"Robert Graves and the Twelve Caesars"
by Gore Vidal

A little effete and even degenerate (but then I am a typical "20th century North American" in his eyes, I guess), Gore Vidal is an essayist of the highest rank, in my opinion. Below is an example of Vidal at his best - especially towards the end of his essay when he speaks of the ubiquitous tyranny of the post-WWII world.

"Most of the world today is governed by Caesars. Men and more and more treated as things. Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote in his preface to Henri Alleg's chilling book about Algeria, 'Anyone, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.' Suetonius, in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tempted creatures, whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within - for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster."

      Tiberius, Capri. Pool of water. Small children... So far so good. One's laborious translation was making awful sense. Then... Fish. Fish? The erotic mental image became surreal. Another victory for the Loeb Library's sly translator, J.C. Rolfe, who, correctly anticipating the pruriency of schoolboy readers, left Suetonius's gaudier passages in the hard original. One failed to crack those intriguing footnotes not because the syntax was so difficult (though it was not easy for students drilled in military rather than civilian Latin) but because the range of vice revealed was considerably beyond the imagination of even the most depraved schoolboy. There was a point at which one rejected one's own translation. Tiberius and the little fish, for instance.

      Happily, we now have a full translation of the text, the work of Mr. Robert Graves, who, under the spell of his Triple Goddess, has lately been retranslating the classics. One of his first tributes to her was a fine rendering of The Golden Ass: then Lucan's Pharsalia; then the Greek Myths, a collation aimed at rearranging the hierarchy of Olympus to afford his Goddess (the female principle) a central position at the expense of the male. (Beware Apollo's wrath, Graves: the 'godling' is more than front man for the 'Ninefold Muse-Goddess.') Now, as a diversion, Mr. Graves has given us The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius in a good, dry, no-nonsense style; and, pleasantly enough, the Ancient Mother of Us All is remarkable only by her absence, perhaps a subtle criticism of an intensely masculine period in history.

      Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus - lawyer and author of a dozen books, among them Lives of Famous Whores and The Physical Defects of Mankind (What was that about?) - worked for a time as private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. Presumably it was during this period that he has access to the imperial archives, where he got the material for The Twelve Caesars, the only complete book of his to survive. Suetonius was born in AD 69, the year of the three Caesars Galba, Otho, Vitellius; and he grew up under the Flavians: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, whom he deals with as contemporaries. He was also close enough in time to the first six Caesars to have known them intimately, at least from Tiberius on, and it is in this place in time which gives such immediacy to his history.

      Suetonius saw the world's history from 49 BC to AD 96 as the intimate narrative of twelve men wielding absolute power. With impressive curiosity he tracked down anecdotes, recording them dispassionately, despite a somewhat stylized reactionary bias. Like his fellow historians from Livy to the stuffy but interesting Dion Cassius, Suetonius was a political reactionary to whom the old Republic was the time of virtue and the Empire, implicitly, was not. Bit it is not for his political convictions that we read Suetonius. Rather, it is his gift for telling us what we want to know. I am delighted to read that Augustus was under five feet seven, blond, wore lifts in his sandals to appear taller, had seven birthmarks and weak eyes; that he softened the hairs of his legs with hot walnut shells, and liked to gamble. Or to learn that the droll Vespasian's last words were: 'Dear me, I must be turning into a god.' ('Dear me' being Graves for 'Vae') The stories, true or not, are entertaining, and when they deal with sex startling, even to a post-Kinseyan.

