Skip to main content

The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars

by Suetonius

THE LITERARY WORK

A group of biographies, set within the Roman Empire between 85 bce and 96 ce composed in Latin during the second century ce.

SYNOPSIS

The reigns and characters of 12 Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, are explored in detail.

Events in History at the Time of the Biographies

The Biography in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Were Written

For More Information

Gaius Suetonius Tranquilus was born around 70 ce into a family of the equestrian or wealthy business class. The family probably came from Hippo Regius (near Annaba in Algeria), but their origin remains un-certain. Although few facts are known about Suetonius’s early life, it is believed that he taught literature at Rome for a time and practiced law as well. Later he served on the staff of Pliny the Younger, who was governor of Bithynia-Pontus (northern Asia Minor). Apparently Suetonius also worked as a secretary to the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 ce) but was dismissed around 122 ce, reportedly because of disrespectful behavior towards the empress Sabina. Yet Pliny de-scribes Suetonius as a quiet, studious man devoted mainly to writing and scholarship. His works, composed mostly during the second century ce, include The Twelve Caesars, Royal Biographies, Lives of Famous Whores, Roman Masters and Customs, The Roman Year, Illustrious Writers, and Offices of State. The majority of these writings no longer exist. Only The Twelve Caesars, for which Suetonius is best known, has survived almost wholly intact. Combining a rational assessment of each ruler’s achievements with intriguing details of his private life, The Twelve Caesars remains a highly accessible and readable work today.

Events in History at the Time of the Biographies

From republic to empire

Distrusting the rule of a single monarch, the ancient Romans established a republican government that endured for centuries. Their constitution divided power between two elected officials (called consuls), an advisory body called the Senate, and a popular Assembly, the latter consisting of all adult male citizens. The consuls (there were two) commanded the army, fulfilled all sacred and sacrificial functions, and often served as judges and generals. The Senate served as the lawmaking council. The Assembly approved or rejected whatever laws were proposed and elected the magistrates—the officials who per-formed judicial, administrative, and priestly duties. There were three tiers of lesser magistrates: in ascending order, quaestors, aediles, and praetors. Quaestors were in charge of financial duties; aediles, of public works and festivities. Praetors served as judges. There were also the tribunes, officials charged with protecting the lives and property of the people. Tribunes had no administrative responsibilities but, like all magistrates, could propose laws to the Assembly. Moreover, they had the unique power to veto any legislation. They did not, however, serve in the Senate.

On the other hand, all other magistrates were members of the Senate, in which they could pro-pose and debate legislative measures. The Senate had begun with little power but grew into a greater force than the Assembly of the People. It fixed elections and controlled access to the magistracies, or political offices. Over time, the Roman republic became more of an oligarchy; wealthy, aristocratic landowners, known as patricians (from “patres” or fathers) dominated the Senate, Assembly, and consulships.

By the first century bce, Rome had established itself as the dominant force throughout the Mediterranean, acquiring huge amounts of wealth and territory through conquest. The age-old republican system was proving inadequate in handling the growing empire’s needs. Meanwhile, the ruling classes grew wealthier, a new middle class emerged and thrived, and the poor grew poorer.

Magistrates who were appointed to govern Rome’s foreign provinces established their own power bases, aided by the military forces assigned to support their authority. Ambitious Romans therefore sought rich provincial appointments abroad, rather than within Rome itself. The character of the Roman army also changed, as citizen soldiers were replaced by professionals whose first loyalty was to their individual commanders rather than the state.

The meteoric rise to power of Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 bce) provides a striking counterpoint to the decline of the Roman republic. The son of a patrician family, Caesar had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, thanks to his display of military acumen, political shrewdness, personal charm, and ruthlessness towards enemies. His achievements, chronicled in his autobiographical writings and in the biographical accounts of Suetonius, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio, included the conquest of Gaul, which extended Rome’s imperial domain as far as the Atlantic Ocean, and the first Roman invasion of Britain (see Commentaries on the Gallic War , also in Classical Literature and Its Times). From 49 to 48 BCE, Caesar waged a civil war that resulted in the defeat of his chief rival Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and that turned Caesar into the undisputed leader of the Roman world.

In 47 bce Caesar was proclaimed dictator-for-life by the Senate, a move that dealt a death-blow to the already faltering republic. Not all senators, however, approved of the honors being lavished upon Caesar; many resented his supremacy and feared that the republic would be replaced by a monarchy. Led by Caesar’s friend Marcus Brutus, a band of republican conspirators stabbed Caesar to death at a meeting of the Senate, on the Ides of March (mid-month), 44 bce. Ironically, the assassination led not to the restoration of the republic but to another series of civil wars that confirmed the fall of the republic and the rule of an emperor. Ultimately they ushered in the imperial rule of Caesar’s adopted son Augustus and his successors. He and his successors added the name “Caesar” to their own, transforming it into a title for the reigning emperor.

The Julio-Claudian dynasty

Although Julius Caesar founded the dynasty that was to rule Rome for nearly a century, his successor Augustus is actually considered the first of the JulioClaudian emperors. After Caesar’s assassination, Augustus—then called Octavian—traveled to Rome with a band of followers to claim his inheritance. Seeking to avenge his predecessor’s murder, Octavian formed an uneasy alliance with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Caesar’s main supporter who had defeated his assassins Brutus and Cassius.

