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Plutarch: Biography, Works & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If you're like Homer Simpson--who confuses him with a cartoon dog--you might be unsure as to who Plutarch is. Not to worry; this lesson delves into the man and the myth behind one of ancient Greece's most formidable scholars.

When in Rome: Plutarch the Myth

For someone so devoted to recording the lives and accomplishments of others, very little is known for certain about Plutarch (Greek Ploutarkhos), one of antiquity's most prolific biographers. In fact, we don't even know for sure when he was born! It is estimated that Plutarch was born sometime around A.D. 46 in the Boiotian city of Khaironeia--the hometown to which he remained dutifully loyal until his death circa 120.

Plutarch's family was considerably affluent, and he reaped the benefits of their wealth and social standing by being able to study at Athens. Since he was never directly quoted or mentioned by any of his well-known contemporaries (i.e. Tacitus, Quintilian, or Pliny the Younger), much of the information that has circulated concerning Plutarch's career is untrue. Many of these fabrications deal with his supposed political tenure at Rome, where he is said to have served as personal tutor to the emperor Trajan and was awarded several honors, including consular rank and governorship of Greece.

Plutarch the Man

What we can gather about Plutarch, though, is that he led a long and prosperous life that he shared with many loved ones. He writes warmly and often about various friends and family members, including his great-grandfather Nikarkhos, grandfather Lamprias, father Autobolos, and daughter Timoxena, whose early death prompted the renowned consolation to his wife.

Plutarch also nurtured many long and influential friendships from his travels through Athens, Egypt, and Italy, where he taught and lectured at Rome. It is evident as well that he was devoutly pious, since he dedicated the final thirty years of his life to serving as a priest to the Oracle (Pythia) at Delphi.

Reproduction at Khaironeia of the bust dedicated to Plutarch by the communities there and at Delphi
Bust of Plutarch at Khaironeia

Lifetimes of the Rich and Famous: The Works of Plutarch

The corpus of Plutarch's works was reported to contain some 220 individual titles; however, only 128 of those are extant, or remaining in current circulation. Fifty of these titles make up the famous Parallel Lives, which to this day are his crowning achievement. In the Lives, Plutarch records and compares the stories of some of Greece and Rome's most preeminent personalities, including Julius Caesar, Perikles, Marc Antony, and Alexander the Great.

Title page from 18th-century English translation of the leading authority in ancient biography
Title page from English translation of the Parallel Lives

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