The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison

I have just finished The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison. If the title sounds familiar, Dennison is consciously following the path laid by Roman historian Suetonius centuries earlier.

I would not recommend this book as a first introduction to Roman history or a beginner looking for something on the imperial age. It is not encyclopedic and, at times, only vaguely chronological. For the reader familiar with Caesar and the emperors up to Domitian, it might offer some value, or it might frustrate. The portraits of the “twelve Caesars” — Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula (who Dennison calls Gaius), Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian — are designed as character studies.

I felt that Dennison found negativity in all the Caesars and everything was rendered through a negative lens. At times one almost wonders how any of these people ascended to their throne or managed to survive as long as they did. None seems to have any positive virtue or ever does anything for a descent purpose. Dennison himself even acknowledges in his introduction that these powerful men often demonstrate contradictory behaviors.

It does have to be acknowledged that many of these emperors were not pleasant people and in climbing to such a height they had to be rough and ruthless, disposing of equally dangerous competitors.

Dennison’s writing style might also frustrate. Sentences can be long and languid, starting in one direction but ending going in another.

There can be some odd statements as well. One sentence I recall started with saying when a government is deceptive then concluded with illicit sex will follow. It seemed an odd, though probably correct, conjunction.

Equally off are some of Dennison’s judgments. I found this sentence on Pompeii particularly difficult to take: “Today Pompeii survives as a tourist destination, titivating backpackers with its insights into the scatological nature of Roman graffiti and the discomforts of the town’s brothels” (p. 325). Seriously, that’s Dennison’s takeaway on Pompeii? Not the vast archaeological record allowing insights into the daily lives of Romans (or Pompeiians) or the architectural, artistic and cultural bonanzas following excavations.

I did learn a few new words however from Dennison, titivating being one of them. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

When he is at his best Dennison’s style does reward the reader, however. That’s why I’d say for the knowledgeable fan of Roman history this volume is more likely to be worth the time but those less knowledgeable would be better served looking elsewhere.


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