer, and they knew that alone they could not hope to conquer the large Persian army which Mardonius commanded. So they sent to the Athenians to beg them to be true to the league, promising that if they were so, Spartan soldiers would be sent to help them against the attacks of the enemy.

"But the Athenians did not need to be entreated to refuse the offer of the great king, for they loved their city and their liberty.

"''Tell Mardonius,' they said to the ambassador whom the Persian general had sent, 'so long as the sun moves in his present course we will never come to terms with Xerxes.'"--Mary MacGregor, "The Battle of Plataea" in The Story of Greece


in consideration of the common security -- taking into account what was best for all of them during this crisis
Eurybiades was deliberating to desert the isle of Salamis -- This gets a bit complicated. Eurybiades was a Spartan general who was, at least officially, leading all the combined Greek forces because none of the other Greek forces would follow a commander from one of the other groups; the Spartans were outside of that inner-circle squabbling and they agreed to fight under a Spartan commander (even if Themistocles, an Athenian, was really giving the orders). Eurybiades and many of the others wanted to move the fighting down further south, where they thought they would have a better chance against the Persians; there were several councils of war held to discuss this.
how they were environed -- where they were situated
subservient -- subordinate
engage -- engage in battle; fight
straits -- narrow passages
approbation -- approval
eunuch -- a certain type of servant
superannuated -- those too old to take care of themselves
despoiled -- plundered
anathematise -- curse; threaten with divine punishment

People and Places:

If you're not familiar with the Hellespont, it would help to look that up: it is the the strait between the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara that separates European Turkey from Asian Turkey; it was also the only route back to Persia. Xerxes and his army would have to cross the bridge over the strait to get out of Greece.

Psyttalea is also spelled Psyttalia. This is the island where some of the Persian troops were stationed, and where Aristides fought during the battle of Salamis.

Attica is the region around Athens.

Discussion and Narration -- choose one or more to discuss

Why did the Athenians believe it was important to bring Aristides back from his banishment during the Persian attacks? Was their judgment correct?

Why was Themistocles having a hard time getting his men to agree to fight in the straits--and how did Aristides use his particular gifts during this time? (You might have to do a bit of extra reading to answer this question.) Consider this line: "rendering, in consideration of the common security, the greatest enemy he had the most glorious of men." How does this show his magnanimity, or generosity of spirit?

What happened after the battle? How did the Greeks make Xerxes want to get out of their country quickly? Why were Mardonius and part of the army left behind?

For older students: Shakespeare borrowed stories and sometimes conversations from Plutarch. If he had written a play about these events, how might he have written the discussion between Themistocles and Aristides, and then the council of war?

LESSON SIX: The Battle of Plataea (Part One)


This section is about preparing to fight the Battle of Plataea, which took place the year after Salamis and was the last Greek kick in the pants for the Persians. Aristides leads the Athenian forces, although Pausanias is the "generalissimo."

It brings up a lot of questions about the value of prophecies, dreams, and sacrifices. If you believe in such omens and oracles, what do you do if you get conflicting words of "wisdom?" The Greeks are told not to be the first ones to attack; they are also told both to go up a mountain and to stay in their own territory. It turns out there's a trick of names involved; eventually they pinpoint the right spot and--since it's not their own territory--the friendly Plataeans donate the land so that it IS Athenian territory. So clever. But with all this--will they win the battle?

The last part of the reading is an argument that should be familiar to anyone who's ever vied for a favourite side of the car: who gets the best spot in the fighting?

Read from: "When Mardonius made a second incursion into the country of Attica" to "and gave them the other wing of the battle."


"the people passed over again into the isle of Salamis" -- the Athenians fled there for safety
Helots -- Spartan serfs (not exactly slaves, but not free citizens either)
Ephori -- One of a body of five elected magistrates exercising a supervisory power over the kings of Sparta. (
sporting; "carelessly keeping holy day" -- the Ephori didn't want to appear too co-operative, so they made a big deal out of the fact that they were all in the middle of a religious festival and couldn't possibly be expected to interrupt everything for some battle
furlong -- 1/8 of a mile
fane -- temple, sacred place
manifest -- this word is used twice in the passage. The first time, it is an adjective meaning "clear"; the second time, it is a verb meaning "to show" or "to prove."
reprehended -- scolded
"in this juncture" -- at this critical point in time; moment of decision
frontiers -- boundaries

People and Places:

Lacedaemon -- Sparta
Arimnestus -- commander of the Plataeans
Pausanias -- the Greek chief commander
Names of nymphs, gods and heroes -- it's not necessary to go through all of those listed.
Delphi -- the place where a priestess delivered cryptic messages, supposedly from Apollo
Tegeatans -- those from Tegea

Discussion and Narration -- choose one or more to discuss

Why did the Spartans send their soldiers only later, and in secret?

Show how Aristides modelled wisdom, tact, and ability to handle peoples' egos and keep the peace. (Imagine what might have happened if he had not intervened.)

Mark 10:35-40 is the story of James and John asking to sit at Jesus' right hand. How might this story (including Jesus' response) relate to Aristides' attitude toward personal glory? ("For we are come, not to differ with our friends, but to fight our enemies; not to extol our ancestors, but ourselves to behave as valiant men. This battle will manifest how much each city, captain, and private soldier is worth to Greece."")