Antony and Octavian proceeded to fight for control over the empire for the next 10 years. Rivals, they made untrustworthy allies. Antony compounded this political offense by his liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, for whom he had deserted his own wife, Octavian’s sister, Octavia. After Octavian’s forces defeated Antony conclusively at the Battle of Actium (31 bce), Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide (30 bce). It was at this juncture that Octavian, like Caesar before him, was recognized as the undisputed master of the Roman Empire.

In 27 bce, after serving as consul for several consecutive terms, Octavian proposed to resign all his offices and restore the republic. But most of the senators protested that Rome could not survive without his rule (their objections were probably orchestrated by Octavian). He therefore agreed to remain in power, functioning as pro-consul over provinces in Gaul, Spain, Syria, and Egypt. He also continued to control Rome. As commander-in-chief of the Roman army, Octavian retained the rights to declare war and to negotiate treaties. He at this time took the name Augustus, by which he was thereafter known. By 23 bce, Augustus was “princeps” (first man) of Rome, emperor in all but name, a position that he held until his death in 14 ce.

Augustus’s 44-year reign introduced a long era of peace and prosperity, known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). His achievements included reorganizing the army, creating a permanent navy, and extending his empire northward to the natural boundaries of the Rhine and Danube rivers in Germany. Roads were constructed to link Augustus’s imperial domain. New temples, libraries, and theaters were built, often of marble instead of common clay bricks. Finally Augustus provided the empire with a centralized administration and a uniform system of law.

Lacking a son, Augustus chose several potential heirs among his male relatives; unfortunately all of these predeceased him or proved unfit to rule. Finally, Augustus designated his stepson Tiberius Claudius Nero as his successor. The eldest son of Augustus’s wife Livia by her first husband, Tiberius was a capable general who had given many years of service to the empire; he ac-ceded to the throne in 14 ce at age 55. Well established in the government, he encountered little opposition when he assumed his new position. He ruled prudently, following many of his stepfather’s precedents; he exercised a defensive foreign policy, bolstered the empire’s frontiers, and, by practicing economy, left the empire wealthy at his death in 37 ce. But Tiberius’s reign was marred by bitter family conflicts and a distrustful relationship with the senatorial aristocracy. In 26 ce he left Rome and governed from the isle of Capri for the rest of his life. Worst of all, Tiberius fell under the influence of an ambitious adviser, the Praetorian commander Lucius Aelianus Sejanus, for several years. Hoping to seize the throne for himself, Sejanus encouraged Tiberius’s paranoid suspicions and harsh persecutions of suspected enemies. Finally, warned by his sister-in-law of Sejanus’s intended treachery against Gaius, the emperor’s chosen successor, Tiberius denounced his former friend in a letter addressed to the Senate. Sejanus was tried and executed in 31 ce.

HAIL, CAESAR!

The names of Roman citizens generally had three components, though additional names could be added. The first name would be the personal name, the second the gens or clan, the third the particular branch of that clan. Thus, the given name of the ruler known to the modern world as Julius Caesar was actually Gaius, and he belonged to the Caesars’ branch of the Julian clan. However, it was the name “Caesar” (“hairy”) that became the most important, used to denote not only a family but also the highest position of power in Rome. Even the emperors who were not related to the julio-Claudian dynasty were hailed as “Caesar” upon their accession to the throne. The terms “Kaiser” and “Tsar” formerly used for rulers of Germany and Russia, are derived from “Caesar”

Tiberius’s nephew, Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (also known as Caligula or “Little Boot”) succeeded his uncle in 37 ce. According to Suetonius, whose profile is the earliest surviving source for Caligula’s life, the reign of this emperor began well. Gaius’s father Germanicus had been popular with the Romans, who were thus disposed to regard his son favorably. Gaius pardoned many prisoners who had been persecuted under Tiberius, reduced some taxes, distributed gifts, and held lavish games and public spectacles. But after recovering from a grave illness in the first year of his reign, he exhibited alarmingly erratic behavior. Convinced that he was a living god, he demanded to be worshipped as one, even to the point of insisting that his statue be displayed in synagogues in the East. Also Gaius turned against the Senate, spent funds lavishly, launched several unsuccessful military campaigns, threatened to make his favorite horse, Incitatus, a consul, and revived treason trials to eliminate anyone whom he perceived as a threat to his authority. His behavior in private, says Suetonius, was also depraved: Caligula committed incest with his three sisters and demanded sexual intercourse from respectable married women of Rome (the accusation cannot be verified or denied, due to the dearth of ancient sources on Caligula’s life). Unable to otherwise check their emperor’s absolute powers, several senators and Praetorian guards assassinated Caligula in 41 ce.

