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PLUTARCH (L. Mestrios Ploutarchos, before 50after 120 ce) was born at Chaironeia near Thebes. He spent much time at Athens but in later life seems to have resided mostly at Chaironeia and at Delphi, where he held a priesthood. He was a good friend of many eminent Greeks and Romans and accordingly had considerable political influence, advocating a partnership between Rome (the power) and Greece (the educator). Late authorities report that he received high distinctions from the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. The extant work of Plutarch, an extremely prolific writer, surpasses that of almost every classical author up to his time, while many nonauthentic works have survived under his name. The Parallel Lives, written in an idealistic but critical style, represents a vast and masterly achievement that has had enormous influence. Modern scholarship has also concentrated on his Moralia, treating Plutarch seriously as a creative thinker and writer whose views deserve respect and study.

Life, Works, and Religious Outlook

Plutarch wrote on religious, ethical, philosophical, rhetorical, and antiquarian subjects called Moralia or Moral Essays (Ethika in Greek), but he is most famous for his Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans. As a youth he studied Platonism at Athens under an Alexandrian named Ammonios, and Plutarch's own works in general belong to philosophical and religious Platonism.

Plutarch traveled to Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome (several times), but his religious knowledge and interpretations usually depend on standard works, such as those of the early Hellenistic authors Manethon and Hekataios of Abdera (Egyptian religion) and Varro (late Roman Republic). Plutarch's veiled criticism of imperial cult may reflect a distaste for the Roman emperors Nero and in particular Domitian. As a priest at Delphi and a devout believer in the "ancestral faith," Plutarch played a notable part in the revival of the shrine. This interest and his own role is reflected in his Pythian Dialogues (The E at Delphi, The Oracles at Delphi, and The Obsolescence of the Oracles ), in the first of which he prefers Apollo (n ) as the name to designate God.

Walter Burkert has noted in "Plutarco: Religiosità personale e teologia filosofica" (1996) the personal and optimistic dimension of Plutarch's attitude toward religion. In two essays, probably early, On the Eating of Flesh I and II, Plutarch attacked the killing of animals for food, but elsewhere he treats religious festivities, which included sacrifice, as joyous occasions. He believed in prophecy and, following the Platonic tradition, speaks of its transmission through intermediate spirits (daimones), especially in The Sign [Daimonion] of Socrates. However, in general Plutarch treats daimones as former or potential human souls. Though drawing inspiration from Plato's afterlife myths and the Timaios, Plutarch speaks in The Face on the Moon of a "second death," the separation of intellect (nous) from soul (psyche), on the moon. In his eschatological scenes and comments, he proposes that virtuous souls, apparently limited in number, after passing through the state of daimones and undergoing purification, become godsthat is, pure immortal intellects without passions or attachment to this worldand are rewarded with the blessed vision. Plutarch is a firm believer in divine providence and the basic goodness of the divine order, but he allows punishment for the sins of ancestors to be inflicted on their descendants (The Delay of Divine Vengeance ).

Emphasis on Plutarch's demonology (better "daimonology") has been much exaggerated. His writings reflect the vast range of meaning carried by the words daimon, daimones, or daimonion (i.e., spirit, demon, lesser god, a god, the divinity, God) in Greek. His interest, however, may indicate the growing influence of Near Eastern and perhaps even New Testamenttype demonology. In The Obsolescence of the Oracles and the Lives of Dion and Brutus, Plutarch introduces daimones similar to New Testament demons but without seeming to be aware of possession and exorcism.


Scholars are divided over dualism in Plutarch. In The Generation of the Soul in the Timaios, Plutarch posits a "world soul," which existed in a precosmic state as a source of cosmic evil before this soul obtained an intellect (Logos). Elsewhere he suggests that Zoroastrian dualism may be responsible for the doctrine of daimones (415D), and he discourses on the struggle between good and evil forces in Zoroastrianismfor example, as a tentative explanation for the battle between Osiris and Seth in Egyptian myth (Isis and Osiris 369D370C). But dualism in the strict sense (a world equally balanced between good and evilthat is, between equal spiritual beings, one good, one evil) is rarely in question and certainly inconsistent with his belief in a benevolent and providential God ruling a basically good world.

