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The Twelve Caesars Paperback – December 18, 2007
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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.
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Of all the choices about this book by Suetonius and translated by Robert Graves, I picked the wrong one. I have read several Graves' books on Roman history and enjoyed his writing. But this one has been "revised" by J.B. Rives. And the patient died on Rives' writing desk!
Who the heck is this J.B. Rives? How could he be a PhD in Classics from Stanford and a professor at Columbia University? His revision of Robert Graves' translation of Suetonius writing made the text all but unreadable. His English is stilted. His sentence structure is awkward. And his writing is jumbled.
Any writer worth his/her salt knows the basic rule of good writing is clarity. Many of Rives' sentences are so poorly written, you have no idea what the heck is he talking about and have to go back to read it again and again. Sometimes you have to deconstruct his sentence to remove unnecessary words that made the sentence confusing or add additional words to complete the meaning of the sentence. Robert Graves must be rolling over in his grave in protest.
Don't fix it when it ain't broke. Why does Penguin Classics need to have Rives "revise" Graves' original translation? And who is the editor who approved Rives' "revision" for publication? It's the worst Penguin Classics I have ever read.
I WANT MY MONEY BACK!
Like the books that 40 years later talk about the sex lives
of famous presidents, this book sets out to make people like Octavius
and Julius Caesar look bad. Like saying Jesus had a son by Mary Magdalene
or saying Jesus was a magician who used "tricks",
this book takes men who were deified and tries to make them look as black as possible
by telling all the rumors and lies that went around.
These are not the biographies you find in the history book or encyclopedias,
but what their enemies might have said about them.
Today, we don't call this writing history, but yellow journalism.
It sold books even in ancient times.
Speaking of Tiberius, his biography and those of Caligula and Nero are probably the most compelling, mainly because these three were the biggest nutcases of all the Caesars. They offer an excellent example of what happens when you combine absolute power with extreme, albeit justified, paranoia. Tiberius is depicted as the worst of the sadist-pervert Roman emperors (with Caligula not far behind). During his reign, not a day passed without an execution, and he delighted in torture. Tiberius authorized terrible deeds - for example, "Tradition forbade the strangling of virgins; so, when little girls had been condemned to die in this way, the executioner began by violating them" - and after retiring to Capri, he completely gave himself over to debauchery and cruelty. As Suetonius gleefully reports: "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!" (Let me assure you: you won't find details such as this in Tacitus.)
Gaius (Caligula) is portrayed as mentally ill and just as savage and debased as his predecessor, Tiberius. People who criticized his wild beast shows were sawn in half. He forced parents to attend their sons' executions. Suetonius notes that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself." He watched one man "being flogged with chains for several days running, and had him killed only when the smell of suppurating brains became insupportable." Caligula spent ungodly amounts of money on pointless and impossible ventures. After less than a year in office, he had squandered the entire treasury with his extravagances. Pressed for cash, he began appropriating entire estates on the slightest pretext, "using wickedly ingenious methods of raising funds by false accusations." Fortunately, Caligula was murdered at the age of twenty-nine after ruling for less than four years.
The biography of Nero is possibly my favorite. He believed himself to be a talented singer and lyre-player, and held frequent (and endless) performances for the "benefit" of the Roman people. Suetonius tells us, "No one was allowed to leave the theatre during his recitals, however pressing the reason. We read of women in the audience giving birth, and of men being so bored with listening and applauding that they furtively dropped down from the wall at the rear, since the gates were kept barred, or shammed dead and were carried away for burial." After using public funds to build an enormous golden palace for himself - the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile; the entrance-hall was large enough to contain a 120-foot high statue of himself; the main dining room had a circular roof that revolved, day and night, in time with the sky - we are told that Nero condescended to remark: `Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!'" He was also a pervert on par with Tiberius and Caligula. Suetonius writes: "Nero practiced every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body finally invented a novel game: he was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes." Nero eventually wound up being forced to kill himself to avoid being murdered. While hemming and hawing about whether or not to go through with the suicide, he was awash in self-pity and was overheard muttering to himself through his tears: "Dead! And so great an artist!"
Some of the other Caesars fare better in Seutonius' hands. We are told that all of Rome went into mourning after Titus' death. Although Claudius is described as cruel, bloodthirsty, and stupid, he could also be kind: he planned an edict to legitimize farting at the dinner table -- "either silently or noisily" -- after hearing about a man who was so modest that he endangered his health by an attempt to restrain himself. Vespasian, of all people (who?), comes across as the best emperor of the bunch. His only real vice was stinginess. Suetonius says that after Vespasian died, "the famous actor Favor, who wore Vespasian's funeral mask in the procession and gave the customary imitations of his gestures and words, shouted to the imperial agents `How much will all this cost?' `A hundred thousand,' they answered. `Then I'll take a thousand down, and you can just pitch me in the Tiber.'"
In short, Suetonius' "Twelve Caesars" is Roman history at its most entertaining. Believe it or not, Suetonius is also considered a very credible source. Five stars.
Most recent customer reviews
I read this book as I knew that Caesars were delicious salads.
I had a rough time in the beginning as the names and the translated writing style...Read more