The Lives of the Caesars: Suetonius (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The Lives of the Caesars quite often resembles a modern sensationalized tabloid, stuffed with insinuations, scandal, and royal shenanigans, but it is really much more. Written by a "palace insider" and published at the height of the Roman Empire, it gives a unique, intense, and individual portrait of each emperor. Despite its antiquity, The Lives of the Caesars is neither remote nor obscure; it remains the most readable and most significant biography of the ruling families of the early Roman Empire ever written. ...
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The Lives of the Caesars: Suetonius (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The Lives of the Caesars quite often resembles a modern sensationalized tabloid, stuffed with insinuations, scandal, and royal shenanigans, but it is really much more. Written by a "palace insider" and published at the height of the Roman Empire, it gives a unique, intense, and individual portrait of each emperor. Despite its antiquity, The Lives of the Caesars is neither remote nor obscure; it remains the most readable and most significant biography of the ruling families of the early Roman Empire ever written. Suetonius' animated and assured account of the emperors of Rome brings the mundane, tragic, humorous, and scandalous activities of Rome's elite - the emperors, their families, friends, enemies, successes, failures, loves, and ambitions - to vivid life.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born around AD 70 and probably died sometime before AD 130 or 140. He may have been born near modern Modena, Italy, while his father was serving as an officer under Vespasian. He spent at least some of his early years in Rome in the emperor's palace and practiced law very briefly, but found that he was more suited to a life of letters.
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Introduction

Suetonius' The Lives of the Caesars quite often resembles a modern sensationalized tabloid, stuffed with insinuations, scandal, and royal shenanigans, but it is really much more. Written by a "palace insider" and published during the reign of Hadrian (c. AD 117) at the height of the Roman Empire, The Lives of the Caesars is a unique, intense, and individual portrait of each emperor. Despite its antiquity, The Lives of the Caesars is neither remote nor obscure; it remains the most readable and most significant biography of the ruling families of the early Roman Empire ever written. A "bestseller" in its own day, it has been in almost continual reprint since its first publication, and the passage of nearly two thousand years has dimmed neither its appeal to historically minded readers nor its importance to scholars. The Lives of the Caesars was both the inspiration and major source for Robert Graves' I, Claudius, as well as the award-winning BBC/PBS dramatization of the same name. Suetonius' animated and assured account of the emperors of Rome brings the mundane, tragic, humorous, and scandalous activities of Rome's elite - the emperors, their families, friends, enemies, successes, failures, loves, and ambitions - to vivid life.

Modern scholars and readers generally refer to Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, the author of The Lives of the Caesars, as Suetonius, but his fellow Romans most often called him Tranquillus. We know very little about his life. The most widely accepted birth date for Suetonius is around AD 70, and he probably died sometime before AD 130 or 140. He may have been born in Betriacum (near modern Modena, Italy)while his father was serving as an officer under Vespasian. Where he spent his boyhood is unknown; claims have been made for Pisarum in Umbrian Italy, although a commemorative tablet found in 1952 in northern Africa (the Roman province of Numidia) speaks of him as if he were a "hometown boy." It is clear that Suetonius spent at least some of his early years in Rome in the emperor's palace, since he displays an easy familiarity with the education and daily life of young people in that setting. Suetonius practiced law very briefly, but found that he was more suited to a life of letters than to the politically charged atmosphere of the law courts of ancient Rome. This phase of Suetonius' life is documented in the collected letters of the Younger Pliny, with whom Suetonius enjoyed a long friendship. Pliny acted as a mentor to Suetonius' literary ambitions and aided his efforts to obtain official positions at court. He supported Suetonius' decision to leave law, and, most important, he persistently urged Suetonius to continue his work on The Lives of the Caesars.

Pliny's recommendations to the emperors resulted in several key appointments for Suetonius, including the official court posts of a studiis, a bibliotheca, and ab epistulis under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. These positions have no precise counterparts in today's bureaucracy, but an a studiis can be thought of as an expert advisor to the emperor, an ab epistulis was a more responsible and demanding version of a personal executive secretary, and an a bibliotheca was a sort of combination acquisitions librarian, archivist, and government documents librarian. It is clear that in all of his works Suetonius not only relied on his court background and contacts but also drew heavily on his ready access to official sources, archives, and expert texts.

