The Twelve Caesars Info

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An essential primary source on Roman history and a
fascinating achievement of scholarship covering a critical period in the
Empire

As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, the
scholar Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and used them
(along with eyewitness accounts) to produce one of the most colourful
biographical works in history. The Twelve Caesars chronicles the public
careers and private lives of the men who wielded absolute power over
Rome, from the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and
Augustus, to the decline into depravity and civil war under Nero and the
recovery that came with his successors. A masterpiece of observation,
anecdote and detailed physical description, The Twelve Caesars
presents us with a gallery of vividly drawn—and all too
human—individuals.
James B. Rives has sensitively updated
Robert Graves's now classic translation, reinstating Latin terms and
updating vocabulary while retaining the liveliness of the original. This
edition contains a new chronology, further reading, glossaries, maps,
notes and an introduction discussing Suetonius' life and works.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading
publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more
than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf
of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines.
Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by
introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary
authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning
translators.

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Reviews for The Twelve Caesars:

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Jun 15, 2011

This Roman bedtime reading gives the reader a mixed experience. The length of the lives is uneven - the first three lives in the Robert Graves (he'd go on to recycle much of the material here into his novels I Claudius and Claudius the God) translation alone make up half the book, the division of each life into public (civil and military exploits), and private parts (adventures in bedroom and dining room) works against presenting each life as an organic whole and Suetonius' sense of cause and This Roman bedtime reading gives the reader a mixed experience. The length of the lives is uneven - the first three lives in the Robert Graves (he'd go on to recycle much of the material here into his novels I Claudius and Claudius the God) translation alone make up half the book, the division of each life into public (civil and military exploits), and private parts (adventures in bedroom and dining room) works against presenting each life as an organic whole and Suetonius' sense of cause and effect seems oddly haphazard, as though Suetonius had a sense that actions and attitudes have causes but couldn't quite link these in a logical way. Even so, or perhaps precisely because of this, these short accounts of the lives of the twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian became a literary model imitated by the writer of the later Augustan History and Einhard in his Life of Charlemagne. Suetonius had succeeded in devising a scalable and adaptable model for a biography.

Suetonius was employed in the Imperial administration (view spoiler)[ administration may well be too strong a term (hide spoiler)] under the Flavian emperors before being dismissed by Hadrian for allegedly having an affair with his Empress (view spoiler)[ according to the life of Hadrian in Lives of the Later Caesars Septicus Clarus, prefect of the guard, and Suetonius Tranquillus, director of his correspondence, he [Hadrian] replaced, because they had at that time behaved in the company of his wife Sabina, in their association with her, in a more informal fashion than respect for the court household demanded. He would have dismissed his wife too, for being moody and difficult - if he had been a private citizen, as he himself used to say.(view spoiler)[ from this we may conclude that Hadrian was not gallant and courtly with regards to his wife (hide spoiler)] Alternatively as Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has suggested this sacking was actually about networks and factionalism the three, the Emperor, may have presumed, were attempting to influence him (hide spoiler)]. In the lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus, Suetonius talks about their correspondence and ciphers in a way that suggests he had access to their archives (view spoiler)[ if archives there were (hide spoiler)] but this doesn't seem to have been the case for the later lives (which might support an enforced and unexpected early retirement). Despite his background he doesn't give a description of the Imperial administration, or better said the way in which the Emperor conveyed his wishes, or ascertained that they were carried out. The 'administration' emerges as a curious affair. It was normal for the Emperor to receive a visitor on official business in the bedroom for instance (Domitian), business might include sitting as judge in court cases (Claudius), the Emperor was expected to be available to hear petitions (Vespasian), yet at the same time space had to found in the diary for having feasts and attending sports events (of the kind that generally involved people dying). Bureaucracy as we think of it doesn't seem to exist, at this period the equivalents of ministries, or a professional staff to execute the Emperor's will do not seem to have existed (except in the literal case of the army). This is slightly curious because according to The Oxford History of the Classical World (which incidentally doesn't recommend the Robert Graves translation) there were, on the evidence of the admittedly later Cassius Dio, something along the lines of ministers, but the focus in The Twelve Caesars is on the personality, not the mechanics of government. So instead there are slaves, freedmen and private contractors working in the Imperial household. Nero at the end is alone with a couple of slaves and Freedmen and struggles to even find a quiet spot to end his own existence (view spoiler)[ that's your modern life for you (hide spoiler)].

The lack of internal consistency is puzzling. For instance Tiberius disliking his son Drusus for the latter's dissolute behaviour which comes in the middle of Suetonius' descriptions of Tiberius' own heavy drinking and team of sexual gymnasts (etc, etc). Nero on one page lusts after his mother and allegedly the two consummate an incestuous relationship while being carried around in a litter, shortly after Nero decides to kill his mother for being too overbearing (The Annals of Imperial Rome has a much more detailed account of the bizarre way he chooses to murder her - building a ship designed to sink and inviting her to go for a lake cruise on it, inevitably she survives (for the mean time), by swimming to shore (view spoiler)[ where upon Nero is forced to use 'plan B' which is hopelessly undramatic and dull (hide spoiler)]). Later 'everybody' hates and despises Domitian even though he hasn't done much more, according to Suetonius, than change a couple of the names of the months. Augustus apparently didn't like odd looking people, even though he had a limp, scabs that looked like ringworm (but really weren't Suetonius hastens to assure us) and just the one eyebrow (although that one was very long).

