The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)

by Suetonius

Paperback, 2003



Call number




Penguin Books Ltd (2003), Paperback


Biography & Autobiography. History. Nonfiction. HTML: De vita Caesarum, known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies, each about one of the Roman emperors, including one on Julius Caesar. It was written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly referred to as Suetonius, in 121. Considered highly significant in antiquity, The Twelve Caesars has remained a major source of Roman history..

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
A friend who teaches Latin for a living told me it was this book, along with Tacitus’ Annals, that made her fall in love with Ancient Rome and change her concentration. Suetonius was a secretary to one of the Roman emperors, Hadrian, so one would expect he’d have an understanding of imperial
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Rome and access to its records. He presents a colorful account of the first twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Along with Plutarch, he’s our source for most of the stories about Julius Caesar. A lot of the most famous tidbits and quotes I’ve heard concerning the early Roman emperors turned out to come from Suetonius.

Suetonius’ Julius Caesar definitely comes across as autocratic and a ruthless, ambitious politician--but also (at least in comparison to his successors, or even Tacitus) humane and a superb leader. His successor and nephew Augustus is in comparison a chilly personality, even if an able administrator. After that Rome wasn’t so lucky. Suetonius’ account of Tiberius conforms to Tacitus’ picture of him as a man who started out decently and became more and more corrupt, especially once he retired to Capri. You think after what’s related of him no one can top Tiberius for depravity, but then after him sandwiching Claudius are Caligula and Nero. And well, if your picture of Claudius was formed by Robert Graves’ I, Claudius of someone wiser than he seemed:

Unfortunately, when the combatants gave the customary shout of: ‘Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!’ he joked: ‘Or not, as the case may be!’ so they all refused to fight maintaining that his words amounted to a pardon. He dithered for a while as to whether to have them all massacred in their burning ships, but at last leapt from his throne and hobbling ridiculously up and down the shoreline, in his shambling manner, induced them, by threats and promises combined, to fight. Twelve Sicilian triremes then fought twelve from Rhodes, the signal being given by a mechanical Triton, made of silver, which emerged from the middle of the lake and blew its horn.

This Claudius didn’t just pretend to be a stupid fool to survive. He owned stupid--add cruel as well. Nero’s death marks the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the “Year of Four Emperors” because before a year was over there were three more: Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Galba and Vitellius were cruel and corrupt, even if not as monstrous as Caligula and Nero, Otho in over his head. Then the Flavian dynasty arose, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, restoring stability. Vespasian from this account seems the first decent emperor--in competence and character--since Augustus. His elder son Titus is even described as *gasp* “kind-hearted” and just; he instituted both prohibitions against double jeopardy and a statute of limitations. Alas, the best that can be said about his brother Domitian, the last of the emperors treated here, is that he’s not as heinous as Caligula or Nero.

Tacitus covers some of the same material, from Tiberius to Nero, but Suetonius fills in quite a few gaps. It’s not easy to tell in translation, but Tacitus strikes me as the better writer, deeper thinker, and more trustworthy historian, but Suetonius is (even) more gossipy--in fact at some points it’s a bit much. At one point he says of Tiberius’ depravities that they are “things scarcely to be told or heard, let alone credited,”--which didn’t stop Suetonius going on to give us all the gory details. I had to pause for brain bleach--seriously folks. But boring he isn’t. (Except when he goes on and on about auguries and omens and portents.) All in all, if choosing just one to read, I’d put Tacitus first--but Suetonius was certainly worth reading.
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LibraryThing member adpaton
If you thought salacious tell-all celebrity biographies were a 20th Century phenomenon, think again! Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a 1st Century Roman nobleman who worked as secretary for both the emperors Trajan and Hadrian: his position in the Imperial household did not stop him penning the
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most gossipy and scandalous histories of former holders of the highest office.

