Biography of an individual in Antiquity

Biography, in Antiquity, as now, was the depiction of a man’s life through words. Yet, the function of accounts of great men in Greek and Roman times, was not simply to reconstruct an account of their life, but was often also about highlighting heroism and great deeds, not only for their own sake but to act as a moral lesson for the reader. All this might be familiar to us today, but recent scholarship has also begun to understand the role of myth and literature in biographical accounts.  Myth resonates well with human nature, so individuals such as Plato and Aristotle could be made a public figure through their social or political significance. Take as an example Socrates and his two depictions Apology and Phaedo, with Plato as the main interpreter. Both these works defend Socrates career and Phaedo gives a picturesque depiction of his death. It is too romanticised, so it would be best to describe these texts as works of imaginative biography. However it begins to develop the genre for subsequent biographers to learn from.

Biographies highlighted more praise than blame and amplified public and intellectual achievements. This view corroborates with later heroic biographies of Homer and Aesop, elucidating their popular lives. This also saw the beginning of a valorised life and saw the introduction of fabricated stories/anthologies to enhance the biography. This would bolster the authority of the biographers and allows the open biography to extend beyond historical works.  

A good progression would be to Hellenistic biographers. One of particular consideration is Polybius in his histories. He speaks of the life of Philopomen in his standalone biography against the current narrative of him. This differentiation of biography from historiography gives Hellenistic biographers an inner conscious of their own theories of their subject. The work of Hellenistic biographers were by distinguishing authors whose work would be kept under authoritarian control. 

Roman political biographies became a distinct sub-genre of writing by the imperial period, often based on highly formalised valedictory funeral orations For example, Suetonius’ per species observes the elevation of an illustrious man’s death, which is atypical of Roman biographies.  The most encomiastic works are when the biographer and the subject have a close relationship such as Nepos and Atticus. Biographers such as Plutarch take a more discursive methodology but still use sources unevenly and sometimes out of context. 

It seems almost congruent with a literary biography through the Bible, where Jesus is depicted through parables and sayings. A succinct example is in Luke (2.43-51) where he talks of a child with extraordinary gifts and behaviour. Anthropological understanding of Christ through a biography of sorts helps transmit the theological message to practicing Christians more efficiently.

So, the nascence of biographies during Antiquity aimed to create and amplify an individual’s achievements through use of myth, heroic speeches and rhetorical devices The use of romanticised language alongside external techniques such as anthologies help to portray one’s life through the rose tinted spectacles of their biographer.   


A hagiography is the biography of a saint or a church leader. Throughout its use as a way to record the lives of these people, it has always put the subject in a favouring, flattering light. Rather than attempt to record a complete historical narrative of the life of the individual being written about, hagiographies instead discuss key moments in their lives. These moments can consist of their accomplishments in their lives, how God came to the Saint and performed miracles and how they died and became a martyr. Hagiographies may also describe how some people have had visions containing the idols image.[1] Saints were recorded in hagiographies as a reward in order to be maintained in people’s prayers.

They differ as a form of biography from the standard layout in that it is not necessary for it to contain specific dates or chapters of the icons life if it does not relate to the idea that God influences a person’s life. Saints are glorified in Hagiographies as they were also written with the intention to show Christ’s power and His work with these Saints.[2] Again, this is clear through the omission of sins within a saint’s life. The only time sins would be included within a hagiography would be because it would emphasise the redemption that occurred later within their life, further glorifying the Holiness of Christ and his power.

Hagiographies were most frequently used in the middle ages as a way to organise and record history for future reading. In Western Europe hagiography was one of the more important vehicles for the study of inspirational history during the Middle Ages. In addition, this literature preserves much valuable information not only about religious beliefs and customs but also about daily life, institutions, and events in historical periods for which other evidence is either imprecise or nonexistent. The audience of hagiographies was vast and therefore they act as teaching method to the common people. They were preached in church and used as rules to follow in order to ensure that the public was living a life in accordance with God’s laws.