The basic issue here is that Suetonius is uncritical. He simply lays out anecdotes that he has come across. For example the infamous account of children nibbling Tiberius' genitals while he was swimming. Perhaps if he found children with gills this could be done. Otherwise it seems physically awkward, if not impossible, however debauched you are. Typically here and in all of the Capri anecdotes (some of which get retold in Fuentes' Terra Nostra) and many others, it is easier to imagine that these were simply tall tales, urban legends, that were told about the Emperors. Frequently there either aren't witnesses at all or witnesses who might talk, who could have reported on these particular deeds.

Reading through the life of Julius Caesar, noticing the interplay of politics, the law and money, how bribery and debt won him political office, then in office he gained the wealth to pay off the debt and build a power base and to avoid being prosecuted and the description of his hair: "His baldness was a disfigurement which his enemies harped upon, much to his exasperation; but he used to comb the thin strands of hair forward" he suddenly reminded me of Silvio Berlusconi (view spoiler)[ if anybody can remember him(view spoiler)[ and good for you if you can't (hide spoiler)] (hide spoiler)], I felt from Suetonius that this is not a book from the distant past that describes another, now lost, world but a book about politics, how people look at politicians, how they struggle to be remembered and how people do remember them. A contemporary version might for some countries be less bloody, but probably otherwise would be much of a muchness.

Similarly in the middle of the life of Augustus something flipped in my mind and I realised I was reading about a Mao (particularly with his habit of deflowering girls - although Suetonius sees this as part of the "decent normalcy of his sex-life" which certainly tells us something about Imperial Rome) or a Stalin. He may have definitively ended Republican government, but at least he kept the aqueducts flowing, as they might have said in those days before they had trains or timetables. Suetonius says that on occasion he would attend the Senate and greet every senator by name. There were six hundred senators. Assuming Augustus could greet four a minute that would have taken two and a half hours, since he'd also say goodbye to each of them that would have left enough time for a quick eulogy to his divine leadership and masterful reorganisation of the calender (even assuming that only one hundred were present it would have still have been 25 minutes at a fast and perfunctory pace). Perhaps Mussolini's imagining of Fascist Italy as a rebirth of the Roman Empire wasn't so far off the mark after all.

In a sense the doings of Caligula - providing a marble stable with an ivory manager for his favourite horse or Nero bolting the doors of the theatre when he was performing, obliging pregnant women to give birth in the aisles and desperate men to pretend that they had died so they would be removed as though for their own funeral - was a form of political theatre. A cross between the extravagances of a contemporary pop-star and a modern politician designed as much maybe to distract, amuse and depoliticise the Roman public as to indulge themselves(view spoiler)[ and how normal that seems now at times (hide spoiler)].

Although of course since Roman times no political unit has ever invaded another, over thrown its government and imposed its own puppet ruler who turns out to be reliably interested in only lining his own pockets and advancing the fortune of his large family. The behaviour of the Emperors is evergreen, if slightly more extreme than we tend to hear on the evening news, government as theatre, the most senior politician as rock star idol (possibly just in his own eyes), the politics of friendship and networking (once all rivals are dead or in exile), the prematurely dried up and disillusioned political heir - groomed for the job but who can't be bothered to do it, the anxious and suspicious leader who knows how fickle and fleeting political power is, these are political archetypes that reoccur consciously and unconsciously through history.

That these stories and the generally unpeaceful succession of one emperor to another, can blind the reader to how odd and unusual this has been in world history. On the whole supreme leaders have been far more successful in establishing dynasties and secure successions. The turnover of leaders starts to look suspiciously like democracy, although election is by means of the sword rather than the ballot box.

Anyway, it is all here. Dreams, omens (this a book rich in signs and portents), curious forms of punishment (poor Nero has to ask what an 'old fashioned execution' is, and the answer persuades him that suicide is preferable (view spoiler)[the victim is striped naked, has their head held still in a big wooden fork and they are then flogged to death (hide spoiler)]) and the wit and wisdom of the Emperor Vespasian who declared it better to allow a poor man to earn a days wage than to have mechanical cranes (view spoiler)[ he at least wasn't a neoliberal of the ancient world, or an economic protoliberal I guess (hide spoiler)] and that of his son Titus who declared a day wasted in which he hadn't done a good deed (presumably good by Roman rather than commonly held standards, he did sack Jerusalem after-all since his Dad was busy elsewhere in the Empire - nice of him to tidy up the old Jewish revolt for his old man).

Because of all the anecdotes, I can recommend this as light reading, I could follow along while coughing and sneezing with a cold, though I wouldn't recommend reading this if you had diarrhoea or were vomiting - the descriptions of poisonings and attempted poisonings would only serve to make the reader fretful and nervous - only three of the twelve Caesars here described got to die an unambiguously natural death. ...more
5

Jan 12, 2015


This Penguin Classic of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is the perfect place to start for anybody interested in ancient Greco-Roman history and culture. Not only is this a most engaging translation by Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, but there is a short Forward by classics scholar, Michael Grant. Additionally, there are ten maps of the city of Rome and the Roman Empire along with a glossary of key terms. From my own experience, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Matter of fact, I was
This Penguin Classic of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is the perfect place to start for anybody interested in ancient Greco-Roman history and culture. Not only is this a most engaging translation by Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, but there is a short Forward by classics scholar, Michael Grant. Additionally, there are ten maps of the city of Rome and the Roman Empire along with a glossary of key terms. From my own experience, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Matter of fact, I was inspired to write a Goodreads review of each of the twelve Caesars – Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian.