Tellingly, he did not write about the two men under whom he had served: I don't know what the laws of libel were like back in 75 AD [roughly the time of writing] but many of the things Suetonius said would have got him killed had the charges been leveled against someone strill living.

Caligula, for example, was not only insane, he was also incestuous, pimped out his royal sisters, turned the palace into a brothel and tried to make his horse a consul - the rough equivalent of a Prime Minister.

However, Caligula's name is a byword by depravity and we would expect no less: we might be surprised however at his description of Julius Caesar as an epileptic with a high-pitched voice and a comb-over, he enjoyed taking it up the bum, or Tiberius as a perverse and vicious brute.

Claudius drooled, had a bad stutter and was also prone to fits: he was a greedy drunkard, weak, cruel and stupid - but still a paragon of all the virtues when compared with his successor, the infamous Nero, about whom the only good thing he has to say is that he was a gifted musician. On the other hand, Suetonius started the rumour that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Great stuff, a real page turned even now. If you thought the Romans were stuffy, read the Twelve Caesars and think again! Also pity our poor modern biographers who have such tame fodder to work with...
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LibraryThing member gbill
This biographies of the twelve Caesars who ruled Rome from Julius Caesar (49-44 B.C.) to Domitian (81-96 A.D.) This edition was translated by Robert Graves and was the basis for his work I Claudius; if you ever had the good fortune of watching the PBS series of that same name, I think you’ll
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really enjoy this book.

The first six Caesars are larger than life, starting with Julius of course; you’ll find all of the major elements of his life, e.g. crossing the Rubicon, declaring Vini, Vidi, Vici, having his tryst with Cleopatra, and getting assassinated. The chapters that follow on the imperious Augustus, the dour and perverted Tiberius, the insane and cruel Caligula, the stuttering and somewhat dimwitted Claudius, and the vain and lecherous Nero are all very interesting.

Suetonius provides historical facts and insights into life in Rome at the time, but is most known for how he delves into the personal lives of the Caesars and their debaucheries. It can feel a bit gossipy at times but I suspect most of it is true, and it certainly makes for interesting reading. The cruelty, corruption, and sexual perversion is a window into the time, and an obvious reminder of that old adage about absolute power.

The “back six” – Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, were a bit less interesting, even though they had most of the same characteristics, probably because they were lesser known to me. These chapters are much shorter than the others though.

I might knock my review score down half a star for that, but the illustrated edition more than makes up for it. It’s chock full of color and black and white photographs of ruins, works of art, images of the Caesars, and artifacts for the time – I highly recommend that if you’re going to read the book, to get this version.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
Suetonius is a greater chore to read than Tacitus, but his gossip is juicier. Pliny the Younger (of Letters fame) was Suetonius' patron, helping to secure him a sequence of senior positions in the empire. He rose to this height on the strength of his scholarship, and that is on display here in the
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greatest of his works. His format, however, is prone to challenge. It is not a chronologically history, as in Plutarch, but a categorized listing of the key elements which stand out about each of the first twelves Caesars of Rome. This may have suited the conventions of the time but perhaps not the subject matter, and it contrasts with the smoother narrative of Tacitus.

Robert Graves did a famous translation of this work, and it shows in his novel "I, Claudius" which I read a couple of years ago. I'm glad I read that first, so that I could read through its source material after the fact and make all the connections. Suetonius paints a very dark portrait of Tiberius, and makes it clear that the loss of Germanicus as an alternative heir to Augustus was a terrible blow to Rome. Tiberius was malicious, and Caligula was such a horror show it's only a wonder he wasn't murdered sooner. Claudius feels more maligned than he deserves; that might be Graves rubbing off on me but surely he could have been more appreciated for not being a monster, as they soon got again in Nero (again foregoing a better choice, Britannicus.) The next six Caesars are covered more briefly as the title was tossed around for a few months until Vespasian caught it, handing it down to his sons.