In 1923 Delehaye defined hagiography as “writings inspired by religious devotion to the saints and intended to increase that devotion”. With the development of this definition historians have begun to use hagiographies within social history rather that as factual history as they contain details that allow historians to see what everyday life was like in the medieval and Middle Ages.

[1] Hayward, Paul. "Seminar VII: Hagiography". Lancaster.Ac.Uk.

[2] ibid

18th Century Renaissance Biography

The 18th century was an important era for biography with the publishing of The Life of Samuel Johnson which is considered the modern father of biography writing. Another important biography, which also shows the interested reader the nuisances between what to include and what not to include, was the famous biography Life of Francis North. As well as the more scholarly intrigue of biography writing in the eighteenth century one very influential piece titled A General History of the Pyrates had modern repercussions across literature and film the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

James Boswell published his well-received biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1781. According to Carl Rollyson, this individual piece “transformed the nature of biography” through Boswell’s attempt to combine all previous biography techniques into one work. Boswell was committed to writing works on ‘great men’ which adds to the idea of eighteenth century biography seeing little change on who was the target for biography. However, what this work brought to biography was combined techniques. Boswell has been commemorated for his drive to include the techniques of previous historians, for example using Plutarch’s method of assessing moral characters, discussing the characters background, family and personality like Vasari and using what would be, Aubery’s approach of using personally collected accounts.  Boswell knew Samuel Johnson personal and relied on collecting letters and reminisces to fully account for Johnson’s life – Boswell also committed himself to portray Johnson exactly as he was. Boswell was sure to include Johnson’s moral failings but also ensured an image of Johnson as an exemplary figure, very much reflecting medieval hagiographic writing. What made this biography different was Boswell’s dedication to cross check facts, to record every conversation and to reject any event that he could not confirm. Boswell wanted to know everything about Johnson, including body, mind and soul so he could share this information with others; making the life of Johnson, his own life’s work – for this reason, Charles Moore has mentioned this work as “deserving its first place in the ranks of British biography.

An example of how biography writing can be subjective is most prevalent in the writing and publishing of the Life of Francis North by Roger North (1651-1734). Scholars remember him as a biographer and as recently as 1972 his book went through another edition. Roger North’s biography of his brother was actually published eight years after his death by his son Montagu. By studying the original manuscripts and the version which Montagu published, it has been noted that the final product was not a faithful reproduction of any of his father’s versions. However this variation of emphasis and ideal of his brother can also be found within the original manuscripts as well. It has been concluded that the ‘Lives of Francis North, forms a continuous history of the relationship between two brothers, of Roger’s understanding of his brothers importance in politicsand of his owns reaction to others’ perceptions of his brothers role. The end product, which was immensely popular amongst 19th Century readers, was in the end a biography by Montagu not Roger. With a comparison between the manuscripts (Roger) and the publication (Montagu) it is clear that Montagu created a narrative with little cohesion and has resulted in a popular image of Roger North as ‘an antiquarian jotter’ thus damaging his reputation because of different approaches of two authors regarding the same subject the highlighting the subjectivity of biography writing.  

The advent of the publishing of A General History of the Pyrates in 1724 has been influential in shaping popular conceptions of pirates. Written under a pseudonym, Captain Charles Johnson, scholars have now suggested that the actual author was one Daniel Defoe. Robert Louis Stevenson undoubtedly took inspiration from this biography for his acclaimed book Treasure Island in which five pirates from the General History feature: William Kidd, Blackbeard, Edward England, Howell Davis, and Bartholomew Roberts. Secondly, an event which features in the introduction of the General History of the Pyrates of a ship wreck off the coast of Florida is mentioned by the character Silver in Treasure Island. The General History continues to have resonance today, having been interpreted through the movie franchise ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and television programme ‘Black Sails’, both of which used its text as the foundation of their story.  


