The first installment of Plutarch’s famous Lives was published on this day in the year 118. He came to his vocation rather late in life--during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. This period at beginning of the second century was a momentous time in the history of western civilization for any number of reasons.
Greece, of course, had lost by this time the last vestiges of her independence. Her population had fallen precipitously since the days of her glory--the riches of Rome and the Asian provinces had not only attracted her most able administrators but also her most capable laborers. Thus, materially, culturally, and politically Plutarch’s homeland was is decline. Though he could do little to arrest this trend, he felt obliged to put it into perspective--and that he did quite ingeniously in the Lives.
At the same time, the Roman Empire was in its most stable and vibrant stage. The economy was prosperous. The military was invincible. And the culture was vibrant. Education, the arts, and the sciences were all flourishing. Despite the decrepit paganism of the day, there was a degree of personal freedom unprecedented in all of history.
But the most significant feature of the age was the sudden emergence of Christianity as a major societal force. Although Plutarch does not deal with Christianity directly, it is clear that he was attempting to revive interest in the very best of ancient paganism. In the face of the moral challenge that Christian evangelism posed to the ancien regime he wanted to reignite the moral vitality of classicism. Thus, we see in the Lives the last great gasping apologetic for Greco-Roman civilization on the threshold of an ascendant Christendom.
When later writers, thinkers, and social activists would appeal to the classical age for reforms in their own time, they would picture its ideals as seen through Plutarch’s rose colored glasses. This is why the American founders could remain so enamored with the ancients--despite their unhesitating commitment to Christian truth, their comprehension of the pagan essence of Greece and Rome was myopically obscured by Plutarch.