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History of the Twelve Caesars

by Suetonius

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,841671,430 (4.03)104
As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, the scholar Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and used them (along with eyewitness accounts) to produce one of the most colorful biographical works in history. The Twelve Caesars chronicles the public careers and private lives of the men who wielded absolute power over Rome, from the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and Augustus, to the decline into depravity and civil war under Nero and the recovery that came with his successors. A masterpiece of observation, anecdote, and detailed physical description, The Twelve Caesars presents us with a gallery of vividly drawn-and all too human-individuals. This version of The Twelve Caesars is the translation by Alexander Thomson, M.D.… (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. 10
    The Twelve Caesars by Michael Grant (Birlinn)

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A scientist friend of mine, Dick Baublitz, was reading this 30-some yrs ago & he told me a bit about it & I was intrigued. I don't read much ancient history - just Petronius' "Satyricon" & some philosophy by Plato, Epictetus, & Marcus Aurelius - & maybe a few other things I'm forgetting.. ANYWAY, if I have a taste for the lurid, "The Twelve Caesers" can certainly satisfy it. Those were the days! I reckon that many a current-day political leader wishes they cd be EMPEROR - but at least then there was a strong enuf fear of the public so that a Caeser might commit suicide before being torn to shreds by the disaffected crowd.

I quoted Suetonius in the following text in my movie "Backwards Masking in Rocks":

About Caeser Tiberius, Roman historian Suetonius wrote: "Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his 'minnows', to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother's breast
suck at his breast or groin - such a filthy old man he had become!" Might this not be an explanation for these "Mer people" & why they would've become petrified as Backwards Masking rock books?! ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
If Caligula would be alive today he would be hailed as a brave and stunning gay man. ( )
  Vertumnus | Jul 22, 2021 |
As with many Folio editions, the text is from the Penguin Classics edition, so what you get here is the wonderful Robert Graves translation in a well-bound volume in a slipcase. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

The Twelve Caesars

Translated by Robert Graves

Penguin, Paperback, 1967.

12mo. 315 pp. Penguin Classics L72. Foreword by Robert Graves, 1957.

First published in Latin as De vita Caesarum, AD 121.
This translation first published, 1957.
Reprinted, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1965, 1967.



I. Julius Caesar, afterwards deified
II. Augustus, afterwards deified
III. Tiberius
IV. Gaius Caligula
V. Claudius, afterwards deified
VI. Nero
VII. Galba
VIII. Otho
IX. Vitellius
X. Vespasian, afterwards deified
XI. Titus, afterwards deified
XII. Domitian

Pedigrees of the Julian and Flavian houses
Note on the coin portraits of the twelve Caesars


This is not a review of Suetonius but a brief comparison between two translations, this one by Robert Graves, originally published in 1957, and the 1930 version by H. M. Bird reprinted in the Wordsworth Classics edition. Briefly, neither translation makes Suetonius what he is not in the first place: a good writer; he still sounds dry and pedantic, like a clerk (which he probably was). But Graves is certainly easier to read and understand, perhaps a little bolder in the spicy moments, and probably rather freer with the original Latin. There are plenty of subtle – and some not so subtle! – changes in the sense. Direct comparison of a few passages would be better than any general description:

[Julius Caesar, 73:]

He never entertained malice and hatred against any man so deeply that he would not willingly renounce it when occasion offered. Although Caius Memmius had made most bitter invectives against him, and he had answered with equal bitterness, yet he afterwards assisted him with his vote and interest when Memmius stood candidate for consulship. When C. Calvus, after promulgating some scandalous epigrams upon him, endeavoured to bring about a reconciliation through the mediation of friends, he of his own accord wrote the first letter. And when Valerius Catullus, who had, as he himself observed, fixed such a stain upon his character in his verses upon Mamurra as never could be effaced, he asked his pardon, invited him to supper the same day, and continued to take up his lodging with his father occasionally, as he had been wont to do.

Yet, when given the chance, he would always cheerfully come to terms with his bitterest enemies. He supported Gaius Memmius’s candidature for the consulship, though they had both spoken most damagingly against each other. When Gaius Calvus, after his cruel lampoons of Caesar, made a move towards reconciliation through mutual friends, Caesar met him more than half way by writing him a friendly letter. Valerius Catullus had also libelled him in his verse about Mamurra, yet Caesar, while admitting that these were a permanent blot on his name, accepted Catullus’s apology and invited him to dinner that same afternoon, and never interrupted his friendship with Catullus’s father.