Gaius’s unlikely successor was his lame, elderly uncle Claudius, younger brother of Germanicus. Considered feeble-minded by most of his family, Claudius proved to be a competent, if inconsistent, ruler. He introduced several social reforms, including an administrative bureaucracy structured around his freedmen (former slaves granted their liberty) and built some significant public works: aqueducts in Rome, roads in the provinces, and a harbor at Ostia. He also conducted a successful foreign policy, acquiring Mauretania and Thrace for the empire and conquering Britain, which became a Roman province. Unfortunately Claudius’s relationship with the senatorial aristocracy was troubled and he married unwisely several times. Messalina, his much-younger third wife, had numerous affairs; she was executed after marrying her lover Gaius Silius (when Claudius was absent from Rome) and trying to make her new “husband” emperor. Claudius’s fourth wife, Agrippina, was his own niece; he legalized the marriage with a special decree. She schemed successfully to make a son she had earlier, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero), the imperial heir over Claudius’s son, Britannicus, then is popularly supposed to have killed Claudius by feeding him a dish of poisoned mushrooms.

At 17, Nero was the youngest emperor to date. His ambitious mother Agrippina sought to govern through him, which alarmed Nero’s adherents. Her influence began to wane within a year of Nero’s accession; after the sudden death of Claudius’s son Britannicus—Nero allegedly had him poisoned—Agrippina was transferred to a separate residence at the emperor’s command, never regaining her influence. By the time she was murdered, on Nero’s orders, she had made herself so hated that few regretted her demise. Guided by his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca and the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, Nero governed soundly for a time, taking steps to improve public order, guard against forgery, and reform treasury procedure. In 62 ce, how-ever, Burrus died, from poisoning perhaps by Nero, and Seneca retired from the court. Nero meanwhile fell under the influence of Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, who encouraged the emperor’s worst excesses. Nero divorced and killed his first empress, seduced his second empress away from her husband and later kicked her to death, and became increasingly obsessed with artistic pursuits at the expense of governing the state. His relations with the senatorial class deteriorated rapidly, and several conspiracies against his life were formed, though none came to fruition. In March 68 ce Julius Vindex, governor of Lugdunese Gaul, raised a rebellion against Nero, which received the support of Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Spain. Al-though Vindex lost, the triumphant Roman legions stopped accepting Nero’s authority. After the Senate declared him a public enemy and ordered him flogged to death, Nero fled to his villa and stabbed himself to death in the throat.

The Year of Four Emperors

Nero’s suicide in June 68 ce ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty and initiated a period of political upheaval. From 68-69 ce, several ambitious Romans vied to become emperor in his stead in a period that became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

Control over the troops was a pivotal factor for any claimant to the imperial throne. The Roman army did not exist as a coherent entity; rather, some 30 legions, consisting of about 150,000 men, were scattered throughout the empire, which stretched from Britain in the west to Armenia in the east and encompassed parts of Africa and Germany as well. After Nero’s death, Servius Sulpicius Galba (r. July 68-January 69 ce), the 73-year-old governor of Spain, received the support of the Spanish legions, the Senate, and the praetorian guardsmen in Rome in his imperial bid. He served as emperor for about six months, alienating many of his supporters through a mixture of rigidity and stinginess before being murdered.

The Senate recognized Nero’s friend Otho as Rome’s new emperor. Otho’s reign lasted only the first few months of 69 ce, however. As ordered by their commander Aulus Vitellius, who himself had been one of Nero’s favorites, the empire’s German legions marched on Rome to engage Otho’s army. Although Otho’s forces triumphed in three initial skirmishes, they were heavily defeated at Bedriacum. Disheartened by the setback, Otho chose not to continue to fight but to commit suicide. Three days later, the troops in Rome swore allegiance to Vitellius, as did the Senate. Vitellius himself arrived in Rome in July 69 ce and became the third emperor in a year.

Vitellius’s reign prospered no better than that of Galba or Otho. He ruled ineffectually, more interested in feasting and drinking than in governing his empire. In the East, a faction arose in support of Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), governor of Judaea, as a candidate for emperor. Joined by others, the Flavian army marched towards Rome. After one of Vitellius’s generals was defeated, Vitellius tried to abdicate in exchange for his life and a million gold pieces. Although the enemy (represented by Vespasian’s brother, Flavius Sabinus) accepted, Vitellius’s supporters would not let him abdicate and fighting broke out in the Capitol. Pieces of burning wood were put to use along with other weapons, and soon the Capitol was ablaze. Many Flavians perished in the fire and one of their leaders (the same Flavius Sabinus) was captured and treacherously slain. But the Flavian army soon overran the city, hunted down a fleeing Vitellius, and killed him in turn. On December 21, 69 ce, the Senate confirmed Vespasian’s accession to the throne, bringing the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors to a close.

The Flavians

After witnessing the lurid crimes of the later Julio-Claudians and the ineptitude of the emperors that succeeded them, Rome was sorely in need of stable, practical rulers. Two of the three Flavian emperors fulfilled that need. Compared to their aristocratic predecessors, the Flavians were lowborn, only of equestrian rank. Emperor Vespasian’s father had been a tax collector, but Vespasian and his older brother Sabinus had found opportunities for advancement, especially in the military. As a young man, Vespasian had joined the army and served in the Balkans. Later, during Caligula’s reign, Vespasian became quaestor, then aedile. He later attracted the patronage of a prominent official (named Narcissus), which gained him entry into court circles, and won distinction as the commander of a legion in the invasion of Britain.

