Plutarch : biography
Life of Caesar
Together with Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars this Life is the main account of Julius Caesar’s feats by ancient historians. Plutarch starts by telling us the audacity of Caesar and his refusal of dismissing Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia. Other important parts are these containing his military deeds, accounts of battles and Caesar’s capacity of inspiring the soldiers.
However, this Life shows few differences between Suetonius’ work and Caesar’s own works (see De Bello Gallico and De Bello Civili). Sometimes, Plutarch quotes directly from the De Bello Gallico and even tell us of the moments when Caesar was dictating his works.
In the final part of this Life, Plutarch counts Caesar’s assassination, and several details. The book ends on telling the destiny of his murderers, and says that Caesar’s "great guardian-genius" avenged him after life.
Life of Pyrrhus
Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus is a key text because it is the main historical account on Roman history for the period from 293 to 264 BC, for which neither Dionysius nor Livy have surviving texts.
Criticism of Parallel Lives
|"It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die."
|Plutarch (Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar, Parallel Lives, [tr. E.L. Bowie])
Plutarch stretches and occasionally fabricates the similarities between famous Greeks and Romans in order to be able to write their biographies as parallel. The lives of Nicias and Crassus, for example, have nothing in common except that both were rich and both suffered great military defeats at the ends of their lives.
In his Life of Pompey, Plutarch praises Pompey’s trustworthy character and tactful behaviour in order to conjure a moral judgement that opposes most historical accounts. Plutarch delivers anecdotes with moral points, rather than in-depth comparative analyses of the causes of the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the Roman Republic, and tends on occasion to fit facts to hypotheses rather than the other, more scholastically acceptable way round.
On the other hand, he generally sets out his moral anecdotes in chronological order (unlike, say, his Roman contemporary Suetonius) and is rarely narrow-minded and unrealistic, almost always prepared to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition where moralising cannot explain it.
The remainder of Plutarch’s surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Customs and Mores). It is an eclectic collection of seventy-eight essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On Fraternal Affection—a discourse on honour and affection of siblings toward each other, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great—an important adjunct to his Life of the great king, On the Worship of Isis and Osiris (a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites),(but which according to Erasmus referred to the Thessalonians) along with more philosophical treatises, such as On the Decline of the Oracles, On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance, On Peace of Mind and lighter fare, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialogue between Homer’s Odysseus 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.
On the Malice of Herodotus
In On the Malice of Herodotus Plutarch criticizes the historian Herodotus for all manner of prejudice and misrepresentation. It has been called the “first instance in literature of the slashing review.” The 19th-century English historian George Grote considered this essay a serious attack upon the works of Herodotus, and speaks of the "honourable frankness which Plutarch calls his malignity." Plutarch makes some palpable hits, catching Herodotus out in various errors, but it is also probable that it was merely a rhetorical exercise, in which Plutarch plays devil’s advocate to see what could be said against so favourite and well-known a writer. According to Plutarch scholar R. H. Barrow, Herodotus’ real failing in Plutarch’s eyes was to advance any criticism at all of those states that saved Greece from Persia. “Plutarch,” he concluded, “is fanatically biased in favor of the Greek cities; they can do no wrong.”