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The Twelve Caesars

Robert Graves

  The Twelve Caesars

  Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

  translated by Robert Graves


  The Twelve Caesars

  Copyright © 1957 by Robert Graves, renewed 1985 by Robert Graves

  Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Cover jacket design by Carly Schnur

  ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795337642

















  Not much is known about the life of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. He was probably born in 69 A.D.—the famous ‘year of four Emperors’—when his father, a Roman knight, served as a colonel in a regular legion and took part in the Battle of Baetricum. From the letters of Suetonius’s close friend Pliny the Younger we learn that he practised briefly at the bar, avoided political life, and became chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian (117–38 A.D.). The historian Spartianus records that he was one of several Palace officials, including the Guards Commander, whom Hadrian when he returned from Britain dismissed for behaving indiscreetly with the Empress Sabina. Suetonius seems to have lived to a good age. The titles of his books are recorded as follows: The Twelve Caesars; Royal Biographies; Lives of Famous Whores; Roman Manners and Customs; The Roman Year; Roman Festivals; Roman Dress; Greek Games; Offices of State; Cicero’s Republic; The Physical Defects of Mankind; Methods of Reckoning Time; An Essay on Nature; Greek Objurgations; Grammatical Problems; Critical Signs Used in Books. But apart from fragments of his Illustrious Writers, which include short biographies of Virgil, Horace, and Lucan, the only extant book is The Twelve Caesars, the most fascinating and richest of all Latin histories.

  Suetonius was fortunate in having ready access to the Imperial and Senatorial archives and to a great body of contemporary memoirs and public documents, and in having himself lived nearly thirty years under the Caesars. Much of his information about Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero comes from eye-witnesses of the events described. Apparently he took care to check facts wherever possible, and often quotes conflicting evidence without bias, which was not the habit of Tacitus or other later historians. If his credulousness about omens and prodigies is discounted, he seems trustworthy enough, his only prejudice being in favour of firm, mild rule, with a regard for the human decencies. As the famous Dean Liddell wrote:

  His language is very brief and precise, sometimes obscure, without any affection or ornament. He certainly tells a prodigious number of scandalous anecdotes about the Caesars, but there was plenty to tell about them; and if he did not choose to suppress those anecdotes which he believed to be true, that is no imputation on his veracity. As a great collection of facts of all kinds, his work on the Caesars is invaluable…

  And Pliny, who persuaded the Emperor Trajan to grant Suetonius the immunities usually granted only to a father of three children, though he had none, wrote that the more he knew of Suetonius, the greater his affection for him grew; I have had the same experience.

  This version of The Twelve Caesars is not intended as a school crib; the genius of Latin and the genius of English being so dissimilar that a literal rendering would be almost unreadable. For English readers Suetonius’s sentences, and sometimes even groups of sentences, must often be turned inside-out. Wherever his references are incomprehensible to anyone not closely familiar with the Roman scene, I have also brought up into the text a few words of explanation that would normally have appeared in a footnote. Dates have been everywhere changed from the pagan to the Christian era; modern names of cities used whenever they are more familiar to the common reader than the classical ones; and sums in sesterces reduced to gold pieces, at 100 to a gold piece (of twenty denarii), which resembled a British sovereign. The problem of finding suitable English equivalents for Latin technical words is exemplified in Imperator. This, at first, meant simply ‘army commander’; next it became a title of honour which a general might earn by an important victory; then it was placed as a title of honour after, or (more flatteringly) before, the name of one of the ruling Caesars, whether or not he had won any victories; finally, it was used in an absolute sense to mean ‘Emperor’.

  I might have prefaced the translation with an essay on the Roman Republican Constitution and the merciless struggle between the popular and aristocratic parties in which Julius Caesar became involved, and which ended only with the triumph of Augustus; but most readers will perhaps prefer to plunge straight into the story and pick up the threads as they go along.

  My gratitude to Alastair Reid and Kenneth Gay for helping me with this enjoyable task.

  R. G.

  Deyá, Majorca, Spain





  (The introductory paragraphs on the origins of Caesar’s family are lost in all manuscripts.)

  Gaius Julius Caesar lost his father at the age of fifteen.1 During the next consulship, after being nominated to the priesthood of Juppiter, he broke an engagement, made for him while he was still a boy, to marry one Cossutia; for, though rich, she came of only equestrian family. Instead, he married Cornelia, daughter of that Cinna who had been Consul four times, and later she bore him a daughter named Julia. The Dictator Sulla tried to make Caesar divorce Cornelia; and when he refused stripped him of the priesthood, his wife’s dowry, and his own inheritance, treating him as if he were a member of the popular party. Caesar disappeared from public view and, though suffering from a virulent attack of quartan fever, was forced to find a new hiding-place almost every night and bribe householders to protect him from Sulla’s Secret police. Finally he won Sulla’s pardon through the intercession of the Vestal Virgins and his near relatives Mamerius Aemilius and Aurelius Cotta. It is well known that, when the most devoted and eminent members of the aristocratic party pleaded Caesar’s cause and would not let the matter drop, Sulla at last gave way. Whether he was divinely inspired or showed peculiar foresight is an arguable point, but these were his words: ‘Very well then, you win! Take him! But never forget that the man whom you want me to spare will one day prove the ruin of the party which you and I have so long defended. There are many Marius’s2 in this fellow Caesar.’

