The Life of Plutarch

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

Plutarch of Chaeronea is the world’s most famous biographer, whose works served as the basis for many of Shakespeare’s dramas. He remains the source of many details of ancient history that are not available anywhere else. His paired biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, the Parallel Lives, emphasized strengths and weaknesses of character as the key to understanding men’s actions. “Character is simply habit long continued.” Yet having written so much about others Plutarch left us no detailed record of his own life.

Later writers can only guess at Plutarch’s date of birth, which is estimated around the year A.D. 45 to 50 in Boeotia, a province of Greece. He studied at Athens, the center of philosophical learning, and is believed to have spent time in Egypt. Later he went to Rome on public business and stayed long enough to conduct a series of lectures. The rest of his life was spent in his hometown where he played a role in local politics and was appointed a priest of Apollo. Plutarch was married and had at least five children. Two of his sons, Autobulus and Plutarch, survived to adulthood as we know from comments in his treatises. He also had a daughter Timoxena whose death at a young age is touchingly described in his “Consolation” to his wife in which he argues for the immortality of the soul.

In Plutarch’s discourse “On Inquisitiveness” we have this anecdote: “Once when I was lecturing at Rome, Rusticus, whom Domitian afterwards, out of jealousy of his reputation, put to death, was he of my hearers: and while I was going on, a soldier came in and brought him a letter from the Emperor. And when every one was silent, and I stopped in order to let him read the letter, he declined to do so, and put it aside until I had finished and the audience withdrew; an example of serious and, dignified behavior which excited much admiration.” This would place Plutarch’s time in the imperial capital around A.D. 90.

We gather that he had a happy life spent among family and friends and that even at that time, when manuscripts were hand written, his works enjoyed a part in the flourishing book trade that took place in the Roman cultural renascence, following the deaths of the tyrannical emperors. In addition to the biographical works, Plutarch has left us his “table talk,” derived from dinner conversation with some of the leading men of the empire, and the Moralia (moral essays) with their mixture of Platonic idealism and urbane wit. In philosophy, Plutarch was a frequent critic of extreme Stoicism and Epicurean materialism. He is believed to have died between 119-125.

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