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The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics) Mass Market Paperback – June 30, 1957

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

Language Notes

Text: English, Latin (translation)

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Mass Market Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (June 30, 1957)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140440720
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140440720
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #999,762 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

142 of 147 people found the following review helpful By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on November 5, 2004
Format: Paperback
Not much is known about the life of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillis. He was probably born in A.D. 69--the famous 'year of four Emperors'--when his father, a Roman knight, served as a colonel in a regular legion and took part in the Battle of Baetricum.

Suetonius became a scribe and noted secretary to the military set, eventually ending up in the service of Hadrian, who was emperor from A.D. 117-138. He was dismissed for 'indiscreet behaviour' with Hadrian's empress, Sabina, but not before doing sufficient research to complete many books of a historical nature. His attempts at philosophy were much less well received, and most of his history has been overlooked by all but classical scholars, but this work, 'The Twelve Caesars' has held the imagination of more than just the scholarly set since it was first written.

Suetonius had the good fortune of speaking to eyewitnesses from the time of the early Caesars. Much of his information about Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero in fact comes from those who observed and/or participated in their lives. Suetonius is in many ways more of a reporter than an historian--he would record conflicting statements without worrying about the reconciliation (this set him apart from Tacitus and other classical historians who tried to find a consistency in stories and facts.

Suetonius has been described as the tabloid journalist of ancient Rome, because not only did he not appear to check facts (which in fact is not true--he did check, he just didn't try to smooth over the conflicting facts), but he choose to concentrate on the private lives, motivations and personality quirks of his subjects rather than their grand plans, policies and military/political victories. Thus, many details of the lurid scene appear.
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Plato90210 on August 12, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Suetonius provides a cogent illustration of the lives of twelve Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian by painting a vivid picture of the civic activities and licentious personal conduct of these twelve Caesars. An able biographer, Suetonius demonstrates his literary competence by authoring a text that both casual readers will find entertaining or students will find enlightening. If you're reading purely for historical quality, I suggest Livy or Tacitus. For amusing antecdotes that read more like a tabloid, "The Twelve Caesars" is worth checking out. No text better depicts the lunacy and moral incontinence of men such as Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), and Nero. Caligula's declaration of war on Neptune and collection of seashells as bounty, Claudius's edict that flatulence was legally permissible at the supper table after learning that a citizen exploded from "holding it", and Nero's construction of a collapsible boat to kill his mother makes one wonder how Rome survived for another 400 years with men like this in control during the infancy of the empire. A "must read" for students and history buffs of Ancient Rome.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By M. Strong on July 8, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
So little is known today about the Caesars, that Suetonius' tell-all book about the Caesars is an absolute treasure for us to have now. Far from a dry, impartial observer, Suetonius errs on the side of playing the gossip - a choice which gives you even more insight into the culture of the Roman Empire than the text alone.

The book covers each of the twelve Caesars in order and focuses in on their backgroung before becoming Caesar, their route to becoming Caesar, their political/military/infrastructure accomplishments while Caesar, their personal habits, and finally their universally untimely deaths. (These guys all got killed pretty darn quickly by their "friends")

If it sounds like a dry topic, Suetonius over-emphasis on tabloid behaviors of the Caesars keeps it from ever getting close to dull. Highly recommended even for those who don't know the period.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By James K. on March 29, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Readers should be aware that this edition includes commentary by an 18th Century translator following each chapter with no clear demarcation of where Suetonius ends and the translator begins. As the preface notes: "Of the English translations, that of Dr. Alexander Thomson, published in 1796, has been made the basis of the present. He informs us in his Preface, that a version of Suetonius was with him only a secondary object, his principal design being to form a just estimate of Roman literature, and to elucidate the state of government, and the manners of the times; for which the work of Suetonius seemed a fitting vehicle. Dr. Thomson's remarks appended to each successive reign, are reprinted nearly verbatim in the present edition." It's kind of an irritating thing for a translator to do--as if we're as interested in his 1,700-year-after-the-fact opinions as in those of Suetonius--and kind of an inexplicable choice on the part of the compiler of this edition not to set them off more clearly...or, better yet, eliminate them entirely. You might want to choose a different edition of this book, but if you do read this one, be aware that the musings on Latin literature are not part of the original work and may be skipped over with little loss.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Who better to translate Suetonius' tabloidish classic than the man who made ancient Rome infamous in "I, Claudius", Robert Graves? The Roman emperors are the most decadent, devious, despicable parade of leaders ever, and the dozen sampled here are only the skin off the top - it's impossible to believe that this went on for centuries: the Emperor dies or gets murdered by someone, often his own guard or members of his family, and then someone else gets put in the prince's position to indulge in any kind of madness he pleases until he gets knocked off, too. Suetonius avidly portrays them all: arrogant, brilliant Julius Caesar; shady but charismatic Augustus; twisted old Tiberius; delightfully deranged Caligula; weak but crafty Claudius; and of course the slimy, monstrous Nero. That's only half the book, but even after the famous ones are through, Suetonius still draws compelling enough portraits of lesser-knowns like Galba and Otho to suck us all the way to the end. Graves transforms the master's ancient words into gripping English as if he were writing the whole thing himself (and sometimes it's hard to believe that he didn't, and maybe in a way he did; who needs any more translations of Suetonius after this one?). Anyone curious about the fabled debauchery and fiendishness of the ancient Roman world (like there's anyone who isn't?) should check this out, and then proceed to Graves' classic novels "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God" for a more subtler, quirky, and perhaps even more entertaining approach to the subject.
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