The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell. — Confucius


Civilization: Greek — Chaeronea
   Field of Renown:  literature — Historian
Era:  Greco-Roman

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.

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.

Book Links
Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans  by  F. J. Gould
Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Greeks  by  F. J. Gould
Plutarch's Lives  by  W. H. Weston
Our Young Folks' Plutarch  by  Rosalie Kaufman

Short Biography
Mestrius Florus Roman consul, friend and patron of Plutarch,
Trajan Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.
Hadrian Third of "Five Good Emperors." Talented artist and architect, good administrator.