Specifically, here are a couple of quotes from Michael Grant along with my brief comments:

“Suetonius’ principal contribution lies in his relatively high degree of objectivity. With him, we have moved away from the traditional eulogistic treatment, and have entered a much more astringent atmosphere, in which the men whom he is describing are looked at with a cooler and more disenchanted eye.” ---------- This ‘disenchanted eye’ is a thoroughly modern perspective, one having synchronicity with our 21st century sensibilities.

“The best quality of his work is his power to create rapid, dramatic, and often moving narratives, including, at times, impressive set-pieces, among which the death of Nero is especially notable.” ---------- Unlike a dry academic writing, Suetonius is lively, vivid and sometimes racy.

And excerpts from the translation by Robert Graves:

“During gladiatorial shows he would have the canopies removed as the hottest time of the day and forbid anyone to leave; or take away the usual equipment and pit feeble old fighters against decrepit wild animals; or stage comic duels between respectable householders who happened to be physically disabled in some way or other.”

“Nero’s unreasonable craving for immortal fame made him change a number of well-known names of things and places in his own favor. The month of April, for instance, became Neroneus; and Rome was on the point of being renamed ‘Neropolis’.

Again, once I started reading this book, I couldn't stop. Who would think a classic work of history and biography would be so engaging?
...more
5

Nov 17, 2010

No words. Each and every member of that "family" and ahherm non family who acquired that infamous title ceasar is such a massive wrecking case of extreams that I can't even begin to fathom that these men are real. Let alone contemplate what citizens must of thought of them in their day. Really? If Suetonius is to be belived how many of these men would in our day be catergorized as legally insane? I literally about fell out of my chair this weekend when I read that Nero had the gates blocked No words. Each and every member of that "family" and ahherm non family who acquired that infamous title ceasar is such a massive wrecking case of extreams that I can't even begin to fathom that these men are real. Let alone contemplate what citizens must of thought of them in their day. Really? If Suetonius is to be belived how many of these men would in our day be catergorized as legally insane? I literally about fell out of my chair this weekend when I read that Nero had the gates blocked during his preformances and women were forced to bear children in the audience while listening to his work with the lyre. Its hysterical, and who is around to counter suetoniuses descriptions of these men? No one. Therefore he gets five stars because seriously this is the best ancient gossip column still in print. ...more
4

Sep 19, 2011

It is a great overview of Rome's emperors from the Julians to the Flavians. The mixture of historical biography and, what must have been, a political gossip tatler. Suetonius was a senator during the reign of Hadrian (2 Caesars after Domitian), so the futher back, the less direct knowledge Suetonius had (which given his style of writing could be both good and bad). Still, despite some reservations about Suetonius' style and accuracy, it is hard to underestimate his influence on the narrative of It is a great overview of Rome's emperors from the Julians to the Flavians. The mixture of historical biography and, what must have been, a political gossip tatler. Suetonius was a senator during the reign of Hadrian (2 Caesars after Domitian), so the futher back, the less direct knowledge Suetonius had (which given his style of writing could be both good and bad). Still, despite some reservations about Suetonius' style and accuracy, it is hard to underestimate his influence on the narrative of the Caesars. He was a grand story teller and many of the narratives we have about these men (and some of the women around them) comes from his writing.

The book comprises (shocker) 12 chapters:
1 Julius Caesar
2 Augustus
3 Tiberius
4 Caligula
5 Claudius
6 Nero
7 Galba
8 Otho
9 Vitellius
10 Vespasian
11 Titus
12 Domitian ...more
4

Jun 10, 2018

Suetonius (70 - 140 AD) was a biographer, librarian and high official under Trajanus and head of the royal archives under Hadrian. This biography of the twelve emperors is thought to have been published around 121 AD. The lives of the emperors of the Caesarian-Claudian lineage, thus up to and including Nero, are extensively discussed, while there are only concise biographies of the emperors following Nero. It is said that this was due to the fact that Hadrian dismissed Suetonius for having an Suetonius (70 - 140 AD) was a biographer, librarian and high official under Trajanus and head of the royal archives under Hadrian. This biography of the twelve emperors is thought to have been published around 121 AD. The lives of the emperors of the Caesarian-Claudian lineage, thus up to and including Nero, are extensively discussed, while there are only concise biographies of the emperors following Nero. It is said that this was due to the fact that Hadrian dismissed Suetonius for having an affair with his wife. Consequently, Suetonius did not have access to the imperial archives any longer and just had to rely on oral history which should have been quite possible at that time, as there must have been enough people still alive to be able to give first hand accounts of facts and events.

It is quite remarkable that the biography is still so enjoyable to read. I will refrain to comment on each emperor’s life. The life stories of especially the Caesarian-Claudian emperors are in general well-known. Suetonius used the same formula to describe the life of an emperor, first starting with family connections vis-a-vis the previous emperor, how he gained power, description of vice and virtues, whether he was a mild or murderous person and, if so, how murderous (factually, most of them very murderous beyond belief!), and ending each biography in a gossipy way as to what this particular emperor’s general behaviour was, also elaborating extensively on sexual preferences, description and names of wives, sons and daughters, how he looked and how his life ended. As to the latter, I think there were only three emperors who died natural deaths. All the others were murdered and quite a few certainly deserved it as did Caligula and Nero.

