Friday, July 17, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Anthony A. Barrett (ed.), Lives of the Caesars. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Pp. xvii, 322. ISBN 9781405127554. $35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Michael B. Charles, Southern Cross University

To set the record straight, I was expecting to review a new critical edition or translation of Suetonius's De Vita Caesarum. To my surprise, I found an edited volume of twelve concise biographies, largely written by some of the most respected and influential names in the field, on most of the major Roman emperors from Augustus through to Justinian -- if you count the latter as a Roman emperor (which is, of course, how he thought of himself). So, the title is somewhat misleading (though potentially more so for the classicist or ancient historian than that most enigmatic and ill-defined of audiences, the 'general' or 'non-specialist' reader). Perhaps Lives of the Emperors, especially in view of the Byzantine ruler Justinian's inclusion in the volume, might have been more appropriate.

Barrett's edited volume is the usual Blackwell paperback fare. It is light, easy to handle, not too expensive, with an attractive typeface. For a book of somewhat indeterminate audience, there are relatively few pictures, save for a small black and white numismatic representations of the subject emperor at the beginning of each chapter, and a handful of black and white photographs of relevant sculptural representations, or other items of interest, in the text. A timeline, with 'featured' emperors helpfully in bold typeface, is found at the volume's beginning, together with important family trees and some line maps. References are in-text and keyed (in the case of modern works) to a not particularly compendious "Further Reading" section at the end of each chapter. I am unsure of the rationale here, but I would have thought that these selections of modern scholarship could have been more authoritative, especially for those new to the subject matter. A few endnotes accompany each of the chapters. The volume includes a short glossary towards the end of the book, in keeping with the work's popular audience, while a fourteen-page index rounds out proceedings.

At this point, it will be worthwhile to run a rule over the volume's contents, which are divided into twelve essays preceded by an introduction by the editor. Chapter 1 (Werner Eck, translated by Ruth Tubbesing) deals with Augustus, Chapter 2 (Greg Rowe) with Tiberius, Chapter 3 (Anthony A. Barrett) with Caligula, Chapter 4 (Donna W. Hurley) with Claudius, Chapter 5 (Miriam T. Griffin) with Nero, Chapter 6 (Barbara Levick) with Vespasian, Chapter 7 (Hadrian) with Mary T. Boatwright, Chapter 8 (Anthony R. Birley) with Marcus Aurelius, Chapter 9 (David Potter) with Septimius Severus, Chapter 10 (Simon Corcoran) with Diocletian, Chapter 11 (Noel Lenski) with Constantine, and Chapter 12 (James Allan Evans) with Justinian. There is no concluding or synthesizing chapter, which I feel constitutes something of an oversight given the complexity of the themes introduced in the volume (for example, the concept of dynastic succession appears regularly, while reconstructing the actions of a 'bad' emperor emerge as particularly problematic if the sources are mainly hostile). It will be noted that some of the chapters deal not only with the life and reign of their subject, but also with their immediate successor(s).

Some reasonably important emperors missed out all together. A chapter on Clodius Albinus might not have proved enlightening, but the omission of a life of Trajan is puzzling. The optimus princeps, the conqueror of Dacia and Parthia, the emperor whose military exploits encapsulated the soldier-emperor ideal (for better or for worse), the statesman who beautified the Empire's capital, the reformer who set the Empire on a path of relative stability fails via his administrative and relatively progressive reforms (at least briefly acknowledged on p. 155) fails to warrant his own chapter. Furthermore, why does the volume end with Justinian, as if he were the capstone of the entire story of the Caesars? Barrett (p. 2) justifies concluding with Justinian since his reign represents a "link between the Roman empire and the Byzantine empire that followed, or ... into which it metamorphosed". Yet I remain unsure whether Justinian is the best 'link' between the two eras. Moreover, does anyone ever call Justinian a Caesar? To my way of thinking, Justinian belongs firmly in the Byzantine era. Perhaps Theodosius I, the last ruler of East and West after crushing Eugenius's ephemeral usurpation in 394, might have been a more appropriate link.

A review usually calls for some quibbling on the content of the contents. But, with a book of this broad nature, to devote too much space to such concerns seems a trifle arbitrary and probably unwarranted. What follows is a (hopefully) concise of what is new and/or interesting in the various chapters, with a few technical remarks as appropriate.

Chapter 1 (Augustus/Eck) represents a concise overview of Octavian's rise and his major achievements as emperor. There is little new here, though it is worthwhile to single out the importance that, according to Eck, Augustus placed on ensuring the continuity of the imperial bloodline, a theme which crops up in several chapters (p. 33). Some up-to-date archaeological evidence is pleasingly adduced in the context of the Varus disaster of AD 9 (p. 29). I would have liked to see more on the annona, which warrants only a line on p. 31 -- odd given that imperial oversight of the grain supply was one of the most long-lasting initiatives of Augustus's reign.1 Julia is interestingly described as being guilty of "unconventional life choices" (p. 35), though details are given by Rowe in the following chapter (p. 44). The use of "legionnaires" for "legionary" is a little grating, though more the fault of the translator than Eck (p. 14).

