12 Caesars

12 Caesars

Suetonius dishes the dirt on old Rome
Making the Case for Limited Government

Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars (www.amzn.com/0140455167) belongs on the short list of books designed to bring active minds closer to the founding principles of Conservatism (along with Voltaire’s Candide on the error of Utopian socialism…http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/voltaire-conservative-of-enlightenment.html and Orwell’s Animal Farm on the nature of political extremism…http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/animal-farm.html).  Suetonius wrote a gossipy, superstitious series of biographical sketches of the first twelve Roman Emperors that continues to fascinate to this day.  Suetonius dishes the dirt on Rome’s first twelve Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian.  He informs us of the personal lives of the Emperors and the portents that seemed to predict their usually grisly deaths.

The 19th century English historian, Lord Acton, once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Suetonius, living 1,900 years ago around the zenith of the Roman Empire, would surely have agreed.   Suetonius was the private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian.  His intimate portrayals of the Roman emperors demonstrate the corrupting influence of power.  The Roman Emperors had absolute power over the lives of their subjects; they were also, with good reason, terrified of assassination.  Their savage example provides the classic rationale for the necessity of limited central government.

They were also the chief inspiration for Mussolini’s fascist state.

When master storytellers such as George Lucas and George R.R. Martin go looking for plot-lines it is to colorful histories like the Twelve Caesars that they turn.  Star Wars’ Galactic Federation devolves from Republic to Empire much like the Roman Republic.  Game of Thrones has no more lust for power and erotic content than Suetonius’ biographical sketches.

Julius Caesar
Mixed more than Salad
100 BC – 44 BC

Julius Caesar was  the accomplished Roman general who crossed the Rubicon (“the dye is cast.”) and became the founding father of Imperial Rome or the chief destroyer of the Roman Republic.  Caesar was not just a winning general;  he was an excellent writer who, like Churchill, chronicled his own accomplishments.  He famously subdued Gaul — “Veni, Vedi, Vici” — and divided it into three parts.  He led a raid of Britain perhaps for its oysters and pearls which were extraordinarily rare and valuable in the ancient world.  His troops adored him.

Julius Caesar lived large.  Suetonius tells us that, “his affairs with women are commonly described as numerous and extravagant.”  The most famous of these was surely with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra who bore him a son.

On the Ides of march 44 BC it all ended very badly when he was stabbed twenty-three times by daggers in the Roman senate in one of the best documented conspiracies of all time (http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/conspiracy-theories-old-and-new.html).   The night before he had dined at Marcus Lepidus’ house where he had publicly declared that “the best sort of death” would “come swiftly and unexpectedly“.  Finally, Caesar’s ambition was realized.

The Divine Augustus
63 BC – 14 AD

The month of August is named in honor of Augustus even though he was born Octavian.  Augustus was adopted by Julius Caesar at the age of eighteen.  After Caesar’s assassination he joined with Mark Antony and avenged him.  Suetonius informs us that very few of the dictator’s assassins “outlived Caesar for more than three years.”

Augustus would later fight and win a civil war with Antony and Cleopatra. But Augustus was not always a victorious Roman leader.  In the wilds of the German forests three Roman legions led by Varus were massacred to a man in the Teutoburger Wald.  Augustus was so shaken by these events that he beat his head against a door and shouted, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!

Augustus was undoubtedly a tremendous builder.  He famously said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

It was during the month of August in 14 AD that the emperor died falling victim to an intestinal complaint.   Some spread the rumor that his wife Livia may have helped him to the afterlife with poisoned figs.

“A wolf by the ears”
42 BC – 37 AD
Tiberius was Augustus’ stepson, the oldest son of Livia.  Tiberius distinguished himself as a Roman commander leading successful campaigns in Illyricum (roughly modern Croatia), Panonia (modern Hungary) and Germany.

Suetonius fairly blushes to tell us that “some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe.  Imagine training little boys , whom he called his ‘minnows’, to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble them.”

Tiberius was the Caesar that Jesus Christ himself told his followers “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto god the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  He was also Caesar at the time of the crucifixion.

