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Accessible and salacious introduction to the Roman world
The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Member Name: historywitch
The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Advantages: Fascinating detail about a past era
Disadvantages: Lots of detail and information to take in. Some parts hard going if unfamiliar with Roman history
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 Hadrian’s 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 Drusilla’s 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 wasn’t 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 Shakespeare’s 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.
Suetonius’s 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.
Available on Amazon for £6.59 or £2.93 from Amazon Marketplace.
Summary: A deliciously naughty intellectual book
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