Chapter 2 (Tiberius/Rowe) makes much more use of ancient sources, though emphasis on Velleius over Tacitus with respect to Tiberius's accession is unusual (p. 48). With regard to the sources, Rowe makes the point that Tiberius may indeed have hesitated to accept the principate, but later writers (e.g., Tacitus and Suetonius) knew that he would rule for twenty-three years, and thus saw hypocrisy in Tiberius's initial reluctance (pp. 38-39). The chapter is a rehabilitation of sorts: Tiberius was not responsible for Agrippa Postumus's death (p. 48), while Drusus was "perhaps murdered through Sejanus's agency" (p. 56). Rowe suggests that Sejanus probably hoped to be a regent to a child emperor, rather than an emperor in his own right (p. 57). Furthermore, there is an interesting emphasis on Tiberius philhellenism, which is not usually discussed in any great detail (p. 55).2

Chapter 3 (Caligula/Barrett) represents one of the more enjoyable chapters. Barrett claims that Tiberius "probably" intended, after his death, to let the senate choose between Gaius or Tiberius Gemellus (p. 60), although he argues that Tiberius was preparing Caligula for public duty on Capri (p. 62). Barrett sees Caligula as the first emperor to come to power on the basis of bribing the Praetorian Guard. Despite Caligula's ephemeral reign, Barrett looks at the constitutional developments of the Principate and makes the important claim that he was the first emperor to be given "total imperial powers" at the outset (p. 65), and thus was the first emperor "in the proper sense of the word" (p. 66). Of real interest is the assertion that Claudius may have had something to do with Caligula's assassination, and that "Claudius was certainly looked upon as a usurper" (p. 82). In all, the chapter is largely a rehabilitation of the eccentric rather than truly mad Caligula -- and is quite a convincing rehabilitation too.

Chapter 4 (Claudius/Hurley) represents a marked contrast, especially regarding Claudius's accession. Although Hurley acknowledges Barrett's position, she sees Claudius as "fearful" at the time of the assassination (p. 84), and "living in fear" under Caligula (p. 89) -- perhaps all the more reason to want to be rid of Caligula? Still, Hurley points out that the Praetorians who killed Caligula were executed (p. 90). Is this possible if Claudius was a party to the conspiracy, or do we need to re-examine Claudius's character? (a more Machiavellian Claudius does have a certain appeal.) Hurley plays it straight with the sources, perhaps overly so. Silly anecdotes on the part of the sources are not really put into their vituperative context, which jars with Hurley's overall attempt to show that Claudius was not the passive fool described in the sources, but an "unseemly figure" (on account of his alleged cerebral palsy) that was "comparatively harmless" (p. 106) and, what is more, diligent with regard to his imperial office. On the centralization often attributed to Claudius, Hurley suggests that this was not necessarily a policy of Claudius, but a logical "accretion" of powers and prerogatives to the principate (p. 100). This is fair enough.

Chapter 5 (Nero/Griffin) characterizes Nero, not as a depraved monster, but as "the greatest showman of them all" (p. 109) -- a kind of P.T. Barnum of the ancient world. Griffin deals with Nero in a slightly curious way: there is praise for his eastern policy (p. 108), and his abolition of the more arbitrary aspects of Claudius's reign (p. 115), but there is also a great deal of emphasis on Nero's 'art'. Griffin credits the notion of Nero practising hard at his singing, putting weights on his chest to build vocal strength, and using enemas and strict diets (p. 119).3 Furthermore, the rebel Vindex especially vexed Nero by calling him a bad lyre-player (p. 126).4 These tales, it could be argued, cast Nero as a comic buffoon, a bad actor who has cast himself in his own bad play, and are perhaps not meant to be taken quite so seriously.5 There is also the slightly odd statement that "Had he only been allowed to be professional musician rather than an emperor, how much better it would have been for Rome" (p. 129). In all, Griffin paints the picture of a loveable rogue.

