The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
Many people consider history (or at least books about it) to be a dry and a somewhat dull experience. If you are such a person then I cordially invite you to think again. Suetonius’ book “The Twelve Caesars” is a catalogue of degeneracy, perversions and general behaviour that would upset the vicar. It is both gripping and informative, proving that with regard to human nature, no matter how things change, they remain the same.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillis was born in A.D. 69. He became a scribe in the service of Hadrian, who was emperor from A.D. 117-138. Having been dismissed for ‘indiscreet behaviour’ with Hadrian’s empress, Sabina, he turned his hand to several books regarding history and philosophy. These received a lukewarm reception among classical scholars, but the ‘The Twelve Caesars’ has proved otherwise. Its mixture of scholarly facts along with tabloid scandal-mongering is the key to its broad appeal.
The most well-known translation of the source text is by Robert Graves, who used this as the basis for his own novel “I, Claudius”. This translation is not linguistically verbatim but rather a faithful account of Suetonius work, rendered into Standard English. This makes the book extremely accessible. Although there are editorial notes, they do not impede the narrative allowing the reader to approach the material as either a scholar or a voyeur.
Suetonius is not coy about the peccadilloes of the emperors and their families, nor does he hold back in his moral judgement of them. So we get details about Julius Caesar the catamite of King of Bithnyia (Yes, it wasn’t a term I was familiar with either. Google is your friend), Augustus singeing off his leg hair with hot walnut shells and Nero having the entrances barred so people could not leave his poetry recitals. One lady gave birth during such an event. There’s also rape, murder, torture, incest, more torture, more murder, all kinds of killing of family members, bestiality and interpretive dance.
It’s compelling stuff and even more so when you consider the text is not far off being two thousand years old. Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” is constructed in such a way as to be extremely accessible. This can be read whilst commuting, at home in an armchair or on the beach on holiday. The latter may even increase your credibility as an intellectual. It also serves as a lesson about the nature of power. Be grateful that our contemporary leaders do not wield such arbitrary life or death powers.