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Gaius Suetonius Tranquillis, more commonly known as Suetonius, was, to the best of our knowledge, born in 69 A.D, a year in which the Roman Empire was plagued by instability and which has become known as the 'Year of Four Emperors'. Son of a Roman knight, Suetonius quickly rose to prominence during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138 AD) rising to the position of chief secretary.
As the name implies, in The Twelve Caesars Suetonius chronicles the lives of the first Twelve Caesars of the Roman Empire from the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, spanning from Julius Caesar to Domitian. What stands this out from other Roman histories, such as the work by Livy on the history of Rome from its founding, is that Suetonius had firsthand knowledge of the period of which he is commenting on having lived under the rule of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. In addition, during his tenure as Chief Secretary to Hadrian, Suetonius gained access to the Imperial and Senatorial archives providing a wealth of information on the lives of Augustus, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Apparently Suetonius also took great care with facts and had the good fortune of being able to interview eye witnesses of the events of these early Emperors as well.
What results is a fascinating insight into the lives of the rulers of an empire which in Augustus' time is estimated to have had a population of upwards of 55 million. Whilst skipping over most of the military aspects of the period, such as the outward expansion of the empire, Suetonius instead focuses on the personal lives of the emperors which paint a terrifying picture of brutality and sadism. With rulers such as the seemingly mentally instable Caligula and the psychotic Nero it begs the question of how the Roman Empire survived quite so long as it did.
Scandalous anecdotes abound in the chapters concerning the more notorious Emperors with some modern commentators disputing them for historical truth or just Suetonius reporting rumours. Whatever the case, they certainly make for interesting reading even if the author has embellished on reality. This focus on the indecent acts of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero however, has the negative effect of drawing attention away from the less infamous of the Caesars in the latter half of the book, such as those involved in the power struggle during the 'Year of Four Emperors' and those following, which do not seem to get as much attention from Suetonius.
I would also question the accessibility of the book for those who do not have some sort of understanding of the history of the period. Lots of historical events are passed over in very small detail such as Caesar's defeat of Pompey in the Civil War and Augustus' generals' campaigns in Germany.
Despite this I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest on the subject. While I would not suggest it to be the best place to start in pursuing an interest in Roman history it is certainly well worth it if you have an attraction to the period.
So who is Suetonius?
Born 69/70 AD, he was about 27 when the last of his subjects in this book died. He was born in Algeria and moved to Rome to teach literature and then practice law. Under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian he worked in the imperial libraries and then dealt with the correspondence of the emperors themselves .right up to the point when he was rude to Hadrians wife Sabina and was dismissed (I would have loved to have known what he did!). He claimed to have interviewed eye witnesses and to have checked his facts carefully for this book; he also appears to have included everything he was told as anecdotes are often contradictory e.g Tiberius as a miser who is also given to extravagant expenditure. This inclusive research policy gives the book a slightly gossipy, chatty style although Suetonius is very careful not to moralise or include any of his own opinions, something I certainly would have struggled with!
Who did he write about?
The first twelve Caesars-the Julio-Claudian dynasty, then the three shortlived emperors who battled for power in a single year and then the next dynasty-Vespasian and his sons. Quick potted history of a couple of these with some highlights:
Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC) Caesar from 49BC-44BC A great military leader who plunged the country into civil war. Had a famous encounter with a gang of assassins, described in fascinating detail in the book. According to Suetonius he was also a balding, epileptic dandy, who combed his hair forward and liked to wear laurel wreaths to cover his bald spot.
Augustus/Octavian (63BC-14AD) Caesar from 27BC-14AD- Had a famous affair with Cleopatra and caused another civil war with Mark Antony, her subsequent lover. Was serially unfaithful to his wife and apparently had very small and very few teeth as an old man. Married to the famous (well if you like I, Claudius) Livia Drusilla and had a great many family members who died or were disgraced in interesting circumstances.
Tiberius (42BC-37AD) Caesar from 14AD-37AD- Livia Drusillas son, had a very unhappy marriage to Augustus daughter. Was a great soldier and led Augustus armies. Retired to Capri at the end of his reign where he was free to indulge in his lechery (not sure how explicit I can be on Dooyoo, so I will leave it at that!). Was referred to as a filthy-mouthed, hairy, stinking old man.
Gaius/Caligula (12AD-41AD) Caesar from 37AD-41AD- Son of Germanicus and much beloved by the troops who supposedly gave him the name Caligula (little boots) as a child. Apparently had an incestuous relationship with his sister, Drusilla. Arrogant, violent and savage extremely extravagant and prone to displaying his wife naked at parties.
