Greek, c. 46–c. 120/125 CE
Although Plutarch was Greek, he was as familiar with the history and culture of Rome as he was with that of his native land. A disciple of Plato and Aristotle, he nevertheless had his own views of humanity and expressed them in his works. He was a prolific and varied writer who produced two extensive collections of essays, Moralia (Morals) and Vitae parallelae (Parallel lives; translated simply as Lives).
The Morals reveals Plutarch’s personal interests as well as his scholarly knowledge of a wide range of subjects. Using the forms of dialogue, letter, and diatribe, he is ever the lecturer on human weaknesses and problems, but always with an optimistic turn of mind that provides the reader with the solace that such weaknesses and problems do have answers if one will just look for them. These essays are a pleasure to read not only for their style, but also for their wide variety of topics, such as the education of children, how to distinguish between flattery and true friendship, the significance of Isis and Osiris in Egyptian mythology, the genius of Socrates, rules for husband and wife, the eating of meat, whether water or fire is more useful, and superstition. Although some are long and can be difficult to read, they nevertheless reflect a broad familiarity with literature and history and a keen insight into many human concerns, both esoteric and practical. Often referred to as a “physician of the soul,” Plutarch probably wrote more on moral topics than any other writer of ancient times.
As interesting as Morals may be, however, it is the Lives for which Plutarch is best known. These are biographical essays on illustrious Greeks and Romans produced in successive books probably between 105 and 115 CE. The essays are paired, one Greek and one Roman. Plutarch’s primary concern is not with history or politics specifically, but with the personal aspects of his subjects, particularly the ways their qualities and virtues might serve as guides for himself and his readers. “It was for the sake of others that I first began to write biographies,” he says, “but I find myself continuing to do it for my own.”
Although he understood human nature well, Plutarch had in him more than a touch of the romantic. An accomplished storyteller, he seeks to reflect the truth in his essays, at least as he sees it. Admitting, for example, that “nothing can be said of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, which is not open to dispute,” he goes on to say that he will nevertheless “endeavor to write a history of his life, following the statements which are least contradicted and depending upon the authors who are most worthy of belief.” In this way, then, Plutarch approaches all of the Lives.
While the subjects of Plutarch’s Lives left their imprints on their times, he writes about them from his own moral point of view. Like most biographers, he does not try to hide that perspective, thus adding to the interest and readability of the Lives. Plutarch seeks to bring out those aspects of his characters’ lives that, while they may seem minor in some cases, are in his mind just as important as heroic exploits in illustrating virtues and vices.
“I must,” he says, “be allowed to dwell especially on things that express the souls of these men, and through them portray their lives, leaving it to others to describe their mighty deeds and battles.”
Not only does Plutarch skillfully balance Greek with Roman, he also balances the weaknesses and strengths, as he sees them, of his subjects. Themistocles, on the one hand, might be an ambitious person hungry for fame and a keen moneymaker; yet on the other, he was liked by all the people, “for he called every citizen by name, and would act as a safe and a fair judge in private disputes between citizens.”
When he comes to Alexander and Caesar, Plutarch finds himself with “such an abundance of material that I shall make no other preface but to beg my readers not to complain of me if I do not relate all their celebrated exploits… I am writing not histories but lives, and a man’s most conspicuous achievements do not always reveal best his strength or his weakness.” Likening himself to a portrait painter, he points out that he must be allowed to go beyond the mere faces of his subjects and to “dwell especially on things that express the souls of these men.” That statement probably best describes the strategy and the goal that Plutarch had in writing the Lives.
Although Plutarch is ever the moralist in the Lives, he presents an education in Greek and Roman history that surpasses any other extant ancient work. That the work has been read and has influenced other writers for almost 2000 years attests not only to the superb research and tremendous effort that Plutarch put into its creation, but also the vitality and spirit of his narrative style and to his love for humankind.
See also Classical Influences
Born Lucius (?) Mestrius Plutarchus, c. 46 CE in Chaeronea, Boeotia, central Greece.
Studied in Athens, mid-60s. Married Timoxena: at least four sons and one daughter.
Lectured in Rome and visited Egypt; priest at Delphi, and helped revive the shrine there;
held numerous municipal posts in Chaeronea; possibly made a procurator by the emperor Hadrian. Died c. 120–25 CE.
Essays and Related Prose
Moralia, edited by H.Wegehaupt and others, 1925–; as Morals, various translators, 5 vols., 1684–94, revised by W.W.Goodwin, 5 vols., 1874–78; also translated by Frank G.Babbitt and others (Loeb Edition), 15 vols., 1927–69, and Harold Cherniss, 1976;
selections translated by T.G.Tucker and A.O.Prickard, 2 vols., 1913–18, Rex Warner, 1971, Robin Waterfield, 1992, and Donald Russell, 1993
Vitae parallelae, edited by K.Ziegler and C.Lindskog, 8 vols., 1926–39, revised edition, 4 vols., 1957–80, and by Robert Flaceliere and others, 1957; as Lives, translated by Thomas North, 1579; edited in translation by John Dryden, 5 vols., 1683–86, revised by A.H.Clough, 1900; also translated by Oliver Goldsmith and Joseph Collyer, 5 vols., 1762 (abridged version), J. and W.Langhorne, 6 vols., 1770, and Bernadotte Perrin
(Loeb Edition), 11 vols., 1914–26; selections translated by G.Long, 5 vols., 1844–48, W.R.Frazer, 1906, Aubrey Stewart and G.Long, 1906, C.E.Byres, 1907, T.G.Tucker, 1913, Moses Hadas, 1957, Rex Warner, 1958 (revised edition, 1972), lan Scott-Kilvert, 1960–73, and Richard J.A.Talbert, 1988
Barrow, R.H., Plutarch and His Times, London: Chatto and Windus, and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967
Berry, Edmund, Emerson’s Plutarch, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961
DeLacey, Phillip, “Biography and Tragedy in Plutarch,” American Journal of Philology 73 (April 1952):159–71
Gianakaris, C.J., Plutarch, New York: Twayne, 1970
Helmbold, W.C., and E.N.O’Neil, Plutarch’s Quotations, Baltimore: American Philological Association, 1959
Jones, Christopher P., Plutarch and Rome, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971
Oakesmith, John, The Religion of Plutarch, London and New York: Longman Green, 1902
Rose, H.J., Introductory Essays to the Roman Questions of Plutarch, New York: Arno Press, 1975 (original edition, 1924)
Russell, D.A., Plutarch, New York: Scribner, and London: Duckworth, 1973
Stadter, P.A., Plutarch’s Historical Methods: An Analysis of the Mulerium Virtutes, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965
Tracy, H.L, “Notes on Plutarch’s Biographical Method,” Classical Journal 37 (1941– 42):213–21
Trench, Richard C., Plutarch: His Lives and His Morals, London: Macmillan, 1873
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