Eschatological myths

Some of Plutarch's afterlife myths (found in The Sign of Socrates, The Face on the Moon, and The Delay of the Divine Vengeance ), while modeled on those of Plato, are more focused on the personal experience of the visionary, and a "blessed vision" seems more clearly to be the ultimate destiny of the soul. Horrors are more individually described and gripping, and at least at the end of The Divine Vengeance, where Nero appears, one finds an outstanding contemporary figure undergoing punishment. This is an exception but foreshadows Dante Alighieri's Inferno (fourteenth century). Moreover in some myths the moon becomes a place of transition for the souls, and in general the daimones (generally treated as former or potential human souls) have a much more important role than in Plato. In contrast to the pessimistic myth of eternal rebirth in Plato's Republic or the more optimistic version of recycling souls in the Timaios, Plutarch seems to envisage release and a blessed vision as the normal process for truly virtuous souls, though these are few in number.

Religious Platonism

Plutarch avoided more extreme positions, such as a first, second, or even third God (the world) or a God above being and knowledge. He identifies God with the highest Platonic entitiesBeing, One, the Form of the Good, Intellecteven though this is usually stated only indirectly. One of Plutarch's most important contributions is his literal interpretation of the Demiurge (craftsman, creator God) in Plato's Timaios. Another is his Middle Platonic allegorical interpretation of "Egyptian" religion (Isis and Osiris ). His intention probably was to domesticate and neutralize the Isis religion through Platonic exegesis. Against Herodotos, he champions the purity of Greek religion and its independence from the Egyptian. Plutarch thus affirms the superiority of Greek culture. However, the extensive explanation of the rites and myths, a sympathetic treatment, the importance given Osiris, and the addition of Greek eschatology probably gave more meaning to the "Egyptian" cult and helped popularize it.

Dying and rising gods

In Isis and Osiris (356B359C) Plutarch treats at great length the death and resurrection, or resuscitation, of Osiris. Osiris is identified on occasion with Dionysos (e.g., 356B, 362B), who in turn is identified with Adonis (Table Talk, 671BC). As Giovanni Casadio notes in "The Failing Male God" (2003), Plutarch prefers to treat the dying and rising Osiris as a daimon rather than a god (360E361F). To fit Plutarch's allegorical interpretation, however, Osiris ends up not as king of the dead as in the traditional Egyptian religion but belonging to the ethereal regions.

Judaism and Christianity

Plutarch's knowledge of Jewish religion, some of it reporting Egyptian anti-Jewish propaganda from the Hellenistic period, is limited and superficial. His ignorance is surprising, considering that the Jewish revolts brought Jews to the attention of the Greek and Roman world. His knowledge is presumably derived from earlier non-Jewish authors and represents an outsider's view of the religion. For example, the use of wine, tents, and palm branches in the feast of the Tabernacles demonstrates that the Jewish god is Dionysos (Table Talk 4.44.6). Still in these Table Talk "questions," the only passages exclusively dedicated to Judaism, he treats it with respect and some sympathy. Thus he differs from Tacitus (e.g., Histories 5.6.4), who admired the Jews for not representing the divinity in images (something Plutarch ignores) but otherwise treats them with contempt. Plutarch's respectful attitude, though consistent with his general procedure, is noteworthy, considering the hostile climate toward Jews during his lifetime. Christianity is never mentioned in Plutarch's works. Since the Christian persecutions had started and Plutarch was acquainted with high Roman officials, its absence may represent a "conspiracy of silence."

Historian of religion

Plutarch, an extraordinary source for Greek religion, was probably its most outstanding historian and comparativist in his day. In the dialogues, which permit him to introduce often radical and contradictory opinions, his personal view is often difficult to assess. In other works, such as Isis and Osiris (a treatise) and The Face on the Moon (more a treatise than a dialogue), he presents several interpretations, usually moving from a less-probable opinion to a more-probable one, as, for example, when discussing dualism. As a scholar of comparative religion (especially in Isis and Osiris, Greek Questions, Roman Questions, and Table Talk ), Plutarch treats religious practices with respect. He presumes there is a reasonable or edifying rationale for something, even if strange. Plutarch had an outstanding knowledge of Greek and a comprehensive knowledge of Roman religion, and he used excellent sources, such as Varro for the Roman Question.

Fritz Graf, however, in "Plutarco e la religione romana" (1996), notes both Plutarch's failure to see an essential difference between Roman and Greek religion and his tendency to give theological and moralistic explanations. A case is that of the Flamen Dialis, where modern scholars would see socioreligious taboos. The answers in the Greek Questions are authoritative and often short, like encyclopedia entries, normally without theoretical explanations. But the responses in the Roman Questions, frequently more than one, are actually open-ended questions. In these, often described as "Greek answers for Roman questions," though not always such, Plutarch seems unable to resist giving several theoretical answers. Apparently spun out of his own head, he sometimes introduces them with "Is it as Varro says, or ?" Moreover Rebecca Preston, in "Roman Questions, Greek Answers: Plutarch and the Construction of Identity" (2001), observes Plutarch's tendency to avoid explicit reference to contemporary religious practice, such as imperial cult.

