Monday, September 28, 2009

Interesting Excerpts from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

De vita Caesarum is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Suetonius.

Robert Graves translation.

Tiberius: Once, as a funeral procession was passing, a humorist hailed the corpse and asked him to tell Augustus' ghost that his bequests to the commons had not yet been duly paid. Tiberius ordered the man to be arrested and brought before him. 'I will give you your due at once,' he said, and ordered his execution with 'why not go to my father yourself and tell him the truth about those legacies?'

A few days after he came to Capreae, a fisherman suddenly intruded on his solitude by presenting him with an enormous mullet, which he had lugged up the trackless cliffs at the rear of the island. Tiberius was so scared that he ordered his guards to rub the fisherman's face with the mullet. The scales skinned it raw, and the poor fellow shouted in his agony 'thank Heaven I did not bring Caesar that huge crab I also caught!' Tiberius sent for the crab and had it used in the same way.

Claudius: These honours [consulship, presidency of the Games] did not protect him from frequent insults... When he took his usual after-dinner nap the company would pelt him with olives and date stones. Some jokers exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his face with them.

A woman once refused to admit she was the mother of a young man produced in court, and a conflict of evidence arose; but the truth came out when Claudius ordered her to marry the man... After a man was found guilty of forgery, the crowd shouted: 'He ought to have his hands cut off!' Claudius immediately sent for an executioner, with block and cleaver, to act on this suggestion.

While still a boy Claudius had started work on a Roman history, encouraged by Livy, and assisted by Sulpicius Flavus. But when he gave his first public reading to a packed audience he found it difficult to finish because he constantly threw cold water upon his own performance. As he started to read, a very fat man came in, sat down, and broke several benches, which excited considerable merriment. Even when silence had been restored Claudius could not help recalling the sight and going off into peals of laughter.

Nero: It might have been possible to excuse his insolent, lustful, extravagant, greedy, or cruel early practices (which were furtive and increased only gradually) by saying that boys will be boys; yet at the same time, this was clearly the true Nero, not merely Nero in his adolescence. As soon as night fell he would snatch a cap or wig and make a round of the taverns, or prowl the streets in search of mischief - and not always innocent mischief either, because one of his games was to attack men on their way home from dinner, stab them if they offered resistance, and then drop their bodies down the sewers.

He would also break into shops and rob them, afterwards opening a market at the Palace with the stolen goods, dividing them up into lots, auctioning them himself, and squandering the proceeds. During these escapades he often risked being blinded or killed - once he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had molested, which taught him never to go out after dark unless an escort of colonels was following him at a distance unobserved.

He tried to poison [his mother] three times, but she had always taken the antidote in advance; so he rigged up a machine in the ceiling of her bedroom which would dislodge the panels and drop them on her while she slept. However, one of the people involved in the plot gave the secret away. Then he had a collapsible boat designed which would either sink or have its cabin fall in on top of her... On discovering that everything had gone wrong and she had escaped by swimming, when Lucius Agerinus, her freedman, entered joyfully to report that she was safe and sound, Nero, in desperation, ordered one of his men to drop a dagger surreptitiously beside Agerinus, whom he arrested at once on a charge of having been hired to murder the Emperor.


  1. Perhaps a little off subject, but there's a theory that the symbol "666" is actually a representation of Nero, which is not much of a stretch considering his treatment of Christians.

  2. It's true but strange since Nero was lenient to Christians compared to others like Valerian and Diocletian. Also, the overall violence and persecution during Nero's 14 years was still less than Caligula's 4 years.