The Lives of the Caesars is "historical" in its chronological arrangement, and covers a period of nearly one hundred twenty years, from the founder of the Julian-Claudian dynasty, Julius Caesar ( 49-44 BC), to the Flavian Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96). This period saw the final dissolution of the Republic and the institution of the Empire. While many factors led to the end of the Republic, the key factors were control of the army, new wealth from far-flung provinces, and unchecked ambition among Rome's powerful families. By the time of Julius Caesar it was clear that elected officials could no longer hold the Roman state together. Citizens gradually lost the power to vote on issues and senators eventually lost the power to decide the issues on which to vote. While Republican Rome had been at least nominally flexible, all classes of society in the Empire became more established, hierarchical, and separate. The one theme that is a constant throughout the Empire, although it is not always clear in Suetonius, is that most emperors came to the throne on tides of blood - civil wars, mutinies, and rebellions in the provinces were common ways to gain the palace. After an emperor gained power there were often purges, sometimes on a huge scale, of known and suspected enemies. Rome became a great city, home to millions, but life there was not always easy, especially for those in the public eye.

Because Suetonius not only wrote in a new style of personal history but also evidently assumed his audience had a background in the basics of Roman history, the historical context of The Lives of the Caesars is somewhat sketchy. Two dynasties ruled during the period about which he wrote; the Julio-Claudian and the Flavian. The Julio-Claudian line began with Julius Caesar (born July 12, 100 BC), who, strictly speaking, was not an emperor. In fact, it was the fear that he might become one that led to his assassination in 44 BC. Caesar began the process of consolidating all state power in the hands of one man, but he did it within the guidelines and traditions of the Republic. Before he died Caesar had already named Octavian (born September 23, 63 BC), his great-nephew and adoptive son, as his heir. In 27 BC, Octavian emerged the victor in the civil war that followed Caesar's murder, and he set about restructuring the entire administration of the Roman state. Renamed Augustus by the Senate, Octavian apparently retained many features of the Republic, but the army and the finances were now both in the control of the emperor. The one problem Augustus did not solve was succession - in too many future cases the army would decide. He himself adopted Tiberius (born 42 BC), his wife's son, as his successor. While Augustus showed a positive genius for administration and self-promotion, Tiberius seemed both bitter and withdrawn. He eventually left Rome for the isle of Capri, abandoning administration of the state to underlings. Tiberius died of natural causes in AD 37 and was followed by Gaius (born August 31, AD 12), nicknamed Caligula - or "little boot" - from the miniature army boots he wore while on campaign with his father in Germany. After four years of perfectly wretched administration, with murders, confiscations, scandals, and exiles the norm, Gaius was assassinated by a tribune of the guard in AD 41. Claudius (born August 10 BC), the hero of Robert Graves' novel, was declared emperor by the same guardsmen who murdered Gaius. Claudius had been kept out of public life by his family because of physical infirmities. Although Graves thought Claudius was not as mentally negligent as was assumed, the verdict of history is still out on that point. Claudius was the last adult male of the Julio-Claudian line; he was succeeded by Nero, his nephew and stepson. It is likely that Nero and his mother, the appalling Agrippina, murdered Claudius. Nero (born December 15, AD 37) left much to be desired as an emperor. Even though he was emperor, what Nero really desired was to be the ancient equivalent of a pop-star. His failure to placate - and pay - the army led to his forced suicide in AD 68.

A period of civil war followed Nero's death during which rival generals fought for the throne in AD 68-69. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius each held power briefly, but in the end the winner was Vespasian (born AD 9), the founder of the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian was a tough old soldier, without many pretenses or much polish. The army adored him and he ruled for ten years, dying of natural causes in AD 79. While his sons and heirs were more sophisticated, they also displayed his practical and efficient approach to administration. Vespasian's son Titus (born December 30, AD 39), followed him as emperor and ruled from AD 79 to 81. It is possible that Titus was killed by his brother Domitian. Of all the emperors profiled in The Lives of the Caesars, Domitian is the most hated by Suetonius, probably because he had direct contact with his eccentricities. Domitian (born October 31, AD 51), ruled autocratically and very badly for fifteen years, until his wife led a palace coup against him.

