Plutarch (c. 46 – 120)

The Greek historian, biographer, essayist and philosopher Plutarch (c. 46 – 120, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus after he became a Roman citizen) was born to a wealthy family in Chaeronea, about 80 kilometres east of Delphi, in Boeotia. After Plutarch studying mathematics and philosophy in Athens in 66 and 67 he made at least one visit to Rome, including a mission as chargé d’affaires of his native town, and at some point received Roman citizenship. However, he spent most of his life at Chaeronea and spent the last thirty years of his life as one of the two priests at the temple at the site of the famous Delphic Oracle. He also participated actively in local affairs, including terms as mayor, and magistrate, and represented Chaeronea on various missions to foreign countries. Guests from all over the Roman empire gathered at Plutarch's country estate for philosophical and historical conversation. Many of those discussions and dialogues were transcribed and published, in the seventy-eight essays and other works that are known collectively as the Moralia (Customs and Mores) and include nine books Symposiaca or Table-talk from those over-dinner conversations.

There is some lighter fare among the collection of essays and transcribed speeches, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialogue between Homer's hero and an enchanted pig belonging to the goddess and enchantress Circe.

The Roman and Greek Questions, a series of little essays that illuminate Greek and Roman customs start by posing a question and then suggesting answers, while On the Malice of Herodotus takes the noted historian to task for prejudice and misrepresentation. The piece may, however, have been an exercise in rhetoric, in which Plutarch plays devil's advocate against an iconic figure in the historiographic landscape.

Plutarch's fame, however, comes from his historical biographies, in which he was able to draw on records that have since been lost. Much of the ongoing value of his work stems from the fact that he includes anecdotes and descriptions that do not appear elsewhere.

Most of the Lives of the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius, his earliest excursions into biography have also been lost, with only two (the Lives of Galba and Otho) surviving intact, along with fragments of The Lives of Tiberius and Nero. Some of the next set of individual biographies have also been lost, but most of his best-known work, the Parallel Lives, seem to have survived. 

The Parallel Lives delivers forty-six portraits of significant figures of the ages preceding his own, with arranged in pairs of Greeks and Romans where there is some resemblance between the two careers to illuminate their common virtues and vices. Alexander the Great, for example, is paired with Julius Caesar. Four unpaired Lives, which may have been paired with a volume that has since disappeared, have also survived.

Plutarch's biographies, however, are concerned with character and personality and their influences on the lives of men rather than rigid conformity with the historical narrative. He stretches and occasionally fabricates similarities between his Greek and Roman subjects to fit their biographies into his parallel structure, and skims over some of the most famous actions or events which distinguish a subject's career, on the grounds that a charming anecdote or seemingly trivial incident will reveal more about his subject's characteristic  virtues or failings. He prefers anecdotes that deliver moral points, rather than in-depth comparative analysis.

His general procedure through the Lives was to start with the life of a prominent Greek, select a suitable Roman parallel for the companion volume, and end with a brief comparison of the two lives. Although one assumes the comparison would have accompanied each of the fifty-odd pairs only nineteen have survived.

While Plutarch's works were written in Greek, intended for both Greek and Roman readers and translations into other languages had an enormous influence on English and European literature. Sir Thomas North's English translation (1579) was the primary source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays, with parts of North's translation paraphrased, and, occasionally, quoted verbatim. 

Other significant literary figures who have used, or acknowledged the influence of Plutarch include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Boswell, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Alexander Hamilton, John Milton, Louis L'amour, and Francis Bacon and Robert Browning.

Given the proportion of his body of work that has survived over the years, Plutarch's writing has become, effectively occupies a unique place in literature as an encyclopaedia of antiquity. Although his influence declined in the 19th and 20th centuries as archaeologists and other researchers unearthed new sources of information, his work has shaped popular ideas of Greek and Roman history.

© Ian Hughes 2017