Atlantic, £20

The Twelve Caesars, By Matthew Dennison

Rome's first dozen emperors covered the spectrum of humanity. A vigorous new history restores them to life.

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)

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea