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The Twelve Caesars Paperback – December 18, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 823 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was probably born in AD69—the famous "year of the four Emperors." From the letters of Suetonius’ close friend Pliny the Younger we learn that he practiced briefly at the bar, avoided political life, and became chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian (AD117-38). Suetonius seems to have lived to a good age and probably died around the year AD140.

James Rives teaches in the area of Classical Studies at Stanford University. He is currently serving as Review Editor for Phoenix, Journal of the Classical Association of Canada.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ 0140455167
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; Revised edition (December 18, 2007)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 464 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9780140455168
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0140455168
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 11.3 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.6 out of 5 stars 823 ratings

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4.6 out of 5 stars
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Reviewed in the United States on June 25, 2016
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1.0 out of 5 stars Extreme Danger -- Don't Get the Wrong Edition!
By C. Williams on June 25, 2016
I wanted the Penguin Graves translation, which is marvelous and was left on a train. I accidentally bought the preposterous edition with 12 photos on the cover (see my attached photo). The error is easy to make, since the 180 Amazon reviews refer not to various editions but to the work itself. The edition I accidentally chose is by an obscure translator, produced Print-0n-Demand, and in fact available free at Gutenberg Project. The format is that of "Suetonious for Dummies." The font is absurdly small and each line run 15-18 words, making it impossible to read. Just a disaster of book design. To survive Amazon policy of conflating reviews, use "Look Inside the Book" to confirm the intended publisher.
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5.0 out of 5 stars 'The Twelve Caesars' Is Suetonius' Finest Work, & The Perfect Introduction To Roman History.
By Andrew Reece on July 7, 2021
I was torn on whether or not I wanted to read J.B. Rives' introduction to 'The Twelve Caesars', but I ended up enjoying what he had to say in it immensely after taking the time to go through it. It enriched my reading experience with the book quite considerably, particularly because Rives doesn't try to force any particular view or opinion of either Suetonius or 'The Twelve Caesars' upon the reader.

Suetonius possesses a somewhat dubious reputation amongst the historian crowd as being considered the 'sensationalist writer' of antiquity. (It's like being a known writer of the 'National Enquirer' in Ancient Rome.) This causes his work to be regarded with a fair amount of skepticism & because of it the books he wrote that survived aren't taken as seriously as those of his contemporaries' such as Tacitus.

This book probably should be taken more seriously than it is, but there's so much humor injected into 'Caesars' that it's hard not to become addicted to the way Suetonius writes. Many of the Roman emperors appearing in 'Caesars' seem a lot more human when you read on the often-comical events chronicled by the author. Suetonius' style is absolutely brimming with his emotion, his wit, his linguistic drolleries. He's freaking hilarious to read, & from what Rives has written in his introduction, Suetonius' work is remarkably accurate to boot. What does that mean? It means that the information contained in 'The Twelve Caesars' isn't a bunch of rigamarole & fabricated exaggerations that didn't really happen, Suetonius probably performed the same amount of research on this work that any other historian living in that age did for theirs. He was from an equestrian family with a credible reputation, & he was well-regarded by his contemporaries, like Pliny the Younger.

'The Twelve Caesars' is composed in a style that I had never encountered prior to reading it, & I am now hopelessly addicted to it in every way. Suetonius really doesn't follow any biographical template or guidelines throughout the course of this book. There's a format, kind of, that he uses but it's very unorthodox in its presentation, which makes it all the more endearing to me. 'The Twelve Caesars' is an informal set of twelve biographies, of varying length & subject matter, on the first twelve emperors of the Roman Empire. It's like Suetonius decided that he wanted to create this magnum opus about the twelve Caesars but he didn't really feel like following the rules that everyone else adhered to when they wrote biographies; he wanted to do it his way. And he did. Sadly, 'The Twelve Caesars' wasn't the only part of Suetonius' life in which he did not follow the rules. He served as 'ab epistulis' (this is the Roman equivalent to an imperial secretary in charge of the emperor's personal correspondences) to the emperor Hadrian until he was alleged to be having an affair with Hadrian's wife, Vibia Sabina. He was dismissed from service for the transgression.

