Sex, Power and Betrayal: 'Twelve Caesars' Still Compelling

By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, August 21, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Any reader interested in the corrosive effects of power -- a subject of continual and urgent consequence in this city -- would do well to read "The Twelve Caesars," Michael Grant's authoritative synthesis of the bits and pieces that have come down to us through the ages about the men who ruled the Roman Empire from 46 B.C. through A.D. 95. But useful though this book certainly is, sooner or later the reader must turn to the original, as written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century A.D.

To today's reader, this may seem daunting: a book written nearly two millennia ago in a language, Latin, that is now, to all intents and purposes, dead, by an author about whom almost nothing is known. Fear not. A brilliant translation of Suetonius is easily available, in what Gore Vidal has called "a good, dry, no-nonsense style." It was done in the mid-1950s by Robert Graves, who two decades earlier had leaned heavily on Suetonius in writing his immensely successful historical novels, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God." It was first published in 1957 as a Penguin Classic and is still in print in the same series, revised in 1979 by Michael Grant.

Revised, that is, because Graves felt that a "literal rendering" of Suetonius in English "would be almost unreadable" and therefore took certain liberties in translation. Grant has attempted to bring Graves's translation closer to the original "without, I hope, detracting from his excellent and inimitable manner," and he has succeeded. As one who first read the Graves translation three decades ago and has often had occasion to return to it, I can detect no significant deviations in the revised version. Graves's translation as modified by Grant still makes Suetonius immensely readable and surprisingly modern.

The collaboration of Suetonius and Graves first came to my attention thanks to an essay about it by Vidal. Though written when the translation was first published, it did not appear in print until 1972, in Vidal's essay collection "Homage to Daniel Shays." I had studied Latin in high school and college, but to the best of my knowledge had never heard of Suetonius, much less read him. Vidal explains why: "The range of vices revealed [in 'The Twelve Caesars'] was considerably beyond the imagination of even the most depraved schoolboy." Previous translations had omitted or bowdlerized the juicy stuff; Graves left it all in. To wit, Augustus:

"Not even his friends could deny that he often committed adultery, though of course they said, in justification, that he did so for reasons of state, not simple passion -- he wanted to discover what his enemies were at by getting intimate with their wives or daughters. Mark Antony accused him not only of indecent haste in marrying Livia, but of hauling an ex-consul's wife from her husband's dining room into the bedroom -- before his eyes, too! He brought the woman back, says Antony, blushing to the ears and with her hair in disorder."

Got your attention now? Well, keep on reading. Suetonius tells us that "a racy letter of Antony's survives," in which he teases Augustus: "What has come over you? Do you object to my sleeping with Cleopatra? But we are married; and it is not even as though this were anything new -- the affair started nine years ago. And what about you? Are you faithful to Livia Drusilla? My congratulations if, when this letter arrives, you have not been in bed with Tertullia, or Terentilla, or Rufilla, or Salvia Titisenia -- or all of them. Does it really matter so much where, or with whom, you perform the sexual act?"

They sure didn't teach that in Latin 101, at least not back when I had my nose deep in "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres," "Arma virumque cano" and other chestnuts of the canon. So as soon as I read the Vidal essay I got my hands on Suetonius/Graves and gobbled up every word of it. Yes, things were beginning to loosen up in the early 1970s -- "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was old hat by then, and "Deep Throat" was released in 1972 -- but still my eyes popped open when Suetonius got around to Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula:

"He had not the slightest regard for chastity, either his own or others'. . . . [A] young man of consular family, Valerius Catullus, revealed publicly that he had buggered the Emperor, and quite worn himself out in the process. Besides incest with his sisters, and a notorious passion for the prostitute Pyrallis, he made advances to almost every woman of rank in Rome; after inviting a selection of them to dinner with their husbands, he would slowly and carefully examine each in turn while they passed his couch. . . . Then, whenever he felt so inclined, he would send for whoever pleased him best, and leave the banquet in her company. A little while later he would return, showing obvious signs of what he had been about, and openly discuss his bed-fellow in detail, dwelling on her good and bad physical points and commenting on her sexual performance."

Each of the Caesars had his sexual peculiarities, some of them decidedly outre. Yet Vidal is correct to say that they cannot be dismissed as "abnormal men." They were in fact "a fairly representative lot," with one important twist: "They differed from us -- and their contemporaries -- only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies. This is the psychological fascination of Suetonius. What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything."

