Mestrius Plutarchus (c. 46- 127), known in English as Plutarch, (in Greek Πλούταρχος) 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, Plutarch travelled widely in the Mediterranean world, including twice to Rome. Due to his parents' wealth, after 67, Plutarch was able to study philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics at the Academy of Athens.
He had a number of influential 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, and 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) apparently occupied little of his time - he led an active social and civic life and produced an incredible body of writing, 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 procurator of Achaea – a position that entitled him to wear the vestments and ornaments of a consul himself. (The Suda, a medieval Greek 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 as dyads to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings. The surviving Lives contain twenty-three 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 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 Plutarch's surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Customs and Mores). It is an eclectic collection of seventy-eight essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On Fraternal Affection - a discourse on honor and affection of siblings toward each other, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great - an important adjunct to his Life of the great king, 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 work of Herodotus, 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 dialogue 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.
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. In his plays, Shakespeare paraphrased parts of Thomas North's translation of selected Lives, and occasionally quoted from them verbatim. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists were greatly influenced by the Moralia (Emerson wrote a glowing introduction to the five 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, Alexander Hamilton, 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).
- "Wickedness frames the engines of her own torment. She is a wonderful artisan of a miserable life."
- "It is a desirable thing to be well descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors."
- "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." — On Listening to Lectures
- "But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy." — On the Eating of Flesh
- "The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits (largess.)"
- Plutarch's "Lives" by Alan Wardman ISBN 0-236-17622-6
- Plutarch's "Lives: exploring virtue and vice" by Timothy E. Duff (Oxford UP: 2002 pb) ISBN 0-199-25274-2
- "The Echo of Greece" by Edith Hamilton. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 1957. p. 194. ISBN 0-393-00231-4