'The Twelve Caesars' starts out with the biography of Julius Caesar & concludes in the reign of Domitian, going right up to 96 A.D. with his assassination. The base text of 'Caesars' in this edition runs in at about 310 pages, trade paperback. One of the many things I find amusing about the book is that there's very little rhyme or reason to the length of each Roman emperor's section, all of which are in chronological order (Rives touches on this in the introduction, his insights are quite engaging if the reader just takes a bit of time to study them). There are many theories as to why this occurs but I think it just comes down to Suetonius' judgment or personal preference. None of the emperors chronicled in 'The Twelve Caesars' were still ruling when 'The Twelve Caesars' was released in 121 A.D. plus Suetonius dedicated the book to a very close friend of his. He probably didn't have to worry about pleasing his editor or being politically correct, his family was powerful enough where he probably had no need to adhere to any guidelines save those which were self-imposed. If he liked a particular emperor or if he thought well of him, he probably made their biography indicative of what he felt on the man, such as he did with Augustus. And if he didn't like the emperor, or if the emperor just wasn't a good guy to begin with, that is also made abundantly clear. Galba's biography is eleven pages long, he reigned for about 6 months; Otho's section nine pages, he reigned for around 3 months. But Titus, who was a legitimate Flavian emperor & in power for two full years, is allotted six pages. Octavian, or Augustus, by whatever name you know him by, has the longest biography at 61 pages, which makes sense as his time in power was the longest, from 27 B.C. - 14 A.D. Nero's section is fairly lengthy, however in his biography Suetonius isn't chronicling the military or diplomatic successes of the Neronian era. If you know about what Nero "accomplished" during the time he was in power, I'm sure you have an idea of what kind of information it contains.

While each of the twelve biographies is intended to chronicle the respective emperor's notable accomplishments during the years they were in power, sometimes Suetonius glosses over certain subjects, people or events closely related to the ruler in question & omits others, entirely. Again, Rives' introduction does a great job of bringing these insights to the reader's attention when they go through the text of 'The Twelve Caesars'. And Suetonius does a great job of making the reader laugh his or her ass off via his witty sarcasm.

If you want to know the details of the First & Second Battles of Cremona, seek them elsewhere, because you won't find them here. But if you want to read a hilarious anecdote about Claudius trying to give a speech on Roman History but he can't quite get the words out, because he's laughing uncontrollably after seeing some fat man break a bench full of people after he tried to sit on it, then you're in the right place. Suetonius has a tendency to abruptly hurl his humor at you like a well-aimed manhole cover after discussing a serious subject for three pages. It's the little anecdotes like the one I just described with Claudius that make history come alive to me, the not-so-impressive events which suddenly make the Romans more to me than merely words, on a page, in a book.

And Suetonius' extremely imperfect writing style only adds to that degree of endearment. His sentences often go on for entire paragraphs, without surcease. He cites a joke people spread about Caesar making his co-consul's decisions for him, then explains the joke when the punchline is pretty easy to spot without an explanation. I didn't mind, it shows that Suetonius cared about the work he did being understood when people read it. He includes odd rhymes or actually documents public 'songs' meant as mockeries intended to make fun of the ruler in question, often inserting them into the text with very little explanation. He has a tendency to give so much information that the reader is bombarded with it, details on Octavian's personal grooming habits, or his favorite expressions (quicker than boiled asparagus). Caligula used to tease Caesonia & (playfully) threaten to torture her to discover why he loved her so passionately. He wasn't actually going to DO it, all sources indicate that Caligula & Caesonia were faithful to each other until their deaths. It was probably just a playful joke the two shared that ended up being documented. When Galba came to Rome from the then-backwater province of Hispania (Spain) because he wanted to just waltz in & become the emperor, he walked into a theater only to be greeted by a mocking song comparing him to some country bumpkin who had just "come down from the farm". If the Romans didn't like you, they let you know about it.

'The Twelve Caesars' is a fairly fast read, at least it was for me, & I am just a layman who looks at the work with a layman's perspective (A layperson is just a regular person without any technical area of expertise in a particular field of study). There are copious supplemental materials in this edition, such as a glossary of relevant Latin/Roman terminology, expanded notes located at the end of the volume, & numerous maps displaying the various areas of the Roman Empire at the time of 'Caesars' complete with the Roman nomenclature of the locations.

When I first started reading 'The Twelve Caesars' or 'De Vita Caesarum' in Latin, I thought it was going to be a fairly onerous task, full of boring historically-significant-but-extremely-dull information about a bunch of dead Roman guys. As you can see, it ended up being quite a bit more than that for me. Suetonius' unique writing style made all of the difference while I read through 'Caesars', that & his inclusion of humorous anecdotes & random occurrences that most people wouldn't even think twice about, let alone commit to paper. I wonder if Suetonius knew that over 2000 years after his death people would be reading his work & still enjoying it. Because if there's one thing about 'The Twelve Caesars' that is abundantly obvious it is that Suetonius wrote it with intention that it was to be enjoyed.

If you are on the fence about Roman History, or curious to see if you'd like the area of subject matter, I most emphatically would recommend 'The Twelve Caesars' to you, in the strongest possible terms. For the price, you can't go wrong with this Penguin Classics edition. It has everything you could possibly need to enrich your experience, no question.
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James
5.0 out of 5 stars An account from the archive of the first twelve Caesars.
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