THE TWELVE CAESARS by Matthew Dennison


The Dramatic Lives of the Emperors of Rome
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Roman historian Suetonius wrote The Twelve Caesars in the second century, and many subsequent writers have appropriated the title. In this latest example, British journalist Dennison (Livia, Empress of Rome, 2011, etc.) summarizes Suetonius and other ancients (Pliny, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Josephus) as well as scholars today, who often quarrel with their interpretations.

Lacking strong opinions himself, the author delivers agreeable biographies of Julius Caesar and 11 subsequent rulers. Caesar is a surprisingly attractive character. Although fiercely ambitious, he was not particularly bloodthirsty, often pardoning opposition leaders who later turned against him, Brutus among them. The changes wrought during his few years as dictator strike us as reasonable in light of the disorder and corruption of the previous 50 years. They also struck most Romans this way, and his assassination was the work of an aristocratic minority. His grandnephew, Octavian, required a brutal decade to set things right before taking power himself as Augustus and ruling rather well for 40 years. Of his successors, only one, Vespasian, was popular at his death. Reigns were often short; eight emperors died violently. Domitian, murdered in A.D. 96, was the last of the 12; five competent rulers followed, but for accounts of those, readers must consult Edward Gibbon. Sticking to biographies, Dennison emphasizes his subjects’ upbringings, family relations and personal qualities, which, more so in the bad emperors, includes a wearisome amount of sexual activity, debauchery, murder, torture and betrayal. The author includes a family tree for both the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Flavian family.

Dennison provides a capable series of portraits, but those searching for a richer analysis of Roman culture and government during this era should read Adrian Goldsworthy or Michael Grant.

Pub Date: June 25th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-02353-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2013


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