  2. Caesar first saw military service in Asia, where he went as aide-de-camp to Marcus Thermus, the provincial governor-general.3 When Thermus sent Caesar to raise a fleet in Bithynia, he wasted so much time at King Nicomedes’s court that a homosexual relationship between them was suspected, and suspicion gave place to scandal when, soon after his return to headquarters, he revisited Bithynia: ostensibly collecting a debt incurred there by one of his freedmen. However, Caesar’s reputation improved later in the campaign, when Thermus awarded him the civic crown of oak-leaves, at the storming of Mytilene, for saving a fellow-soldier’s life.

  3. He also campaigned in Cilicia under Servilius Isauricus, but not for long, because the news of Sulla’s death sent him hurrying back to Rome, where a revolt headed by Marcus Lepidus seemed to offer prospects of rapid advancem
ent.4 Nevertheless, though Lepidus made him very advantageous offers, Caesar turned them down: he had small confidence in Lepidus’s capacities, and found the political atmosphere less promising than he had been led to believe.

  4. After this revolt was suppressed, Caesar brought a charge of extortion against Cornelius Dolabella, an ex-consul who had once been awarded a triumph, but failed to secure a sentence; so he decided to visit Rhodes until the resultant ill-feeling had time to die down, meanwhile taking a course in rhetoric from Apollonius Molo, the best living exponent of the art. Winter had already set in when he sailed for Rhodes and was captured by pirates off the island of Pharmacussa. They kept him prisoner for nearly forty days, to his intense annoyance; he had with him only a physician and two valets, having sent the rest of his staff away to borrow the ransom money. As soon as the stipulated fifty talents arrived (which make 12,000 gold pieces), and the pirates duly set him ashore, he raised a fleet and went after them. He had often smilingly sworn, while still in their power, that he would soon capture and crucify them; and this is exactly what he did. Then he continued to Rhodes, but Mithridates was now ravaging the near-by coast of Asia Minor; so, to avoid the charge of showing inertia while the allies of Rome were in danger, he raised a force of irregulars and drove Mithridates’s deputy from the province—which confirmed the timorous and half-hearted cities of Asia in their allegiance.

  5. On Caesar’s return to Rome, the commons voted him the rank of colonel, and he vigorously helped their leaders to undo Sulla’s legislation by restoring the tribunes of the people to their ancient powers. Then one Plotius introduced a bill for the recall from exile of Caesar’s brother-in-law, Lucius Cinna—who, with other fellow-conspirators, had escaped to Spain after Lepidus’s death and joined Sertorius. Caesar himself spoke in support of the bill, which was passed.

  6. During his quaestorship5 he made the customary funeral speeches from the Rostra in honour of his aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia; and while eulogizing Julia’s maternal and paternal ancestry, did the same for the Caesars too. ‘Her mother,’ he said, ‘was a descendant of kings, namely the Royal Marcians, a family founded by the Roman King Ancus Marcius; and her father, of gods—since the Julians (of which we Caesars are a branch) reckon descent from the Goddess Venus. Thus Julia’s stock can claim both the sanctity of kings, who reign supreme among mortals, and the reverence due to gods, who hold even kings in their power.’

  He next married Pompeia, Quintus Pompey’s daughter, who was also Sulla’s grand-daughter, but divorced her on a suspicion of adultery with Publius Clodius; indeed, so persistent was the rumour of Clodius’s having disguised himself as a woman and seduced her at the Feast of the Good Goddess, from which all men are excluded, that the Senate ordered a judicial inquiry into the alleged desecration of these sacred rites.

  7. As quaestor Caesar was appointed to Western Spain, where the governor-general, who held praetorian rank, sent him off on an assize-circuit. At Cadiz he saw a statue of Alexander the Great in the Temple of Hercules, and was overheard to sigh impatiently: vexed, it seems, that at an age when Alexander had already conquered the whole world, he himself had done nothing in the least epoch-making. Moreover, when on the following night, much to his dismay, he had a dream of raping his own mother, the soothsayers greatly encouraged him by their interpretation of it: namely, that he was destined to conquer the earth, our Universal Mother.

  8. At all events, he laid down his quaestorship at once, bent on performing some notable act at the first opportunity that offered. He visited the Latin colonists beyond the Po, who were bitterly demanding the same Roman citizenship as that granted to other townsfolk in Italy; and might have persuaded them to revolt, had not the Consuls realized the danger and garrisoned that district with the legions recently raised for the Cilician campaign.

  9. Undiscouraged, Caesar soon made an even more daring attempt at revolution in Rome itself. A few days before taking up his aedileship,6 he was suspected of plotting with Marcus Crassus, an ex-consul; also with Publius Sulla and Lucius Autronius, who had jointly been elected to the consulship but found guilty of bribery and corruption. These four had agreed to wait until the New Year, and then attack the Senate House, killing as many senators as convenient. Crassus would then proclaim himself Dictator, and Caesar his Master of Horse; the government would be reorganized to suit their pleasure; Sulla and Autronius would be appointed Consuls.

