Plutarch is one of the most popular ancient historians. His straightforward style and flair for the dramatic make his biographies of ancient Greeks and Romans both informative and entertaining. In fact, a number of Shakespearean characters are based on Plutarch's writings. It was his fondness for dramatic appeal that prompted the "semi-fictional" rather than purely factual treatment of history for which he is known. His intent was not so much to record historical events as it was use character and dramatic examples of success and failure to illustrate moral lessons.
Plutarch was not an eyewitness to the events he recorded. Although he was a prominent scholar and civil servant and traveled widely, he spent most of his life in Chaeronea in central Greece. Further, his subjects all lived 200 or more years before him. He had a wide variety of sources, but conflicting evidence and an occaissional paucity of detail gave him ample opportunities to dramatize or embellish his work.
In his "Lives", Plutarch pursued two major themes. One was the tenacity of Rome in war. Despite military setbacks, Rome always stayed the course and prevailed in the end. Whether it was Hannibal, Pyrrhus, gallic tribes or whoever, Rome outlasted them. The second was Rome's political genius and ability to compromise. In contrast to the Greeks, who always fought among themselves and brought about their own downfall, Romans managed to put aside their differences and stand together when necessary.
The "Lives" were originally written in pairs, matching a Greek and a Roman whose lives paralleled each other in Plutarch's estimation. For example, he paired the lives of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. To most modern readers, these pairings seem artificial. Instead, translator Scott-Kilvert has chosen to group together nine Roman biographies that collectively extend through the period from the beginnings of the Republic to the establishment of the Empire and illustrate Plutarch's two major themes.
These "Lives" are fascinating reading. Find out how the strategy of Fabius Maximus enabled Rome to defeat Hannibal and why the Gracchi brothers were killed. This book is a must for anybody with an interest in Roman history. Beyond that, though, Plutarch's straightforward and dramatic style will appeal to many casual readers, as well. Give it a try. Highly recommended.