Plutarch was surprisingly well-informed about Egyptian religion, making use of good, early Hellenistic sources, in particular the Egyptian priest Manethon. In general, as a religious historian he tries to let the reader into his decision-making process. He interprets other religions in Greek terms, deeming practices or beliefs worthy if they can be reconciled with Greek ideas. Typical in a sense is his derivation of the Egyptian or Greek transmission of the Egyptian name Isis, from the Greek word "to know." One of his guiding principles is interpretatio graeca, the identification of foreign gods with Greek gods, an identification often based on external resemblances in rites and attributes. Plutarch mostly used old sources, but because of the prominence given Osiris in them, his work harmonizes with the growing importance of Osiris in the early imperial period. In Plutarch's appropriation or domestication of the religion through shifting Platonic exegesis and the allegorical method, Osiris becomes Plato's Eros, or the Form of the Good, while Isis is the Platonic "receptacle," or the individual soul longing for the Form of the Good (or Beautiful).

Plutarch's Influence

From his own age to modern times, Plutarch has been widely read for his religious views, partly because his ideas on creation and God could be reconciled with Christian thought. His influence can be seen in such Middle Platonists as Attikos and in the Neoplatonists, though the latter disliked his metaphysics. Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebios of Caesarea, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoretos, Isidore of Pelousion, and Ioannes Philoponos read and admired Plutarch, in particular for his description of the unique creation of the world by God in time. The Delay of the Divine Vengeance greatly admired throughout the ages, even if not necessarily for the best reasonswas transcribed and adapted in large part by the Neoplatonist Proklos, and it received many editions and translations, especially during the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.

Plutarch was overlooked by medieval scholars in the West, but in the early humanist period Greeks like Planudes and Ioannes Mauropos admired him. In the fifteenth century only Aristotle and Plato among prose writers were better represented in Italian libraries, but Plutarch's ethical writings were favored over his religious writings. Montaigne praised Plutarch's nondogmatic approach to religious questions. Though Erasmus translated several of the Moralia, once saying they were inferior only to the Bible in spirituality, and Plutarch was admired by Melanchthon, Martin Luther does not mention him. Already in the seventeenth century Isis and Osiris had become an important source for scholars of Egyptian religion; the work helped fuel the Egyptomania of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, and it remains an important source for Egyptologists. Though Plutarch fell somewhat out of favor in the nineteenth century, his Platonism found a home among the New England transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson). He was a favorite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mary Shelley, while George Bernard Shaw oddly labeled his work "a revolutionists' handbook." In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries scholars have found Plutarch's works to be an indispensable source for the mentality of his time, a time that produced such profound changes in the religious history of the Western world.

See Also

Delphi; Demons; Dualism; Hellenistic Religions; Isis; Orpheus; Osiris; Plato; Platonism.


Babut, Daniel. Plutarque: Oeuvres morales 72: Sur les notions communes, contre les Stoïciens. Paris, 2002.

Baltes, Matthias. "Plutarchos [2] III: Philosophisches Werk." In Der Neue Pauly: Enzyklopädie der Antike, edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, vol. 9, pp. 11661173. Stuttgart, 2000.

Betz, Hans-Dieter, ed. Plutarch's Theological Writings and Early Christian Literature. Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.

Bianchi, Ugo. "Plutarch und der Dualismus." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW), vol. 2, no. 36.1, pp. 111120. Berlin and New York, 1987.

Boulogne, Jean. "Les 'Questions Romaines' de Plutarque." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW), vol. 2, no. 33.6, pp. 46824708. Berlin and New York, 1992.

Brenk, Frederick E. In Mist Apparelled: Religious Themes in Plutarch's "Moralia" and "Lives." Leiden, Netherlands, 1977.

Brenk, Frederick E. "An Imperial Heritage: The Religious Spirit of Plutarch of Chaironeia." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW), vol. 2, no. 36.1, pp. 248349. Berlin and New York, 1987; Indices, vol. 2, no. 36.2, pp. 13001322. 1987.

Brenk, Frederick E. Relighting the Souls: Studies in Plutarch, in Greek Literature, Religion, and Philosophy, and in the New Testament Background. Stuttgart, 1998.

Burkert, Walter. "Plutarco: Religiosità personale e teologia filosofica." In Plutarco e la religione, edited by Italo Gallo, pp. 1129. Naples, 1996.