Chapter 6 (Vespasian/Levick) focuses on the rise of the Flavians from rather obscure origins to masters of the Roman world. The chapter also deals with Vespasian's respective successors, his sons Titus and Domitian. In that context, there is a solid treatment of Vespasian's dynastic principles. According to Levick, Vespasian was really in the right place at the right time: in command of armies, in the East, controlling Egypt, while others perhaps had stronger claims to the principate (p. 134). Of interest, too, are Levick's insightful thoughts on the proposed marriage of Julia to Domitian: "the relation of son-in-law put the groom firmly in the younger generation, and Domitian may have felt all along that he should have been his brother's partner in power" (p. 151).6 This chapter is a bit dry, but nevertheless learned. Still, it is high time that ancient scholars avoid statements such as the "homosexual Mucianus" (p. 149), which ignores some of the important nuances of ancient sexuality.7

Chapter 7 (Hadrian/Boatwright) tries to describe the most complex of Roman emperors in a succinct format -- and succeeds. There is a streak of admiration for the subject that perhaps distorts some aspects of the emperor's character and rule but, for the most part, the perfectionist, hyper-critical and cultivated character of Hadrian comes to the fore. There are a few aspects worth discussing here. Boatwright writes that Hadrian became interested in "wine and young boys ... so as to ingratiate himself with Trajan" (p. 162). But, from what we know of Hadrian in his later life, he was naturally predisposed towards such pursuits (Antinous, for example, is discussed on pp. 168-169 and 176-177).8 Although it is generally thought that Hadrian had no time for Sabina, his wife, Boatwright claims that he "he seems possessive of his wife" and dismissed the praetorian prefect Septicius Clarus and Suetonius "because they had treated Sabina more informally than befitted the imperial court" (p. 169).9 Hadrian was not the sort of man to brook any disrespect, so this incident perhaps says more about Hadrian's inflexible standards than anything about his personal affection for his wife.

Chapter 8 (Marcus Aurelius/Birley) is a very good snapshot of the Antonines, from Antoninus Pius's adoption by Hadrian, Marcus's co-rule with Verus, through to Commodus. There is little that needs to be said here -- the reader is in safe hands. Of interest is Birley's observation that Hadrian's "two-tier succession system" (i.e., Antoninus Pius + Marcus Aurelius = Tiberius + Germanicus), the main difference being that Hadrian's vision came to fruition (p. 184). Finally, Birley contends that there was "never a so-called adoptive principle" (p. 201). Indeed, that Marcus was the first emperor since Vespasian to have a natural son ensured that Commodus would succeed him, regardless of his character.

Chapter 9 (Septimius Severus/Potter) emphasizes the enigmatic nature of Severus, the man and the emperor. Potter looks closely at the emperor's reception among his peers, and highlights the 'foreign' aspect of the man, who spoke Latin with a strong Punic accent. This has implications for Potter's claim that Severus was instrumental in establishing "greater cultural unity" in the ethnically and culturally diverse empire (p. 218). The chapter includes a useful discussion of Commodus's reign described (pp. 208-210), in addition to the events leading up to Severus's imperial triumph. Aside from some slightly glib language about Commodus's supposed gladiatorial activities (p. 209), there is little to warrant any discussion or criticism here.

Chapter 10 (Diocletian/Corcoran) does an outstanding job at describing the complexities inherent in Diocletian's rise to power, and his founding of an imperial college, first a diarchy, then a tetrarchy. Overall, Diocletian is defensibly portrayed as a "conservator and restorer", not as a "radical reformer" (p. 235). Corcoran makes some especially cogent remarks throughout this chapter. While some see Diocletian "crafting a deliberately meritocratic college that was ... anti-dynastic", Corcoran argues, and rightly in my view, that it is one thing to adlect tour own sons-in-law as opposing to existing sons-in-law (p. 232). To sum up, "Historically, emperors had chosen sons as heirs whenever possible, and only lack of sons forced the adoption of outsiders". There are a few puzzling comments. On p. 238, the author notes that the "curly-bearded Greek style of the past 150 years gives way to a severe, trimmed, military look" under Diocletian -- but what of Caracalla, who is similarly represented?10 I am perplexed as to why "Caesar" and "Augustus", as imperial titles, are italicized.

Chapter 11 (Constantine/Lenski) begins with an excellent recounting of the tortured political history of the imperial college post Diocletian and Maximian's simultaneous abdication (pp. 260-263). Constanine's religiosity is unavoidable, and Lenski cannot decide, with good reason, whether the emperor's Christianity and "crypto-pagan" features was an example of "realpolitik" or "some deeper psychological ambivalence" (p. 276). There is some repetition of imperial administration as per the chapter on Diocletian (p. 271), while comments on Church architecture, however interesting, are not greatly biographically relevant (pp. 268-270). My only other gripes are technical. Lenski's use of "count of the imperial funds" and "count of the royal estate" is rather odd for titles beginning with comes (p. 171).11 The full Latin might have been better, together with an explanation of the meaning. Likewise, duces translated as "dukes" seems anachronistic, however etymologically sound.12 In sort, there is a lot of material covered here -- even The Da Vinci Code gets a mention (p. 278).