Trajan (born AD 53, ruled AD 98-117) and Hadrian (born January 24, AD 76, ruled AD 138) were the emperors under whom Suetonius served. Hadrian dismissed Suetonius for alleged improprieties toward the empress around AD 122; these charges are obscure but probably represent only some lapse on Suetonius' part in the increasingly strict and ritualized palace protocol. Suetonius put his newfound leisure and expert knowledge to use and finished his monumental biography on the ruling families of Rome.

From the few surviving references by other ancient authors that have come down to us - quotes, attributions, and fragments - we know that Suetonius wrote a number of well-received little books in both Latin and Greek on a large number of popular topics. The audience for any of his works, especially The Lives of the Caesars, is a source of evergreen disputation among Classical scholars, but most likely included people from much of the top strata of Roman society - a society which was literate at a level unmatched for centuries. Evidently his audience, whatever its composition, had a wide range of interests because his most successful works covered such topics as famous courtesans, games and sports, the Roman calendar and year, public spectacles and shows, clothes and fashion, human physical defects - both as curiosities and as a sign of character, names and omens of winds, the derivation of names of rivers and seas, public offices, and a few more serious and technical commentaries on grammar. He wrote at least one other long, scholarly and very important study on the lives of the Roman poets, orators and historians, a few fragments of which have come down to us as the De viris illustribus ("On the lives of the famous"). It is clear that he recycled some of his previous writings, especially on games and public offices, in composing his most famous and most complete work, The Lives of the Caesars.

Even before he wrote The Lives of the Caesars or the other, smaller works, Suetonius was a noted philologist and a recognized antiquarian among Rome's Greco-Roman literary circle - a circle that included the emperors. The extant writings of Roman antiquarians display a fondness for puns, word-play, often dubious or superficial derivations of place-names, and an extraordinary passion for hunting out recognizably old forms of words and grammatical construction (as if someone today insisted on writing and speaking like Chaucer's characters). As a group, they seemed to share a somewhat uncritical acceptance of the absolute truthfulness of folklore and fable, and had a rather sentimental attraction to obscure rituals and quaint customs. Many antiquarian authors of the early Empire, such as Aulus Gellius and the Elder Pliny, wrote in a sort of grab-bag fashion, with information about diverse subjects thrown in wherever and whenever the author happened to remember them. Suetonius, however, brought his remarkable memory and notable talent for arranging information - invaluable in a librarian - to all of his works. His simple, direct style of presentation (based in part on Cato the Censor c. 234-149 BC) as well as his precision in arrangement had a great effect on other authors, especially biographers. For example, St. Jerome used Suetonius' biographies as a model and source when he compiled his own Chronicle. In Suetonius' hands, biography focuses on personal and, especially, moral character as demonstrated in various situations, rather than how individual character either shaped events in history or was shaped by them. Suetonius seems more concerned with the operations of chance than with the cause and effects of history. He appears to have deliberately set out to create personal, rather than historical, biography as a Roman literary genre; no earlier examples of his particular style of biography are known. History was a well-established literary genre in Rome, and Tacitus had published his monumental Histories and Annales, which cover more or less the same period and people as The Lives of the Caesars only about thirty years earlier; but Suetonius deliberately avoids history as it was understood by the Romans. In some respects this is a positive gain for modern readers, since it was common and accepted practice for historians of that time to construct speeches and letters of great men to be more in accord with what was considered they "ought" to have said or written. Suetonius, however, had direct access to the letters of the emperors themselves, as well as eyewitness accounts, court gossip, court connections, and traditional palace lore, and he often uses these sources to correct popular impressions or to fill gaps in contemporary histories. The result is that Suetonius is often the only ancient source for the actual words of the emperors and their families. Suetonius' quotation of actual speech and letters redirected biography into a new, and uniquely Roman, form of literature.

