Plutarch, Greek thinker - Biography and work

Plutarch, Greek thinker - Biography and work

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Philosopher, physician, moralist and biographer of Greek origin, Plutarch was born around AD 46. A respected great man of his time, he made the link between Greece and Rome - of which he became a citizen - and distinguished himself among others with his Parallel lives, comparative biographies of famous men. His moral works inspired many of his historical plays for Shakespeare. Plutarch died in Thebes in 120 AD. J-C, and will become an important source for ancient history.

Plutarch, Platonic student

Born around 46 in the village of Chéronée in Boeotia, probably from a good family, the young Plutarch went to Athens around 65, where he attended the science and philosophy courses of the Platonic Ammonios. The latter, a highly respected scholar at the time, became a reference for Plutarch, who cited him regularly in his work. At this time, Nero himself is in Greece, and Plutarch is said to have accompanied his master and the emperor to Delphi.

The future philosopher then left for Alexandria to complete his training in medicine. He returns to Chéronée, ready to fulfill illustrious missions.

Citizen of Athens and Rome

His training completed, Plutarch was entrusted with important missions by his fellow citizens. He must first go to Achaia, to the proconsul, then, in 78, he is in Rome mandated by Chaeronea and other Greek cities. We are then at the end of Vespasian's reign. It was during this trip that he met his friend L. Mestrius Florus (Roman historian), with whom he visited the tomb of Otho (of which he will write a Life) in Brixellum. In Rome, where he stayed several times, he learned Latin and gave lectures and lessons which earned him success and esteem.

Returning to Greece after traveling from Rome to Asia, his reputation made, he became a citizen of Athens, in the Leontis tribe. Plutarch then obtains the same honor of Delphi, where he is priest of Apollo around 100, then epimelet of the Amphictions, under the reign of Trajan. He also created a private academy where he mainly taught ethics, in the form of lessons and discussions. His wife Timoxene gave him five children; the eldest of four boys died as a teenager, the youngest at a young age and the only girl at the age of two. These mournings inspire him a consolation to his wife.

Emperor Trajan played an important role in Plutarch's career, as he gave him the consular ornaments. In the meantime, he became a Roman citizen thanks to his friend Florus - whose gentilice he took. Mestrius- and to a relative of Trajan, Q. Sosius Senecio (consul in 99, 102 and 107), before acceding to the equestrian order. Plutarch ended his career as procurator in Achaia for Emperor Hadrian, of which he was said to have provided part of the instruction. He died around 120, in Thebes, at an advanced age for the time, respected by all, after having founded a large family.

Plutarch's work

A scholar with many skills, Plutarch is first and foremost a moralist philosopher. For the historian, it is especially useful for his biographies collected in the Parallel lives, written from around 100. He insists that these are biographies, not Stories, marking the difference by the nature of the reported facts. Plutarch thus seeks what seems significant to him, a negative or positive exemplarity, to draw the portrait of his illustrious men. These Lives are intended to be read orally. They are about fifty, of which forty-six are "parallels", among which: Alexander / Caesar, Demosthenes / Cicero or Lysander / Sylla.

Plutarch also stands out for his method. He uses literary sources, of which he makes a careful critical study. On the other hand, he seems to have had some difficulties in Latin, which leads him to make some mistakes, on Livy for example. The Parallel Lives are of historical interest but above all constitute portraits or character studies. Plutarch pursues a moral aim; in the Life of Timoleon, he compares the life of great men to a large mirror "that I look at to try in some measure to regulate my life and to conform it to the image of their virtues". He recalls the greatness of the two peoples, Greek and Roman, and calls for reciprocal esteem, even if Greece remains preeminent for him. He is thus one of the first to consecrate the existence of a Greco-Roman civilization.

A late posterity

During his lifetime, Plutarch seemed to enjoy only a fame limited to his province. In the following centuries, while it was appreciated by the Byzantines or the first fathers of the Church, it was almost devoid of fame in the West, like many other Greek authors, and was not rediscovered until the Renaissance. Machiavelli admires him, as does Erasmus who translates several of his treatises. William Shakespeare draws his inspiration from his Parallel Lives to compose certain tragedies, such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra.

The posterity of Plutarch is immense. Its translation by Jacques Amyot (1513-1593), by order of François Ier in 1542, was finally published in 1559. Plutarch influence and was then praised by Bacon, Rabelais, Montaigne or Rousseau. His work influenced certain revolutionaries, such as Jules Michelet who was one of his last great admirers. It is today an important source for ancient history.


- Plutarch, Parallel Lives, trad. F. Hartog, Gallimard, 2002.

- J. Boulogne, Plutarch in the mirror of Epicurus, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, coll. “Philosophy”, 2003.

- J. Sirinelli, Plutarch of Chéronée, Fayard, 2000.

Video: Plutarchs Life of Aristides discussed


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