  1. Chan, Mary, ‘Roger North’s Life of Francis North’ The Review of English Studies, New Series 42, 166 (1991): pp.191-211.
  2. Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates(1724), edited by Manuel Schonhorn, (Courier Corporation, 2012).
  3. Magill, N. Frank- “The 17th and 18th Centuries: Dictionary of World Biography, Volume 4” (Routledge, 2013) Pg. 176
  4. Moore, Charles –“A meeting of minds for James Boswell and Samuel Johnson” For the Telegraph (May 2011)
  5. Rollyson. E Carl- “Biography before Boswell” (iUniverse, 2005) Pg.4-7
  6. Stevenson, Robert Louis, Treasure Island (Cassell & Co, 1883).
  7. Biography – The Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries -

Biography in the 19th century and the influence of Thomas Carlyle

During the nineteenth century history was emerging as an academic discipline[1] increasingly distinct from the simple narration of person’s life. However, the biographical approach still remained an important research technique for nineteenth century historians; this is seen in many different forms such as the construction of “narratives of the reigns of medieval kings”[2], in an attempt to construct a distinct timeline of monarchs throughout history. It is through this nationalistic approach of cementing a catalogue of individuals important to a particular nation that Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography was established. This was the vision of the Victorian publisher, George Smith whom “ originally envisaged a compendium of universal biography to contain every notable figure in human history”[3]. Nonetheless, after being approached by Leslie Stephen (former Cambridge don and editor of Cornhill Magazine) he was convinced to undertake a slightly more realistic venture in through a assemblage of important British lives instead. The legacy of the Victorian Dictionary of National Biography is still felt to this day via the revised version created by visionaries of Oxford University and subsequently renamed The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

A shift can be seen during the nineteenth century from narration within biography to the celebration of the “Great Man” in history. This can be attributed to the Scottish philosopher, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (4 December 1795 – 5 February 1881). As the critic R. H. Hutton immortalised Carlyle’s contribution to the history of Biography noting that Carlyle’s “personal judgements on men…were early sought after, and eagerly chronicled and retailed”[4]. Carlyle conducted a series of influential lectures; perhaps the most notable of which being On Heroes, Hero Worship during May 1840, whereby he claimed, “History is nothing but the biography of Great Men”. From this he compared various great names from history from Odin to Martin Luther claiming that all who know of them should henceforth revere them. Furthermore, due to the fact Carlyle received such a broad readership for this work and because his chosen heroes varied so greatly across the breadth of human history everyone was able to find “something to praise”[5] This is perhaps so poignant during the Victorian age as it was a “period of radical change, the demand for moral inspiration, for political and social leadership [increased]”[6] For Carlyle these heroes throughout history define masculinity, something that everyman should attempt to emulate.[7] In Carlyle’s mind history as a discipline and human stories were hence interchangeable, history itself being the “unravelling of collective human memory”[8] He therefore believed that the history was not simply a “record of civilisation”[9] but in fact “civilisation itself”[10], an ever-changing progression of human experience that speaks to both the “present and the future”. Hence Thomas Carlyle, through his writings on the importance of the hero, created a lasting legacy on the historical importance of the individual.

[1] Ed., David Bates, Julia Crick, Frank Barlow, Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Professor Frank Barlow, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, (2006), p. 6

[2] Ibid, p. 6


[4] R. H. Hutton, Modern Guides of English Thought, Macmillian and Co. (1887), p. 1 from Simon Heffer, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, Weidenfield and Nicolson London, (1995), p. 1

[5] Ed., Jules Paul Seigel, Department of English University of Rhode Island, Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1971), pp. 14 – 15

[6] Walton E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830 – 1870, Yale University Press (1957) from Department of English University of Rhode Island, Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage, p. 14


[8] John D. Rosenburg, Carlyle and the Burden of History, Clarendon Press Oxford (1985), p. 15

[9] Ibid, p. 15

[10] Ibid, p. 15

Biography in the Third Millennium

Today biography has reached new heights in popularity. It is perhaps the most popular form of non-fiction broadcasting and publishing. There seems to be a far greater awareness of individual human identity in popular media today, and this is apparent not only in the popularity of biography and autobiography, but also in the popularity of social media. The ability to make a statement and to share it with huge circles of people provided by the platforms of radio, television and, most importantly, the Internet, has created a modern world in which there is more material to be read and shared than ever before.

