Plutarch – Biography, Greek Historian, Biographer, Essayist, Philosopher, Legacy

Plutarch Essay
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Plutarch. National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Plutarch Biography and Legacy

Few have heard of the name Plutarch. And even if one has somehow heard of him, they most probably do not know who he was or what he did.

Well, through this essay, I shall try to give you a brief idea of who Plutarch was and what he did, and what was his influence on the world.

Plutarch was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and philosopher, who is now most famous for his series of biographies of celebrated Greeks and Romans, titled Parallel Lives (also titled Plutarch’s Lives or Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans), and for a collection of his essays and speeches titled Moralia. Interestingly enough, he was also a priest at the temple of Apollo in Delphi.

Now, he is certainly not as famous as Socrates or Plato, or Aristotle, but his influence over the modern world is substantial and cannot be ignored.

Being well aware of Plutarch’s great reputation as a biographer and historian, I shall nevertheless muster up the courage and take the risk of writing about the life of one of the greatest chroniclers of lives. Forgive me for my audacity!

Plutarch was born somewhere in AD 46 in the small town of Chaeronea in the region of Boeotia, Greece, about 30 km east of Delphi. He was born into an established and prominent family in the town. He had two known brothers, Lamprias and Timon, both of whom he often mentioned in his writings.

Around the age of 20, Plutarch began studying philosophy and mathematics in Athens under the tutelage of philosopher Ammonius of Athens, also known as Ammonius the Peripatetic.

In his writings, Plutarch would often mention his two sons, Autobulus and Plutarch. However, how many children did he exactly have cannot be confirmed. Not yet at least. In a letter discovered after his death, Plutarch writes to his wife Timoxena asking her not to grieve too much at the death of their two-year-old- daughter, also named Timoxena. In that letter of consolation written to his wife, Plutarch hints at his belief in the concept of reincarnation.

Although in his writings there are other names such as Soklarus and Eurydice that have been mentioned in terms so as to imply that they were possibly his children, there is no definite evidence found yet to confirm the same.

Plutarch was also believed to be the uncle of the philosopher Sextus of Chaeronea, who was one of the teachers of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Living most of his life at Chaeronea, Plutarch was probably initiated into the mysteries of the Greek God Apollo, which would later help him to undertake his duties as a priest at the temple of Apollo in Delphi.

But before he became a priest at the temple of Apollo, Plutarch held a number of other positions throughout his life. He served as a magistrate in his hometown of Chaeronea, representing the town on several diplomatic missions to foreign countries in his early adult years. He also held the public office of archon in his native municipality.

Plutarch most probably served in such positions due to the influential family he belonged to. Eventually, at some point in his life, he received Roman citizenship with the help of his sponsor Lucius Mestrius Florus, who was a close associate of the new emperor Vespasian. After receiving Roman citizenship, Plutarch took the name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus.

It was only sometime around AD 95, when he was around 50 years old or so, that Plutarch was made one of the two sanctuary priests for the temple of Apollo at Delphi. He was instrumental in reviving the Delphic shrines during his time as a priest, as the site had declined and deteriorated considerably since the classical Greek period.

With the help of wealthy Greek patrons and even imperial assistance, Delphi underwent a construction and revival boom. Plutarch would later be honored with a portrait bust for his important role in helping revive the shrines at Delphi.

In his later years, Plutarch acted as manager of the Amphictyonic League (an ancient religious association of tribes formed before the rise of the Greek poleis) for about five terms. As the manager, he was responsible for organizing the Pythian Games, which were one of the four Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece held in honor of Apollo at his sanctuary at Delphi every four years, two years after the Olympic Games. He would later describe this service in his work Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs.

It is also speculated by the 8th-century historian George Syncellus that late in his life, Plutarch was appointed as nominal procurator of Achaea by Emperor Hadrian. Now, how true is this speculation I do not know. Probably no one may know for sure, least of all me!

Now, this was a brief overview of Plutarch’s life in general, minus his literary contributions to the world and his influence on subsequent generations. But do not worry, we will get to the other two aspects as well.

As always, I do not claim that every single thing I have mentioned so far is a completely accurate fact. That would be impossible for me to do, for most of these points cannot be considered wholly accurate even by learned historians who actually know what they are talking about. Therefore, just like the apparent facts of every historical figure, the apparent facts of Plutarch’s life must also be taken with a grain of salt, with room for error and improvement. This adjustment is absolutely necessary and imperative. I hope you understand.

