Biographies have evolved from short narratives that commemorate the deeds of illustrious figures to more complex forms that present the life of an individual in considerable detail. The earliest biographical records include the hieroglyphic inscriptions on Egyptian monuments (c. 1300 B.C.E.) and cuneiform inscriptions found in Assyria (c. 720 B.C.E.) and Persia (c. 520 B.C.E.). These quasi-biographical works commemorated the deeds of kings. Similarly, the oldest biographical writings in England were runic inscriptions that related the lives of heroes. Apart from Western quasi-biographical works, the earliest biographies appeared in the second century B.C.E. in China. The Shih-chih (Historical records) by Sima Qian (formerly transliterated as Ssu-ma Ch'ien, c. 145–c. 85 B.C.E.) included short character sketches, anecdotes, and dialogue between archetypal subjects. The historian Ban Gu (formerly transliterated as Pan Ku, 31–92 C.E.) continued this tradition in the Han shu (History of the former Han dynasty).
While biographical literature existed in the West as early as the fifth century B.C.E., a more defined notion of biography did not appear there until the Hellenistic age. Ion of Chios (c. 490–c. 421 B.C.E.) wrote quasi-biographical character sketches of eminent figures such as Pericles and Sophocles. Xenophon (c. 431–c. 352 B.C.E.) wrote a life of Cyrus (c. 365 B.C.E.) that praised the king. He also commemorated Socrates in the Memorabilia. Other quasi-biographical works include Plato's dialogues on Socrates, the Apology and the Phaedo.
Among the earliest surviving biographies are those contained in De viris illustribus (On illustrious men), by Cornelius Nepos (c. 100–c. 25 B.C.E.). This work became a model for subsequent serial biography, a form that consisted of the collected lives of one or more categories of illustrious persons. Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 C.E.) is perhaps the most famous ancient biographer. His Parallel Lives comprised forty-six biographies assembled in pairs. This work was an early example of a collection of single, autonomous lives. Plutarch showed a greater interest in revealing a subject's moral character than in documenting historical details, a feature that is typical of panegyric literature. He also praised his subjects in many anecdotes and digressions.
Other early biographers included Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–c. 120 C.E.) and Suetonius (c. 69–after 122 C.E.). Suetonius presented the life of Julius Caesar and the lives of the first eleven emperors in his De vita Caesarum (c. 110 C.E.; English trans. The Twelve Caesars, 2003). Following Plutarch, he emphasized the personal lives of the emperors rather than historical details in his collection of single lives. Suetonius also wrote De viris illustribus (c. 106–113; On illustrious men), a series of biographies of illustrious figures (philosophers, orators, and literati) that became a model for serial biography.
Diogenes Laertius (3rd century B.C.E.) wrote the Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a series of biographies of Greek philosophers. This work is the most complete surviving example of the ancient genre of philosophers' lives (the revival of which in the fifteenth century had a major impact on early modern biography). Diogenes notably indicates in his accounts that the actions and behaviors of the philosophers serve to exemplify their teachings. Although he focused on the private lives of his subjects, he also was known for his meticulous documentation of sources. His serial Lives were instructive to later biographers because he arranged them by the relations of masters to disciples and by individuals' contributions in their fields. St. Jerome (c. 347–419 or 420) wrote the exemplary serial biography in late antiquity. His De viris illustribus (c. 392; En lish trans. On Illustrious Men, 1999) was an elaboration on Suetonius's notes on the lives of the philosophers. It was widely imitated for three centuries and revived as a model in the twelfth century. He also incorporated elements of classical biography in his lives of saints, which greatly influenced medieval biographers.
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