Not one of these Caesars, not even the kinder ones, envisioned the concept of restraining their power in some codified way. There is only the occasional discussion about restoring the Republic, an idea that never got serious wheels under it. Thus whenever the new Caesar started delivering random off-with-their-heads orders, off went the heads, until the inevitable assasination so that the next Caesar could start it all over again. I'm looking forward to Gibbon's story of how well that turned out for them.
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LibraryThing member RSGompertz
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a prolific writer who lived between 69-130 AD.

His only surviving work is An essential and very readable collection of essays about the Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Hadrian written by Hadrian's personal secretary. Suetonius had access to the imperial archives
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and, in the case of some of the later emperors, some eyewitnesses to history.

Given who Suetonius worked for and the politics of his times, there are many biases, conflicting stories, and untruths (like the legends about Nero singing while Rome burned) in his accounts of former emperors. This is the work of a court historian who is obliged to follow the party line. That said, Hadrian's reign had a very strong "good governance" theme to it so no apologies are made for the tyrants that preceded him.

Hadrian, the scribe's boss, emerges well even though he eventually fired Suetonius for some offense or insult against the Empress.

Anyone interested in a sweeping overview of one of the most fascinating times in history, and the colorful, ruthless, often brilliant and sometimes insane men who made it to the top of the heap should read this book. Rich with intrigue, "The Twelve Caesars" stands alone as a study of leadership and absolute power, rich with anecdotes and scandals, deep in detail. No history degree required, it's a must for any novelist working in this period.

Just for kicks, get the edition that was translated by Robert Graves, the poet and author of "I, Claudius."
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LibraryThing member lweddle
If you thought ancient history was dry and dull... you haven't read Suetonius!
LibraryThing member publiusdb
I'm something of a nerd, and lately I've had a thing for reading original works...or at least English translations of them.

The Twelve Caesars was as interesting as it gets, detailing the lives of the first 12 emperors of Rome after the fall of the republic. "Too many rulers is a dangerous thing"
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seems to be the prologue to this skim of the random details of twelve men's lives, debaucheries, and deaths.

Maybe not the thing for you if seeking a theme or readable history, but a great perspective of the most powerful men in the world of their time by a contemporary of them.
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LibraryThing member drmaf
The Roman equivalent of Hollywood Babylon. Gossipy and scandalous, all the juicy, salacious details of the private lives of Rome's first 12 emperors. Suetonius was an archivist during the reign of Hadrian, which gave him access to the Imperial family's private records (and probably led to his
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eventual dismissal for some unknown pecccadillo, perhaps for delving too deep in things that should not have seen the light of day). Historians are divided about the validity and value of Suetonius' writing, however, since he provides the only known details about a number of important episodes in Rome's early Imperial history, it is a priceless record and high;y readble one for the layman and student.
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LibraryThing member Pandaros
Being a student of classics and I myself falling in tandem with modern scholars over the accuracy of Suetonius' accounts believe they should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Especially when you notice that as he progresses further through his Lives he refers to less sources and presents many
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rumours as facts.

Reading Suetonius only highlights how much better an historian Tacitus was.
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LibraryThing member wackyvorlon
Suetonius is the more entertaining colleague of Tacitus. Tacitus is widely considered the more reliable historian, but Suetonius is more fun. He has included the gossip, the sordid rumours and dirty limericks of ancient rome. While it must be taken with a grain of salt, it makes for a vivid read.
LibraryThing member jrgoetziii
Not quite as good as Tacitus' Annals and I found myself questioning much of Suetonius' research. But of course this period is one of the most fascinating in all of human history, and tales of Nero's and Caligula's craziness are always worth laughing at.
LibraryThing member GeraldLange
Yup! Liked it. Liked it a lot.
Didn't like reading about Tiberius though.
Nope. Didn't like that at all; nothing civil to say there....about him OR Gaius.
LibraryThing member mallinje
A very interesting look into the lives of the Caesars. I loved reading "The Twelve Caesars." There are parts that are disturbing and parts that are hilarious, like Suetonius' portrayal of Claudius. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Rome.
LibraryThing member datrappert
This is a pleasure from beginning to end and started me on a long streak of reading original Roman and Greek authors. Suetonius is not always reliable, but he is the source of so many things that have entered our culture and our language. Reading this book will create more "a-ha" moments for a
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reasonably intelligent reader than just about anything else I can think of. Robert Graves translation is excellent, as one would expect from reading his own books.
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LibraryThing member Pippilin
Great, fun read even though it's not always historically accurate.
LibraryThing member SnowcatCradle
Do you enjoy drama? Gossip? Archaic methods of determining personality? Roman history? Did I mention gossip?

