Plutarch c. 46-50–-c. 120
(Full name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus) Greek biographer, essayist, and philosopher.
Plutarch wrote the influential classic Parallel Lives (c. late first century-early second century), the standard by which biographies were judged for many centuries. In this work, biographies of forty-six important military men and politicians are linked into twenty-three pairs, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman whose biographies parallel each other in various ways. Plutarch's overriding interest was in character, and although there is much of historical importance in the work, historical detail is present only when it is necessary to illustrate the personality of the man in question. In describing men of virtue, Plutarch hoped to inspire others to greatness; he also included biographies of several individuals who serve as negative examples. Translated from its original Greek into French in the sixteenth century and thereafter into English, Parallel Lives was used as a source by William Shakespeare for his Roman plays, most notably The Tragedy of Julius Caesar and The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Plutarch also wrote numerous treatises and essays as well as philosophical dialogues in which he cast himself as the chief speaker; many of these works are collected under the title Moralia (c. late first century-early second century). Plutarch has been called the first great modern writer for his penetrating insight into human nature and his ability to render the essence of his biographical subjects, and his engaging, elegant style has earned him both critical and popular acclaim.
No contemporary biography of Plutarch exists and relatively little is known of his life. Born sometime between the years 46 and 50, he was the son of the biographer Aristobulus and lived in the small Greek town of Chaerona, in Boeotia. Explaining why he stayed in Chaerona for most of his life, he joked that it was so small that he did not want to make it smaller by leaving it. He was educated in rhetoric, mathematics, and ethics in Athens in 66-67; one of his teachers was the philosopher Ammonius. He never mastered Latin, so his writings are in Attic Greek. Plutarch is known to have traveled in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. He lived in Rome sometime before the year 90 and lectured there on philosophy. After he returned to his hometown, where he served as chief magistrate, he became a priest of the Oracle at Delphi, a position he held for the rest of his life. His reputation allowed him to found a school in which he presided over discussions and took part in debates on philosophy and ethics. Some of these talks were recorded by attendees and are included in the Moralia. He is believed to have died around the year 120.
Parallel Lives was written over a period of many years and no exact dates can be ascertained for the composition of its parts. It was well received by the Emperor Trajan, who ordered many copies made by scribes, thus helping to ensure the manuscript's survival through the centuries. Parallel Lives was rediscovered during the Renaissance and became widely popular. Jacques Amyot translated it into French in 1559 and Sir Thomas North worked from Amyot's edition to make an English translation in 1579. North's translation was liberally employed by Shakespeare in his Roman plays, with large parts of it appearing in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra with little modification. Shakespeare also borrowed numerous names from Plutarch for characters in other plays. As an indication of Plutarch's importance and popularity, in 1683 John Dryden and others compiled a new English translation of Parallel Lives from the original Greek. Plutarch's writings collected as the Moralia consist of essays, treatises, dialogues, and letters. Among the most important works included are Roman Questions, Greek Questions, Political Precepts, Daemon of Socrates, On the Failure of Oracles, and On Isis and Osiris. The Moralia was also popular during the Renaissance and was translated by Amyot in 1572. An ancient list contains some 227 titles said to have been written by Plutarch; scholars have concluded that the list misses some known works and includes others that are spurious. Although the list may be somewhat inflated, Plutarch's literary output was been demonstrated to be considerable. Scholars are also grateful that in his works Plutarch quotes generously from ancient manuscripts of which no other trace exists today.
Critics note that Parallel Lives has suffered at the hands of editors over the centuries: some portraits have disappeared and it is believed that early editors introduced their own “parallel lives” into the work, passing off the additions as Plutarch's. Although some of these short compositions that explain similarities between a pair of subjects may indeed be the work of Plutarch, scholars doubt the legitimacy of the majority of them. George Wyndham has decried the fact that modern editors have often ignored the author's original intentions by doing away with the pairing framework entirely and publishing Plutarch's coupled biographies in isolation from each other—a practice that accounts for the frequently used title of Plutarch's Lives. Critics also point out that modern translations do not adequately convey Plutarch's style and generally recommend older versions as more faithful to the original spirit of the work. Robert Yelverton Tyrrell examines the writers who influenced Plutarch as well as the writers he influenced. Such matters are also taken up by Robert Lamberton, who explores Plutarch's fondness for the dialogue form and traces its development from models by Plato and Heraclides. Tyrrell also explores Plutarch's stated purpose in writing the Parallel Lives: “To decipher the man and his nature.” Roger Kimball and John Oakesmith consider Plutarch's emphasis on the moral character of his subjects. Kimball speculates that Plutarch's focus on morals and values may in part account for his diminished popularity among the general reading public in modern times. Although sometimes overshadowed by the emphasis on Parallel Lives, the Moralia has received considerable critical attention as well. C. P. Jones illuminates the Political Precepts, D. A. Russell analyzes Plutarch's style in the Moralia, and W. M. S. Russell praises the biographical studies in this collection, commenting, “These biographies are full of the touches that bring history to life.”
