(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

Arthur Hugh Clough (essay date 1859)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7774 words.)

George Wyndham (essay date 1895)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 36050 words.)

John Oakesmith (essay date 1902)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8042 words.)

Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (essay date 1909)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8104 words.)

C. P. Jones (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6398 words.)

D. A. Russell (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9113 words.)

W. M. S. Russell (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4877 words.)

Brian Doyle (essay date summer 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5940 words.)

Roger Kimball (essay date December 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5157 words.)

Robert Lamberton (essay date 2001)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 13507 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 218 words.)