In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek and Latin Biography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Classics Greek and Latin Biography
Alexei V. Zadorojnyi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0241


The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations spawned and recycled many stories about heroes, tyrants, sages, and other (predominantly male) celebrities. Yet, a holistic reading of Greco-Roman biography is tricky. The common denominator of Greek and Latin texts that must or may be considered biographical is narrative focused on the life of a noteworthy historical or quasi-historical individual. So the boundaries of the evidence base are blurred and negotiable, even around the core of the best-known mainstream authors such as Plutarch and Suetonius. Alongside the extant or attested works that present full-scale accounts of lives of statesmen and intellectuals, the ancient biographical outlook can be gauged from historiography, apophthegmatic anecdotes, encomia and lampoons, novelized history, and so on. Since no theory of life writing was developed in Greco-Roman criticism as far as we can tell, it is fair to think of ancient biography as an “inductive genre”: that is, a pattern suggested by the available material itself but also generating further interpretative configurations. Biography is thus a heuristic concept for unlocking a layered meshwork of political, sociocultural, and ethical values through a significant—or, better, a significantly “emplotted” and potentially paradigmatic—life story that acts out those values before the insiders of the Greek, Roman, and Greco-Roman ideological and literary landscapes. Scholarship is now used to appreciating ancient biography on its own, however fuzzy, terms rather than treating it as a lighter and implicitly inferior form of historiography. While the questions of source criticism and historicity continue to be vital, there is an ever-growing flow of studies focusing on the specific writerly and readerly aspects of ancient biography, with its propensity toward ethopoetic moralism and anecdotal montage. Similarly, autobiographical texts should be regarded both as historical documents and as textual artifacts of self-legitimization and authority.

General Overviews

Panoramic studies of Greco-Roman biographical writing can seldom eschew the problem of what kind of text qualifies as “biography,” and why (see Biography versus Historiography). Stadter 2007 provides a clear and informative sketch, and Schorn 2014 gives a balanced assessment of the Greek tradition up to the first century BCE. Sonnabend 2002 carries out a systematic though concise survey of evidence from classical Greece until the late Roman Empire; Hägg 2012 offers more in-depth discussion of the narrative agendas and tactics across a wide range of ancient sources. Several contributions in Ehlers 1998 try to untangle the evolution of biographical discourse from Greece to Rome. Leo 1901 pioneered a typology (which scholarship has been revisiting and contesting ever since) for composition of biographies in Antiquity, while Konstan and Walsh 2016 makes a pitch for a novel approach to categorization, based on the broadly ideological thrust of the texts at issue. Burridge 2004 works toward a flexible yet unified concept of the Greco-Roman bios as a narrative template that applies also to the Gospels. Averintsev 2002 comments on the psychological-cum-ethical framework for biographical profiling in the ancient world, and beyond. Radicke 1999 is representative of a broad-based approach to identification of fragmentary texts as biographical.

  • Averintsev, Sergei S. 2002. From biography to hagiography: Some stable patterns in the Greek and Latin tradition of Lives, including Lives of the saints. In Mapping lives: The uses of biography. Edited by Peter France and William St. Clair, 19–36. British Academy Centenary Monographs. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Thought-provoking essay on the “deep” normative expectations behind biographical writing in the Greco-Roman and Christian traditions.

  • Burridge, Richard A. 2004. What are the Gospels? A comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. 2d ed. Biblical Resource. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

    Mapping out the “generic features” in the structure and contents of select Greek and Roman biographies, argues that the Gospels are related to the contemporaneous narrative matrix of bios. Expanded and updated from the first edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  • Ehlers, Widu Wolfgang, ed. 1998. La biographie antique: Huit exposés suivis de discussions, Vandoeuvres-Genève, 25–29 août 1997. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité Classique 44. Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt.

    Long-term trajectories in the Greek and Roman biographical writing are pondered on by Albrecht Dihle and Luigi Piccirilli; each contribution is followed with a transcript of discussion as it happened at the 1997 conference.

  • Hägg, Tomas. 2012. The art of biography in Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139061322

    Guides the reader from 4th-century BCE Greece to the Gospels and the lives of 3rd-century CE intellectuals. Generously illustrated with sample close readings of the ancient sources, inclusive of “popular” biographical literature (chapter 3, pp. 99–147). Rich, helpfully structured “Further Reading” section.

  • Konstan, David, and Robyn Walsh. 2016. Civic and subversive biography in Antiquity. In Writing biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative technique and fictionalization. Edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen, 26–43. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316422861.003

    An important essay on the overarching polarity between biographical broadcast of the ideologically dominant (“civic”) norms and biographies that give expression to more or less heterodox (“subversive”) values; both traditions are traced back to Xenophon’s writing (see Classical Greece).

  • Leo, Friedrich. 1901. Die griechisch-römische Biographie nach ihrer litterarischen Form. Leipzig: Teubner.

    Still has formative influence on the field. Identifies two distinct compositional methods in ancient biographical writing and speculates about their Aristotelian and Hellenistic origins; both sides of the argument continue to attract scholarly attention, largely polemical.

  • Radicke, Jan. 1999. Felix Jacoby: Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker Continued; Part Four; Biography and antiquarian literature; IVA; Biography; Fascicle 7; Imperial and undated authors. Edited by Guido Schepens. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    An essential resource for expanding one’s knowledge of post-Hellenistic Greek biography. Selection of texts (or, quite commonly, titles of lost works) rests on intentionally relaxed criteria of what counts as biographical, though.

  • Schorn, Stefan. 2014. Biographie und Autobiographie. In Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike. Vol. 2, Die Literatur der klassischen und hellenistischen Zeit. Edited by Bernhard Zimmermann and Antonios Rengakos, 678–733. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    Important theoretical observations on the nature of biography and autobiography as genres are tested against richly informative survey of Greek and especially Hellenistic material (see Hellenistic Biography). Very useful bibliographical sections.

  • Sonnabend, Holger. 2002. Geschichte der antiken Biographie: Von Isokrates bis zur Historia Augusta. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-476-04390-0

    Succinct and passably comprehensive overview of the immediately relevant ancient texts. Bibliography is rather short and dated.

  • Stadter, Philip. 2007. Biography and history. In A companion to Greek and Roman historiography. Vol. 2. Edited by John Marincola, 528–540. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Essential, lucid introduction to Greek and Roman biography. Gives an outline of the extant and otherwise attested material.

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