Tiberius had a fondness for islands interrupting his meteoric career to exile himself to Rhodes in 6 BC.  Later as Emperor he would retreat to beautiful isle of Capri of the coast of Sorrento.  Reigning Rome from afar, he used the equestrian Sejanus to do his dirty work for him until he turned against him and wiped out Sejanus and his entire family.

Tiberius said that being emperor of Rome was like ‘holding a wolf by the ears‘.

Some sources suggest that his heir, Caligula, had Tiberius poisoned.  Others assert that he was suffocated to death with his own bedclothes.  We know for certain, however, that he his passing was little mourned.  Suetonius writes that ‘the first news of his death caused such joy at Rome that some people ran about yelling “To the Tiber with Tiberius!

Gaius Caligula
Bad Boy or just Nickname Victim?
12 – 41 AD

The cruelty of Tiberius meant that the ascension of his nephew Gaius Caligula to the throne was greeted with general rapture; little did they suspect the horrors to come.  Tiberius himself had prophesied that Gaius would prove to be a “viper in Rome’s bosom“.

Gaius had been raised in a Roman army camp where he had acquired the nickname “Caligula” or “little Soldiers boot” or “bootie-kins”.

Caligula would become perhaps the most notoriously depraved Emperor in the long history of Rome. His brief life and bloody reign would become fodder for pornographers.  He slept with boys, men, married women, all three of his sisters and even had time for his own wife, Caesonia, with whom he had a daughter.

He squandered the roman treasury with his extravagance.  He would drink valuable pearls that had been dissolved in vinegar.

Gaius had nothing but contempt for the Roman senate.  He even tried to award his horse, Incitatus, a consulship.

Finally, at the age of 29, he was assassinated along with his wife Caesonia and infant daughter by a conspiracy of Praetorian guards.

10 BC – 54 AD

After butchering Gaius Caligula, his assassins began to search the palace.  Suetonius writes, “A common soldier who happened to be running past noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification, and recognized him.  Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the solder’s knees, but found himself acclaimed emperor.” 

Claudius was the grandson of Augustus’s wife Livia.  He was assumed to be dull-witted on account of a series of diseases which struck him in childhood.  He would, in fact become one of the most literate Roman emperors writing long historical works which, alas, have not survived.

He had notable successes such as the conquest of Britannia which even Julius Caesar had failed at.  He went personally to Britain and earned a triumph.

The ‘mis-underestimated’ Claudius rates as one of the better Roman emperors who was proclaimed ‘divine’ after his death.  Though he did mange “to execute thirty-five senators and 300 Roman equities” with little apparent concern.

Claudius was unhappy in love.  His wife Messalina was notoriously unfaithful going so far as to enter into a bigamous ‘marriage’ with her lover Silius.  After having her executed, a befuddled Claudius went in to dinner and asked, “Why is her ladyship not here?’

In his 64th year the emperor Claudius died.  Suetonius relates that most Romans believed him to have been poisoned by a dish of mushrooms — his favorite food.

“Angler in the lake of Darkness”
37 – 68 AD

It is a damned lie that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned“!  He was actually 35 miles away in the town of Antium by the sea on the night Rome caught fire;  besides, his preferred instrument was the lyre.

Shakespeare summed up Nero best in King Lear describing him as “an angler in the lake of darkness.

According to Suetonius, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria.  He dressed in the skins of wild animals and “attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes.”

Suetonius informs us that he killed his second wife Poppaea by kicking her to death.  She was pregnant and had complained about him coming “home late from the races“.  He was rumored to have had a hand in the death of Claudius. He did poison Britannicus who was a rival to the throne.

Suetonius blandly informs us that under Nero, “punishments were inflicted on Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition.” 

Nero embarrassed Romans with his extravagant philhellenism and grotesque vanity.  He visited Greece and participated in Lyre competitions always managing to win the laurel.  Nero really didn’t want to be emperor; he wanted to be a contestant on Rome’s Got Talent.  Some of the crowd at these competitions feigned death in order to escape these excruciating performances.  Nero was angler who didn’t mind fishing for compliments in a stocked pond.

Inevitably Nero’s excesses led to the formation of a conspiracy.  Before being stabbed to death by one of his slaves, “he muttered through his tears, ‘Dead!  And so great an artist!'”