During Nero’s reign, Vespasian’s fortunes declined. In 63 ce he was made governor of Africa, an appointment that held little prestige, and his circumstances worsened on his return to Rome when he was seen to fall asleep at one of the emperor’s recitals. He was recalled from retirement in February 67 ce, however, and appointed governor of Judaea, with three legions under his command and the task of suppressing the First Jewish Revolt (see The Jewish War, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). By the following year, Vespasian had subdued most of the region, but Nero’s death drew his attention back to Rome again. After the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors ran its course, Vespasian emerged as Rome’s new ruler.

Vespasian ruled with a firm hand and an eye to practical matters. Knowing that Rome needed to be restored physically and financially, he ordered the rebuilding of the burned Capitol and Temple of Jupiter and then raised the taxation rates to replenish the state’s depleted treasury. He also completed the construction of several public works, especially the Colosseum. Throughout his reign, he retained close ties with the army, to whose loyalty he knew he owed his new position, yet continued to maintain a high standard of military discipline. Vespasian ensured that imperial power remained in the hands of the Flavians; the plan was for his elder son and designated successor, Titus, to be perceived as his colleague in important matters of state, the better to ensure a smooth transition when Titus him-self acceded to the throne. By the time Vespasian died in 79 ce, the empire was once again solvent and stable, its treasury full, its army disciplined, and its frontiers no longer vulnerable to attacks from invaders.

Like Vespasian, Titus was a capable military leader; on his accession, he proved to be a competent emperor as well. He retained most of his father’s economic and political practices but cultivated a milder, more liberal image. He made generous provisions for areas stricken with disaster, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ce and the outbreak of fire and plague in Rome the following year. Titus’s promising reign was cut short by his sudden death in 81 ce; his younger brother Domitian succeeded him.

Unlike Vespasian and Titus, Domitian lacked military experience; as a youth, he remained in Rome, studying rhetoric and literature while his father and brother campaigned in the African provinces and Judaea. Domitian was similarly overshadowed when Vespasian became emperor; he held several honorary consulships and priest-hoods but no important imperial position or office. His prominence did not increase significantly during Titus’s reign, though Titus chose no other heir. Upon his own accession in 81 ce, Domitian ruled moderately, but his administration was not wholly successful. Rome suffered an economic depression that resulted in the heavy devaluation of its currency; Domitian’s attempts to reconstruct and embellish the city by erecting many new buildings did not improve the state’s finances. In the later years of his reign, he revealed a rigid, even cruel streak. He alienated the entire ruling class by attempting to govern as an absolute monarch, withdrawing all of the Senate’s decision-making powers. Fearing assassination, he became suspicious to the point of paranoia, reviving treason trials and executing members of the senatorial and equestrian orders whom he suspected of plotting his downfall. Ironically Domitian’s actions made his assassination almost inevitable. A plot was hatched among his enemies in the Senate, members of the Praetorian Guard, and Domitian’s own wife Domitia Longina. Acting on the conspirators’ orders, Stephanus, a steward attached to Domitian’s niece’s household, fatally stabbed the emperor eight times on September 18, 96 ce.

The Biography in Focus

Contents overview

In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius takes a thematic rather than a strictly chronological approach to profile the first dozen emperors of Rome. After discussing each Caesar’s ancestry and early life and career, he recounts the emperor’s accomplishments as ruler and de-scribes the man’s personal characteristics, however unusual they may be. The biographical sketch finishes with a description of the Caesar’s death. The sketch may deal with military experience, administrative abilities, or some other thematic aspect of life, depending on the Caesar. In the process, the sketch conveys much of the information relayed in the historical discussion above and furthermore imparts a positive or negative picture of the particular man. To back up general statements about the various Caesars, the sketches include personal anecdotes—some racy, some of questionable truth. Each chapter ends not only with an account of the Caesar’s demise but also of the omens that presaged his death. Although there are variations within the chapters, Suetonius maintains this same basic organization throughout the biographies.

Contents summaries—one to twelve

Julius Caesar (r. 47-44 bce). Julius is the first of the Caesars and Suetonius covers his early career—military and political—in meticulous detail. He discusses Caesar’s terms in public offices (as quaestor, aedile, and consul), his involvement in political intrigues and alliances, and his military campaigns that culminated in the deaths or de-feats of his more powerful enemies and led to his becoming undisputed dictator of Rome. Caesar’s achievements as dictator include introducing the Julian calendar and increasing the yearly quota of senators, priests, and magistrates. On the personal side, Suetonius emphasizes Caesar’s ruthlessness (captured by pirates as a young man, he carries out his threat to later crucify them in return). The account also documents Caesar’s extravagant liaisons with other women, especially the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, who bore him an illegitimate son, Caesarion. Finally, it makes specific mention of Caesar’s growing arrogance and its effect on the senatorial class. Alienating many of them, observes Suetonius, this haughty air of self-importance led to his eventual murder during the Ides of March, 44 bce, after which Caesar was deified or raised to the stature of a god.

