The Twelve Caesars | Suetonius

Summary of: The Twelve Caesars
By: Suetonius


Step into the captivating world of Rome’s turbulent past through the eyes of Suetonius as he explores the lives and reigns of the Twelve Caesars. Unveil the intricate layers of politics, power, ambition, and corruption that shaped the fate of the Roman Empire. This summary will guide you through the transformation of Julius Caesar from a teenage head of household to dictator and his successors’ quests for greatness that ultimately led to Rome’s shift from a republic to an empire. Delve into the achievements, vices, and legacies of these rulers and uncover crucial factors that fashioned Rome’s fate and its impact on history.

Julius Caesar: The Rise of a Merciless Leader

At the age of 15, Julius Caesar becomes the head of his household after his father’s death. Living in turbulent times, Rome is consumed by civil war, and after a bitter struggle, conservative aristocrats win, making Caesar a target. Despite being stripped of his inheritance and forced into hiding, Caesar is eventually pardoned by a conservative general. But his pardon comes with a sense of foreboding; Caesar is a born leader and one day will bring down the Republic. He joins the Republic’s army, fights corruption, and advocates for the common people. When he is kidnapped by pirates and ransomed for silver, his merciless nature is unleashed as he hunts down every last pirate who dared to take him captive. Caesar’s political career blossoms, but at the same age Alexander the Great conquered the world, he still feels he has achieved nothing epoch-making. All that will change, however.

Caesar’s Ascent

An ambitious young man from a family of political radicals, Julius Caesar, rose to power, garnering support from the lower classes and causing fear among conservatives and aristocrats. While his love for organizing gladiatorial spectacles fueled suspicion of him assembling a private army, Caesar’s true desire was to control the Republic’s army. He stood for election as consul despite the attempts of his opponents to prevent his victory. His year as consul saw him govern several Roman provinces, including Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, which put him in command of around 14,000 men. Caesar’s gifted military leadership inspired loyalty and bravery in his men, and he eventually won a civil war, becoming dictator and hastening the decline of the Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

Power Struggle in Ancient Rome

After Julius Caesar’s assassination, three contenders for power emerge and spark a civil war. Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius, and Octavian – Caesar’s 18 year old adopted son. The three leaders engage in a complex struggle for power that ends with Octavian reigning as emperor of Rome.

In the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, Rome spirals into chaos, and the Roman Empire is up for grabs. A battle for power ensues between three contenders who all seek to lead Rome: Brutus and Cassius, the senators behind Caesar’s assassination, Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend and supporter of another military dictatorship, and Octavian, Caesar’s 18-year-old adopted son.

While Brutus and Cassius represent a return to the Republic of old, Antony capitalizes on popular outrage to drive the two senators into exile in Greece. However, the threat of their return to Rome at the head of an army persists. In an effort to eliminate this danger, Octavian and Antony join forces and eventually defeat Brutus and Cassius’s troops at the Battle of Philippi.

Despite the victory, tensions between Octavian and Antony heighten when Antony falls in love with Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt. Octavian accuses Antony of staging a potential attack on Rome using Cleopatra, who has declared Caesar’s son, Caesarion, as the true heir. Using this as a wedge issue, Octavian convinces the Senate to give him permission to defeat Antony’s forces, which he does in 31 BCE.

Both Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide while Caesarion is killed. Octavian emerges as the linchpin of power in Rome, and after over a decade of ruling as a dictator, he adopts the name Augustus and becomes the emperor of Rome.

From the ashes of Caesar’s death and the subsequent civil war, Rome ultimately finds peace and stability under Augustus’s leadership. The book highlights the complex power struggles that ensued after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and how ultimately a teenaged Octavian transformed into Augustus and became the first Roman Emperor.

Augustus – The Frugal Emperor

Julius Caesar’s successor and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus is renowned for his humility, simplicity, and unshakable composure, painting a different picture of an emperor than we might expect.

After his father’s assassination, Augustus styles himself as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius, Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine. Upon his return from Egypt with gold from Cleopatra’s treasury, the Pax Romana begins—200 years of Roman peace characterized by the empire’s prosperity and expansion.