Casadio, Giovanni. "The Failing Male God: Emasculation, Death, and Other Accidents in the Ancient Mediterranean World." Numen 50 (2003): 231268.

Dillon, John. "Plutarch and God: Theodicy and Cosmogony in the Thought of Plutarch." In Traditions of Theology: Studies in Hellenistic Theology, Its Background and Aftermath, edited by Dorothea Frede and André Laks, pp. 223237. Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.

Donini, Pierluigi. "L'eredità academica e i fondamenti del platonismo in Plutarco." In Unione e Amicizia: Omaggio a Francesco Romano, edited by Maria Barbanti, Giovanna Giardina, and Paolo Manganaro, pp. 247273. Catania, Italy, 2003.

Ferrari, Franco. Dio, idee e materia: La struttura del cosmo in Plutarco di Cheronea. Naples, 1995.

Froidefond, Christian. "Plutarque et le platonisme." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW), vol. 2, no. 36.1, pp. 184233. Berlin and New York, 1987.

García Valdés, Manuela, ed. Estudios sobre Plutarco: Ideas religiosas. Madrid, 1994.

Goldhill, Simon. "Why Save Plutarch?" In Who Needs Greeks? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism, pp. 246-293. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Graf, Fritz. "Plutarco e la religione romana." In Plutarco e la religione, edited by Italo Gallo, pp. 269285. Naples, 1996.

Griffiths, John Gwyn, trans. and ed. Plutarch's "De Iside et Osiride." Cardiff, U.K., 1970.

Hani, Jean. La religion égyptienne dans la pensée de Plutarque. Paris, 1976.

Hirzel, Rudolf. Plutarch. Leipzig, Germany, 1912.

Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions. Translated by Brian McNeil. Edinburgh, 2000; reprint, Minneapolis, 2003.

Preston, Rebecca. "Roman Questions, Greek Answers: Plutarch and the Construction of Identity." In Being Greek under Roman Rule: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire, edited by Simon Goldhill, pp. 86122. New York and Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Tsekourakis, Damianos. "Pythagoreanism or Platonism and Ancient Medicine? The Reason for Vegetarianism in Plutarch's Moralia." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW ), vol. 2, no. 36.1, pp. 366393. Berlin and New York, 1987.

Ziegler, Konrat. Plutarchos von Chaironeia. Stuttgart, 1964. Rev. and enl. version of Paulys Realencyclopädie, vol. 21, pp. 636962. Stuttgart, 1951.

Frederick E. Brenk (2005)


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The Greek biographer, historian, essayist, and moralist Plutarch (ca. 46-ca. 120) has been described as one of the most influential writers who ever lived.

Paradoxically, Plutarch the man who was the biographer of many others, had no biographer except for a scant notice in Suidas. What we know of his life is reconstructed from casual references in his own works. Plutarch was apparently born of a wealthy family in Chaeronia in Boeotia, had two brothers, Timon and Lamprias, and a grandfather named Lamprias. His parents' names are uncertain. Some say his father's name was Autobulus, some say Nicarchus, and we do know of a great-grandfather named Nicarchus. Plutarch is believed to have had a liberal education at Athens, where he studied physics, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, natural science, philosophy, Greek, and Latin literature in 66. Ammonius of Lamptrae, a Plato scholar with religious and Neoplatonic interests, may have been his tutor. To complete his education, Plutarch traveled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor and visited Alexandria, Egypt.

Plutarch married Timoxena, daughter of Alexion (ca. 68), who bore him four sons, Soclarus, Chairon, Autobulus, and Plutarchus, and one daughter, Timoxena. Only Autobulus and Plutarchus survived Plutarch. All evidence indicates a happy marriage and a close family. Other relatives by marriage mentioned as members of the family in the Moralia are Craton, Firmus, and Patrocleas.

Plutarch taught in Chaeronia and represented his people before the Roman governor and in Rome. In Rome he made important contacts and lectured on philosophy and ethics in various parts of Italy. He spent much time in Italy between 75 and 90; he apparently never mastered the Latin language, though he gained the friendship of notable Romans. The latter half of his life, Plutarch enjoyed the intellectual benefits of the Pax Romana, mostly in Chaeronia. He held many civic positions, both high and low; the most notable one—that of head priest of Delphi—he held with distinction for 20 years and elevated to an importance it had not had in his time. During the latter part of his life he is thought to have written most of the Lives and some portions of the Moralia.

