Plutarch

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Plutarch

Plutarch (plōō´tärk), AD 46?–c.AD 120, Greek essayist and biographer, b. Chaeronea, Boeotia. He traveled in Egypt and Italy, visited Rome (where he lectured on philosophy) and Athens, and finally returned to his native Boeotia, where he became a priest of the temple of Delphi. His great work is The Parallel Lives comprising 46 surviving biographies arranged in pairs (one Greek life with one comparable Roman) and four single biographies; some 19 short comparisons affixed to the lives are of doubtful authenticity. The English translation by Sir Thomas North had a profound effect upon English literature; it supplied, for example, the material for Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens. A translation by John Dryden was revised by A. H. Clough in 1864. Although Plutarch displays evident pride in the culture and greatness of the men of Greece, he is nevertheless fair and honest in his treatment of the Romans. As a biographer Plutarch is almost peerless, although his facts are not always accurate. Since his purpose was to portray character and reveal its moral implications, his technique included the use of much anecdotal material. Less known, but also of great charm and interest, are Plutarch's Moralia (tr. by F. C. Babbitt et al., 14 vol., 1927–76). They consist of dialogues and essays on ethical, literary, and historical subjects, such as The Late Vengeance of the Deity, On Superstition, The Right Way of Hearing Poetry, and Advice to Married Couples. Plutarch's quotations (frequent and long) from the old dramatists are often our only record of such writings.

See biography by R. H. Barrow (1967, repr. 1979); studies by C. J. Gianakaris (1970), C. P. Jones (1971), D. A. Russell (1973), and A. Wardman (1974).

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