The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius A friend who teaches Latin for a living told me it was this book, along with Tacitus’ Annals, that made her fall in love with Ancient Rome and change her concentration. Suetonius was a secretary to one of the Roman emperors, Hadrian, so one would expect he’d have an understanding of imperial Rome and access to its records. He presents a colorful account of the first twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Along with Plutarch, he’s our source for most of the stories about Julius Caesar. A lot of the most famous tidbits and quotes I’ve heard concerning the early Roman emperors turned out to come from Suetonius. Suetonius’ Julius Caesar definitely comes across as autocratic and a ruthless, ambitious politician--but also (at least in comparison to his successors, or even Tacitus) humane and a superb leader. His successor and nephew Augustus is in comparison a chilly personality, even if an able administrator. After that Rome wasn’t so lucky. Suetonius’ account of Tiberius conforms to Tacitus’ picture of him as a man who started out decently and became more and more corrupt, especially once he retired to Capri. You think after what’s related of him no one can top Tiberius for depravity, but then after him sandwiching Claudius are Caligula and Nero. And well, if your picture of Claudius was formed by Robert Graves’ I, Claudius of someone wiser than he seemed: Unfortunately, when the combatants gave the customary shout of: ‘Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!’ he joked: ‘Or not, as the case may be!’ so they all refused to fight maintaining that his words amounted to a pardon. He dithered for a while as to whether to have them all massacred in their burning ships, but at last leapt from his throne and hobbling ridiculously up and down the shoreline, in his shambling manner, induced them, by threats and  promises combined, to fight. Twelve Sicilian triremes then fought twelve from Rhodes, the signal being given by a mechanical Triton, made of silver, which emerged from the middle of the lake and blew its horn. This Claudius didn’t just pretend to be a stupid fool to survive. He owned stupid--add cruel as well. Nero’s death marks the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the “Year of Four Emperors” because before a year was over there were three more: Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Galba and Vitellius were cruel and corrupt, even if not as monstrous as Caligula and Nero, Otho in over his head. Then the Flavian dynasty arose, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, restoring stability. Vespasian from this account seems the first decent emperor--in competence and character--since Augustus. His elder son Titus is even described as *gasp* “kind-hearted” and just; he instituted both prohibitions against double jeopardy and a statute of limitations. Alas, the best that can be said about his brother Domitian, the last of the emperors treated here, is that he’s not as heinous as Caligula or Nero. Tacitus covers some of the same material, from Tiberius to Nero, but Suetonius fills in quite a few gaps. It’s not easy to tell in translation, but Tacitus strikes me as the better writer, deeper thinker, and more trustworthy historian, but Suetonius is (even) more gossipy--in fact at some points it’s a bit much. At one point he says of Tiberius’ depravities that they are “things scarcely to be told or heard, let alone credited,”--which didn’t stop Suetonius going on to give us all the gory details. I had to pause for brain bleach--seriously folks. But boring he isn’t. (Except when he goes on and on about auguries and omens and portents.) All in all, if choosing just one to read, I’d put Tacitus first--but Suetonius was certainly worth reading.