His Works

Plutarch is perhaps best known for the Moralia and the Lives, works which have much in common and have had enormous influence on later writers and the literatures of Europe and even America. He was very much concerned with men's moral conduct and individual moral guidance in an age when men were losing their faith in religion and philosophy. The Moralia, written as dialogues, letters, and lectures, is really a collection of 83 treatises on diverse subjects such as vegetarianism; superstition; Epicurean, Stoic, and Academic philosophy; dietetics; divine justice; prophecy; demonology; conjugal relations; family life; mysticism; and helpful precepts.

The Lives (often called Parallel Lives) are biographies of soldiers and statesmen of repute, generally presented in pairs of lives, first a Greek, then a Roman, followed by a comparison. Twenty-three of these have survived and four single lives; that is, four comparisons are lacking. There is no detailed chronology, but the Lives were probably published between 105 and 115. Plutarch utilizes Greek sources primarily and is interested in providing pleasure and guidance for moral and political behavior. Plutarch's language is generally lucid and crisp.

Plutarch was not a profound philosopher but a popularizer in the best and most enduring sense of the word. He did not establish a philosophic system but was eclectic in his use of various systems. He warmly admired Plato and knew Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers. He severely criticized Epicureanism and stoicism but used these systems as it suited him. One critic finds him a humanist par excellence; others see him inclined toward mysticism and monotheism. He was an author of uncommon common sense who influenced Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, John Milton, Robert Herrick, George Chapman, Jonathan Swift, Walter Savage Landor, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells in England; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville in the United States; J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller in Germany; and French drama of the late 16th and the entire 17th century. Sir Thomas North's English translation of the Lives (1579) provided Shakespeare with the sources for three plays, and it was the translation (1559) by Frenchman Jacques Myot that made Plutarch available to North and through North to the English-speaking world.

Further Reading

The Loeb Classical Library's Plutarch's Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (11 vols., 1914-1926), is indispensable, as is the Loeb's Plutarch's Moralia, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt and others (15 vols., 1927-1969). An exhaustive and still essential study is Bishop Richard C. Trench, Plutarch: His Life, His Lives and His Morals (1873), which remained the primary study until Reginald Haynes Barrow, Plutarch and His Times (1967). C. J. Gianakaris, Plutarch (1970), is a convenient synthesis and appraisal which contains an extensive bibliography. A work on Plutarch's moral interests is George D. Hadzsits, Prolegomena to a Study of the Ethical Ideal of Plutarch and of the Greeks of the First Century A.D. (1906); and on religion, John Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch (1902).

Special studies provide powerful evidence of Plutarch's widespread influence: Frederick Morgan Padelford, trans. and ed., Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry by Plutarch and Basil the Great (1902); Roy Caston Flickinger, Plutarch as a Source of Information on the Greek Theater (1904); Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch (2 vols., 1909); Roger Miller Jones, The Platonism of Plutarch (1916); Edmund Grindlay Berry, Emerson's Plutarch (1961); and Terence John Bew Spencer, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch (1964). Recommended surveys of classical historiography which include discussions of Plutarch are Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (1970), and Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970). □


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c. 50 c.e.–c. 120 c.e.


Greek Biographer.

Plutarch was a man from a distinguished Greek family with considerable influence in governing circles. For the last thirty years of his life he was a priest in a temple at Delphi. He was also a prolific writer who used his works to influence greater cooperation between Greece and Rome. His body of writings includes philosophical, rhetorical, and antiquarian works, but he is best known for his Lives of famous men. He arranged the biographies in parallel pairs: for example, he portrays the Greek and Roman orators Demosthenes and Cicero side-by-side for contrast and comparison. Some of the biographies are particularly informative about architectural projects. Plutarch's life of Pericles is a prime source for detailed information on his building projects on the Acropolis at Athens. It includes lists of the types of craftsmen employed, the names of the architects of the various buildings, and even the fact that the sculptor Phidias was the general overseer of the work. His accounts add life to the historical record through the medium of biography.


N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989): 848–849.


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Plutarch (c.46–c.120), Greek biographer and philosopher. He is chiefly known for Parallel Lives, a collection of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans in which the moral character of his subjects is illustrated by a series of anecdotes.


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Plutarch (c46–120) Greek biographer and essayist. His best known work is The Parallel Lives, which consists of biographies of soldiers and statesmen.


views updated May 23 2018


Plutarch , famous Greek writer; b. Chaeronea, Boeo-tia, C.46; d. after 119. His series of essays, Ethica (Latin Moralia), includes a discussion of music. See the Loeb ed. (16 vols., 1928 et seq.).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire