“I am disgusted with this age of puny scribblers when I read of great men in my Plutarch.” F. Schiller
Mestrius Plutarch (c.45-c.120) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist. Born in the small town of Chaeronea, in the Greek region known as Boeotia, probably during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, Mestrius Plutarch travelled widely in the Mediterranean world, including twice to Rome. He had anumber of influential Roman friends, including Soscius Senecio and Fundanus, both important Senators, to whom some of his later writings were dedicated. He lived most of his life at Chaeronea, he was initiated into the mysteries of the Greek god Apollo. However his duties as the senior of the two priests of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi (where he was responsible for interpreting the auguries of the Pythia or priestess/oracle) apparently occupied little of his time - he led a most active social and civic life and produced an incredible body of writings, much of which is still extant.
Work as magistrate and ambassador
In addition to his duties as a priest of the Delphic temple, Plutarch was also a magistrate in Chaeronea and he represented his home on various missions to foreign countries during his early adult years. His friend Lucius Mestrius Florus, a Roman consul, sponsored Plutarch as a Roman citizen and, according to the 10th Century historian George Syncellus, late in life, the Emperor Hadrian appointed him as procurator of Achaea - a position that entitled him to wear the vestments and ornaments of a consul himself. (The Suda, a Medieval encyclopedia, states that Hadrian's predecessor Trajan made Plutarch procurator of Illyria, but most historians consider that unlikely, since Illyria was not a procuratorial province, and Plutarch probably did not speak Illyrian.)
His best-known work is the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings. The surviving Lives contain 23 pairs of biographies, each pair containing one Greek Life and one Roman Life, as well as four unpaired single Lives. As he explains in the first paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with writing histories, as such, but in exploring the influence of character — good or bad — on the lives and destinies of famous men. Some of the more interesting Lives — for instance, those of Heracles and Philip II of Macedon — no longer exist, and many of the remaining Lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae, or have been tampered with by later writers.
Life of Alexander
His Life of Alexander is one of the five surviving tertiary sources about the Macedonian conqueror/king and it includes anecdotes and descriptions of incidents that appear in no other source. Likewise, his portrait of Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, also contains unique information about the early Roman calendar.
The remainder of his surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Moral Matters). It is an eclectic collection of 78 essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great - an important adjunct to his Life of the great general - On the Worship of Isis and Osiris (a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites), and On the Malice of Herodotus (which may, like the orations on Alexander's accomplishments, have been a rhetorical exercise), wherein Plutarch criticizes what he sees as systematic bias in the Father of History's work, along with more philosophical treatises, such as On the Decline of the Oracles, On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance, On Peace of Mind and lighter fare, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialog between Homer's Ulysses and one of Circe's enchanted pigs. The Moralia was composed first, while writing the Lives occupied much of the last two decades of Plutarch's own life.
Some editions of the Moralia include several works now known to be pseudepigrapha: among these are the Lives of the Ten Orators (biographies of the Ten Orators of ancient Athens, based on Caecilius of Calacte), The Doctrines of the Philosophers, and On Music. One "pseudo-Plutarch" is held responsible for all of these works, though their authorship is of course unknown. Though the thoughts and opinions recorded are not Plutarch's and come from a slightly later era, they are all classical in origin and have value to the historian.
Inscription of a Plutarch statue made by the Chaeronians and people from Delphi.
A pair of interesting minor works is the Questions, one on obscure details of Roman habits and cult, one on Greek ones.
Plutarch's writings had enormous influence on English and French literature. Shakespeare occasionally quoted — and extensively paraphrased — Thomas North's translation of several of the Lives in his plays. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Trancendentalists were greatly influenced by the Moralia (Emerson wrote a glowing introduction to the 5-volume 19th century edition of his Moralia). Boswell quoted Plutarch's line about writing lives, rather than biographies in the introduction to his own Life of Samuel Johnson. His other admirers include Ben Jonson, John Dryden, John Milton, and Sir Francis Bacon, as well as such disparate figures as Cotton Mather, Robert Browning and Montaigne (whose own Essays draw deeply on Plutarch's Moralia for their inspiration and ideas).
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