Augustus (r. 27 bce-14 ce). Suetonius first discusses the history and accomplishments of Augustus’s paternal relatives, the Octavii, in favorable terms. Augustus was the son of Julius Caesar’s niece, Atia, and Gaius Octavius the Younger. His father died when Augustus was four. (In fact, the boy at first also went by the name Gaius Octavius, then by the name Octavian and finally by Augustus, meaning someone who is majestic or venerable.) Suetonius then relates Augustus’s adoption as Caesar’s heir, his accession to power after Caesar’s assassination, and his successful struggle to maintain his position and authority. In describing Augustus’s long, peaceful reign, Suetonius emphasizes his construction or restoration of numerous public works in Rome, his revival of obsolescent rites and appointments, and his implementation of laws to encourage marriage and discourage adultery. Augustus’s positive character traits are emphasized: his modest demeanor, personal frugality and his loyalty to friends and family. (His palace was simply furnished and he preferred not to wear showy clothing.) The sexually immoral behavior of several relatives saddened and offended Augustus, who confined his promiscuous daughter Julia to a prison island for five years and refused to see or forgive her thereafter. Succumbing to a feverish chill in 14 ce, Augustus died. He was posthumously deified, as Caesar had been.

Tiberius (r. 14-37 ce). A discussion of the Claudians, whose family became connected to the Julians by marriage, narrows into an account of Augustus’s stepson and successor Tiberius. Suetonius describes Tiberius’s military successes, his political career, his ill-fated marriage to Augustus’s daughter Julia (at the emperor’s command), and his strange decision to quit public life while emperor and retire to the island of Rhodes, leaving the Roman official Sejanus to run the empire. The decision angered Augustus, though he and Tiberius were later reconciled. Throughout the chapter, Suetonius compares Tiberius unfavorably to Augustus, though he acknowledges that Tiberius initially ruled with modesty and discretion, vetoing bills for the dedication of temples to his future elevation to the status of a god and refusing to adopt the inherited title “Augustus.” The biography also credits Tiberius with abolishing foreign cults in Rome, trying to enforce public morality, and fortifying the realm against outlaws by decreasing the distance between military posts. However, Suetonius dwells at length on Tiberius’s debaucheries or his preoccupation with his own sensual pleasures in later years, especially after the emperor left Rome for Capraea (Capri): Tiberius reportedly set up a residence furnished with pornographic pictures and statues, where sexual extravagances of all kinds—including oral sex and sex with children—were practiced for his pleasure. Disgusted by Tiberius’s dissolute habits, Romans greeted the news of his death—from a fever at age 77—with jubilation.

Gaius Caligula (r. 37-41 ce). Suetonius briefly recounts the virtues of the military leader Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew and Caligula’s father. Germanicus’s early death was a devastating blow to the Roman people, who had hoped he would be their next emperor. Gaius, Germanicus’s youngest son, was brought up among army troops, who adopted him as a mascot and gave him the nickname Caligula (“little boot,” from “caliga,” the term for the heavy, hobnailed sandal of the Roman soldier). According to Suetonius, young Gaius exhibited brutal and vicious tendencies, which were encouraged by Tiberius. When Gaius succeeded Tiberius, many hoped he would prove to be as noble as his father. Suetonius concedes that the new emperor recalled exiles, dismissed all pending criminal charges, allowed previously suppressed works of history to be published anew, and completed the construction of several unfinished buildings started by Tiberius, including the Temple of Augustus and Pompey’s Theater. However, Suetonius focuses more extensively on Gaius “the Monster,” who had incestuous relations with his sisters, proclaimed himself a living god, and ordered the deaths of several relatives, including a young cousin whom Tiberius had designated as joint heir to the imperial throne (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 163). Cruel and given to indulging his whims, Gaius would have trials by torture executed in his presence while he was eating or otherwise entertaining himself. After Gaius’s assassination by his own imperial guards, two books containing the names and addresses of men whom he planned to kill were later found among his papers.

Claudius (r. 41-54 ce). Claudius was born to Antonia the Younger, Marc Antony’s daughter, and to Drusus, a son of Livia’s not by Augustus but by her first husband. Drusus, an accomplished military leader and a devotee to republicanism, died when his son Claudius was still an infant. Suetonius recounts Claudius’s sickly childhood, the low opinion in which his family held him, and his sheltered youth, spent largely in scholarship. Ignored by the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius was brought more into the public eye by his nephew Gaius (Caligula), partly to be made the butt of jokes. Found hiding behind a curtain after Gaius’s assassination, Claudius was hailed as emperor by the Guards who committed the murder. Suetonius assesses Claudius as an inconsistent ruler who made both prudent and foolish decisions; during one hearing a Greek lawyer was said to have lost his temper and publicly called the emperor “a stupid old idiot” (Caesars, p. 195). Claudius’s conquest of Britain and construction of public works are listed among his positive accomplishments. Suetonius casts a less favorable light on Claudius’s personal life, depicting him as dominated by the whims of his wives, especially the promiscuous Messalina and the scheming Agrippina. The latter, his own niece, was rumored to have poisoned Claudius to benefit her son Nero. Claudius was given a lavish funeral and posthumously deified.

