Plutarch was born into a prominent Greek family in the early days of the Roman Empire. He attained a liberal education and spent his early life as a civic leader and educator. He was best known for his biographies of leading figures in antiquity and his essays on ethics and virtue. Plutarch's Parallel Lives and Moralia influenced the writers and intellectuals of Byzantium, Western Europe and America.
Best known for his biographical writings about famous Greek and Roman figures, Plutarch ironically had no main biographer of his own. What is known of him is reconstructed from personal references in his written works.
Plutarch was born in approximately 46 A.D. to a prominent and wealthy Greek family in Chaeronea, a village about 20 miles east of Delphi. The names of his parents are not clear; some historians believe his father's name was Autobulus, while others say Nicarchus. From Plutarch's writings we know he had two brothers, Timon and Lamprais.
From 66 to 67 A.D., Plutarch was educated at the Academy of Athens, studying philosophy, rhetoric, physics and mathematics under the tutelage of the philosopher Ammonius. He married Timoxena and had possibly four sons, two of whom survived childhood. His only known daughter, also named Timoxena, died when she was young, causing grief to both parents.
In his early adulthood, Plutarch traveled through Greece and many parts of the Roman Empire. He served as chief magistrate for Chaeronea and represented his village on various foreign missions. He also ran a school of philosophy and maintained close links with the Academy of Athens. Beginning in 95 A.D., Plutarch was a priest of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi, and at some point he became a citizen of Rome.
Writings on Ethics and Human Behavior
Plutarch produced an extensive body of writing while leading an active social and civic life. Of his approximately 227 known works, the most famous are Moralia, also known as Ethica, and Parallel Lives. Moralia is a series of 60 or more essays written in dialogues or diatribes on ethics, religion and the politics of contemporary Greek society. Their literary value is enhanced by the frequent quotations from Greek poems and plays, especially verses of Euripides and other dramatists.
Plutarch's Parallel Lives was written in the last two decades before his death in 125 A.D. Designed to encourage mutual respect for Greek and Roman culture, it is a series of biographies arranged in pairs, highlighting the subjects' common virtues and vices. Plutarch was more concerned with writing biography than history, focusing on the meritorious actions of his subjects as examples of noble behavior and not so much on the times in which they lived.
Plutarch's work was revered during his own time, and in later antiquity it inspired other historians and philosophers. His writings attracted the attention of the Byzantines, who showed no prejudice for their pagan origins. Plutarch's writings were introduced to the 16th century humanists and Renaissance dramatists, such as William Shakespeare, who incorporated parts of his work into their works.
His work strongly influenced the evolution of biographical and historical writing in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Although Plutarch was admired by American philosopher, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, his popularity and influence began to decline in the 19th century, partly due to the Romantic Movement's focus on exploring the limits of human passion rather than strict virtuous behavior, and partly due to 19th century scholars' placing high value on historical accuracy, which was not emphasized in Plutarch's writings. In more contemporary times, Plutarch's writings serve as a reference for popular ideas on Greek and Roman history.