Moralia (essays, dialogues, and letters) c. late first century-early second century
Parallel Lives (biography) c. late first century-early second century
Plutarch's Parallel Lives (translated by Thomas North) 1579
Plutarch: Parallel Lives (translated by John Dryden and others) 1683
Plutarch's Lives (translated by John Dryden; revised by Arthur Hugh Clough) 1859
Plutarch's Moralia. 3 vols. (translated by Frank Cole Babbitt) 1927-36
Fall of the Roman Republic (translated by Rex Warner) 1954
The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1960
Makers of Rome: Nine Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1965
Plutarch's Moralia: Table-Talk Books I-IV (translated by H. B. Hoffleit and P. A. Clement) 1969
Moral Essays (translated by Rex Warner) 1971
The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert) 1973
Essays (translated by Robin Waterfield) 1992
Selected Essays and Dialogues (translated by Donald Russell) 1993
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SOURCE: Clough, Arthur Hugh. Preface to Plutarch's Lives, Vol. I, pp. xix-xxxvi. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.
[In the following introduction to his 1859 edition of Plutarch's Lives, Clough presents a biographical sketch of Plutarch and a summary of his chief weaknesses as a writer.]
The collection so well known as Plutarch's Lives, is neither in form nor in arrangement what its author left behind him.
To the proper work, the Parallel Lives, narrated in a series of books, each containing the accounts of one Greek and one Roman, followed by a comparison, some single lives have been appended, for no reason but that they are also biographies. Otho and Galba belonged, probably, to a series of Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius. Artaxerxes and Aratus the statesman are detached narratives, like others which once, we are told, existed, Hercules, Aristomenes, Hesiod, Pindar, Daiphantus, Crates the cynic, and Aratus the poet.
In the Parallel Lives themselves there are gaps. There was a book containing those of Epaminondas and Scipio the younger. Many of the comparisons are wanting, have either been lost, or were not completed. And the reader will notice for himself that references made here and there in the extant lives show that their original order was different from the present. In the very first page, for example, of the book, in the...
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SOURCE: Wyndham, George. “North's Plutarch.” In Essays in Romantic Literature, edited by Charles Whibley, pp. 117-235. London: Macmillan and Co., 1919.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1895, Wyndham explains that Jacques Amyot's translation of Plutarch was the source for Sir Thomas North's translation, which in turn was used by Shakespeare in his Roman plays.]
Plutarch was born at the little Theban town of Chæronea, somewhere about 50 a.d. The date of his birth marks no epoch in history; and the place of it, even then, was remembered only as the field of three bygone battles. The name Chæronea, cropping up in conversation at Rome, for the birthplace of a distinguished Greek lecturer, must have sounded strangely familiar in the ears of the educated Romans whom he taught, even as the name of Dreux, or of Tewkesbury, sounds strangely familiar in our own. But apart from such chance encounters, few can have been aware of its municipal existence; and this same contrast, between the importance and the renown of Plutarch's birthplace, held in the case of his country also. The Bœotian plain—once ‘the scaffold of Mars where he held his games’1—was but a lonely sheepwalk; even as all Greece, once a Europe of several States, was but one, and perhaps the poorest, among the many provinces of the Empire. Born at such a time and in such a place,...
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SOURCE: Oakesmith, John. “Chapter X.” In The Religion of Plutarch: A Pagan Creed of Apostolic Times, pp. 201-29. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902.
[In the following essay, Oakesmith discusses inconsistencies in Plutarch's religious and theological views and identifies some aspects of his beliefs that could be described as Christian.]
We have endeavoured in the preceding pages [in John Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch] to ascertain, from Plutarch's own account of his views, the principles, the method and the character of his Religion; to learn in what manner he conceives the supernatural world and its relation to the human mind and to human interests; to discover and illustrate the processes by which these results are attained; to note their philosophic bearing and tendency; and to exemplify their application in the sphere of practical ethics. We have seen how clearly he recognizes the existence, and demonstrates the attributes, of a Supreme Being, and have observed how he raises the humility of mankind nearer to the Majesty of the Highest by admitting the activities of an intermediate and mediatory race of supernatural beings, whose mingled nature allies them equally to God and Man, and forms a channel of communication between human wants and divine benevolence. These are the two fundamental truths of the religion of Plutarch. The whole of his exegesis, in whatsoever direction...