Now let us move on to the literary works of Plutarch, the part that would ensure his legacy and name last for centuries to come so that people like me can discuss and write about his life, thereby spreading his name and legacy even further down the centuries.

The earliest known biographical works of Plutarch are generally accepted to be the lives of the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius, although all of them, except two, are considered lost to history. The work includes the biographies of Galba (the 6th Roman Emperor) and Marcus Otho (the 7th Roman Emperor), the only two that have survived until modern times.

The lives of Galba and Otho are generally considered to be a single work, in which the individual characters of the two Emperors are not depicted for their own sake but instead to serve as an illustration and example of an abstract principle, that is, the adherence or non-adherence to Plutarch’s morally-founded ideal of governing as a Princeps, meaning the Chief, or the most distinguished, or the most eminent, etc.

Being considered a single work, the lives of Galba and Otho are not considered a part of Plutarch’s canon of individual biographies such as the Life of Artaxerxes II and the Life of Aratus of Sicyon. Several of his other biographies like that of Crates, Hesiod, Daiphantus, and Pindar are now lost treasures that may never be discovered.

The Galbo-Otho work gives us the first glimpse of what Plutarch tried to achieve and convey with these biographies. He was not merely chronicling their lives but was also using them as examples to address certain deeper principles and themes. For instance, through the Galbo-Otho biographies, he reveals the constitutional principles of the Principate during the civil war following the death of Nero. Plutarch morally questions the behavior of the autocrats while simultaneously also giving an impression of their tragic destinies in which they ruthlessly compete for the throne, eventually destroying each other.

Parallel Lives, his most famous literary work, was his second set of biographical works, comprising a series of 48 biographies of famous and illustrious Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs in order to highlight their common moral virtues and vices.

The surviving work contains 23 pairs of biographies with each pair consisting of one Greek life and one Roman life of similar destiny, such as Demosthenes and Cicero, and Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

These biographies are more of an insight into human nature and the times in which these individuals lived, rather than a purely historical account of the individual.

As Plutarch himself explains in the first paragraph of his Life of Alexander, he was not so much concerned with writing histories but with exploring the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of men. At times, he barely touched upon seemingly important, epoch-making events, while devoting much time to charming anecdotes and incidental triviality. He did this because he believed that such anecdotes and trivialities often said far more for his subjects than even their most famous accomplishments.

Plutarch’s primary interest in writing these biographies was ethical rather than merely historical, and he went to great lengths to draw parallels between moral character and physical appearance. For this reason, he is often regarded as one of the earliest ethical or moral philosophers.

Plutarch’s biography of Caesar is one of the main accounts of Julius Caesar’s feats by ancient historians, along with Caesar’s own works Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile, and Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

The biography of Alexander is written in parallel to that of Julius Caesar and is one of only five surviving tertiary sources on Alexander. Great emphasis is laid on Alexander’s drive and desire and ambition for glory and excellence while scorning wealth or pleasure or any other kind of luxury.

However, his account of Alexander is not one of blind awe and admiration for the man. As the narrative progresses, one might notice that Alexander’s deeds become less savory and Plutarch’s admiration for him seems to wane.

What makes these works truly special is that they include certain anecdotes and descriptions of events that appear in no other source.

Some of the other biographies in the series include those of Solon, Aristides, Agesilaus II, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Demosthenes, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Coriolanus, Gaius Gracchus, Pericles, Pompey, Gaius Marius, Theseus, Tiberius, Eumenes, Cicero, Mark Antony, Pelopidas, Timoleon, Nicias, Numa Pompilius, Cato the Elder, Marcus Junius Brutus, Romulus, etc. Out of these surviving ones, many have been tampered with by subsequent historians and writers.

Sadly, several other biographies that were part of the series are now lost to history.

Plutarch then wrote the Life of Pyrrhus, which has become a significant text over the course of the centuries as it is the main historical account of Roman history during the period 293 to 264 BCE.

Apart from the works mentioned so far in this essay, the rest of Plutarch’s writings are collected under the title Moralia. It includes a group of manuscripts dating from the 10th to 13th centuries. The collection consists of 78 essays and speeches by Plutarch, all transcribed in the centuries since his death.

These writings are considered a great and invaluable source of information about Greek and Roman life and have gone on to influence several writers, thinkers, and philosophers of subsequent centuries.

These essays and speeches compiled are eclectic in nature, including philosophical treatises such as On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance, On Peace of Mind, and On the Decline of the Oracles, and religious essays such as On the Worship of Isis and Osiris, which is an important source of information on Egyptian religious rites, and ones dealing with familial subjects such as On Fraternal Affection, which is a discourse on honor and affection of siblings toward each other.

