Sir Ronald Syme, one of the scholarly giants of 20th century Roman history, frowned on biography, he thought it led to a distortion of analysis.
One doesn’t like to argue with him, but on the other hand, most of us are not scholarly giants and find the lives of real people more interesting than abstracted historical trends. Excluding biography treats time like distance, and scales down the people of the past, miniaturizing achievement and eccentricity alike. Whether you accept or reject the Great Man theory of history, you have to admit, life stories make for entertaining reading. More to the point, they spark curiosity in students and the general public, who otherwise, may back away from history entirely.
Taken as a job lot, the Roman emperors good and bad provide a panorama of arresting characters, and in more recent years (the shadow of Syme notwithstanding) classicists have been tip toeing back to the old biographical form. Old in that one of the pioneering biographical gossipers, Suetonius, writing in the second century AD gave us the initial juicy joint biography of the first twelve Caesars. Long form essays, in fact, full of amusing stories some of which must be true, though nailing him down on specifics is a perennial headache for classical scholars, and not finished yet.
Strauss, a professor at Cornell and author of several classical works for a general audiences, enters the field with Ten Caesars. He repeats four of Suetonius’s twelve (Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian), and includes Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine. The inclusions are more or less arbitrary, chosen he says for their strength and success (Nero who was neither strong nor successful, he admits, is stretching this selection policy a bit, but who can resist Nero?). Another writer might choose other Caesars, but these will do nicely. Continue reading