The chaos begins
3 BC – 69 AD

On Nero’s death the aged Galba assumed the purple.  He would only reign for seven months.  His accession marked the beginning of 69 AD an orgy of civil violence known as the “year of the four emperors”.  Successive Roman generals of dubious pedigree would battle to win the Roman game of thrones.

Galba committed the unpardonable sin of slighting the Roman army.  Suetonius tells us simply that “he outraged all classes at rome, but the most virulent hatred of him smouldered in the army.” 

He was murdered and decapitated by Roman soldiers beside the Curtian lake.

Died well
32 – 69 AD

Otho led the rebellion against Galba.  On the night of his ascension he was said to have been haunted “by Galba’s ghost in a terrible nightmare.

He reigned for three months which ended in his suicide.

Just before his death, he told his nephew, “Do not altogether forget, and do not too well remember, that you had a Caesar for an uncle.”

“Sphincter Artist”
15 – 69 AD

Vitellius, his name says it all — “emperor veal”!  Could you imagine in America a President Porkchop or Senator Sausage?

Suetonius confirms his eternal status as a glutton.  He writes, “Vitellius’ ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty.  He banqueted three and often four times a day, namely morning, noon, afternoon, and evening — the last meal being mainly a drinking bout — and survived the ordeal well enough by vomiting frequently.”

Roman legions began repudiating him.  Soldiers grabbed while a rabble began hurling insutls such as “Greedy guts” before he was tortured, killed and beheaded.  His pathetic final words were, “And yet I was your emperor.”

“Pitch me into the Tiber!”
9 – 79 AD

The ascension of Vespasian, acclaimed “divine” after this death, ended the brutal civil war that wracked Rome throughout the ‘Annus horribilis’ of 69 AD.  He was the founder of the Flavian dynasty that brought a measure of stability back to an empire in turmoil.

In Matthew Dennison’s Twelve Caesars (www.amzn.com/1250049121) he tells us that Vespasian “was a stranger to snobbery and too canny to allow himself to be rebranded in the Julio-Claudian mould.  Even in his portraiture (see Aureus above) he eschewed their model, a bull-necked, bald-headed, warts and all imagery of age and its imperfections replacing the classicized perfection of those god-like Augustans.

Vespasian rolled up his sleeves and set to work rebuilding a shattered Rome.  Suetonius writes that “he personally inaugurated the restoration of the burned Capitol by collecting the first basketful of rubble and carrying it away on his shoulders.”

Vespasian delivered the funniest line attributed to ANY Roman emperor.  On his deathbed Vespasian said, “I think that I am becoming a god.”

Sacked Jerusalem
39 – 81 AD

Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus who was an effective Roman military tribune in Germany, Britain and especially in Judea where he crushed a Jewish revolt, sacking Jerusalem.

Titus ruled with compassion providing assistance to the survivors of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania.  He stripped his own mansions to provide relief for the victims of fire and plague.

Titus completed me in 80 AD!
Colosseum, Rome

Titus managed to complete construction of the Roman Colosseum that tourists gawk at today.

After a short but productive reign of just over two years Titus died of a fever at the age of forty-two.

“Ah, to be as good-looking as Maecius thinks he is.”
51 – 96 AD

Domitian, Titus younger brother, succeeded Titus to the throne.  He was a frustrated young man who had lived under the shadow of his successful father and older brother.

He staged expensive entertainments such as sea battles in the Roman Amphitheatre but could never seem to purchase his people’s affection.

Domitian’s cruelty was heightened by cunning.  He imposed heavy taxes upon the Jews.  Suetonius tells us that, as a boy, he witnessed a ninety year old man stripped naked to determine whether he had been circumcised.

Again Suetonius dishes the dirt on Domitian writing that he “was extremely lustful, and called his sexual activities ‘bed wrestling‘”.

It all ended very badly for Domitian who was stabbed in the groin and seven more times by the inevitable conspirators.  Eventually, it would end badly for the Roman empire as well.


History may be nothing more or less than the record of man’s crimes and follies, but Suetonius’ lively and gossipy tales from two millennia ago prove that history can be entertaining.

Christopher Kelly