The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius, 121 AD)

Creasy wrote in his Battles that the obscure machinations of warring east Asia “appear before us through the twilight of primaeval history, dim and indistinct, but massive and majestic, like mountains in the early dawn.” So one would expect the lives of such rulers as the Caesars to exhibit likewise such mythical prominence. But the stories provided by Suetonius, while they must be read with a skeptical eye now and then, feel too minutely detailed, too personal and arbitrary, to be anything but truth. It’s a mountain of anecdote and hearsay, so as history it is somewhat unreliable, but it’s as vivid a collection of character portraits as has ever been assembled.

Writing from a perspective close to the topic (he was born in the tumultuous year 69, in which Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian all assumed the purple) yet distant enough not to be unduly affected (as imperial secretary under the relatively pacific rule of Hadrian, he had ample time and authority to be objective, at least until he was dismissed in 122 AD), Suetonius was not concerned with writing a chronological account of recent history. Many still lived who could tell stories of the Neronian conflagration, or whose families had yet to recover from the ravages of Tiberius.

The aim, then, was to establish as completely and honestly as possible the personalities and characters of the clan of Caesars, if only for the reason that one could finally do so without risk of being executed for praising one, or failing to praise another.

Each man, then, and they are very much acknowledged to be men despite posthumous deification, is given an origin story, a catalogue of works and services rendered to the empire, a candid acknowledgement of vices, weaknesses, and even sexual habits, and, more often than not, the circumstances of their assassination.

The literally cutthroat tactics employed by nearly every future emperor as early as their teenage years establish them all as ambitious, audacious, cunning, and usually cruel men, and Suetonius spares none of them. Even Augustus, universally adored, gets his licks: as a youth he was ruthless in effecting retribution on the enemies of Julius Caesar, callously massacring prisoners to the disgust of those around him. That he led Rome to decades of prosperity may justify the means of his accession, but even he must answer to posterity for all his acts. (Echoes of Creasy, again, who takes to task cherry-picking historians who care only for the flaws of Alexander.)

On the other side of the coin, even the emperors whose names are now synonymous with violent excess and infamy, and who received no posthumous consideration except to be butchered on the street, do not have their good points neglected. Tiberius, for example, is described as being modest, courteous to a fault in political discussions, while assiduously attending to the matters of Rome. His witticisms are likewise added to the account. This is the same man who, a few pages later, circumvents a traditional ban on executing virgins by having these innocents raped before they are killed!

The aspect of the book that is least amenable to its serious consideration as factual reporting is Suetonius’s clear acceptance of omens and auspices – not that this was uncommon at the time. But it does his questionable but realistic passages no credit when they are followed by paragraphs of lightning bolts striking the sceptres from the hands of statues, doubtful interpretations of sacrificial intestines, and frequent comets (“long-haired stars”) presaging each emperor’s birth, ascension, downfall, and death.

Suetonius does insert himself into the narrative in more interesting ways, however. He happily disputes in his own voice episodes about which he has discovered conflicting information, and soundly discounts stories his researches found to be without merit. Once he even brings in a bit of family history when the motivations of Otho’s suicide are considered. Some, apparently, thought it was out of desperation and a desire not to be taken prisoner (and likely suffer a more horrible death) – but Suetonius recalls the story of his own father, who served under Otho during his final campaign, and swears that the emperor in fact was so tortured by his conscience at seeing so many men die for his sake that he chose to die rather than continue. It’s not exactly something anyone can confirm, except that it would be a rather brazen and easily disputed lie for Suetonius to attempt, and for no other reason than to spare the memory of a man about whom he seems to care very little.

The Twelve Caesars was a fun, informative, and fairly easy read. Robert Graves’s now-classic translation has a few highly isolated rough spots (his reimagining of Gaius/Caligula’s nickname as “Bootikin,” for instance) but is otherwise wonderfully readable. Either Suetonius or Graves (likely both) has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and everything is very restrained; hyperbole is not employed as a rule, nor is it warranted, considering the excesses to which these men got up to. The ruling families had a vexing habit of naming their children the same thing for generations, however, and though a family tree at the end helps make things clear, I often found myself wondering which “edition” of a Nero, Drusus, or Livia was being poisoned. But whether that flaw is to be laid at the feet of Graves, Suetonius, or imperial Roman aristocratic tradition is open for debate.

Now it’s on to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I suspect will not be such a breeze to get through. But I have it on the authority of several centuries that it is worth the effort. ยป