Plutarch of Chaeronea is best known as the author of the Parallel Lives, a collection of forty-six short biographies arranged in pairs of Greeks and Romans. He also wrote more than seventy treatises, dialogues, and speeches that have come down to us as the Moralia. A catalog of Plutarch’s works compiled a century or so after his death records another hundred works, now lost. A corpus so unwieldy inevitably touches on a variety of themes, but the source of Plutarch’s enduring influence has been his insight into human excellence in political life.
Plutarch was born about 45 CE in the small but historically significant town of Chaeronea, the site of battles that confirmed Macedon’s and later Rome’s conquest of Greece. Under Nero, Plutarch reached maturity and left home for Athens. He studied under the philosopher Ammonius and read Plato’s works as a student in the Academy. When Nero visited Greece Plutarch traveled with his teacher to see the Emperor compete in the Pythian Games at Delphi; Plutarch may even have witnessed Nero declare Greece’s freedom (soon revoked) after competing in Corinth’s Isthmian Games. After Nero died in 68 CE, Plutarch would not hesitate to label him a tyrant. Yet Plutarch could still praise Nero for having “liberated the nation which among his subjects was noblest and most beloved of Heaven.”
Under Nero’s successors Plutarch became increasingly active in the politics of the Empire. As with many Greek philosophers before and after, Plutarch served as an ambassador to the imperial capital. In Rome, he delivered lectures and befriended prominent politicians, one of whom secured Plutarch’s Roman citizenship and entry into the equestrian order. Plutarch traveled widely throughout the Roman world, not only in Italy and Greece, but as far as Asia Minor and Egypt. Plutarch may have been in Rome when Domitian, another tyrant, executed and exiled Greek philosophers; close friends of his certainly were there/executed and exiled.
It would have been from Chaeronea that Plutarch learned of Domitian’s assassination in 96 CE. Now, in the “Age of the Antonines,” Plutarch began to write in earnest. The Parallel Lives and the vast bulk of Moralia date to this period. Plutarch was still politically active, after a fashion. From Trajan, he received the consular ornaments; from Hadrian, appointment as procurator of Greece. He also served as priest at Delphi, executive of the Amphictyonic Council, and in several local offices. And he kept up ties to the political elites of his day, including Socius Senecio, a Roman senator of Eastern extraction and the dedicatee of the Lives.
Even as he acquired literary fame and political honors in the wider Empire, Plutarch seems to have remained loyal to Chaeronea. It may have been easier to write in a “city that is friendly to the liberal arts and populous,” Plutarch acknowledged, “but for my part I live in a small city, and I prefer to stay there so that it will not become smaller still.” Around 120 CE, Plutarch died in the city of his birth, while Hadrian was emperor in Rome.