Ancient Biography

Cornelius Nepos - Plutarch - Tacitus - Suetonius

Biography was not a major literary genre in the ancient world. Of course, historians did include some biographical information in their works, but biography, the story of someone's life, was considered a lesser genre. In the preface to his Great Leaders of Foreign Peoples, the Roman Cornelius Nepos says: 'No doubt, Atticus, most people will judge this type of writing lightweight and unworthy of the characters of great men when they read stories of how Epaminondas taught music or find commemorated among his virtues that he danced well and was a skilful flute player' (my translation).

He then goes on to argue that this is due to ignorance of the differences between Greek and Roman cultures.

Cornelius Nepos lived in the 1st century B.C., and although he did not invent the genre, his works are the earliest biographies that have come down to us. He was a friend of Cicero and Atticus, and of Catullus. He wrote full lives of Cicero and Cato the Elder which do not survive, and a series of short lives (most only two or three A4 pages long) in a work called 'Illustrious Men', part of which is the Great Leaders of Foreign Peoples mentioned above. The rest is lost, apart from scattered fragments and lives of Cato the Elder and Atticus from the section 'Latin Historians'.

The Latin text of Nepos' surviving works can be found on the internet at Bibliotheca Augustana, and an English translation at: tertullian.org. There is a Loeb print edition.

Perhaps the greatest biographer of ancient times was Plutarch.

He was a Greek, born in the late 40s or early 50s A.D., and he probably lived on into the early part of the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). We know that he spent some time in Rome and Alexandria, and that as well as being a citizen of Chaeronea (his home town) he was also a citizen of Athens and a priest of the oracle of Delphi.

He wrote a series of 48 lives of famous Greek and Roman political and military figures, divided into pairs, one Greek and one Roman, each pair being followed by a comparison of the two. We only have 46 of these parallel lives (the lives of Epaminondas and Scipio are missing), and not all of the pairs now have a comparison (whether they ever did, we don't know). We also have two lives of Roman emperors (Galba and Otho) from a series of imperial biographies from Augustus to Vitellius, and two miscellaneous lives of Aratus and Artaxerxes. Plutarch was also a prolific essayist on a variety of subjects, and about half of his essays survive.

In a much-quoted passage from the introduction to his lives of Demosthenes and Cicero, Plutarch admits that the small town of Chaeronea is not the best place for a historian to work and that a larger place with access to libraries and scholars might be better.



Plutarch's purpose in writing was not so much to give a straightforward account of the actions or internal life of his subjects, as we might expect from a modern biographer, but to give character studies and moral examples. In his introduction to the lives of Aemilius Paullus and Timoleon, he says:
  • I began the writing of my "Lives" for the sake of others, but I find that I am continuing the work and delighting in it now for my own sake also, using history as a mirror and endeavouring in a manner to fashion and adorn my life in conformity with the virtues therein depicted. For the result is like nothing else than daily living and associating together, when I receive and welcome each subject of my history in turn as my guest, so to speak, and observe carefully "how large he was and of what mien," and select from his career what is most important and most beautiful to know.
    ---
    But in my own case, the study of history and the familiarity with it which my writing produces, enables me, since I always cherish in my soul the records of the noblest and most estimable characters, to repel and put far from me whatever base, malicious, or ignoble suggestion my enforced associations may intrude upon me, calmly and dispassionately turning my thoughts away from them to the fairest of my examples.
    (Perrin translation)


    Thus, for Plutarch, incidents that serve to demonstrate the character of his subject are far more interesting than the great battles or political struggles they took part in. As he says in the introduction to the lives of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar:
    • For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities. Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.
      (Perrin translation)


      The result is that Plutarch's biographies often focus on anecdotes about the subject, while omitting details of his (and it always is 'his') career that we would love to know. Although the biographies are comparatively short (mostly between 20 and 30 pages long), Plutarch cannot resist digressions on anything that catches his interest. See, for example, the digression on the Athenians? treatment of retired beasts of burden in his life of Cato the Elder. Plutarch is also very interested in omens and frequently notes prodigious events, such as monstrous births, that preceded any great battle or the death of his subject.

      The first translation into English of Plutarch's lives was by Sir Thomas North in 1579 (in fact a translation of the French translation of Jacques Amyot). This was the source Shakespeare used for his Roman plays: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. It can be found online at Perseus.

