Bust of Plutarch in the museum at the Temple of Delphi where he werved as a priest.
Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122): influential Greek philosopher and author, well known for his biographies and his moral treatises.
It is not overstated to say that, together with Augustine of Hippo and Aristotle of Stagira, Plutarch of Chaeronea is the most influential ancient philosopher. He may lack the the profundity of Augustine, the most influential philosopher in the early Middle Ages, and the acumen of Aristotle, considered the master of all intellectuals of the late Middle Ages, but the Sage of Chaeronea is an excellent writer and from the Renaissance to the present day, his moral treatises have found a larger audience than any other ancient philosopher. In his own age, he was immensely popular because he was able to explain philosophical discussions to non-philosophical readers, Greek and Roman alike. The fact that he was priest in Delphi will no doubt have improved his popularity.
Plutarch was probably born in 46 in the Boeotian town Chaeronea. His parents were wealthy people, and after 67, their son was able to study philosophy, rhetorics, and mathematics at the platonic Academy of Athens. However, Plutarch never became a platonic puritan, but always remained open to influences from other philosophical schools, such as the Stoa and the school of Aristotle. It is likely that the young man was present when the emperor Nero, who visited Greece at this time, declared the Greek towns to be free and autonomous.
Because Plutarch was a rich man, he became one of the leading citizens of Chaeronea and he is known to have represented his town on several occasions. For example, he visited the governor of Achaea, and traveled to Alexandria and Rome (several times). Again, this proves that he was a rich man.
Among his friends was Lucius Mestrius Florus, a consul during the reign of Vespasian, and Plutarch’s guide during his visit to Cremona, where two important battles had been fought in 69, the year of the four emperors Galba, Vitellius, Otho, and Vespasian. Mestrius also secured the Roman citizenship for Plutarch, whose official name now became Mestrius Plutarchus. At the end of his life, he was honored with the procuratorship of Achaea, an important office that he probably held only in name. His involvement in the Roman world, although from a carefully maintained distance, explains why he shows so much interest in the history of Rome. Nevertheless, he was slow to learn Latin (Demosthenes, 2.2).
In the 90’s, Plutarch, who had seen much of the world, settled in his home town. When asked to explain his return to the province, he said that Chaeronea was in decline and that it would be even smaller if he did not settle there. For some time, he was mayor.
In his treatise Should Old Men Take Part in Politics?, Plutarch tells us that he occupied an office in the holy city Delphi, and he is known to have become one of the two permanent priests, responsible for the interpretation of the inspired utterances of the Pythia, the prophetess of Delphi. In these years, a library was built near the sanctuary, and it is tempting to assume that Plutarch was behind this initiative.
In the two first decades of the second century, he studied and wrote many books. According to an incomplete third-century catalogue, there were between 200 and 300 titles. These books brought him international fame, and the home of the famous author became a private school for young philosophers. He was often visited by Greeks and Romans, although not necessarily to study philosophy. The emperor Trajan may have been one of the visitors (winter 113/114?), and it may have been on this occasion that Trajan honored Plutarch with the ornaments of a consul, an important award. From now on, Plutarch was allowed to wear a golden ring and a white toga with a border made of purple.
Plutarch died after his procuratorship, which was in 119, and before 125. The year 122 is just guesswork. The Delphians and Chaeroneans ordered statues to be erected for their famous citizen.
In the Consolation to his wife, Plutarch mentions four sons and we know that at least two survived childhood. It has often been remarked that in his many publications, Plutarch shows that he was devoted to his parents, grandfather, brothers, his wife Timoxena, and to their children, but this is of course an impression that every author wants to convey. Continue Reading