If you are interested in imperial Rome and have read other novels or biographies on the subject, I still think it is enjoyable to read this biography as it is amazing how accessible it is to the 21st century reader. ...more
4

Dec 29, 2008

Reading this book makes me kind of thankful that the sociopaths who we choose to govern us are relatively harmless men with only strange dreams of imperialism and desires for fame, riches, and adulation. Sure we have a Vice President who shot a friend in the face and who brazenly admits to authorizing acts that make him a war criminal, and yes there are Greek bastards who have made a living off of sanctioning genocide for their own twisted ends, and this is just naming two high points in the Reading this book makes me kind of thankful that the sociopaths who we choose to govern us are relatively harmless men with only strange dreams of imperialism and desires for fame, riches, and adulation. Sure we have a Vice President who shot a friend in the face and who brazenly admits to authorizing acts that make him a war criminal, and yes there are Greek bastards who have made a living off of sanctioning genocide for their own twisted ends, and this is just naming two high points in the Hall of Fame of War Criminals that we have allowed to consistently run and or advise this country for the past forty years or so. Yes we have allowed a constant stream of sociopaths to be our guiding light for so many unbroken years (I'm trying to come up with a number, I'm having trouble figuring if Carter and Ford were war criminals, all the rest of the leaders since Reagen have been, and the ones before Ford going back quite a bit were too, oh it hurts the mind to think of all the charges our living former leaders could face at Hague and which would put nooses around their necks).

We have our fair share of these people, but not one of them even holds a candle to 11 out of 12 of the leaders of Rome covered in this book. Even the 'nice' ones still had a brutality to them that would make Jeffery Dhamer probably say, 'hey wait a minute that shit is just fucked up.' Rape, murder, torture, incest, more torture, more murder, all kinds of killing of family members, add some more torture and then throw in a whole bunch of sexual deviancy and you get the outlines of the Caesars. Fun times. ...more
4

Mar 18, 2008

This was a fascinating book. Translated by Graves, who wrote I, Claudius, it is, in many ways, a shorter version of those books. Although, Claudius does not come out of this history nearly as well as he does from Graves’ novels.

You may never have seen Monty Python’s The Piranha Brothers, if not you should really try looking it up on youtube. If only because I’m quite certain that Nero is Doug Piranha in a toga.

There were bits of this where I laughed outright and other bits where I’ve laughed This was a fascinating book. Translated by Graves, who wrote I, Claudius, it is, in many ways, a shorter version of those books. Although, Claudius does not come out of this history nearly as well as he does from Graves’ novels.

You may never have seen Monty Python’s The Piranha Brothers, if not you should really try looking it up on youtube. If only because I’m quite certain that Nero is Doug Piranha in a toga.

There were bits of this where I laughed outright and other bits where I’ve laughed after thinking about it for a while. The best example of the later is how often we are told one of the Caesars was ‘cruel’. It was the way this was brought up that amused me the most – almost like it was one of their many hobbies, as if they were saying, he liked to go to the theatre and also watch people being tortured to death.

The bits that made me laugh outright were mostly sexual illusions. Such as the quote about Julius having sex with just about anyone – “He was a man to every woman and a woman to every man”. Gaius (also known as Caligula) was an utter maniac, but was probably bettered by Nero. I really didn’t think I would ever be shocked by anything anyone could do after Caligula, but Nero having sex with his mother as he was being driven around Rome (like an incestuous version of Madame Bovary without the tissues) and then having his mother killed after his elaborate plans to have houses fall on her or getting her to take a boat that would fall apart on schedule, really takes the cake.

But the best bit of the book is all the omens that happen. Eagles fighting and lightning striking and branches of trees growing or not growing – and how these all foretold who was going to be the next Caesar or win a war or whatever else people where interested in. Vespasian is a good example because when he saw the signs that would signify the end of his life – a comet in this case – he made a joke about it being a bad sign for some other king of another kingdom of the time. Imagine living at a time when omens like wandering chickens would be taken quite so seriously!

I also liked the idea of Caligula changing the heads of all the gods so that they all had his head. If you are going to have ultimate power…

Some people say power corrupts – if you ever wondered, this is the book for you. Here are people of near infinite power for their time and what did they do with it? If you ever wanted to convert to being a misanthrope – I can think of no better book. This is the sort of book that makes one despair about human nature.

At times this book is a bit like a Russian novel, with many names too hard to remember, it is an incredible insight into life at the time. And unlike the Piranha Brothers it would be hard to say the Caesars were ‘cruel, but fair’ – though definitely cruel, there really is no question about them being cruel.
...more
4

Aug 05, 2007

Julius Caesar the catamite of King of Bithnyia?? Augustus singeing off his leg hair with hot walnut shells!! Caligula's seductive maiden dance!! Oh my! Simply delicious!
5

Jul 08, 2007

This is in my Top 10 books. I love it so much, i think i have read it 3 times (no joke). I took this book with me on my travels in Rome and I bored Matt with my constant readings whilst we were visiting all of the historic sites. I have a huge facination with Roman History, so I do appreciate that most people will find this utterly boring, but i love it, love it, love it, love it.
4

Jul 06, 2018

This book is really about six Caesars (Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero) and six men I never heard of before. Of the over 17 hours of the audiobook, just a little over 3 hours are devoted to the last six, but I was fine with that because I learned more about the Caesars I care about. Caligula and Nero are clearly the most entertaining, but Augustus is my favorite.
4

Feb 06, 2015

This edition is based on Robert Graves' translation, revised with an Introduction and Notes by JB Rives. Rives explains that he has removed the interpolations Graves inserted to provide context to remarks that non-specialist readers would not be able to follow otherwise, and has used a glossary and footnotes to provide extra information to help out. Despite this I still found I floundered a bit, because I just don't know enough about ancient Roman government and social hierarchies, which were This edition is based on Robert Graves' translation, revised with an Introduction and Notes by JB Rives. Rives explains that he has removed the interpolations Graves inserted to provide context to remarks that non-specialist readers would not be able to follow otherwise, and has used a glossary and footnotes to provide extra information to help out. Despite this I still found I floundered a bit, because I just don't know enough about ancient Roman government and social hierarchies, which were clearly very rigid unless you had enough money to buy your way into a higher class or a particularly profitable office.

