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.
The task he set himself is frankly ambitious. Augustus, first out the gate, took power in 27 BC, Constantine died in AD 337. That’s a considerable span of time, and our ten emperors are heavily front weighted towards the first and second century. There were large gaps, decades long, between some of these lives, and there are good reasons to overlook most of the men in-between, but one can see how, after the first half of the book, a smooth narrative arc becomes problematic, if not impossible.
What is possible is the examination of character in rulers who, albeit constrained to a certain extent, are out-sized personalities, able to push hard against the constraints of custom and law. Anyone who wants to understand power should study the powerful, and these Caesars all had varying facets, personalities, and challenges that make them each worth examination. Three of them – Augustus, Vespasian, and Severus – came to power after bloody civil wars, and for a time at least were able to manage the Roman enterprise tolerably well. Given the size of the empire and its, for lack of a better word, diversity, the task of keeping so many plates simultaneously spinning on their rods makes for engaging reading.
A few nits to pick.
Given the at times spotty nature of original source material, Strauss prudently and rightly couches observations with perhaps, it was rumored, it was said, and so forth. There are, however, some comments that might raise scholarly eyebrows. For example, the largely discredited rumor that Domitian’s wife Domitia had an affair with an actor is promoted from gossip to fact. Elsewhere, to underscore Agrippina’s hostility to Vespasian, he suggests that she was behind the poisoning of Claudius’s son Britannicus at a dinner where Vespasian’s son Titus was present as well. The general view is that Nero, at whose party this occurred, was behind the scheme and only cared about killing Britannicus who was his rival for the imperial crown. (Britannicus died, Titus who was then only the son of a general survived.)
More surprising is his mis-translation of a word used to describe how an emperor helped clear the detritus of the torched Temple of Capitoline Jove, the emperor Vespasian “carried out a load of soil from the site on his head.” This conjures up a very strange mental image; the footnote refers us back to Suetonius, who says that Vespasian carried the load on his collo, that is, collar, or shoulder, meaning on a yoke, with buckets understood to be hanging on either side. (Cassius Dio the other source, says even less.)
As to footnotes, these are in general good, mostly to ancient sources and keeping with standard notation, but occasionally we get no citation other than a URL leading to public domain translations. Not useful to the inquiring reader.
The prose generally moves along nicely, and Strauss is capable of some neat turns of phrase. But it is uneven, at times a bit too topically slangy ( Vespasian “sucked up to” Caligula, Senators were “super-rich”), the I’m a mate AND a scholar trend has turned up a good deal when academics (frequently British) write for general audiences. Strauss has written better in previous books and one gets the feeling that this should have gotten one final edit to comb out those aforementioned nits, both stylistic and technical.
All that having been said, Ten Caesars is not a bad book to put into the hands of someone coming to Roman imperial history for the first time. Strauss does make some pointed observations and interesting interpretations that even an enthusiast can benefit from. The book is, however, a starting point only and not to be taken as comprehensive. No book is, really, not on this subject. I would add that if one felt that Mary Beard’s SPQR was a little light on emperors, Strauss is a useful corrective.
If you are interested in Romans more than Greeks, and haven’t done so already, do check out his Death of Caesar. That book shows Strauss to better advantage, embracing one significant episode and wringing out all he can from it.