The writings of Plutarch

The inaugural article of this blog (The Histories Continued) was concerned with the writing of Herodotus and a brief etymology of history as we recognise it today. Herodotus’ style of writing set the precedent for other writers such as Thucydides and Xenophon to cover the significant events of their day which still stand as Titans of classical and historical literature and are still in print today. This was the legacy passed down from the Greek writers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC to the writes of the Roman Republic and later the empire. Modern scholars such as Rufus Fears have suggested that the purpose of the early Greek writers was moral instruction primarily against hubris, that is extreme arrogance. While hubris is, without doubt, an underlying theme in these writings and is presented in the form of Xerxes by Herodotus and Athens by Thucydides, it’s doubtful, to me anyway, that this was the main purpose of these writings. Despite various writers exhibiting their own personal styles in their works the essence of historical works remained the same. It was in the 2nd century AD when Rome was nearing its apex as a world power that a different style of historical narrative emerged, it is this new style and its creator Plutarch that will be the subject of this article.

Before we delve into the writings of Plutarch we must first examine the man himself, Plutarch or originally Ploútarkhos was a Greek of a high-class family near Chaeronea in Boeotia not too far away from Athens. It is evident in his writing that he had a fair amount of leisure time at his disposal as he sometimes alludes to scholarly conversations and various events with notable men of the time. He seems to have travelled well and spent a lot of time in Rome, other than these few details he virtually wrote nothing of Plutarch himself. It is poignant to remind ourselves that he was only a Greek in that he was from Greece (Greece was not a country in the sense it is today), he was first and foremost a Roman citizen who lived under the rule of the Emperors.

By Plutarch’s time, the Roman empire was at its zenith under the rule of notable emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian, the Greek dominance of the classical world was well and truly over and had been for some time. Rome had truly proven itself as the successor to the world that Alexander the Great helped shape. Despite this, the influence that the Greeks had on the Romans was almost impossible not to acknowledge. During the rise of the Roman republic, Romans tried to distance themselves from Greek influence as they were fighting to create their own place in the classical world. However, as their dominance became apparent this attitude became increasingly relaxed.  Greeks such as Plutarch would have been proud of their ancestors and therefore inclined to acknowledge their influence. However, Plutarch would do this in a style that surely represents one of the most popular writing styles to this very day.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

Before Plutarch the notable works of history followed the same pattern, a simple recording of the events in chronological order, the variety in writings was only evident in the form of the author’s style and biases towards the topic they were recording. This is never more evident than in the writings of the 2nd Century BC Roman writer Tacitus. Tacitus’ writings know as the annals covey a deeply cynical opinion of the early Emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and later Domitian with their personal vices dominating his narrative and illuminating the pitfalls of these Emperors. Tacitus’ biases towards his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola are also very apparent as he is presented as a deeply noble character and a stark contrast to the morally corrupt Emperors of this period.

Although writing many different works the pinnacle of Plutarch’s writings is known as the Parallel Lives.  These were biographical style writings based on the lives of famous Greeks from the classical age and famous Romans of the Republic, these mean were usually statesmen of generals. What makes the parallel lives such a unique work is that these lives are not examined in a biographical sense that we are familiar with today. Rather a life of a famous Greek and Roman were paired together, usually in that order but there are a few exceptions. Plutarch would open by briefly introducing the two men and give some background into their life, setting the scene if you like. It is important to remember that the men who were being written about would have needed no introduction, a certain level of background knowledge about these individuals would have been assumed and is vital to fully comprehend Plutarch’s commentaries on these lives. Plutarch’s works include biographies of:

Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa, Solon and Publicola, Themistocles and Camillus, Aristides and Cato Major, Cimon and Lucullus, Pericles and Fabius, Nicias and Crassus, Coriolanus and Alcibiades, Lysander and Sulla, Agesilaus and Pompey, Pelopidas and Marcellus, Dion and Brutus, Aemilius and Timoleon, Demosthenes and Cicero, Phocion and Cato Minor, Sertorius and Eumenes, Demetrius and Anthony, Pyrrhus and Marius, Agis & Cleomenes and Tiberius & Caius Gracchus (double pair), Philopoemen and Flamininus.

However, the pair of lives stand above all of the rest back then as they do now, the lives of Gaius Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, these two men are two of the most fascinating men in the history of the world and should be considered as the crown jewel of Plutarch’s work. The amount of interest to this day surrounding these two figures attests to this fact.  If you read the list above and are unaware of these individuals by merely typing their names into google would reveal the very fabric of the Greek and Roman world as the story of these two great civilisations cannot be told without these men.

A brief preface on why Plutarch paired these men together, this concludes the prologue section of the writing. Then the Greek life would be examined followed by the Roman life and then they would be weighed up against each other, conclusions based on the similarities of these lives. This biographical approach Plutarch represents a clear break away from the traditional way of recording history that has previously been commented on and so I shall refrain from doing so now. What is clear is that Plutarch did not intend to write a work of history which at first glance appears strange as today it is considered a vital work of history which in some cases is our only insight into certain characters such as Lycurgus and Pyrrhus. It is the purpose of these works that makes them a truly unique historical source.

