Home > 2nd Century AD, Ancient Rome Literature, Classics, Suetonius > Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (119) French title: Vie des douze Césars. Translated from the Latin by Henri Ailloud. Original title: De vita duodecim Caesarum libri.

During my (still ongoing) operation Tackle the TBR, I came across Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I don’t remember when I bought it but I suppose it didn’t sound so daunting after my delightful experience with Ars Amatoria by Ovid.

Let’s say that this experience wasn’t as conclusive and to be honest, I stopped reading after Nero’s life. I read a translation that dates back to 1931/1932 and I don’t know whether it was intended for students or readers.

I remember studying passages of De rerum natura by Lucretius and being happy that the French translation was as close to the text as possible, to track down how the translation was done. However, it was unreadable for a reader with no academic purpose. Maybe this translation falls into the second category as it was a strenuous and frustrating read.

It was tiring for very practical reasons. I have a paperback copy and it’s written in very small print. I’m at the uncomfortable stage where small prints are hard to read and my eyesight is still too good for reading glasses. It was frustrating because I was reading and not remembering what I was reading, so I only have vague memories about what I read and only retained some anecdotes.

As the title of the book suggests it, Suetonius writes the bio of the twelve emperors from Julius Ceasar (1st C BC) to Domitian (1st C AD). Contrary to our usual bios, he doesn’t write chronologically but by theme. He writes about their accomplishments in the military, the kind of ruler they were, what they built, how they managed money and treated their people.

Then he explores their family and mores. Gossip Suetonius doesn’t gloss over the horrors: pedophilia, torture, overspending, whims, murders, incest, you name it, they’ve done it. And he describes their physical appearance and their health, gory details and all.

Life of the Twelve Caesars is certainly a terrific resource for historians but it was too difficult for the common reader that I am. I lacked the cultural references and the historical knowledge necessary to fully appreciate it. And the names! Even more confusing than in Russian novel.

Sure, I discovered that Caligula exhibited public diversions in Sicily, Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul besides a contest for pre-eminence in the Grecian and Roman eloquence; in which we are told that such as were baffled bestowed rewards upon the best performers, and were obliged to compose speeches in their praise: but that those who performed the worst, were forced to blot out what they had written with a sponge or their tongue, unless they preferred to be beaten with a rod, or plunged over head and ears into the nearest river.

That’s a way to say that failure was not a option. I wonder why there’s an s at the end of Lyon and I suppose that the river was the Saône since it is the closest to the Roman part of the city.

When reading about Nero and his artistic endeavours, I thought that in today’s world, he would have been a reality TV star since above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity, being the rival of every man who obtained the applause of the people for any thing he did. At least Nero had a decent haircut.

I smiled when I saw that Caligula’s prefect of the pretorian guard was named Macro, who became Macron in the French translation.

I didn’t know that emperors could decide to change the alphabet as Claudius did.

He besides invented three new letters, and added them to the former alphabet, as highly necessary. He published a book to recommend them while he was yet only a private person; but on his elevation to imperial power he had little difficulty in introducing them into common use; and these letters are still extant in a variety of books, registers, and inscriptions upon buildings.

Apparently, Rome was a moveable feast and caesars could also change the calendar, as Augustus did:

He restored the calendar, which had been corrected by Julius Caesar, but through negligence was again fallen into confusion, to its former regularity; and upon that occasion, called the month Sextilis, by his own name, August, rather than September, in which he was born; because in it he had obtained his first consulship, and all his most considerable victories.

 Sure, why not change the name of a month? To think that we still have that name, now!

I could go on and on with various anecdotes like this which I found in my notes and not in my memory. Sadly.

I think that Life of the Twelve Caesars is good for scholars but not so much for the common reader. We, common readers, need a middleman to dive into this. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome at the turning point between republic and empire, I highly recommend the Steven Saylor series. It’s written as crime fiction and it’s brilliant. It describes the politics, the mores and the workings of the political apparel of that time.

PS: The translation I used comes from Project Gutenberg.