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SOURCE: Tyrrell, Robert Yelverton. “Plutarch.” In Essays on Greek Literature, pp. 171-200. London: Macmillan and Co., 1909.
[In the following essay, Tyrrell explores the qualities of the Lives that make it a literary classic.]
‘And would they take the poor boy's life for the like o' that?’ ‘Bedad they would, if he had as many lives as Plutarch.’ This little dialogue was overheard not long ago in an Irish county. It may, perhaps, fitly introduce the present paper, as showing what a world-wide fame has been won by Plutarch's Lives. It will be observed that the phrase Plutarch's Lives, coming down to the peasantry from a distant and obscure tradition of the Hedge-Schoolmaster, had lost its meaning for them, and Plutarch had become not the author but the possessor of many lives. Mr. Strachan Davidson in his ‘Cicero’ couples the Lives with the philosophical works of Cicero, as having exercised the greatest and most constant influence on subsequent literature; and when we remember Shakespeare's large indebtedness to North's Plutarch, we must admit that the Dean of Balliol has not accorded to the Lives an unduly high place among epoch-making works.
But though Plutarch has exercised so great an influence on literature, we know very little about his life, and that little chiefly gleaned from his own writings. The chief of biographers has...
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SOURCE: Jones, C. P. “The Political Treatises.” In Plutarch and Rome, pp. 110-21. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses Plutarch's views on Greek and Roman relations.]
Plutarch's political treatises, above all the Political Precepts, have a special place among his works. Besides expounding his answers to problems of his time, the reign of Trajan,1 they are primary documents for an understanding of the relationship between Greece and Rome.
The general outline of that relationship is clear and well known. From the first establishment of their power in the East, the Romans had used the traditional unit of Greek political life, the city, as an instrument of domination. To ensure loyalty and stability, they needed agents whose interests were close to their own. It was inevitable that they should turn to the upper classes of the cities, the landowners and merchants who themselves stood to gain from settled conditions. In time, Roman influence brought about constitutional changes that perpetuated the power of the wealthy and excluded lesser citizens from the guidance of affairs. Democracies in name, the subject cities became in fact local aristocracies.2
It has already been seen that Plutarch himself was born into this upper class and that his Greek friends were of the same type as himself.3 It...
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SOURCE: Russell, D. A. “Language, Style and Form.” In Plutarch, pp. 18-41. London: Duckworth, 1973.
[In the following essay, Russell examines characteristic traits of Plutarch's literary style.]
There are extant forty-eight Lives by Plutarch, all but four of which belong to the series of Greek and Roman ‘parallels’. There are also over seventy short works of miscellaneous content. These are commonly called Moralia, a translation of the Greek ēthika, a title used in the Middle Ages for one considerable group of them concerned with topics in practical ethics. The corpus as we have it is in fact the result of various mediaeval Byzantine efforts at collecting books by Plutarch, culminating in the magnificent manuscripts written under the direction of Maximus Planudes at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century.1 It contains a number of works which are certainly spurious, though some of them are historically of great value and interest; The Education of Children, Fate, Doctrines of the Philosophers, Lives of the Ten Orators, On Music, are all books which we are fortunate to possess. For our knowledge of what was not harvested in the mediaeval collections we depend largely on quotations in later writers like the fourth-century Christian compiler Eusebius and the fifth-century anthologist Stobaeus. There is however...
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SOURCE: Russell, W. M. S. “Plutarch as a Folklorist.” In Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century: Proceedings of the Centenary Conference of the Folklore Society, edited by Venetia J. Newall, pp. 371-78. Suffolk, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1980.
[In the following essay, Russell investigates Plutarch's interest in and use of folklore in his writings.]
The late Victorian scholar Frank Byron Jevons was a folklorist of some distinction; he was one of the eight experts chosen to review the second edition of The Golden Bough in Folklore in 1901.1 In 1892, Jevons published a new edition of Philemon Holland's seventeenth-century translation of Plutarch's Roman Questions. ‘On the whole,’ writes Jevons at the opening of his Introduction, ‘Plutarch's Romane Questions may fairly be said to be the earliest formal treatise written on the subject of folklore. The problems which Plutarch proposes for solution are mainly such as the modern science of folk-lore undertakes to solve; and though Plutarch was not the first to propound them, he was the first to make a collection and selection of them and give them a place of their own in literature.’2 This view of the Roman Questions was endorsed in 1898 in that classic of folklore, Tom Tit Tot, by the stormy petrel of the Folklore Society, Edward Clodd.3 In view of all this, I thought it worth...
