The Life of Marie CurieEdit

Plutarch is a very renowned ancient biographer. He has many collections of various lives that he has written about. He has significant elements to his writing style that I believe are key facets to the overall delivery of his biographies to the reader. I believe that Plutarch writes with dramatic details that are often times a stretch of the truth, to make the biography seem more like a story. Plutarch also has a major element to his writing that deals with tragedy. I feel Plutarch always has a tragic ending in the life that he is writing about, and that the character always falls from a plot-based climax in which Plutarch created beforehand with the use of his dramatic details. Marie Curie was a world famous modern scientist. Her life would be very interesting when told from a different perspective from the modern biographies of today. If Plutarch was to write “The Life of Marie Curie”, this would be a very refreshing take on her life illustrated in literature. There are various aspects of Marie Curie that Plutarch would expand on and create a great biography, and that is why I chose this project idea.

Plutarch Addressing TragedyEdit

My first claim about Plutarch’s writing style would be the manner in which he draws a tragic relationship between the character and his/her death. Plutarch does this by always setting up the character to have a tragic downfall and death. He sets the character up by using his creative license, which often involves his critical use of dramatic details, which I will discuss further on in this paper. It usually ends up that the character is at a successful point in their life, when all of a sudden something happens where everything turns back around on them in an ironic fashion. To reinforce this argument, I will introduce evidence to support this. In Plutarch’s Lives Volume II, he examines the live of Julius Caesar. Throughout the whole story, he depicts the dramatic events of how Julius Caesar rose to power and eventually became one of the most important men in Rome’s history. Caesar used the people around him to gain his way into increased power and glory. Towards the end of the story of Caesar’s life, a reader can clearly see the tragedy in Plutarch’s writing. The people who helped Caesar gain the fame that he did, ended up being the very people who would assassinate him. The two head conspirators behind Caesar’s assassination were Brutus and Cassius. Plutarch had this to say of Caesar’s own opinion of Brutus, “one whom Caesar had such confidence in that he made him his second heir” (Plutarch, 240). If Caesar was willing to put Brutus second in charge of Rome and all of his possessions, then Caesar certainly thought highly and trustworthy of Brutus. It’s just so ironic that they were the ones who ended up killing Caesar. Whether Plutarch chooses to write about people who actually have these tragic/ironic deaths, or if he has simply created them for us to interpret, it is an important part of his writing style. Plutarch could very well have only chosen to write about people who have ironic and tragic deaths, but I find that unlikely because he focuses his biographies on famous people of ancient Rome and Greece. I feel because he focuses on those people for their fame of that era, the argument of these tragic endings come off more clearly as a specific writing element to his works of literature as opposed to him simply choosing to write about people who died in the manner that they did.

Another important point to Caesar’s life was his main competitor to the throne. He went by the name of Pompey. Plutarch tied this character into Caesar’s tragic ending as well. Pompey ended up in a final showdown with Caesar for what was essentially the sole rule of Rome, and he ended up losing. Pompey fled from the battle after he knew he was done for, and went all the way to Egypt from Greece. Once he arrived at Egypt, he was murdered by supporters of Caesar. Basically, Caesar ended up causing the death of Pompey. Now when Caesar was assassinated by the conspirators, it just so happens that, “the place which was destined for the scene of this murder, in which the senate met that day, was the same in which Pompey’s statue stood.” (Plutarch, 241) This is ironic in the fact that Pompey had ‘the last laugh.’ Of course it’s tragic that Caesar had all this power and success and lost it all by being deceived and assassinated, but the fact that he was killed by his own friends and ended up bleeding out at the base of a statue of his arch rival is ironic, and rather dramatic. Plutarch has this element of tragedy in his writings to create a more entertaining story to the reader. If it was like the modern biographies today, where it’s just bullets of information of a person’s life chronologically, it would be nowhere near as entertaining as a biography Plutarch writes.

Plutarch Addressing DramaEdit

Which brings me to my next point, the drama in which Plutarch uses really conveys a more story-like approach to an individual’s life, instead of a more modern biographical approach that many readers are used to. Plutarch creates this drama by creating extremely vivid details. These details, I feel, are almost impossible for him to know without physically being there for them to be true. I argue that these details are not true; he simply blends them in throughout a ‘life of …’ to create a more fluid story to build climaxes and downfalls of that character. This eventually ties into the tragic ending that Plutarch creates for every life he examines, but that’s beside the point. The take home message is that Plutarch uses these false details to morph a nice, fluid story of a character that the reader attaches to; every high point and downfall. Some evidence to support my argument can be found on page 601-602 of Plutarch’s Selected Lives, he discusses the effects that Cicero has on Caesar when he speaks. In this particular section of text, it deals with the case of Cicero standing up for Ligarius, who Caesar condemned. Apparently, “when Cicero had begun his oration, he moved Caesar marvellously, he had so sweet a grace, and such force in his words, that it is reported Caesar changed divers colours, and showed plainly by his countenance, that there was a marvellous alteration in all the parts of him. For, in the end when the orator came to touch the battle of Pharsalia, then was Caesar so troubled, that his body shook withal, and besides, certain books he had, fell out of his hands, and he was driven against his will to set Ligarius at liberty.” (Plutarch, 601-2) It seems that Cicero is so powerful with words that he can make a person’s body shake and drop the objects they’re holding onto? It just seems very unlikely that this is really what happened when this event in Cicero’s life occurred. What this does do, is give a greater effect to the reader of the power of Cicero, and that is why I believe Plutarch did it. This creates a more vivid image of Cicero to the reader, and gives him a vast oratory power. This contributes to the story-like aspect of Cicero’s life, instead of the biography aspect of Cicero’s life. Further on in the story, it is this very power of Cicero which gains him the fame and the tutor-mentor relationship to Octavian. Oddly enough as well, it would turn out Octavian would be the one to condemn Cicero’s life to Antonius in a joint bargain for Octavian’s own benefit. In my opinion, yet another tragic and ironic ending by Plutarch. Why did Cicero have to die by the very actions of Octavian, a person who was helped by Cicero to give him the skills to rise to the very position of power that he achieved? Why couldn’t he have of died by another means, perhaps dying in a battle unrelated to Octavian. I believe it is because of Plutarch’s writing styles.