You can find all of these in Suetonius' Twelve Caesars! Easily on of my favorite biographies (?) concerning Imperial Romans. I would certainly suggest it, even to those who aren't avid
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readers of roman history.

There is, of course, the added benefit that it makes for a quick read!
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LibraryThing member ambrose_rex
Not at all dull, Suetonius tells it like he sees it and Robert Graves keeps that vigour with his translation.
If you only read one 'life' make it Julius Caesar's; "His health was sound apart from sudden comas" and Suetonius shares with us insults such as "Every woman's husband and every man's wife".
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Suetonius delights in repeating all the juicy gossip and re-chanting for us the ribald songs.
This dry looking book brings the Caesars alive.
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LibraryThing member Ghost_Boy
To quote Asterix, "These Romans are crazy!"

Basically, I read this because Rober Graves does this edition's translation. I liked his I, Claudius books and wanted to learn more about the Romans. I should have read this first before some of the more scholarly biographies. I'd say don't read this for
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actual sourcing. Even though this book is older than most, it focuses a lot on rumors and things that possibly aren't true. I think the depiction of the Roman way of life and culture is accurate though.

I will say this book is very entertaining. I thought I'd get board of it or parts would be over my head. Even though there are a lot of rumors, it made the book a fun read. I think most people are already aware these men were maybe a little too crazy and power hungry.

I want to say this book isn't relevant and it's history, but not sure after the past years. In America at least I can think of one particular person who reminded me too much of these men. Reading about the Roman's shouldn't be people to look up to in history. I'll go as afar to say reading about any leader shouldn't be you looking for someone to idolize. Clearly Suetonius has opinions in this book, but he comes of not really liking at of these me focusing on some pros and then focusing on the cons.

Not sure about other translations, but I liked this one. As the intro says, Graves wrote this for the everyday person to understand. He changed some words and phrases here and there, but again for you to understand them better.

Still would like to find some modern books about Roman.
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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
Graves's translation of Seutonious allows the modern reader an intimate look into the personal lives of the first Roman emperors. These are useful clues into the attitudes of Romans and the workings of the early Empire. Although it seems Seutonious had an agenda of his own, his information seems
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credible and useful, and always interesting.
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LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
My companion read to the fantastic "History of Rome" podcast. Amazing that the imperial political structure survived some of these early abuses of power and poor leadership. Each Caesar is given his accolades and critique, but there is definitely a bias in what is dwelled upon. Still, it seems a
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genuine attempt at accurate history with little revisionist propaganda
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LibraryThing member citizencane
I first encountered the name of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus during lectures in an undergraduate course in Medieval History over a half-century ago. A few years later, he became better known to me as a source for Robert Graves' "I, Claudius" a fictional treatment of "The Twelve Caesars" based on the
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collection of biographies of Julius Caeser and the first eleven emperors of the Roman Empire. So, I have belatedly gotten around to blowing the dust off my Penguin Classics edition of Suetonius' work translated by none other than Robert Graves.

The first thing to note about Suetonius' account of the lives of the Julian and Flavian emperors is that his style is for the most part matter of fact and only occasionally given to judgements of the virtues and vices of his subjects. Some of the supporting characters who dominated the story in I, Claudias, rate only passing references in Suetonius' biographies.

