Allan Massie

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

The Twelve Caesars


Atlantic Books 379pp £20 order from our bookshop

Half a lifetime ago, when I was living in Rome, I kept Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars in the Penguin translation by Robert Graves as a bedside book. It’s a fascinating book, full of good stories, scandalous anecdotes, and intelligent observations. The question for the reader is what to believe. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, author of some dozen books, among them Lives of Famous Whores and Physical Defects of Man (neither of which, sadly, has survived), was born in about AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian), and was at one time secretary to Hadrian (emperor from 117 to 138). He had access to the imperial libraries, but we don’t know which books he used as the source material for his work – the Caesars begins a hundred years before his own birth. So how reliable is he? The same question applies to the other, greater historian of the early empire – Tacitus, born AD 56 – and also to Dio Cassius (c AD 165–235).

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • RT : Founded in 1979, is a trusted independent source for reviews of new books across a variety of genres. A… ,
    • RT : Here we are - "Shelf Indulgence" by Ed Potten, a wonderful read, well worth your time: @Lit_Review,
    • 'Like going to a party hoping to get away as quickly as politeness allowed and at 4am finding myself still engrosse… ,
    • 'Neville never shed his sense of being the junior, and perhaps least-deserving Chamberlain.' From the archive, Mic… ,
    • 'The erecting and immediate destruction of a series of straw men rather detracts from what is for the most part an… ,
    • RT : A magnificent demolition job on this "acid laced tirade...unpleasantly self-obsessed...self pitying… ,
    • 'Seventy years on, the time we have left to gather such first-hand testimony is running out.' John Keay on the sig… ,