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The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics) Paperback – May 6, 2003
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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. Suetonius, and this volume in particular, formed much of the basis for Robert Graves as he wrote 'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the God', which in turn pulled up the popularity of Suetonius in this generation.
Suetonius had first hand knowledge of many of the Caesars who followed the Claudians, and ready access to the archives of the imperial family and the Senate, given his imperial posting.
This translation is not intended to be a faithful rendering of the language (which might well result in a stilted English construct) but rather a faithful account of the stories Suetonius tells. Graves has taken the liberty of changing monetary, date, and technical terms into standard English measurements of close kinship of meaning.
For the record, the twelve Caesars, about whom Suetonius writes, are:
+ Julius Caesar
+ Gaius Caligula
Suetonius held nothing back in writing about the personal habits of the emperors and their families, nor did he hold back in his moral judgement of them. Of Tiberius, for instance, he wrote that Tiberius did so many other wicked deeds under the pretext of reforming public morals--but in reality to gratify his lust for seeing people suffer--that many satires were written against the evils of the day, incidentally expressing gloomy fears about the future.... At first Tiberius dismissed these verses as the work of bilious malcontents who were impatient with his reforms and did not really mean what they said. He would remark: 'Let them hate me, so long as they fear me!' But, as time went on, his conduct justified every line they had written.
Graves' edition of Suetonius is available under many covers, from hard-back study editions to Penguin paperbacks, including a wonderful, finely printed edition by the Folio Society. Take a step back into the seemier side of ancient Rome, the side most history courses overlook in favour of more traditional historical events, and hie thee to the bookstore for this work.
The rulers covered by this book include Julius Caesar; his adopted son Octavian who ruled as Augustus, and his descendents; the warlords who contended for power in the "Year of Four Caesars" after Nero was overthrown, and the Flavians who came out on top in that struggle.
In other words, the full list of twelve is:
If you want to understand the early Roman Empire, you need to read this book. If you are a budding novelist and want to write about the early Empire, you need to read this book. Reading Suetonius is not perhaps a sufficient condition to allow you to understand or write convincingly about the period, but it is a necessary condition.
Robert Graves, author of "I Claudius" and "Claudius the God" translated this version: not surprisingly many of the snippets of gossip and fascinating little stories from Suetonius find their way into his novels. They also find their way into every good novel about first century Rome that I have ever read, absolutely without exception.
You should not take for granted that every word of Suetonius's account is accurate. Reading carefully, you will see that where he heard two conflicting accounts of an issue or event he quotes both, usually without attempt to reconcile them. And a number of stories find their way into this account with, shall we say, less critical scrutiny than we would hope for today, though probably no less than you would expect from XXX - insert the name of a modern popular news medium you don't approve of here.)
For example, repeats uncritially the story that Nero set fire to the city of Rome, and then sang an aria as he watched the city burn. (This is story is often misquoted as Nero having fiddled while Rome burned - an impossibility since the violin had not been invented.)
Some modern historians have made a strong case that this was a clever libel spread by Nero's contemporary opponents. They argue that Nero was actually away from the city when the fire broke out, and hurried back to Rome to personally lead the fire-fighting efforts.
If they are right it does not cast doubt on Suetonius's integrity as a reporter of what was said about the emperor, because there is no dispute that the story of Nero singing while Rome burned was widely believed at the time. It was a perfect example of the old saying, "Si non e vero, e ben trovato" - if it's not true, it's well invented.
Aspects of the story certainly seem in character with many of Nero's other proclivities including his love of art, enormous vanity, and complete ruthlessness. However, the fact that it is reported as fact may illustrate that Suetonius does seem to have a propensity to repeat every snippet of gossip he heard about the early emperors, with rather less selectivity and critical judgement than other great ancient historians, such as Herodotus and Thucydides.
However, for this very reason, though perhaps he is a whisker behind Herodotus and Thucydides, or indeed Tacitus and Plutarch as a historian, Suetonius is far and away the most entertaining of the five.
The translation by Graves is very easy to read. This is one of the most important, fascinating, and informative works of ancient history which was ever written.