I hate Plutarch, if only because he is indispensable. His numerous Lives are all that is left of large sections of Greek and Roman history, or are essential corroboration for other, scarce sources.
To modern readers, Plutarch can easily sound annoying. His portraits are invariably red-cheeked and gleaming-eyed. Vice and virtue are his main measures of men (and the few women). `These two young men were remarkably similar in terms of their courage and self-restraint - and also their generosity, eloquence, and high principles,' he begins on the Gracchi. `The younger Marius revealed the extent of his savagery and brutality in the continued slaughter of the best and most distinguished men of Rome,' is how he concludes on Marius. Politics are first and foremost personal, and portents and dreams are invariably full of meaning. Yet this is excellent, colourful, and entertaining biography. The characters jump out of the page. The times are evoked magnificently. Some people like to see in Plutarch timeless lessons on human psychology and behaviour; without going so far, his Lives certainly provide unmatched insights into the thoughts and beliefs of the ancients.
As to history, one needs to be aware how this came to us. In antiquity, works were copied in schools, especially of rhetoric. Thus what ensured they were reproduced in large numbers, and had a chance of survival in the ensuing Dark Age, was style, not content. Likewise, medieval copyists, all monks, were interested in the moral lessons of the works they preserved. (There are exceptions to this: invaluable papyri were found intact in the Egyptian desert; but these are rare.) Plutarch passed both the stylistic and moral tests. But he lacks the structure of a Thucydides or a Polybius. His works are not graspable without context - a context which the introductions contained in this edition don't quite supply, even if they help. So the history enthusiast needs to be warned: this is great biography, but to the historian it is only supplementary, if essential, material.
This edition contains only eight of Plutarch's Roman Lives: Cato the Elder, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. A number of the less prominent characters treated by Plutarch need to be looked for in other editions (Numa, Cato the Younger, Marcellus, Crassus, Galba...).