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January Books 7) The Twelve Caesars

7) The Twelve Caesars, by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

What do you do if you're the Emperor Hadrian's secretary and have a certain amount of spare time? You write a racy popular account of the lives of his predecessors as emperor of Rome. It is, of course, the Penguin edition of the Robert Graves translation that I've been reading (I own an 18th century edition as well but it's entirely in Latin). I'm also influenced by other stuff I've read about the early Empire: Robert Graves' own I CLAVDIVS, of course, and also CLAVDIVS the God, and the Lindsey Davies detective stories set in the reign of Vespasian (plus her non-genre novel about Vespasian's lover - see her note on Vespasian himself). And it was amusing to find the few details in the otherwise tedious story of Augustus which presumably formed the basis for the "August" chapter of Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

I have to say that the first biography, that of Julius Caesar, the one who wasn't actually Emperor, comes off as the best of the lot (I have already noted it). The Augustus one I found soporific, apart from Suetonius' references to what he'd found in Mark Antony's correspondence, which made me wish he'd written about Mark Antony instead. Tiberius comes across as such a dreadful individual and ruler that it is inexplicable (going by Suetonius' account) that he lasted 23 years. Caligula even worse; Claudius comes across relatively well; Nero actually starts off with some good points, before descending into craziness. The three Emperors of AD 68-69 barely have time to establish themselves as characters in our mind before they each die horribly in turn. I wished he had written more about Vespasian and Titus, who both come across as competent (by Roman standards, that is; they did of course together conquer and devastate Jerusalem and the surrounding territory). Domitian turns into another crazy, ushering in the two Emperors who Suetonius didn't write about but for whom he actually worked, Trajan and Hadrian. Michael Grant in the foreword suggests that the last six were published as a supplement to the first six, and that the fact that Suetonius quotes no first-hand source later than Augustus' reign indicates that he got sacked after finishing that biography. Maybe; we will never know for sure.

Couple of sidelights. First, Suetonius notes how, under Nero, "Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief." Amusing that this is part of the (substantial) list of good things that Nero did. There's a reference also earlier to the Jews of Rome becoming agitated by a man called "Chrestus" which sounds like a distorted version of something involving early Christianity. Second, I've been sufficiently interested by the death of Domitian to write about it and also republish another article. I remember reading with great interest F.H. Cramer's Astrology in Roman Law and Politics; I never worked out why the Asiatic kingdom of Commagene seemed to be so close to the topic. Anyway, that's for another day.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 23rd, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)
On the two references to Christianity, I've always found it interesting that Suetonius does not appear to have noticed the apparent similarity between the Jews causing disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus under Claudius and the existence of Christians under Nero. I think that says a lot about both his methods of research and composition, and the degree to which any informed understanding of Christianity had (not) filtered through to the educated elite in the early second century.

Incidentally, in the original Latin he describes Christianity not as a 'religious belief', but as a 'superstitio': the Roman term for excessive or misguided religious activity, usually with overtones of femininity (i.e. either referring to crazy things actual women get up to, or to eastern cults whose priests dress up as women and / or castrate themselves).

You might enjoy reading Tacitus' account of the fire of Rome and its aftermath as further illumination of both Nero's ability to behave as a good and sensible ruler, and his punishment of the Christians. If you have the Annals yourself, the account starts in book 15, at about chapter 40 (I don't have a copy with me to check the exact place at the moment). If not, it's available online - I recommend that you do Edit --> Find --> 'disaster followed' to find the beginning quickly and easily, since the chapters in this text aren't numbered.

What we find is that, despite the fact that Tacitus desperately wants us to believe that Nero is a horrific tyrant who started the fire on purpose, he in fact also can't resist showing us material which he presumably came across in his research, which reveals that Nero mounted massive operations to both attempt to help people affected by the fire and prevent it happening again. He provides accommodation and food for the homeless, arranges for the debris to be cleared away, offers incentives for rebuilding, and brings in a whole slew of building regulations to improve safety in future.

As for the punishment of the Christians, the structure of Tacitus' account also makes it quite clear that this was part of Nero's programme for disaster prevention. From the Roman perspective, a disaster like this meant that the gods were displeased, which in turn meant that the good relationship between the Roman people and their gods had been disturbed. So, the right thing to do is to make offerings to the Roman gods, and also weed out any religious non-conformity in your city. In this context, punishing Christians is a way of showing the Roman gods that you are not going to stand by and let people within your city neglect their worship.

Tacitus, of course, has his own agenda to push in this part of the account too: i.e. to convince us that Nero is a villain. But, like Suetonius, he seems to consider the punishment per se perfectly valid: his criticisms are that Nero used it as a means of deflecting suspicion from himself, and that he carried out the punishments in too extreme and ostentatious a manner: as a megalomaniacal tyrant would do.
Jan. 23rd, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC)
Hmm, the Tacitus stuff is indeed interesting. Poor old Nero, one almost imagines that if he'd had the personal space to burn off his youthful excesses in his twenties before becoming emperor, he might have made quite a good fist of it. As it was he inherited at seventeen and that was the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Jan. 23rd, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC)
Domitian turns into another crazy, ushering in the two Emperors who Suetonius didn't write about but for whom he actually worked, Trajan and Hadrian.

Hmm. It is difficult to write about your boss or even your bosses immediate predecessors. Witness Shakespeare's problem when commissioned to write a Henry VIII play in finding any event safe enough to write about. However, heaping praise dynastically on the current boss and damning the eyes of her enemies and detractors works very well, see the rest of the history plays. Though Richard II could be read two ways and got him in a bit of bother I seem to rememeber when some rebels had it presented the night before their uprising as inspirational viewing.
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