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The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Member Name: edie
The Twelve Caesars - Suetonius
Date: 25/01/01, updated on 25/01/01 (274 review reads)
Advantages: Informative, revealing popular history
Disadvantages: A narrow account of the great empire
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.)
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