      Gibbon, in his stately way, mourned that of the twelve Caesars only Claudius was sexually 'regular.' From the sexual opportunism of Julius Caesar to the sadism of Nero to the doddering pederasty of Galba, the sexual lives of the Caesars encompassed every aspect of what our post-medieval time has termed 'sexual abnormality.' It would be wrong, however, to dismiss, as so many commentators have, the wide variety of Caesarean sensuality as simply the viciousness of twelve abnormal men. They were, after all, a fairly representative lot. They differed from us - and their contemporaries - only in the fact of power, which made it possible for each to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies. this is the psychological fascination of Suetonius. What will men so place do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that one got the essence of a culture not by those things which were said at the time but by those things which were not said, the underlying assumptions of the society, too obvious to be stated. Now it is an underlying assumption of twentieth-century America that human beings are either heterosexual or, through some arresting of normal psychic growth, homosexual, with very little traffic back and forth. To us, the norm is heterosexual; the family is central; all else is deviation, pleasing or not depending on one's own tastes and moral preoccupations. Suetonius reveals a very different world. His underlying assumption is that man is bisexual and that given complete freedom to love - or, perhaps more to the point in the case of the Caesars, to violate - others, he will do so, going blithely from male to female as fancy dictates. Nor is Suetonius alone in this assumption of man's variousness. From Plato to the rise of Pauline Christianity, which tried to put the lid on sex, it is explicit in classical writing. Yet to this day Christian, Freudian and Marxian commentators have all decreed or ignored this fact of nature in the interest each of a patented approach to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an odd experience for both a contemporary to read of Nero's simultaneous passion for both a man and a woman. Something seems wrong. It must be one or the other, not both. And yet this sexual eclecticism recurs again and again. And though some of the Caesars quite obviously preferred women to me (Augustus had a particular penchant for Nabokovian nymphets), their sexual crisscrossing is extraordinary in its lack of pattern. And one suspects that despite the stern moral legislation of our own time human beings are no different. If nothing else, Dr. Kinsey revealed in his dogged, arithmetical way that we are all a good less predictable and bland than anyone had suspected.


      One of the few engaging aspects of the Julio-Claudians was authorship. They all wrote; some wrote well. Julius Caesar, in addition to his account of that famed crusade in Gaul, wrote an Oedipus. Augustus wrote an Ajax, with some difficulty. When asked by a friend what his Ajax had been up to lately, Augustus sighed: 'He has fallen not on his sword, but wiped himself out on my sponge.' Tiberius wrote Elegy on the Death of Julius Caesar. The scatterbrained Claudius, a charmingly dim prince, was a devoted pedant who tried to reform the alphabet. He was also the first to have a serious go at Etruscan history. Nero of course is remembered as a poet. Julius Caesar and Augustus were distinguished prose writers; each preferred plain old-fashioned Latin. Augustus particularly disliked what he called the 'Asiatic' style, favored by, among others, his rival Marc Antony, whose speeches he found imprecise and 'stinking of far-fetched phrases.'

      Other than the fact of power, the twelve Caesars as men have little in common with one another. But that little was significant; a fear of a knife in the dark. Of the twelve, eight (perhaps nine) were murdered. As Domitian remarked not long before he himself was stuck down: 'Emperors are necessarily wretched men since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real.' In an understandable attempt to outguess destiny, they studied omens, cast horoscopes, and analyzed dreams (they were ingenious symbolists, anticipating Dr. Freud, himself a Roman buff). The view of life from Palatine Hill was not comforting, and though none of the Caesars was religious in our sense of the word, all inclined to the Stoic. It was Tiberius, with characteristic bleakness, who underscored their dangerous estate when he declared that it was Fate, not the gods, which ordered the lives of men.