  1. May 11, 2020 at 11:14 am

    You were very brave to attempt this. If you want a more readable version of The Twelve Caesars, I recommend the book by Michael Grant – in which he reevaluates them and sorts fact from fiction/interpretation in Suetonius.


    • May 11, 2020 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. There must be one like that in French too.

      When I was reading the crude details about the emperors’ sexuality, I was wondering how it was even republished during previous centuries in France. Then I discovered in David Bellos’s book, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? that there were special and edited translations for young people and the court in the 17th century. Incredible, no?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. May 11, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    I think I would have struggled with this – sometimes I can read ‘academic’ books for pleasure, but it does depend on the writing…


    • May 11, 2020 at 7:28 pm

      I think the difficulty is partly due to the translation: it seems to be done to study Latin, not to read Suetonius.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 11, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    I remember reading this at university. Interesting, but not for fun.


    • May 11, 2020 at 7:29 pm

      There were too many details, the non-chronological order bothered me. And the names! I couldn’t figure out who was who.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 11, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    I find it rewarding to read difficult books from time to time and least this one gave your home town a mention which has to be a bonus. That s – American spell checker strikes again?


    • May 11, 2020 at 7:30 pm

      It is rewarding to read difficult books when you remember things about them. Here, I couldn’t remember what I was reading.

      And you might be right about this extra S, it might come from the spell checker.


  5. May 11, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    Six of these at one time is pretty good. I’ve never read them.

    The Caligula-like behavior is still alive. President-for-Life Niyazov of Turkmenistan (died 2006) renamed the month of April after his mother. He also changed the word for bread! He named bread after his mother! And he banned beards, dogs, lip syncing. He encouraged ice skating. It all sounds comic, but was a totalitarian nightmare.

    “Lyons” with an “s” was British long before it was American. But it was the spelling French (maybe Old French?) long before that.


    • May 11, 2020 at 8:08 pm

      I guess dictators’ behaviors are the same throughout centuries. A nightmare of whims and violence.

      I don’t remember seeing Lyon written with an S on documents at the city’s museum but maybe it escaped my notice.


      • May 11, 2020 at 8:15 pm

        It seems likely that the internet has confused me. Maybe “Lyons” is merely British.


        • May 14, 2020 at 9:29 pm

          No idea, it sounds outdated, though.


        • May 14, 2020 at 10:03 pm

          Yes! The current standard in English is “Lyon.” But “Lyons” is common in, for example, the British fiction of the 1930s I have been reading.

          The one that is in transition right now is Marseille / Marseilles. The latter is still a common spelling, although the former is more correct.


          • May 15, 2020 at 8:34 pm

            I wasn’t aware of that.


  6. May 11, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    I read this for my Ancient History A Level many years ago and my teacher warned me it was tough-going. I think we had a similar experience with it! I started off reading it then gave up and just dipped into it.


    • May 11, 2020 at 8:08 pm

      It must be interesting if you have the right cultural background to understand it and sadly, I don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Vishy
    May 13, 2020 at 11:50 pm

    This looks fascinating, Emma. Sorry to know that it looks more academic and is hard to read. I remember that Nigel Hamilton, inspired by Suetonius’ book, wrote a book about American presidents, called ‘American Caesars’.


    • May 14, 2020 at 9:30 pm

      It’s interesting, I guess that another translation could have smoothed out my reading. And maybe a little introduction about the culture of the Romans and the workings of their institutions.


  8. May 25, 2020 at 12:19 pm

    Interesting one to try. I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God draw heavily on this but are novels and well written novels at that. Those I would recommend. This, eh, I have it but I’ve somehow never started it and it’s fair to say you’ve not encouraged me to do so.

    Totally agree on the Saylors.


    • May 25, 2020 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation. Maybe you have a more readable translation.
      The Saylors are great, a wonderful approach to Rome.


      • May 26, 2020 at 10:25 am

        I didn’t get anywhere with Suetonious, so I suspect it’s the source material. It’s I, Claudius which I rate, which is inspired by it but definitely not a translation of it.


        • May 26, 2020 at 9:36 pm

          OK, I understood better this time. 🙂


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