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Plutarch, of Euboea

Plutarch (2)


Birth of Plutarch at Chaironeia c. 45 A.D.

Death of Plutarch c. 125 A.D.

Although Plutarch travelled to many places in the Mediterranean world (Plut. Demosth. 2.2, Plut. Otho 14.1-2, Plut. Otho 18.1), including north Italy (Plut. Mar. 2.1) and Rome (Plut. Moralia 522D-E), he lived most of his life in the relatively small Boeotian town, Chaironeia, the place of his birth. Chaironeia exerted a substantial hold on his imagination, and consequently surfaces at a number of places in his work (e.g., Plut. Thes. 27.8, Plut. Cimon 1.1-2, Plut. Demosth. 19.2, Plut. Alex. 9.3, Plut. Lys. 29.4, Plut., Sulla 16-19, Plut., Quaest. Rom. 267D, Plut. De Fort. Rom. 318D, Plut. De Curios. 515C). In the vastness of the Roman empire, he always maintained his Greek identity. He wrote on the great figures who had shaped this larger Greco-Roman world. According to some ancient sources, he enjoyed high honors conferred directly by Rome. At the same time, he served for many years as a priest at the Greek sanctuary of Delphi (Moralia 792F). He was both a citizen of Rome (with the official name Mestrius Plutarchus), and a Greek with a strong sense of his native country and its peculiarly parochial and cosmopolitan traditions.


He wrote on a wide variety of topics. One ancient catalogue, attributed to a person named “Lampon,” lists 227 works, of which 100 do not survive. (The catalogue is itself incomplete, as it omits the names of some works which do in fact survive). These essays cover a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific or moral topics which interested the elite of the Greco-Roman world. Seventy-eight such general essays, now collected under the overall name of “Moralia” (a misleading title which may roughly be translated “Essays on Moral Issues”), have survived. Of these, a dozen are generally thought not to be by Plutarch, but the mass of this collection of essays is considerable-the standard edition of these essays occupies the better part of a foot of shelf-space. These essays provide us with a wealth of information about many ideas and events of Greece for which no other source survives.

Plutarch's Parallel Lives

Plutarch's Parallel Lives 100-125 A.D.

The works for which Plutarch is best remembered, however, are his biographies of prominent Greek and Roman figures. Individual biographies of the third century Greek statesman Aratus and the Persian emperor Artaxerxes as well as the Roman emperors Galba and Otho survive, but Plutarch's greatest sustained achievement was a series of parallel pieces comparing Greek and Roman statesmen. Twenty-two of these comparisons, forty-four Lives in all, survive. Although Plutarch wrote half a millenium after many of the events which he describes, his biographical essays are our best surviving sources for many historical figures, and they contribute important new information.

Plutarch's interest in history had a definite character. In the opening paragraph to his life of the Roman Aemilius Paulus, he describes his purpose at some length: “I began the writing of my ‘Lives’ for the sake of others, but I find that I am continuing the work and delighting in it now for my own sake also, using history as a mirror and endeavoring in a manner to fashion and adorn my life in conformity with the virtues therein depicted. For the result is like nothing else than daily living and associating together, when I receive and welcome each subject of my history in turn as my guest, so to speak, and observe carefully ‘how large he was and of what mien,’ and select from his career what is most important and most beautiful to know. ‘And oh! what greater joy than this can you obtain,’ and more efficacious for moral improvement.” (Plut., Aemilius Paulus 1-2, transl. Bernadotte Perrin, in the Loeb Classical Library edition).

History, for Plutarch, is a theater of morals, in which great individuals rise and fall by their strengths and weaknesses. His Lives tend to be anecdotal and to focus on revealing stories. He sees history not as a set of vast and mechanistic processes (as, to a large degree, did Thucydides) but as a forum within which to study the natures of particularly great men and the influences which these natures exerted over events.

On Plutarch's life and career, see [Jones, 1972] 1-64, [Lesky, 1966] 819-829, [Easterling, 1985] 868-9, [ Pelling, 1988] 1-10, [Hamilton, 1969] xiii-xvii.

    Aalders, Gerhard Jean Daniel. Plutarch's Political Thought. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1982. 116: 67. Barrow, R. H. Plutarch and his Times. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967. xv+202. Bauer, Adolf, and Frank J. Frost. Themistokles: Literary, Epigraphical and Archaeological Testimonia. The Argonaut Library of Antiquities. Chicago: Argonaut, 1967. xii+156. Blamire, A. Plutarch's Life of Kimon. Classical Handbook. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1989. 2: 224. Frost, Frank J. Plutarch's Themistocles : a Historical Commentary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. xiii+252. Hamilton, J. R. Plutarch's Alexander: a Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969. lxix+231. Jones, C. P. Plutarch and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972. xiii+157. Podlecki, Anthony J. Plutarch's Life of Pericles: A Companion to the Penguin Translation. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987. 112. Stadter, Philip A. A Commentary on Plutarch's Pericles. Chapel Hill: University of California, 1989. Stadter, Philip A. Plutarch's Historical Methods: an Analysis of the Mulierum Virtutes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965. 159.
Gregory Crane
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