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The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization

Donald Andrew Frank Moore Russell

Plutarch (Lucius (?) Mestrius Plutarchus) 

of Boeotian Chaeronea; b. before ad 50, d. after ad 120; philosopher and biographer. The family had long been established in Chaeronea, and most of Plutarch's life was spent in that historic town, to which he was devoted. He knew Athens well, and visited both Egypt and Italy, lecturing and teaching at Rome. His father, Autobulus, his grandfather, Lamprias, and other members of his family figure often in his dialogues; his wide circle of influential friends include the consulars Lucius Mestrius Florus (whose gentile name he bore), Quintus Sosius Senecio (to whom the Parallel Lives and other works are dedicated), and Gaius Minicius Fundanus, as well as magnates like the exiled Syrian prince Philopappus. For the last thirty years of his life, Plutarch was a priest at Delphi. A devout believer in the ancient pieties and a profound student of its antiquities, he played a notable part in the revival of the shrine in the time of Trajan and Hadrian; and the people of Delphi joined with Chaeronea in dedicating a portrait bust of him ‘in obedience to the decision of the Amphictions’, the members of the sanctuary's venerable governing body (Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum3843 A). Late authorities (Suidas, Eusebius) report that he received ornamenta consularia (the honorary rank of consul) from Trajan, and was imperial procurator in Achaia (the province of Greece) under Hadrian; whatever lies behind this, he was a man of some influence in governing circles, as he was in his writing an active exponent of the concept of a partnership between Greece, the educator, and Rome, the great power, and of the compatibility of the two loyalties.

The ‘Catalogue of Lamprias’, a list of his works probably dating from the 4th cent., contains 227 items. Extant are 78 miscellaneous works (some not listed in the Catalogue) and 50 Lives. We have lost the Lives of the Caesars (except Galba and Otho) and some others (notably Epaminondas, Pindar, Daiphantus), and probably two-thirds of the miscellaneous works. Nevertheless, what remains is a formidable mass; Plutarch was a very prolific writer, especially (it seems) in the last twenty years of his life. The relative chronology of his works however is very difficult to establish (C. P. Jones, Journal of Roman Studies 1966, 61–74). For a complete list of titles, see e.g. any volume of the Loeb Classical Library Moralia, or D. A. Russell, Select Essays and Dialogues (World's Classics, 1993), pp. xxiii–xxix. In what follows, we can only mention a few. (The numbers attached to the titles refer to the order of treatises in all editions.)

1. The group of rhetorical works—epideictic performances—includes ‘The Glory of Athens’ (22), ‘The Fortune of Rome’ (20), ‘Against Borrowing Money’ (54). Plutarch's richly allusive and metaphorical style does not seem very well adapted to rhetorical performance, and these—with the exception of ‘Against Borrowing’ which is a powerful, satirical piece—are not very successful; it is often thought, though without clear evidence, that Plutarch's epideictic rhetoric was something that he gave up in later life.

2. The numerous treatises on themes of popular moral philosophy are derivative in content, but homogeneous and characteristic in style. Among the best are ‘Friends and Flatterers’ (4), ‘Progress in Virtue’ (5), ‘Superstition’ (14), ‘The Control of Anger’ (29), ‘Talkativeness’ (35), ‘Curiosity’ (36), and ‘Bashfulness’ (38). In ‘Rules for Politicians’ (52), Plutarch draws both on his historical reading and on his own experience, to give advice to a young man entering politics. The warm and sympathetic personality never far beneath the surface appears particularly in ‘Consolation to my Wife’ (45) and ‘Advice on Marriage’ (12). Plutarch's teaching is less individualistic than that of many ancient moralists: family affections and friendly loyalties play a large part in it.

3. Many of Plutarch's works are dialogues, written not so much in the Platonic tradition as in that of Aristotle (and indeed Cicero), with long speeches, a good deal of characterization, and the frequent appearance of the author himself as a participant. The nine books of ‘Table Talk’ (46) are full of erudite urbanity and curious speculation. ‘Socrates’ Daimonion' (43) combines exciting narrative (liberation of Boeotian Thebes from Spartan occupation in 379/8) with philosophical conversation about prophecy (a favourite theme) and an elaborate Platonic myth (see Plato) of the fate of the soul after death (Plutarch attempted such myths elsewhere also, especially in ‘God's Slowness to Punish’ (41). ‘Eroticus’ (47) also combines narrative with argument, this time in a near contemporary setting: the ‘kidnapping’ of a young man by a widow who wishes to marry him forms the background to a discussion of heterosexual and homosexual love in general. Delphi is the scene of four dialogues, all concerned with prophecy, daimones, and divine providence; and it is in these (together with Isis and Osiris (23) that the greater part of Plutarch's philosophical and religious speculation is to be sought.

4. He was a Platonist, and a teacher of philosophy; and the more technical side of this activity is to be seen in his interpretation of the Timaeus (68) and a series of polemical treatises against the Stoics (70–2) and Epicureans (73–5).

5. We possess also important antiquarian works—‘Roman Questions’ and ‘Greek Questions’ (18), mainly concerned with religious antiquities—and some on literary themes (‘On Reading the Poets’ (2) is the most significant).

Plutarch's fame led to the inclusion in the corpus of a number of spuria, some of which have been very important: ‘The Education of Children’ (1) was influential in the Renaissance; ‘Doctrines of the Philosophers’ (58) is a version of a doxographic compilation to which we owe a lot of our knowledge of Greek philosophy, while ‘Lives of the Ten Orators’ (55) and ‘Music’ (76) are also important sources of information.

The ‘Parallel Lives’ remain his greatest achievement. We have 23 pairs, 19 of them with ‘comparisons’ attached. Plutarch's aims are set out e.g. in Alexander 1 his object was not to write continuous political history, but to exemplify individual virtue (or vice) in the careers of great men. Hence he gives attention especially to his heroes' education, to significant anecdotes, and to what he sees as the development or revelation of character. Much depends of course on the sources available to him (Alcibiades is full of attested personal detail, Publicola is thin and padded out, Antony full of glorious narrative, especially about Cleopatra VII, Phocion and Cato Maior full of sententious anecdotes), but the general pattern is maintained wherever possible: family, education, début in public life, climaxes, changes of fortune or attitude, latter years and death. The Lives, despite the pitfalls for the historian which have sometimes led to despair about their value as source-material, have been the main source of understanding of the ancient world for many readers from the Renaissance to the present day.

Indeed, Plutarch has almost always been popular. He was a ‘classic’ by the 4th cent., and a popular educational text in Byzantine times. The preservation of so much of his work is due mainly to Byzantine scholars (especially Maximus Planudes). His wider influence dates from Renaissance translations, especially Amyot's French version (Lives 1559, Moralia 1572) and Sir T. North's English Lives (1579; largely based on Amyot) and Philemon Holland's Moralia (1603). Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dryden, Rousseau, and Emerson are among Plutarch's principal debtors. In the 19th cent., however, his influence, at least among scholars, diminished: he was seen as a derivative source both in history and in philosophy, and his lack of historical perspective and his rather simple moral attitudes earned him much disrespect. Recent scholarship has done much to reverse this negative view; as understanding of his learning and the aims and methods of his writing has deepened, so he has come again to be seen, not as a marginal figure, but as a thinker whose view of the classical world deserves respect and study. See also biography, Greek.

Donald Andrew Frank Moore Russell

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