Five Fascinating Facts about Plutarch

Fun facts about a pioneering ancient writer

1. Plutarch effectively invented the genre of biography. Plutarch’s innovative approach to biography was to take two important figures – one from Greek civilisation and the other from the Roman empire – and compare and contrast their characters, fortunes, and outlooks. This is the basis for his most famous work, the Parallel Lives.

2. As well as being a serious biographer, though, he was also something of a gossip. Plutarch loves to home in on an individual story that sheds some light on his subject – an anecdote, a moral tale, a quirk or distinctive character trait. And this is why we at Interesting Literature admire Plutarch so much: he saw the importance of trivia, and the fact that it isn’t always as trivial as it might first appear. His Greek Lives and Roman Lives (of which there are two very good selections by Oxford World’s Classics) show the individual personalities of the great statesmen and cultural figures he discusses, their quirks and foibles, their eccentricities.

3. He would also prove to be a trailblazer in the field of history, and have a considerable influence on the genre of the essay. As a literary form, the essay would not really come into its own until around 1,500 years later, during the Renaissance. But Plutarch was there first: he wrote some 60 essays on a range of topics, including religion and literature. (In total, he is estimated to have written over 200 works.)

4. His writings influenced a host of English dramatists, including Shakespeare. Indeed, the Bard (who encountered Plutarch in a translation by the English writer Thomas North) even plundered whole lines from Plutarch’s Lives for his play Antony and Cleopatra. But Plutarch’s influenced extended to writers like Rabelais (who quotes a good deal from him) as well as Renaissance essayists like Montaigne and Francis Bacon. Izaak Walton, better known now as the author of The Compleat Angler (1653), wrote his own Lives in the 1670s, in imitation of Plutarch.

5. Plutarch also wrote one of the first hatchet-jobs in all of literature. Plutarch’s work ‘On Herodotus’ Spite’, which criticises the historian Herodotus for his prejudiced view of historical figures, has been called the ‘first instance in literature of the slashing review’. He might also be credited with being the man who foresaw social media and the way overusing it can lead to unhappiness: in ‘On the Avoidance of Anger’, he wrote: ‘Knowing every single detail about everything, investigating and eliciting a slave’s every occupation, a friend’s every action, a son’s every pastime, a wife’s every whisper – this leads to many outbursts of anger, one after another every day, and these in turn add up to habitual discontent and surliness.’ Prescient, indeed. ‘On the Avoidance of Anger’ is included in the Penguin selection of Plutarch’s Essays (Penguin Classics).

If you enjoyed this literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: The cover of the selection of Plutarch’s writings on Greek figures, Greek Lives (Oxford World’s Classics).

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