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The Twelve Caesars

The lives and times of Rome's twelve Caesars-and an unforgettable depiction of the Empire at the height of its power.

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Review by Thomas R. Martin

The most vivid ancient source about the early Roman Empire is Suetonius’ set of biographies, which begins with Julius Caesar and continues through the emperors from Augustus to Domitian. Known as The Twelve Caesars, this collection reveals details of the characters and intimate lives of these leaders, based on Suetonius’ insider information drawn from the imperial archives and private papers of the emperors. Matthew Dennison’s new book with the same title “revisits aspects of this earlier magnum opus” (in Dennison’s words) to provide portraits of these rulers composed of a mosaic of “telling facets” of their personal and political histories.

Dennison succeeds wonderfully in revealing the dramatic lives of these remarkable (for good and for bad) Romans. He focuses on how these different individuals were shaped by the unprecedented access to power that they gained from the creation and strengthening of imperial rule. By adducing evidence from multiple other ancient sources and implicitly introducing issues raised by modern scholars, he deftly expands the accounts in Suetonius. Especially vibrant are the instances in which he discusses modern (that is, post-ancient) paintings of the emperors, thereby bestowing a concrete reality on his word portraits.

It is Dennison’s judgment that the emperors succeeding Augustus amounted to a decline from the first emperor’s successful reign. It would be impossible to disagree when considering some of the successors, especially Caligula and Nero, but Dennison’s admirably even-handed evaluations of others, in particular Vespasian, suggests that the trajectory of the uses and misuses of imperial power in the first century AD was not a path heading in only one direction, down. After all, the rulers of Rome for the next ninety years after Domitian have been called “good emperors.”

The style is eminently readable, even quotable. Tiberius, for example, was a “man who loved trees and hard liquor (hot wine without water).” Of Vitellius Dennison wryly remarks, “By Roman standards he was tall. It was his sole eminence.”

As seems appropriate for a biographical approach, there is limited attention to large-scale historical developments, or to forces beyond the individual ruler that precipitated changes in ancient Rome. Rather, this book offers a finely gauged recasting of our view of the complex personalities whom Suetonius originally characterized with such appealing verve, a quality that Dennison’s work fully shares.

His conclusion is sobering: “In time [Rome’s upper classes] would discover that the will to power always increased with eminence, the simplest of the lessons of these twelve Caesars.” Even if we agree that the lesson is simple, the consequences of ignoring it can be dire, as the Romans learned to their sorrow.

Thomas R. Martin is Jeremiah O’Connor Professor of Classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.


  • SKU: 000000000001377900
  • Author: Matthew Dennison
  • Publisher: St. Martins Press, Llc
  • Release date: Jun 25, 2013
  • ISBN: 9781250023537
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Commitment Credit: 1
  • Book Search Plus: No
  • Warnings: No warnings
  • Height: 0.000
  • Length: 0.000
  • Width: 0.000

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Tabloid History by John

August 24, 2014

Could be the worst the worst book I've ever read.

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