The Twelve Caesars on the whole were an appalling group of men, not only willing to go to any lengths to gain and hold on to power but most of them actively relishing cruelty. Suetonius had a very orderly mind and each of his biographies is broken down into headings and subheadings. Vices he identifies frequently, in addition to cruelty, are: greed, gluttony, sexual excess, duplicity, arrogance, extravagance. There are others, but I won't list them all. One regular piece of behaviour that Suetonius records but doesn't regards as a vice, apparently, is the utter ruthlessness with which women were taken up and pushed away. Some were taken from existing husbands to marry the emperor, who was just as likely to divorce and replace them with another as he was to stay married to them. All seemed to be sexually licentious. As I said, a nasty lot.

During the period covered by the lives of the first twelve Caesars, the Roman empire was expanding and the centre was juggling local competing claims for positions of power and the jostling of regional governors, princes and kings as well. I hadn't realised before what power was wielded by the legions posted throughout the empire, as they shifted their support from one emperor to another, especially during the times of open civil war.

Neither had I taken in before the extraordinary reliance placed on astrologers, readers of horoscopes and auspices. Having a so-called imperial horoscope could be, according to Suetonius, motivation for an already powerful man to grab for the imperial throne. It could also be a death sentence in the reigns of insecure emperors - more than once we read of an unfortunate man who is murdered on emperor's orders because he is said to have an imperial horoscope. Propitious omens for each emperor are given at the beginning of each life, and omens and portents of death and disaster appear near the end of each section.

All in all, it's a fascinating read. But there is nothing here that would lead one anywhere near the adulation of Roman culture that pervaded Western Europe for centuries. The sources of that don't lie in the imperial palaces. ...more
3

Dec 30, 2013

The Lives of the Caesars is one of the best surviving sources covering the early Roman Empire. In these 12 biographies, Suetonius discusses the lives of Julius Caesar and his 11 successors, from the mid first century BC to the death of Domitian in 96 AD.


“I found a city of brick and left it marble.” – Augustus Caesar

Now given that these biographies come from the second century, this could make for dry reading. Fortunately, two things prevent this. First, many of the emperors under discussion The Lives of the Caesars is one of the best surviving sources covering the early Roman Empire. In these 12 biographies, Suetonius discusses the lives of Julius Caesar and his 11 successors, from the mid first century BC to the death of Domitian in 96 AD.


“I found a city of brick and left it marble.” – Augustus Caesar

Now given that these biographies come from the second century, this could make for dry reading. Fortunately, two things prevent this. First, many of the emperors under discussion here were depraved, tyrannical, borderline insane despots. Second, Suetonius’ gossipy, salacious nature keeps things interesting. Our author duly documents the momentous events of each emperor’s reign, but his heart is truly set on describing more curious aspects of his subjects: their physical appearances, their dietary preferences, relationships with friends and family, and (especially) their sex lives. For example:

• Julius Caesar: “He regretted most bitterly the loss of his looks through baldness and was often the butt of jokes on the subject from his detractors.”

• Augustus Caesar: “It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear.”

• Tiberius: Pedophilia hidden behind spoiler (view spoiler)[ “He trained some boys of tender age, whom he called his little fishes, to slip between his thighs when he was swimming and provoke him playfully with their licking and biting.” (hide spoiler)]

• Caligula: “He habitually indulged in incestuous relations with all his sisters and at a crowded banquet he would make them take turns in lying beneath him, while his wife lay above.”

• Claudius: “He had a speech impediment and his head twitched all the time, but especially when he made even the slightest movement.”

• Nero: “He prostituted his own body to such a degree that, when virtually every part of his person had been employed in filthy lusts, he devised a new and unprecedented practice as a kind of game, in which, disguised in the pelt of a wild animal, he would rush out of a den and attack the private parts of men and women who had been tied to stakes, and, when he had wearied of playing the beast, he would be ‘run through’ by his freedman Doryphorus.”

Etcetera; John Adams this is not. It all makes for pretty entertaining reading. The question is how much of it is actually fact. Suetonius is not noted for his reliability; it’s not that he was just making stuff up, but one is left with the impression that he reported as gospel the things he read in earlier historians without thinking too critically about what was true (he reminds me of Pliny the Elder in this respect). Some of the stuff he reports, like the incredible portents predicting each emperor’s demise, is just bunk. He also seems unnecessarily harsh on some emperors (Tiberius and Claudius) who look like pretty capable rulers in hindsight. Written in 121, over a century later than some of the events he reports on, the Lives of the Caesars undoubtedly contains a certain amount of fiction. It’s up to the individual reader to determine how much of the Lives are true.

This dubious reliability is one mark against Suetonius. The other is his style, which is solid but unspectacular (at least in my English translation, anyway). Compared to his contemporary Tacitus and that historian’s magisterial style, Suetonius comes off as decidedly second-rate. The organization of the Lives is also somewhat curious; instead of going through each life chronologically, inserting personal details where appropriate, Suetonius chose to organize his biographies by subject area: chronology of reign, personal appearance, sexual preferences, etc. This is not bad per se, and didn’t affect my rating, but it’s definitely different and may surprise some modern readers.

