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History of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

History of the Twelve Caesars (1899)

by Suetonius, Suetonius

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    Michael.Rimmer: Both are 'behind-the-scenes' exposés of the lives of emperors which provided inspiration to Robert Graves.

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What a fantastic little book full of gossip and intrigue of the 12 emperors succeeding Julius Caesar and the fall of the Republic. Good translation By Robert Graves. ( )
  Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr | Aug 6, 2017 |

Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback, 1997.

8vo. xii+364 pp. Translated by H. M. Bird. Introduction by Tamsyn Barton [vii-xii]. Family tree “The Julio-Claudian Dynasty” [xiv]. Foreword [by the translator] [3-4].

First published in Latin as De vita Caesarum, AD 121.
This translation first published, 1930.
This edition first published, 1997.



[I.] Caius Julius Caesar [49 – 44 BC]*
[II.] Octavius Caesar Augustus [27 BC – AD 14]
[III.] Tiberius Nero Caesar [AD 14 – 37]
[IV.] Caius Caesar Caligula [AD 37 – 41]
[V.] Tiberius Claudius Drusus Caesar [AD 41 – 54]
[VI.] Nero Claudius Caesar [AD 54 – 68]
[VII.] Servius Sulpicius Galba [AD 68 – 69]
[VIII.] Marcus Salvius Otho [AD 69]
[IX.] Aulus Vitellius [AD 69]
[X.] T. Flavius Vespasianus Augustus [AD 69 – 79]
[XI.] Titus Flavius Vespasianus Augustus [AD 79 – 81]
[XII.] Titus Flavius Domitianus [AD 81 – 96]

*Years of reign.


Judging by my limited experience with ancient authors, Suetonius is a remarkably easy and entertaining read. Unlike Herodotus, he is concise and to the point, and he makes no pretentions of writing history to be remembered and studied. He is simply fascinated by the colourful characters of the first twelve Caesars and he wishes to share his fascination with us. In the apt words of Mr Bird, this book is “a series of intimate memoirs rather than a history.” Nor is Suetonius a tedious moralist like Plutarch. He is more concerned with doing justice to complex characters than with passing judgements on them.

As far as historical accuracy goes, Suetonius is probably no better, but also no worse, than either Herodotus or Plutarch. Now and then he does indicate his sources; they cover a wide range from official documents, personal correspondence and trustful witnesses to ribald gossip, naughty rumours and suggestive songs. But for much the greater part, including many episodes that stretch credibility to the breaking point, Suetonius is blissfully free of even the most unreliable sources. He describes events and characters as if they were common knowledge. But are they? If they are, it is because they cite Suetonius, Herodotus and their colleagues. It is depressing to reflect how much of what we call “history” may well be at least partly fiction.

All twelve “lives” consist of short numbered sections which make reading and reference a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. Broadly speaking, all of them, but especially the first six which are far longer than the rest, also consist of two parts that follow one another without a break. In the first part, Suetonius records the biography of the Caesar in question, his family background, his military exploits, his social reforms, even his writings if he left any. This is rather dry, not always easy to follow and sometimes boring. In the second part, which admittedly overlaps with the first (for public deeds reflect the private character more than generally recognised), Suetonius concentrates on more personal matters: everything from dress and physical appearance to eating habits and sexual exploits. It is chiefly from these parts that the Caesars emerge as vivid and compelling characters. It would be a pity if they were fictional.

Julius Caesar, the first Roman emperor de facto if not de jure, is of course the superstar. Astute and ruthless politician, social reformer and military commander, perhaps corrupted by the absolute power he attained, perhaps not (Suetonius is blandly non-committal), Caesar has become justly legendary. He was a relentless womaniser, especially in regard to the wives of other people, but rumours of a homosexual liaison with Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, followed him to the end of his life. I rather doubt so much fuss was made, but Suetonius insists. Except for women and power, Caesar appears to have been a man of modest appetites, mild and courteous to his friends, judiciously exacting and very generous with his (fabulously loyal to him) soldiers, remarkably little superstitious for his age (didn’t care about omens at all). Interestingly enough, Cicero, no less, praised him as writer and orator. Perhaps the greatest thing about Caesar, the one thing that sets him apart from so many other fame-seeks in history, is that he “never entertained malice and hatred against any man so deeply that he would not willingly renounced it when occasion offered” (I.73).

