The Twelve Caesars, By Matthew Dennison
Rome's first dozen emperors covered the spectrum of humanity. A vigorous new history restores them to life.
Saturday 16 June 2012
Matthew Dennison is one of those rare marvels, a historical biographer whose work has reached the bestseller lists. He may be known best for his columns, but for those of us working at the sharp end of historical writing he came to prominence for his acclaimed biography of Princess, Beatrice, youngest daughter, confidante – and virtual slave – of Queen Victoria. He went on to approach another woman close to the seat of power. His biography of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus, is highly readable, although the paucity of historical detail in her case makes it harder to create a definitive history. Lacking the claustrophobic mother-daughter relationship that carries The Last Princess, the life of Livia is more scholarly than passionate.
For his latest work, Dennison has chosen a larger canvas. Taking as his starting-point The Twelve Cesars by Suetonius, he has built around that definitive text a humorous, intelligent, highly personal stroll through the careers of the first 12 men who ruled in post-republican Rome. This is not a deeply scholarly work: historians down the ages have examined the sources, the geography, the climate, the dress, the social mores and the possible implications of each and every recorded utterance of most of these men (the three who failed in the Year of the Four Emperors, 69AD, are generally given shorter shrift) in considerably greater depth.
Dennison does not attempt to emulate these; he keeps footnotes to a minimum and his extraneous sources are lightly used. Suetonius offered enough titillation, scandal and rumour among the nuggets of likely fact to give any writer scope for comment. What this book does is to put Suetonius in context, and make him accessible to the non-classical reader.
We are reminded throughout that most of these men were succeeded by their enemies, even when those enemies were their relatives, and that history is written by sequential winners, each of whom builds his reputation on the rubble of his predecessor. Octavian (Augustus) and Titus Flavius Vespasianus are almost unique in venerating the men who preceded them, but even Julius Caesar was never allowed to live down a youthful dalliance with the ageing King Nicomedes IV, while Tiberius was accused, among other things, of training small boys to swim behind him and lick at his genitals. As today, sexual proclivities, whether true or not, were used to demonstrate the clay feet of men who styled themselves as gods.
Augustus was more adept at spin: the idealised Roman family of devoted wife, faithful husband and pliant daughter could not have been further from the truth, but few commentators in ancient history (or today) make much of Augustus's philandering. He is examined for his military and political worth while those who cling to the notion of the nuclear family can trace the origin of their fantasy to him. In Dennison's book, they can see it quietly and effectively destroyed.
There were good men among these 12 – Vespasian and Titus stand out as almost uniquely decent in a succession of power-crazed, manipulative, sexually voracious control freaks. Each story is told with humour and personal interpretations of the facts. Then there's the glory of language: Dennison is in love with the English language, and it shows.
The images are vivid and unique: Vespasian curtailed the power of imperial women so that, "Confined to hairdressing, it survives in the ziggurat arrangements of stiff, liquorice-allsort curls which decorate the sculpted busts of first century princesses". You might argue that Caenis, consort of Vespasian, held far more power than that, but you can't help but lose yourself in the prose.
It does come unstuck at times. Octavian/Augustus, for instance, was not, "like Julius Caesar, impatient of those pragmatic deceits by which personal ambition was reconciled to convention". Suetonius, on the whole, ordered his biographies along very stringent lines. Dennison, by contrast, jumps back and forth with dizzying speed. It's not always obvious where we are in a particular life. But it probably doesn't need to be: none of us is reading this because we want to know the history. We'd better return to the ancient sources, or find more scholarly works, for that. We're reading this for the delight of one man's insight into one of the most politically charged, formative periods in Western history.
Dennison himself says his work is "an entertainment, which will have succeeded in its aim if a single reader is inspired to return to ... Suetonius". My copy is dog-eared, tattered and has highlights in four different colours; but, even so, I will return to it afresh after this book. Thus comes success.
Manda Scott chairs the Historical Writers' Association; the latest novel in the 'Rome' series by MC Scott is 'The Eagle of the Twelfth' (Bantam)
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 2 Maisie Williams has an excellent message for one confused fan
- 3 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Burning Man festival revellers accidentally torch prehistoric artefacts in Israel
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'