The Ethics of Motherhood in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

This article aims to explore the ethics of motherhood as portrayed in Plutarch’s Lives by conducting a critical analysis of selected passages that focus on the influence of mothers on their children. After an introductory discussion, the study is divided into two sections which focus separately on maternal relations with sons and with daughters. The article seeks to refine our understanding of the social and cultural norms surrounding motherhood as depicted in Plutarch’s writings, specifically examining how the role of mothers in Lives shows women challenging limitations in Greek and Roman conventional gender roles.

In Lives, exemplary mothers are not confined to the domestic sphere: they actively participate in public affairs and exercise influence over their sons who in turn emerge as distinguished political leaders. In Plutarch’s view, the epitome of womanhood centers around mothering a son, with the ultimate goal being the son’s commitment to the state. Within this framework, the virtues of an admirable mother are mirrored in those of an exceptional son.

However, Plutarch’s Lives also reveals a troubling dichotomy: while mothers of sons are often elevated, mothers of daughters seldom receive similar recognition. Lives as a rule lacks emotionally charged mother-daughter relationships. Rather than portraying mothers as positive influences on their daughters, he often relegates these relationships to the socially marginalized realm of hetairai. In Lives, the connections between mothers and daughters are primarily portrayed as stemming from necessity rather than mutual affection.