Nero (r. 54-68 ce). Suetonius traces Nero’s family back to the Ahenobarbi, many of whom were arrogant, vicious, and cruel. After relating the particulars of Nero’s parentage, youth, adoption as an imperial heir, and accession to the throne, the biography focuses on the ways Nero perpetuated the worst tendencies of his ancestors. The biographer acknowledges Nero’s more positive accomplishments, lowering taxes, awarding money to the commons, settling annual salaries on impoverished senators, and introducing a new form of architecture to the city. However, as with Gaius, Suetonius concentrates on Nero’s crimes, especially the murders of his stepbrother Britannicus, his two empresses (Octavia and Poppaea), and his mother (Agrippina), for whom he nursed an incestuous passion. Nero’s colossal vanity is also emphasized: convinced he was a brilliant singer and musician, Nero forbade Roman audiences from leaving the theater while he was performing. According to one anecdote, Nero set fire to one of the poorer areas of Rome itself, then donned a tragedian’s costume and sang The Sack of Ilium while witnessing the city’s conflagration. Despite his monstrous qualities, the Nero of Suetonius’s biography proves incapable of coping with threats to his authority, such as the revolts in Gaul and Spain. His suicide, which ended the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty, caused “widespread general rejoicing throughout Rome,” although Suetonius reports that some people revered the late emperor’s memory to the point of pretending he was alive and would return to defeat his enemies (Caesars, p. 246).

Galba (r. 68-69 ce). Servius Sulpicius Galba, from an ancient aristocratic family, succeeded Nero as emperor. According to one story, the Emperor Augustus told young Galba that he would taste a little of the imperial power too. Suetonius details Galba’s political and military career, especially his appointments to foreign provinces during the reigns of Claudius and Nero. Also described is Galba’s involvement in the Gallic revolts against Nero, which led to Galba’s emergence as emperor of Rome. After his accession, however, Galba alienated many of his supporters, becoming unpopular especially with the army after he went back on his word and denied the military a promised bonus. Suetonius depicts Galba as stingy, greedy, and cruel, with no real understanding of how to rule the state. Heavily influenced by three corrupt, incompetent officials, Galba “was far less consistent in his behaviour—at one time meaner and more bitter, at another more wasteful and indulgent” (Caesars, p. 254). The biographer implies that Galba’s fall from power and assassination were inevitable, owing to the emperor’s unwise decisions and the unfavorable omens attending most of his short reign.

Otho (r. 69 ce). Marcus Salvius Otho was also descended from an ancient, distinguished family. Suetonius recounts how the ambitious, calculating Otho insinuated himself into the favor of Emperor Nero and the possibly scandalous nature of their friendship (an inappropriate homo-sexual relationship). Nero married his mistress Poppaea Sabina to Otho, only to annul the marriage, reclaim Poppaea, and exile Otho to Lusitanian Spain for ten years, where the latter served as governor. To revenge himself on Nero, Otho joined Galba’s rebellion and supported the new regime, but was shocked when Galba later adopted the inconsequential nobleman Piso as his heir. Believing that his best chance for survival lay in becoming Emperor himself, Otho mounted a successful coup against Galba and acceded hastily to the throne. Suetonius offers little insight into Otho’s short reign, focusing instead on his ill-fated attempt to defend his throne and his decision to commit suicide after his forces were defeated at Bedriacum.

Vitellius (r. 69 ce). While the origins of Aulus Vitellius’s family were unclear, Suetonius writes that Vitellius himself had acquired a reputation “for every sort of vice,” though this did not pre-vent him from becoming a fixture at the courts of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero (Caesars, p. 269). The biographer recounts the events of Vitellius’s political career leading up to his appointment to the governorship of Lower Germany and his subsequent, successful campaign to become emperor, with the support of the German legions. As with Galba and Otho, a largely negative account of Vitellius’s reign follows. Suetonius identifies Vitellius’s ruling vices as “extravagance and cruelty,” mentioning that he drank heavily and banqueted up to four times a day (Caesars, p. 273). Vitellius habitually commissioned luxurious courses for his banquets; one favored dish, named “Shield of Minerva the Protectress of the City,” included such exotic ingredients as pike-livers, pheasant-brains, peacock-brains, and flamingo-tongues. Suetonius also describes Vitellius as a vicious enemy, who “would kill or torture anyone at all on the slightest pretext, not excluding noblemen who had been his fellow-students or friends” (Caesars, p. 274). His incompetence as a ruler, combined with his mishandling of peaceful negotiations with the rival Flavian faction, sealed his fate: Vitellius was captured and killed when the Flavian army entered Rome.