Augustus looks like a cold fish compared to his grand-uncle. He certainly learned from the great Caesar, though. When he sat in the senate, he was approached only by single senators and only after they were frisked for hidden weapons. One must admit the pure wisdom of this procedure. Augustus was mostly occupied with public affairs, re-building the city, reinstating neglected religious ceremonies, arranging bread and circuses for the people, things like that. On the other hand, he seems to have been one of the very few among the Caesars who genuinely cared as much about Rome and the Roman Empire as about himself. It may not be a coincidence that his reign was by far the longest of the twelve, though I wonder how he survived into old age with his sickly constitution and unshakable faith in superstitions.

Tiberius, in the beginning of his Caesarhood, “was endeavouring to win the favour of the people with a pretence of moderation” (III.57). He soon dropped the pretence but, fortunately for the Roman Empire, Tiberius wasn’t very interested in playing the emperor. He was much too occupied with acquiring “greater infamy for filthiness such as may not well be described and much less believed” (III.44). This unspeakable “filthiness” chiefly expressed itself in three directions. First, Tiberius turned the island of Capri into a paradise where he could drink industrial amounts of wine and have plenty of sex with both sexes. Second, he hated every single member of his family and treated all of them abominably, including, reportedly, ordering the death of one of his sons (III.52) who had failed to live up to his father’s exalted standards of wickedness. Third, he enjoyed the torture and death of countless people in reverse proportion to the triviality of their offences – if any. All in all, one wonders how he lasted for 23 years at the top and died of (perhaps not quite) natural causes. It is certainly no wonder that he inspired “some verses which both deplored the present calamities and warned of the miseries to come” (III.59):

Obdurate wretch! too fierce, too fell to move
The least kind yearnings of a mother’s love!
No knight thou art, as having no estate;
Long suffered’st thou in Rhodes an exile’s fate,
No more the happy Golden Age we see;
The Iron’s come, and sure to last with thee.
Instead of wine he thirsted for before,
He wallows now in floods of human gore.
Reflect, ye Romans, on the dreadful times.
Made such by Marius, and by Sulla’s crimes.
Reflect how Antony’s ambitious rage
Twice scar’d with horror a distracted age.
And say, Alas! Rome’s blood in streams will flow,
When banish’d miscreants rule this world below.

If Tiberius was Caesar only in his spare time, Caligula was Caesar only in name. Being an emperor was a game he enjoyed playing. For a while he was intent on “practising all the arts of popularity” (IV.15), but then something happened and, either because he became bored with the game or because of “his cruel and villainous disposition” (IV.11) got the better of him, he set out to outdo the wickedness Tiberius – and succeeded. Living incestuously with his sisters and pimping them to his “catamites” (IV.24) were among his most virtuous deeds. As for the rest, it must be said that the uncut version of the vastly notorious movie by Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione is rather exaggerated. It is indeed, as the authorities say, historically inaccurate. But it’s nevertheless a wonder that Caligula lasted for three years, ten months, and eight days. Finally, and thankfully, he was assassinated.