Augustus lives humbly on Palatine Hill, wearing simple home-woven clothing. He avoids banquets, preferring common people’s food, like fresh cheese, figs, and fish. He drinks a maximum of three cups of wine in a single sitting and is groomed by three barbers simultaneously while he reads his correspondence.

Surprisingly, Augustus is a graceful and handsome man, even in his old age—unlike previous rulers, he does not consider appearance a priority. What astounds his enemies is the calmness he exudes. A Gallic chief once attested that he planned to throw Augustus off a cliff during a military campaign in the Alps. But, upon encountering the emperor’s tranquil face, he abandoned his intentions and became his ally.

Augustus is distinct from any other emperor in history, known for his humility, simplicity, and unshakable composure.

The Rise and Fall of Caligula

After succeeding Tiberius as emperor in 37 CE, Caligula wins the hearts of Romans through his initial reign as a capable ruler. However, plagued by his father’s reputation, he becomes increasingly eccentric, culminating in erratic and cruel acts, leading to his eventual assassination.

In 37 CE, after Tiberius’s death, Caligula becomes emperor of Rome, inheriting his father Germanicus’s reputation as a model citizen. Often referred to as “Little Boot,” the Roman people loved Caligula as they had loved his father. Adored by the Senate and seen as a capable leader in his early days of reign, Caligula allowed exiles to return to Rome and eliminated hated taxes while putting on massive entertainment spectacles.

Despite early popularity, Caligula becomes increasingly erratic, plagued by the unachievable prophecy given to Tiberius that he was no more likely to become emperor than to cross the Gulf of Naples. In one of his many bizarre acts, Caligula orders hundreds of ships to be boarded up and lined up to form a bridge across the Gulf. This eccentricity is a warning of things to come. Caligula’s reign becomes notorious for the notorious cruelty and debauchery as he abuses his power, using the Praetorian Guard as his personal hit squad and setting himself up as a god, even installing a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Caligula’s rule ends with his assassination at the hands of the Praetorian Guard, leading to the triumph of his uncle Claudius to the throne of Rome. While some regard Caligula’s early reign as a time of potentially missed promises and squandered potential, the latter half of his time in power is a warning to the dangers of placing unchecked power in the hands of a madman.

Caligula, The Emperor and The Monster

Caligula, the Roman emperor, is divided into two periods of ruling: one as an emperor and the other as a “monster.” His extreme hubris makes him think he’s a god, and he builds a shrine to himself with a life-sized golden image at the center. Priests offer sacrifices of different animals in his honor. Caligula’s cruelty towards people became his signature; he rarely uses his power without abusing it. One such example is how he humiliated people from the Senate by making officials run for miles beside his chariot or threatening to make his horse the consul. He even summons people who angered him, and when they fail to appear, he remarks off-handedly that they committed suicide. Caligula’s tyranny became unbearable, and in 41 CE, soldiers in favor of Caligula’s enemies in the Senate assassinated the 28-year-old emperor.

Claudius: From Cowardice to Power

Claudius, a descendant of Julius Caesar, suffered from poor health and severe mockery throughout his life. He granted several honors, but his stuttering and drooling gave him an unusually fragile image that kept his enemies emboldened. When Claudius gained the throne, his health dramatically improved, but he remained fearful and faced many conspiracies during his thirteen-year reign. He completed the invasion of Britain, among other triumphs, but his mental health gradually deteriorated. Eventually, his fourth wife, Agrippina was suspected of poisoning him, leading to his assassination.

Nero’s Artistic Delusions

When Nero becomes emperor at 16, he initially appears to be a promising leader, lowering taxes and funding construction projects. However, his true passion lies in the arts, particularly music and architecture. He spends hours practicing the lyre and singing, but his efforts yield little success. Regardless, he performs for Rome’s upper class and forces guests to stay for the entirety of his over ten-hour recitals. Nero also desires to redesign Rome’s architectural fabric and is suspected of starting a devastating fire in 65 CE to realize his ambitions. According to Suetonius, Nero sang an entire work while watching the fire from a tower, perpetuating the idea that he fiddled while Rome burned.

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