on 1 August 2002
Michael Grant has written a modern history/biography of the first twelve emperors of the Roman Empire, including Julius Caesar. These are the same people as the Roman biographer Suetonius covered in his "Lives of the Caesars".
The most outrageous and unsavoury aspects of the emperors' lives seem to have been watered down as being rumours and gossip that are not necessary true.
He does succeed in presenting these twelve emperors in an impartial way. However, the events of each reign are not clearly narrated. I particularly found the events of Julius Caesar's life most difficult to follow, and was most disappointed in the historical view of Claudius (I prefer Robert Graves' view as seen in the I, Claudius TV series).
I am not convinced this book is totally accessable by the general public. I feel that a more detailed summary of Roman history would be useful.
Michael Grant clearly demonstrates that "Overwork combined with fear tends to corrupt, and continual overwork and fear corrupt absolutely - with all the greater rapidity when combined with old age or ill-health."
Also included within the book are genealogical tables, which while they are useful had people mentioned in the text missing. Julia daughter of Augustus had no line linking her to her parents.
It is a good enjoyable easy read, that quotes original documents to give a better view of the characters covered in the book. However, it would have been a better book if more of the Roman historical background was explained.
on 13 April 2012
This is my first time reading a Michael Grant book. His writing style is a little difficult to follow. He routinely makes five sentences into one which sometimes leaves you forgetting the subject of the sentence before you reach the end. Despite this I find his analysis of Roman history and its historians very interesting.
The Twelve Caesars recaps the lives of the first twelve emperors of Rome. Starting with Julius Caesar's takeover of Rome as dictator and continues recounting the lives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), the short lives of the civil war emperors (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). The book is written in chronological order with the beginning of each chapter giving a quick synopsis of how the emperor came to power, the major events of his life, and how he met his end. I felt all of these were well written and made the rest of story much easier to understand despite Grant's difficult writing style.
The meat of the story provided by Grant is the work of the Roman historians, but what makes the book important is Grant's evaluation of the historical records provided on the emperors based on the prejudices and politics of the writers. Reading Suetonius, Tacitus, or Dio Cassius in a vacuum would lead the reader into an erroneous view of their lives, but Grant digs through the stories and tries to reflect the most likely truth. Of course, Grant would be the first to say that even his well researched analysis may not always be correct since the lives of the Caesars were cloaked in secrecy.
This is a great addition to anyone interested in ancient history, Rome, or even the mind of a dictator. Grant's forward is enlightening in itself. His logical evaluation of the character and actions of the emperors gave me an appreciation for their challenges and abilities. I recommend reading as much of the ancient historians as possible, but having a modern evaluation of the subject is equally important.