Claudius (10BC-54AD)-Caesar from 41AD-54AD-Considered incapable, dull-witted and a fool by his family, came to power after the violent death of Caligula when he was supposedly found trembling behind the curtains by the soldiers who had killed his predecessor. Slobbered, stammered and had a persistent nervous tic of the head. Married his neice and was supposed to have been poisoned by a dish of mushrooms.
The other emperors covered are Nero (kicked his pregnant wife to death), Galba/Otho/Vitellius (fought for power in the year 69AD), Vespasian (very amusing last words) and then his two sons Titus (opened the Colosseum in Rome) and Domitian (all round bad bloke)
Whats it like?
The book is divided into 12 chapers, each one dealing with the life of a different emperor. The narrative is loosely chronological but goes off of tangents as Suetonius attempted to organise his anecdotes e.g personal appearance, sexual proclivities, table manners etc. My mother kept her copy of this book on a high shelf and it wasnt until I was 14/15 that I was allowed to read it and I can certainly see why! Some of the activities described are certainly X-rated, but these sections are intermingled in fascinating historical detail and information about the lives of the rich and powerful in Ancient Rome. I personally was particularly taken with the description of the death of Julius Caesar and dug out my copy of Shakespeares eponymous play to compare the two. Having also been a fan of Antony and Cleopatra as a teen, it was fascinating to get more background information on the conflict between Antony and Octavian- letters are preserved in Suetonius that add a whole new dimension to the play.
Suetoniuss Twelve Caesars was also the basis for Robert Graves books I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which were serialised in a fantastic production for the BBC in the 1970s. Robert Graves also translated the Twelve Caesars from the Latin and his version is eminently readable and accessible. The Penguin version includes maps, family trees and a simple glossary as well.
This book is one that kickstarted a passion for Roman history in my teens and led indirectly to me going on to studying Ancient History at university (I was so delighted when I found it as part of my course). It brings a distant period to glorious technicolour life and I would thoroughly recommend it.
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Anyone who thinks that scandal is a modern art and that our celebrities get up to weird antics should read Suetonius’s biography of the first 12 Roman emperors. In fact today’s celebs and politicos are rank amateurs compared to the devious and debauched Caesars who commanded absolute power in the Roman empire. At least that’s how they come across in the 2nd century AD historian and muck-raker’s classic, racy account of the rulers at the heart of the ancient superpower. Suetonious wrote a chapter about each Caesar in order, offering revealing portraits of each; from bad, sad Tiberius, wise exceptions-to-the-rule Augustus and Claudius through to deliriously nutty Caligula and Nero, who was my favourite for sheer entertainment value. In fact the podgy arsonist and lousy lyre player is a hard act to follow and after his demise the book suffers from a drop in excitement, though Suetonius still manages to write compelling biographies of short-lived rulers like Vitellius, victim of gruesome self-explanatory execution, Death of the Little Cuts. Suetonius was probably the prototype for all gossip journalists and like all hacks he focuses on the sex lives of his subjects. He especially seems to have perfected that tabloid trick of being moralising and titillating at the same time. So he tells us how terrible these Imperial pervs were, while going into often unnecessary detail of what these perversions actually entailed. To be fair, he does try to give a balanced biography of each Caesar, reporting their achievements alongside their faults (learning that Nero banned mime artists from Rome makes me think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all). And after 2000 years Suetonius is the nearest thing we have to an eye-witness. In fact most of the classic anecdotes about the emperors from Julius Caesar’s death on the Ides of March to Caligula making his horse a senator seem to have come directly from his book.
Robert Graves did a great job of the translation the ancient text into smooth, easy-to-read English and it was obviously the inspiration for his novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which are fictionalised versions of the same source material. The Penguin Classics version also includes a Latin glossary and complex family tree: vital for working out who’s who in a time when everyone seemed to marry their cousin or niece. The Twelve Caesars is probably not the best book for serious students of ancient history, (you’re better with the more informative but necessarily duller Tactitus). He doesn’t mention much about the military conquests and expansion that defined the Rome during this era. In fact, after reading of Caligula’s declaration of war on the sea and Nero building a collapsible boat to drown his mother, its a wonder that the empire ever managed to survive for another 400 years with men like this in charge. But for anyone intrigued by Gladiator or wanting to learn more about the infamous indulgences of Ancient Rome this is the best place to start. The introduction says that Suetonius fell from favour shortly after writing this book (I can’t imagine why.)
A history covering the scandalous and often amusing lives of the first Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Suetonius' account is based largely on information from eye-witnesses. Translated by Robert Graves.