[Tiberius, 44:]

He incurred yet greater infamy for filthiness such as may not well be described and much less believed: to wit, that he taught fine boys, the tenderest and daintiest that might be had (whom he called his little fishes) to converse and play between his thighs as he was swimming, and prettily with tongue and teeth seem to nibble at his secret parts; and likewise that he took babies of good growth and strength, though not yet weaned, and set them to his private member as to the nipple of a breast, to suck. When a picture, painted by Parrhasius, in which the artist had represented Atalanta in the act of offering Meleager a peculiar assuagement for his lust, was bequeathed to him upon the condition, that if the matter shown was offensive to him, he might receive in lieu of it a million of sesterces, he not only chose the picture but hung it up in his bedchamber. It is also reported, that during a sacrifice, he took such an ardent fancy to the beautiful face and form of a youth who held a censer, that, before the religious rites were well over, he took him aside and abused his body; as also a brother of his who had been playing the flute; and soon afterwards broke the legs of both of them for upbraiding one another with their shame.

Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his ‘minnows’, to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother’s breast suck at him – such a filthy old man he had become! Then there was a painting by Parrhasius, which had been bequeathed him on condition that, if he did not like the subject, he could have 10,000 gold pieces instead. Tiberius not only preferred to keep the picture but hung it in his bedroom. It showed Atalanta committing a grossly intimate act with Meleager.

The story goes that once, while sacrificing, he took an erotic fancy to the acolyte who carried the incense casket, and could hardly wait for the ceremony to end before hurrying him and his brother, the sacred trumpeter, out of the temple and indecently assaulting them both. When they protested at this dastardly crime he had their legs broken.

[Caligula, 29:]

His deeds, horrible as they were, he augmented with words equally outrageous. ‘There is nothing in my nature,’ he would say, ‘that I commend or approve so much, as my inflexible rigour.’ When his grandmother Antonia gave him some advice, he said to her (as though it were not enough to disregard it), ‘Remember that all things are lawful for me.’ When about to murder his brother, whom he suspected of taking antidotes against poison, he said, ‘See then, an antidote against Caesar!’ And when he banished his sisters, he told them in a menacing tone that he had not only islands at command, but likewise swords. One of praetorian rank having sent several times from Anticyra, whither he had gone for his health, to have his leave of absence prolonged, he ordered him to be put to death; adding these words: ‘Bleeding is necessary for one that has taken hellebore so long, and found no benefit.’ It was his custom every tenth day to sign the lists of prisoners appointed for execution; and this he called ‘clearing his accounts’. And having condemned several Gauls and Greeks at one time, he boasted that he had subdued Gallograecia.

Caligula’s savage crimes were matched by his brutal language. He claimed that no personal trait made him feel prouder than his ‘inflexibility’ – by which he must have meant ‘brazen impudence’. As though mere dearness to his grandmother Antonia’s good advice were not enough, he told her: ‘Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please!’ Suspecting that young Tiberius had taken drugs as prophylactics to the poison he intended to administer, Caligula scoffed: ‘Can there really be an antidote against Caesar?’ And, on banishing his sisters, he remarked: ‘I have swords as well as islands.’ One ex-praetor, taking a mental cure at Anticyra, made frequent requests for an extension of his sick leave; Caligula had his throat cut, suggesting that if hellebore had been of so little benefit over so long a period, he must need to be bled. When signing the execution list he used to say: ‘I am clearing my accounts.’ And one day, after sentencing a number of Gauls and Greeks to die in the same batch, he boasted of having ‘subdued Gallo-graecia’.

[Nero, 28:]

Besides the unnatural abuse of freeborn boys, and the dishonouring of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He very nearly took Acte, a freedwoman, as his lawful wife, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal blood. There was a certain boy named Sporus, whose genitories he cut out, and endeavoured to transform him thereby into a woman. He even caused him to be brought to him as a bride, with a marriage settlement, and in a rose-coloured nuptial veil; and he invited a numerous company to attend the ceremony. Afterwards, he had him brought to his own house, and there treated him as his wife. It was upon this occasion that there went forth a quip made by some wag, ‘that it would have been well for the world, if his father Domitius had wedded such a wife.’ This Sporus, decked with the rich ornaments and apparel of an empress, he carried about with him in a litter round the solemn assemblies and fairs of Greece, and afterwards at Rome through the Sigillaria; kissing him sweetly from time to time as they rode together. That he had an incestuous passion for his own mother, but was deterred from it by some enemies of hers, for fear that this proud and overbearing woman should, by this kind of favour, wax too powerful, no one ever doubted; especially after he had introduced among his concubines a strumpet, who was reported to bear a strong resemblance to Agrippina. It is said moreover, that so often as he rode in a litter with his mother, he played the wanton and was betrayed by the marks appearing on her garments.