Chapter 12 (Justinian/Evans) completes the volume. As stated previously, a life of Justinian seems an odd fit at first glance -- a supposition borne out from reading the chapter. There is certainly nothing awry with the material contained within. It is just that the subject matter has as little to do with Augustus as a chapter on Arminius would have to do with Bismark. Witness a discussion of Christian controversies relating to Christ's nature (pp. 281-282). Some might maintain a contrary view -- and I will respect that. On p. 285, there is a curious mention of "the good old House of Theodosius", even though this is first mention of Theodosius I in the book! Of course, the story of Justinian is also the story of his rages-to-riches wife Theodora, while Belisarius's wars against the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Italy are discussed, together with activities in the East. Perhaps, there is not as much on Justinian the man as some readers might wish.

Suffice it to say that each of the individual chapter authors knows their material well and communicates, in general, their individual viewpoints on aspects on their subjects' reigns with confidence and authority. Of course, some chapters are better written than others, but not one singles itself out for especial criticism. Indeed, it is a credit to each of the individual authors that they have taken the task seriously (unlike that exhibited by authors in similar volumes), and have been mindful of the demands placed on scholars to craft entries that are meaningful yet still accessible. Some essays follow largely longitudinal path, such as Eck's piece on Augustus, while others, such as Evans' essay on Justinian, are somewhat more thematic. Which approach is preferable depends largely on personal taste. What really impresses is that, despite the obvious temporal gaps between some of the essays, the whole thing works rather well. The editor has done a sterling job in instructing the authors to provide almost seamless links between the chapters. And the authors have carried out their tasks well. There are few typographical errors, except for p. 74: "one of wealthiest women"; and p. 256: Augustus and Caesar italicized but also, oddly, Caesars (Caesares later on the same page).

In sum, the work largely achieves what it set out to do, that is, to provide an overview of the reigns of important Roman emperors. Once again, my main issue is the selection of the emperors, which is never really explained, aside from some brief comments by Barrett on p. 2. To be frank, there is not an especially great deal of interest here for those familiar with the material and broader themes -- save for some useful insights on occasion into matters of controversy. It is therefore difficult to judge the book's appeal and indeed utility to the not-so-well initiated. For what it is worth, I would venture to say that there is plenty here for the "non-specialist reader" (p. 2) and, even if such readers are not covering entirely new ground, they will at least be impressed with the care taken in crafting the individual entries.


1.   On Augustus and the annona, see, for example, Cass. Dio 52.24.6, where an equestrian prefect of the grain supply (praefectus annonae) was appointed towards the end of Augustus's reign.
2.   This interesting topic is now covered by S. H. Rutledge, "Tiberius' Philhellenism", CW 101 (2008), 453-467.
3.   Suet. Ner. 20.1.
4.   Suet. Ner. 41.1.
5.   On this theme, see, for example, E. Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, MA/London, 2003), 149, where Nero's marriage to the eunuch Sporus is depicted as a conscious farce.
6.   On the possibility of a marriage between Julia and Domitian, see K. H. Waters, "The Character of Domitian", Phoenix 18 (1964), 59-60, who suggests there might have been "dynastic reasons" for Domitian to have married Julia; see also id., "The Second Dynasty of Rome", Phoenix 17 (1963), 198-218; G. Townend, "Some Flavian Connections", JRS 51 (1961), 54.
7.   See H. N. Parker, "The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists", Arethusa 34 (2001), 313-362.
8.   I would admit, however, that Trajan's same-sex tastes were perhaps in a slightly different vein to those of Hadrian. If his later conduct is anything to go by, Hadrian was more interested in the traditional (and supposedly more cerebral) Athenian model of the erastes and the eromenos, as witnessed in his relationship with Antinous; see A. R. Birley, Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London/New York, 1997), 2. Trajan's approach may have been somewhat less refined.
9.   On this, see HA Hadr. 11.3.
10.   For a sculptural representation of Caracalla, see B. Andreae, Art of Rome, trans. R. E. Wolf (New York, 1977), pl. 109.
11.   Presumably these titles refer to the comes sacrarum largitionum and the comes rerum privatarum respectively.
12.   I also wonder about calling the Sassanid king a "Shah" (p. 275), even if the word is closer to the Persian. This does not seem to be usual, at least from my reading of ancient Persian history. Evans also uses this word in his chapter on Justinian (pp. 285 and 297).

1 comment:

  1. 'Dod anypne ever call Justinian a Caesar'? Imp. Caesar Flavius Iustinianus Alamannicus [etc. etc.] semper Augustus did for one; and Dante for another ('Cesare fui e son Giustiniano'; read the whole wonderful speech in Paradiso 6). The Latin-speaker man who reunified the Empire and gave Roman law its lasting form has a perfectly good claim to be considered the capstone of the emperors, and not shunted aside into a Byzantine, i.e. Other, world for narrow classicists to disregard.