Toga Tabloid: The Lives of the Caesars

Essay by Michael Dirda

Historians value Suetonius as an innovator in biographical and historical writing — he abandoned straight chronology for a more thematic approach to his subjects, in this case the emperors of Rome from Julius Caesar to Domitian (from 50 B.C. to A.D. 100), and he practiced a rare objectivity in his portraiture. That said, Livy (History of Rome) and Tacitus (Germania, Agricola, The Annals) are usually viewed as greater writers, both as historians and stylists. Where Suetonius stands alone, at least for the modern reader, is in the quality of his weird and fascinating gossip.

Consider the main emperors covered in his book: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. What a concatenation of raw ambition, unfeeling cruelty, and sexual depravity, all in the service of absolute power. Though Suetonius offers analyses of their governments and their foreign wars, he brings all these men to vivid life through his accounts of their private characters, frankly describing their most touching, titillating, and often sickening proclivities. Here are a few examples from the best-known modern translation, that by Robert Graves (who drew heavily on Suetonius for his historical novel I, Claudius).

Julius Caesar liked to wear a laurel wreath because it disguised his baldness. (At other times, he “used to comb the thin strands of hair forward from his poll.”) He was reputed to be sexually ambivalent — “Every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.” During the Civil War when Pompey declared that “all who were not actively with him were against him and would be treated as public enemies,” the more clever Caesar neatly proclaimed that “all who were not actively against him were with him.”

Augustus, we are told, was so eager to take home Cleopatra as a hostage that he actually summoned snake charmers to suck the poison from her asp-inflicted wound. The young Augustus divorced his second wife because, he says, “I could not bear the way she nagged at me.” Later in life, he often committed adultery, and, according to Mark Antony, once hauled “an ex-consul’s wife from her husband’s dining-room into the bedroom — before his eyes, too! He brought the woman back…blushing to the ears and with her hair in disorder.” We learn that he was a small man, 5 feet 7 inches tall, with only a few decayed teeth and yellowish, curly hair. At some point he composed “An Encouragement to the Study of Philosophy” and, when dying, asked his friends, “Have I played my part in the farce of life creditably enough?”

The Emperor Tiberius once accepted a dinner engagement with an aging playboy “on condition that the dinner should follow Gallus’s usual routine; and that the waitresses should be naked.” At Capri he constructed a pleasure palace, and Suetonius writes that “some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his ‘minnows,’ to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble him.” As Tiberius’ cruelties mounted, “many of his men victims were accused and punished with their children — some actually by their children — and the relatives forbidden to go into mourning…. Tradition forbade the strangling of virgins; so, when little girls had been condemned to die…the executioner began by violating them.”

Caligula introduced panther baiting to the Roman Circus and insisted on being addressed as a god. “Besides incest with his sisters, and a notorious passion for the prostitute Pyrallis, he made advances to almost every well-known married woman in Rome.” He used to bathe in hot and cold perfumes, drink pearls dissolved in vinegar, and often enjoyed walking barefoot over heaps of gold pieces. At times Caligula liked to wear women’s clothes, even dressing up as Venus. At one point he planned to award his horse a consulship.

Young Nero was at first cared for by his aunt, “who chose a dancer and a barber to be his tutors.” As emperor, he once “staged a naval battle on an artificial lake of salt-water which had sea-monsters swimming in it.” Viewing himself as fundamentally an artist, he frequently acted and sang in the Roman equivalent of operas. “No one was allowed to leave the theater during his recitals, however pressing the reason…. We read of men being so bored with the music and the applause that they furtively dropped down from the wall at the rear, or shammed death and were carried away for burial.”

At night Nero would often go bar crawling; and when sailing down the Tiber he would sometimes have “temporary brothels erected along the shore, where a number of noblewomen, pretending to be madams, stood waiting to solicit his custom.” It was said that he regularly committed incest with his mother, Agrippina. Eventually, though, he tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castration, then went through a species of wedding ceremony — dowry, bridal veil, and all — and thereafter treated the boy as a wife. “A rather amusing joke,” says Suetonius, “is still going the rounds: the world would have been a happier place had Nero’s father Domitus married that sort of wife.” When Nero was finally deposed and forced to commit suicide, he campily murmured, “How ugly and vulgar my life has become!”

Though Suetonius covers the lives of several more relatively minor emperors, he tells us that with Nero the direct line of the Caesars became extinct. It’s hard not to believe that this happened none too soon. Fortunately for the sorely tried Romans, in the later second century the “five good emperors” — from Nerva through Marcus Aurelius — soon created what Gibbon called one of the most felicitous periods in all of human history.