See biography by R. H. Barrow (1967, repr. 1979); studies by C. J. Gianakaris (1970), C. P. Jones (1971), D. A. Russell (1973), and A. Wardman (1974).
Plutarch was born in AD 46 in the small town of Chaeronea, in the Greek region known as Boeotia. The name of Plutarch's father has not been preserved, but it was probably Nikarchus, from the common habit of Greek families to repeat a name in alternate generations. His family was wealthy. The name of Plutarch's grandfather was Lamprias, as he attested in Moralia. His brothers, Timon and Lamprias, are frequently mentioned in his essays and dialogues, where Timon is spoken of in the most affectionate terms. Rualdus, in his 1624 work Life of Plutarchus, recovered the name of Plutarch's wife, Timoxena, from internal evidence afforded by his writings. A letter is still extant, addressed by Plutarch to his wife, bidding her not give way to excessive grief at the death of their two year old daughter, who was named Timoxena after her mother. Interestingly, he hinted at a belief in reincarnation in that letter of consolation.
The exact number of his sons is not certain, although two of them, Autobulus and second Plutarch, are often mentioned. Plutarch's treatise on the Timaeus of Plato is dedicated to them, and the marriage of his son Autobulus is the occasion of one of the dinner-parties recorded in the 'Table Talk.' Another person, Soklarus, is spoken of in terms which seem to imply that he was Plutarch's son, but this is nowhere definitely stated. His treatise on Marriage Questions, addressed to Eurydice and Pollianus, seems to speak of her as having been recently an inmate of his house, but without enabling us to form an opinion whether she was his daughter or not.
Plutarch studied mathematics and philosophy at the Academy of Athens under Ammonius from 66 to 67.. He had a number of influential friends, including Quintus Sosius Senecio and Fundanus, both important senators, to whom some of his later writings were dedicated. Plutarch travelled widely in the Mediterranean world, including central Greece, Sparta, Corinth, Patrae (Patras), Sardes, Alexandria, and two trips to Rome.
|"The soul, being eternal, after death is like a caged bird that has been released. If it has been a long time in the body, and has become tame by many affairs and long habit, the soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world. The worst thing about old age is that the soul's memory of the other world grows dim, while at the same time its attachment to things of this world becomes so strong that the soul tends to retain the form that it had in the body. But that soul which remains only a short time within a body, until liberated by the higher powers, quickly recovers its fire and goes on to higher things."|
|Plutarch (The Consolation, Moralia)|
He lived most of his life at Chaeronea, and was initiated into the mysteries of the Greek god Apollo. However, his duties as the senior of the two priests of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi (where he was responsible for interpreting the auguries of the Pythia) apparently occupied little of his time. He led an active social and civic life while producing an incredible body of writing, much of which is still extant.
For many years Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty miles from his home. By his writings and lectures Plutarch became a celebrity in the Roman empire, yet he continued to reside where he was born, and actively participated in local affairs, even serving as mayor. At his country estate, guests from all over the empire congregated for serious conversation, presided over by Plutarch in his marble chair. Many of these dialogues were recorded and published, and the 78 essays and other works which have survived are now known collectively as the Moralia.
Plutarch held the office of Archon in his native municipality, probably only an annual one which he likely served more than once. He busied himself with all the little matters of the town and undertook the humblest of duties.
The Suda, a medieval Greek encyclopedia, states that Hadrian's predecessor Trajan made Plutarch procurator of Illyria, but most historians consider that unlikely, since Illyria was not a procuratorial province, and Plutarch probably did not speak Illyrian.
Plutarch died between the years 119 AD and 127 AD.
Plutarch's best-known work is the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged as dyads to illuminate their common moral virtues and vices. The surviving Lives contain 23 pairs, each with one Greek Life and one Roman Life, as well as four unpaired single Lives.
As is explained in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history so much as the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of men. Whereas sometimes he barely touched on epoch-making events, he devoted much space to charming anecdote and incidental triviality, reasoning that this often said far more for his subjects than even their most famous accomplishments. He sought to provide rounded portraits, likening his craft to that of a painter; indeed, he went to tremendous (and often tenuous) effort to draw parallels between physical appearance and moral character. In many ways he must count among the earliest moral philosophers.
Some of the Lives, such as those of Heracles, Philip II of Macedon and Scipio Africanus, no longer exist; many of the remaining Lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae or have been tampered with by later writers. Extant Lives include those on Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Demosthenes, Philopoemen, Timoleon, Dion of Syracuse, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Coriolanus, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Sulla, Sertorius, Lucullus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, and Marcus Junius Brutus.
There is also in Life of Alexander an intriguing intimation that, even in Plutarch's time, there existed a flourishing tourist industry: having recounted his subject's bravery against the Sacred Band of Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea, Plutarch recalls being shown "an old oak near the river Cephissus, which people called Alexander's oak, because his tent was pitched under it; and not far off are to be seen the graves of the Macedonians who fell in that battle.
