ca. A.D. 40 -ca. 120
Greek writer and philosopher
Plutarch has been called “the prince of ancient biographers,” and he is best remembered for the 46 great Greeks and Romans he profiled in his Parallel Lives. In his own time, however, Plutarch was better known as a philosopher*, and many of his writings concerned philosophical issues.
A remarkably productive writer, Plutarch wrote some 250 works, about a third of which survive. He has always been a very popular writer. His works were already considered classics* by A.D. 300, and they were used as textbooks in the 500s and 600s. During and after the Middle Ages, Plutarch’s works served as a major source of information about the ancient world. Plutarch is still appreciated as a major thinker whose view of the ancient world merits respect and study.
Plutarch's Life and Times. Plutarch was born to a wealthy family in the small town of Chaeronea in central Greece. He lived most of his life in his hometown, where he was active as a teacher and magistrate*. He completed his education in Athens, where he studied and was influenced by the writings of Plato. Plutarch also traveled to Asia, Egypt, and Italy, and he lived for a time in Rome, where he lectured and taught.
Although he was Greek by birth, Plutarch’s world was dominated by the Roman Empire. He believed that Greece and Rome could be partners, and he considered himself loyal to both. Plutarch served as an ambassador to Rome, a position for which he was ideally suited. He was a keen observer of human nature, and he had a charming and persuasive manner. With the help of influential friends, he obtained Roman citizenship.
Plutarch was a deeply religious man and believed devoutly in the gods of traditional Greek religion. He was a priest of the oracle* at Delphi for the last 30 years of his life. He worked hard to revive the shrine to the god Apollo. It was while he was a priest at Delphi that he wrote most of his works, including Parallel Lives.
Range of Subjects. The bulk of Plutarch’s work consists of dialogues* and essays covering a wide range of subjects that include philosophy, religion, literature, science, and prophecy (foretelling the future). Prophecy played an important role in Plutarch’s religious beliefs. Plutarch often used the literary form of the dialogue. In these works, he discussed a variety of issues, many involving social behavior, as in On the Reasons for Roman Customs and On the Reasons for Greek Customs.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* classic serving as an outstanding example of its kind
* magistrate governmental official in ancient Greece and Rome
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* dialogue text presenting an exchange of ideas between people
Among the most popular of Plutarch’s writings are the Moralia, or moral essays. These include “The Control of Anger,” “Bashfulness,” “Advice on Marriage,” and “Rules for Politicians.” He wrote these essays in a warm and sympathetic style that made them enjoyable to read.
Biographies. Parallel Lives is considered to be Plutarch’s greatest achievement and the work for which he is best known. In all but one of the 23 pairs of lives that survive, Plutarch compared two similar individuals—one Greek and one Roman. He believed that comparing two people with the same qualities helped the reader better understand the essence of those qualities. In his biographies, he wrote about men he admired, typically statesmen or generals, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
Plutarch never intended his biographies to be histories, although they have often been used as historical sources. He aimed for accuracy, but his research was sometimes incomplete, and his biographies were not always well balanced. Plutarch focused on the details and events in the subject’s life that led to the development or revelation of admirable traits. In chronological order, he wrote about the individual’s family background, education, turning points in public life, and later years. Because Plutarch wanted his biographies to be helpful to his readers as well as entertaining, he downplayed his subjects’ faults and accentuated their good qualities to make them better models for behavior. (See also Literature, Greek; Parallel Lives.)
Plutarch's biographies influenced many well-known writers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Shakespeare based several of his plays— such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—on the material in the biographies. Other historical figures were deeply affected by Plutarch's works. Benjamin Franklin recalled that when he read Plutarch’s works in his father's library, it was "time spent to great advantage." Plutarch was one of Ludwig van Beethoven's favorite authors, and Napoleon Bonaparte thought so highly of Plutarch that he had a statue of the biographer sculpted on his tomb.