7) The Twelve Caesars, by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
What do you do if you’re the Emperor Hadrian’s secretary and have a certain amount of spare time? You write a racy popular account of the lives of his predecessors as emperor of Rome. It is, of course, the Penguin edition of the Robert Graves translation that I’ve been reading (I own an 18th century edition as well but it’s entirely in Latin). I’m also influenced by other stuff I’ve read about the early Empire: Robert Graves’ own I CLAVDIVS, of course, and also CLAVDIVS the God, and the Lindsey Davies detective stories set in the reign of Vespasian (plus her non-genre novel about Vespasian’s lover – see her note on Vespasian himself). And it was amusing to find the few details in the otherwise tedious story of Augustus which presumably formed the basis for the “August” chapter of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I have to say that the first biography, that of Julius Caesar, the one who wasn’t actually Emperor, comes off as the best of the lot (I have already noted it). The Augustus one I found soporific, apart from Suetonius’ references to what he’d found in Mark Antony’s correspondence, which made me wish he’d written about Mark Antony instead. Tiberius comes across as such a dreadful individual and ruler that it is inexplicable (going by Suetonius’ account) that he lasted 23 years. Caligula even worse; Claudius comes across relatively well; Nero actually starts off with some good points, before descending into craziness. The three Emperors of AD 68-69 barely have time to establish themselves as characters in our mind before they each die horribly in turn. I wished he had written more about Vespasian and Titus, who both come across as competent (by Roman standards, that is; they did of course together conquer and devastate Jerusalem and the surrounding territory). Domitian turns into another crazy, ushering in the two Emperors who Suetonius didn’t write about but for whom he actually worked, Trajan and Hadrian. Michael Grant in the foreword suggests that the last six were published as a supplement to the first six, and that the fact that Suetonius quotes no first-hand source later than Augustus’ reign indicates that he got sacked after finishing that biography. Maybe; we will never know for sure.
Couple of sidelights. First, Suetonius notes how, under Nero, “Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.” Amusing that this is part of the (substantial) list of good things that Nero did. There’s a reference also earlier to the Jews of Rome becoming agitated by a man called “Chrestus” which sounds like a distorted version of something involving early Christianity. Second, I’ve been sufficiently interested by the death of Domitian to write about it and also republish another article. I remember reading with great interest F.H. Cramer’s Astrology in Roman Law and Politics