1. Family history
It is unclear how Plutarch’s family acquired its wealth, but he came from an elite provincial family, which might have claimed descent from the Thessalian king, Opheltas and the Phocian archon Daephantus, son of Bathyllius (Mor. 558A). Plutarch’s father, Autobulus, had always been the proud owner of “the best horses” (Mor. 642A), an activity reserved for nobility and the wealthy. In addition to breeding horses, the family would have owned agricultural land and was connected to commercial activity (i.e., production and trade). If the family resided permanently in Chaeronea, it is possible that it was involved also in the production of , which was a rather profitable local industry and contributed to the prosperity of the town in the Imperial period. One of his great-grandfathers, Nicarchus, is mentioned in the Life of Antony (68.4-5) for participating in the forced transportation of grain to the ports on the north side of the Corinthian gulf near Anticyra during the battle of Actium in September 31 BCE:
“At any rate, my great-grandfather Nicarchus used to tell how all his fellow-citizens were compelled to carry on their shoulders a stipulated measure of wheat down to the sea at Anticyra, and how their pace was quickened by the whip; they had carried one load in this way, he said, the second was already measured out, and they were just about to set forth, when word was brought that Antony had been defeated, and this was the salvation of the city; for immediately the stewards and soldiers of Antony took to flight, and the citizens divided the grain among themselves” (Plut. Ant. 68.7-8).
One of Plutarch’s grandfathers was Lamprias, who is credited for Plutarch’s instruction in letters and music (738B). Plutarch’s father, Autobulus, was also an educated man versed in philosophy and literature. He is actually the speaker in a number of the Tabletalks (e.g., Mor. 615E-616C and 619B-F arguing the proper etiquette for the sitting arrangements of guests at symposia; 641F-642B discussing the meaning of the word λυκοσπαδές and describing how colts become swift and fine horses; 655E-657A versed in philosophy, and in Aristotle in particular, a participant in the local festival of Agathos Daemon), and in The Intelligence of Animals (Mor. 959A-965D: well versed in literature and philosophy).
Plutarch’s works are almost devoid of the names of his kinswomen, following traditional Greek etiquette of not naming respectable women in public, unless they were women of shady reputation, women connected with the speaker’s opponent, or deceased women. The name of his little daughter, Timoxena, for example, is revealed only after her death and in a personal letter to his wife –also by the same name. Nothing is known about Timoxena’s family or its provenance with any certainty, but it is expected that it would have been of a similar pedigree to that of Plutarch. The isolated reference in the Tabletalks to a πενθερός (often translated “father-in-law”, but also “brother-in law” or “son-in-law”) might imply that Timoxena was related to a certain Alexion (Mor. 701D). IG VII 1867 suggests that Timoxena and her family might have had connections with a Roman senatorial Thespian family. Plutarch’s marriage to Timoxena took place after 96 CE. In addition to their young daughter Timoxena, who died, the marriage produced at least four sons: Soclarus (15A), Autobulus (666D, 719C, 1012A), Plutarch (1012A), and Chaeron (609D). It is possible that there was a sixth child, the eldest, whom Timoxena had lost during an early pregnancy, and as such it might have not been given a name (609D).
It is likely that Plutarch did have sisters since he refers to three men related by marriage to him (γαμβρός) in his works: Craton (Μor. 620A), Firmus (636A), and Patrocleas (642C). Plutarch’s brothers, Timon and Lamprias, the eldest or second-eldest, often appear as discussants in the Moralia.
2. Education and early political career
Both Plutarch and Lamprias knew the Platonic philosopher Ammonius and had associations with both Delphi and Athens as young men. During Nero’s visit at Delphi in 66 AD, Plutarch was a young adolescent and well-versed already in mathematics. It is most likely that Plutarch went through the institution of ephebeia in Athens, since he was given citizenship in that city as well. Like his poet friend, Sarapion, Plutarch became a member of the Attic tribe of Leontis (Mor. 628A). As an aspiring elite provincial man, he studied rhetoric and Latin, but claimed not to be fluent in it (Dem. 2.2).
With the support of his political connections and acquaintances in his role as philosopher and teacher at Delphi and, perhaps, because of his admiration of Plato and the philosopher-king, Plutarch turned to the political life of his day. The top magistracies associated with Delphi and its sanctuary in the imperial period included, but were not necessarily limited to, the epimeleteia (directorship) of the Delphic Amphictyony, the priesthood of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary, and the annual of the city of Delphi. Plutarch writes that he held the eponymous archonship “at home,” (Mor. 642F). Whether Delphi or Chaeronea is intended cannot be determined.
3. Travels and settling at Delphi
His magisterial and diplomatic role at Delphi required Plutarch to live there and travel as needed; for example, he travelled to Thespiae in the Eroticus, or to Athens and Tanagra in the Consolation to My Wife, to Achaia as an ambassador to the while Plutarch was still a young man in Rules for Politicians (Mor. 816C-D), to Alexandria in Tabletalks (Mor. 678C-D), to North Italy at least once with (Mar. 2.1, Otho 14.2-3 and 18.1-2), to Rome on different occasions, and so on.
