Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Reading classics of antiquity: De vita Caesarum


Quo vadis? (1951). Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero.

Suetonius: De vita Caesarum
The Twelve Caesars. Written in Rome. Written AD 121. Written in Latin. Covers Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire. Originally published on papyrus in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Suetonius: Rooman keisarien elämäkertoja. Translated into Finnish by J. A. Hollo. Introduction by Edwin Linkomies. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 445 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1960.

One year ago I started to read systematically classics of antiquity, ignoring only the (all too few) classics I had read before, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. There can be no better reading project. These works are still models of wisdom, excitement, wit, and style.

Suetonius, the secretary of emperor Hadrian, is not one of the finest and noblest of the classic authors. His weightiest surviving work discusses the twelve first rulers of imperial Rome. Julius Caesar was not the first emperor, but he was pontifex maximus, the absolute ruler, worshipped as God, and a model for his followers. Augustus was his immediate successor, but after these two great leaders there was a procession of tyrants: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and from the year of the four emperors, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, and another short-lived emperor, Vitellius. The book ends with the beginning of the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, after whose murder started the era of the five good emperors, not discussed here.

There is a "rise and fall" arch in this book, though written in the period of the five good emperors. The book is full of salacious detail which would not be out of place in tabloid press or in an anthology of pornography. At the same time it is very well written. Suetonius is the original source of the story of Nero burning the city of Rome while singing about the siege of Troy dressed in an appropriate period costume.

Some classical writers of antiquity considered the golden age of Rome having ended already after the defeat of Carthage (Third Punic War, 146 BC). As long as Rome had an enemy such as Carthage it achieved grandeur. Decadence started, slowly at first, after the victory. Be it as it may, the quartet Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero represent the nadir of decadence in the history of mankind, in full vile detail exposed in this book.

Reading books on the development leading to Pax Romana brings to mind current concerns about the destiny of Pax Americana now with a leader certain traits of whose are similar to the decadent leaders of antiquity.

The book is written in brisk, vigorous style, full of witty quotes and verses of poems, including the famous remark of Nero's before his suicide, "Qualis artifex pero" ("What an artist dies in me" / "Millaisen taiteilijan maailma nyt menettääkään").

The Finnish translation by J. A. Hollo is witty, lively, and a page-turner.

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