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Plutarch

Plutarch (c.45-c.125) was a Greek historian.

Born at Chaeronea, in the Greek region of Boeotia, probably during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, Mestrius Plutarch travelled widely in the Mediterranean world, later lecturing at Rome for an extended period and making friends with influential persons at Rome, to whom some of his later writings were dedicated. Among these were Soscius Senecio and Fundanus, important members of the Senate whom Plutarch regarded as patrons and friends. Returning to Chaeronea, he was initiated into the mysteries of the Greek god Apollo. However his duties as one of the two priests of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi (where he was responsible for interpreting the auguries of the Pythia or priestess/oracle) apparently occupied little of his time - he led a most active social and civic life and produced an incredible body of writings, much of which is still extant.

In addition to his duties as a priest of the Delphic temple, Plutarch was also a magistrate in Chaeronea and he represented his home on various missions to foreign countries during his early adult years. His friend Lucius Mestrius Florus, a Roman consul, sponsored Plutarch as a Roman citizen and, late in life, the Emperor Trajan apparently appointed him as procurator of Achaea - a position that entitled him to wear the vestments and ornaments of a consul himself.

His best-known work is Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, a series of biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings. The surviving Parallel Lives, as they are also known, contain 23 pairs of biographies, each pair containing one Greek Life and one Roman Life; as well as 4 unpaired single Lives. Although Plutarch has sometimes been disparaged by later historians, he was not concerned with writing history, as such, but in exploring the influence of character - good or bad - on the lives and destinies of famous men. Some of the more interesting Lives - for instance, those of Heracles and Philip II of Macedon - no longer exist, and many of the remaining Lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae and/or have been tampered with by later writers.

His Life of Alexander is one of the five surviving tertiary sources about the Macedonian conqueror/king and it includes anecdotes and descriptions of incidents that appear in no other source. Likewise, his portrait of Numa Pompilius, an early Roman king, also contains unique information about the early Roman calendar.

The remainder of his surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Moral Matters). It is an eclectic collection of 78 essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great - an important adjunct to his Life of the great general - On the Worship of Isis and Osiris (a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites) and On Herodotus Spite, a critical dissection of what Plutarch regarded as systematic bias in the Father of History's work, along with more philosophical treatises, such as On the Decline of the Oracles, On God's Slowness to Punish Evil, On Peace of Mind and lighter fare, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialog between Homer's Ulysses and one of Circe's enchanted pigs. The Moralia was composed first, while writing the Lives occupied much of the last two decades of Plutarch's own life.

Plutarch's writings had enormous influence on English and French literature. Shakespeare extensively quoted - and more extensively paraphrased - Thomas North's translation of several of the Lives in his plays. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Trancendentalists were greatly influenced by the Moralia. Boswell quoted Plutarch's line about writing lives, rather than biographies in the introduction to his own Life of Samuel Johnson. His other admirers include Ben Jonson, John Dryden, John Milton, and Sir Francis Bacon, as well as such disparate figures as Cotton Mather, Robert Browning and Montaigne (whose own Essays draw deeply on Plutarch's Moralia for their inspiration and ideas).

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