Plutarch acquired many powerful friends, both Greek and Roman. Mestrius Florus, Plutarch’s patron, should be noted, since Plutarch traveled to Rome and Italy with him (Mar. 2.1; Otho 14.2-3, 18.1-2), and it was through Florus that Plutarch received Roman citizenship. During his travels to Rome and Italy, Plutarch would have met with Mestrius Florus’ friends and with men such as Q. Sosius Senecio (twice consul in 107/8) to whom he dedicated the Tabletalks and the Parallel Lives, as well as Iunius Rusticus, Fundanus, Paccius, Saturninus, Favorinus and others. Plutarch’s education and rhetorical skill served the Delphic sanctuary well as he had the ear of the imperial representatives in the province and in Rome, if not of the emperor himself (Cf. Mor. 546D-F). The Amphictyony erected a statue to Hadrian at Delphi under Plutarch’s concurrent epimeleteia and priesthood (FD III. 4: 472 = SIG3 829A = CID 4, no. 150: …τὸ κοινὸν τῶν Ἀμφικτυόνων, ἐπιμελητεύοντος ἀπὸ Δελφῶν Μεστρίου Πλουτάρχου τοῦ ἱερέως).
Syncellus (6th c.) writes that Plutarch reached seniority and the post of the epitropos () of Greece under Hadrian (659 Dindorf). In addition, the Byzantine Suda reports that Trajan gave Plutarch a proconsulship and ordered the archons of the province of Illyria not to take any action unless they had first consulted Plutarch (Suda s.v. Πλούταρχος 1793 Adler).
When Plutarch died remains a mystery, although a date around 125 or 127 has been postulated. Presumably after Plutarch’s death, the Delphians set up a headless herm-like pillar representing Plutarch with the following epigram to honor him, Syll.3 843=CID 4, no. 151: Δελφοὶ Χαιρωνεῦσιν ὑμοῦ Πλούταρχον ἔθηκαν | τοῖς Ἀμφικτυόνων δόγματι πειθόμενοι. It now stands in the Museum at Delphi, the city that Plutarch spent time in and served during a great part of his life.
Plutarch was a prolific writer and much of what he wrote still survives. The “Catalogue of Lamprias” is a list of Plutarch’s works (probably dating to the fourth century) and contains 227 items attributed to the author. In general, Plutarch’s works are divided in two broad categories: philosophical and biographical (but with a historical interest).
Most of the works of the first kind are compiled under the general title Moralia, first given to a collection of ethical treatises discovered in the Code Parisinus Graecus 1672 but enlarged to include most of his miscellaneous ethico-philosophical works. The latter are compiled under the title Parallel Lives. For a complete list of titles, see the OCD3 or the abbreviations list in the LSJ. Extant are 78 miscellaneous works (some not listed in the Catalogue of Lamprias) and 50 Lives. In general, the Lives of the Caesars (except Galba and Otho) have not survived as well as some others (e.g., Epaminondas, Pindar, Daephantus), and probably so did two-thirds of the miscellaneous works. The relative chronology of his works is very difficult to establish, although attempts have been made based on internal and other evidence (e.g., Jones 1966).
Although he wrote a few rhetorical works (e.g., The Glory of Athens, The Fortune of Rome, Against Borrowing Money, etc.) and a number of treatises of didactic philosophy (e.g., Friends and Flatters, Progress in Virtue, Superstition, The Control of Anger, Talkativeness, Curiosity, Rules of Politicians, Eroticus, Consolation to his Wife, and many more), many of which are based on Platonic dialectic and philosophical values and are quite well-known, the Parallel Lives remain his most popular achievement.
We have 23 pairs of Greek and Roman Lives, 19 of them with ‘comparisons’ attached. Plutarch's aims are set out e.g. in Alexander 1: his object was not to write continuous political history, but to exemplify individual virtue (or vice) in the careers of great men. He gives attention especially to his statesmen’ family, education, début in public life, climaxes, changes of fortune or attitude, latter years, and death. The Lives have been the main source of understanding of the ancient world for many readers from the Renaissance to the present day and served as educational manuals for centuries.
5. Influence of his works
His works were popular and considered classics by the fourth century AD. The preservation of so much of his work is due mainly to Byzantine scholars (especially Maximus Planudes). His wider influence dates from Renaissance translations, especially Amyot's French version (Lives 1559, Moralia 1572) and Sir T. North's English Lives, largely based on Amyot (1579) and Philemon Holland's Moralia (1603). Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dryden, Rousseau, and Emerson are among Plutarch's principal debtors. In the 19th century, however, his influence, at least among scholars, diminished: he was seen as a derivative source both in history and in philosophy, and his lack of historical perspective and his simple moralistic attitudes earned him much disrespect. Recent scholarship has done much to reverse this negative view; as understanding of his learning and the aims and methods of his writing has deepened, so he has come again to be seen, not as a marginal figure, but as a thinker whose view of the classical world, and especially of the Graeco-Roman world of the first and second centuries AD and its traditions, deserves study.
Modern complete editions, including the Teubner, Budé, Loeb, Κάκτος, etc., and translations can be found in many languages, but especially in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Greek.