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8-10-2015, 21:27

The Categories of Ancient Biography

The writing of separate biographies began soon after Xenophon, with the first students of Aristotle. Regrettably, all Hellenistic biography between Xenophon in the fourth century bce and Nepos in the first is lost and known only through fragments. Rather than survey these traces (admirably done by Momigliano 1971a, 1971b), I will use them and extant biographies to distinguish the following categories of biography according to subject and purpose. As will be seen, most categories are not relevant to standard historiography.

(1) Philosophical biography brought out the moral character of its subjects and the relation of their teachings to their lives. Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, wrote on Pythagoras, Archytas, Socrates, and Plato; Hermippus in the third century wrote Lives of many philosophers, as well as lawgivers and other figures. Diogenes Laertius’ extant Lives of the Philosophers continues the tradition. Since such lives are usually heavy in sayings, as in Lucian’s Demonax, they may be difficult to distinguish from apophthegm collections. The Gospels also belong to this category, as does Philostra-tus’ novelistic Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Though closer to philosophy, they can be historically useful, especially for social and religious history. Philosophical biography’s emphasis on models of behavior influenced other categories as well.

(2)  Literary biography provided background on poets and orators, especially for school. It drew heavily for information upon the authors’ own works, often unwisely (Lefkowitz 1981). Extant examples include Lives of the Sophists by Philostratus and Eunapius, the Lives of the Ten Orators falsely ascribed to Plutarch, and the short biographies preserved with the texts of some authors. A surprise papyrus find has revealed that Satyrus, a third-century bce biographer, wrote his life of Euripides as a dialogue, presumably for entertainment as well as information.

(3)  School and reference biographies represent a special category: short (often very short) sketches that record family origin, major events or accomplishments, and perhaps death. They are similar to modern encyclopedia entries, or genealogical charts of kings, and in fact many are preserved in the Suda, the eleventh-century Byzantine encyclopedia.

(4)  Encomia provided much biographical information, but ideally should be distinguished from biography since, like Isocrates’ Evagoras and Xenophon’s Agesilaus, they consciously avoided noting faults. Rhetorical handbooks were available to guide speakers in format and topics.

(5)  Lives of those recently departed may represent a category of their own. The biographical tradition at Rome was fostered by the ancestral custom of a public funeral oration for a great man. Treatments of a political figure’s career after his death, whether as speech, encomium, monograph, or biography, became popular as political weapons in the civil wars of the middle of the century. After the younger Cato’s death in 46 bce, his life was praised by Cicero, Brutus, and Munatius Rufus, and vilified by Hirtius and Caesar. The works on Cicero by his freedman Tiro and on Caesar by C. Oppius perhaps straddled the fence between biography and history. Polybius’ lost Philopoemen and Tacitus’ Agricola (treated under item 7) perhaps belong here.

(6)  Autobiographies, commentaries, and memoirs represent a special kind of biographical writing, in which the subject represents his own life and decisions. Plutarch cites memoirs by both Pyrrhus and Aratus. At the beginning of the first century bce several leading Romans wrote memoirs or autobiographies: Sulla’s filled twenty-two books, Augustus justified himself in thirteen books. Though often self-defensive or propagandistic, they became a valuable source for historical biography (cf. Misch 1950; and see above, Ch. 22).

(7)  Historical/political biography focused on people active in military or political life: political leaders, commanders, kings, and emperors. Its subject makes it a close companion to political history. Here the genre issue is particularly difficult, since this category overlaps with historical monographs on the deeds of individual leaders or rulers. For lost works (e. g., on Alexander) we often cannot distinguish from the title alone which category is most appropriate. Even among extant writers on Alexander, for example, Q. Curtius Rufus’ account (1st c. ce) is closer to history, Arrian’s Anabasis (2nd c. ce) is biography in all but name, and Plutarch famously insists that he ‘‘is writing biography not history’’ (Alex. 1).

Because of this ambiguity, the existence of political biography before Nepos wrote in the middle of the last century bce is disputed (see Geiger 1985; Moles 1989). Some lost Alexander histories might be considered biographies, but Polybius’ Philo-poemen represents the most likely example of political biography in this period. Polybius asserts in his History (10.21.5-8) that his three books treated the Greek general’s ‘‘childhood upbringing’’ and gave a cursory account of his deeds, defending and magnifying them. It may have been closer to Tacitus’ Agricola (see below) than to a historical monograph such as Sallust’s Jugurthine War or to Xenophon’s encomium of Agesilaus. But this is guesswork: for this period it is best to acknowledge both our ignorance and the indefiniteness of genre boundaries.

The distinctions between categories are not neat: not only do political lives fuse with history, but a life of Solon might combine political, philosophical, or literary facets; a life of Cato or Brutus political and philosophical; a life of a departed friend, teacher, or model may shade into encomium.

Besides these categories, the nature of a biography depends on whether it is a separate work or part of a series. A series implies a collection of similar lives, associated for ease of comparison or reference - philosophers, kings, commanders; individual lives address the special features of one person, and are frequently encomiastic. Lives in series are usually considerably shorter than individual lives, though Plutarch’s are an exception.

The attempt to bind a given category to a particular structure has not succeeded. Leo in a fundamental study (1901) argued that literary lives always followed a topically arranged ‘‘peripatetic’’ model, supposedly originated by Aristotle’s students. However, the fragments of Satyrus’ Euripides and Suetonius’ Caesars demonstrate both that literary biographies took different forms, such as dialogue, and that political biography could employ the topical organization.

The remainder of this chapter will examine more closely historical/political biography, the category closest to historiography, beginning from the extant Roman writers, then turning to Plutarch, antiquity’s most prolific and sophisticated biographer.