by Rob Natelson
The historian Livy, whose influence with the founding generation was the topic of the previous installment, died in 17 C.E. In the two centuries following, the Roman Empire produced many other influential writers.
The Roman Empire had a pair of official languages: Greek in the eastern part of the realm and Latin in the West. Among those who wrote in Greek were Plutarch and the authors of the Christian New Testament. Among those who composed in Latin were:
- Lucan, an epic poet;
- Seneca the Elder and Quintilian, both teachers of rhetoric;
- Seneca the Younger (son of the elder Seneca), a philosopher, playwright, and imperial adviser;
- the elder Pliny, an admiral in the Roman navy and author of a massive encyclopedia;
- his nephew, the younger Pliny—an accountant, lawyer, consul, and provincial governor—who left behind a magnificent collection of letters;
- Petronius, a member of the Emperor Nero’s court who crafted what might be the first novel;
- Lucius Apuleius, a philosopher-turned-novelist;
- Gaius Suetonius, who wrote engaging biographies;
- a collection of famous legal scholars—Gaius, Papinian, Ulpian, and others; and
- Cornelius Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian.
Of course, Founding-era schoolboys had no time to read them all. Even the minority of young men who attended college were not expected to do so, and only those authors commonly studied had a direct influence on the Constitution. The works studied most often were the New Testament, the histories of Tacitus, and the biographies of Plutarch. Tacitus is the subject of the next essay, and Plutarch is the subject of this.
Plutarch’s Life and ‘Lives’
Plutarch, although a Greek, was a full Roman citizen: His Latin name may have been Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus.
He was born in 46 C.E. in Chaeronea, Greece. It was a small village then, and it remains a small village today. (You can find it on Google Earth). Plutarch was educated in Athens, the Oxford of the time. Like Polybius (see the sixth installment in this series), Plutarch served as a magistrate in his home town, got on well with the Romans, and received some commissions from them. He may have known the emperors Trajan and Hadrian.
Also like Polybius, Plutarch traveled widely: throughout Greece, and to Egypt, Italy, and Asia Minor (Turkey).
Plutarch was married to a woman named Timoxena, and they had at least five children. Despite all his other activity, he seems to have spent most of his time at home in Chaeronea, teaching and writing. “I live in a small city,” he remarked in his biography of Demosthenes, “and I prefer to dwell there that it may not become smaller still.”
Plutarch’s compositions reveal a good-tempered man with a highly retentive memory and an extraordinary talent for research.
His works are primarily of two kinds. One is a series of essays called the “Moralia.” They address all sorts of subjects, but (as the title suggests) they emphasize ethical behavior. The Moralia set a pattern for later essayists, such as England’s Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626).
Plutarch’s other major works are the “Lives.” These are biographies—50 of which survive. Four of them are free-standing, but the rest are in sets. Each set consists of a Greek figure followed by a Roman with a similar life trajectory. (One set has two Greeks and two Romans.)
For example, the story of Demosthenes the Greek orator is paired with the life of Cicero the Roman orator; Alexander the Greek conqueror is paired with Julius Caesar the Roman conqueror—and so forth. At the close of each set, Plutarch wrote a short commentary comparing the lives of its figures. Some of these comparisons have been lost.
In 1579, Sir Thomas North translated Plutarch’s “Lives” into English. His version proved highly popular in both England and in British North America. Several of Shakespeare’s plays (such as “Julius Caesar”) are basically adaptations of North’s translation of Plutarch’s biographies.
Influence on the Founders
John Francis Mercer, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, commended Plutarch, along with Socrates and Plato, for “those moral lessons which form the human heart to virtue.” His high regard was widely shared by others of his generation.
During the Founding era, authors of pamphlets and op-eds generally wrote under pseudonyms (pen names). They rifled their copies of Plutarch’s “Lives” for names that matched their messages. About 40 percent of the title characters in Plutarch’s biographies ended up as pen names in the constitutional debates: “Cato,” “Caesar,” “Demosthenes,” “Publius,” “Aristides,” “Cicero,” “Timoleon,” and so forth.
Plutarch contributed to the constitutional discussion in more substantive ways as well. His writings, together with those of Polybius, were principal sources for information on the strengths, weaknesses, and history of the ancient Greek confederacies. An example of this use of Plutarch is “The Federalist” No. 18, apparently written by James Madison with Alexander Hamilton’s assistance. Another example is the discussion of Greek confederacies in the first volume of John Adams’s survey of republican constitutions.
Founding-era writers also consulted Plutarch for other political lessons. An Antifederalist (opponent of the Constitution) calling himself “John Dewitt” cited Plutarch in an essay warning of the dangers posed by standing armies. On the other side of the debate, Alexander Hamilton relied on Plutarch in “Federalist” No. 6 to show that the causes of war were innumerable and unpredictable, so it was vital to be united and militarily prepared. John Dickinson’s “Fabius” also preached unity, relying partly on a story told in Plutarch’s “Life of Coriolanus.”
The Antifederalists tried to focus public attention on parts of the Constitution they deemed defective. Most Federalists acknowledged the document wasn’t perfect, but they pointed out that no human production ever is. In this regard, a Federalist newspaper, the Salem Mercury, re-told an incident from Plutarch’s life of Solon, the Athenian lawmaker. When Solon was asked whether his code of laws was perfect, he responded, no, it was not perfect—but it was the best the Athenians would accept. (Federalists also pointed out that the document could be amended.)
Some officeholders in Antifederalist Rhode Island were subjected to public abuse for supporting the Constitution. A Federalist essayist comforted them by showing that great men often are repaid for their contributions with abuse and wrongful punishment. As illustrations, the essay cited Plutarch’s biographies of Socrates, Aristides, and Phocion.
Finally, a South Carolina Federalist related a “dream, which was presented to my imagination last night, after having pored over the political works of good old, honest Plutarch.” The writer apparently had been reading Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Elder, and the ensuing dream convinced him to support the Constitution.
Surely, the diligent Greek biographer exercised influence in the most unusual ways.
The Next Installment
The next essay will examine the influence of Tacitus. After that, we shall move on to the Renaissance.
This article first appeared in the Epoch Times on January 6, 2023.