He begins each biography with the ancestry of each subject, both the actual predecessors and in some cases the invented ancestry potentially reaching back to the gods. He follows with a history of their early lives, military careers, rise through the maze of political offices, major and minor, their marriages, divorces, their offspring both natural and adopted.

He then provides an account of how they rose or were drafted into the status of emperor. He chronicles the early years (or in some cases months) of their reign, their conduct of public affairs at the height of their power and the circumstances which led to their downfall frequently by violence.

Most of the story, not surprisingly is given over to Julius Caesar and the first five emperors who followed him and who are best known to students and general readers of ancient history: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Their stories take up a little under 80% of the text. The biographies of Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian occupy the remaining 20+%.

One of the recurring themes in these brief biographies is the tendency of the various emperors to begin their reigns as moderate, public spirited "uniters" and reformers who respected the norms and protocols of Rome's traditions, religion and civic institutions. They are builders of great public works and benefactors to the Roman people and especially the military.

Eventually, the emperors, particularly beginning with Tiberius, indulge their vices which are many and extreme: sexual license and perversion, rapacious greed, gluttony and the arbitrary application of justice, notable not only for the usual practice of helping friends and/or hurting enemies, but also how it was leveraged in the service of the other vices mentioned above. The arbitrariness of Rome's rulers was matched by their extreme cruelty and the condemnation of accused who were guilty of absolutely nothing. And this is how they treated their own citizens and countrymen. Their treatment of their conquered enemies was equally "enlightened". As one barbarian chieftain is supposed to have said, "Rome creates a desert and calls it peace".

If you pick up the "The Twelve Caesars" expecting a sensational tale of orgies, bloodletting, poisonings, family betrayals, and politics played for keeps, you will likely be disappointed. It's all there, but in sober, detached, and measured rhetoric. For the "good stuff" take up "I, Claudius" or pop-in the DVDs of the Masterpiece Theater version of Graves' work.
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LibraryThing member TheTrueBookAddict
Suetonius was private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. He had access to the imperial archives and so, wrote this biographical account of the first twelve Caesars with information from those archives, and some eye witness accounts. It's a very detailed account that sometimes reads like a gossip
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column of the time. One thing is for sure...most of these emperors were very cruel, unjust and sadistic. I started reading this in February and decided at that point I would need to read it in doses. It can be dry at times, but overall, it gives insight into the lives and reigns of these leaders, and the times in which they lived.
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LibraryThing member larryking1
I find it heartening to enjoy with such gusto a 2,000 year old historical account by the Emperor Hadrian's secretary, he being one Suetonius! In his narrative, he describes the biographies of twelve members of Rome's ruling class who led its Empire at its height, beginning with Julius Caesar and
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ending over a century later with the hapless Domitian. This was a groundbreaking work because, for the first time a writer relied on what we know today as "primary" sources, either direct interviews or documents from those times. There was little heresay and religious or otherworldly accounts, for the most part, were left out of his narrative. What was left in, however, was an entirely different matter: all kinds of depravity and mayhem and violence, and, best of all, decadence, of the most titillating sort, are described with a descriptive delight bordering on the salacious! Keep in mind that, among these Caesars we have Caligula and Nero, two despots we still talk about today! And most of these rulers came to very bad ends, all described with a zeal that makes the reader want to turn the page to find out about the next one and the next one after that! Of note is the masterful translation by Robert Graves who used his ability and knowledge to novelize the life of the Emperor Claudius into two exquisite novels.
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LibraryThing member Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr
What a fantastic little book full of gossip and intrigue of the 12 emperors succeeding Julius Caesar and the fall of the Republic. Good translation By Robert Graves.
LibraryThing member Harrod
I adored this


Audie Award (Finalist — Biography/Memoir — 2005)


Original publication date

0120 c.

Physical description

384 p.; 7.6 inches


0140449213 / 9780140449211
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