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The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 25 Oct 2007
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As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, the scholar Suetonius had access to the imperial archives and used them (along with eyewitness accounts) to produce one of the most colourful biographical works in history. "The Twelve Caesars" chronicles the public careers and private lives of the men who wielded absolute power over Rome, from the foundation of the empire under Julius Caesar and Augustus, to the decline into depravity and civil war under Nero and the recovery that came with his successors. A masterpiece of observation, anecdote and detailed physical description, "The Twelve Caesars" presents us with a gallery of vividly drawn - and all too human - individuals.
About the Author
Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon. He went from school to the First World War, where he became a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme. He wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929, and it was soon established as a modern classic. He died on 7 December 1985 in Majorca, his home since 1929.
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The introduction appositely remarks that Suetonius was following, in this work, the classical format of eulogy or biography, rather than history, according to classical forms. As a result, each reign is organised topically, beginning with ancestry, going on to civic achievements, then military campaigns, then the given emperor's vices or crimes, and the manner of his death complete with warnings and omens. This means that a reader completely unacquainted with the period may find the overarching story hard to follow, and it is best to be armed with basic knowledge of it. At the same time, firstly, Suetonius does follow a loose chronological progression within each topic he addresses and within each life, and secondly his writing is really clear and easy to follow. Suetonius as historian was impressive, moreover: in addition to testimonies and oral sources, he examined written sources including letters written by the protagonists, e.g. Augustus, and official Roman records, e.g. the treasury's. This is exceptional, indeed to my knowledge unprecedented, for a classical writer. Though sometimes his sources appear to fail him, this is rare and his account is authoritative. Twelve Caesars, in addition to being easy to read, is an essential source on the early Roman Empire.
If you are a non-expert just starting to learn about the emperors, I particularly recommend "Chronicle of the Roman Emperors" by Chris Scarre (see my review), but buy Suetonius as well!
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