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History of the Twelve Caesars

by Suetonius

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Twelve Caesars (1-12)

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6,274731,466 (4.03)110
Biography & Autobiography. History. Nonfiction. HTML:

De vita Caesarum, known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies, each about one of the Roman emperors, including one on Julius Caesar. It was written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly referred to as Suetonius, in 121. Considered highly significant in antiquity, The Twelve Caesars has remained a major source of Roman history.

.… (more)
  1. 30
    The Secret History by Procopius (Michael.Rimmer)
    Michael.Rimmer: Both are 'behind-the-scenes' exposés of the lives of emperors which provided inspiration to Robert Graves.
  2. 20
    I, Claudius by Robert Graves (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Robert Graves produced this highly regarded fiction novel after completing his translation of Suetonius, which he used as his primary source.
  3. 10
    The Twelve Caesars by Michael Grant (Birlinn)

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Suetonius is a greater chore to read than Tacitus, but his gossip is juicier. Pliny the Younger (of Letters fame) was Suetonius' patron, helping to secure him a sequence of senior positions in the empire. He rose to this height on the strength of his scholarship, and that is on display here in the greatest of his works. His format, however, is prone to challenge. It is not a chronologically history, as in Plutarch, but a categorized listing of the key elements which stand out about each of the first twelve Caesars of Rome. This may have suited conventions of the time but perhaps not the subject matter.

Robert Graves did a famous translation of this work, and it shows in his novel "I, Claudius" which I read a couple of years ago. I'm glad I read that first, so that I could read through its source material after the fact and make all the connections. Suetonius paints a very dark portrait of Tiberius, and makes it clear that the loss of Germanicus as an alternative heir to Augustus was a terrible blow to Rome. Tiberius was malicious, and Caligula was such a horror show it's only a wonder he wasn't murdered sooner. Claudius feels more maligned than he deserves; that might be Graves rubbing off on me but surely he could have been more appreciated for not being a monster, as they soon got again in Nero (and again foregoing a better choice, Britannicus.) The next six Caesars are covered more briefly as the title was tossed around for a few months until Vespasian caught it, handing it down to his sons.

Not one of these Caesars, not even the kinder ones, envisioned the concept of restraining their power in some codified way. There is only the occasional discussion about restoring the Republic, an idea that never got serious wheels under it. Thus whenever the new Caesar started delivering random off-with-their-heads orders, off went the heads, until the inevitable assasination so that the next Caesar could start it all over again. I'm looking forward to Gibbon's story of how well that turned out for them. ( )
1 vote Cecrow | Aug 27, 2023 |
As Nick said, "Of course you didn't like a 2000 year old book. Look at 'Die Hard', it's only 20 years old."

( )
  blueskygreentrees | Jul 30, 2023 |
I first encountered the name of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus during lectures in an undergraduate course in Medieval History over a half-century ago. A few years later, he became better known to me as a source for Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" a fictional treatment of "The Twelve Caesars" based on the collection of biographies of Julius Caeser and the first eleven emperors of the Roman Empire. So, I have belatedly gotten around to blowing the dust off my Penguin Classics edition of Suetonius' work translated by none other than Robert Graves.

The first thing to note about Suetonius' account of the lives of the Julian and Flavian emperors is that his style is for the most part matter of fact and only occasionally given to judgements of the virtues and vices of his subjects. Some of the supporting characters who dominated the story in I, Claudias, rate only passing references in Suetonius' biographies.

He begins each biography with the ancestry of each subject, both the actual predecessors and in some cases the invented ancestry potentially reaching back to the gods. He follows with a history of their early lives, military careers, rise through the maze of political offices, major and minor, their marriages, divorces, their offspring both natural and adopted.

He then provides an account of how they rose or were drafted into the status of emperor. He chronicles the early years (or in some cases months) of their reign, their conduct of public affairs at the height of their power and the circumstances which led to their downfall frequently by violence.

Most of the story, not surprisingly is given over to Julius Caesar and the first five emperors who followed him and who are best known to students and general readers of ancient history: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Their stories take up a little under 80% of the text. The biographies of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian occupy the remaining 20+%.

One of the recurring themes in these brief biographies is the tendency of the various emperors to begin their reigns as moderate, public spirited "uniters" and reformers who respected the norms and protocols of Rome's traditions, religion and civic institutions. They are builders of great public works and benefactors to the Roman people and especially the military.

Eventually, the emperors, particularly beginning with Tiberius, indulge their vices which are many and extreme: sexual license and perversion, rapacious greed, gluttony and the arbitrary application of justice, notable not only for the usual practice of helping friends and/or hurting enemies, but also how it was leveraged in the service of the other vices mentioned above. The arbitrariness of Rome's rulers was matched by their extreme cruelty and the condemnation of accused who were guilty of absolutely nothing. And this is how they treated their own citizens and countrymen. Their treatment of their conquered enemies was equally "enlightened". As one barbarian chieftain is supposed to have said, "Rome creates a desert and calls it peace".

If you pick up the "The Twelve Caesars" expecting a sensational tale of orgies, bloodletting, poisonings, family betrayals, and politics played for keeps, you will likely be disappointed. It's all there, but in sober, detached, and measured rhetoric. For the "good stuff" take up "I, Claudius" or pop-in the DVDs of the Masterpiece Theater version of Graves' work. ( )
  citizencane | Jul 14, 2023 |
I finished this a while ago (filled in an approximate date finished.) It was actually pretty entertaining though it was hard to keep all of the Caesars' ridiculous exploits straight, and I suspect Suetonius was in some cases reporting rumors instead of straight facts. Either way, it was pretty fun and made me want to read more about Roman history.
  veewren | Jul 12, 2023 |
Lo leí por primera vez mientras estudiaba Historia en la universidad, a priori pensé que me encontraría con una fuente de pesada lectura. ¡Flor de sorpresa! es simplemente apasionante y de pesado ni un poquito, el estilo es ágil, casi con un espíritu chismoso y saltas de un apartado interesante a otro casi sin solución de continuidad. ( )
  Marlobo | Dec 24, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (81 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Suetoniusprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ailloud, HenriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Barton, TamsynIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bird, H. M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bradley, K.R.Introductionsecondary 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
Hadas, MosesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hawthorn, RaymondIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hengst, D. denTranslatorsecondary 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
Pape, Frank C.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rives, J. B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rolfe, J. C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rolfe, John CarewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whibley, CharlesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed


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Biography & Autobiography. History. Nonfiction. HTML:

De vita Caesarum, known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies, each about one of the Roman emperors, including one on Julius Caesar. It was written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly referred to as Suetonius, in 121. Considered highly significant in antiquity, The Twelve Caesars has remained a major source of Roman history.


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