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Indispensable guide to the early Roman Empire,
This review is from: The Twelve Caesars (Paperback)
This is a collection of essays about the first twelve rulers to bear the name Caesar. It is the definitive collection of eyewitness stories about the early emperors as they were seen by their contemporaries.
The rulers covered by this book include Julius Caesar; his adopted son Octavian who ruled as Augustus, and his descendents; the warlords who contended for power in the "Year of Four Caesars" after Nero was overthrown, and the Flavians who came out on top in that struggle.
In other words, the full list of twelve is:
If you want to understand the early Roman Empire, you need to read this book. If you are a budding novelist and want to write about the early Empire, you need to read this book. Reading Suetonius is not perhaps a sufficient condition to allow you to understand or write convincingly about the period, but it is a necessary condition.
Robert Graves, author of "I Claudius" and "Claudius the God" translated this version: not surprisingly many of the snippets of gossip and fascinating little stories from Suetonius find their way into his novels. They also find their way into every good novel about first century Rome that I have ever read, absolutely without exception.
You should not take for granted that every word of Suetonius's account is accurate. For example, he supports the story that Nero set fire to the city of Rome, and then sang an aria as he watched the city burn. (This is story is often misquoted as Nero having fiddled while Rome burned - an impossibility since the violin had not been invented.)
Some modern historians have made a strong case that this was a clever libel spread by Nero's contemporary opponents. They argue that Nero was actually away from the city when the fire broke out, and hurried back to Rome to personally lead the fire-fighting efforts.
If they are right it does not cast doubt on Suetonius's integrity as a reporter of what was said about the emperor, because there is no dispute that the story of Nero singing while Rome burned was widely believed at the time. It was a perfect example of the old saying, "Si non e vero, e ben trovato" - if it's not true, it's well invented.
Aspects of the story certainly seem in character with many of Nero's other proclivities including his love of art, enormous vanity, and complete ruthlessness. However, the fact that it is reported as fact may illustrate that Suetonius does seem to have a propensity to repeat every snippet of gossip he heard about the early emperors, with rather less selectivity and critical judgement than the other great ancient historians, Herodotus and Thucydides.
However, for this very reason, though perhaps he is some way behind Herodotus and Thucydides as a historian, Suetonius is far and away the most entertaining of the three.
The translation by Graves is very easy to read. This is one of the most important, fascinating, and informative works of ancient history which was ever written.