Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)

Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus) (ca. A.D. 46-ca. 120) Greek biographer and essayist

Plutarch, a model writer for world essayists, chose a comparative biography for illuminating human excellence and frailties. A Romanized Greek from Chaeronea, Boeotia, near Mount Parnassus in east central Greece, he was one of three brothers born to a wealthy family. At age 20, he studied mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric, and science at the Academy of Athens. As a senior priest at the Oracle of Delphi, he interpreted the prophecies of the Pythia. Surviving from his early life is a letter to his wife Timoxena, who mourned the death of their two-year-old daughter, also named Timoxena. A renowned friend-maker, Plutarch was elected magistrate and won multiple terms as mayor of his district. On diplomatic missions, he traveled the Mediterranean and studied Egyptian theology in Alexandria. His work earned him Roman citizenship and, under Emperor Hadrian, an honorary post as the provincial governor of northern Greece. In an essay on traditional worship, he regretted the ebb of the Roman mores into secularism and decadence.

In his 60s, Plutarch devoted his energies to writing character studies. Although formally untrained in history, he chose to write a BIOGRAPHY of Alexander the Great and to criticize The Histories (440 B.C.) of HERODOTUS. Plutarch's Moralia (Customs, ca. A.D. 110) investigates theological concerns, including the widespread worship of Isis and Osiris and the decline of reverence for the Delphic oracle. Extending religious concerns to matters of governance, he mused on the unifying effect of public worship and on the problem of emperors at choosing a deity for a nation to esteem. His essays on brotherhood and marital and parental love reflect an abiding humanism and a respect for women and children and for longstanding friendships.

Plutarch compiled 46 tandem biographies in Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives, ca. A.D. 110), a best seller in the Roman world. A reflection of contemporary prejudices and mores, the pairings, one Greek with one Roman, begin with King Theseus of Athens and the mythic king Romulus, the twin of Remus; and the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, whom he paired with the Roman lawgiver Numa Pompilius. Plutarch extends the comparisons through the leading figures of the late republic—Brutus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Pompey. The text concludes with Galba and Otho, who attempted to restore Rome's finances after the extravagant reign of Nero, the former emperor. Of Galba's reign, Plutarch summarizes the venality and barbarity that preceded the death of Nero and the discontent that precipitated the beheading of Galba. Of the disastrous three- month rule of Otho, Plutarch pities the second ruler who tried to cleanse Rome of corruption: “Though [Otho] lived no more decently than Nero, he died more nobly” (Plutarch 1926, 486). The text implies that any ruler following a madman like Nero had little hope of flourishing in office.

The 1579 TRANSLATION of Plutarch’s biographies by Sir Thomas North, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, provided details for WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S five-act tragedy Julius Caesar (1599). Based on Plutarch’s details and analyses, the Elizabethan stage play surveys secret maneuvering precipitating the end of the Roman Republic and a period of political proscription resulting in death sentences for the most distinguished and powerful of Roman republicans. The playwright returned to Plutarch’s summation of a pivotal era—the founding of the Roman Empire—with Antony and Cleopatra (ca. 1605). The popular tragedy is fraught with rhapsodic passion and treachery as two Roman generals fight to the death for power and vastly differing views on imperial rule.


Duff, Timothy E. Plutarch’s Lives: Exploring Virtue and

Vice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt.

Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005.

----- . Parallel Lives. 11 vols. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926.