The purpose of the Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

There is no need to speculate on the true purpose of Plutarch for writing his parallel lives as in the introduction to the lives of Alexander and Caesar he writes ”For I am writing lives not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues and vices of the men who perform them… it is my task to dwell on those details that illuminate the working of the soul”, he later states that he will leave others to describe their great exploits and battles.

“it is my task to dwell on those details that illuminate the working of the soul”

Plutarch clearly states that he will not write a detailed account of the things because he does not believe that tell us about the individual compared to what the man thinks and says. Despite this fact many it would be practically impossible to exclude the events that happened in the lives of these men totally, rather Plutarch exercises historical selectivity in his narrative, meaning he only includes certain events which he deems to be illuminatory of their virtues and vices in the biographies of these men. As previously stated Plutarch believes that a conversation is more revealing that Political and military events. This fact in itself provides some obvious issues which we will address later.

Since the predominant interest in all of Plutarch’s lives is the character of the individual, today we would describe the character as something that adds a uniqueness to something or someone. However, to Plutarch and his reader’s character or ”vices and virtues” as Plutarch states would have referred to a common set of values that was displayed through that individual’s actions. It was by illuminating the common vices and virtues of these individuals Plutarch intended his work to be used as a moral instruction. By telling anecdotes from lives ethical and moral dilemmas were sown into his work and made use to present both virtues and vices in all individuals. In the life of Alexander Plutarch comments and gives examples of his great bravery and boldness in his drive for glory but does not neglect how cruel he could be, how he murdered his friends and became bitter and died due to binge drinking. The readers are thus forced to make their own judgments on the morality of each individual and when reading the parallel lives one get the feeling that mankind is not inherently good or bad. Rather it should be accepted that everyone has their own vices and virtues and it is up to the reader to make a judgement on that individual.

So the purpose of Plutarch seems to be to educate his readers on how to act in what we today might say morally. To weigh up our actions and those of others and make a judgement on them, he presents his parallel lives as a reference point using the lives of at his time, the most influential men in history.

Historical selectivity

Despite the brilliance of Plutarch’s work, he does present some reliability problems for modern historians. This is due to the fact that as he himself states he is not writing history. First of all, this represents to a modern historian that the whole narrative that he is telling is inherently incomplete. And as he states that he prefers to use conversations or remarks to tell the biographies of individuals these are almost hardly ever vastly illuminating in a historical sense. Historians, particularly of the ancient classical world use a variety of accounts form different people as well as archaeological remains to piece history together, like a jigsaw puzzle. Primary accounts of battles and political issues are like crack to a historian but Plutarch’s reporting of these events lack the critical detail that is required to count him as a reliable source. For example, in the life of the general Pyrrhus during a battle, Plutarch focuses on the individual actions of the general and records the conversations he has with his men while the details of the battle are neglected. Therefore it is clear that the value of Plutarch’s work is not the historical narrative due to historical selectivity but rather insights into the lives of the men he portrays.

As previously covered Plutarch’s lives followed a pattern, a famous greek with a famous Roman with the biographies illustrating their suitability to be paired together. Plutarch sticks to this structure rigorously and it is within this structure that there is an opportunity for selectivity to have a negative influence. By picking and choosing certain anecdotes and events to include in his lives Plutarch can artificially create or at least exaggerate links between lives. Although this is not very apparent when reading Plutarch it is work acknowledging.

While the issues described above represent reasons why Plutarch’s parallel lives can be perceived as not historically reliable it does not mean they are not historically valuable. Plutarch’s commentaries on the lives of certain individuals in some cases represent the vast majority of the information we have on them. The most prominent example of this is in the life of Lycurgus and other Spartans. Due to the fact that the Spartans didn’t write any of their own histories Plutarch’s commentaries on these lives give us insight into the Spartan people that would otherwise be unknown. Therefore the historical value of Plutarch parallel lives cannot be underestimated.

The value to Plutarch

The value and worth the best way of measuring the success of an enterprise is by measuring it against its aims. As Plutarch stated it was not his aim to write a history rather ‘it is my task to dwell on those details that illuminate the working of the soul’ and thus provide a moral guide within the parallel lives. Despite the obvious historical value moral instruction is the central theme that runs through the parallel lives and challenges the reader to use it for self-improvement. So it is here, in moral philosophy rather than historical knowledge that Plutarch represents his true value.

Oliver J. Hallett


Scott-Kilvert I. and Duff T.E. 2011. Plutarch: The age of Alexander. Penguin Classics. Second edition.

Talbert, R.J.A. 2005. Plutarch: On Sparta. Penguin Classics. Second edition.

Burgess, R. and Liebert, H,. 2017. From Cicero to Trump, They’re All in Plutarch’s ‘Lives’. Wall Street Journal. [Online]

Jiménez, A.P., 2002. Exemplum: the Paradigmatic Education of the Ruler in the Lives of Plutarch. Sage and emperor: Plutarch, Greek intellectuals, and Roman power in the time of Trajan (98-117 AD), pp.105-11.




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