The emphasis on individual identity that is apparent in society today manifests itself in various ways. Reality television shows attempt to depict ‘real-life’ situations to inspire a reaction from the audience, a reaction that is usually based on a moral assessment of the ‘characters’. The same moral assessment of individuals is also a reaction to television and radio drama. The aspects of biography that have made it popular for centuries apply similarly to these newer forms of broadcast and publication. People absorb stories, gossip and moral debates with pleasure; human nature dictates that these things interest us. One of the most important distinctions to be made between the role of the individual in the Third Millennium and the role of the individual in past centuries is the ubiquitous influence of social media. Today it is possible for almost anyone to share their ideas, activities and beliefs with a vast audience; and people are interested in other people’s lives. This is perhaps the key concept in the study of biography – that people have a desire to interact indirectly with characters that they will probably never meet. Today this is most apparent in the case of celebrity status. Most famous figures write autobiographies or have their lives documented by biographers these days. Biography is lucrative business.

Is biography relevant or important today? Its popularity would suggest it is. However, while biography assumes a central position in popular media, it is not given its own niche in academic circles and, broadly, is not considered an academic study. Perhaps this is especially due nowadays to the profusion of celebrity biographies that have rather changed the meaning of biography in popular vocabulary. Once a huge, research-intensive project, biography now suggests a breed of book that makes money fast in the short-term and is rarely a deep scholarly study of historical figures (though these are still written). Our common understanding, then, of biography has changed. The historical, scholarly biographies have become, it is perhaps fair to suggest, more accomplished in recent years as the study of history has become continuously more refined and sophisticated. Biography has also played an important role in historical fiction, an increasingly popular genre in literature. A historical novel, almost without exception, focuses on an individual or small group of characters to tell its story. Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series is a good example of historical and biographical research put to use to write a thrilling story. The value of this sort of work is in its propensity to inspire in the reader an enthusiasm to explore the subject further. This, perhaps, is the key that ties the various manifestations of biography that exist today together into something of an explanation. Historical novels, academic biographies, celebrity biographies/autobiographies and Internet blogs all interest a great many people because they all explore the idea of the individual and the individual’s role within the great story in which we all participate, that is, history. 

Biography: Between History, Art and Literature

Many credit the birth of the biographical genre to Plutarch with his works, Parallel Lives, which was published around the year 80AD. Professional consensus amongst historians is that historical biographies were written by men about “Great” men, and to extent, this idea still remains true with works being published about figures such as Hitler and Stalin. Before Plutarch and Seutonious, there had been no documentation of an individual’s life, yet, today, historical biography is an immensely popular discipline within literature. However, regardless of its popularity, the practise of biography is often scrutinised within the historical community.

Biography owes its popularity to the growing thirst people find themselves with to know the emotional and personal details of influential and famous figures. The interest in the morality and immorality of people, not just the facts sees the art of biography fill a niche in the market. Johnathan Haslam describes the field of biography to “appeal to a natural human instinct for gossip, but [also] it answers a real need within us to understand each other better.” This acknowledgment is easily agreed with as there is an obvious curiosity amongst humans to want to understand one another, and to learn from each other as individuals too. It wasn’t until the entry into the nineteenth century that the discipline really took off, this being generally accredited to the boom in influential figures after the French Revolution. Yet, with this focus on understanding the individual in history, there is an argument to support the claim that a substantial grasp of the wider historical context is sacrificed. This is an issue which the majority, if not all biographers are aware of, making the genre an extremely precise art to gain success in. The editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography highlights the issue well saying that the biographies purpose is “to enable the reader not only to learn about a life from the past but to also understand that person’s place in the history of their age.” Furthermore, many historians including Daniel Snowman question an author’s ability to remain emotionally detached from their subject. This presents the problem that a text could be influenced by the personal identification of the author with their subject, either tainting the history or the tone of the piece. These issues lend themselves to the belief that rather than a discipline to be taken seriously within the historical community, biography is more of an entertainment literature. Even so, if biography is too been seen as a sub-class of history, it cannot be denied that it still holds valuable and usable historical insight.