It is said that the writings compiled in Moralia were written before Parallel Lives, as Parallel Lives took up much of the last 20 years of his life.

Plutarch’s writings have also had another really major contribution to the history we know regarding the lives of Spartans. Since Spartans did not write their own history prior to the Hellenistic period, Plutarch’s writings on them, which include 5 Spartan lives, sayings of Spartans, and sayings of Spartan women, have become indispensable as few of the only sources of information on Spartan life.

His writings on Spartan history have caused much controversy and are generally viewed with much skepticism by subsequent historians, for the simple fact that Plutarch lived several centuries after the Spartan period he wrote about, including many of the earliest events of Spartan history which took place a full millennium before he wrote about them.

Due to this, many events recorded by Plutarch have been proven to have flaws and are viewed with some suspicion. His blatant admiration for Sparta and Spartans led him to exaggerate their virtues and strengths while ignoring the obvious flaws and weaknesses of Spartan society.

Nevertheless, it is a fact agreed by historians in general that more than any other ancient historian, it is Plutarch’s writings on Spartan life and history that have shaped the modern views on Spartans and Spartan society.

Now enough of his literary contributions. I am sure I have missed something important, something obvious. No doubt. But I have tried to give you a basic idea of his most important and influential works that have influenced the history we know and learn and speak of today. The works that have influenced generations. Did I succeed at it? I do not know, you tell me. All I know is that I tried.

Now let us take a brief look at Plutarch the philosopher. Do not worry, the essay is almost at an end. Just bear with me for a few more minutes.

Few people know Plutarch to be a philosopher in the proper way. His work as a biographer and historian is obviously what he is known for and they are without a doubt his primary legacy. One might even say that if it weren’t for his work in those fields that were not purely philosophical in nature, his name and legacy would not have survived until this day, and few, if anybody, would have ever heard of Plutarch. This may sound harsh but it is most probably true.

In a way, it makes sense that Plutarch has not achieved as much fame and notoriety as a philosopher, like say Socrates or Plato, or Aristotle. I say this because Plutarch, unlike these three well-known philosophers, did not espouse or promote any new, different, self-thought-out philosophy of his own. He mostly associated himself with already existing schools of philosophy, without really offering and contributing anything substantially new to them.

Plutarch was said to be a Platonist who was also influenced by the Peripatetic School of philosophy founded by Aristotle, and even to some extent by Stoicism, even though he often criticized their principles.

He generally favored the Platonic-Peripatetic ethics against the principles of Stoicism and Epicureanism, a philosophy he rejected absolutely. He seemed more interested in religious and moral/ethical questions, placing little importance on theoretical questions as he doubted the possibility of ever solving such questions.

Plutarch also held a pure idea of God that was more in line with Plato’s philosophy and in opposition to the atheism of Epicureanism and materialism of Stoicism. His ethical philosophy was closely associated with religion, and even though he condemned all forms of superstition, his faith in religion and distrust of human powers of knowledge led him to believe that God comes to our aid by direct revelations, proving that he believed in the concept of divination.

He advocated the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will. He was also of the opinion that there was only one God, and that the different Gods of different people were nothing but different names for the same divine being.

I will stop here for now. Of course, Plutarch’s philosophy was not as shallow and superficial as I have made it seem over here. It obviously has more depth and range than what I have addressed here and it no doubt has significant insights into several age-old philosophical questions. But, to be honest, I am not the right person to lay that down. My ignorance and lack of true, in-depth knowledge regarding his philosophy prevent me from doing so.

Over the course of several centuries since his death, Plutarch’s works would go on to have an enormous influence on writers and thinkers of all kinds. His writings would have a massive impact on French and English literature. Great writers and thinkers such as Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel de Montaigne, and many other Renaissance Humanists and Enlightenment philosophers were influenced by his writings and ideas, often quoting, paraphrasing, and making references to him in their own works.

Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and several transcendentalist philosophers were deeply influenced by Plutarch’s Moralia, and also by his easygoing writing style and discursive inquiries into customs, beliefs, science, manners, history, etc.

Plutarch’s influence continued to extend well into the 19th century, inspiring writers and thinkers such as John Milton, Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Marie, Francis Bacon, Robert Browning, Mark Twain, etc.

His influence still reigns supreme in Greek and Roman culture and history, and we must thank him for the service he has rendered to us by documenting a part of our history so that we may savor it for centuries to come.

In an ideal world, I believe every generation must have a Plutarch to record and document its happenings.