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

    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,
    • 'We read from left to right and from start to finish. Or do we?' Stuart Hannabus considers the merits of reading i… ,
    • Domestic scandal, sexual abuse and serial killers are on the menu in April's crime round-up. revie… ,
    • What did Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell and Edmund Burke all have in common? Clare Bucknell reveal… ,