Vespasian (r. 69-79 ce). Suetonius credits Vespasian, the younger son of an obscure but well-to-do family, with restoring stable government to Rome. Vespasian’s distinguished military career is discussed in detail, as are his fluctuating fortunes in imperial service: he prospers during Claudius’s reign, loses favor under Nero, but later proves an effective governor of Judaea. Backed by the Roman legions in Moesia, an un-opposed Vespasian becomes emperor following the deaths of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Suetonius offers a mainly positive account of Vespasian’s reign, emphasizing his control over the army, his restoration and construction of public works, and his reform of the senatorial and equestrian orders. (The equestrians by this time consisted of an assorted group of leading men of the empire.) Even Vespasian’s flaws—stinginess and a low, earthy sense of humor—are rendered almost affectionately. In one anecdote, Vespasian’s son Titus complains about the emperor’s taxing the public urinals, only to have his father point out that the coins resulting from the tax did not smell bad, despite their origin. Described as modest and lenient, Vespasian lived simply, conducting most of his imperial business in the morning. Fatally stricken with fever in the ninth year of his reign, Vespasian joked on his deathbed that he felt himself turning into a god. He was deified posthumously.

Titus (r. 79-81 ce). Suetonius paints a flattering portrait of Vespasian’s elder son and successor Titus as well. As a child, Titus exhibited considerable intelligence, grace, and charm, excelling in languages, music, and feats of arms. As a young man, Titus proved himself to be a capable military leader in Germany, Britain, and Judaea, and, after Vespasian’s accession, to also be a trusted colleague of his father. Suetonius mentions that some Romans initially feared Titus would prove wildly immoral and cruel: he had a former consul stabbed to death in his own dining room and he conceived an improper passion for Queen Berenice of Judaea. On becoming emperor, however, Titus mended his ways, broke with Berenice, banished informers, and gave every indication of being a benevolent ruler. After only two years as emperor, however, Titus died abruptly of fever. Ironically, his early demise enhanced his reputation among his subjects, who “began speaking of him, now that he was dead, with greater thankfulness and praise than they had ever used when he was alive and among them” (Caesars, p. 298). Titus too was deified after his death.

Domitian (r. 81-96 ce). Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, succeeded Titus. During Vitellius’s reign, Domitian had narrowly escaped death beside his uncle Sabinus when Vitellius’s followers set fire to the Capitol. Suetonius’s assessment of Domitian is mainly negative: he notes that Domitian lacked military experience and never held any major position of authority during Vespasian’s reign. Also the biographer portrays Domitian as continually plotting, secretly or openly, against Titus. Suetonius concedes that, as a ruler, Domitian was a conscientious dispenser of justice; he took a rigorous stance on improving public morality, even to the point of sentencing several Vestal Virgins to death for un-chastity. However, Suetonius emphasizes Domitian’s cruel streak, observing that “he prefaced all his most savage sentences with the same speech about mercy: indeed this lenient preamble soon became a recognized sign that something dreadful was on the way” (Caesars, p. 307). According to the biographer, Domitian eventually be-came so feared and hated that his friends and servants plotted to murder him, with his own wife’s connivance. A household steward, Stephanus, stabbed Domitian to death, losing his own life in the struggle. The Roman Senate denounced their dead emperor’s memory and decreed that all records of his reign should be obliterated.

Omens and auguries

One striking feature of The Twelve Caesars is Suetonius’s detailed account of the various supernatural omens associated with each Caesar’s reign. Whether favorable or unfavorable, plausible or incredible, auguries and prophecies seem to have been inescapable phenomena in the lives of Roman rulers.

Arguably, the most famous of these prophecies concerns Julius Caesar, who was warned by the augur Spurinna that he would face grave danger no later than the Ides of March (the middle of March). Several signs appeared to underscore the warning: a bird, known as the King Bird, was torn to pieces by a flock of other birds on the day be-fore the Ides; Caesar’s last dream was that he was soaring above the clouds and then shaking hands with Jupiter; and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia dreamed that a gable ornament, one of the honors bestowed upon Caesar by the Senate, collapsed and that she held her husband’s dying body in her arms. Despite these auspices, Caesar proceeded to the Senate without hesitation on the fateful day. Encountering Spurinna on the way, he derided the augur as a false prophet, announcing that the Ides of March had come. Spurinna countered, “Yes, they have come … but they have not yet gone” (Spurinna in Suetonius, p. 30). Ironically, someone had earlier handed Caesar a note warning him of the plot against his life, but Caesar only added it unread to the sheaf of petitions he was already carrying. Moments after Caesar entered the Senate’s Assembly Hall, located at Pompey’s Theater complex, the conspirators fell upon him and stabbed him to death.

Caesar’s successors had similar, if less dramatic, experiences. Comets with fiery tails, presaging deaths, appeared in the sky shortly before the demises of Emperors Claudius and Vespasian. A noted physiognomist observed Claudius’s son Britannicus and Vespasian’s son Titus as boys, and revealed that the former would never succeed his father but the latter would succeed his. Astrologists predicted the very hour, day, year, and manner of Domitian’s death, all of which were fulfilled. While it is possible to interpret Domitian’s end, at least, as a self-fulfilling prophecy—reportedly, he became crueler and more despotic as the fateful day approached—Suetonius’s inclusion of such omens emphasizes the trust many Romans placed in augury and the supernatural.

