Plutarch, a native of Chaeronea, is nearly without peer as a biographer and essayist. Although he
wrote in Greek, his genius was immediately recognized by literary circles in Rome, and his great
masterpiece, Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, was widely circulated during his
own lifetime. It has been read enthusiastically by scholars ever since, and it is hard to
overstate his importance as a moralist and a biographer. His works were probably more widely read
throughout the middle ages and Renaissance than any other writer, excepting only St. Augustine, and
of course the Bible. The whole idea of a humanistic education in the middle ages was founded on
works such as Plutarch, and the translation of his work into English had a profound effect on all
of English literature. Several of Shakespeare's historical plays, for example, are based heavily on
Plutarch, as are many of his general insights into human nature.
|SULLA ENTERING ROME|
Plutarch was born in Boeotia in Greece and educated in Athens. For the first years of his
adult life he traveled widely throughout the Greek and Roman world, and spent many years in Rome as
a lecturer, where he made the acquaintance of eminent Roman writers and scholars. At some point he
became a Delphian priest, which was still considered a great honor at that time. He returned to his
hometown of Chaeronea and began writing most of his works. He established a library there and it is
evident from his writings that he was familiar with nearly all the important literature from ancient
times. During the next thirty years he wrote hundreds of books including the work for which he is
most famous, Parallel Lives
. However, he also wrote dozens of essays on a variety of topics,
from child-rearing, to politics, to appreciation of art and literature. A few of his essays,
collectively known as Moralia
, were as follows: Checking Anger, The Art of Listening, How
to Know Whether One Progresses to Virtue
, and Advice to Bride and Groom
; although there
were dozens more.
Parallel Lives, his master work, is composed of forty-six biographies, written in a
particular style that emphasizes the moral character of his subjects, rather than a
chronological or complete list of all their known activities. He chooses to emphasize anecdotes
and events that illustrate the virtues and vices of his subjects and freely adds commentary upon the
varieties of human nature. Approximately half of his subjects are famous Greek statesman, generals,
and philosophers, and the other half are Romans. In each case he identifies characters of similar
situation or character and writes an accompanying essay stressing the similarities and differences.
He contrasts, for example, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Cicero and Demosthenes,
Coriolanus and Alcibiades. The insights he derives from these investigations are often both
profound and delightful. Plutarch was an unabashed moralist, with a piercing and eternal insight
into human nature unparalleled except by such greats as Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Key events during the life of Plutarch:
||Studied philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics at academy in Athens.
||Traveled widely throughout Greece and Italy. Resided in Rome for some time.
||Became Delphian priest, responsible for interpreting oracles.
||Returned to Chaeronea.
||Wrote hundreds of books. Established international reputation.
||Visited in Chaeronea by Emperor Trajan.
||Granted procuratorship of Achaea by Hadrian.
||Roman consul, friend and patron of Plutarch,
||Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.
||Third of "Five Good Emperors." Talented artist and architect, good administrator.