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Representational image of the ancient Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch. Source: Eduardo / Adobe Stock

The Legacy of Plutarch: One of the Greatest Minds of Ancient Greece


Plutarch is a historical figure whose name is a fundamental part of the world’s shared history, standing as one of antiquity's most revered biographers and philosophers. He was born around 46 AD in the small ancient Greek town of Chaeronea in Boetia, and no one ever suspected the enduring fame he would earn in his life. However, Plutarch's influence grew to transcend time, with his works serving as a beacon of insight into the lives of notable figures of ancient Greece and Rome, offering timeless wisdom that continues to shape modern thought. What was the life story of this ancient Greek philosopher? And how has he contributed to our world?

Plutarch, Whose Name Resounds Through History

Plutarch's early life was steeped in the rich cultural and intellectual milieu of ancient Greece. Raised in a family of wealth and prominence, he received a comprehensive education in philosophy, rhetoric and literature, studying under some of the most eminent scholars of his time. It was during his formative years that he developed a profound reverence for the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, whose philosophies would deeply inform his own intellectual pursuits.

His family was influential in the local town of Chaeronea, located just 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of famed Delphi. In many ways, his prominent family meant for him to succeed in life, as can be seen from his name: it is a compound of the Greek words πλοῦτος, meaning “wealth,” and ἀρχός, meaning “ruler” or “leader.”

“In Plutarch’s case, we know that he was born in Chaeronea, ca. 49-50 AD, and lived there all his life until his death near the end of the emperor Hadrian’s rule, ca. 120 AD. He tells us that he remained in his small hometown “lest it become even smaller” (Demosthenes 2.2). But despite its size Chaeronea was hardly isolated with easy access via the Corinthian Gulf to Italy, Macedonia, and the Black Sea, as well as Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, all well pacified and safe to travel through in those days” (Frances B. Titchener, The Cambridge Companion to Plutarch).

From a young age, Plutarch received a good education, and was quickly adopted into the intellectual milieu of ancient Greece. He studied mathematics and philosophy in Athens under the famous Ammonius the Peripatetic, from 66 to 67 AD. Ammonius praised the capabilities of his student, writing of his intelligence and ability to learn, as well as introducing him to popular discourses on religion and morality.

Plutarch's intellectual curiosity knew no bounds, leading him to explore a diverse array of subjects ranging from ethics and morality to politics and history. He was deeply influenced by the philosophical traditions of the Stoics and the Peripatetics, synthesizing their ideas with his own unique perspective to develop a holistic worldview that emphasized virtue, rationality and the pursuit of excellence.

Portrait of a philosopher believed to be Plutarch, at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Zde / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Portrait of a philosopher believed to be Plutarch, at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Zde / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Writer Who Was Way Ahead of His Time

One of Plutarch's most enduring contributions to philosophy lies in his concept of moral virtue. He believed that true happiness and fulfillment could only be attained through the cultivation of virtuous character and the pursuit of moral excellence. In his seminal work Moralia, a collection of essays on various eclectic topics, Plutarch expounds upon the virtues of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom, offering practical advice on how to live a life of virtue in accordance with reason and nature.

Moralia, ascribed to Plutarch, is a monumental collection of essays that delve into a wide array of ethical, philosophical and practical topics, showcasing his deep insight into the complexities of human nature and the pursuit of virtuous living. Comprising a staggering eighty essays, Moralia covers a vast range of subjects, from the nature of virtue and the role of education to the importance of friendship and the proper conduct of public life.

One of the central themes is Plutarch's belief in the paramount importance of moral virtue as the foundation of a well-lived life. In essay after essay, he extols the virtues of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom, arguing that true happiness and fulfillment can only be attained through the cultivation of virtuous character. Plutarch draws upon examples from mythology, history and everyday life to illustrate his points, offering practical advice on how individuals can develop and nurture these virtues in their own lives.

"The soul, being eternal, after death is like a caged bird that has been released. If it has been a long time in the body, and has become tame by many affairs and long habit, the soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world. The worst thing about old age is that the soul's memory of the other world grows dim, while at the same time its attachment to things of this world becomes so strong that the soul tends to retain the form that it had in the body. But that soul which remains only a short time within a body, until liberated by the higher powers, quickly recovers its fire and goes on to higher things" (Plutarch, an excerpt from Moralia).

Plutarch's moral philosophy is also deeply rooted in his belief in the interconnectedness of all human beings. He argues that individuals have a moral obligation to treat others with kindness, compassion and respect, recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. In essays such as “On Brotherly Love” and “On the Control of Anger,” Plutarch explores the virtues of empathy and self-restraint, urging readers to strive for harmony and cooperation in their interactions with others.