Augurs were, in fact, a recognized and accepted element in Roman religious life. From the inception of the republic, there had been two religious colleges: the pontifices, headed by the pontifex maximus (chief priest) and the augures. The former concerned themselves with sacrifices to the gods, the latter with determining the will of the gods, often through observing the behavior of sacred animals, usually birds. It was considered foolhardy and unwise to ignore auguries, however much the petitioner might wish to do so. During the first Punic War (264-241 bce), the Roman naval commander Publius Claudius Pulcher reportedly ignored an inauspicious sign: the sacred chickens refused several times to eat their corn, which would mean that any battle launched that day would go against the Romans. Infuriated, Pulcher had the chickens thrown overboard and initiated an attack on the Carthaginians that resulted in the almost total destruction of the Roman fleet.

As unlikely as some auguries seemed, they could be made to serve a practical purpose. Signs that appeared to herald a victory in battle or the accession of a stable ruler after a period of chaos—as with Claudius after Gaius’s reign of terror or Vespasian after the Year of the Four Emperors—could lend hope and inspiration to disheartened, fearful Romans.

Sources and literary context

Although the Julio-Claudian and Flavian rulers were long dead by the time The Twelve Caesars was written, Suetonius had access to the imperial archives, which contained letters and public and private records, during some part of the biography’s composition. It is often speculated that Suetonius’s dismissal from court occurred after only the first two books—on Julius Caesar and Augustus—were complete, as subsequent installments were less detailed. Nonetheless, other written sources were available to Suetonius, such as Tacitus’s Histories (c. 109-110 ce), Plutarch’s Lives of Galba and Otho (c. 96 ce), and Pliny the Elder’s Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus (c. 79 ce). Suetonius seldom cites his sources directly, but he quotes from the works of Claudius Pollio twice and Cremutius Cordus once. He also echoes the Emperor Augustus’s own Acts.

Along with the writings of Tacitus and the much later Greek historian Dio Cassius, Suetonius’s biographies remain one of the few extant literary sources for imperial Rome. While Tacitus is some-times considered the superior historian, Suetonius is credited with providing a more personal view of his subject. The simplicity of Suetonius’s style and his employment of vivid details have also made him accessible to generations of readers.

Events in History at the Time the Biographies Were Written

The development of Latin biography

The Twelve Caesars marks a shift from history to biography among scholars and fashionable readers. The works of Tacitus, especially his Histories and Annals, were considered unsurpassed, a circumstance of which Suetonius would most likely have been aware. Consequently, Suetonius may have chosen a different approach to his material, one that focused more on the personal characteristics and private lives of his subjects.

Since so few biographical works from Classical Rome have survived, it is difficult to assess Suetonius’s exact placement within the literary traditions in which he worked. However, it can be noted that earlier writings on the lives of emperors or other prominent persons tended to be eulogistic in tone. Writing perhaps half a century after Domitian’s death, Suetonius could present a more objective view of his subject without fear of persecution. Consequently, he juxtaposes his account of each Caesar’s achievements as ruler with detailed descriptions, illustrated by many anecdotes, of his private life. Suetonius thus creates a series of compelling character portraits, which, if not always wholly accurate, still pre-sent a more balanced view of the Caesars than had existed previously.

Impact

As one of the few surviving accounts of imperial Rome, The Twelve Caesars was read, studied, and imitated by successive generations. Suetonius’s work provided a model for Einhard’s Charlemagne, written in the nineteenth century, and a source for Petrarch’s Lives of the Illustrious Ro-mans in the fourteenth century. More recently, the British novelist and poet Robert Graves drew heavily upon The Twelve Caesars as a basis for his famous historical novel I, Claudius. Graves, who also penned a modern English translation of The Twelve Caesars, wrote that “The younger Pliny … wrote that the more he knew of Suetonius, the greater his affection for him grew. I have had the same experience” (Caesars, p. 10).

—Pamela S. Loy

EVALUATING THE EMPERORS

While The Twelve Caesars maintains a greater degree of objectivity than earlier biographical writings, Suetonius does not entirely refrain from expressing his own opinion on his chosen subject. His accounts of the more notorious emperors—Gaius, Nero, and Domitian—are occasionally scathing. There is a perfunctory quality to his description of their positive accomplishments while emperor; whereas, when he describes their faults and follies, his tone is condemnatory. One-third of the way through his chapter on Gaius, Suetonius writes, “So much for the Emperor; the rest of this history must deal with the Monster” (Caesars, p. 163). By contrast, the chapters dealing with Augustus, Vespasian, and Titus are more flattering in tone: the virtues of these rulers are presented as outweighing their flaws. One can infer from individual chapters in his work that Suetonius approves most of the emperors who are competent administrators, courageous without being reckless, modest, scrupulous, and capable of controlling their appetites and passions.

For More Information

Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray, eds. The Oxford History of the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Dorey, T. A., ed. Latin Biography. New York: Basic Books, 1967.

Grant, Michael. The Roman Emperors. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jones, Brian, and Robert Milns. Suetonius: The Flavian Emperors. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2002.

Jones, Peter, and Keith Sidwell, eds. The World of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Massie, Allan. The Caesars. London: Seeker & Warbeck, 1983.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1989.

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Suetonius. London: Duckworth, 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"The Twelve Caesars." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Jan. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"The Twelve Caesars." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/twelve-caesars

"The Twelve Caesars." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/twelve-caesars

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.