Claudius may not be the best rags-to-riches story, but he is certainly the best outsider-to-emperor story. He was widely considered physically and mentally weak. Nobody took him seriously, which probably saved his life, until at the ripe age of 50 he became an emperor, “and that by a very strange and surprising trick of fortune” (V.10). Suetonius is right to ask for our suspension of disbelief, but in the end he shrewdly observes that Claudius “was the first of the Caesars who purchased the submission of the soldiers with money.” The man was obviously anything but stupid, and he proved more than a decent public administrator. But he was plagued by poor health, personal insecurity and, most infamously, unfortunate marriages. Messalina and Agrippina, the most notorious among his wives, have entered Roman lore on equal footing with the emperor. The former he put to death, the latter (reportedly) put him to death. In the final run, the greatest legacy of Claudius may be that he inspired Robert Graves for at least one literary masterpiece and made Derek Jacobi a household name.

Nero was a man of many talents. He was poet, musician, charioteer, architect, actor, robber, rapist, poisoner, parricider and even, very occasionally, emperor. He famously persecuted a certain “sect given to a new, wicked and mischievous superstition” (VI.16)[2], but he is unjustly neglected as a great pioneer of trans-sexuality and sex reassignment therapies. He castrated a boy named Sporus, dressed him as a woman and married him like a wife. The Romans being a witty lot, some wag quickly came up with the immortal quip “that it would have been well for the world, if his father Domitius had wedded such a wife” (VI.28). This father, by the way, in addition to have been “a man of ungracious and despicable character” (VI.5), was also grandson of the same fellow (also briefly mentioned in Plutarch) who served Mark Antony and was later immortalised as Enobarbus in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. He did defect to Augustus and died “not without incurring a note of infamy”, but nevertheless he was “worthy beyond question and to be preferred before all others of his name and lineage” (VI.2). Nero’s other ancestors were a nasty bunch, but he did improve a great deal on them. Suetonius describes everything with unusual relish. Hair-raising stuff!

(It is a pity that Suetonius never wrote of Trajan and Hadrian, the two emperors under whom he served. If libel cases existed back then, this might be a good reason.)

The second sextet takes less than one fourth of the whole book. One can hardly blame Suetonius for showing less interest in them. Galba, Otho and Vitellius ruled altogether for some 18 months of civil wars. They had the same virtues and vices as their predecessors, but they lacked the character to flaunt the former and get away with the latter. Roman depravity, it seems, exhausted itself with Nero. The Flavians were rather more successful. They ruled for almost 27 years, put an end to the civil wars, restored the order and paved the way to the brief but glorious Golden Age of the Roman Empire. Vespasian, the first Flavian, must be regarded as one of the greatest among the Caesars. Mild, witty and humane person, astute social reformer and bold city planner, his only vice was filling the treasury by “onerous taxes” and suspicious practices like selling state offices to rich people. But “he used to the best purposes what he procured by bad means” (X.16). The famous anecdote with the first money from the tax on the public toilets which he gave his son to sniff is here all right (X.22), but another one is worth quoting (X.23):

Having yielded at length to a certain woman who was enamoured of him and ready, as it were, to die for pure love, he admitted her to his bed; and when she had given him four hundred thousand sesterces for lying with her, and his steward desired to know how he would have the sum entered in his accounts, he said: ‘For Vespasian’s being seduced.’

An entertaining dozen of characters, isn’t it? They make for an entertaining read despite, certainly not because of, Suetonius’ flat and matter-of-fact style. Leaving aside historical veracity, which must be determined by careful comparison with other ancient sources and is really the work of historians, two further caveats by way of conclusion.

Suetonius was so eager to stuff his work with details that he slipped, no doubt unconsciously, into some embarrassing inconsistencies. At one place we are told Caesar cared nothing about omens (I.59), at another we are asked to believe that he based as important a decision as his successor on an auspicious palm tree (II.94). Some contradiction! Sometimes I have a feeling that Suetonius included some spurious, or least suspicious, details simply to make his characters more complex and contradictory, not to say more scandalous and shocking. This is a precious quality that is sure, should you have it, to find you a job in one of our modern tabloids.

