Before the classical age, biographies were less stories of individuals than stories of the holder of some important office of position–e.g., the life of a statesman, general, king, or emperor. For example, Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great was the story of a great military leader, not the story of a particular person. It wouldn’t matter what Alexander liked to eat for breakfast or how he treated his wife and children, for example. The point was how Alexander differed from other military leaders, not how he differed from other men. A biography was the life a public person, not a private individual.
In a journal article on Cotton Mather’s biographies of early Americans, Gustaaf Van Cromphout shows that Mather emulated Plutarch:
But the fact remains that neither Plutarch’s heroes nor Mather’s become individuals in the modern sense, and the basic reasons for this are two. First, as F. P. Wilson has pointed out, “before the later years of the seventeenth century a man had little chance of being commemorated in a biography if he were not in some way distinguished in the state or in the church. The criteria for admission to the biographical pantheon were those of role or function and not what distinction a person’s individual characteristics might confer upon him. Typical of this outlook is Suetonius’s De Vita Caesarum. The fact that Otho was a mediocrity and Vitellius a nonentity erected no obstacle to biographical treatment: they had been emperors, however briefly and ingloriously, and this was sufficient reason for their inclusion.Van Cromphout, Gustaaf. “Cotton Mather as Plutarchan Biographer.” American Literature 46, no. 4 (1975): 465-81.
Mather’s lives of John Winthrop and William Bradford, for instance, resemble the lives of saints.
Before the late 18th century, the writing of a life of great general was an act of “heroization” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish). If details from daily life were included, it was to reveal character traits–to show the character of a great statesman, for example. As Van Cromphout writes,
For Plutarch, as he explained in his life of Alexander–in a passage Boswell found it useful to quote in justification of his own method–believed that small personal details, actions of little significance, or an occasional phrase or jest are more likely to reveal the hero’s true character than his rare moments of historic achievement and grandeur.
Boswell‘s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) did include small personal details, such as how Johnson might look when he opened his front door in the morning, to reveal Johnson’s particularity; Boswell also commented on Johnson’s character flaws. Benjamin Frankin‘s autobiography also describes personal details, including Franklin’s “errata.” Franklin does not portray himself as a hero or saint.
As Foucault shows, modern biographies put a person under a microscope, looking at them as unique, unrepeatable individuals. It’s a process of objectification. And the subject of a modern biography is as likely to be a serial killer as a president or movie star.