Authors: Plutarch

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek biographer and essayist

ca. 46 CE

Chaeronea, Boeotia, Greece

After 120 CE

Chaeronea, Boeotia, Greece


The biographer Plutarch (PLEW-tawrk) was born in Boeotia, a district that had always had the unlucky reputation of producing stupid men. Plutarch himself shared in the belief, though he could have professed that in his own person he belied it. He came from a wealthy magisterial family. In youth he studied philosophy under Ammonius of Delphi, who is thought to have been of the Academic school, or possibly of the Stoic. {$I[AN]9810000392} {$I[A]Plutarch} {$I[geo]GREECE;Plutarch} {$I[tim]0046 c.e.;Plutarch}


(Library of Congress)

Plutarch’s works show traces of Stoic teaching, especially as regards steadfastness under pain, but they reject the Stoic idea of rewards and punishments for the dead. They embrace the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, the passing of the soul at death into another body. Plutarch is said to have visited Egypt; in view of the knowledge of Egyptian mythology and religion exhibited in his “On Isis and Osiris,” the probability is high.

He was initiated into the Dionysiac mysteries and journeyed to Rome, where, it is assumed, he wrote his moral treatises. There, certainly, he became renowned as a teacher of philosophy, and he is declared by some authorities to have been appointed Trajan’s tutor. He gained the friendship of the consul Sosius Senecio and was himself elevated by Trajan to the consular rank.

On his retirement he returned to Greece, where he held the procuratorship under Hadrian. He passed his later years at Chaeronea, where he died as archon and as priest of Apollo. Although his Roman literary contemporaries are silent concerning him, Eusebius and Aulus Gellius revered him.

Plutarch wrote more than two hundred works. In medieval and later times Plutarch was one of the most widely read Greek authors, chief attention being accorded to his Parallel Lives. That collection, first printed at Florence in 1517, has the distinction of having provided William Shakespeare, through Sir Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of the Amyot French version, with the plots of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and (in part) Timon of Athens. The plan of Parallel Lives, which seem to belong to Plutarch’s later period, was to set beside each other, in pairs, illustrious Greek and Roman commanders or statesmen and then, in a separate essay, to compare their traits of character for the purpose of moral instruction. With Theseus, for example, he compared Romulus; with Alcibiades, Coriolanus; with Aristides, Cato; and with Demosthenes, Cicero. Several of the comparative essays have been lost, but forty-six lives are extant; to these are appended four others unconnected with one another. The greatest virtue of Parallel Lives lies in Plutarch’s richness of anecdotal detail, for his circumstantial disclosures of homely incident are often illuminating as well as startling. The work is deeply learned and must have required an enormous amount of research. Its greatest flaw results from Plutarch’s tendency to distort facts when dealing with personages concerning whom, for moral reasons, he was biased.

About sixty of his other works, known collectively as the Moralia, have a good deal of philosophic and antiquarian interest. They fall into various classifications according to their emphasis upon political, scientific, historical, moral, or religious matters. Among them should be mentioned “The Malignity of Herodotus,” which reflects Plutarch’s dislike for that historian’s preference of Athens over Sparta; the essay “On the Face Appearing on the Disk of the Moon”; the treatise “Whether an Old Man Ought to Engage in Politics”; and the disquisition “On Isis and Osiris,” a source of much material to early students of Egyptian culture. In the essay “On the Cessation of Oracles” occurs the memorable story of the voice that cried, from the island of Paxi, “Great Pan is dead!”—a tale often stimulating, in later times, to the romantic fancy. Plutarch also wrote a “Consolation to Apollonius,” which was much imitated during the Renaissance, and a “Consolation to His Wife,” by which he hoped to mitigate her grief over the death of their little daughter Timoxena. Plutarch’s works preserve a remarkable quantity of information that is of lasting value to historians, philosophers, and literary scholars alike.

Author Works Nonfiction: Ethika, after ca. 100 (Moralia, 1603) Bioi paralleloi, ca. 105–15 (Parallel Lives, 1579) Bibliography Barrow, Reginald Hayes. Plutarch and His Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967. Emphasizes Plutarch’s Greek background, with chapters on his role as a teacher and his relationship to the Roman Empire. The bibliography is divided between English and foreign titles. Includes map of central Greece. Duff, Tim. Plutarch’s “Lives”: Exploring Virtue and Vice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Explains how Plutarch’s Parallel Lives offers insight into issues of psychology, education, morality, and cultural identity in ancient Greece and Rome. Gianakaris, C. J. Plutarch. New York: Twayne, 1970. An excellent short introduction to Plutarch. Includes detailed chronology, discussions of all Plutarch’s important works, an annotated bibliography, and a useful index. Gianakaris writes with a firm grasp of the scholarship on Plutarch, corrects errors of earlier writers, and conveys great enthusiasm for his subject. Hamilton, J. R. Plutarch, Alexander. Newburyport, Maine: Focus Information Group, 1999. Annotated edition of individual portions of Parallel Lives. Russell, Donald Andrew. Plutarch. London: Duckworth, 1973. Draws on the best English and French scholarship. Slightly more difficult than Gianakaris as an introduction. Includes chapters on language, style, and form, on the philosopher and his religion, and on Plutarch and William Shakespeare. Contains several appendices, including one on editions and translations, and a general bibliography and index. Scardigli, Barbara, ed. Essays on Plutarch’s “Lives.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Collection includes essays on Plutarch’s life, his methodology; choice of subjects and sources, compositional techniques, and more.

Categories: Authors