Even some sourced episodes are frankly incredible. Many of these have to do Suetonius’ passion for omens. Towards the end of “Augustus”, there is a longish passage (II.94-6) about “what happenings preceded and followed his birth, which gave hope of his future greatness and the felicity that constantly attended him.” So one day, when he was still a baby, Augustus disappeared without a trace and a mighty search ensued. He was finally found “upon a lofty tower”, silencing the croaking frogs in the vicinity; “and there goes a report that frogs never croaked there since that time”, our biographer adds with awe. Evidently such a great frog silencer was destined to become an emperor. In general, there are too many eagles flying portentously and dropping significant things to important people, too many lightning strikes destroying statues and temples, and so on and so forth. Such transcendental inanity is downright hilarious, though I am not sure Suetonius intended it that way. It passes belief that the ancient Romans took seriously this stuff, but they may have.[3]

It’s not hard to see why Robert Graves saw in Suetonius a fiction mine to be explored. Even the lesser chapters in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars are brimming with exciting incidents and colourful characters. Any good writer of fiction can flesh them out and construct excellent novels and screenplays. Any great writer can make masterpieces out of them. So Graves did. Shakespeare plundered Plutarch in much the same way, though admittedly on a larger and more imaginative scale. If Suetonius had been better known in Elizabethan England, no doubt he would have been plundered too. For the rest of us, mere mortals who can’t (further) fictionalise this material, Suetonius makes a diverting read.

Note on the Wordsworth Classics edition

Mr Bird’s translation is the only one I have read. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I can say the text is relatively lucid and readable, if a trifle turgid. I have compared parts of the first six chapters with two other translations. The eighteenth-century attempt by Alexander Thomson (1789) is predictably wordy and long-winded. The famous translation by Robert Graves (1957), published in the Penguin Classics and still widely available, is bolder in the naughty moments and, what really matters, more concise and easier to follow that Mr Bird’s.[4] All three translations agree that Suetonius was a poor prose stylist in the first place. Fortunately for us, the story he had to tell can survive any style.

There is nothing terribly perceptive in the Introduction by Tamsyn Barton and the translator’s Foreword. Both are informative enough about what little is known of Suetonius’ life, but less convincing about his work. Tamsyn Barton draws our attention to Suetonius’ rhetorical training and his subtle sense of humour. I can’t say I’m impressed with either. Very seldom does our beloved biographer give the impression of working up his narrative to some rhetorical climax, and he is not terribly successful in the few cases when he does. As for his sense of humour, it is indeed so subtle that for the most part I can’t notice it. Mr Bird’s description of Suetonius as a “gossipy old domestic” is closer to the truth, though I disagree completely about the “born genius for story-telling”.

You don’t get in this edition any notes, glossary, commentary, biographical index or other bonuses (except a rather helpful family tree of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty). This is a pity, but not a great one. Whatever Suetonius may be, he is not a snob. He doesn’t write for insiders, indulging in arcane allusions to titillate the initiated. He is a very democratic writer. He writes for everybody who can read. To be sure, twenty centuries have rendered a few details obscure and a few attitudes bizarre, but there is nothing essential which the reasonably intelligent modern reader would fail to understand.

[1] With Tiberius is concerned my favourite reference to Suetonius in fiction. Non-sequitur, for no other reason but my own amusement, here it is:

‘Of course people think those were the Baths of Tiberius.’ He waved his hand towards a shapeless mass of masonry that stood half in the water and half out. ‘But that’s all rot. It was just one of his villas, you know.’
I did. But it is just as well to let people tell you things when they want to. It disposes them kindly towards you if you suffer them to impart information. Wilson gave a chuckle.
‘Funny old fellow, Tiberius. Pity they’re saying now there’s not a word of truth in all those stories about him.’
He began to tell me all about Tiberius. Well, I had read my Suetonius too and I had read histories of the Early Roman Empire, so there was nothing very new to me in what he said. But I observed that he was not ill-read. I remarked on it.