Essentially, there seems to be no end to the debate of whether biography can be held as a respected field of history or whether it’s connotation to the entertainment genres are too overbearing to forget. Historians argue that the focus on a single figures leads to a loss of historical context within the wider picture however, through time the refinement of the art of biography has led to much improvement. Similarly, the liability of a biographer to become emotionally involved with their subject seems too great for some historians to give true respect to the field. On the other hand, since the birth of the genre in antiquity under Plutarch and Seutonious the field of biography has had an ever increasing role in historical documentation. It allows for the finite details of a person’s life to be recorded and shared for both entertainment and educational purposes. It can be argued that the art of biography is an invaluable asset within contemporary historiography and that, even with its literary downfalls, must be considered when studying a period in the past.  

Is Biography a Western Phenomenon?

Biography is a category that many consider to be an intrinsically western phenomenon. Although it cannot be disputed that biographies have come out of other continents, it can instead be said that the template for these was created in the West.

Some of the first recorded biographies were utilised for religious purposes. In western culture there are many examples of hagiographies, a classification of biography that enables the writer to tell the reader about a Saint’s holy life, and through this text prove their ability to perform miracles. These hagiographies were sometimes met with scepticism and criticism however, due to the author usually being a disciple of the saint in question. This is an idea that still survives today, as the author usually has their own bias or pre-determined reason for writing a biography, which we must consider when reading them and before forming our own opinions about the matter.

Religious life-writings were not just typical of the Christian world however, as biographical dictionaries were additionally an important part of establishing lineages within the Qur’an. These sorts of religious writings can also be seen in the Buddhist religion, with their biographies of king’s lives being intertwined with their spiritual lives. In this way, some of the earliest biographies were not intrinsically a western phenomenon but in fact a way of proving spirituality, and moreover the importance of a specific individual.

In 1956, George Gusdorf claimed that ‘the concept of individuality was uniquely western’ and therefore biographical writing is more likely to be associated with culture of the western world. As such, there is an argument that determining ones individuality is an important facet of western culture, and therefore those that subscribe to such a culture see their own personal lives as being important enough to write about in detail.

In the early 1970s, James Olney claimed that African biography is more of a social history than a personal one. This is because their life-writings appear to discuss the affairs of a nation or even an entire continent, as opposed to focusing on one individual figure. This then could perhaps suggest that the idea of vanity is more a product of western civilisation, and the focus on the personal realm is something that is more closely associated with those belonging to a western nation. It could even be argued that this is shown typically through an integral foundation of modern western society: its political policy of capitalism.

Fleishman says that the limitations of non-western biography may actually be because of the ‘invention of various reasons to exclude the many and varied examples of non-western self-writing from the genre of autobiography’. Thereby it is the western world that limits the non-western genre, furthering the view that that biography is indeed a western phenomenon. An example of the way we control the use of biographies over non-western people, is that of the autobiography of Equiano Olaudah, as the only reason the book of his life as a slave was published was because he became a free man and therefore had the ability to choose to seek publication. 

Further Reading


Thomas Hagg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity



Frank Barlow, Writing medieval biography 750-1250

Janet L. Nelson, Writing Early Medeival Biography



Peter Burke, The Renaissance sense of the past 

Allan Pritchard, English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: A critical survey


C19 and Thomas Carlyle

Stefen Berger, Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800

Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in history


Third Millennium

Peter Mandler, The Responsibility of the Historian 

Conn Iggulden, Conqueror


History, Art and Literature

Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigres

Charles G. Salas, The Life and the Work, Art and Biography


Is biography a western phenomenon?

Nigel Hamilton, Biography, a brief History

James Olney, Autobiography, Essays Theoretical and Critical


Biographies of important individuals

Barry Coward, Oliver Cromwell

A.N. Wilson, Victoria: A life 

Andrew Mango, Ataturk

Thomas M. Leonard, Fidel Castro: A Biography

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great