Overall, this is an interesting and engaging ancient work and an important (if not completely reliable) source of Roman history. Good racy fun. 3 stars, recommended*.

*The book is worth the cover price for the biography of Caligula alone, who was probably insane and got up to no end of mischief in his colorful four year reign. ...more
5

Nov 05, 2018

It's hard to rate the raging lunatics of the Roman Caesars. One star, definitely, for the heinous acts that happened under their reign in Roman history, but five stars for Suetonius's recounting of it all.

On one hand, the recounts were wonderfully retold. Everything was gruesomely and point-blank honestly laid out on the table. No details, it seems, were left untold. Even Suetonius said that though this was hard for him to write, he would write every bit of it. And he did.

All the gross, It's hard to rate the raging lunatics of the Roman Caesars. One star, definitely, for the heinous acts that happened under their reign in Roman history, but five stars for Suetonius's recounting of it all.

On one hand, the recounts were wonderfully retold. Everything was gruesomely and point-blank honestly laid out on the table. No details, it seems, were left untold. Even Suetonius said that though this was hard for him to write, he would write every bit of it. And he did.

All the gross, grotesque, unimaginable things.

I remember reading this with a sort of morbid intrigue for school a few years back. Part of you has to wonder, "This happened? This really, really happened?" You can almost hear the pain in Suetonius as he writes, indeed, that it did.

Power, it seems, had a dampening effect on Roman Caesars. Respectable men turned horrifyingly, historically horrible. Some people compare these men with Adolf Hitler and other people in our history.

Rome was not a great place. I mean, it was, technologically speaking. Not so humanely speaking. It was pretty bad. Genocide was encouraged, "looking out for number one" was warranted, and many, many other terrible things. I'm not exactly a history buff, so I can't reveal-all. But, this book would be a great place to start if you want to understand the psyche behind the Twelve Caesars of Rome. ...more
5

Mar 09, 2013

The mad, the bad and the dangerous to know. I don't care if he's a gossip. It's hilarious, and I gluttoned on the worst bits in my teens.
3

Aug 10, 2011

While reading this biography of 'The Twelve Caesars', one word popped in my mind, that is, 'nobility' since all emperors in question were of course noble, feared and thus honored according to their own deeds. However, such nobility and deeds might intensify admiration or hatred due to each emperor himself. You can compare or assess each reign from your views acquired from reading unbelievably episodes of kindness or ruthlessness since they wielded absolute power within their families, colleages, While reading this biography of 'The Twelve Caesars', one word popped in my mind, that is, 'nobility' since all emperors in question were of course noble, feared and thus honored according to their own deeds. However, such nobility and deeds might intensify admiration or hatred due to each emperor himself. You can compare or assess each reign from your views acquired from reading unbelievably episodes of kindness or ruthlessness since they wielded absolute power within their families, colleages, subjects, etc. as written by Suetonius and read by posterity interested in their biographies.

I think I won't waste my time here describing unspeakble, unthinkable and notorius horror instigated/done by Tiberius, Caligula or Nero because many scholars have written in volumes for those readers to read and condemn them more or less. Therefore, I can't help admiring Divus Julius (aka Julius Caesar) as one of the great 'Caesars' since, as far as I know, he never claimed/called himself 'emperor' but I guess it's the celebrated aftermath by Augustus, his imperial successor.

I've long admired Julius Caesar because he did his assigned tasks with greatness, with a heart of gold. From his famous "The Conquest of Gauls" written in Latin, he wrote about his expeditions as a matter of fact without any boastful words or complacency. For instance: "Moreover, when given the chance, he would always cheerfully come to terms with his bitterest enemies. He supported Gaius Memmius' candidature for the consulship, though they had both spoken most damagingly against each other. ... Valerius Catullus had also libelled him in his verses about Mamurra, yet Caesar, while admitting that these were a permanent blot on his name, accepted Catullus' apology and invited him to dinner that same afternoon, and never interrupted his friendship with Catullus' father." (p. 33)

Moreover, captivated by his educated mind and sense of humour, I've respected him more when I came across his tolerance and mercy towards those native Britons, "from whom he exacted a large sum of money as well as hostages for future good behaviour." (p. 12) I think this is still one of the key strategic policies essential to charismatic leaders in politcal organizations in the world nowadays.

Finally, I'd like to invite my Goodreads friends to find a copy and browse any 'Caesar' you like and you'd be delighted to be more informed and thus learned on those obscure famous/notorius twelve Roman 'Caesars'. As for me, I will definitely reread my favourite Julius Caesar to learn more from his character and nobility.


Endnote: I think I'd post my review/comments (briefly scribbled as my notes in the book) as soon as I have some ideas on writing some for my GR friends, this takes time to reflect and decide what I should say to share my view as part of our pleasure derived from reading. ...more
5

Apr 02, 2015

Example
"Oh look this guy Nero seems alright why do people say he burned down Rome he is like Augustus 2.0".

*few pages later*

"How pathetic, this idiot is just competing in and "winning" all music competitions, he's just a misunderstood attention-seeking teenager, the poor thing".

*few pages later*

"God no NO NERO WHY PLEASE STOP!"

Yes, the organisation of the stories is confusing, as shown above. You can't just split people's lives and personalities up into sections and present them thematically.
Yet Example
"Oh look this guy Nero seems alright why do people say he burned down Rome he is like Augustus 2.0".

*few pages later*

"How pathetic, this idiot is just competing in and "winning" all music competitions, he's just a misunderstood attention-seeking teenager, the poor thing".

