Plutarch Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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Life

Born during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, Plutarch (PLEW-tahrk) was studying philosophy at Plato’s Academy in Athens when the emperor Nero toured Greece in 67 c.e. After completing his studies in Athens, Plutarch returned to Chaeronea, where he founded a philosophical academy of his own and continued to reside until his death during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. He traveled widely, however, at least twice to Italy.

An extraordinarily prolific writer, Plutarch consistently adopted a moral perspective. His surviving essays, dialogues, declamations, and collections of information have traditionally been grouped under the title Ethika (after c. 100 c.e.; Moralia, 1603); of particular autobiographical interest are “The Dialogue on Love” (found in Moralia) and the consolation he wrote to his wife on the death of their two-year-old daughter. His most famous work, the Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), is organized into pairs of biographies of statesmen and military leaders, each pair consisting of the life of a Greek and that of his Roman counterpart (for example, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar).

Influence

Plutarch’s writings exerted a substantial influence on Western letters from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century. The plots of English playwright William Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies, for...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Plutarch Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

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Article abstract: Greek biographer{$I[g]Greece;Plutarch} Plutarch was the greatest biographer of antiquity. He taught his successors how to combine depth of psychological and moral insight with a strong narrative that evokes the greatness and excitement of subjects’ lives.

Early Life

Plutarch (PLEW-tahrk) did not accomplish most of his writing until his late middle age. He was born in a Roman province to an old and wealthy Greek family. He received a comprehensive education in Athens, where he studied rhetoric, physics, mathematics, medicine, the natural sciences, philosophy, and Greek and Latin writing. His worldview was strongly influenced by Plato, and he took considerable interest in theology, serving as the head priest at Delphi in the last twenty years of his life. By the time he was twenty, he had rounded out his education by traveling throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Before his writing career began, Plutarch worked in Chaeronea as a teacher and was its official representative to the Roman governor. Later, he undertook diplomatic trips to Rome, where he befriended several important public servants.

The prestige of Greek learning stood very high in the Roman Empire, and Plutarch eventually was invited to lecture in various parts of Italy on moral and philosophical subjects. Sometime in his late thirties, he began to organize his notes into essays. There is evidence to suggest that by the time he was forty, Plutarch enjoyed a highly receptive audience for his lectures. This was a time in which the Roman emperors were particularly favorable to Greek influences.

Although Plutarch could easily have made a career of his Roman lecture tours, he returned to his home in Chaeronea at about the age of fifty. There, he served in many administrative posts with the evident intention of reviving Greek culture and religion. His principal great work, Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), was written in these years when his sense of civic responsibility and leadership had matured and when he was able to draw on his considerable experience of political power.

Life’s Work

In Parallel Lives, better known simply as Lives, Plutarch chose to write about historical figures. The lives were parallel in the sense that he paired his subjects, so that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero, could be discussed in terms of each other. It was important to have a basis of comparison, to show how equally famous men had arrived at their achievements in similar and different circumstances, with personalities that could be contrasted and balanced against each other. Plutarch’s aim was not merely to describe lives but to judge them, to weigh their ethical value and to measure their political effectiveness. Clearly, he believed that human beings learned by example. Thus, he would present exemplary lives, complete with his subjects’ strengths and weaknesses, in order to provide a comprehensive view of the costs and the benefits of human accomplishment.

Plutarch has often been attacked for being a poor historian. What this means is that sometimes he gets his facts wrong. On occasion he is so interested in making a moral point, in teaching a lesson, that he ruins the particularity and complexity of an individual life. He has also been guilty of relying on suspect sources and of taking reports at face value because they fit a preconceived notion of his subject.

While these faults must be acknowledged and compensated for, they should not be allowed to obscure the enormous value of Plutarch’s biographies. In the first place, he realized that he was not writing histories but lives and that some of his sources were questionable. Unlike the historian, he was not primarily interested in the events of the past. On the contrary, it was the personalities of his subjects that had enduring value for him. To Plutarch, there was a kind of knowledge of human beings that could not be found in the close study of events or in the narration of historical epochs. As he puts it, “a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.” Plutarch found his evidence in the seemingly trifling anecdotes about great personages. He was of the conviction that an intense scrutiny of the individual’s private...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)

Plutarch Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Mestrios Ploutarchos, or Plutarch (PLEW-tawrk), was born around 46 c.e. during the Roman imperial administration of Claudius I. His birthplace was Chaeronea, Boeotia, in central Greece, some twenty miles east of Delphi. Plutarch could trace his paternal lineage to his great-grandfather, Nikarchos, through his grandfather, Lamprias, and his father, Autoboulos. His grandfather appears in dialogue or conversational contexts, some of which are set in his father’s house and some in Plutarch’s own house, as best illustrated by Plutarch’s nine-volume philosophical treatise, “Symposiacs” (“Table Talk”). Of the maternal line nothing is known, not even the name of his mother.

He had at least two brothers, Lamprias and Timon. A son of one of the brothers, his nephew, Sextus of Chaeronea, was a well-known Stoic philosopher, a tutor of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Plutarch was married to Timoxena, the daughter of Alexion. They had four sons, Soklaros, Charon, Autoboulos, and Ploutarchos, and a daughter, Timoxena, who died when she was four, about whom “Paramythetikos pros ten gynaika” (“Consolation to His Wife”) survives among Plutarch’s varied essays. This essay was written from Tanagra in eastern Boeotia, since Plutarch was not at home at the time and could not arrive before the funeral. It remains among the most moving of his works and one of the most revealing of his personality, since it provides perspective on his understanding of the meaning of life. It reveals that two of the older boys, the eldest, probably Soklaros, and “fair Charon” had preceded their sister in death. Patrokleas, who participates in the “Table Talk,” is, in Greek, called Plutarch’s gambros, which is usually translated as “son-in-law,” implying another daughter, but no name is known, nor are...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Plutarch Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Plutarch was essentially a teacher whose work is that of an essayist not given to excessive wordiness. Yet Plutarch had concerns that led him to say the things that he wanted said. While many of these lay in the development of character, he also gave attention to a great variety of topics, some of a traditional nature, some much more issues of the immediate moment. Parallel Lives was an ideal way of writing topics in moral philosophy for a wider audience by employing the device of human biographies. He gave them an additional dimension by juxtaposing one life from one culture in one age with another life from another culture in another age.

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Plutarch Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The biographer Plutarch (PLEW-tawrk) was born in Boeotia, a district that had always had the unlucky reputation of producing stupid men. Plutarch himself shared in the belief, though he could have professed that in his own person he belied it. He came from a wealthy magisterial family. In youth he studied philosophy under Ammonius of Delphi, who is thought to have been of the Academic school, or possibly of the Stoic.

Plutarch’s works show traces of Stoic teaching, especially as regards steadfastness under pain, but they reject the Stoic idea of rewards and punishments for the dead. They embrace the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, the passing of the soul at death into another body. Plutarch is said to have...

(The entire section is 671 words.)