The Twelve Caesars: The Dramatic Lives of the Emperors of Rome

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Overview

An unforgettable depiction of the Roman empire at the height of its power and reach, and an elegantly sensational retelling of the lives and times of the twelve Caesars

One of the them was a military genius, one murdered his mother and fiddled while Rome burned, another earned the nickname "sphincter artist". Six of their number were assassinated, two committed suicide—and five of them were elevated to the status of gods. They have come down to posterity as the "twelve ...

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The Twelve Caesars: The Dramatic Lives of the Emperors of Rome

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Overview

An unforgettable depiction of the Roman empire at the height of its power and reach, and an elegantly sensational retelling of the lives and times of the twelve Caesars

One of the them was a military genius, one murdered his mother and fiddled while Rome burned, another earned the nickname "sphincter artist". Six of their number were assassinated, two committed suicide—and five of them were elevated to the status of gods. They have come down to posterity as the "twelve Caesars"—Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Under their rule, from 49 BC to AD 96, Rome was transformed from a republic to an empire, whose model of regal autocracy would survive in the West for more than a thousand years.

 

Matthew Dennison offers a beautifully crafted sequence of colorful biographies of each emperor, triumphantly evoking the luxury, license, brutality, and sophistication of imperial Rome at its zenith. But as well as vividly recreating the lives, loves, and vices of this motley group of despots, psychopaths and perverts, he paints a portrait of an era of political and social revolution, of the bloody overthrow of a proud, five-hundred-year-old political system and its replacement by a dictatorship which, against all the odds, succeeded more convincingly than oligarchic democracy in governing a vast international landmass.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Dennison offers his own idiosyncratic take on these twelve caesars . . . [his] approach combines thoughtful reflection and analysis with gossipy irreverence in a bewitching cocktail.” —Daily Express on The Twelve Caesars

"Unputdownable . . . these histories from 2,000 years ago are riveting in their insight, black humor, and sheer readability.” —Daily Mail on The Twelve Caesars

“An erudite, nuanced, and engrossing portrait of a turbulent era and of an empress demonized for refusing to be invisible.” —Publishers Weekly on Livia, Empress of Rome

“Fascinating.” —Vogue on The Last Princess

Kirkus Reviews
Roman historian Suetonius wrote The Twelve Caesars in the second century, and many subsequent writers have appropriated the title. In this latest example, British journalist Dennison (Livia, Empress of Rome, 2011, etc.) summarizes Suetonius and other ancients (Pliny, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Josephus) as well as scholars today, who often quarrel with their interpretations. Lacking strong opinions himself, the author delivers agreeable biographies of Julius Caesar and 11 subsequent rulers. Caesar is a surprisingly attractive character. Although fiercely ambitious, he was not particularly bloodthirsty, often pardoning opposition leaders who later turned against him, Brutus among them. The changes wrought during his few years as dictator strike us as reasonable in light of the disorder and corruption of the previous 50 years. They also struck most Romans this way, and his assassination was the work of an aristocratic minority. His grandnephew, Octavian, required a brutal decade to set things right before taking power himself as Augustus and ruling rather well for 40 years. Of his successors, only one, Vespasian, was popular at his death. Reigns were often short; eight emperors died violently. Domitian, murdered in A.D. 96, was the last of the 12; five competent rulers followed, but for accounts of those, readers must consult Edward Gibbon. Sticking to biographies, Dennison emphasizes his subjects' upbringings, family relations and personal qualities, which, more so in the bad emperors, includes a wearisome amount of sexual activity, debauchery, murder, torture and betrayal. The author includes a family tree for both the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Flavian family. Dennison provides a capable series of portraits, but those searching for a richer analysis of Roman culture and government during this era should read Adrian Goldsworthy or Michael Grant.
Library Journal
Seeking to write popular history, Dennison (Livia, Empress of Rome) has constructed a narrative that his classical forbears, Suetonius, who wrote the original Twelve Caesars, and Roman historian Tacitus, would instantly recognize and appreciate. Although classified as biography, the book does not delve into the lives of the Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian so much as it presents a gossipy history of their reigns. Dennison wants also to shed light on Suetonius and Tacitus themselves, while encouraging readers to return to those sources. Heavy on scandal and short on critical analysis, his book fails to achieve his stated goal. We learn every last detail of each of these men's purported sex lives and murderous appetites, but very little about their accomplishments. Dennison mostly gives lip service to the nature and veracity of the original sources and why they might want to smear a previous emperor. Modern scholars have debunked many of these myths and though Dennison occasionally accepts this, he is still eager to embrace the salacious, as well as quick to judge according to modern mores. VERDICT Rapidly paced and full of trashy details and anachronistic judgments, this is not responsible history, but it may be popular with the History Channel crowd. Serious students should look elsewhere.—Evan M. Anderson, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250023537
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/25/2013
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 955,260
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

MATTHEW DENNISON is the author of the critically acclaimed The Last Princess and Livia, Empress of Rome. As a journalist, he contributes to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Country Life, and The Spectator. He is married and lives in London and North Wales.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2013

    Promising Disappointmet

    This popular historical book at first glance held the promise of a well documented narrative on the life and times of Rome's 12 Ceasars. However, the narrative itself was written in a strianed, cumbersome and almost disconnected manner that undermined the fluidity and cohesiveness of the entire book. In this respect the book was a disappointment.

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