Disbelievers are referred not just to Augustus and his serial adulteries and Caligula and his cruelties but also to the much married and much cuckolded Claudius (who said, wittily, that "he seemed fated to marry wives who 'were unchaste but remained unchastened' ") and the appalling Nero, who "practised every kind of obscenity, and after defiling almost every part of his body, finally invented a novel game: He was released from a cage dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes."

The business is sex, but the real subject is power, and it is for his insights into power -- or the insights his evidence permits the reader to draw -- that Suetonius is most usefully read. Not merely does absolute power permit a person thus inclined to indulge any sexual fantasy no matter how perverted, to eat gluttonously and drink copiously; it also permits that person to treat other human beings as disposable commodities. The amount of casual violence reported by Suetonius is simply breathtaking, even to the modern reader hardened by the various outrages of the 20th century, from Hitler and Stalin to Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Augustus, noted "for courage and clemency," belied that reputation over and over. "If a cohort [of his own army] broke in battle, Augustus ordered the survivors to draw lots, then executed every tenth man." When "one Polus, a favorite freedman, was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons, Augustus ordered him to commit suicide; and sentenced Thallus, an imperial secretary, to have his legs broken for divulging the contents of a letter."

Caligula went completely over the top. He "made parents attend their sons' executions, and when one father excused himself on the ground of ill health, provided a litter for him." The "method of execution he preferred was to inflict numerous small wounds; and his familiar order: 'Make him feel that he is dying!' soon became proverbial." He "frequently had trials by torture in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol."

Yet, the great irony is that these merchants of death themselves lived in constant fear of betrayal and murder. This is remarked upon by both Grant and Vidal; the latter says that all 12 Caesars were possessed by "a fear of the knife in the dark." Suetonius provides ample evidence. The days of Tiberius "were clouded with danger and fear," dangers "that threatened him from many quarters, and often led him to declare that he was holding a wolf by the ears." Claudius "was so timid and suspicious that . . . he never attended a banquet unless with an escort of javelin-bearing guards." Domitian "was such a prey to fear and anxiety that the least sign of danger unnerved him." He "claimed that the lot of all Emperors is necessarily wretched, since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real."

Grant argues that their lives were wretched not just because they were forever looking over their shoulders but because they worked so hard. "The labors that a successful emperor found himself compelled to undertake were not only terrifyingly responsible," he writes, "but enormously extensive, and never ending." Again, the evidence provided by Suetonius is impressive. Though the duties that the Caesars assumed varied -- Julius and Augustus were vastly more dutiful than Caligula and Nero -- no one could escape their weight. Caesars acted as judge and jury over legal matters both large and trivial; they marched off at the head of their armies to do battle as far away as Britannia and the Rhine; they built and rebuilt (in Nero's case, burned and rebuilt) Rome and its outskirts; they dealt daily with the Senate, which though mostly toothless was meddlesome and an eternal source of rivalry and conspiracy; they staged circuses for the Roman people and fed them bread. The buck, in sum, always stopped at them.

Grant also argues that the Caesars "performed the almost superhuman task of governing many millions of men and women over a gigantic area; and on the whole, with the aid of an efficient system, they governed well. . . . The most able of them, whatever their personal peculiarities, changed the course of history for the better, and demand our awed respect and admiration."

Vidal does not address this question so directly, but one infers a different view. "In terror of their lives, haunted by dreams and omens, giddy with dominion, it is no wonder that actual insanity was often the Caesarian refuge from a reality so intoxicating," he writes, and, a few paragraphs later, reflecting upon the differences between this country during the age of Eisenhower and Rome under the Caesars, he says that "though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars."

One rather suspects that were Vidal to reconsider that passage in light of the American presidency since Eisenhower, he would want to rewrite it, and not in a way congenial to the presidency. But that is neither here nor there. The real subject is power, its uses and abuses, and in Suetonius we find an incomparable guide, made wholly accessible to today's reader in Robert Graves's compelling translation.

"The Twelve Caesars," by Suetonius as translated by Robert Graves, revised and introduced by Michael Grant, is available in a Penguin Classics paperback for $14.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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