‘Ten Caesars’ demystifies the past

Barry Strauss' more or less explicit model is the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote 2000 years ago and whose book famously profiled 12 caesars instead of 10.

Ten Caesars By Barry Strauss Simon & Schuster 432 pp.

“Conqueror and peacemaker, the emperor was also builder and demolisher,” writes historian Barry Strauss in his new book Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. “Benefactor and judge; head of his family and Father of the Fatherland; tribune of the people and First Man in the Senate; most authoritative of the Romans and champion of the provinces; manager and magnetic leader; showman and symbol of severity; priest and commander; sacrosanct in Rome and king in the East – and even god.”

This thumbnail sketch gives readers a good idea of what to expect from “Ten Caesars,” both good and bad. The bad is obvious: This is fairly windy prose, a bit too fond of its own hyperbole (“most authoritative of the Romans”?). But the good is also obvious: In the course of his roughly dozen books mostly on the ancient world, Strauss has mastered a vivid narrative line, a practiced skill at demystifying the past.

As the title of his book hints, his more or less explicit model is the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote about 2000 years ago and whose chatty, gossipy book famously profiled 12 caesars instead of 10. Like Suetonius, Strauss has a near-flawless ear for pacing and a sharp eye for all the best stories. And like Suetonius – and every historian since – he can sometimes follow a good story into error or oddity.

About Augustus, for instance, he claims that “few historical figures show better what it takes to win at everything.” But what is “winning”? Establishing an ironclad dictatorship, “he ended a century of revolution, brought down the Roman Republic, and replaced it with an empire of which he was the first emperor.” The Romans, he tells us, “sometimes floundered in the face of crisis, but in the end they displayed the ability to change.” This is an odd way of putting things, equivalent to saying that Russia’s millions of serfs displayed adaptability by shifting to Stalinism.

“From beginning to end, the Roman emperors resorted to force,” Strauss writes. “They rarely hesitated to have rivals and dissidents killed.” And yet, four of his 10 emperors had a marked distaste for having rivals killed, and one of them, the Spaniard emperor Trajan, positively refused to do so.

About Augustus’ successor Tiberius, Strauss is engagingly topical: “Augustus had bequeathed him a nearly impossible job,” he writes. “Tiberius followed Augustus the way John Adams followed George Washington or the way Tim Cook followed Steve Jobs.” But the genius of comparing Tiberius to Cook is followed by more oddities: “To understand Tiberius, we have to understand Livia...,” Strauss writes. “She was a daily reminder to the proud Tiberius of someone who exceeded what he considered the proper role of a woman.” Suetonius would have agreed with this, certainly (and so would Robert Graves, who made this fable famous in “I, Claudius”), but Strauss knows as well as anybody that we have no way of knowing what Tiberius considered the proper role of a woman in public. The contrast is simply a good story that’s been around for a long time.

Those stories have knowable origins, and Strauss is aware of the process. When mentioning the emperor Domitian, for instance, he writes, “The Senate eventually got its revenge by poisoning Domitian’s reputation in the history books.” This is certainly true, and it’s frustrating that Strauss sometimes forgets that such reputation-poisoning is rife in the primary sources he so often consults.

Take the aforementioned Trajan, for instance. “The new emperor was no intellectual, but he did not lack intelligence,” we’re told. “Two of his passions were wine and boys, but he held his liquor, and he did not force himself on any lover.” As Strauss knows, the earliest source retailing either of those claims dates from more than a century after Trajan – they could easily be chalked up to reputation-poisoning. But they make a colorful story.

This has almost always been the trade-off confronting readers in books like “Ten Caesars” (they’ve encountered it in books like Anthony Blond’s “A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors,” for instance, and even Michael Grant’s “The Roman Emperors” – and of course in Suetonius himself): You get a sumptuous Colosseum of emperor stories that illuminate their eras, but some of the mortar will be mixed with fable and rumor. Strauss handles this trade-off as well as it can be handled; he’s judicious and largely skeptical when he’s sorting through his sources. Readers will learn a lot from his book and the fables will make the lessons a bit sweeter along the way.

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