Historical Figures


Biography was a widely used genre in classical historiography. Xenophon dedicated an entire work to the Spartan king Agesilaus, Tacitus did the same with his father-in-law Julius Agricola, and Suetonius wrote his famous Lives of the Twelve Caesars . In addition, it was common to find detailed descriptions of the characters in the great works of this time. Although each of the cited works has certain peculiarities with respect to the others, this is not the time to distinguish the different styles of biographies, nor to discern the differences between them and praise or hagiographic accounts. We are now only interested in highlighting the importance of Plutarch's work as the greatest exponent of a very widespread genre in Rome and Greece.

Plutarch was born in the Boeotian city of Chaeronea between 45 and 50 AD. (the exact date is unknown) within a wealthy family. We know most of the information about his life and about his family thanks to the fact that he himself mentions them in several passages of his works. We know that he studied mathematics and philosophy in Athens and that among his teachers the Egyptian Ammonius stood out, who introduced him to the circles of the Academy. After finishing his teaching, he carried out various diplomatic missions for his hometown.

Plutarch's life was marked by the different trips, cultural or diplomatic, that he made (we know that around the year 67 he traveled to Egypt and Asia Minor) and, in particular, those who made Rome. We do not know the reasons that led him to the Italian peninsula (today it is almost ruled out that he was Emperor Trajan's tutor, as was stated in the Middle Ages), but in any case the influence that the Empire caused in Plutarch allowed him to act as an interlocutor between his fellow citizens and Rome. The prestige he acquired caused him to be appointed to positions as priest of the sanctuary at Delphi (under his direction the temple had a new phase of prosperity) and archon of Chaeronea. There is no unanimity when it comes to establishing the dates on which he accessed these positions, nor the time he remained in them. There is also no certainty that he was appointed procurator of the province of Achaia, one of the most important positions within the Roman administration, as Eusebius of Caesarea affirms. He died around 120 AD. presumably in his hometown.

As with other classical historians, much of Plutarch's works have been lost. In the so-called "Catalogue of Lamprias" (apparently prepared by one of his sons) the writings of the Greek thinker are related, in total 227 titles, of which approximately half would have reached us. The diversity of topics covered stands out:literary criticism, history, philosophy, ethics, pedagogy, rhetoric... This accumulation of works has come together in two large blocks:Moralia , which brings together more than seventy writings of miscellaneous content that mostly address issues of popular philosophy with an ethical argument, and Vidas Paralelas .

Parallel Lives It is made up of twenty-two pairs of biographies, to which we must add four more corresponding to Aratus, Artaxerxes II, Galba and Otho (these last two probably belonged to a Life of the Caesars that has been lost). In total forty-eight characters analyzed and arranged in pairs of a Roman and a Greek. The exact date of its composition is subject to debate, although it is usually placed between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd. There is also no agreement when it comes to establishing the order in which the different biographies are prepared, since the sometimes contradictory quotes that appear in some of them make this task even more difficult.

The first thing to say about Parallel Lives is that it is not a properly historical work. Plutarch, in the prologue to the biography of Alexander the Great, acknowledges this:“[…] we do not write histories, but biographies ”. The nuance is important because the treatment given to the different characters does not have as its ultimate goal the narration of past events, but rather the exposition of moral guidelines that can serve as an example. The working method used by Plutarch does not imply, however, that he neglected the criteria that classical historiography had been using:judge the facts and rationalize the myths; he critically analyzes the different versions before opting for one and rejects praise or malicious invective.

In a certain way we would be facing the practical application of the philosophical contents embodied in his other works, those grouped in Moralia . His purpose is to make the reader sense, through the story of the lives of great men, some ethical principles and virtues that guide his own actions. With these words, collected in the biography of Pericles, the Greek thinker expresses it:“ However, virtue with his actions immediately puts one in a position to admire his works and at the same time emulate those who have done them. done ”.

To achieve this goal, Plutarch does not pay attention to the most important deeds carried out by each character, but he deals preferably with the details and anecdotes that best show the character of the. As he himself states in the prologue to Alexander the Great, “[…] the manifestation of virtue or evil is not always found in the most illustrious works; a word or a joke is a better test of character than battles in which thousands are killed […] we should be granted that we preferentially penetrate the signs that the soul shows and that through them we represent the life of each one, leaving for others the great events and the battles ”.

The structure of the biographies -although there are variations as not all of them are homogeneous- is also adjusted to that design. Most begin with a short prologue; followed by a review of education, youth and some personal aspects of the character; then it addresses his beginnings in public or military life and continues with the most notable events carried out by the sitter during his life (the length will depend on the information available and the actions worthy of recognition). He concludes some chapters with a comparison (synkrisis ) intended to underline the differences and similarities between the two characters, as we remember that they are grouped in pairs. Plutarch, in his eagerness to highlight the virtues (or defects), gives greater importance to the youth and education of the protagonists, in addition to blurring the battles and public life to the detriment of the anecdotes and the peculiarities of the character of each biography.

There is some controversy about the sources used by Plutarch to prepare his writings, fueled because the biographical genre is not it was precisely a novelty in classical historical literature. In Parallel Lives More than a hundred references to other historians or works appear and it is likely that Plutarch did not have first-hand access to all of them, many of which he would surely know from compilations that included them or from quotes and references made in others. To this must be added that, as he himself stated, his command of Latin was not entirely fluent. Probably among Plutarch's predecessors is the Roman historian Cornelius Nepos, author of On Illustrious Men , who most influenced the thinker of Chaeronea.

Plutarch directs his works to a very defined audience:cultured, educated men with political responsibilities and a relatively high social position. They are the ones who can best appreciate (and follow) the examples collected in the Parallel Lives . As his readers already knew the great deeds carried out by the biographies, since they used to have a solid historical formation, the Greek historian allows himself to pay more attention to the details and the personality of those, while omitting (or leaving in the background) plane) the social origin or the chronological location of the protagonist. The result is that the analyzed figures end up being the representatives of "humanity" with its virtues and defects.

Was Plutarch really a historian or just a moralist who used the past as an excuse to expound his ethical ideals? Even though it is not possible to give a definitive answer to the question, no one can deny the historical interest of his work, not only because of his references to the great events of antiquity, but also as a reflection of imperial Roman society. Through the description that he makes of the different characters, we learn details about them that otherwise would have been lost, while at the same time we understand what the moral principles of Rome were in the first century of our era.

Previous Post
Next Post