Why Plutarch Rocks
You know with Plutarch - as you do with no other classical historian - that you are dealing with a man and not a machine. The man shines forth in his Moralia and Table Talk series of essays. Whereas you might be tempted to think of Suetonius as a sort of central office of the bureau of ancient gossip, you could not mistake Plutarch for anything but a man.
And a good man at that. Plutarch really knew men, and it shows in his Lives that he did. He might know less about politics that we commonly do now, but he knew about loyalty, lies, and lechery - saw that these are the bricks and mortar of power - and so when he sought to define a man he limited him by his character, not only by his intelligence.
I have just finished reading the Lives of the leaders of the Roman Civil War. Caesar, Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Cicero, Antony - the way Plutarch breaks down the times through the lens of each man is strangely impersonal - we see the time, but every character is covered with a sort of gloss of noble rhetoric. I had to go to Cicero's second Phillipic to see Anthony through the eyes of the day, and he sprang forth with unusual violence from Cicero's pen.
Nevertheless, the men are there in shape, if not in energy. Plutarch has maybe hellenized his Roman heroes - since we see Caesar's outrageous energy as merely a tumble of events, and Antony's inhuman vigor as a little roughness at the edges. Clearly Shakespeare had no access to Cicero's Phillipics, or else he would have created a more fierce Anthony. But in the life of Pompey and in the events of Cicero's life, Plutarch is sincere and shines with august words.
No other book evokes the times so well, already perhaps glazed with a thin patina of sentiment for the past, but nevertheless representing the real smell of the time and place from the point of view of a hellene. Plutarch is like a British journalist living in Washington DC - he can see and hear and report, but can he understand the American ways completely? Perhaps not, but the strength and goodness of his vision make the journey worth while