  Tanusius Geminus mentions their plot in his History; more information is given in Marcus Bibulus’s Edicts and in the Orations of Gaius Curio the Elder. Another reference to it may be detected in Cicero’s letter to Axius, where Caesar is said to have ‘established in his consulship the monarchy which he had planned while only an aedile’. Tanusius adds that Crassus was prevented, either by scruples or by nervousness, from appearing at the appointed hour; and Caesar therefore did not give the agreed signal which, according to Curio, was letting his gown fall and expose the shoulder.

  Both Curio and Marcus Actorius Naso state that Caesar also plotted with Gnaeus Piso, a young nobleman suspected of raising a City conspiracy and for that reason appointed Governor-general of Spain, although he had neither solicited nor qualified for the position. Caesar, apparently, was to lead a revolt in Rome as soon as Piso did so in Spain; the Ambranians and the Latins who lived beyond the Po would have risen simultaneously. But Piso’s death cancelled the plan.

  10. During his aedileship, Caesar filled the Comitium, the Forum, its adjacent basilicas, and the Capitol itself with a display of the material which he meant to use in his public shows; building temporary colonnades for the purpose. He exhibited wild-beast hunts and stage-plays; some at his own expense, some in co-operation with his colleague, Marcus Bibulus—but took all the credit in either case, so that Bibulus remarked openly: ‘The Temple of the Heavenly Twins in the Forum is always simply called “Castor’s”; and I always play Pollux to Caesar’s Castor when we give a public entertainment together.’

  Caesar also put on a gladiatorial show, but had collected so immense a troop of combatants that his terrified political opponents rushed a bill through the House, limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome; consequently far fewer pairs fought than had been advertised.

  11. After thus securing the good will of the commons and their tribunes, Caesar tried to get himself elected Governor-General of Egypt by popular vote. His excuse for demanding so unusual an appointment was an outcry against the Alexandrians who had just deposed King Ptolemy, although the Senate had recognized him as an ally and friend of Rome. However, the aristocratic party opposed the measure; so, as aedile, Caesar took vengeance by replacing the public monuments—destroyed by Sulla many years ago—that had commemorated Marius’s victories over Jugurtha, the Cimbrians, and the Teutons. Further, as Judge of the Senatorial Court of Inquiry into Murder, he prosecuted men who had earned public bounties for bringing in the heads of Roman citizens outlawed by the aristocrats; although this rough justice had been expressly sanctioned in the Cornelian Laws.

  12. He also bribed a man to bring a charge of high treason against Gaius Rabirius who, some years previously, had earned the Senate’s gratitude by checking the seditious activities of Lucius Saturninus, a tribune. Caesar, chosen by lot to try Rabirius, pronounced the sentence with such satisfaction that, when Rabirius appealed to the people, the greatest argument in his favour was the judge’s obvious prejudice.

  13. Obliged to abandon his ambition of governing Egypt, Caesar stood for the office of Chief Pontiff, and used the most flagrant bribery to secure it. The story goes that, reckoning up the enormous debts thus contracted, he told his mother, as she kissed him goodbye on the morning of the poll, that if he did not return to her as Chief Pontiff he would not return at all. However, he defeated his two prominent rivals, both of whom were much older and more distinguished than himself, and the votes he won from their own tribes exceeded those cast for them in the entire poll.

  14. When the Catilinarian conspiracy came to
light, the whole House, with the sole exception of Caesar, then Praetor-elect, demanded the death penalty for Catiline and his associates. Caesar proposed merely that they should be imprisoned, each in a different town, and their estates confiscated. What was more, he so browbeat those senators who took a sterner line, by suggesting that the commons would conceive an enduring hatred for them if they persisted in this view, that Decimus Silanus, as Consul-elect, felt obliged to interpret his own proposal—which, however, he could not bring himself to recast—in a more liberal sense, begging Caesar not to misread it so savagely. And Caesar would have gained his point, since many senators (including the Consul Cicero’s brother) had been won over to his view, had Marcus Cato not kept the irresolute Senate in line. Caesar continued to block proceedings until a body of Roman knights, serving as a defence force to the House, threatened to kill him unless he ceased his violent opposition. They even unsheathed their swords and made such passes at him that most of his companions fled, and the remainder huddled around, protecting him with their arms or their gowns. He was sufficiently impressed, not only to leave the House, but to keep away from it for the rest of that year.

  15. On the first day of his praetorship,7 Caesar ordered Quintus Catulus to appear before the commons and explain why he had made so little progress with the restoration of the Capitol; demanding that Catulus’s commission should be taken from him and entrusted, instead, to Gnaeus Pompey. However, the senators of the aristocratic party, who were escorting the newly-elected Consuls to their inaugural sacrifice in the Capitol, heard what was afoot, and came pouring downhill in a body to offer obstinate resistance. Caesar withdrew his proposal.