      John Dryden wrote a life of Plutarch to go with a translation of the lives by various translators published from 1683-1686. The translation was revised by Arthur Clough and re-issued in 1864. It can be found online at About Ancient/Classical History

      The Loeb translation by Bernadotte Perrin was issued from 1914. The Roman lives, and some of the Greek lives can be found here at Bill Thayer's Lacus Curtius. Some more of the Greek lives can be found at Perseus.

      The Modern Library has published the Dryden translation, as revised by Arthur Clough, in two volumes. Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics have both published selected Greek lives and selected Roman lives, thus destroying Plutarch?s scheme for his work of Greek and Roman lives being narrated and compared. The Loeb translation by Bernadotte Perrin, which has the Greek and the English translation on facing pages, is still in print.

      Plutarch has his own home on the internet at CHAIRONEIA.

      There were two other biographers more or less contemporaneous with Plutarch: Tacitus and Suetonius.

      Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman, probably born in the late 40s A.D. He was one of Pliny the Younger's correspondents. Pliny wrote his eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii in a letter to Tacitus. He was consul in 97 A.D. Most famous for two major historical works, the Histories and the Annals, he also wrote two monographs, one on the Germans, and one a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. The Agricola was written in the brief reign of the Emperor Nerva (96-98 A.D.), partly in reaction to the persecution of intellectuals and book-burning which had taken place under Domitian. The Latin text can be found at Forum Romanum, where there is also an English translation. The Agricola can be found in print translations in the Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics paperback series, and the Latin text with facing English translation in the Loeb series.

      Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars covers the lives of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors, from Augustus to Domitian. Suetonius himself was born around 70 A.D., and so had personal experience of life under the last three of his subjects, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. He was another correspondent of Pliny the Younger?s. In a letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny describes Suetonius as a 'very upright, virtuous, and learned man' (my translation). Suetonius was a palace secretary under Trajan and Hadrian, but was dismissed in 122 A.D., possibly because the empress considered him insufficiently respectful. So, for at least some of his work he had access to the imperial archives. He also wrote a series of biographies called Illustrious Men. Parts of the sections on poets, grammarians, and orators have survived.

      The Lives of the Caesars, also known in English as The Twelve Caesars, tells us very little about the historical background to the emperors' lives and reigns, or how the empire developed and was administered. It concentrates on the personal lives of its subjects, and their more interesting peccadilloes, which is probably why it has survived. How much is fact and how much is just gossip and rumour is difficult to say. Latin texts of Suetonius' works can be found at the Latin Library. The Rolfe translation of The Lives of the Caesars is at Bill Thayer's Lacus Curtius and of the surviving parts of Illustrious Men at Paul Halsall's Ancient History Sourcebook. The Robert Graves translation of the Lives of the Caesars under the name The Twelve Caesars has been edited by Michael Grant and republished by Penguin Classics. The Oxford World's Classics also has a translation by Catherine Edwards. Loeb still has the Rolfe translation with Latin text and English translation facing each other. It's in two volumes, the second of which also includes the surviving parts of Illustrious Men in the same format.

      We know next to nothing about the life of another biographer, Diogenes Laertius. We're not even sure which century he lived in: the third century A.D. is the most likely, but the fourth century A.D. is also possible. He wrote a series of lives of Greek philosophers prefaced by an essay on the origins of philosophy and different ways of classifying philosophers. As far as I know the Greek text of his work is not on the internet yet, but there is a 19th century translation by C. D. Yonge at Peitho's Web. Loeb has the Greek text and a facing English translation in two volumes.

      The Augustan History is a series of biographies of the emperors from Hadrian to the brothers Carinus and Numerianus (covering a period from 117-285 A.D.), and may have been written as a deliberate continuation of Suetonius? Lives of the Caesars. It purports to be a compilation written by six authors (Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, Aelius Lampridius, Vulcatius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus) in the reigns of Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) and Constantine I (306-337 A.D.). Many historians, however, believe that it was in fact the work of a single author who lived at the end of the fourth century or even later. The Latin text can be found at the Latin Library. There does not seem to be any complete translation into English on the internet, although there are translations of the lives of individual emperors in various places. Penguin Classics has a translation by Antony Birley of the biographies of the emperors from Hadrian to Heliogabalus, together with two modern compilations of lives of Nerva and Trajan, under the title Lives of the Later Caesars. Loeb has the complete Augustan History in three volumes, with the Latin text and a translation by D. Magie on facing pages.

      Note: The above is slightly adapted from two articles which have previously appeared at http://www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/ancient_biographies
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