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Monday, July 1, 2013

“The Twelve Caesars”, by Michael Grant

282 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0684144023

Conspiracy, suspicion, power, corruption, poison, conquests, marauders, murders, and yet more murders; such is the history of Roman Empire. Then again, there are copious examples from every nation’s history of such dastardly acts to grab power, from Egyptians Pharaohs, to French Bourbons, to Indian Moguls, to British royals, and so on and so forth. Human nature has changed very little in two thousand years. Now instead of murdering opponents, we vilify them to such an extent that populace loathes and discards them in the garbage bin. It is hard to imagine for us with two thousand years separation what we would do if we were given absolute power over everybody and everything.

While a fine communicator, Grant can be a challenging read, given his vocabulary usage; more troubling to this reader is the lack of footnotes and end notes only which complicates reading this work, specifically because some, but not all, quotes from ancient authors are unattributed in the text, as I suspect that most readers do not have the background in the Greek and Latin classics to easily identify the authors of these unattributed quotes. Also, a woefully-lacking suggested reading list of secondary materials is included.

The book opens with a splendid and extended essay on classical sources, biography, history and things Roman. It alerts the reader to many facts and interpretations that make the subsequent text far more intelligible. This opening, coupled with a short but deeply insightful conclusion, can be read with immense profit without ever even approaching the body of the work. However, this would be a grave mistake, as the twelve short biographies in chronological order provide a fascinating overview of the first 100-odd years of the Roman Empire as viewed from its center and through the personages of its rulers. Therein lays both the strength and weakness of the book. Others have devoted thousands of pages to materials Grant covers in limited and truncated form in a few hundred pages.

And within those twelve short biographies, I believe he accomplishes much. By Suetonius’s standards, Grant provides us with a sober and coherent explanation of the problems and challenges faced by those emperors. That overwork and fear of assassinations were debilitating to all that ruled long enough is made plain in these pages. The Senatorial nobility would sooner or later tire of any ruler and plot against him. And if overwork and sedition by the nobility in Rome were not enough, by the middle of the period under consideration, the Praetorian Guard would start installing emperors, and this would be followed by emperors installed by the provincial legions. In spite of the brevity of each portrait, many incisive judgments regarding each of these personalities are rendered convincingly by Grant. I find those judgments valuable to an overall understanding of the formative era of the Roman Empire. Within its limitations, this is a marvelous work that can be appreciated by those with a modest knowledge of the Roman world. Equally, there is much of interest here for the well-read in this area. A careful consideration of this work will reward the diligent reader with some remarkable insights on early Roman imperial rule.

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