*few pages later*

"God no NO NERO WHY PLEASE STOP!"

Yes, the organisation of the stories is confusing, as shown above. You can't just split people's lives and personalities up into sections and present them thematically.
Yet it works at times, and it certainly doesn't take away from the magnitude of these biographies.
From Julius Caesar the God to Domitian the Autocrat, the tales of 12 men who were given tremendous power and in most cases succumbed to the monster inside.
Fascinating view of the lifestyle, traditions, logic and culture of a civilisation that once ruled the world.
Sure, there's white washing of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the "benevolent" crushers of the Republic. Sure, there's a vilification of Domitian, the emperor who "had to be assassinated", since the ruling dynasty at Suetonius' time was the one to succeed him.
It's not factual history. It's not a gossip magazine about all the divorces and family history. A little of column A, a little (or slightly more) of column B. ...more
5

Mar 24, 2018

Most shocking bit? This about Tiberius:

“ Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his 'minnows', to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother's breast to suck at his breast or groin - such a filthy old man he had become! “



Different translation:

“He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one Most shocking bit? This about Tiberius:

“ Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his 'minnows', to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother's breast to suck at his breast or groin - such a filthy old man he had become! “



Different translation:

“He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. Unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.” ...more
5

Jul 24, 2011

One of those classics that is a genuine, even salacious pleasure to read, and the historical basis for Robert Graves's "I, Claudius", "The Twelve Caesars" covers the first twelve emperors of Ancient Rome (Including Julius Caesar, though Augustus was the first officially); the Julio-Claudians through Nero, his very brief successors Galba,Otho and Vitellius (in the tumultuous 'year of three Emperors', A.D. 69), and finally the Flavians Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Secretary to Hadrian, One of those classics that is a genuine, even salacious pleasure to read, and the historical basis for Robert Graves's "I, Claudius", "The Twelve Caesars" covers the first twelve emperors of Ancient Rome (Including Julius Caesar, though Augustus was the first officially); the Julio-Claudians through Nero, his very brief successors Galba,Otho and Vitellius (in the tumultuous 'year of three Emperors', A.D. 69), and finally the Flavians Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Secretary to Hadrian, Suetonius had direct access to the Imperial archives, which gives his account a depth and immediacy lacking in the other Roman chroniclers' accounts, as well as a wealth of anecdote regarding the subjects' often scandalous personal lives. While full of jaw-dropping accounts of profligacy and debauchery, the author nevertheless appears to be very conscientious in presenting balanced accounts of each ruler, often including differing accounts of the same events when the facts are in dispute, and carefully crediting even the worst Emperors with any mitigating benevolent acts -- this is no hatchet job in the manner of Procopius' 'Secret History', and appears to be very credible, on the whole. Each Emperor is given his own chapter, which begins with an account of his acts and accomplishments, followed by a discussion of his character and personal life. This non-chronological approach can sometimes be slightly confusing, but the Penguin Edition is replete with explanatory footnotes, glossaries, and maps of Rome and the Empire, which are very helpful to the lay reader. A bonus for those who come to this work after reading and loving Robert Graves's novels and wanting more is that this is his own fine and pellucid translation from the Latin. A very informative read for anyone interested in Imperial Rome, and juicy fun as well! ...more
5

Sep 24, 2016

Stranger than any fiction...the chapter on Caligula is truly disturbing.
5

Jan 24, 2017

Suetonius does an excellent job in painting an objective picture of the lives of the twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. I was admittedly anticipating a biased account considering that Suetonius was the chief secretary to Hadrian during his reign. Clearly I was mistaken. Suetonius not only points out flaws and misdeeds from the Caesars, but even sometimes goes as far as to negatively portray their appearances (many of whom were deified at this point). This quest for a true account of Suetonius does an excellent job in painting an objective picture of the lives of the twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. I was admittedly anticipating a biased account considering that Suetonius was the chief secretary to Hadrian during his reign. Clearly I was mistaken. Suetonius not only points out flaws and misdeeds from the Caesars, but even sometimes goes as far as to negatively portray their appearances (many of whom were deified at this point). This quest for a true account of the Caesars leads the reader through quotes, eyewitness accounts, and likely treasure troves of accounts sifted through from the emperor’s own library. Suetonius himself even lived through the reigns of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.
I really enjoyed the book and felt it easy to read. Not only did it portray military successes, but personal interests, political feats, and some of the wheeling and dealing that led to the immense power that many of the Caesars enjoyed. In many ways, I liken this book to the ancient version of reality TV. We get to see some of the drama and accounts of the stars of the time period. It is truly a fascinating account of the Caesars written through the lens of someone from the empire. Lastly, I highly recommend the translation by Robert Graves. It is well-done and his notes are quite helpful for clarification and/or rectification of inaccurate statements. I hope you all enjoy this one as much as I did.
...more
5

Aug 23, 2010

Did you know that the Emperor Augustus had a collection of dinosaur bones? Or that one of the many perversities Caligula exhibited was a liking for bathing in hot oils? Or that Nero once had a man killed simply because he looked like a cross schoolmaster?

These titbits and many others are detailed in this highly entertaining and amusing volume. I’d thought that a history (and a fairly contemporary one at that) of such great men would have detailed the various great exploits of their lives, but Did you know that the Emperor Augustus had a collection of dinosaur bones? Or that one of the many perversities Caligula exhibited was a liking for bathing in hot oils? Or that Nero once had a man killed simply because he looked like a cross schoolmaster?

These titbits and many others are detailed in this highly entertaining and amusing volume. I’d thought that a history (and a fairly contemporary one at that) of such great men would have detailed the various great exploits of their lives, but clearly Suetonius didn’t take that view. Indeed the civil war between Augustus and Mark Antony – which of course provided Shakespeare with enough material for an entire play – is dashed through in a couple of paragraphs. This is history by anecdote, a rehashing of rumour and speculation (some of it included just to be discounted); a gossipy account of these men’s lives beyond the throne. Suetonius was the librarian of Hadrian and draws a lot from the documents in his possession, but he’s equally willing to quote his father’s memories, or folk memories and at one point even introduces a statue he once owned as evidence. What’s more. Robert Graves’ wonderful translation really captures the off-hand voice of a man who clearly knew he was writing an important history, but desperately didn’t want to write a dull important history.

Really it shouldn’t be called ‘The Twelve Caesars’, ‘The Six Caesars (and Six Others)’ would have been a far better title – as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero take up four-fifths of the book and provide the most juice. It’s easy to lose interest a bit with the subsequent six. For the most part though this book is gleefully entertaining, with Tiberius, Caligula and Nero competing in who can have the maddest reign (and Claudius coming across nowhere near as well as he did in Graves’s own ‘I Claudius’.) Even if you don’t have much interest in the Romans, for most of this book you should find material to make you laugh or gasp with amazement. ...more
4

Apr 28, 2016

I didn’t actually read the pictured Penguin classic edition translated by I, Claudius author Robert Graves, but rather a Harvard press edition which was translated by John C. Rolfe and first published in 1913 that I got from the library. The introduction explained that what Suetonius wrote was neither biography nor history in the modern sense of those terms, but rather were meant to “give the thoughtful reader abundant opportunity for the reflexions and deductions which the writer has omitted”. I didn’t actually read the pictured Penguin classic edition translated by I, Claudius author Robert Graves, but rather a Harvard press edition which was translated by John C. Rolfe and first published in 1913 that I got from the library. The introduction explained that what Suetonius wrote was neither biography nor history in the modern sense of those terms, but rather were meant to “give the thoughtful reader abundant opportunity for the reflexions and deductions which the writer has omitted”. So in no way are these complete cradle to grave accounts of the lives of the first 12 Caesars. Each section starts with an introduction to the ancestry of the emperor and then basically recounts anecdotes, hearsay and portents as well as historical facts about each man. And Suetonius gives us a more or less objective, warts and all depiction; the good, the bad, the sexually deviant, the glutton, the generous, the cruel, the brave, the cowardly, and so on. Because he writes down everything, good or bad, true or not however, sometimes the depictions are contradictory. But really, despite the gap two millennia, the most remarkable thing about this book is how modern it can feel. In particular much of the political shenanigans of the first 100 years of the Roman Empire struck me as familiar...bread and circuses indeed. ...more
4

Jun 08, 2007

Back in 2005 I learned of The Twelve Caesars on Radio 4. It was part of "A Good Read" or some similar program. Anyway, I was intrigued by the sound of this book that has so influenced writers ever since it was published nearly two thousand years ago. I was not disappointed by the book and managed to read it in a course of an afternoon!

Suetonius's history of the early Roman empire covers Julius Caesar and the eleven emperors who followed: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Back in 2005 I learned of The Twelve Caesars on Radio 4. It was part of "A Good Read" or some similar program. Anyway, I was intrigued by the sound of this book that has so influenced writers ever since it was published nearly two thousand years ago. I was not disappointed by the book and managed to read it in a course of an afternoon!

Suetonius's history of the early Roman empire covers Julius Caesar and the eleven emperors who followed: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Each chapter is a combination of political critique, straight history and best of all a scandal sheet. The combination paints a perfect picture of both how modern Rome was and how little we've changed over the millennia.

Each chapter is only about 40 pages and the version I read didn't bloat the text with a bunch of unnecessary annotations. It was nice to read Seutonius's history (translated, of course) without interruption from overly helpful editors. It's such a rare thing now to be able to read a classic without the editor or translator breaking in with notes on things that don't need annotation (like definition of words or a quick who's who for some mentioned historical figure). ...more
5

Jul 31, 2010

"My dear Tiberius, you must not give way to youthful emotion, or take it to heart if anyone speaks ill of me; let us be satisfied if we can make people stop short at unkind words,"Chapter 2, pg. 76.

"The fox changes his skin but not his habits"

Like a great documentary thriller Suetonius's novel is exceptional in that his documentation of the fantastical is rooted in a foundation of reality. As the notable historian of the Roman Empire, Suetonius perfected the historical novel. The lives of the "My dear Tiberius, you must not give way to youthful emotion, or take it to heart if anyone speaks ill of me; let us be satisfied if we can make people stop short at unkind words,"Chapter 2, pg. 76.

"The fox changes his skin but not his habits"

Like a great documentary thriller Suetonius's novel is exceptional in that his documentation of the fantastical is rooted in a foundation of reality. As the notable historian of the Roman Empire, Suetonius perfected the historical novel. The lives of the Tweleve Ceasars materialize before you with extraordinary tales of incest, pornography, and corruption that would put even the raciest soap opera to shame. How much is fact and how much is legend we will never know, but the process is both informative and immensely entertaining. ...more
5

Sep 21, 2012

Frankly, I'm an ex-History teacher, so I eat these kinds of books up for dessert. By modern standards of form an style this book is very stodgy in construction. But the images Suetonius paints of these twelve emporors is fascinating!

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