In the introduction, we established that in order to conduct a valuable, critical reading of ancient literature, the reader must take time to understand who is writing, why they are writing, and who was the author’s intended audience. Let’s start here with the first “Who?”
The information I have gathered here can primarily be found in a handy tome called “Fifty Key Classical Authors” by Alison Sharrock and Rhiannon Ash. Also, please note links to online versions of translations of some of the source material.
So, who was Plutarch?
Plutarch was born in approximately 50AD and lived most of his life in the settlement of Chaeronea, in Boeotia, Greece. A broad reading of his works indicates to that he held intimate sentiment for his hometown. While writing, Plutarch included little details about topography and local lore from the region when possible. A statue
base has even been found in Chaeronea with an inscription claiming it was a statue of him as a “benefactor.” He also acknowledges two well known authors also from the region, Hesiod and Pindar. Chaeronea and the surrounding region of Boeotia were the location of some important historical military engagements, perhaps most notably being the place where Phillip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) defeated the Greeks in 338 BC. This event ushered in the era of Macedonian dominance over Greece and eventually the dawn of a Hellenistic eastern Mediterranean.
We can also infer from his writing that Plutarch was well traveled, likely gathering information to include in his work. He visited places in Asia (or the Middle East modern Turkey to as far as Iran), and Greece, returning often to Athens. There he was made an honorary citizen and he served as a priest in the sanctuary at Delphi.
Despite being Greek, he was also granted Roman citizenship under the name of Mestrius Plutarch (as gathered from epigraphic evidence). Judging from the name, we can surmise that his citizenship came at the sponsorship of his friend, the ex-consul Mestrius Florus. Florus was one of a cadre of Roman friends that Plutarch kept and he even appears in Quaestiones Convivales (Banquet Questions, or “Table Talk”).
In total, Plutarch wrote quite the collection of works. If the source is to be accepted, a Late Antique literary index called the Lamprias Catalogue indicates that there were at least 227 works, many of which are now lost. What remains are his two primary works, the Moralia and the Parallel Lives. The former was an assortment of diverse discussions and commentaries on various topics pertinent to a broad audience (78 of these selections remain). The latter, which is the source of my primary focus, is a corpus of paired biographies, uniquely chosen in order to establish a comparison which he typically includes in the end. A dissection of the format of Plutarch (and Suetonius’) volumes will be reserved for a later post.
Estimated to have been written in the early 2nd century, the Parallel Lives author had the advantage of writing from a position of sociopolitical stability during the reigns of perhaps the two best Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Plutarch made an earlier attempt at biography perhaps before 96AD, in which he chronicled the lives of the first eight Roman emperors. Only the (brief) lives of Galba and Otho remain.
Plutarch himself had overtly expressed his sentiments toward the Roman imperial system in De Fortuna Romanorum (literally “about the fortune of the Romans”) in his Moralia. In it, he expressed praise for its ability to provide stablility, but elsewhere noted the significance of the infusion of Greek culture as essential to Rome’s success. This perspective is the vantage from which we can judge Plutarch’s narrative of the lives of the individuals who shaped that system.
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