Plutarch, a native of Chaeronea, is nearly without peer as a biographer and essayist. Although he wrote in Greek, his genius was immediately recognized by literary circles in Rome, and his great masterpiece, Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, was widely circulated during his own lifetime. It has been read enthusiastically by scholars ever since, and it is hard to overstate his importance as a moralist and a biographer. His works were probably more widely read throughout the middle ages and Renaissance than any other writer, excepting only St. Augustine, and of course the Bible. The whole idea of a humanistic education in the middle ages was founded on works such as Plutarch, and the translation of his work into English had a profound effect on all of English literature. Several of Shakespeare's historical plays, for example, are based heavily on Plutarch, as are many of his general insights into human nature.
Parallel Lives, his master work, is composed of forty-six biographies, written in a particular style that emphasizes the moral character of his subjects, rather than a chronological or complete list of all their known activities. He chooses to emphasize anecdotes and events that illustrate the virtues and vices of his subjects and freely adds commentary upon the varieties of human nature. Approximately half of his subjects are famous Greek statesman, generals, and philosophers, and the other half are Romans. In each case he identifies characters of similar situation or character and writes an accompanying essay stressing the similarities and differences. He contrasts, for example, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Cicero and Demosthenes, Coriolanus and Alcibiades. The insights he derives from these investigations are often both profound and delightful. Plutarch was an unabashed moralist, with a piercing and eternal insight into human nature unparalleled except by such greats as Chaucer and Shakespeare.
|Studied philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics at academy in Athens.|
|Traveled widely throughout Greece and Italy. Resided in Rome for some time.|
|Became Delphian priest, responsible for interpreting oracles.|
|Returned to Chaeronea.|
|Wrote hundreds of books. Established international reputation.|
|Visited in Chaeronea by Emperor Trajan.|
|Granted procuratorship of Achaea by Hadrian.|
|Roman consul, friend and patron of Plutarch,|
|Second of "Five Good Emperors." Ruled with justice and integrity. Conquered Dacia.|
|Third of "Five Good Emperors." Talented artist and architect, good administrator.|