Biography: A Very Short History

Biography: A Very Short History from the Classical World to the Early Medieval period .

The Lives of Great Men

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Roger Lewis’ 1995 investigation into the great actor and comedian, is, at over 1,100 pages, a mammoth volume. Lewis studies not only the events of Sellers’ life, but each of his films in phenomenal detail, attempting to uncover what made his subject tick and why he should achieve the emotional appeal and impact Lewis’ credits him with retaining to this day. While the book itself is an excellent and worthwhile investigation into the life of one of Britain’s great actors, it is worth asking oneself the extent to which such a thorough examination of, say; the film The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962) can enlighten us on Sellers the man, rather than the actor.


As a form of narrative storytelling, biography’s earliest extant exponent was the Greek scholar Plutarch (46 – 129 BCE) who wrote a series of parallel lives, in which he compared great figures from Greek history and mythology with those Romans whose achievements he felt mirrored them. As with some modern biographers Plutarch sought to gain an insight into each character and uncover the reasons for their later greatness through examining the tales told of their childhoods and early lives, onto their later successful (or otherwise) careers. It was character rather than narrative history that interested Plutarch and it was these traits with which he attempted to illuminate the actions of his subjects.

The Vitae

Another little known example of classical biography comes in the form of the Vitae (Latin for Life). We have a number of these anonymous works centering on the great Athenian dramatists; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. To create a work elucidating the life and character of these individuals, of whom very little personal detail otherwise exists, the author extrapolated recurring ideas and comments from their own works and, in the case of Euripides, those of the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes; in whose work Euripides is often a central, and much satirised, character. The effect of this is much the same as if one attempted to write a life of James Joyce with only his poetry and prose as source material.


With the age of the Emperors in full swing a type of biography emerged, around the imperial court, with the Roman historian Suetonius (69? – 130 BCE) its principle exponent. These tales of court life and drama centred around an Emperor whose life and deeds are told using certain stories and occurrences to illustrate facets of character. Suetonius’ voice can be heard in his assessments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Emperors. Nero, for example is shown to be kind and generous as a youth, but when corrupted by power and his own insanity because a typical example of a despot. Augustus on the other hand is treated more reverentially.

Hagiography and Charlemagne

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, lives of saints and other martyrs, named Hagiographies (the study of saints) became the popular form of the style. Through these, miraculous deeds and heavenly intervention could be recorded and embellished, and their name has since been associated with partisan or biased factual writings. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Charlemagne’s (742 – 814 BCE) Franks were the classical world’s intellectual successors and it was around the figure of the great Emperor that Einhard, a trusted courtier, wrote a life aping the style of Suetonius and thus attempting to place Charlemagne as a new Roman Emperor.

Still the Lives of Great Men

From its genesis, biography has typically been used to mark out the lives of great men, whether good or evil, and attempts to gain an insight into the individual characteristics possessed by such men that lead them to committing the deeds that they did, and achieving the glory or infamy that resulted from these actions. Pick up any modern biography, and though the content and analysis has changed; the search for what makes a man rise above his contemporaries and achieve great things remains.

John B Knight

See also John’s article on What Is History?