Plutarch devotes a great deal of space to Alexander's drive and desire, and strives to determine how much of it was presaged in his youth. He also draws extensively on the work of Lysippus, Alexander's favourite sculptor, to provide what is probably the fullest and most accurate description of the conqueror's physical appearance.
When it comes to indagating his character, however, Plutarch is often rather less accurate, ascribing inordinate amounts of self-control to a man who very often lost it. It is not insignificant, though, that the subject incurs less admiration from his biographer as the narrative progresses and the deeds that it recounts become less savoury.
Much, too, is made of Alexander's scorn for luxury: "He desired not pleasure or wealth, but only excellence and glory." This also is probably untrue, for Alexander's tastes grew more extravagant as he grew older.
|"It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die."|
|Plutarch (Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar, Parallel Lives, [tr. E.L. Bowie])|
Plutarch stretches and occasionally fabricates the similarities between famous Greeks and Romans in order that he may write their biographies as parallels. The lives of Nicias and Crassus, for example, have nothing in common except that both were rich and both suffered great military defeats at the ends of their lives.
In his Life of Pompey, Plutarch praises Pompey's trustworthy character and tactful behaviour in order to conjure a moral judgement that opposes most historical accounts. Plutarch delivers anecdotes with moral points, rather than in-depth comparative analyses of the causes of the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the Roman Republic, and tends on occasion to fit facts to hypotheses rather than the other, more scholastically acceptable way round.
On the other hand, he generally sets out his moral anecdotes in chronological order (unlike, say, his Roman contemporary Suetonius) and is rarely narrow-minded and unrealistic, almost always prepared to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition where moralising cannot explain it.
The remainder of Plutarch's surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Customs and Mores). It is an eclectic collection of seventy-eight essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On Fraternal Affection - a discourse on honour and affection of siblings toward each other, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great - an important adjunct to his Life of the great king, On the Worship of Isis and Osiris (a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites), along with more philosophical treatises, such as On the Decline of the Oracles, On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance, On Peace of Mind and lighter fare, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialogue between Homer's Odysseus and one of Circe's enchanted pigs. The Moralia was composed first, while writing the Lives occupied much of the last two decades of Plutarch's own life.
Pseudo-Plutarch is the conventional name given to the unknown authors of a number of pseudepigrapha attributed to Plutarch. Some editions of the Moralia include several works now known to be pseudepigrapha: among these are the Lives of the Ten Orators (biographies of the Ten Orators of ancient Athens, based on Caecilius of Calacte), The Doctrines of the Philosophers, and On Music. One "pseudo-Plutarch" is held responsible for all of these works, though their authorship is of course unknown. The thoughts and opinions recorded are not Plutarch's and come from a slightly later era, though they are all classical in origin.
Plutarch's general procedure for the Lives was to write the life of a prominent Greek, then cast about for a suitable Roman parallel, and end with a brief comparison of the Greek and Roman lives. Currently, only nineteen of the parallel lives end with a comparison while possibly they all did at one time. Also missing are many of his Lives which appear in a list of his writings, those of Hercules, the first pair of Parallel Lives, Scipio Africanus and Epaminondas, and the companions to the four solo biographies. Even the lives of such important figures as Augustus, Claudius, and Nero have not been found and may be lost forever.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists were greatly influenced by the Moralia — so much so, in fact, that Emerson called the Lives "a bible for heroes" in his glowing introduction to the five-volume 19th-century edition. He also opined that it was impossible to "read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: 'A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.'
Montaigne's own Essays draw extensively on Plutarch's Moralia and are consciously modelled on the Greek's easygoing and discursive inquiries into science, manners, customs and beliefs. Essays contains more than 400 references to Plutarch and his works.
James Boswell quoted Plutarch on writing lives, rather than biographies, in the introduction to his own Life of Samuel Johnson. Other admirers included Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Alexander Hamilton, John Milton, and Francis Bacon, as well as such disparate figures as Cotton Mather and Robert Browning.
Plutarch's influence declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it remains embedded in the popular ideas of Greek and Roman history.
In 1683, John Dryden began a life of Plutarch and oversaw a translation of the Lives by several hands and based on the original Greek. This translation has been reworked and revised several times, most recently in the nineteenth century by the English poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough which can be found in The Modern Library Random House, Inc. translation.
From 1901–1912, American classicist Bernadotte Perrin produced a new translation of the Lives for the Loeb library series.
New German translations:
b. Plutarch was once believed to have spent 40 years in Rome, but it is currently thought that he traveled to Rome once or twice for a short period.
c. Plutarch died between the years 119 AD and 127 AD.