Not satisfied with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria. He nearly contrived to marry the freedwoman Acte, by persuading some friends of consular rank to swear falsely that she came of royal stock. Having tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castration, he went through a wedding ceremony with him – dowry, bridal veil and all – which the whole Court attended; then brought him home, and treated him as a wife. He dressed Sporus in the fine clothes normally worn by an Empress and took him in his own litter not only to every Greek assize and fair, but actually through the Street of Images at Rome, kissing him amorously now and then. A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds: the world would have been a happier place had Nero’s father Domitius married that sort of wife.

The passion he felt for his mother, Agrippina, was notorious; but her enemies would not let him consummate it, fearing that, if he did, she would become even more powerful and ruthless than hitherto. So he found a new mistress who was said to be her spit and image; some say that he did, in fact, commit incest with Agrippina every time they rode in the same litter – the state of his clothes when he emerged proved it.

[Vespasian, 22:]

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.’

Once a woman complained that she was desperately in love with him, and would not leave him alone until he consented to seduce her. ‘How shall I enter that item in your expense ledger?’ asked his accountant later, on learning that she had got 4,000 gold pieces out of him. ‘Oh,’ said Vespasian, ‘just put it down to “love for Vespasian”.’

(Note that the amounts of money are the same. Graves merely used gold pieces instead of sesterces at an exchange rate 1:100. The direction of the transaction, however, is something else!)

The translator has supplied the text with very few footnotes, mostly years and cross-references for the most important events, occasionally minor corrections. The Foreword is brief but rather more interesting, including a frank admission of treating the original Latin in a far from literal way. We know very little of Suetonius, but a list of his works has survived. It contains such intriguing titles like Lives of Famous Whores, Roman Manners and Customs, The Physical Defects of Mankind and Methods of Reckoning Time. It may be a pity that nothing of this has survived the ruthless test of time. The titles suggest a man of restless curiosity and some learning. Graves, like Pliny, admits that the better he came to know Suetonius, the more his affection grew.

I cannot say the same about myself. I have read again a great deal of Twelve Caesars for this brief comparison of translations, and the subject remains as riveting as ever. But Suetonius himself, so far as his personality ever so slightly does cast a faint shadow on the pages, seems like a very dull chap. He has nothing like Plutarch’s personality, vigour, charm and sheer genius for narrative and characterisation.

This old Penguin Classics edition (L72) is a nice one to have, simply but handsomely presented, with sturdy and durable binding that can take any amount of reading, re-reading, browsing and flipping through in the course of decades. The only caveat is that the font is slightly too small for comfort. But provide yourself with good light and you’ll be alright! Each chapter is illustrated with a coin showing the emperor in question, drawn by Berthold Wolpe and explained by R. A. G. Carson in some scholarly endnotes – in case you’re interested in Roman numismatics. The family trees are smallish but always welcome, especially the one of the Julian house which you will find yourself consulting no matter how familiar you are with the subject. ( )
  Waldstein | May 1, 2021 |
De vita Caesarum (Latin; lit. "About the Life of the Caesars"), commonly known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.

The work, written in AD 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, was the most popular work of Suetonius, at that time Hadrian's personal secretary, and is the largest among his surviving writings. It was dedicated to a friend, the Praetorian prefect Gaius Septicius Clarus.

The Twelve Caesars was considered very significant in antiquity and remains a primary source on Roman history. The book discusses the significant and critical period of the Principate from the end of the Republic to the reign of Domitian; comparisons are often made with Tacitus, whose surviving works document a similar period. ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Feb 25, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (79 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Suetoniusprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ailloud, HenriTranslatorsecondary authorsome 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
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
Rolfe, John CarewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Whibley, CharlesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed


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As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, the scholar Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and used them (along with eyewitness accounts) to produce one of the most colorful biographical works in history. The Twelve Caesars chronicles the public careers and private lives of the men who wielded absolute power over Rome, from the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and Augustus, to the decline into depravity and civil war under Nero and the recovery that came with his successors. A masterpiece of observation, anecdote, and detailed physical description, The Twelve Caesars presents us with a gallery of vividly drawn-and all too human-individuals. This version of The Twelve Caesars is the translation by Alexander Thomson, M.D.

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