1728 edition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. (Public domain)

1728 edition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. (Public domain)

Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” Was a Monumental Written Work

Plutarch's magnum opus was, however, Parallel Lives, which stands as a testament to his unparalleled skill as a biographer and historian. Comprising a series of biographical sketches comparing notable figures from Greek and Roman history, Parallel Lives offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives, character traits, and achievements of figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Themistocles, Epaminondas, Lysander, Pyrrhus, Demosthenes and Pericles, among others.

What sets Parallel Lives apart from other works of biography is Plutarch's keen insight into the human condition. Rather than merely recounting the deeds of his subjects, he delves deep into their psyches, exploring the motivations behind their actions and the moral dilemmas they faced. Through vivid narrative and astute analysis, Plutarch brings his subjects to life, painting a nuanced portrait of their strengths, weaknesses, and ultimate legacies.

“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” in Parallel Lives).

The structure of Parallel Lives is, in many ways, both innovative and ingenious. Plutarch pairs together figures from Greek and Roman history who share similar characteristics or who faced comparable challenges, allowing readers to draw parallels and contrasts between them. Each biography is meticulously crafted, weaving together historical facts, anecdotes and moral reflections to create a vivid and compelling portrait of the subject.

One of the most famous pairs of biographies in Parallel Lives is that of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Plutarch juxtaposes these two titans of history, highlighting their shared ambition, military prowess and political acumen. Yet, he also underscores their differences in temperament and character, portraying Alexander as a larger-than-life figure driven by a thirst for glory, while Caesar emerges as a more pragmatic and calculating statesman. Through these contrasting portraits, Plutarch invites readers to reflect on the complexities of leadership and the moral dilemmas inherent in the pursuit of power.

The Undeniable Global Influence of Plutarch

Plutarch's influence extended far beyond the confines of ancient Greece and Rome, permeating the annals of future Western literature, philosophy and historiography. His works were eagerly embraced by scholars and intellectuals throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, serving as a source of inspiration for writers such as Montaigne, Shakespeare and Emerson.

In addition to his literary legacy, Plutarch's philosophical insights continue to resonate with modern readers seeking guidance in navigating the complexities of human existence. His emphasis on the importance of moral virtue, the pursuit of excellence and the cultivation of wisdom remains as relevant today as it was in ancient times, offering a timeless blueprint for living a life of meaning and purpose.

“Perseverance is more prevailing than violence; and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little” (Plutarch).

Ultimately, Plutarch's impact on subsequent generations of thinkers and writers cannot be overstated. His method of comparative biography, as exemplified in Parallel Lives, has inspired countless historians and biographers to explore the connections between individuals and the broader sweep of history. Moreover, his ethical teachings continue to shape the moral and intellectual landscape of the contemporary world, serving as a touchstone for those who seek to understand the nature of virtue and the pursuit of the good life.

One need only look to the works of William Shakespeare for evidence of Plutarch's enduring influence. Shakespeare's plays, including Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus are filled with references to Plutarch's biographies, while many of his characters are drawn directly from Plutarch's pages. Shakespeare's fascination with the moral dilemmas of power, ambition and fate, mirrors Plutarch's own preoccupations, underscoring the enduring relevance of his ideas to the world of literature.

Plutarch: Amongst the Greats of Ancient Greece

Amongst the bright minds of ancient Greece, few figures shine as brightly as Plutarch. Through his prodigious intellect, profound wisdom and unwavering commitment to truth and virtue, he left an undeniable mark on the world of letters and philosophy. From his humble beginnings in Chaeronea to his enduring legacy as one of antiquity's greatest thinkers, Plutarch's life and works serve as a testament to the enduring power of ideas to shape the course of civilization.

As we continue to grapple with the perennial questions of existence, we would do well to heed the words of this ancient sage and strive to emulate the virtues that he so eloquently espoused. For in the pursuit of wisdom and moral excellence, we may yet find the truest fulfillment of our humanity.

Top image: Representational image of the ancient Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch. Source: Eduardo / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković


Blackburn, S. 1994. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Russell, D.A. 2001. Plutarch. Duckworth Publishing.

Titchener, F. B. and Zadorojnyi, A. V. 2023. The Cambridge Companion to Plutarch. Cambridge University Press.


Frequently Asked Questions

Plutarch is most renowned for his seminal work Parallel Lives, where he meticulously compares the biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans. His insightful portrayals of figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar have shaped our understanding of ancient history.

Plutarch's notable maxim "Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly" encapsulates his belief in the value of learning from diverse perspectives. This timeless wisdom underscores his emphasis on empathy and understanding in human interaction.

Plutarch's writings offer invaluable insights into ancient lives and customs, yet scholars recognize his tendency towards embellishment and reliance on anecdotes over verifiable facts. While his works provide rich historical context, critical evaluation is necessary to discern between historical fact and literary flourish.

Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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