The Twelve Caesars Book Summary - The Twelve Caesars Book explained in key points
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The Twelve Caesars summary


A look into the triumphs and tragedies of the Roman Empire's first twelve emperors

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    The Twelve Caesars
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    Julius Caesar: Ambitious and ruthless

    It’s 85 BCE, and a 15-year old boy is grieving the death of his father. The passing of the family patriarch means the teenager is now the head of his household. His name? Julius Caesar. 

    It’s a turbulent time to come of age. Rome is consumed by a civil war between plebeian populists and conservative aristocrats. After a bitter struggle, the aristocrats win. A conservative general called Sulla is installed as dictator. 

    This makes Caesar – the nephew of one of the populists’ most famous leaders, Gaius Marius – a target. He’s stripped of his inheritance and forced into hiding. Sulla eventually pardons him, but he issues his decree with a sense of foreboding. Caesar, he says, has all the markings of a man who will one day bring down the Republic. He isn’t wrong.

    Caesar doesn’t hang around to find out whether Sulla will change his mind about the pardon. He leaves Rome to serve in the Republic’s army. But by 78 BCE the dictator is dead, and Caesar has returned. 

    The young man is a fiery populist, just like his uncle, and he’s a gifted speaker. During these years he makes a name for himself as a scourge of elite corruption and an advocate of the common folk, whose rights he defends in Rome’s courts. As those who cross him soon learn, Caesar is a merciless opponent. 

    He shows as much when he’s kidnapped by pirates while crossing the Aegean Sea. His captors ransom him, demanding 20 talents of silver. Caesar is offended: that figure is far too low. He insists they raise it to 50 talents – over 3,000 pounds of silver. They do, and the ransom is paid. But this isn’t the end of the story.

    During his captivity, Caesar tells his abductors that he will find and execute every last one of them as soon as he is free. They think he’s joking, but he’s deadly serious. He raises a fleet and returns to the Aegean. After hunting the pirates down, Caesar makes good on his promise. He has them killed, and their bodies crucified.

    Caesar’s political career is well on track by 69 BCE. That’s the year he’s elected to oversee Rome’s finances. But he’s growing impatient. At the same age, Alexander the Great had conquered the world. What has he achieved, by contrast? A few triumphs here and there, perhaps, but nothing epoch-making. 

    That is about to change. 


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    What is The Twelve Caesars about?

    The Twelve Caesars (121 CE) is one of the most colorful biographical works ever written. By turns opinionated, sensational, and dramatic, it documents the lives of the men who wielded absolute power in Rome after its transformation from a republic into an empire in 27 BCE. A one-time private secretary to one of those emperors, Hadrian, Suetonius was intimately familiar with court life. In the Twelve Caesars, he uses that knowledge to shed light on the highs and lows of the empire’s early years, as well as on the virtues and all-too-human failings of its supposedly divine rulers. 

    Who should read The Twelve Caesars?

    • History buffs
    • Classicists
    • Fans of drama and intrigue

    About the Author

    Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born into a wealthy Roman family around 69 CE. A prolific scholar and intellectual, he wrote biographies of the important figures of his day as well as studies of topics ranging from the role of courtesans in political life to poetry and Roman culture. Suetonius also served the imperial court during the reign of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius’s best-known work, was written in 122 CE. 

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