Greek biography

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Biography in antiquity was not a rigidly defined genre. Bios, ‘life’, or bioi, ‘lives’, spanned a range of types of writing. So the boundaries with neighbouring genres—the encomium, the biographical novel on the model of Xenophon's Cyropaedia, the historical monograph on the deeds of a great man like Alexander (2) the Great—are blurred.

The impulse to celebrate the individual finds early expression in the dirge and the funeral speech (see epitaphios); composing a literary work around an individual's experiences is as old as the Odyssey (see homer). In the 5th cent. biographical interest was pursued in various ways. Ion of Chios gossiped about contemporary figures in his ‘Visits’, while Stesimbrotus of Thasos wrote colourfully on Themistocles, Thucydides 1 son of Melesias, and Pericles. Thucydides 2 included selective sketches of several figures, notably Pausanias 1 and Themistocles. In the 4th cent. appeared two influential encomia, Isocrates' Evagoras (Evagoras was king of Cypriot Salamis), enumerating its subject's qualities in a loosely chronological framework, and Xenophon's Agesilaus, giving first a focused narrative of achievements, then a catalogue of virtues. Xenophon's ‘Socratic Memoirs’ (Memorābilia), along with the Platonic corpus, developed the personality of Socrates.

Aristotle gave biography a new impetus. Under his influence interest in ethical and cultural history encouraged the writing of more generalized bioi. Dicaearchus and Clearchus treated different lifestyles; Theophrastus' Characters are clearly related. Aristoxenus wrote Lives of philosophers, in which an interest in lifestyle combined with malicious stories about Socrates' irascibility and Plato's plagiarism. This anecdotal style heralds a distinctive kind of biography of cultural figures. Chamaeleon's Lives of various poets were notable for their wild inferences of biographical data from an author's work, and his model was followed. The tendency to collect Lives in series became a standard mode of presenting intellectual history, and the ‘succession’ of teachers and pupils was a helpful way of explaining influences.

Rather than clear‐cut political Lives, we have works with biographical affinities. The impact of Alexander 2 the Great was important. Early monographs centred on the king's person; the fragmentation of the Hellenistic world into dynasties encouraged monographs on other kings. The biographical novel on the model of Cyropaedia also revived, with its typical emphasis on a king's upbringing. Onesicritus' How Alexander Was Brought Up belongs here, and so later does Nicolaus of Damascus' On Augustus' Life and Education.

The Christian Gospels have points of contact with the Greek tradition, with their charismatic hero and their anecdotal narrative texture. A different moral earnestness is found in Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Their scale, ambition, and historical sobriety are hard to parallel in earlier tradition; so is the depth of characterization. The comparison of a Greek and a Roman hero draws attention to nuances of personality.

Philostratus' Life of Apollonius (see Apollonius 4) veers towards hagiography: readers would probably not have taken it as literal truth. The first book of Marcus Aurelius provides an exploratory form of intellectual autobiography. Galen is similar but less perceptive. Diogenes 4 Laertius exemplifies the abridging and synthesizing of the materials of literary biography.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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