Application to Marie CurieEdit

Plutarch’s writing style would be a perfect fit for the life of Marie Curie. Marie Curie was a world famous scientist in the modern era. I feel many biographies do not do her life justice as Plutarch would be able to. Throughout Curie’s life, she won many famous honors and awards. These range from earning two collegiate degrees (one for Physics in 1893 and another off of a scholarship in 1894), all the way to being awarded two Nobel Prizes for her work in two different fields of science (Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911). She would coin the term “radioactivity” and discover the nature of radiation and beta rays, as well as two new elements (Polonium and Radium). All of these advancements she made in her fields, and all of these awards that she won, Plutarch would take great advantage of. He would fit in his vivid details, most likely which would be false, to create a fluid storyline to really accentuate her highpoints in life. If Plutarch was to write a few sentences incorporating events of Curie’s life, it would look like this:

“Marie Curie was a caring, supportive woman. She once was present at a lecture in which she met a man named Pierre, who was ridiculed for the research he presented. But Marie was the only one who stood by his side and supported his findings. Despite the countless attacks from the more renowned scientists of the era, it came to a point where since Marie was the only one supporting him, it’s what kept Pierre attached to this research. They worked on the research together and eventually became very fond of one another. They found purpose in each other’s lives, and they married shortly after realizing this. While other great scientists of this time mocked and jeered at this research, the two worked together at it persistently, often times spending entire nights in the very labs in which they worked. Eventually, the research had a major breakthrough. They discovered the element Polonium and it’s radioactive nature. Her and Pierre published their findings and found great praise from it, even from the scientists who previously mocked this very research. They became world famous scientists for their discovery.”

First off, I claimed Plutarch would write these sentences for the main purpose of creating the story of Curie instead of the biography. These sentences do show the true points in Curie’s life, where she married Pierre and did research with him, and the fact that the two had discovered Polonium together. However, the way in which Marie met Pierre and fell in love with him as I described is not true. As well, I made up the sentence stating how they spent entire nights in the labs in which they worked in to be false. These deliver a dramatic element to her life story, much like Plutarch would do if he wrote it, and that is precisely what I’m trying to illustrate. Also, the sentences show her earning various awards and praise for her work, which she did in all truth receive. This shows that Plutarch does still stick to the truth in his works, he has to, or else they wouldn’t be called biographies. But what these sentences do, is set up the character for a tragic downfall. If Plutarch was to write about Curie’s death, it would look like this:

“This research led to the discovery of a highly radioactive element they named Polonium, after their home country of Poland. One thing that they did not realize at the time of performing their research was the negative effects it has on their health. Eventually with the two continuing their research, Marie’s health began to decline. She caught pernicious anemia, because of the radioactive research. This illness would be the one which brought Marie to her death, in the very country in which she named her highly praised radioactive element after.”

In truth, the manner in which Curie died was from pernicious anemia, and this was most likely from the very research and work that brought her the fame and praise from the world. This shows a tragic and ironic ending that Plutarch would write. This shows because the fact that what made her famous, i.e. the thing which brought her to a very highpoint in her life, was the very thing that also brought her to her demise, in an unfortunate and ironic way. Much like the manner discussed earlier from the evidence with Julius Caesar, the very men which put him in power and were friends with him, were the ones who killed him.

If Plutarch was to write “The Life of Marie Curie” I believe the two would go very well together. The writing styles of Plutarch would emphasize the facts of Curie’s life in very fluid, drama filled, and tragic story. It would certainly be an interesting twist on her life, and that is why I chose this for my project. Over the past 10 weeks I have come to learn a vast amount about how ancient biographers really deliver their material in the manner in which they do. Plutarch stood out to me as one of my favorite biographers, out of the ones we examined, for the very reasons why I discussed earlier in the project. He is able to take the life events of a person and morph them into an entertaining, yet still overall truthful account of that person’s life. Plutarch writes a brilliant balance between a fictional drama and a non-fictional biography.


Lewis, J. J. (2011). Marie Curie. Retrieved November 7, 2011, from Womens History:

Plutarch. (1998). Selected Lives. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Plutarch. (2001). Plutarch's Lives Volume II. New York: Modern Library.

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