The major criticism of Suetonius in his own day came from those who considered him not an "artist" but merely a reporter because he did not embellish speeches. Most modern complaints come from scholars and readers who are dismayed by his cavalier approach to history and his lack of interest in the politics of his day. Suetonius' avoidance of history may stem from a number of causes beside a conscious decision to create a new genre of literature, including personal preference, the sources to which he had access, and even self-protection - it was seldom prudent to be involved in politics in imperial Rome. Suetonius, however, carries his avoidance of history to extremes, and his focus on the individual and his personal motivation often result in weak or doubtful explanations for major national events. In a few cases, Suetonius merely seems to repeat what today we would call "urban legends." A prime example is the still widely accepted story of how Nero fiddled (or played the lyre) while Rome burned; because of convincing contradictory evidence, most modern scholars have rejected this appealing tableau. Nevertheless, Suetonius' lack of historical precision in The Lives of the Caesars should seriously affect no one but a professional scholar, and it has little or no bearing on the overall importance of the text or the undeniable enjoyment of his portraits as a whole.

Because life and success in ancient times were so uncertain, Suetonius' major theme is the role of chance in human affairs. The aspect of The Lives of the Caesars that causes the most consternation among modern scholars is Suetonius' belief in astrology and its ability to predict character and events. Since there is still no reliable, external means of judging character, and since Suetonius and his fellow Romans had no way to show the falsity of astrology's astronomical basis, perhaps he should be forgiven this lapse.

Suetonius also seems to have been attracted to the idea of reading peoples' fortunes and character in the shape of their faces. Even at the time, this was most often seen as a sort of parlor game, but one that could have far-reaching consequences. The major point about chance and its role in Roman life is that most Romans believed the gods revealed their desires, favors, and intentions through signs, omens, and portents -and nothing was too large or too small to ignore. Although it is often claimed that emperors among others cynically used any sign for personal gain or advancement, Suetonius makes it clear that they just as often believed the signs themselves. If advancement could be, might be, or was influenced by chance, no one could afford to disdain any premonition, fail to use any good-luck charm, or laugh off any warning.

Notables in both the Republic and the Empire were also very much concerned with their reputations. In an age without credit bureaus, identification cards, or extensive public records, a man was literally who his friends and family said he was. This individual anxiety about reputation, or dignitas, is another persistent theme in Suetonius' The Lives of the Caesars. Dignitas meant much more in ancient Rome than mere dignity: it encompassed a whole family's reputation, and affected all political, social, and financial transactions. Dignitas was revealed in dress, bearing, mannerisms, positions, and associates. It was something deserved because of personal character. The closest modern counterpart might be the concept of "face"; loss or gain in dignitas can be viewed as similar to "loss of face" or "gain of face." Personal dignity had to be protected, gained, vindicated, and proven in every interaction between public men. As an example of how dignitas affected actions, Suetonius advances the convincing hypothesis that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and plunged Rome into civil war because the alternative would have been to submit to an unrecoverable loss of dignitas.

Molly Dauster holds a Ph.D. in Ancient History from Texas Tech University. Her area of specialization is Republican Rome, and she has taught at Ohio University and Texas Tech University.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2007

    Suetonius is Superb!

    The Lives of the Caesars are accounts of the first 12 emperors of the Roman Empire and of various poet, grammarians, and rhetoricians. The Lives of the Caesars has some of the most reliable information to modern biographers. Here are the first accounts of Augustus, Caligula, Nero, and Vespasian. This is truly one of the most influential works of literature in the world.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2014

    Buyer Beware...This book is censored, and the publishers have gi

    Buyer Beware...This book is censored, and the publishers have given no indication that this is the case. Book III is missing chs. 43 & 44. I understand why a publisher may want to publish a version without these chapters, which contain graphic descriptions of the sexual perversions of the Emperor Tiberius, but the fact that the book has been censored should be indicated prominently on the product, preferably on the cover of the book, or at least on the title page. I do not believe Barnes and Noble should be offering this item for sale as it is (on the presumption that selling a censored version without notice to the buyer is some sort of violation of publishing ethics). At any rate, this item is inadequate for academic study...if you are purchasing it for a college course you must look elsewhere.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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