Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book review - The Twelve Caesars.

The Twelve Caesars is Michael Grant's 260 page study of the first twelve Roman emperors. The book is divided into an introduction, twelve biographical sketches of the rulers, and a conclusion. The style of writing is engaging without being needlessly dramatic.

In the introduction Mr. Grant explains that his biographical pictures of the emperors will lack detail due to the time that has passed since they lived and the loss of primary sources. Such sources as go exist are somewhat compromised as well by the necessity of the author's survival (the living emperor would be closely monitoring the contemporary historians). This makes them somewhat biased. Mr. Grant also warns that the emperors must be seen in the light of their times to be understood. He claims that what seems depraved and evil to us today was accepted in their time and so they were not necessarily any worse than any of their fellow citizens. The main difference was the lack of restraint imposed. An interesting point but one that gives rise to the question, is evil wrong because it is evil or because it is viewed as such?

In spite of the dearth of source information, Mr. Grant does an admirable job of tracing the creation of the Roman Empire by Julius Caesar through the end of the reign of Domitian. Mr. Grant is careful to clarify what he can reasonably confirm as fact and what is mere legend. Each chapter follows one emperor and the length of each is regulated by the information available as well as by the length of the emperor's reign. For the three who lasted less than three months each there is not much to be said. In contrast, the chapters on Agustus and Tiberius are longer.

In the conclusion the author briefly sums up the impact each emperor had and the lessons that can be drawn from their performances. He also quotes Lord Acton's observation that, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad." Mr. Grant takes the corruption spoke of in this statement to be the physical breakdown due to the stress of the job. He also contends that the Caesars were no more bad than any other hero or leader and that they "demand our awed respect and admiration."

I give The Twelve Caesars a half a thumb up. While I learned much about the men and events of the period I was dismayed at the author's attempt to gloss over the atrocities committed by many of these rulers. I was somewhat confused by this tendency until I read the conclusion and discovered his misunderstanding of Lord Acton and his rationalization of evil. While these men may have scaled the utmost heights of power and glory, in the end they gained the whole world but lost their souls.

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