W. Somerset Maugham, “The Lotus Eater”, from the collection The Mixture as Before (1940), reprinted in Vol. 4 of Collected Short Stories (1963).

[2] References to Christians and Christianity are very rare in Suetonius. One of the most fascinating, as noted by Tamsyn Barton in her introduction, is in the “life” of Claudius (V.25) where it is casually mentioned that the Emperor expelled the Jews from Rome because they “were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.” If this is a reference to Jesus, as generally accepted, then Suetonius must be mistaken in his inference, presumably, that Christ was in Rome during the reign of Claudius.

[3] I won’t spoil for you the awesome portents which announced that Nero would be the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (VII.1). This is a real gem.

[4] I have used for my comparisons an online version of the Graves translation which is slightly different than the current version offered in the Penguin Classics. The latter was presumably revised by James B. Rives in 2007. The differences are minor but sometimes annoying; and the revisions are not always improvements. Consider one example from the very first sentence. The old version tells us that Julius Caesar was “nominated to the priesthood of Jupiter”. The new one goes for “nominated to be the next flamen of Jupiter”. The inclusion of the obscure word “flamen” seems like wilful striving for accuracy and authenticity. Graves apparently made a revision of his own in 1979, and it was reprinted in new editions at least until 1989. I would prefer reading this than the Rives revision. ( )
  Waldstein | Jun 10, 2017 |

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?
( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Do you enjoy drama? Gossip? Archaic methods of determining personality? Roman history? Did I mention gossip?

You can find all of these in Suetonius' Twelve Caesars! Easily on of my favorite biographies (?) concerning Imperial Romans. I would certainly suggest it, even to those who aren't avid readers of roman history.

There is, of course, the added benefit that it makes for a quick read! ( )
  SnowcatCradle | Jan 2, 2017 |
This was written in a very boring manner. It was also difficult to follow who is who and how they are related. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (213 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
SuetoniusAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Suetoniusmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Barton, TamsynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bird, H. M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dessì, FeliceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edwards, CatharineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freese, J. H.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gavorse, JosephEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gérôme, Jean-LéonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grant, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graves, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graves, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holland, PhilemonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hollo, J. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
La Harpe, Jean-François deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
La Pause, Henri Ophellot deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lagerström, IngemarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Linkomies, EdwinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whibley, CharlesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed


The Twelve Caesars, Book 10: Vespasian by Suetonius

The Twelve Caesars, Book 06: Nero by Suetonius

The Twelve Caesars, Book 12: Domitian by Suetonius

The Twelve Caesars, Book 05: Divus Claudius by Suetonius

Suetonius, Vol. 1: The Lives of the Caesars--Julius. Augustus. Tiberius. Gaius. Caligula (Loeb Classical Library, No. 31) by Suetonius

SUETONIUS Vol.II The Lives of the Caesars, II: Claudius. Nero. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Vespasian. Titus, Domitian. Lives of Illustrious Men: Grammarians and Rhetoricians. ..Passienus Crispus (Loeb by Suetonius

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140440720, Mass Market Paperback)

Born in 60 A.D., Suetonius served for several years as secretary to the Roman emperor Hadrian. His years in the palaces and halls of imperial government served him well when he set out to write this oftentimes eye-popping, tell-all account of the doings of the first 12 emperors, from Julius to Domitian, who make the good fellas of Mafia renown seem tame by comparison. From Suetonius we learn that Augustus was afraid of lightning and thunder and carried a piece of seal skin as protection against them; that Caligula slept with his mother and his sister; and that Nero outlawed mimes in Rome--which may mean that he wasn't such a bad man after all. Suetonius doesn't hesitate to say when he's reporting gossip that he has not personally verified, but what gossip it is! This translation, by the noted classicist Robert Graves, serves the ancient chronicler very well indeed.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:50 -0400)

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First-century Roman life is portrayed in sketches of the family histories, public careers, physical traits, private lives, and vices of Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

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