Saturday, July 17

The Invention of Greco-Roman Culture

The great biographer James Boswell once asserted that Plutarch was “the prince of the ancient biographers.” Indeed, our conception of the heroic men of ancient Greece and Rome owes more to Plutarch than to any other writer or historian—perhaps more than all the others put together. Thanks to his carefully researched labors we have access to intimate details about the careers, struggles, enmities, and passions of Caesar, Alexander, Demosthenes, Antony, Solon, Cato, Pericles, Cicero, and Lycurgus. Without them, the era would be a virtual blank.

Interestingly, though Plutarch wrote prolifically on the lives of others, he left very little to indicate the course of his own. He threw the searchlight of understanding upon the achievements of others, but his own remain shrouded in conjecture.

This much we do know, he was born just after the time of Christ in 46, on this day, in the small Greek province of Boeotia—the broad and fertile plateau northwest of Athens. He came from an ancient and renowned Theban family, and thus was given access to the finest educational opportunities. He excelled in his wide-ranging travels and studies in Athens, Corinth, Alexandria, and Ephesus. He later became a respected member of the imperial diplomatic corps and made his mark as a wise and effective adjudicator. In Rome, his reputation as a scholar earned him a number of influential contacts, friends, and opportunities. He served every Emperor from the accession of Vespasian until his death in 126 during the reign of Hadrian. He was even granted an honorary consular rank.

Despite all these cosmopolitan experiences, he never lost his deep affection for his hometown of Chaeronea. Though a loyal supporter of the Empire, he remained a Greek patriot throughout his life. He was both a firm believer in and a committed practitioner of the ideals of the ancient city-state. Thus, he held a succession of magistracies in Chaeronea and nearby Delphi. His attachments at home were evidently reinforced by the sublime happiness of his marriage and family. It appears that his tender devotion to his wife, Timoxena, and their five children defined his mission and focused his philosophical vision.

It is this fact—the commitment of Plutarch to hearth and home—more than any other, that illumines his work--especially his work in his magisterial Lives..

His beloved homeland was a shell of its former self. Many Greeks had all but forgotten the glories that once attended their land. The heritage of his community—and thus, of his own progeny—was very nearly lost. The splendor of the Roman Empire seemed to overshadow all that had come before.

But Plutarch believed that the achievements of Rome were merely the extensions of those of Greece. All of his historical and literary work was therefore aimed at showing the foundational role that Grecian greatness played in the Roman ascendancy. In fact, it was his thesis that there was direct continuity between the culture of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony with that of Pericles, Alcibiades, and Alexander. The entire parallel structure of the Lives was aimed at demonstrating this. And thus was created the notion of Greco-Roman culture.

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