Power-hungry crowd

The Twelve Caesars, by Matthew Dennison, Atlantic, RRP£20, 400 pages

Following in the footsteps of Suetonius, the Roman historian who wrote De vita Caesarum (or The Lives of the Caesars) in the second century AD, Matthew Dennison’s The Twelve Caesars offers updated pen portraits of Rome’s rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Dennison’s aim is to look at the breadth of his subjects’ lives – personal and private – in an effort to “uncover the human face of eminence”. Certainly the 12 – including Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian and Titus – bespeak eminence; they spanned 100BC to AD96 and wielded untold power. But while this is not an exhaustive survey, what emerges is that, as Lord Acton acknowledged: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Although by its nature brisk and at times compressed, The Twelve Caesars – intended as “an entertainment” – is gossipy and insightful, making for an enjoyable introduction to this power-hungry crowd.

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