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SOURCE: Doyle, Brian. “The Soul of Plutarchos.” American Scholar 69, no. 3 (summer 2000): 111-22.
[In the following essay, Doyle provides a character sketch of Plutarch, discusses his portrayal of Mark Antony, and praises him for his ability to render the essential qualities of his subjects.]
As with most of the greatest writers in Western history—Homer, Shakespeare, the gaggle of anonymous geniuses who wrote the Bible—we don't know much about Plutarch of Greece in the usual biographically fussy way. Born in the year 45 a.d. or so, died around the year 120 at perhaps seventy-five years of age, he lived an unimaginably long life at a time when living to fifty was a triumph. He was a student in Athens when the emperor Nero visited there in the year 66; a traveler to Egypt; a visitor for a long period in Rome, apparently on civic business, although he also gave a number of popular lectures as a sort of visiting professor of history and ethics. Back home in Greece and his little native village, Chaeronea, in Boeotia—which he was famously loath “to make less by the withdrawal of even one inhabitant”—for the rest of his many years, he wrote perhaps fifty books while serving as mayor, priest, and inspector of public works (he remarks that his neighbors tease him for “standing by and watching while tiles are measured out and stone and mortar brought up”). There is no firm record of his death,...
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SOURCE: Kimball, Roger. “Plutarch and the Issue of Character.” New Criterion 19, no. 4 (December 2000): 4-12.
[In the following essay, Kimball speculates about some of the possible reasons why Plutarch is not widely read today.]
What Histories can be found … that please and instruct like the Lives of Plutarch? … I am of the same Opinion with that Author, who said, that if he was constrained to fling all the Books of the Antients into the Sea, PLUTARCH should be the last drowned.
—Montesquieu, quoted by Oliver Goldsmith
Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and select from their actions the most authoritative and the best with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving one's own character?
—Plutarch, Life of Timoleon
Like all ancient authors today, Plutarch is at best a name to most people, even—especially?—to most...
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SOURCE: Lamberton, Robert. “Between Past and Present: The Dialogues.” In Plutarch, pp. 146-87. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Lamberton examines Plutarch's predecessors in the genre of the dialogue and discusses how he developed this form beyond his models.]
THE DIALOGUE AS A GENRE
The Lives gained a rapid and long-lived popularity that has tended to eclipse the rest of the Plutarchan corpus. The most unfortunate victims of this neglect in modern times have been the dialogues, representatives of a literary genre that thrived in antiquity, lived on into the Middle Ages, was revived in the Renaissance and survived into the eighteenth century, but since then has had relatively few practitioners. Plutarch, to judge by the surviving evidence, considered the dialogue central to his literary activity. Despite all the work he put into the Lives, one might even argue that his creations in the genre that was preeminently Plato's were the ones that mattered most. Certainly they provided him with a vehicle whose obliqueness he savored and whose capacity to juxtapose the complementary and the contradictory, argument for argument's sake, and multiple tentative solutions he found congenial.
Although we hear of a few earlier, lost dialogues, the talk of one brilliant talker—Socrates—seems to have given birth to the...
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Barrow, R. H. “The Roman Questions: The Greek Questions.” In Plutarch and His Times, pp. 66-70. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.
Examines these two major works from the Moralia.
Eyben, E. “Children in Plutarch.” In Plutarchea Lovaniensia: A Miscellany of Essays on Plutarch, edited by Luc Van Der Stockt, pp. 79-112. Belgium: Lovanii, 1996.
Explores what can be gleaned from Plutarch regarding the physiological, psychological, and mental development of children.
Howard, Martha Walling. “The Influence of Plutarch in the Major European Literatures of the Eighteenth Century.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Maryland, 1967, 317 p.
Examines ways in which major eighteenth-century writers in France, England, Germany, and Italy demonstrate their familiarity with and use Plutrach's Lives and Moralia in their own work.
Jones, Roger Miller. The Platonism of Plutarch. Menasha, Wis.: George Banta Publishing Company, 1916, 153 p.
Considers the influence of Plato's ideas on Plutarch's works.
McJannet, Linda. “Antony and Alexander: Imperial Politics in Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Some Modern Historical Texts.” College Literature 20, no. 3 (October 1993): 1-18.
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