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The Twelve Caesars summary

Suetonius

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

4.5 (250 ratings)
32 mins

Brief summary

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius is a historical text that provides detailed accounts of the lives and reigns of twelve Roman Emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian. It offers insights into their personalities, accomplishments, and flaws, and sheds light on the political and social climate of ancient Rome.

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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. 

    The Twelve Caesars Review

    The Twelve Caesars (121 AD) by Suetonius is a captivating historical account of the lives of the Roman emperors. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Packed with fascinating stories and anecdotes, it brings the world of ancient Rome to life and provides insight into the tumultuous reigns of the Caesars.
    • Through meticulous research and meticulous detail, Suetonius paints a vivid picture of the emperors' personalities, controversies, and lavish lifestyles.
    • With its compelling portrayal of power and intrigue, the book takes readers on a journey through one of history's most pivotal periods, all while keeping them thoroughly entertained.

    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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    The Twelve Caesars FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Twelve Caesars?

    The main message of The Twelve Caesars is a detailed account of the lives and reigns of twelve Roman emperors.

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    The reading time for The Twelve Caesars varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Twelve Caesars a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Twelve Caesars is a fascinating read, providing valuable insight into the lives of Roman emperors and the intricacies of ancient Rome.

    Who is the author of The Twelve Caesars?

    The author of The Twelve Caesars is Suetonius.