Suetonius
The Twelve Caesars
Suetonius lived at the peak of the Roman Empire, during a
period in which its political power held sway over a hundred
million people and 2.3 million square miles.  The period he
covers in
De vita Caesarum encompasses an even earlier era,
the period of Imperial ascendancy under Julius Caesar and the
next eleven emperors.  One might suspect that the story of
these leaders would be an uplifting account of great
statesmanship and visionary politics -- after all Gibbon does
not even include this expansionary period in his
The Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire
.  But Suetonius shows the exact
opposite.  In fact, this historian has played the leading role in
shaping our image of the Roman Empire as a corrupt and
decadent, driven by the whims and follies of tyrannical leaders.
 Here is the source of our vision of Nero "fiddling while Rome
burned" (actually he played the lyre -- but the callousness is
still the same), and detailed accounts of the depravity of
Caligula, the madness and idiocy of Claudius, the avarice of
Vespasian.  In his description of the "year of the four
emperors" (69 AD), which followed on the forced suicide of
Nero, Suetonius reveals the instability of tyranny, the house of
cards that is inevitably created when republican values have
been eclipsed in favor of power politics in its most brutal form.

WEB RESOURCES

Here is a life of Suetonius with links to the text of his work in
Latin and English

View
portraits of the twelve Caesars from their coins

Read
Gore Vidal on the twelve Caesars

Take the twelve Caesars quiz
TIPS FOR READERS

If you are in the mood for
more gossipy history of
Roman decadence after
finishing Suetonius, look no
further than
Procopius's
Secret History.  This vitriolic
attack on the Emperor
Justinian and his wife
Theodora deserves to be
much better known by
modern readers.


A MODERN TWIST . . .

Robert Graves borrowed
extensively from Suetonius
for his celebrated novel
I,
Claudius, which ranks
among the finest historical
novels of twentieth century.