      Yet what, finally, was the effect of absolute power on twelve representative men? Suetonius makes it quite plain: disastrous. Caligula was certifiably mad. Nero, who started well, became progressively irrational. Even the stern Tiberius's character became weakened. In fact, Tacitus, in covering the same period as Suetonius, observes: 'Even after his enormous experience of public affairs, Tiberius was ruined and transformed by the violence influence of absolute power.' Caligula gave the game away when he told a critic, 'Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.' And that cruelty which is innate in human beings, now give the opportunity to treat others as toys, flowered monstrously in the Caesars. Suetonius's case history (and it is precisely that) of Domitian is particularly fascinating. An intelligent man of some charm, trained to govern, Domitian when he first succeeded to the Principate contented himself with tearing the wings of flies, an infantile pastime which gradually palled until, inevitably, for flies he substituted men. His favorite game was to talk gently of mercy to a nervous victim; then, once all fears had been allayed, execute him. Nor were the Caesars entirely unobjective about their bizarre position. There is an oddly revealing letter of Tiberius to a Senate which had offered to ensure in advance approbation of all his future deeds. Tiberius declined the offer: 'So long as my wits do not fail me, you can count on the consistency of my behavior; but I should not like you to set the precedent of binding yourselves to approve a man's every action; for what if something happened to alter that man's character?' In terror of their lives, haunted by dreams and omens, giddy with dominion, it is no wonder that actual insanity was often the Caesarean refuge from a reality so intoxicating.

      The unifying Leitmotiv in these lives in Alexander the Great. The Caesars were fascinated by him. He was their touchstone of greatness. The young Julius Caesar sighed enviously at his tomb. Augustus had the tomb opened and stared long at the conqueror's face. Caligula stole the breastplate from the corpse and wore it. Nero called his guard the 'Phalanx of Alexander the Great.' And the significance of this fascination? Power for the sake of power. Conquest for the sake of conquest. Earthly dominion as an end in itself: no Utopian vision, no dissembling, no hypocrisy. I knock you down; now I am king of the castle. Why should young Julius Caesar be envious of Alexander? It does not occur to Suetonius to explain. He assumes that any young man would like to conquer the world. And why did Julius Caesar, a man of the first-rate mind, want the world? Simply, to have it. Even the resulting Pax Romana was not a calculated policy but a fortunate accident. Caesar and Augustus, the makers of the Principate, represent the naked will to power for its own sake. And though our own society has much changed from the Roman (we may point with somber pride to Hitler and Stalin, who lent a real Neronian hell to our days), we have, nevertheless, got so into the habit of dissembling motives, of denying certain dark constants of human behavior, that it is difficult to find a reputable American historian who will acknowledge the crude fact that a Franklin Roosevelt, say, wanted to be President merely to wield power, to be famed and to be feared. To learn this simple fact one must wade through a sea of evasions: history as sociology, leaders as teachers, bland benevolence as a motive force, when, finally, power is an end to itself, and the instinctive urge to prevail the most important single human trait, the necessary force without which no city was built, no city destroyed. Yet many contemporary sociologists and religionists turned historians will propose, quite seriously: If there had not been a Julius Caesar then the Zeitgeist would have provided another like him, even though it is quite evident that had this particular Caesar not existed no one would have dared to invent him. World events are the work of individuals whose motives are often frivolous, even casual. Had Claudius not wanted an easy conquest so that he might celebrate a triumph at Rome, Britain would not have been conquered in AD 44. If Britain had not been colonized in the first century... the chain of causality is plain

      One understands of course why the role of the individual in history is instinctively played down by a would-be egalitarian society. We are, quite naturally, afraid of being victimized by reckless adventurers. To avoid this we have created the myth of the ineluctable mass ('other-directedness') which governs all. Science, we are told, is not a matter of individual inquiry but of collective effort. Even the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one; it's all the same, life will go on. Up to a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrity's than enslaved by Caesars. But to deny the dark nature of human personality in not only fatuous but dangerous. For in our insistence on the surrender of private will ('inner-directedness') to a conception of the human race as some teeming bacteria in the stream of time, unaffected by individual deeds, we have made vulnerable not only the boredom, to that sense of meaninglessness which more than anything else is characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.


      Most of the world today is governed by Caesars. Men and more and more treated as things. Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote in his preface to Henri Alleg's chilling book about Algeria, 'Anyone, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.' Suetonius, in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects not only them but ourselves: half-tempted creatures, whose great moral task it is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within - for we are both, and to ignore this duality is to invite disaster.