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.”